Hiroshima Mon Amour

I was an architect, she was an actress. I drew the Eiffel Tower upon her dress. So we could see the world… The flash burnt our shadows right into the wall. But my best friend and I will leave them behind in Hiroshima. I will keep her secrets, I will change my name. My sweetheart and I are saying goodbye to Hiroshima.

—-My Favorite, Burning Hearts

The opening of Hiroshima Mon Amour

I have been taking too much pleasure in the NBA playoffs and as always happens when you take too much pleasure in something it all went to shit. My team, after a fantastic start, crashed and burned and went down to humiliating and ignominious defeat.

My lesson learned, again, I turned the game off and switched over to the always reliable backup – The Criterion Channel (the best streaming money you can spend). I cruised through the copious selection of marvelous and recherché moving picture shows and settled on a classic that I have never seen, Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Resnais had made his reputation with a string of documentary films, including the first-rate Night and Fog, about the Nazi death camps. He was approached to make a similar nonfiction work about the Hiroshima bomb and traveled to Japan to start work. He realized that he could not make a simple documentary about that horror, especially for Western audiences (who, in the 1950’s, generally thought of the bomb as the end of the war) and proposed he make a fictional film instead.

He hired the novelist Marguerite Duras to write the screenplay and made a groundbreaking film. The surface plot is about a French actress (played by the luminous Emmanuele Riva) in Hiroshima to make a documentary about the bombing – she has a brief but intensely passionate affair with a Japanese architect (played by the equally riveting Eiji Okada). They have only thirty-six hours before she must go back to Paris.

But time in the film isn’t the same as it is in the real world. The story is told in conversations between the couple, in flashbacks, in dream sequences, in bits of newsreel footage.

The fourteen minute opening sequence is an amazing kaleidoscopic montage surrounding a scene of two naked bodies writhing in passion while radioactive dust falls from the sky and sticks to their sweat-drenched skin.

The film is full of questions, symbolism, conundrums wrapped in enigmas, doubling (the actress has had forbidden affairs with soldiers of both of the West’s enemies in WWII) and all the other accouterments of the French New Wave.

Despite all this, the film is watchable to anyone tired of the MCU. If nothing else, you can look at Emmanuele Riva and her expressive face (at eighteen and thirty four) as she is buffeted by history, war, the past, and the passion of today.

Emmanuele Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour

Decades ago I stumbled across an obscure New York band called My Favorite. I have been a bit of a fan ever since. Watching the movie I realized that one of their “popular” songs, Burning Hearts, was inspired by the movie. Cool.

RIP Dustin Hoffman (not really)

“When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He’s written “He dies.” That’s all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is “He dies.” It takes Shakespeare, a genius, to come up with “He dies.” And yet every time I read those two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it’s only natural to be sad, but not because of the words “He dies,” but because of the life we saw prior to the words. I’ve lived all five of my acts, Mahoney, and I am not asking you to be happy that I must go. I’m only asking that you turn the page, continue reading… and let the next story begin. And if anyone asks what became of me, you relate my life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple and modest “He died.”
― Dustin Hoffman

New Orleans

I rarely remember my dreams – but last night I had a dream so realistic I woke up convinced it had really happened. I dreamed that Dustin Hoffman had died. I remember reading the word “Suddenly” in the article. It was so vivid that when I woke up I had to look it up to see if it had happened. I’m glad he’s going to appear in “Our Town” once Broadway opens back up.

Why did I dream of Dustin Hoffman? I have no idea. While I respect his impressive body of work, I never was a particular fan (I actually didn’t like Tootsie).

I do remember reading that because of his death Ishtar had shot to the top of the streaming charts.

Smooth Talk

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home

All your reindeer armies, are all going home

The lover who just walked out your door

Has taken all his blankets from the floor

The carpet, too, is moving under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

—-Bob Dylan, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Yesterday I had time to watch another movie on The Criterion Channel so I scrolled through the offerings and found one I wasn’t expecting. It was called Smooth Talk and was made in 1985. It was directed by Joyce Chopra and featured Laura Dern in her first starring big screen role (a year before Blue Velvet).

I have no idea how I have missed this movie over all these years. You see it is loosely (actually not all that loosely) based on one of the most crackerjack of short stories – Joyce Carol Oates’ ” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.

I have been a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates for a long time and have written about her short stories a few times before. There was Where are You? and Heat – but especially Life After High School – an incredibly interesting, subtle, and complex story.

And there was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. I first read this as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me. I have re-read it every few years and it hasn’t lost its power.

You can read it here. Go ahead, it’s worth it.

The story is based on the true story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson” – a serial killer that seduced and eventually murdered teenage girls in that desert town. Oates read the story in Life magazine (she refers to the killer as a “Tabloid Psychopath”) and then wrote the story as “Death and the Maiden.” She was especially fascinated by the fact that the Tucson teens didn’t realize this monster was a man in his 30s attempting to look young and many went along with the killings, keeping his secret.

During revision she made the story less about the killings and more about the teenage girl. The ending is ambiguous, though you get the feeling that it’s not going to end well.

I remember thinking that the story was unfilmable – it has too many phantasmagorical elements, an enigmatic conclusion,  and too much inside the girl’s head. But it looks like I was wrong.

The movie follows the short story surprisingly well. Obviously, it has to expand on the story quite a bit. Rereading the story, there is a lot to it that is spread out in the first half of the film. The girl’s mother has a bigger, more nuanced part – though a lot of that may be due to the genius of Mary Kay Place. Laura Dern has the young, beautiful, flighty, 15 year old, self-obsessed, stubborn,  teenager-y, Connie down perfectly. The story moved up into the 80’s where it fits better anyway, and the setting of a mall and big teen hangout hamburger stand across a busy road is dead-solid right.

****Spoiler Alert****

But at its mid-point the story and the movie take a sudden, terrifying turn. An odd, dangerous man named Arnold Friend (A Friend) shows up in an old Gold landyacht  convertible with mysterious writing on it. He proceeds to talk to Connie, left at home alone, and tries to talk her into going for a ride with him.

That is the first big difference, to me, between the story and the movie. In the story Arnold Friend is a borderline supernatural force, odd and mysterious (Is he wearing a wig? What is it with his boots? How does he know so much?). It is that character that I considered to be unfilmable. Treat Williams plays him in the movie and he is a bit too good looking and slick – though he does convey his own aura of danger and dread. I guess seeing the devil made flesh was going to be a letdown – but the movie was still interesting and harrowing.

And then, at the end, unlike the story, you find out, sort of, what happened after Connie went off for a ride with Arnold Friend.  He doesn’t kill her, he brings her back. In both versions it is implicit that her going with him was an act of heroism – she went to save her family from danger. Once she returns she seems to have grown a backbone. She tells Friend firmly that she never wants to see him again and then has a reconciliation with her sister. That is not how the story is leading – but it is a valid take and an interesting, almost happy, ending.

One other cool thing is that I discovered a movie review of Smooth Talk written by none other than Joyce Carol Oates herself. There is something amazing about a great writer putting down her thoughts on a film made from her work.

She agrees with me on the short story being ultimately  unfilmable:

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.

And she acknowledges the choice used in the different ending:

The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.

Serial killer inspires brilliant terrifying short story which is developed into a movie about a flighty young girl finding herself and her place and purpose. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

In the Mood for Love

It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered… to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.

—- Kar-Wai Wong, In the Mood for Love

The other day I watched Chunking Express on my streaming Criterion Channel. The movie was not what I expected (though I’m not sure what I was expecting) but enjoyable when taken on its own terms.

Over the weekend I was able to sit down and watch another Kar-Wai Wong film, one that is possibly even more well-known than Chungking ExpressIn the Mood for Love.

The English title of the film comes from the Bryan Ferry  song (though the song does not make an appearance in the movie – only the trailer)

The song was originally recorded in 1935, and there are many versions – this is the best:

Again, the film was unexpected – but enjoyable. Be forewarned – not much actually happens in the film, it’s definitely a movie where you sit back and let it wash over you. It is a beautiful film, with beautiful people wearing amazing costumes. It is a film of mood, of things not said, of ultimate regret.

The ending is a departure from the style (and location)  of what comes before – but like the best of endings that take a turn (if not a twist) in the last few minutes, thinking about it, there is no other way it could end.

I have had a visit to Angor Wat on my bucket list for a long time. Now I really want to go there. Who knows what secrets are locked up between those ancient stones?

Also, I wish I wasn’t on a low-carb diet… I want to carry around an old dented green steel vacuum bottle full of hot noodles.

Chungking Express

We’re all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears.

—-Chungking Express

I saw an interview with Martin Scorcese a while back where he described the Marvel movies as “Theme Park Movies.” He went on to say that if you enjoy them, good for you, but don’t let them crowd out “real” movies from the limited screen real estate.

I agree. I am superheroed out. Maybe, some day, I’ll watch another comic book movie… but right now I don’t think I could make it all the way through. Life is too short.

Luckily, I have The Criterion Channel. And a list.

Yesterday I made time to sit down and watch Chungking Express – a Hong Kong comedy/drama/romcom by director Wong Kar-wai. I’m not going to write a full review, mostly because a review pretty much always contains spoilers and in my latter years I try really hard to see films spoiler-free. I want to give anyone coming to my site the same consideration.

I knew nothing about Chungking Express (for some reason, I thought it was about a train) and was very, very pleasantly surprised. It has a unique structure – it is not a theme park movie – yet it is very enjoyable and not hard to watch.

It is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies (the structure has some resemblance to Pulp Fiction). He has an excellent YouTube video about the film – it’s divided into two parts. You are supposed to watch the first part before seeing the film, then come back and watch the rest (though even the second half is pretty spoiler-free).

A great movie – and Tarantino does know of what he speaks.

After seeing this movie I’ll never buy a can of pineapple without looking at the expiration date… and never listen to California Dreaming the same way.

Yul Brynner and William Shatner

My boy, that was a TV show. I used a stunt double. I always use a stunt double. Except in love scenes. I insist on doing those myself.

—-William Shatner

Maria Schell as Gervaise singing at her Name Day party – the high point of her life. She makes an appearance as Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov.

So, I finished The Brothers Karamazov along with my reading group. While working my way through the book, I did as much “research” as I could – as you know, today, “research” means searching YouTube.

And I discovered there was a movie made when I was one year old from the book The Brothers Karamazov. I didn’t want to watch the movie until I finished the book, but I did watch the trailer.

And now that I’ve finished the book I went searching through the streaming channels and found it on Turner Movie Classics.

The movie was surprisingly good. Of course there is no way to cram an eight hundred page novel into one movie, but it was still enjoyable. The philosophical content was pretty much gone – no mention of The Grand Inquisitor or of the torture of children. What was left behind was melodrama rather than great art – but good melodrama nonetheless.

A couple of points:

Grushenka was played by the actress Maria Schell who had starred in Gervaise, the adaptation of Zola’s L’assommoir which I wrote about last year. I was disappointed in her Grushenka (probably my favorite character in the book) – her beauty was put to good use, but she grinned and hammed her way through the part. I think she missed the depth and pathos of Grushenka.

One shock when you see the trailer is that Alyosha (Alexei) (the so-called “hero” of the book) is played by an impossibly young William Shatner. It’s crazy to see Captain Kirk in a monk’s habit and haircut. Alexei is the quiet, reserved, and religious brother – not exactly Kirk material. The shocking thing is how good a job he does with the part. It is nice to see Shatner in a part where he is not chewing the scenery.

The story is concentrated on Dimitri. It’s a shame that Ivan gets such little screen time. He is in many ways the more interesting brother. But there isn’t time for more and to a great extent the more Yul Brynner the better.

And finally, the ending is completely changed. Gone is the bittersweet and ambiguous ending of the novel and in its place, a Hollywood happy ending.

A disappointment, I guess, but it is Hollywood, not a vast Russian tale of subtle philosophical ideas after all.

I guess it’ll do.

Jean Renoir and La Bête humaine

“You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
― Jean Renoir

Big Boy 4018, in Fair Park, more than a few years ago.

So yesterday, I finished La Bête humaine by Emile Zola.

I have written before about my love for the streaming wonderfulness of The Criterion Channel. So tonight I sat down and watched the 1938 film by Jean Renoir, his version of Zola’s La Bête humaine.

It was very good – though very different than the book. The plot was significantly trimmed down – most of the murders were gone (only the two key homicides were left). The big set pieces were cut too, for time and also, probably for budget – the special effects cost for train wrecks and blizzards has to be enormous.

What is left is a more personal story, one of the first examples of film noir – with a femme fatale (Simone Simon – who I recognized from Cat People, filmed a few years later). A love triangle, murder, and Zola’s inherited madness make for a lively time.

Simone Simon, in a publicity still from Cat People

Renoir’s genius is in his ability to make his characters come alive on screen. He also shows a wonderful respect for the working class folks that populate the story. Even at their worst – his characters have their reasons, they are driven by the sins of the past.

It did still have the trains, though. The plot moves along like a hot steam engine on a track. A lot of the film was done on location instead of in studio – which added a gritty realism to the story. The Criterion Channel had an interview with Peter Bogdanovich who said that the original impetus for the film was that the star, Jean Gabin, wanted to make a movie where he got to drive a train.

Bad Day at Black Rock

You killed Komoko, Smith, and sooner or later you’re gonna go up for it. Not because you killed him, because I think in a town like this, you can get away with it. But because you didn’t have guts enough to do it alone. You put your trust in guys like this – and Hector here – not the most dependable of God’s creatures. And one of these days, they’re gonna catch on that you’re playin’ ’em for a sap. And then what are ya gonna do? Peel ’em off, one by one? And in the meantime, one of ’em’s gonna crack and when they do, you’re gonna go down – but hard. ‘Cause they got somethin’ on ya, Smith. Something to use when the goin’ gets tough. And it’s gettin’ tougher every minute.

—-Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955 Poster)

Does everybody nowdays do this “television hierarchy” thing? TVs used to be a major purchase – only a little less expensive than a car – and would last for years. I remember my grandfather had one of the first remote control televisions. It had a little handheld box with tuning forks in it. You would mash a button and it would hit a fork, sending out an ultrasonic sound, and the TV would hear it. Volume up and down, channel up and down, TV off, and mute. He used the mute the most – hated listening to commercials. He used to want a TV with a coin slot in the back so he could pay for shows instead of watching commercials. This wasn’t so long ago – I remember this shit. The modern galaxy of entertainment with streaming and all would blow his mind.

But back to what I was saying…. Televisions are now so inexpensive and the technology is leaping ahead, we are buying new TVs every year. And there is a hierarchy. The newest, biggest one goes into the living room, the next biggest and newest goes in the bedroom, and the third – the smallest and oldest (yet still only two years old and pretty damn big and good) goes in my office in front of my exercise bike.

So I was hooking up that TV and adding all the proper streaming services and wanted to test The Criterion Channel (my favorite) – so I shot through the menu fast and random and selected Bad Day at Black Rock – for no real reason, just as a test.

It turned out to be crackerjack and I ended up watching the whole thing.

Bad Day at Black Rock stars Spencer Tracy as a mysterious on-armed man getting off a train at a town so isolated and forlorn the train doesn’t even stop there unless it’s a special request. Black Rock seems to have only nine people or so left, and only one of them is a woman (though that woman is a young Anne Francis – which counts for a lot. I remember her from Forbidden Planet – so I guess she has experience in being the only woman in a forlorn spot). Spencer Tracy is on a mysterious mission and the townsfolk have a terrible, mysterious secret, and I won’t do any spoilers.

The film is billed as a Western and it is set in the West, right after WWII, but it is more of a Noir Thriller. Though it does have the Western theme of good guys and bad guys and the plot requires every one to choose their sides and work up the courage to stick.

Everybody is in this movie. I mentioned Spencer Tracy and Anne Francis… plus Robert Ryan, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine. Tracy was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role but lost out to Ernest Borgnine, also in this film, for his role in Marty.

The first shots of the movie are of a train hurtling across a vast, empty desert. The original plan was for a shot of the train moving fast, directly at the camera. But it was too dangerous to fly a helicopter in front of an approaching train. The stunt pilot had the solution. He filmed the train as it backed away. Then they reversed and sped up the film – for the perfect opening shot.

Bad Day at Black Rock, opening shot

Tampopo

Student of ramen eating:

[voiceover] One fine day… I went out with an old man. He’s studied noodles for 40 years. He was showing me the right way to eat them.

Student of ramen eating:

Master… soup first or noodles first?

Old gentleman:

First, observe the whole bowl.

Student of ramen eating:

Yes, sir.

Old gentleman:

Appreciate its gestalt. Savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.

Student of ramen eating:

What for?

Old gentleman:

To express affection.

Student of ramen eating:

I see.

Old gentleman:

Then poke the pork.

Student of ramen eating:

Eat the pork first?

Old gentleman:

No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologize to the pork by saying “see you soon.” Finally, start eating-the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.

Student of ramen eating:

Yes.

Old gentleman:

Eye it affectionately.

Student of ramen eating:

[voiceover] The old man bit some shinachiku root and chewed it awhile. Then he took some noodles. Still chewing noodles, he took some more shinachiku. Then he sipped some soup. Three times. He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork-as if making a major decision in life-and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.

Student of ramen eating:

What for?

Old gentleman:

To drain it. That’s all.

—- Tampopo

Interesting scene from Tampopo

A few months ago I treated myself to a new membership to The Criterion Channel – a streaming channel filled with classic, foreign, and unusual films. I used to rent videos from The Criterion Collection – back in the ancient days when movies came on little plastic disks or on long ribbons of tape – and this is even better.

And in these old days and the even older days before that… we forget how hard it was to find anything odd, unique, or rare that you wanted to watch. For most of my life I would read about works of moving picture art that I ached to watch but didn’t have a chance to.

In college I would sneak into film classes when they were screening classic films. Then when I moved to Dallas in the early 1980’s I purposefully lived in back of a repertory film venue (The Granada – now an excellent music venue) which would show two different films every night – with a “bigger” feature showing over the weekends. The day at the end of each month where the poster with next month’s showings would appear was an important event to me. I’d hang up the poster and circle the films I wanted to attend.

Then along came VHS tapes and DVDs and Blu-Rays and I searched for the more avant-guard rental shops. I would drive across town on a quest for some obscure foreign film that I had read about.

There was a Japanese film from 1985 that I wanted to see and had a hell of a time finding. It was called Tampopo and was touted as a “Ramen Western.” Finally, someone copied a disk and sent it to me. It was a lousy copy but I absolutely loved the film. The main plot, such as it is, involves a John Wayne-like truck driver and a motley group assisting a women in revitalizing her Ramen shop and in the process, making the perfect bowl of noodle soup. It is odd, revolutionary, and very funny. It is also sexy and exciting and, best of all, a classic example of food porn. Literally, food porn.

And now, there is a 2016 4K restoration from The Criterion Collection that has now showed up on the streaming channel. I was able to carve out a few minutes and sit down and watch the thing.

It was even better than I remembered. I’m not sure how, but I had forgotten how unusual the structure of the film was. It will go off and follow the story of someone that walks by the main characters on the street (although that side story is usually wrapped back in later on). There is the story of the gangster in white and his girlfriend with their food-oriented sex life which involves live prawns and cognac and other things. They have a unique and amazing way to eat a raw egg yolk.

It’s not fair for me to recommend Tampopo – if you don’t have the Criterion Channel (there is a 14 day free trial) it’s still pretty hard to find. But if it happens to come by your way, don’t miss it.

A Couple of Movies

“- Colonel Kane: Maybe we’re just fish out of water.

– Col. Richard Fell: What was that?

– Colonel Kane: I just think about sickness, cancer in children, earthquakes, war, painful death. Death, just death. If these things are just part of our natural environment why do we think of them as evil? Why do they horrify us so? Unless we were meant for someplace else.”

—-The Ninth Configuration

Dallas Arboretum

I had a very busy and stressful week at work and it kept going until late Friday. It left me enervated and exhausted. There are things that I need to do and things that I want to do but I wasn’t up for anything. To unwind and decompress I decided to sit my lazy ass down in the living room and watch a random movie or two from the Criterion Channel.

For no particular reason I picked a film from 1980 (though it felt very sixties-ish) the directorial debut by the author of the Exorcist, William Peter Blatty – The Ninth Configuration, starring Stacy Keach and a pile of character actors from the time.

My reading group is plowing through The Brothers Karamazov (and I am really enjoying it). As I’m sure you know, one of the themes of TBK is the question of the existence of God and, if he doesn’t exist, what is the basis for morality, if there is one. Very heavy stuff. It turns out that is the theme of The Ninth Configuration also – musings on God and Morality and Sin and Redemption. It’s the same themes, but instead of 19th century Czarist Russia the story is set in a castle in the Pacific Northwest that has been converted into an asylum for soldiers left insane by their experiences in the Vietnam War. Plus one patient – an astronaut that went raving crazy with fear on the verge of his flight to the moon.

It is a movie of its time – it doesn’t age all that well – but it is an interesting work of genius. It starts out silly and clunky – I was on the verge of giving up – but around the halfway point it veers off into new territory. There are revelations and surprises and a really crackerjack bar fight.

When it was over I made the mistake of clicking around the Criterion Channel menus and ended up watching a second film – the 1922 silent version of Nosferatu. I have, of course, seen the imagery from the movie – but had never sat through the film itself. It was fun to see the original vampire film. Count Orlof (Dracula, really, the names were changed due to the fact they never obtained rights to Bram Stoker’s story) is what a vampire would really be like – terrifying, yet strangely sad and pitiful. Vampires have become cool and sexy – that doesn’t make much sense to me. The undead should be shabby and wretched, like in Nosferatu, even if they are terrible and incredibly dangerous.

So it too, if dated, was fun to watch.