Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina: Cinema and the “Real Man”

A few days ago I was on Facebook, and I noticed that a friend of mine had posted a pictorial with some words accompanying it and it was getting quite a buzz. Due to the fact that I have a tendency to keep my eyes and ears open for issues having to do with gender and identity within the cinema, this one caught my glance in particular.

At first, I was amused. But I realized that I was amused at the comments, not the picture. In fact, the more I thought about this, the more highly problematic I found it to be.

The male body is an injured body.  We have seen this played out time and time again. Internal damage becomes externalized in the form of the action, horror and thriller genres. Really, it happens in any film where extensive physical damage is known to take place to the male character(s).

“Hey, aren’t you a feminist?” you ask. “why be so concerned about this stuff? Is the male body any of your business?”

First of all, I am most unreservedly a feminist. And secondly, one of the things that makes me a feminist is my overarching concern with how the cinema fails both sexes, as feminism is not just about women and it never has been.

If you wanna get down to the nitty gritty differences in how this works, the harsh lens of the camera eye tends to sexualize the bodies of women while men’s bodies are physically attacked. Now I’m not saying that women aren’t injured or torn to ribbons. Look at Aliens (1986). However, Vasquez and Ripley were some tough-ass chicks, so that’s going to have to fall into “exception-not-rule” territory. What I’m saying is, on a general basis, what we find in cinema is that the female body is over-sexualized to our great disadvantage and the male body is damaged and physically traumatized beyond what is reasonable.

The male body does not feel real, does not feel whole until they are committed to the screen and the narrative as unwhole, taken apart, bloodied. We cannot properly swallow masculinity as authentic unless it has been made to withstand something physically and most likely emotionally.

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard- barefoot, bleeding, and hanging over a building. Oh, and did we mention it's Christmas?

Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales, a man who loses his wife and children to violence and never returns psychologically.

Where does this put our conceptions of the masculine ideal? Not in a very good spot, I’m afraid.

If these things make up our prototype of the real man we are no better off than we were with the over-sexed female icon. In short, we’re in trouble, mister, we’re in trouble good.

We are a gender-damaged culture that scoffs at the “manliness” of Robert Pattinson when compared to Clint Eastwood based upon heroism and tears.  Surely we could find something more intelligent, more reasonable, to criticize the film about other than the manliness of a tough rugged cowboy archetype versus a brooding sparkly vampire!

In addition, I submit that we all need to truly reconsider our notions of what is a “real man” anyways. While I’ll readily admit to being a fan of Charles Bukowski’s literature , love Lee Marvin with every bone in my body and cannot seem to get enough of Sam Peckinpah’s cinematic delights,

Kris Kristofferson & James Coburn in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I feel that a certain culture has arisen that has built a shrine to these men (and ones like them), and I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons. These are men who, in celebrating their own masculinity, produced a world of the hyper-masculine. So much so, that at times it would not be beyond reason to step back and ask, “Are you trying to convince me, or are you trying to convince you?” Within these men lies a mixture of pain and sexuality raging so very strong that it can only come out in one way: aggression.

Is this what we would like to consider our “reality”? Pain and darkness?

Here is my question: why don’t we celebrate Jack Lemmon? Is he too much of a “wimp” in the compare/contrast game? Is it just like in The Apartment (1961), where he can only win by a dark default? And is that really winning?

Jack Lemmon & Shirley Maclaine, The Apartment (1961)

We call Cary Grant “dashing,” but is he a real man? Well, maybe. He did get chased down by a airplane and hang off Mount Rushmore.

Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938)

And back on the vampire tip, are YOU going to inform Christopher Lee that he doesn’t get to join because he played a bloodsucker for years and years or is Hammer “cool” enough to make it count?

Christopher Lee gets bitey with it...

As we vacillate between the poles of masculinity, looking at what is a real man and what isn’t, it stands to reason that we have some serious decisions to make involving some changes in perspective. I think that it is high time that we make them.

Where does this put our conceptions of the masculine ideal? Not in a very good spot, I’m afraid.

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This is the Night (and the Days!): TCM Classic Film Festival, Part II

Some people collect stamps. Others go in for Fabergé eggs. I seem to be one for collecting film viewings…on 35 or 16mm, preferably, and on the big screen (of course). Thus a film festival like the Turner Classic Film Festival is really and truly my venue. So after the amazing viewings I had already aggregated, I was ready, willing and able for more.

:::DAY 2:::

“You know there ain’t no forgetting…”—THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES

Saturday morning, bright and early, I grabbed some coffee and a breakfast sandwich from my local shop, and headed out to Hollywood Blvd on my bike once more, arriving just in time to grab my seat for This is the Night (1932). Directed by Frank Tuttle, this little pre-code gem was Cary Grant’s first picture and couldn’t have been more delightful if it had TRIED. Generally, if I have a passing thought during a film that keeps coming back, I will have that be my theme. The one I had for this picture? I haven’t laughed this hard since Animal House (1978). I happen to think that Animal House may well be one of the perfect films in the world so…this was a pretty high compliment. Literally, my sides were aching by the time the film was over. I have not enjoyed myself that much in the theater in ages.

This Is The Night was the first screening I went to that was TOTALLY sold out within a few minutes of me sitting down. It was CRAZY!

The acting was perfect, the construction and comic timing was just insanely smart, and I was left feeling remarkably depressed that there are literally dozens upon dozens of films that I have come across that use virtually the exact same story line with some of the identical gags and they are JUST not done as well. It was definitely a “good morning” to me. Not that this was news to me, of course, but a decent reminder. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite pre-code films and…when I say that I’m obsessed with pre-code films? I like pre-code films like bees like honey and scandal loves politicians.

In addition to the film, Foster Hirsch was there to conduct a Q&A with Cary Grant’s daughter, Jennifer (who is the spitting image of mom, Dyan Cannon with a bit of Cary thrown in…needless to say, she’s no slouch). Hirsch is a favorite of mine from way back due to his amazing noir writings and he’s a great guy for a Q&A. Smart, funny, and charming, he discussed things with Jennifer and let her tell interesting tidbits without prying. It was a good Q&A.

Then it was time. Time for what? Time to check one off the list. A notch on my cinematic bedpost. Part of my collection, as it were.

Last year, after seeing Eli Wallach do a Q&A for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  and then seeing the film in the big Chinese, I made a solemn swear to myself, right then and there, that I was going to do EVERYTHING in my power to see EVERY Clint Eastwood movie (primarily Westerns, but all the stuff I missed which is…well…most of the early stuff, to be 100% honest) in the theater. The Good, The Bad & the Ugly  made me cry because it was SO. DAMN. BEAUTIFUL. Beautiful? Yes, beautiful. It is film-making at its finest. The music, the visuals; it is a veritable ballet or symphony. With that in mind, the minute I saw that Josey Wales  was on the schedule, digital or not, I was going to see the film. And see it I did!

Once again, I met up with Dennis before the show began. I went inside the Chinese, and he came down with some friends and we all sat and chatted together about things we’d seen so far, and other assorted things. I remember thinking, GOD, I LOVE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL!! and then Ben Mankiewicz came up and introduced the film. He talked about how Josey didn’t quite have the popularity or recognition back when it was released that it has now. It was called a “Prarie Death Wish” and that it came out at slightly the wrong time, yet it made money. However, the most incontrovertibly interesting part of the entire introduction was Mankiewicz’s discussion of the author of the original Josey Wales material, Asa Carter.

The Outlaw Josey Wales, in the big Chinese?? THAT is the way that film was intended to be seen. SERIOUSLY.

Carter was not only a supporter of George Wallace, but he was kind enough to start his own section of the KKK. A few years later, he was on Oprah’s best-seller list. Due to the fact that he wrote under the name “Forrest Carter” and people are excruciatingly poor researchers, not to mention that they have zero memory, no one remembered the “Asa Carter” and only saw this fabulous piece of literature lauded by Oprah, The Education of Little Tree.

While I think that the literature is possibly quite good, I’m not sure it can override or forgive Asa’s personal activities. But they can be held in separate places, perhaps. I don’t know. I’d have to read Little Tree  first. In any case, this personal data about Asa Carter made me wonder about the film that Eastwood had created. Since I am always fascinated by adaptations, upon seeing Josey Wales I had to stop and wonder about the similarities and divergences. I found Mankiewicz’s discussion of the film’s genesis remarkably funny and revelatory, not to mention quite original as far as an introduction to a film was concerned.

The film itself was everything I could have asked for…and more. It was funny and generously beautiful. Eastwood was gracefully stolid to a fault, and the phrase that kept coming to my mind, over and over during the film was “character jambalaya.” Not having seen the film before, it was a joy and a pleasure to be able to witness what I did on a screen like the Chinese.

Josey Wales is like a really good chunky soup, like a jambalaya. It is chock full of substantial bits and pieces of things, sometimes the very same elements (the soup analogy would be carrots, meat, etc), and each time you dip your spoon in for more? You come up with a different combination. Sometimes you’ll get the same bits with each bite, but sometimes you’ll be missing the carrots or you’ll run out of meat (the film equivalent would be the dismissal of a certain character, through whatever means that character gets, well, dismissed). Needless to say, I loved it and am eagerly awaiting my next chance to fill in the spaces on my Clint Eastwood movie dance card.

Immediately upon the cessation of the film, Dennis and I had to leave to catch what was to become one of the hits of the festival: a little-known British war film called Went the Day Well? (1942). There were a large amount of reasons I wanted to see this film. As a film scholar and Viewing Collector, it was rare. Those were the first reasons. However, more importantly, as a burgeoning film archivist/preservationist, I felt insanely guilty over not going to Kevin Brownlow’s in-person panel over at the Roosevelt Hotel (I couldn’t!! I had to see Outlaw Josey Wales!!) and was bound by my own personal decree to hear him present this fine piece of celluloid. And WHAT a piece it was!!

Seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was inspirational. I have to say that growing up in Hollywood like I have, I have been lucky enough to come into contact with a great deal of extraordinary people. While I was impressed by each of those on a separate basis, seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was pretty awesome (in the true sense of the term, let us make Harlan Ellison happy). He is not only jovial and self-effacing, but incredibly entertaining and, from my perspective (hell, from any self-respecting film lover’s perspective), a substantial figure of pride for film preservation everywhere. Good grief, the man is the only guy in his field to have won an Oscar for what he does! Because of this status, I knew the film was also going to be special. I figured he wouldn’t talk in front of just any old film. I figured right.

Kevin Brownlow is a rockstar. SERIOUSLY.

I knew from the outset that it was going to be grim and gritty. I don’t think that anything that Graham Greene has had a hand in has ever not been at least a teensy bit brutal in that respect. And if you know me…well, you know I like brutal. So, I was VERY MUCH IN. Call me crazy or just an old-fashioned girl, but I’m a sucker for old school nihilism! And I got it. In spades.

This film was so good I very much considered going to see it when they screened it a second time on Sunday. But…so many films, so little time! It played INCREDIBLY well with an audience. Some of the best audience reactions I’ve heard in a very long time and by far the best audience reactions from the entire TCM Classic Film Festival. While it was indeed a packed house, a packed house does not always guarantee a reaction. The film must provide that. This film gave it to us hard and spared no one. Somehow this film sits squarely between the hips of  really messed up “home invasion” flick and war-time/patriotism-spy stuff. Went the Day almost invents its own damn genre.

I hesitate to truly describe anything about the film as I am deathly afraid of saying too much. The horrific aspects were enough to satisfy a gorehound like me, and the driving, pounding suspense was enough to drive even a Hitchcock junkie to nail-biting. Yep, this movie totally won.

On the way out, we ran into the always amazing, wonderful and lovely Michael Torgan, my long-time good friend and head of the New Beverly Cinema.

Film Fans Unite and Take Over!!

We all chatted for a bit and then all went our separate ways for a while, Dennis and I agreeing to meet back up for our next agreed feature. What can I say? The man has AMAZING taste and he’s more fun to hang out with and watch movies with than almost anyone I’ve ever hung out and watched movies with. Being TCM Classic Film Fest buddies with Dennis ruled!! I felt like the cool kid in school, man!

I believe that at this point we had run into my super great pal Peter, as well.  I had run into him several times during the festival, but due to Festival Craziness, I cannot for the life of me remember what movies it was between! However, I do know that he got to go and see Reds (1981) and he and I chatted about that for a while. He said the Q&A with Beatty and Baldwin was pretty epic!

After a short interim, I returned to the Chinese and the cinema for Pennies From Heaven (1981). I wanted to see this film for many reasons. Primarily because I had never seen it on a big-screen before and the Busby Berkeley-ness of it all made me want to know how that would go down…in color. Additionally, let’s get blatantly honest here- I wanted to see the Christopher Walken dance/striptease large and in-charge. He is such a magnificent dancer and on a big screen…I did want to see that play out. Those things said, I’m not certain that I made the right choice. This is the only film during the entirety of the festival that I feel a little badly about, due to the fact that another film was playing at the same time that I would’ve loved to have seen on a big screen-Niagara (1953). But… what can you do, right?

Why am I disappointed? Well, Pennies isn’t a bad film, per se. I just…don’t know. Somewhere it sits with me wrong. I think that perhaps that is where it has its glory? Perhaps its disjointedness and its dark mutilated humanity is where its beauty lies? I’m just not sure. It is an uncomfortable film. And perhaps I was just not entirely prepared for that after the smooth cinematic excursions I had been traveling on. In any case, I may do a further study on the film, but suffice to say that, while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t as wonderful an experience as I wanted it to be and I will take full responsibility as that may simply be my Terms of Viewership coming in.

But there’s room for one “off” film. Especially when the next film is as good as it was!!! When Dennis and I had been exchanging emails previous to the festival about our possible schedules, the one thing that we BOTH knew was where we were going to be Saturday night at 9:30pm. I sacrificed for this screening, man. Not only did I miss my friend’s birthday gathering for this, but that very same gathering was also partially a high school reunion full of people I actually wanted to see (I know- imagine that, if you will…hard to believe). Yeah, One, Two, Three (1961) was definitely a viewing that I needed to collect!

Michael Schlesinger introduced the film and he did it with style, candor and charisma. Indeed, his knowledge on Wilder and the film itself was impressive and extremely well-presented, both for Wilder-scholar and amateur alike. He branded One, Two, Three  as Wilder’s “testament movie” and discussed how, not unlike Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), this picture was almost a “greatest hits” piece as it seemed to gather all of his favorite filmic themes (men in drag, political commentary, sex humor, etc) together and put them within one narrative piece.

It was a bit of an understatement to say that I was thrilled. Indeed, our love (and excitement) for this film was so great that we sat there before the film started, deeply concerned about the masking. We knew, after all, that this was a ‘Scope movie, and it hadn’t yet been prepped  for that! I was a bit nervous! But, all fears were assuaged as the curtains gently rescinded from the screen, and Jimmy Cagney appeared, swift-talking and sharp as ever! What a gorgeous print it was too!!

Giggling like a school girl & occasionally looking at Dennis & the rest of the audience for their reactions (I get high off Billy Wilder Audience Reactions- it’s, like, my favorite drug) I blissfully made my way through that film and could’ve gone home a happy camper. Beyond happy, even.

But no. Not an option.

Not even close.

If I had missed The Mummy (1932) at the Egyptian Theater I would have been a flaming idiot. Thankfully, I did not because I’m a very smart young lady.

Tragically, the theater no longer looks the way it did when I was a child, which to me is always a little saddening. The walkway into the theater used to be lined on both sides with sarcophagi and I seem to remember being covered by a kind of tent-like overhang amongst the other sundry Egyptian decorations inside.

Egyptian, circa 1989. It was closed for "maintenance" around 1992, then Mother Nature decided to go further with the 1994 earthquake. It reopened as the American Cinematheque in 1998.

All of these things really made the entire journey into the cinema a true trip into some fantasy historic realm called ancient Egypt where…you could see movies?? Yeah, I don’t know. I loved it. It is entirely possible that I entered the land of Tutankhamun to see pretty much any of the 20th Century Fox films being released at the time, which meant I likely saw Spaceballs (1987), The Princess Bride (1987) and possibly Willow (1988) there, which rocks.

I know, I know. You guys were all watching Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), and Robocop (1987), but I didn’t get to be that cool yet.  I got that cool later. But hell- my memories of going to the Egyptian theater are like the Holy Grail to me. I wouldn’t part with them for the world. Not even having gotten to see Big Trouble in Little China (1986) before my folks would let me…well, maybe that one…!!!*

[*disclaimer: have no real idea if/how many of these flicks actually played the Egyptian, but, ya know, artistic license and all that!]

At any rate, back to the main event, right? I’m not complaining about what the place has now, as it’s an amazing theater and I go there every year for the Film Noir Festival and MANY other events, but…if you remember from part I of this saga, I do have that 13-year-old boy living somewhere inside me, and he thinks it would be really COOL to have mummies and themed stuff like that around as much as possible, especially on a night like that one at the TCM Film Fest when I was going to go see Boris Karloff do his thing!

I rushed over from the Chinese and was able to run into my friend Andy who had been working the event. Tired as he was, he said that there was no way that he was going to miss The Tingler from the previous night. So he got to tell me how cool it was and, essentially, how much I had missed. My William Castle-gene was feeling mighty depressed at that point, lemme tell you. Agreements have since been reached, but it was quite bitter at me for missing the event.  Looking at the time, I departed from Andy’s company, quickly locked up my bike, and ran inside, once again pouncing on a seat that was nice and close to the stage, as one of my favorite working actors (and crushes) today was presenting the film: Ron Perlman.

Perlman noted that Karloff's performance was nuanced and genre-transcendent, yet still said, "He complained about spending a lot of time in make-up? Eh. I've spent more!"

I love me some Perlman. Ohhhh boy, am I a sucker for him!  It helps considerably that I have an extremely healthy love affair with Hellboy (comic and film) and that Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a big ol’ place in my heart. Even so, Sons of Anarchy is a great TV show that has had people like Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) and Chris Collins (The Wire) work on it, so…not so shabby. In any case, Perlman was fantastic. He was relaxed (although I may be mistaking exhaustion for relaxation, but hey-splitting hairs, right?), intelligent and ever-so-elegant.

He did a little Mummy history lesson, harmonized with some Karloff critique, and then said “Hey! What’s up guys! Let’s watch this thing!” It was wonderful. Charming, friendly and enjoyable. There was also a real sense that he very much enjoyed the film even if he had only revisited it very recently.

So I settled into my seat, the film came on, and I realized exactly what The Mummy is, and laughed to myself with a glow of affection that I had never had before: it’s a horror film for archivists.

The last time I watched this film, I was simply a horror fan. There was not a preservationist bone in my body. Now? Well, the word “ridiculous” comes to mind. All I could think about was how the terminologies and methods used within the film were (more or less) on the mark, and I got the biggest thrill ever. You know when you see a film and due to the innate human tendency towards egotism you think “My god! This film is about ME!”? Well, that was me at midnight at the Egyptian. Should I discuss how the film was brilliant in the make-up or the historical sensibilities or…?

Screw it.

It was about archeologists who totally mess up, mishandle their preservational work and suffer the consequences!!! See what happens when you mess with the wrong shit? Yeah, that’s right. Uh-huh. SO GOOD. Ok, so this is an excruciatingly nerdy angle to take, but welcome to my world. I like a good beer, a great punk show, and to save 35mm film. Got a problem? Horror cinema is one of my favorite genres to discuss because it is so multi-faceted (to me). It shows one thing while it clearly talks about another. The Mummy is fun for me because it is a film that explores historical restoration and preservation and science in tandem with nostalgia and great emotion. As a budding archivist/preservationist, any film that figures in characters within that profession, be they living or dead, is pretty damn cool.

I’ve heard people say that they think Mummy  is relatively slow and boring. Well, I’m sure that most people wouldn’t want to catalogue that Scroll of Thoth, either, so I suppose that makes sense. I disagree. I think it’s a wonderful film. Karloff gives the film enough of a jolt that any “slowness” someone might experience is solved by his creepiness (and it is creepy! Make no mistake!!). Either way, I got more joy out of this than I had ever gotten before. It is totally subjective and fully personal and dorky as all get out, but that is just fine with me. While James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) will always be my favorite Universal horror film, this film, in one night, became my second-in-line.

:::DAY 3:::

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” –WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

And then…as soon as it had begun, it was over. It was the last day. And I was a horrible mix of excited and depressed. Excited at the prospect of what my final choices on my final day were to be, horrifically depressed as I knew that it was all about to come crashing down on my head. No more full days of wall-to-wall film, running or biking from theater to theater on little-to-no sleep, bits and pieces of food (when there was 5 minutes or so) and a bucket full of coffee in my bag. No more terrific conversation with fabulous gay men from Baltimore or invitations from gentlemen asking me to dinner with his sister and himself complete with the all-important Elwood P. Dowd “business card”  accompanying the invite.

If this is confusing you at all, please see the film Harvey (1950). It will become much more clear at that juncture.

What would I do when this was all OVER??? I didn’t know, truthfully. So, as that gorgeous green-eyed dame said,I decided to “think about it tomorrow” and enjoy my final day!

My first film was something I was really enthusiastic about. If you don’t know who Ross Lipman is, you really should. He is an extremely brilliant gentleman and UCLA film archivist who specializes in some of the most unusual and cool stuff around. Not only has he worked on restoring some of Kenneth Anger’s work (already a big “hellllooo! You rock!” in my book) but his other work reaches levels in film preservation that are (in my mind) deeply necessary.

His interest in preserving and restoring the underrepresented and neglected areas/subjects of cinema is something that I am always deeply grateful for and, in this case, incredibly happy to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Lipman’s work, represented by such wonderful pieces as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1981) (which he won an award for, incidentally), Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) , or the presentation for TCM’s festival, The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is really important. I think if we didn’t have Ross around to grab some of this stuff and make sure it was nursed back to filmic health, we’d be a much sadder place. Plus, the added bonus? The films don’t suck!

So the films that he presented and the stories that went with them were almost unbelievable. The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is created from a number of smaller films that a man made over his lifetime. I would say that he’s just like your grandfather, and perhaps he is…if your grandfather had done everything from carpentry and a Fuller Brush salesman to being a (literal) one-man-band and a rocket scientist. Then…he made films about all of it. With animation!! The funny thing? It was conducted with some of the most romantic life-honesty I’ve ever seen. For all intents and purposes, much of the evolution of these films serves as a love story to his wife, Adelaide, in a way that many documentary films simply cannot dream of negotiating.

On the preservation aspect,  damn I love Kodachrome. There will never be anything like that. Sid shot some absolutely incredible nature films that just yelled “Hey! It’s Kodachrome here! Do ya miss me yet?? Huh?? Do ya??” All I wanted to do was reach out my arms and cry out: “Yes! Come back! Please! We made a mistake!” But the films themselves looked phenomenal.

Lipman discussed that the preservation was fairly labor intensive, which seemed to make sense. Not only was there a veritable plethora of media to contend with (Sid used still photos, home movies, audio bits, newspaper clippings, animation sequences…the kitchen sink, maybe?) but some of the stock was fading and, while Sid had done all the editing work, he had never completed a full composite print!! Without getting too complicated, suffice to say that, while difficult, they were successful in their endeavors to complete a beautiful version of these films using all of the various sources that Sid provided them. It must’ve been work, but it certainly paid off in my eyes- literally.

I can only say this: if you possibly get a chance to see these (or really anything that Ross presents- he has excellent taste, and in addition to the stuff I said before, he’s a very entertaining speaker) please do. They will make you laugh, cry and entertain you in a way that most documentaries don’t and the vast majority of independent and experimental cinema can’t. In my eyes, there was more life and joy gushing from each frame of this piece than I have seen in quite some time. It was a wonderful experience to meet Sid through this film, and I am a better woman because of it.

I wish that I could tell you that I went and saw something BRAND SPANKING NEW right after The Sid Saga. But I totally didn’t. I totally went to This is the Night  again and laughed myself silly, and had a blast sitting next to Dennis as he laughed himself  to pieces, too. It was just as much fun the second time around. Man, I love that movie.

Bouncing from pre-code to pre-code, we left Night and went straight to the screening for Hoop-La (1933). I was so thrilled to see this on the bill again for Sunday with the people who had been presenting it before, as writer David Stenn is a fabulous historian on Jean Harlow and Clara Bow, and I had experienced the awe-inspiring coolness of MoMA film archivist Katie Trainor the first evening of the festival.

As the two began their intro to the film, I think Dennis must’ve thought I was a little crazy when I practically leaped out of my seat in pure, unadulterated excitement upon the discovery that this film was a Carnie Film. I have…a thing about freakshows, circus-life, carnivals, and their representations in cinema. I love anything having to do with that world. From Freaks (1932) and Nightmare Alley (1947) to Ghoulies II (1988), I love the carnival. So a pre-code with Clara Bow set in the circus world?? SIGN ME UP! And to be honest? Hoop-La was everything it claimed to be and more.

We were the second audience to ever see this print. The first audience had seen it a few days earlier. It originated from nitrate prints that Fox had given to MoMA that had been then blown up to 16mm and printed. The only other print in existence up until this point had been at the Cinematheque Francais, and it’s apparently not very good at all. But this print looked amazing. They clearly have put a good amount of love, time and energy on making this beautiful piece of history last.

Clara Bow was always breathtakingly gorgeous with a killer body to boot, but she has never looked as sexy and delicious as she does within the frames of this film. I felt extremely lucky to be one of the first audiences to get to see the premiere of this film’s restoration and to hear such wonderful scholarly discussion on the subject from Bow’s biographer and from the woman who made the final call and decision to select the film for preservation and restoration.

From Hoop-La to…Haskell- Wexler, that is! There was a break for a bit, but then it was time for the Final Film of the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival. There was really no question for me as to what it was going to be when it was announced: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) with Haskell Wexler in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Maltin may have an obsession with films being unnecessarily short, but he’s not the worst guy at a Q&A, and I was eager as hell to hear Wexler discuss…well, anything! Additionally, I had only seen this film once before in my life and all I remembered about it, as I laughingly related to Dennis, was that it’s a film that has “a lot of yelling in it.”

The discussion with Wexler was simple and fantastic. He is a tall and elegant man who is profoundly humble and seems almost unaware of how much of an impact he has had on other people. He went up to the table and sat down, answered a few questions, and then stated, “But I’m sure you didn’t come here to see me, so perhaps we should just watch the film…” The audience response was emphatic! Yells and clapping and people stating how much they had come just to see him speak. It was lovely.

He said it was his first studio film and he said that they wanted to fire him. He said that they told him that everything was “too dark.” I laughed when he said this. I laugh even more now, as I write this. Too dark? Virginia Woolf? Really, guys?

Wexler also said that while he may have gotten the Academy Award that year, he gave Nichols a percentage of the credit. “He knew more about filmmaking,” Wexler shrugged. He also said that in his acceptance speech, he appealed to the audience to be able to “use our art for peace and love” due to the fact that Vietnam was hot and heavy. Unfortunately, that didn’t work too well in tandem with what he had won for- he got letters back from people who said, “Oh yeah? Use our art for peace and love? Like Virginia Woolf?”

So there we were. Ready to go into the final, final stretch. Sad, tired, and cinematically-fulfilled, but ready for Albee and the machine-gun-onslaught that is Burton/Taylor and company. Or were we ready? I’m not certain that I was. Things are different on a big screen. Things are also different with less sleep and less food, but I believe in this case it was Wexler’s photography in tandem with the large-screen presentation that made me as vulnerable as a small orphaned child.

Dear lord, that is a rough and brutally gorgeous movie. It has all the intensity of a river rafting trip gone suddenly wrong in the most desperate way. Yet that river? It’s still in the middle of nature and therefore breathtakingly beautiful. To be honest, for a good percentage of that screening, I’m not certain whether I was crying, breathing, or if I ever took my hands away from my face. The impact of that film on me was strong as hell and will probably remain so for the rest of my life.

There are certain big-screen viewings that you will remember forever. They become like lovers or family members in your life. I left that theater with a new addition to my circle, without a doubt.

As Dennis and I left the theater and prepared to say our goodbyes, we were approached by a fellow TCM festival go-er.

“Did you hear what happened???” She asked, clutching her friend, both of them shaking, eyes wild with a strange and uncomfortably odd kind of excitement.

Normally in this situation, approached by a random stranger, I would likely respond with something mildly smarmy about having been sitting in a movie theater for the last 10 hours. I was pretty drained. I looked at my compatriot to see if he registered anything/knew anything, but he seemed as blank as I.

“Bin Laden has been killed!” she continued, barely even waiting for our response, “Can you believe that? While we’ve been sitting in all of these films for hours and hours on end, the world has changed completely! And we didn’t even know it!”

Dennis and I looked at each other, stunned to our eye-teeth. I believe that we might have stuttered some kind of response to her, but really? What do you say to that? In any case, she seemed to want to alert the rest of the film festival, so off she ran, and we were left looking at each other.

“Well that certainly changes things, doesn’t it?” he said.

I nodded. It was definitely a “wow” moment.  We spent a few minutes considering the new information in tandem with the leftovers of Albee/Nichols/Wexler/et, al swirling about in our brains, and then we parted ways, him home to his family and me to the TCM Film Festival party.

When it comes down to it, all these weeks later, I have to think- did Bin Laden mean anything to me personally? Will his death personally effect me in the same daily way that seeing honor and relationships deconstructed in Becket did? In 20 years, will I be filled with some perverse joy  that a man who was a catalyst for others’ deaths was wiped out and will it feel as good as watching One, Two, Three or This is the Night? Somehow, I doubt it.

The world may have changed completely according to that woman, due to Bin Laden’s demise, but my life was changed completely by watching 16 films over the course of a few days, spending time with people of like-mind, and getting the rare opportunity to see some incredibly iconic figures discuss their work and creative intent. I’m pretty young still. But from what I have seen, I think that the real change will come when we start to look more at cultural objects as capable of change rather than people’s deaths.

I honestly don’t know how we will view Bin Laden’s death a few years from now. But do I think that people will still be talking about the latest film that they liked, whether it was The Hangover 8  or Nicholas Winding-Refn’s newest? Yes. Yes, I do. And as long as that doesn’t change, well…I’m A-ok.

March Madness at the New Beverly Cinema: The Whole Bloody Affair

Standing in line tonight I had an infuriating conversation.

“Yeah, I only went to Grindhouse and Kill Bill. But I came to Kill Bill yesterday and today, and I’ll be coming some other days too. I’m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan,” the young man said, nodding at me wildly, trying to assure me of his fandom.

My eyes widened. They must’ve gone fiery. “No. You. Are. Not,” I calmly informed him, “if you were a ‘huge’ fan, you would’ve been to at least a few of the other shows that he programmed this month. You would not have just attended the films that he directed.”

The young man fumbled a bit and came up with a few reasons that he couldn’t be at the other shows during the month. Work, life, and so forth. Now, I will readily admit- not everyone is as big of a cinephile as I am. Very few people are. I know most of the ones in Los Angeles, and I treasure them like they are my Holy Grail. However, this specific argument upset me.

I’m not going to blame this particular gentleman. For all I know, he could have been insanely busy, and these occasions very well could have been the only times he was able to come to the New Beverly. However, what he is bringing up is an issue that I take issue with. This month we had a very special calendar. One that was very carefully and lovingly put together by Quentin Tarantino himself, as it was his birthday month.

Now, whether or not you are a fan of Tarantino, there is one thing that you cannot deny no matter how hard you try: the man LOVES film. When someone loves film as much as he does, there is a better than average chance that in a month of programming movies, there are going to be at least a couple of great choices. In addition to this possibility, even if you dislike every film on the roster, the chances of you getting to see some of them again, in actual print format, on a big screen…? Well, I don’t think I have to tell you the likelihood of that. So, if you’re into rarities, you got that going for you too. And, for those out there who are fans (and this is what really gets my goat), this month of movies is essentially serving as a microscope onto HIS films. Each film shown this month had something in it that was directly related to his own work (aside from the pieces of his own work that he showed). For me, that was the true gift. All the kids out there complaining about the fact that Quentin hasn’t done any commentaries or doesn’t take pictures with fans or assorted other excruciatingly shallow comments missed the point of the festival: this was his commentary track, guys.

I saw a plethora of great films this month. I saw a double feature of Blume in Love and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, with a Q&A with Quentin and Paul Mazursky himself. Not only did these films floor me, but they were perfectly programmed.

Paul Mazursky, 1969

While Bob and Carol will fill your heart with joy and hope for relationships and teach you that marriage CAN work and that human beings CAN properly communicate with one another if they wish to, Blume in Love will disturb the hell out of you, and teach you how one person’s ego can completely ruin a relationship to the point of disaster. Blume is fascinating in its dark horrific complexity where Bob and Carol is equally fascinating in its comedic intricacies.

Paul Mazursky, 1973

I got to put another notch on my Clint Eastwood belt and see Escape From Alcatraz (I have a goal which is to see every film either starring or directed by Clint Eastwood on a big screen- silly, I know, but whatever. It’s my dream, lemme have it!!) alongside this INSANE film called I Escaped From Devil’s Island. What can I really say about Devil’s Island except that any movie that has alternative male sexuality, native nymphomaniac women wielding coconuts as weapons (and no tops), a prison camp narrative, and random bits of stock footage shark sequences pretty much automatically has my heart. That movie don’t fool around, no way, no how.  And will I ever get to see such a beautiful print of that again? Nope, I seriously doubt it.

William Witney, 1973

And then, of course, there was Rod Taylor night…the night that so many of my friends were looking forward to and I was so very interested in. To be frank, I had only a peripheral knowledge of Taylor. I knew him slightly, but so many people whose opinions I valued so very highly were so very very excited about this event that I knew I had to attend. Once again, my lovely cineaste-cohorts were not mistaken. While I felt a bit embarrassed about not knowing more about the actor and yet being excited about the night, I was more excited about learning what I had been missing. See, I’m not one of those people who will fake it if I don’t know something or haven’t seen something. I will come right out and tell you, here and now, I have never seen Jaws. Go ahead, make fun if you like, but my first time seeing it will be on a big screen dammit, and I. Will. Have. A. Blast. In any case, I figured that this could only be another case of me getting to know a new person in my life! So, I strapped on my Rod Taylor MAN-boots, and went to the double of Dark of the Sun and Hell River. While I greatly preferred Dark of the Sun, Quentin’s intro to the films and his enthusiasm for Taylor was catching. I was an instantaneous fan, and a few days later at stupid o’clock in the morning, I found a Rod Taylor film playing on TCM, and I totally watched it.

Jack Cardiff, 1968

I saw so very many things this month from Tarantino’s programmed calender. I watched Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) along with Sydney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes (1971). I finally got to see Stone (Sandy Harbutt, 1974) and enjoyed the living HELL out of the moonshine double-feature of White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973) and Last American Hero (Lamont Johnson, 1973).

While I didn’t see everything, I saw quite a bit of what was offered. While I didn’t like everything I saw, what I liked, I loved. I think my favorite part of the whole deal was that for a month straight not only did I see my film-friends at the movies (who also seemed giddy at the chance to see rare films on the big screen) but we were all having fun. The main theme in all of these films was a kind of energy that is endemic to the Tarantino product. Each film projected held some kind of spice that Quentin has used to build his own works, and not in some “rip-off” way as I used to believe. I also do not believe it to be simply homage either, but that is due to tonight’s viewing of Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

I will readily admit that I was never a huge Tarantino fan. I always adored him for Rolling Thunder Pictures and was forever grateful for his help in making Wong Kar-Wai a “film household” name. I always respected his film knowledge and I always admired his passion for cinema as it seemed as gargantuan and as intense as my own. While I have often gotten made fun of over the years for my obsessive devotion and outspokenness in regards to the Seventh Art, so, too, have I heard people knock him for the very same thing. But in my world there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting seriously excited about something that you love dearly and that gives you so much joy .

In any case, suffice to say that I certainly liked his films a lot but didn’t love them. Except maybe Jackie Brown. For some reason, I really loved that one. But that’s a whole other blog entry for another time. My fandom was basically predicated primarily on his self-achieved academic success and only partially on cinematic product. Things have since changed a bit. And this is where his March programming at the New Beverly fits in.

As I moved through the month with my friends and we cheered and clapped and laughed our way through the films, I noticed other things besides the fact that there were certain running themes of moonshine, racing cars/motorcycles, Dyan Cannon, and prison escape. There was cinematic tension to be sure, but I also started recognizing elements that Tarantino had taken from these particular types of films (and sometimes exact films) and used for his own- the “spice” I mentioned earlier. Many people have seen this as a kind of “lifting” or “borrowing,” which would ultimately mean that a Quentin Tarantino film is nothing but a collage. People accuse him of being nothing but a rip-off artist. Years previous to now, I might have agreed. But after having seen many of the films being paid homage to and worked with, I see that that is not at all what Tarantino ends up creating in his own pieces. Even by placing actual set-pieces that are almost identical mirror-replicas from the original source (ie the fight scene in Kill Bill between Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in the snow is shockingly similar to one in a film called Lady Snowblood) it does not mean that the film itself is a “rip-off.” In fact, to me, it is the exact opposite. While that scene may end up becoming part of the history of that piece, certainly, it does not cause the initial piece of cinema any harm nor does it mean that the new cinematic creation is carrying all the little bits and pieces of meaning from the “first draft.” After all, no one got angry at George Lucas for “ripping off” Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces with Star Wars, did they?

What Tarantino manages to do is something that I have written on many times- he creates a kind of cinematic palimpsest; something that only someone who truly loves the originating work can do with any modicum of success. Now whether you like/love/hate/feel indifferent towards his own films, his meticulous ability to create new and exciting media while reworking older visuals and themes is to be respected. There is indeed much within Tarantino’s film content that may indeed seem familiar. OK, fair enough. But to oversimplify the work and say that his films are mere pastiche is to underestimate the original content and downplay the effect of the newly created feature. I have many compatriots who are not fans. To each their own. My take is that, regardless of personal feelings on the content, one should be able to respect the construction. And as far as that is concerned, Tarantino just keeps getting better every film he makes.

What happened this month for his birthday celebration that was so very fabulous was that he revealed that construction- he told his New Beverly audience what goes into making a Tarantino film. This was quite a bit different to the last festival he did at the New Beverly, which was the Grindhouse Film Festival, back in 2007. That was another one that knocked my socks off. In fact, I went to so many shows, I couldn’t remember the exact number! My ex-boyfriend reminded me that I only missed 2 out of 25. It was another awesome engagement, but that one was focused on celebrating the release of the film Grindhouse (2007), thus they were all GRINDHOUSE features. This month? It was a slow build-up, and you HAD to be there. If you missed it, then you missed out.

As a cinematic architect, Quentin Tarantino built up the entire program this month in accordance with showing the grande finale which was Kill Bill: the Whole Bloody Affair. The last films I saw before I saw Kill Bill were the films contained in the triple martial arts feature: Avenging Eagle (1978), Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), and Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1973). I believe that the first two films were the very first Shaw Brothers films I had ever seen in my life, although I cannot say for certain. Going to college in Santa Cruz, I have to admit that there were several times I found myself hanging out with young men who would light up a joint and toss on a kung-fu movie, while I sat there amused on the couch, drinking a beer. In any case, I was totally consumed by the ones I watched at the New Beverly. Unlike those lazy college afternoons, I was sitting in my favorite movie theater watching an incredibly colorful print and engulfed in some pretty intense storylines regarding honor, friendship and respect. Avenging Eagle was undoubtedly my favorite (and not just because the stars were super hot). This film got me due to the fact that the narrative had a wild amount of humor intermixed with the drama and the physical dynamics that were truly on a different level than anything I had seen (at least recently). It was shot in such a way that the camera work itself seemed balletic alongside the intensely beautiful martial arts.

What I remember noticing as well was that each fight told its own story. Being a noir scholar, I felt that these fight sequences were not dissimilar to the way that noir cinematographer John Alton used to talk about physical darkness in film: he said that there was more contained within and more fullness/usefulness to shadow than there was in light. Thus he used more dark. If you see any of his films, they are some of the BLACKEST films ever committed to celluloid. Now, I’m definitely an action girl. I dig me some Die Hard, some Commando, some Lethal Weapon and many more. But what action films seem to do and martial arts films do not is weave the action directly into the narrative. Martial arts films create a very significant and almost sacred space for the action to take place in. Within the films we are used to, the action simply is part and parcel of the film, just as most films are shot using light as a method of focus. Alton’s theory of using darkness to flip things around was significant. It said: read this film differently- this is not your standard film, with your standard everyday narrative. And, indeed, Alton’s films were most definitely not standard fare. Watching these Shaw Brothers films and seeing these action sequences spoke to me on that same level.

I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to see Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, to be honest. It sold out in no time flat. I was gut deep in the middle of writing something for the Film Noir blogathon when they went on sale, and totally missed out. To be honest, I wasn’t that upset. I thought, “No big deal, so there’s gonna be s’more gore, in color, it’d be cool…but I missed my chance at a ticket. Oh well!” I got lucky. And I am so very very thankful that I did.

New Beverly Cinema, March 28, 2011

I would like to point you towards two lovely write-ups that have been done on Kill Bill, as they are smart, succinct and perfectly written. They also go into quite different arenas than I will. However, I think they deserve to be read, as they assist me in my argument on why this version of the film is so wonderful. The first, from Mr. Beaks at Ain’t it Cool News, is a beautifully composed piece that essentially posits: “Shorn of commerce-conceding baggage, turns out KILL BILL is a masterpiece after all.” The second, from Todd Gilchrist over at Cinematical, discusses all the things that were done correctly in this updated version and the things that he feels were not necessary. Both pieces say much of what I feel on the subject and are exceptionally written. In addition to those pieces, however, I have a few thoughts that I would like to share.

I like to refer to myself as a feminist film theorist. People bristle when I say that…I could care less. But I’m that chick that has a raging hard-on for horror films, action films, Giallo, pre-code and noir and finds very little that is “anti-women” in any of it. I don’t think violence inflicted upon a female in a film is, in and of itself, misogynistic. You have to really prove to me that there is misogynistic intent. Then again, there are so many films that are furiously angry towards women in such a way that it cannot be immediately understood. To me, those are the most dangerous pieces of media. Then again, it’s a very tricky area with lots of fine lines. That said, I would like to argue that Kill Bill:The Whole Bloody Affair is, by and large, one of the strongest pro-female films I have ever seen. Indeed, I feel that Tarantino himself is an incredibly pro-female director. Unlike many filmmakers who divest their female characters of all their agency (and yes, this does include some female filmmakers sometimes) Tarantino’s modus operandi is to instill as much power in his ladies as possible. Powerful examples of this (aside from basically every female character in Kill Bill) include the characters played by Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997),

Pam Grier as Jackie Brown...The New Beverly showed several trailers of her early films during March; films that clearly influenced the way Tarantino chose to portray women in film

Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Death Proof (2007), and both Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Melanie Laurent as Shosanna/Emanuelle in Inglourious Basterds, the brave and talented projectionist who, essentially, wins the war through her actions in the film

The empowerment that the women in his films receive is, by and large, more effective than the empowerment that I have seen any women receive in “chick flicks.” But then again- perhaps Kill Bill is just my kind of Chick Flick. Tarantino uses the Kung-Fu rhetoric within Kill Bill to establish and discuss the reclaiming of power within one woman, played by Uma Thurman.

Uma Thurman as The Bride/ Beatrix Kiddo

He leads us, through several different time shifts, through her multiple rebirths. He shows her powerful as a well-oiled machine and as helpless as a newborn baby and aligns us with her each time through her direct address. And just at the point in the film when she is the most powerless, when she has been stripped of all possibilities of escape and the world at large thinks she has been, literally, laid to rest…she is reborn yet again through her inner strength that she was trained to translate into outer strength. Now…seriously…how new-age-y does that sound, right? But that’s what happens. And it’s damn BLOODY. Holy CRAP.

The devastation of the Crazy 88 in The Whole Bloody Affair takes on a whole different meaning than it did before. The additional footage and the fact that it was entirely in color made the scene completely seamless. By repairing the color consistency and removing the black and white shots, the whole thing reads more like the gore-filled ballet of beauty it was intended to be.

Just as I noticed that the Duck hood ornament from Deathproof was the same one featured prominently in the trailer for Convoy showing right before Five Minutes to Live (Bill Karn, 1961), I realized that many of the elements that had been featured in the martial arts triple feature were the ones focused upon in Kill Bill. Honor, integrity, physical dexterity/ability, and (most importantly) revenge. However, placing it within western confines and the female spectrum lent it a uniquely new flavor. While Tarantino clearly used the original Kung-fu films as part of the original thematic parchment, the strong female iconography was the other main layer he put on top, in addition to the other, more aesthetic ones (the anime section, the graphic violence, etc). In total, his Kill Bill palimpsest reflected the Shaw Brothers title card that he slated at the very beginning of the picture, but also each of the additional filmic influences, from Lady Snowblood to The Searchers. Through this combinatory tactic, Quentin Tarantino created a new product that we know as Kill Bill and is best seen as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.

If one were to look closely at Deathproof or Inglourious Basterds or his other works, you could see the same kind of architecture. They are all cinematic palimpsests: layered parchments that reflect the past but have new stories written upon them. Cinema itself is like that, a kind of self-reflexive medium, so it is no surprise that Tarantino’s work would constant reflect and refract its own history. But his twist is that it is not simply mirroring, it is creating as well. And to me, that is impressive.

I know that what I learned this month was that I really don’t need any damn commentary for a Quentin Tarantino film, because I needed to know about Tarantino films, I learned at the New Beverly Cinema. Thanks again guys for an amazing month. See ya in the front row soon!

Eastern Ways in Western Dress: Cultural Hybridity and Subversion in Yojimbo

This post is for the Japanese Cinema Blogathon.  It was started to help assist in the earthquake & tsunami relief. If you like my post/hate my post/are bored to tears by my post, or just enjoy the damn pictures, PLEASE help. Living, as I do, in an earthquake-prone locale (Southern California), earthquakes are quite frightening, and I would like to do my part. Since I am broke as hell, all I can realistically do is what I do best: write. And so I will write for Japan, and hope that someone makes a donation off of what I’ve written or just makes a donation, period. Japan has given us some of the most incredible cinema in the entire world and will continue to do so. Let’s help out a little in appreciation, shall we?

The standard assumption about modern Japanese culture is that because it contains elements familiar in the west, perhaps even born in the west, it has become, in effect, entirely Westernized. Looking closer at Japanese culture, however, we can see that this assumption is about as ridiculous as saying that the United States has become more Chinese because a good many people prefer that cuisine. It is only an example of the kind of binary thinking that revisionist histories and neo-colonial thinking have created within the world that would necessitate this kind of compartmentalization.

Within this essay, I will be looking at an example of Japanese cinema that expresses not only the Japanese-ness noted previously, but also certain aspects of cultural hybridity and significance within Japanese culture. In order to explicate my argument, I will be using a variety of texts varying from discussions of cultural hybridity and Japanese history to Hamid Naficy’s work on accented cinema. What I hope to show in this work is the remarkable ability of one culture (Japan) to reappropriate and “poach” different themes and iconographies from another culture (United States) and feed them through their own, culturally specific machinations in order to create something wholly new and different.

The film I have chosen, Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) illustrates the ways in which cultural identity is asserted through the conscious blurring of boundaries and intentionally fluid interpretations of genre. By re-placing the American Western within historically important samurai contexts, Japanese cinema can be seen to be making its own cinematic space.

Yojimbo (1961), Akira Kurosawa

This claiming of cinematic environment and demand for a location of cultural expression places modern Japanese cinema squarely within the definitions of Third Cinema. As defined, Third Cinema is “an alternative cinema…a cinema of decolonization and for liberation.”[1] By retaining individual signifiers and insisting upon their own generic interpretations, these films reject cultural depreciation and celebrate ethnic identity, and expound the tenets of the Third Cinema in a very localized fashion.

In order to truly understand Japanese cinema, it is crucial to know the history of the country itself. As Teshome Gabriel writes,

Lacking this historical perspective, the film critic or theorist can only reflect on the ways in which this cinema undermines and innovates traditional practices of representation, but he/she will lose sight of the context in which the cinema operates. An equally significant component of the critical perspective that must be adopted is the recognition of the TEXT that pre-exists each new text and that binds the filmmaker to a set of values, mores, traditions and behaviors- in a word, “culture”—which is at all moments the obligatory point of departure.[2]

Thus, in order to not fall into the “trap of auteurist fallacies and ‘aesthetic’ evaluative stances,”[3] I shall give a brief historical and cultural outline of Japan. Although by no means exhaustive, I will cover the primary events that many historians feel to be the most essential and transformative, as well as those occurrences that have singular importance to my argument.

Although there was clearly a great deal that went before, the Heian period, which lasted from 794 a.d. to about 1185 a.d., is where we will begin. During this era, there was a “flowering of classical Japanese culture in new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto). Court aristocracy, especially women, produced a great body of literature–poetry, diaries, the novel The Tale of Genji–and made refined aesthetic sensibility their society’s hallmark.”[4]

image from the illustrated scroll, "The Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari)" - a narrative novel authored by Lady Murasaki; painted by Takayoshi in the 12th century

The cultural product that resulted from this period was significant and vital, being reproduced continually even today, within Japanese painting, cinema and television. However, although the creative vitality still existed, the relative peace was not to remain, as the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) ushered in the beginning of military rule. The significance of this was vast, as it replaced noble rulers with the samurai (warrior). Although there is recognition of artistic development during this time, the primary feature for over a century is civil war, and until approximately 1600, Japan is immersed in Sengoku Jidai (Era of the Country at War). There is no unified Japan, only a series of warlords fighting with each other. Intriguingly, this is also the period during which the Portuguese enter the Japanese islands and introduce firearms and attempt missionary work to convert the Japanese to Christianity. The Portuguese fail in their religious mission, however, and are punished severely for attempting to dilute the national culture.

In 1568, a man named Oda Nobunaga starts the process of reunifying Japan. Followed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the foundation of modern Japan is laid. However, although these men laid down the base, it was up to another man to change the course of Japanese history forever. After he brutally beat Hideyoshi (and a few years later forced Hideyoshi’s legitimate heir to commit seppuku, ritual suicide), a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu became the Shogun, and ruled with a strict, isolationist sensibility. He cut off exchange with all countries except China and the Netherlands, expelled Portuguese missionaries and essentially shut the doors of the country for 200 years. Michael Cooper, the former editor of Monumenta Nipponica, an interdisciplinary journal on Japanese culture and society, states quite simply that, “Tokugawa wanted to clear the board of all these foreign influences which were just muddying the waters, making life more complicated.”[5] And clear the board he did. Not only was trade extremely limited, but also foreign books were outlawed, travel abroad was forbidden. For 200 years Japan was kept away from the rest of the world, and the rest of the world was kept out of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

During this period, however, the Japanese had ample time to refine and hone its multitude of cultural assets, without any infiltration or any disturbance from anyone. Literature, ritual customs, art, and theater all prospered in this period. However, this could only last for so long. Finally, around 1867, the Tokogawa shogunate was ended and this started the Meiji Period.

The Meiji Restoration (called this because power was restored to the Emperor Meiji) began the colonization of Japan by the west. It is noted that during this period, the Japanese, “like other subjugated Asian nations…were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. These treaties granted the Westerners one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan.”[6] Beyond this, significant modernization and Westernization occurred. Compulsory education, now reformed to resemble French and later German systems was implemented, as well as a European-style constitution in 1889.

1686- the Meiji emperor of Japan moves from the old capital, Kyoto, to the new capital, Tokyo

After being closed off from the rest of the world for so long, its seemed to the Japanese that they needed to hurry and “catch up,” so they sent scholars away to different countries to attempt to get what they needed in a more condensed fashion. However, after a certain period of time, and successfully winning two wars, all of this Westernization became repugnant to the Japanese, and there was a significant rise in nationalism again.

Western forms of modernity proved to be like a virus- once they entered the Japanese system they stayed. The symptoms were treatable, but the virus would always be there. On the other hand, the more this virus showed itself, the more nationalistic the country got. The West continued to colonize Japan until the end of World War II, when Japan was physically occupied by the US, and forced to alter everything from cultural specifics (such as what they could and could not put in cinematic or literary texts) to political structures (religion and state were now entirely separated). After two hundred years of relative peace and cultural unity, it took less than half that time for the West to rope Japan in, and force it into what they saw as submission.

While the historical evidence does show the “conquer” of Japan, and its subsequent punishment and demonization within much of Western culture (especially the US), what occurred within the cultural borders of Japan was something very different. With the sudden influx (initially desired, consequently abhorred) of so many different cultures after the Tokugawa period, it is difficult to conceive of Japanese culture not having been influenced in some way. However, the consolidation of nationalistic identity was so strong before the ports opened that even the influences that had become present were now filtered through a Japanese lens.

The three phases that Frantz Fanon discusses in the progression towards cultural decolonization are defined by Teshome Gabriel as

(a) The unqualified assimilation phase where the inspiration comes from without and hence results in an uncritical imitation of the colonialist culture; (b) the return to the source or the remembrance phase, a stage which marks the nostalgic lapse to childhood, to the heroic past, where legends and folklore abound; and (c) the fighting or combative phase, a stage that signifies maturation and where emancipatory self-determinism becomes an act of violence.[7]

If you follow Japanese history from the end of the Tokugawa Period forward, it seems that Fanon’s text is accurate and appropriate. Certainly the Japanese were fascinated by the outside culture that they had not experienced for over 200 years, but when that outside force sought to dominate their carefully nurtured autochthonous culture, the Japanese bristled. In fact, according to Donald Ritchie and Joseph I. Anderson, the Japanese reaction to new innovations in early cinema followed Fanon’s structure as well. In the beginning, the Japanese audiences “embraced the novelty of the moving picture with at least as much enthusiasm as other nations” but they did not, however, embrace the new cinematic methods, and neither did the directors. Now whether this was due to culturally bound aesthetic preference or not is still up for debate, but Ritchie and Anderson do note that in this aesthetic decision, the audience was “following what has become recognized as a peculiarly Japanese pattern of behavior: first the enthusiastic acceptance of a new idea, then a period of reaction against it, and finally the complete assimilation and transformation of the idea to Japanese patterns.”[8] If this is indeed the case, the Japanese have been in the process of decolonialization in the cinema for almost as long as the cinema has been around.

The cinema in Japan, though initially full of foreign product, soon began to create its own, complete with genres that celebrated nationalism and cultural history. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino write that “real alternatives differing from those offered by the System are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that are directly and explicitly set out to fight the system.”[9] What if, in the presentation of these highly ethnocentric and history-centric pieces, Japan was able to do both? I maintain that Japan’s early genre cinema was not only a way of recuperating feelings of nationalism and pride in cultural identity, but also a way to fight the virus of colonialism that had already swept through the country.

Two of the most popular genres in Japanese cinema (up until they were occupied and forced to change cinematic content) were jidai-geki (historical dramas) and gendai-geki (modern dramas). Stories such as Chushingura (the tale of the forty-seven Ako ronin), which was set in the Tokugawa period and based on historical incidents, were incredibly popular. In fact, that particular story was made into a film over eighty times between the years 1907-1962![10]

Chushingura (1962)

But stories like Chushingura would not have been assimilable to an outside culture, let alone the System that Solanas and Gitano mention. And the jidai-geki made up close to half of the feature films in Japan from 1910 onwards![11] The very structure of Japanese Cinema, from its origination, prohibited its cooptation and cultural dilution. By utilizing their history and cultural signifiers within the cinematic texts, they not only denied the System but also outright thumbed their nose at it.

Donald Ritchie discusses the theory that it was Japanese theater conventions that helped teleologically maintain the cultural identity of the Japanese cinema. It is a distinct possibility that theatrical features like the benshi (a live interpreter for the silent films), or the use of men acting in women’s roles did help in the cultural preservation. However, I feel that Ritchie’s own analysis is far more perceptive. He states that though these theatrical attributes might have “somehow served to preserve the ‘Japaneseness’ of this cinema, protecting it from rapacious Hollywood, [this theory] fails to take into account the fact that…any Hollywood ‘takeover’ was a highly selective and invitational affair. If anything, it was Japanese companies that took over the ways of the California studios. It is probably safe to say that Japan has never assimilated anything that it did not want to.”(italics mine)[12] While it is of utmost consequence to recognize the agency that Ritchie mentions, it is also appropriate here to mention the concept of cultural hybridity. The nature of Japanese cinema is not one of assimilation but of translation. While Japan was a colonized nation, considerably flooded with Western ideology, they managed to hybridize the west with the east, and filter it through their own cinematic language. In their own way, they did what Francisco X. Camplis was suggesting when he connected Raza cinema to Third Cinema, stating that, for decolonization, Chicano cinema needed to “explore and discover our own sense of aesthetics. Our own language.”[13]

Japan, while maintaining sovereignty over their cultural product, also enunciates their voice through the hybridization of colonial product. This technique of cultural hybridity is a highly subversive act of decolonialization, according to Robert Stam. He writes, “these aesthetics share the jujitsu trait of turning strategic weakness into tactical strength. By appropriating an existing discourse for their own ends, they deploy the force of the dominated against the dominant.”[14]Thus, when films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) re-place the Western within a samurai context, it is actually creating a site of resistance.

Although Kurosawa has been called the “most Western” of all Japanese filmmakers,[15] he himself stated that he made Western films for “today’s young Japanese.”[16] While these statements might appear to have similar meaning, it is crucially significant that Kurosawa designates who his audience is. While Western critics may be able to see familiar narrative patterns or generic properties, Kurosawa’s work is a multi-layered text that, although seeming familiar to them, is still a foreign film. A.O. Scott writes that “filmed images do not require translation; we know what we see. Narratives, of course, are another story; even when they seem to be transparent, they come encrusted with local meanings, idioms and references, some of which will inevitably be lost as they move from one audience to another.”[17] Although immediately recognizable as an example of the Western genre, Yojimbo is a perfect example one of those films that, as Scott notes, is “encrusted” with its own set of culturally-bound signifiers.Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro Kuwabatake/ The Samurai

The story of Yojimbo takes place just after the end of the Tokugawa period. A ronin (masterless samurai) who was “once a dedicated warrior in the employ of Royalty, now finds himself with no master to serve other than his own will to survive…and no devices other than his wit and his sword”[18] Traveling in solitude, he comes upon a village and is fascinated to learn that it is in the middle of a turf war between two extremely morally corrupt clans. The ronin, Sanjuro, takes it upon himself to rid the town of these evil clans and their warlike ways by pitting them against each other, and letting them do the damage. In the end, the two clans do destroy each other, but the irony is that when they do, the town is left empty- a literal ghost town.

The two clans do battle

In his book, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Hamid Naficy writes,

Accented films embody the constructedness of identity by inscribing characters who are partial, double, or split, or who perform their identities by means of the strategies already mentioned. By so engaging in the politics and poetics of identity, they cover up or manipulate their essential incompletion, fragmentation, and instability.[19]

In Yojimbo, Sanjuro’s constant changes in affiliation between the two fighting clans underscore his fractured character. Sanjuro is a wanderer. He is a man with no allegiances and no home. He has arrived in a town that is already split in two, and now, in order to unite the town (and perhaps his own identity), he must fracture himself even further by playing both sides. To go even further, whatever side he is playing is also instable because it’s a lie. David Desser describes Kurosawa as a “dialectical” filmmaker. He describes Kurosawa’s films as cinematically split, noting that Kurosawa “offers enjoyment to the audience seeking escapism and the audience seeking substance; he speaks to the Japanese and to the West. More importantly, through a dialectical combination of the two, he speaks to both about each other.”[20] If this is indeed the case, then Sanjuro’s split identification is standing in for Kurosawa’s, a self-reflexive position that, Naficy notes, is also not unusual for accented film.

Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) and director Akira Kurasawa

In accented cinema “neither the home-seeking journey nor the homecoming journey is fully meliorating. The wandering quests, too, are often tempered by their failure to produce self-discovery or salvation.”[21] Kurosawa’s deliberately open-ended yet dark and ironic close to Yojimbo attests to that theory. After all the effort that Sanjuro put into saving the town, the only people who are left alive at the end are the coffin-maker and the tavern keeper. Sanjuro looks at them, says, “Now it’ll be quiet in this town,” turns his back and walks away, clearly continuing on with his journey. It is clear that, although he has saved the town, there was really nothing there to save. Although nihilistic, this scenario further explores Kurosawa’s identity as an accented and hybridic filmmaker and reaffirms Sanjuro’s identity as his cinematic double. With this ending, Kurosawa clearly demonstrates his own border consciousness, which “like exilic liminality, is theoretically against binarism and duality and for a third optique, which is multiperspectival and tolerant of ambiguity, ambivalence, and chaos.”[22]

Yojimbo possessed many of the standard features of the Western genre, yet also ended up revolutionizing it. I contend that Desser’s theory of Kurosawa as a dialectical filmmaker should be widened to include his position as a dialogical filmmaker as well. Yojimbo did not remain contained within Japanese borders. In 1966, director Sergio Leone remade it in Almeria, Spain. The film starred Clint Eastwood, and was released under the title Fistful of Dollars. Jim Miller writes,

Although the storyline remained much the same in Fistful as it did in Yojimbo, a man alone playing both sides against each other, the end result of Clint Eastwood’s role brought about a whole new look at the Western hero as a lone wolf, anti-hero that was totally different from characters John Wayne had played. The anti-hero had been done before and been well received…but…[this] was a Western anti-hero who had not been viewed by American moviegoers, and that made the character and the actor who played him a different kind of Western hero.[23]

While Fistful of Dollars became the first in what would be a series of films starring Clint Eastwood as Sanjuro’s American surrogate, the Man With No Name, it is integral to recognize that the American translation of Kurosawa’s work introduced a new archetype. My position is that Japanese films (even Yojimbo, which David Desser admits is “dependent on Western [genre] structures”[24]) subvert Western colonial narrative structures through their cultural filtration system. This is further proven by Miller’s discussion of the reception of Clint Eastwood’s character.

The three central roles in the Western genre are “the townspeople or agents of civilization, the savages or outlaws who threaten this first group, and the heroes who are above all ‘men in the middle,’ that is, they possess many qualities and skills of the savages, but are fundamentally committed to the townspeople.”[25] Kurosawa’s conflation of archetypes is vital and entirely intentional. By creating a climate in which the townspeople are the savages and the hero is committed to the destruction of the townspeople, he is forcing the spectator to reflect on “a world of uncertainty.”[26] In many ways, this film can be seen as analogous to the confusion brought on by Westernization. The main villain, Unosuke (the son of one of the clans), is in possession of a gun, and waves it around like a cowboy. The rest of the men are armed only with swords. The presence of this weapon, and Unosuke’s ultimate defeat, signifies that even though the Western world might have invaded Japan historically, forcing change and cultural infiltration, the basic structures of Japanese identity are strong enough to withstand that change. Essentially, Sanjuro’s abrupt but confident departure from the town signifies the triumph of the samurai, symbol of loyalty and honor, and Japanese history, over the attempt by the West to conquer the East.

In the introduction to Donald Ritchie’s book on Japanese cinema, he traces the hypothetical life of a 50-year-old man in each period of early Japanese cinematic history. From the man in 1896, who “would have been born into a feudal world where the shogun, daimyo, and samurai ruled” to the man who “would have witnessed the forced adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the emergence of a nationwide public school system, the inauguration of telephone services…and the construction of railways,” Ritchie briefly looks at what a Japanese man might have experienced. But, Ritchie says, “through it all, he…would have been told to somehow hold on to his Japaneseness. [A] slogan indicated the way: ‘Japanese Spirit and Western Culture’ (Wakon Yosai)- in that order…[and] In this manner, it was hoped, Japan might avail itself of the ways of the modern West and, at the same time, retain its ‘national entity.’”[27] Teshome Gabriel says that Third Cinema “must above all be recognized as a cinema of subversion.”[28] By working through the ideas of Wakon Yosai, the Japanese cinema is a proud and active part of Third Cinema. Through the jujitsu model of hybridity and a refusal to dilute their national identity, Japanese cinema has, and is continuing to have, the best of worlds. They truly have subverted the dominant paradigm and are only richer as a result.


[1] Gabriel, Teshome. Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1982.

[2] Gabriel, ibid.

[3] Gabriel, ibid.

[4]Heinrich, Amy Vladeck.  Ask Asia, a K-12 Resource of the Asia Society, History of Japan, 1994. available at http://www.askasia.org/image/maps/timejape.html, Internet; accessed 16 March 2011.

[5] Michael Cooper, interviewed in “Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire.” Empires, narr. Richard Chamberlain, PBS, 26 May. 2004.

[6] Meiji Period (1868-1912), Periods of Japanese History, Japan Guide, 2 June 1996. available at http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2130.html, Internet; accessed 20 November, 2004.

[7] Gabriel, ibid.

[8] Anderson, Joseph I. and Donald Ritchie. The Japanese Film: Art and Industry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

[9] Solanas, Fernando and Octavio Getino. “Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World.”

[10] Barrett, Gregory. Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, Inc, 1989.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[13] Camplis, Francisco X. “Towards the Development of a Raza Cinema (1975)”. Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. Ed. Chon Noriega. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

[14] Stam, Robert. “Beyond Third Cinema: the Aesthetics of Hybridity.” Rethinking Third Cinema. Ed. Anthony Guneratne and Wimal Dissanayake. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[15] Desser, David. The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

[16] Ritchie, Donald. The Films of Kurosawa. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

[17] Scott, A.O. “Us & Them: What is a Foreign Movie Now?” NewYork Times Magazine, 14 November 2004, 79.

[18] Yojimbo, dir. Akira Kurosawa, perf. Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, DVD, Criterion Collection, 1999.

[19] Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

[20] Desser, Ibid.

[21] Naficy, Ibid.

[22] Naficy, ibid.

[23] Miller, Jim. “Clint Eastwood: A Different Kind of Hero.” Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film. Ed. Archie P. McDonald. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

[24] Desser, ibid.

[25] Kitses, Jim. “The Western: Ideology and Archetype.” Focus on the Western.Ed. Jack Nachbar. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1974.

[26] Desser, ibid.

[27]Ritchie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2001.

[28] Gabriel, ibid.