Stray Dog

July 24, 2011

A stray dog becomes a mad dog.  A mad dog sees only straight paths, and can’t shoot very well either.  This we learn from Stray Dog, a 1949 Kurosawa film starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.  The two actors would later become world famous as samurai, but in this film, they navigate a decrepit, post-war Tokyo during a heat wave, patiently going through the steps of a police procedural.  Shimura has a full head of hair and constantly wipes sweat from his face with rag:  in The Seven Samurai, he’s bald, and does his signature gesture of absent mindedly scratching his chest.

The film is usually classed as a film noir in style, but it seems more like a straight procedural.  Of course, the entire opening credit sequence treats us to the image of a panting dog – that tips us off that things are not the norm.  Mifune plays Murakami,  a complete greenhorn homicide detective who’s gun is stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus.  He’s mortified, and offers to resign, but the seasoned detectives tell him to cut the crap, “This isn’t the army!”  and they assign Sato (Shimura) to help him on the case and show him the ropes.  Sato is a zhlubby family man who dispenses philosophical wisdom and police tips with world-weary authority.

The action takes us through the seamy precincts of the city, a city without air conditioning – everyone sweats buckets.  As Murakami’s gun is implicated in one crime after another, he is consumed with anxiety, foreboding, and guilt over his stupid carelessness.  Sato tells him, if it wasn’t your Colt, it would be another Browning.

Murkami tails a showgirl who knows something and visits her home.  He won’t leave until she talks.  She blames the world for the crimes of Yusa, her boyfriend, it’s so unfair.  Some people have everything while they have to scrounge for scraps.  Yusa had his knapsack stolen on the way home from the army – that’s what set him off into crime:  who would do such a lousy thing!  Murakami tells her that he too had his knapsack stolen the same way:  two paths, a crossroads.  One became a stray dog and chose crime, one the straight and narrow.  That fate thing again.

 

From here the film takes off into another realm, of brilliant poetry, that only someone like Kurosawa can create.  A cleansing rain breaks the heatwave as the climax comes -Sato is shot trying to capture Yusa.  Murakami and the girl hear it happen over the phone.

Sato will live, and Murakami catches up with Yusa.  Murakami has no gun, he left it with Sato, but Yusa has his!  The chase leaves the town, and continues into the woods as they blunder and crash through lush, flowering meadows and undergrowth.  Beautiful flowers everywhere!

 

Murakami catches up with the mad dog who is shaking with fear in this standoff which could be, or will be, right out of Sergio Leone.

Murakami’s shot with his own gun, but Yusa is so scared, he just wings him.

It all happens on the lot of a suburban residence where a woman is playing the piano.  What was that noise?  Who are those men?  Nothing going on – she goes back to her piano.

We get an almost hyper-real set of images of Murakami’s suffering as the standoff continues

The blood drips slowly from his hand onto the pretty flowers at his feet.  Time is standing still…

Yusa is out of bullets:  a little more running through the flowers, and he’s caught and handcuffed.  The hunter and the mad dog lie in the foliage,  out of breath, while children walk by in the background, singing.  The juxtaposition is marvelous, and we know from earlier scenes that Murakami has developed a sympathy, almost sentimental, for his prey.

Yusa, looks at the sky, the flowers, and like a captured dog, begins to howl horribly.  It’s all over for him, he’s finished.  Why did it have to happen this way?

The film is elevated beyond procedural, beyond noir, into the realm of tragic humanism.  Sato tells his young protegé that he’ll stop sympathizing with the poor creeps who turn to crime after he’s arrested a few more of them.


“Attack”

March 16, 2011

I was wondering Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, so I watched the movie finally.  It’s a sick, dark tale of derangement and family dysfunction, with a heavy dollop of really black comedy.  Of course, the real attraction is Bette Davis in a wonderful star turn, with Victor Buono doing a memorable supporting bit.  He manages to convey contempt, pity, amazement, self-disgust, and greed all with a few twitches of the lips and eyebrows.  The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, who made one of my favorite noirs, Kiss Me Deadly. (The two films use the same stretch of beach for their final scene.)   Looking into Aldrich’s career, I found that he also made the 1956 film, “Attack.”

As this interesting review suggests, the quotation marks around the title of  “Attack” are original with Aldrich.  This is no ordinary WWII film, and it was made on a very small budget with no cooperation from the military.  It is based on a play, and it runs like one – the drama is in the characters and their conflicts, so no need for big budget effects.  The themes are cowardice and corruption; not the stuff of your usual GI Joe flick of that era.

Eddie Albert (later of Green Acres fame) plays Cooney, a captain with no guts.  (In reality, Albert was a decorated combat veteran.) Worse, he’s a full-fledged coward.  In civilian life, he’s a businessman with a big-wheel father who tried without success to beat some virility into him.  As a captain, his fear of doing anything, and his need to cover up his failure,  leads to the needless deaths of nearly twenty men under his command.  One of his men decides it’s time to change the chain of command.

Cooney’s commander is Bartlett (Lee Marvin at his slithery, frightening best).  He doesn’t care what Cooney does or how he destroys his men:  he’s more concerned with keeping in good graces with Cooney’s dad back home in the states.  He despises Cooney, but after the war, he’ll get his payoff for getting Cooney through the war, maybe with a medal.

The review linked above mentions the “rampant” phallic imagery in the film -tank guns, big cigars fondled and chomped, rifles…- and remarks that it is typical of the era.  I’m not so sure that this is not over interpretation.  Below, a German tank on the prowl; the view of the German gunner in the tank as it moves in on Costa; Costa tries to blast the tank with his trusty bazooka, but the trigger won’t work!  You connect the dots if you like…

The brutality of the war is conveyed through spare, frightening combat scenes:  the men make a terrifying run under enemy fire over a long open field; a tense confrontation with a German sniper is resolved with some backwoods trickery and good shootin'; Costa (Jack Palance) screams like an animal as his arm is crushed by a tank.  When the bodies of Costa and Cooney are laid side by side, Cooney’s look likes he’s sleeping; Costa’s face is frozen in an anguished scream, his mouth and eyes wide open.  The men are loyal to one another and fixed on their mission, the proverbial GI grunts.  When they are trapped in a basement in a town during house to house fighting, they resolve to carry one of them, Bernstein, out on stretcher since his leg is broken.  He’s a Jew, and the SS in town won’t take him prisoner.  Cooney wants to surrender, so the men shoot him.

The moral corruption of Bartlett is just as brutal as the combat.  He knows what happened, and he couldn’t care less.  As he kicks Cooney’s body he says, “Well, the judge wanted a son, so I guess he had to loose one to get one!”  He’ll write the coward up for a medal and get the next in command, Woodruff (William Smithers) to sign-off on it.  He’s got no choice…or does he?

Cooney collapses in a heap and fondles his sheepskin slippers, wishing he were home safe in bed.

Woodruff approaches the bodies of Cooney and Costa before deciding what he must do.

One more thing about Baby Jane:  when Jane is a young girl in 1917, a vaudeville sensation, Blanche hates her and smolders inwardly over the favoritism shown her spoiled brat sister. In 1935, the tables have turned, and Blanche is a big film star, while Jane, with no acting talent at all, works in a series of junk B-films.  A few clips of these movies are shown in a scene in which some film executives bemoan the fact that they have to humor Blanche by giving Jane work in the studio.  Boy, that young woman in the clips  sure looked like Bette Davis!  Where did they find her?  Turns out it was Davis, and Aldrich dug up clips from some truly awful films that Davis was in at the start of her career.  Did it hurt Bette to see them up there on the screen?  I doubt the sting was too great, given the acclaim she got for her performance.


Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.


Heureux de faire la connaissance de votre décolletage*.

October 17, 2010

I have been thoroughly enjoying the new translation of War and Peace by Pevear and Volokhonsky.  I read the novel first when I was about fifteen, and parts of it remain with me yet.  Memory is amazing!  I also recall avidly watching the full set of BBC episodes dramatizing the novel with Anthony Hopkins starring as the naive, but genuine Pierre Bezukhov.  The image above shows him enduring a dinner next to the woman, Helen, intended to be his wife.

Just now, I read the passage where he realizes that Helen, stunningly beautiful, but very stupid, could be his.  Really, physically his.  Never mind that he is nearsighted, bumbling, plump, filled with strange liberal ideas, and prone to being tactlessly honest.  He’s just been elevated to the nobility from the state of bastardy:  his father died and adopted him in his will, making him sole heir to a humongus fortune!  Everyone thinks it’s the perfect match, and she is…so…icily beautiful.  Look at that … at those…  Oh well, that was the fashion of the day.

An amazing piece of fiction, it draws one in immediately.  It’s strange too.  There is no plot, only history.  No real hero, although, I guess Pierre comes close.  War is shown as brutal, stupid, filled with vanity and destruction, but also heroism.  The action cuts back and forth across space like a contemporary film.  The Russian upper crust is depicted as filled with scheming, vain, shallow, money-grubbing twits.  Tolstoy spends much time describing the sad and confusing mental state of several young people aching for love, physical love too, and not understanding the circumstances and conventions surrounding it.  And events move slowly, inevitably towards that dreadful calamity.

* Happy to meet your cleavage.


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010

 

Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.


Who wrote Don Quixote?

May 27, 2010

Silly question, isn’t it?  Miguel Cervantes, right? 

I first read Don Q. years ago, in fits and starts, in a translation by Tobias Smollett.  That was fun – I like that 18th century English – but it did place the book at a remove.  Now I’m reading Edith Grossman’s recent translation, and it is a wonder!  The voice is completely contemporary, and so funny!

So, the book is 900 pages long and I’m on page 70, and I’m already up to my eyeballs in self-referential, meta-literary, quasi-meta-narrative intellectual pretzels!  Did I mention that it’s funny?

Cervantes wrote the book, and presumably is the narrator.  The narrator is omniscient.  Or he seems to be.  That is, he knows a lot of things he couldn’t know from reviewing primary sources, but on the other hand, there is a lot he doesn’t know.  Or does he just choose not to tell:

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…

That’s how it begins, and that’s how it goes on.  At the point I just reached, Don Quixote is engaged in combat with another man he takes to be a villain, and is poised to cleave him in two with his sword.  The action breaks off and the ‘first part’ ends – something that is typical in chivalric romances I am informed by a translator’s footnote.  The author, Cervantes, then informs us that he was at a complete loss as to what happened next in this story he is telling us.  That is, until he happened upon a manuscript, quite by chance, written in Arabic, that is a translation of the second part of the battle tale.  He hires a translator, and provides us with the remainder of the text.

He warns us that we must not blame him if the story leaves out essential details since he relied on a Morisco to produce the text from the manuscript, and they are notoriously liars.  (Of course, he is referring to himself here.)  The Morisco laughed when he first saw the manuscript because of the funny annotation in the margin, written by a previous reader, saying that Dulcinea, the peasant whom Quixote imagines a princess, is well known for her skill in preparing pork.  Aha, so she’s real after all!

Centuries later, the Argentine writer, Borges, would comment on this with his short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the tale of a man who had so absorbed the meaning and style of Don Quixote, that he sat down and begin to write it out, word for word, again.  And of course, his version was even better than the real thing!


On reflection…

May 20, 2010

 

Mr. Savage, of Swiftly Tilting Planet fame, commented on my recent post about my visit to the Frick Museum.  He mentioned the reflection in the mirror in the painting shown here.  That got me thinking about how often artists use mirrors in their work, to deepen the meaning, to add interest, or to display their virtuosity.  Some favorites here:

A mirror is sort of like an ironic painting – it’s flat, it creates an illusion of a world beyond, except it’s the real world.  For centuries, painting was preoccupied with creating that illusionistic realm, behind the flat picture-plane.  With perspective, they could make it appear as it appeared to us.  The concept had legs – Stendhal famously compared a novel, his anyway, to a mirror being carried along a road, reflecting the life around it.  Well, it’s easy to go on, but I’d be repeating myself…


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