Japanese Story

Dir: Sue Brooks
I’m glad I stuck with this film,
because for the first half the story really sticks close to the typical road-film crossed with romantic-drama of two people who are complete opposites finding love. Sandy (Toni Collette) is a geologist software expert who winds up accompanying an interested Japanese salaryman Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the outback. She’s rude and outspoken, he’s quiet and demure. She can’t believe she’s being treated as just a tour guide, he is headstrong over where he wants to go and doesn’t care how long it takes to get there. The characters are almost stereotypical, but then the two get stuck in the outback and things begin to flesh out. The third act then throws a complete curve ball and suddenly the film takes on much emotional resonance, not just from our relationship to the characters, but our relationship to the expectations of genre.
I dont’ want to mention the third act surprise, but the film becomes a true study of grief, and not even the early scenes that would suggest a framing structure (to give us that good ol’ sense of “closure”) are found wanting in the face of events. What starts off as a story of the difficulties of bridging cultures through communication in a lighthearted way turns around and looks at the difficulties of communicating emotion, and the inability of the unaffected parties to understand just what has been lost. It’s good stuff, and it reminds me a little bit of the emotional punch of another recent Australian film, “Lantana.”
Toni Collette looked familiar and no wonder: she was the girlfriend in “About a Boy,” and, reaching back, the title character of “Muriel’s Wedding.” Blimey.

The Ladykillers

Dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen
“That’s a bomb,” my dad said, when I was over visiting
and the ad for “The Ladykillers” came on the TV. He didn’t know I had just come from the cinema having seen it. “That’s what the critics say,” he say. “They say it’s terrible.” “Well, I thought it was allright,” I tossed in, but the damage was done. I’m told that this is a bad film.
Now, I suppose that, compared to the original Ealing comedy, this is pretty shallow stuff. The film just goes for the jokes and doesn’t bother with characters, and is fair ammunition for those who think the Coen Brothers are exquisite stylists with hearts of cold. Look at the film that way, and it’s a bomb, I suppose.
But the Coens have given us rounded characters before, so I believe they know what they’re doing. This is Ealing rethought as a screwball comedy, pure satire. I laughed through most of it. It was refreshing to see Tom Hanks playing a comic role for once–I thought he was going to sink into stodgy characters like the FBI agent in “Catch Me If You Can” (to which I remarked to my wife next to me, “What, didn’t Dan Ackroyd have time to play this?”). Stuck with goofy teeth and coming on like a over-educated Colonel Sanders, his character makes no realistic sense. And neither do his ragtag group of criminals who are helping dig a tunnel from the basement of his lodging house into the casino’s vault. I found “The General” (Tzi Ma) a funny character throughout, a militaristic Vietnamese gentleman with a Hitler moustache and a perpetual half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. Likewise the accident-prone explosives expert (J.K. Simmons) with a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Marlon Wayans does the typical loudmouthed homey, but I laughed at that too. What can I say? However, you do get the itchy sensation that the Coens consider everybody in this film to be a fool, except perhaps the cat.
My main complaint is that the movie is too long in its set-up, execution, and resolution. But will I be renting it for a family get-together, so I can hear my mom pee her pants laughing? You bet your sweet bippy.

Zen in the Art of Archery – Eugen Herrigel

Vintage, 1953
About as long as a good-sized New Yorker essay,
Eugen Herrigel’s book about his many years as a German studying Japanese archery (kyudo) and Zen comes recommended by a struggling Zen friend as a good primer (along with the longer and unread “Three Pillars of Zen” by Phillip Kapleau Roshi). And in a Zen-like moment, I found it exactly when I wasn’t looking for it in Book Den used books (or was that a Tao moment?).
Zen is the most mindbending of philosophies, and Herrigel’s struggle to master his chosen art is full of, well, such moments. His sensei, Kenzo Awa, offers little explanation, but guides his students through a series of failures and frustrations, so that the proper way of doing anything comes as a much larger enlightenment. When, after many years (years!) Herrigel starts to hit the target, Sensei chides him for any satisfaction: “What are you thinking of? You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had shot well.”
The importance of meditation, and of ceremony, of what sports-type secular people call being in the zone, before engaging on a work of art, is part of the Zen experience too. It is the most purpose-filled arts (swordsmanship, painting, archery) that Zen requires to be approached with purposelessness. It’s very difficult to comprehend, but Herrigel does his best.
Herrigel’s wife, too, spends her five years learning the art of Japanese flower arranging, and goes on to master Zen in her own way. Herrigel doesn’t say much about her, which says something about the times and his attitudes. These days, the book would have to be about both husband and wife, I suppose.
Over at Amazon, the book gets good ratings, apart from some kyudo expert called Earl Hartman, who feels the whole book is a sham.

To put it bluntly, Herrigel got everything, and I mean everything, wrong. He himself only practiced kyudo for three years, if his translator Sozo Komachiya is to be believed (he started in 1926 and returned to Germany in 1929). He spoke no Japanese. He was himself a mystic (or he wanted to be one, anyway) intent on understanding Zen, not archery, and he had very definite pre-formed ideas about what he was looking for and what he believed Zen, and, by extension kyudo, to be. Given such a situation, the impending disaster was a forgone conclusion. Even with the best instruction he would not have understood kyudo.
His book is very seductive, filled as it is with tantalizing mystical stories about a seeker on the road to “enlightenment”. So, it will appeal to romantics who have no experience in either Zen or kyudo, and it has been my experience that the book indeed appeals primarily to such people. It is instructive to note that those people who have experience in either discipline are quick to point out how thoroughly Herrigel bollixed it up.

Gosh. Well, that’s that then.

The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff

Penguin, 1982
I found the Tao of Poo at our library’s used book corner for 50 cents.
I’ve been interested in Benjamin Hoff’s thesis since reading the Pooh books in ’99–that the ineffable Pooh-bear embodies Taoist principles. Pooh just “is”, and hence lives life peacefully unlike negative Eeyore, busybody Rabbit, or overly intellectual Owl.
This would have made a good little book, or a comic. But Hoff pushes the similarities to their limits, and finding them wanting fills the book with stories from Lao Tzu and other philosophers and his own diatribes against modern society. Pooh gets a bit diminished throughout, and by including large chunks of Milne’s text, it plainly shows up Hoff’s own writing as plain. He’s not that good, either, at mimicking Milne’s voice, so his conversations with Pooh ring a bit false. Probably better than the Disney atrocity, but still not quite there.
However, the first chapter helped me understand the difference between Buddhism, Confusianism, and Taoism. In it, Hoff relates the story of the Vinegar Tasters, a scroll painting. One man tastes the vinegar and has a bitter look on his face, another has a sour look, and the third has a smile. The first man, Hoff says, represents Buddhism, who sees life as suffering and bitter. The second represents Confucius, who sees life as sour, not like it was in the old days, and sees that living life according to the old ways will help it return. The third man, the Taoist, sees the vinegar as vinegar and appreciates that it tastes just as it does. He sees life as trying to understand and appreciate the essence of all things.
Well, that’s my version of Hoff’s version, written from memory, but nothing else that follows in the Tao of Pooh had quite that effect. By the third chapter I began to feel dissent from his lecturing. Of course we can’t all be like Pooh–he lives in the 100 Acre Wood, and is not subject to the forces of capitalism. He always has a steady supply of honey, pays no rent, and…well, you see how it doesn’t exactly fit. If I kept turning up at people’s homes looking for “a little smackerel of something,” then I’d be called a freeloader.
Chapters are loosely based around a character from the books and how they stand for fallible human traits and in opposition to Pooh. Hoff especially has it in for Rabbit, but then Rabbit is the meanest character in the Pooh stories, always trying to evict newcomers to the forest.
Anyway, a quick read and not a totally enjoyable one. I don’t feel much of a Taoist afterwards, but I do feel an urge to go back to the Pooh books.

The Lurking Fear and Other Stories – H.P. Lovecraft

Dell Rey, 1971 edition
When my family first moved to England, we stayed in the village my dad and mom grew up in.
(No, this story is not about how I met Cthulu.) I went to that village’s library only once I believe. It was about the size of a closet. The book I checked out was an H.P. Lovecraft collection. Only upon getting it home did I read the fine print and found that it was a selection of his unfinished tales, posthumously completed by various (lesser) writers. Feeling gypped, I didn’t make it past the first couple of pages. (I probably also found it boring).
I was a horror fan when I was a teenager, so it’s surprising that I never got around to Lovecraft until now, especially since I was going beyond Stephen King and reading things like Ramsey Campbell and Clive Barker (when he only had Books of Blood to his name).
Lovecraft has always felt to me like the fine single malt whiskey of horror writers. There’s no detours into humor, nothing playful, no experiments in style. Just madness and horror. (Much like Glenlivet). And indeed that’s how it should be. I takes a few stories to get into his prose and his rhythms, but once inside you begin to appreciate the fine detail and the slow pace. You want to roll the paragraphs around on your tongue and savor it.
Maybe it was my associations with that early library book, but I for a long time thought that HPL was British. I guess I was confusing him with M.R. James (who I still haven’t read–these two authors are high on the list of Mark E. Smith of the Fall, so from him my Lovecraft interest was piqued).
What I didn’t expect was how so many of the tales in this collection come from an anxiety over evolution and miscegenation. Apart from Chthulu and creatures that live in another dimension (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “The White Ship”, “From Beyond”), the monsters that stalk these tales are often the result of some long past intermingling of man and beast. More often than not, they come to resemble our evolutionary relatives, the monkey (“The Lurking Fear,” “Arthur Jermyn”) and the fish “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, “Dagon”). Both narrators in “The Lurking Fear” and “Innsmouth” fear and are repulsed by the inhabitants of the out-of-the-way villages they stay in–who are initially presented as sloping-foreheaded inbred yokels (the phrase “white trash” pops up twice here, and HPL was writing in 1920-1930 or so) until the true magnitude of their breeding is revealed.
But the true horror that Lovecraft finishes on is not death, but the realization of the narrators that they too are somehow linked to this nefarious family tree. Arthur Jermyn sets himself on fire when he realizes that his grandmother was some sort of albino ape-thing; the narrator of “Innsmouth”, after escaping the fish-people in the town, slowly comes to realize that he is part of them, and his fate comes as a degenerative or evolutionary illness. We have found the monster and he is us.
After reading these dozen tales, it’s easy to see why filmmakers have found Lovecraft so hard to adapt. The narrators are usually solitary souls, and the action is usually of the slow, creeping kind. The “monster,” if there is one, only shows up on the last page, if at all, and by this time the narrator is usually at a loss to describe the indescribable. Plus there’s no guns or boobs. However, Lovecraft would work well as radio monologues–radio being the perfect format for “the unnamable” (and I’m not talking about Rick Dees). I wonder if that’s ever been done?
For a good website about the man and his works check out the H.P. Lovecraft Archive.

The Sure Thing

Dir: Rob Reiner
Our local library has something like 200 DVDs,
but they are so popular only 5 are on the shelf at any given time (where else but Netflix can you get a deal like free rental, 7-day-loan?). It’s become a bit of filmgoer zen when approaching the shelf. I’ll usually find one film a week to watch from here, but I’ll have no idea what. Metropolis was last week’s “choice”. This week it was Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy “The Sure Thing,” which I had never seen.
A pleasant, none-too-cynical mix of “opposites attract” with a road movie, the film takes you exactly where you want to go–the eventual coupling of wild-boy John Cusack and conservative Alison (Daphne Zuniga)–but throws in every obstacle it can. A few surprising things, based on what the teen romantic comedy has become. Zuniga’s character is not the ugly duckling, the nerdy girl who suddenly looks like a million bucks when she takes off her glasses. She stays pretty much the same fashionwise throughout–it’s her character, revealed through her face, that changes. Nobody’s character traits are revealed to arise from parental issues. Refreshingly, we don’t hear much about either of their parents, except that Alison’s dad has left her with a credit card (to be discovered in one fortuitous scene). Plus the romantic tension never resolves itself until after the two return to the East Coast. How many road films feature the characters returning home?
John Cusack, in the film that made him a star, shows ever here the great charisma and ease in performing that marks all his early films. Daphne Zuniga, who went on to star in Spaceballs and four seasons of Melrose Place) gets short shrift in the DVD extras. She gets interviewed, but nobody else seems to talk about her when reminiscing about the film. The blonde who plays “The Sure Thing” (Nicolette Sheridan) gets name checked more.
Teen films are so formulaic now (although the great resurgence in them–the Freddie Prinze Jr. years–seems to have passed) that The Sure Thing, despite having a bikini-wearing fantasy woman, feels old-fashioned and “classic.”
But I also think that people who love this film really are in love with who they were when they saw it. Unlike “Say Anything”, I didn’t find the script to be that quotable. There’s no scene comparable to SA’s “Gas ‘n’ Sip”, or a monolog as bizarre as Lloyd Dobler’s career statement.
Local note–at one point they drive over a bridge that I recognized as the one on the north side of the 154–descending from Camino Cielo down to the Cachuma Lake region. The little winding path underneath it (visible on the DVD) goes to Cold Springs Tavern (we were just there last week). It’s a great bridge, especially seen from that road below. I believe at this point the characters were supposed to be in the Midwest.


Dir: Rintaro
A strange amalgam of Fritz Lang and anime,
this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga comes on like a giant amusement park as seen by a four year old child jonesing for some ritalin. The metropolis of the title is a similar-to-Lang mega-city, with a street level surrounded by skyscrapers and elevated trams, while underneath the city, runs a poorer level populated by proto-revolutionaries and service robots. Everything on both levels looks great–I can’t think of a more self-consciously colorful anime. If anyone bothered anymore, this is a great film to toke up to.
The film has taken on Tezuka’s manga (written in 1948, I believe) and, instead of just focusing on Tima, the girl humanoid robot who searches for her identity, throws in a lot of characters. I’m not too sure whose story we’re really watching. Boy-hero Ken-ichi never fully develops as a character–while he does rescue Tima at the beginning, he is easily taken out by the bad guys who want her back. Tima is too helpless, the detective uncle is too cagey.
A lot of “Metropolis” is given over to either chase scenes or rescue scenes and the end if very much like Castle in the Sky. Released in pre-9/11 2001, its sequence of crumbling and toppling skyscrapers with a Ray Charles tune playing over the top might have worked once.
Still, it’s lovely to look at, and I particularly liked Kiki, the three-legged trashcan robot who briefly became Ken-ichi and Tima’s friend. Making sounds like an affectionate puppy, I was sad to see him/her fall sacrificial to the bad guys’ bullets.
The DVD’s 5.1 mix really worked my speakers, with echoes receding far in the back and gunshots zipping past. This is a great disc to show off a home theater, and the bigger your screen the better.

In the Mouth of Madness

Dir: John Carpenter
The second of my Lovecraftian viewings was John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness”.
Though HPL is not mentioned, it’s clear that Sutter Cane is supposed to be some sexier, rock’n’roll version of Lovecraft, updated to modern times. (Reviewers who see Sutter Cane as Stephen King probably haven’t read much). The film has a lot of promise, but it doesn’t exactly pull through, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Sam Neill is not likable enough as the main character, John Trent, an insurance fraud investigator sent out to determine why famous horror writer Cane has disappeared and why his novels are inspiring acts of violence. This leads to Neil and Cane’s editor to go searching for and find the fictional town that Cane has always written about.
Perhaps its Carpenter and his scriptwriter Michael De Luca’s inability to decide whether this is a high-concept Borges-like piece (where its best stuff lies) or a monster movie (where its rubberiest stuff flops). The creature effects here are done by Industrial Light and Magic, but they look really poor. The innkeeper who becomes a demon is particularly poor, and often there are shots of fleshy, drippy creatures just for the sake of it. One is seen growing out of Cane’s back, but it never turns up again.
Julie Carmen, who plays Trent’s assistant Linda, isn’t much of a presence, and seems to have different motivation in each scene. Is she part of Cane’s plot, or a victim–is she surprised or horrified by any of it? She also looks like she has on an inch of foundation, a grey-brown pallor in some shots.
My favorite parts are the subtle ones. The hotel painting that changes, the bulging door in Cane’s lair (very Lovecraft), the apocalyptic scenario. The idea that the book causes insanity and allows the Chthulu-like beings to enter this dimension is a good one–with similarities to “The Thing.”
I feel that if the story had been worked with a bit more, and the monster business had been taken out, then it might have been one of Carpenter’s best. But instead, this is middle-period Carpenter, all over the place, loose, disappointing.