50-worders: Big stars

Been a while since I featured 50-word music reviews (see here for a primer), partly because I’ve mostly missed 2014’s new music. Turns out, though, that it’s the old white guys that I’ve kept pace with this time, which is, um, unexpected. Anyway, let’s go.

Morning Phasebeck – morning phase – 10.0
Beck’s low voice, harmonic sense, and guitar-plucking guide us, and his players respond astonishingly. The string arrangements by David Campbell (Beck’s dad) drive it home, though the weird, catchy songs embolden as they are. Morning Phase arrives like dewdrops and daybreak, eschewing irony to let in full blooms and tears.

Reminds you of: The Beach Boys / The Byrds / The Grateful Dead, circa Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty

beauty & ruinbob mould – beauty & ruin – 8.0
Mould calls the album’s first single, “I Don’t Know You Anymore,” but we know him—squalling guitars, catchy lyrics, nasal singing, angry moping, gorgeous noise. Right? But “The War” shows the chaos transforming into acceptance and grace. Hell, one song’s even titled “Forgiveness.” About time for a 54-year-old man, eh?

Reminds you of: The Who / Sugar (duh) / Japandroids, with a bassist

Fuegophish – fuego – 7.5
Damnit, boys, why open with the nine-minute prog flashback, thus burying potential hits (“Sing Monica,” “Devotion to a Dream,” “The Line”) underneath it? Newbies will write this off as pretentious before reaching the (mostly) great songs here. Indeed, they are songs, not jam vehicles, with actual heartbreak, beats, and melody.

Reminds you of: Genesis, when Peter Gabriel was singing (first track) / Genesis, once Phil Collins starting singing (the rest of the album) / The Police

Songs of Innocenceu2 – songs of innocence – 6.9
They’re specific this time, instead of striving for universal (vague) significance. I mean more than the lyrics—the melodic synths, distorted guitars, and crisp rhythms give the album clarity, pungency, and urgency. Sharp snapshots reign here, not fuzzy panoramas. Bono can’t help his swooping, quasi-religious over-emoting but you knew that.

Reminds you of: The Jesus and Mary Chain / Sting / Nine Inch Nails, when Trent Reznor’s being pretty

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Zatoichi #14: Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

Zatoichi 14 (16)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Kaneto Shindo.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Michiyo Yasuda (Okichi, a young farmer in over her head), Isao Yamagata (Tohachi, a horse trader & evil yakuza), and Masao Mishima (Gonbei, the cheerful but wily village headman)

Smutty talk and bathing beauties? Check.

Crazy whip pans, oddball camera angles, and birds-eye views? Check.

Jolting cuts and breakneck transitions between scenes? Check.

Vibrant colors, overlapping frames, wipes, and psychedelic compositions? Check.

A nutso flashback that just might conflate toddlers splashing in a river with a fevered sex dream? Check.

Fight sequences that are almost unbearably tense but also aesthetically unsettling? Check.

Zatoichi 14 (4) Zatoichi 14 (8)

Lots and lots of shots of feet? Check.

Is Kazuo Ikehiro back in the director’s chair? Check, check, check, and thank God.

Just as a film has a cast and characters, so too does a film series have its set roles. In terms of directors, Tokuzo Tanaka is Zatoichi‘s nuanced moralist, Kenji Misumi its cold formalist, and Kazuo Ikehiro its wild stylist. Ikehiro brings the visceral—the blood, the sweat, the greed, the money worries, the skin-to-skin friction, the throat-tightening pauses. In a series featuring a swordsman who’s mowed down hundreds of men in his time, Ikehiro’s entries—Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, and this one—are the only ones that actually include blood and cut flesh. Zatoichi gets slashed once on the right arm, and later shot by an arrow in the left arm, and the pain forces him to improvise his way out of trouble. Gone is the mathematical precision of the series, the cinema as classical music. Ikehiro makes everyone onscreen play jazz.

From the moment of the first fight, in which Zatoichi and his assailant tumble off a bridge into a river, our hero’s scrambling. The quick swordplay takes place underwater, and of course this director shoots it underwater, too. (It’s murky but the action’s clear enough to sing the sword swing, and the blood billowing.) Ichi seems genuinely surprised by the capacities for kindness and cruelty in the people he meets, and it jars him. He’s unsettled, and almost undone (in a good way) by a woman’s love. In the final showdown, he looks as alone and restless against his foes as Gary Cooper in High Noon, which this movie evokes in both its set design and a woman desperately exhorting her townsfolk to help the blind samurai. They stay inside, just like they did for poor Gary Cooper.

The toll of being alone is felt here more than most Zatoichi movies. Though the film often frames Ichi amid crowds and tight-knit communities, he doesn’t belong. During a feast at a gangster’s hideout, he’s scoffed at for his differences, and then shot at. Though he stays in a town for a week, no one seems to want to associate with him. At the movie’s beginning, he’s in a boat with a group of travelers, all of whom are invested in a storyteller’s bawdy yarn. Even here, Zatoichi’s set aside, with a blank expression—even when he cuts off a thief’s hand—instead of joining in with the gasps, smiles, and enthralled faces of the other listeners. He connects only with Okichi (Michiyo Yasuda), the lovely woman who gives him a place to stay. Even there, he rebuffs her increasingly clear advances, keeping himself from even touching her.

Of course, there’s always been something of the traveling ascetic about Ichi, from the drab, cheap clothes and homelessness to his shuffling gait and begging. But Ikehiro heightens our hero’s monk-like nature, and absorbs us in his quiet solitude. The filmmakers create this sense of intense loneliness not by mimicking Ichi’s internal state visually but by doing the opposite. Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage shows us what Ichi’s missing, what he literally and emotionally can’t see—the vibrancy, lushness, and wildness of the world. The film’s shots are as stunning as its edits are jarring. They glow with light and shadow. The photography feels as alert as Zatoichi’s pricking ears.

Zatoichi 14 (11)Zatoichi 14 (3)Zatoichi 14 (6)Zatoichi 14 (17)

Even the violence is feral and lucid.

Zatoichi 14 (5)

Only in Ichi’s dreams does he get to feel the big, beautiful world in all its strangeness. As he goes to sleep, warmed by Okichi’s voice and her stare, and probably imagining her naken and around him, he drifts off this way.

Zatoichi 14 (18) Zatoichi 14 (19) Zatoichi 14 (20) Zatoichi 14 (21) Zatoichi 14 (22) Zatoichi 14 (23)

This transition, seamless but utterly bizarre, operates on dream logic. We understand it as we watch it but good luck explaining it. Is Zatoichi dissolving into a memory here? Or daydreaming about a joyous past he never had? Why do the shots overlap? Why does water matter so much here that it’s overlaid over the young boy and girl? And, since we half-know Ichi was thinking of adult love as he fell asleep, should we be icked out? Why is this short dream so immensely appealing and arousing?

Zatoichi would shrug at these questions. I suspect the director would, too. It just is.

So many of the cinematic decisions here seem, well, jazz-like—made in moments of inspiration, called forth by desperation. That can’t be the case, of course. This much genuine nuttiness and raw emotion takes practice, planning, and blocking, especially for cinema. So, kudos for Ikehiro, Katsu, and company for making it look easy.

Kudos especially to Yasuda, who gives simmering intensity and density to a role that seems implausible on the page. It’s not that Katsu is unattractive, and he definitely has a bumbling charm, but this woman falls in love with the dude who killed her brother and who she savagely slashed with a knife during their first meeting. Yasuda makes Okichi’s turnabout seem natural and realistic—as realistic as samurai flicks get, anyway—rather than crazed. Her smoldering, laughter, yelling, and fortitude—the woman’s not the shy, retiring type, thank God—are infectuous. We’re drawn into her, and we can see why Ichi is, too.

What I can’t see, exactly, is why he resists her. But he does, because he is Zatoichi. His opacity, whether awake or in dreams, is maddening but, alas, all too real and ever-entrancing. So’s his movie—this time around, anyway.

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Commonplace

“Her feelings on the subject seemed unusually strong. It was no secret in the world of book publishing that the autobiographical concerns and preoccupations of book editors played a very large role in the projects selected.”

–Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards (2000)

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Zatoichi #13: Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

ZATOICHI_13_ZATOICHIS_VENGEANCEDirected by Tokuzo Tanaka, written by Hajime Takaiwa.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shigeru Amachi (Kurobe, another handsome, doomed rival samurai), Mayumi Ogawa (Ocho, Kurobe’s troubled, gorgeous lover), Jun Hamamura (a blind priest), and an unknown actor as Taichi, a young boy who is wowed and disillusioned by Zatoichi.

Thirteen films in, I’m not sure I’ve seen a single kiss in the Zatoichi series. There’s been peeping toms, suggestive glimpses of bathing beauties, massages galore, brothels and prostitutes, smoldering stares, and wink-wink fades to black. But everything sexual has been implied, not shown. As viewers, we’re always filling in the gaps. Same goes for the Criterion Collection’s box set, which isn’t quite as complete or definitive as it bills itself as—it’s a tease, too. Sure, I appreciate having the chance to watch all of these films on Blu-Ray, but the lush design hides some of the glaring omissions and delicate caesuras. Zatoichi’s Vengeance draws attention to the gaps. First, there’s the lack of full cast listings. Sure, I haven’t listed every cast member in my posts but then again I’m not claiming to offer a definitive version of Zatoichi. I try to list the important characters, the ones who pivot the plot and the actors who give marvelous performances. In Zatoichi’s Vengeance, the moral pivot is a ten-year-old boy named Taichi, who becomes enamored with Zatoichi’s swordplay. The boy hasn’t seen his father in years; his family’s been plagued by an evil yakuza gang; he sees his grandmother and uncle humiliated regularly by the gang; and the poor kid sees his whole useless life ahead of him. Suddenly, Ichi enters town, shaming the gang deftly. Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is—the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. When you’re a boy, you dream of being a cowboy, a badass cop, a ninja, a samurai. You register dreams through violence, in which (of course) you’re always the victor and savior. The girls flock to you. You can’t imagine any other scenario, and the popular culture—crime dramas, superhero comics, samurai movies—doesn’t discourage your fancifying. So, Taichi is beginning to see light in the samurai path. The film is delicate enough to register irony, to understand the distance between what Taichi sees in Zatoichi and what Zatoichi’s reality actually is. Zatoichi “sees” it, too, and so allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. The boy playing Taichi shows this initial wonder, then his disillusionment, then his wonder, and finally ends the film on an ambiguous note—we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique. So, it would be nice to know who the actor playing Taichi is, wouldn’t it? The Criterion liner notes give away nothing, and the internet basically replicates the scanty info of the box set. So, there’s a gap. Next, I wonder about the fight choreography, which is almost uniformly brilliant throughout the series. In Zatoichi’s Vengeance, the fight scenes—shot mostly in single takes without cuts—astonish, and even add a dose of wit. Are the directors responsible for this staging? In Chinese wuxia movies, there’s usually a separate person responsible for all this. Given the high speed of Zatoichi productions, I imagine the same’s true here, too. But the booklet and liner notes are unclear and—odd for a samurai series—don’t seem particularly interested in clarifying this point. If I’m harping too much on technical gaps, it’s because the narrative spends too much time filling them in. There’s too much expository dialogue, too many long pauses that drag scenes on to the requisite 80 minutes or so, and too much repetition. Tokuzo Tanaka, who helmed the masterful New Tale of Zatoichi, gets bogged down in the plot here. Still, there are pleasures—the aforementioned fight scenes, which are elegant and well-paced; the ferocious performances, particularly by Mayumi Ogawa and Shigeru Amachi (back from #1, in another doomed, melancholy samurai role) and the unknown actor who plays Taichi; and the vivid night-and-twilight photography. But there’s either too much of a good thing here, or not enough, and Zatoichi’s Vengeance is curiously unfulfilled.

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Song of the day: Carlos Dafé’s “Acorda Que Eu Quero Ver”

Today was a rough one. Maybe Labor Day will be better. I’ll be off, at least. To ease us into the holiday, how about some of the best Brazilian pop you’ve never heard? Carlos Dafé is the man, for this song alone, though really all of Venha Matar Saudades (1978) is amazing and danceable. Good luck finding it. I can’t even remind how I came by this record, years ago, which means it probably came from a Brazilian music blog I once subscribed to or some illegal Blogspot source. Whaddaya gonna do? Well, I could let you in on a great track, couldn’t I? So, that’s what I’m doing. Happy Labor Day.

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Zatoichi #12: Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

Zatoichi 12 (29)
Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Daisuke Ito.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Mikio Narita (Jumonji, a handsome rogue samurai), Kaneko Iwasaki (Otane, a woman conflicted about Zatoichi), Chizuru Hayashi (Kume, a woman in disguise), Gaku Yamamoto (Sagawa, her sickly brother), and Taro Marui (Roppei, their loyal servant)

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert illustrates the promises and pitfalls of “slow cinema” better than I ever could, even if it’s sometimes not that slow. Me, I’ve always been suspicious of the term. Don’t get me wrong. I can be a fan of long takes, stationary cameras, halting “true-to-life” dialogue, action that aspires to inertia, and mise-en-scene that recalls the white space of a blank page. If I think it’s appropriate for the material and if the director’s got command of the slowness so that it sharpens and clarifies life rather than just his/her technique, then good for them. Yasujiro Ozu, Hong Sang-soo, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Charles Burnett, Claire Denis—those are among my favorite film directors. They reveal details, plots, characterizations, and incidents slowly because, sometimes, you gotta slow things down to sort them down. Prayer, meditation, and yoga exist for good reasons. No one wants to pay $100 for a steak dinner only to wolf it down in 45 seconds flat. We savor things. We let them marinate and simmer, and that process intensifies their pleasures, and makes us remember them more avidly. By forcing us to slow down, the aforementioned filmmakers attune our eyes and ears to cadences that we’d otherwise miss, textures we wouldn’t see or feel, and reveal that it’s those “minor” grace notes that are the keys to their films.

But “slowness” is only one of many appropriate responses to life, only one of a multitude of ways to approach artmaking. A slackened pace and minimalist design don’t, in and of themselves, represent a greater sense of truth or “authenticity.” Sometimes, “slow cinema” masks the deficiencies of the production budget or the filmmakers’ talents.

So, let’s take Zatoichi and the Chest Expert‘s interminable long, static takes as examples: Two men talking over a chess game. A group of people gambling in the deck of a boat. A woman caring for her sick daughter. Each of these scenes could, perhaps usefully, be broken up into a variety of shots—closeups, medium shots, long shots, landscapes, from above and below. Each shot could reveal something new, ratchet up tension, reveal something that was hidden from us in the previous shot, etc. Any film director, best boy, actor, or producer could tell you, though, that there’s a problem with all those shots. Each new shot requires a new camera setup, fresh lighting design, someone to mark the blocking, a script girl to keep the continuity of the scene straight. A scene of two guys chatting could take four hours to shoot, just to accommodate all the camera and lighting setups, not to mention unionized smoke breaks or an actor’s tantrum. If you’re shooting on location, and many Zatoichis are shot largely outdoors, then you have to worry about how the position of clouds, sun, and associated shadows have shifted, too.

If you’re working on a tight production schedule and an even tighter production budget, then suddenly all that shot variance no longer looks so good. Why not do one camera setup, get it all in one take, and move on to the next scene? I think “slow cinema” defenders often treat its practitioners as if the long takes and miniscule set design are purely aesthetic choices that denote “realism,” rather than—as they often are—accommodations designed to promote efficiency.

How efficient? Chess Expert is Kenji Misumi’s second Zatoichi effort in a year, and Daiei Studio’s third Zatoichi movie of 1965. So, ironically, the sheer warp speed of production prompted a cinema that feels slower. There are scenes here that fly by, gripping in their emotional intensity, and there’s an editing sequence—a buildup to a fight that never comes—that’s marvelous precisely because Misumi alternates the shots quickly. There are other scenes that essentially broadcast how cheap the production is—a boat ride that takes up the film’s first third, in which we never see the boat on the sea (because it’s obviously a set); a lush hot springs resort that we never see in landscape view (because it’s obviously a set); fight scenes at night—the better to hide the set construction—with relatively few combatants (by Zatoichi standards), that are over quickly; a boat’s trajectory being shown by following a map rather than, you know, shooting the scene. (Raiders of the Lost Ark would steal that trick a decade later.)

That seesaw of speed vs. slowness creates an interesting tension, one that Misumi isn’t always capable of handling. He favors slow, mathematical precision, and always has with this series. (See: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and The Tale of Zatoichi.) His compositions are full of right angles…

Zatoichi 12 (18)…straight lines…

Zatoichi 12 (15)

…white space…

Zatoichi 12 (7)

…the cleanliness of numbers…

Zatoichi 12 (8)

…and ground-level, grounded imagery.

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In Chess Expert, he pulls off a magnificent match cut of a samurai slicing a floating strip of paper into two halves (with his eyes closed)…

Zatoichi 12 (24) Zatoichi 12 (25) Zatoichi 12 (26)

…which then cuts (get it?) to the next scene, of a different man holding a similarly sized bit of paper.

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He also channels the clockwork precision of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was also a low-budget quickie genre exercise made five years earlier.

Psycho (side-view peephole)

Zatoichi 12 (16) Zatoichi 12 (17)

Misumi is ideal for Daiei’s Zatoichi line, so it’s surprising that so much of the fight choreography is poorly staged—clumsy, too cluttered, spatially confused. The first big fight sequence, in a boss’s office, feels especially inept.

Sometimes, though, the quick, surprising bursts of messiness suit Chess Expert. As with Kazuo Mori, Misumi loves his loopy water imagery. And he loves to linger his slow camera on actors’s faces, and this may be Chess Expert‘s most appealing quality. In the visages of Mikio Narita (the chess-playing samurai of the title) and Kaneko Iwasaki (as Otane, a woman with mixed motives), Misumi finds haunting, lovely faces that I wanted to swim in.

Zatoichi 12 (9)Neither role is villainous, exactly, but neither’s entirely good. Both put Misumi’s long, seductive takes to brilliant use, showing a wide range of expression with gestures that reveal themselves gradually.

Zatoichi 12 (22)Narita plays another variation of Zatoichi‘s dashing, melancholy rival samurais. He’s terrific, giving off a cerebral aura. But there are auras and then there are glows, and it’s the radiance of Iwasaki’s acting that ignites the screen. I think it’s the single best performance I’ve seen so far in this series—there’s been nothing quite like her in Zatoichi. As soon as Otane sees Zatoichi, on that long boat ride, we see a quiver in her eyes and a catch in her throat that indicates—what? We don’t immediately know. But we understand that she’s met Ichi before, even if he doesn’t remember it. Her hesitancy and anxiety startles, because it doesn’t seem to be borne of fear but of rage. But there’s something else to that trembling, too, a latent attraction that Otane may not even realize is there. (Iwasaki somehow transmits this attraction and her character’s unawareness of it simultaneously.) Attraction turns into love, after Zatoichi does a good deed on behalf of Otane’s daughter, and Iwasaki gets us to see the emotional shift, but there’s still anger underneath. Mind you, Iwasaki never screams. She has the character bottle her fury, until she reveals to Zatoichi why she’s so angry with him—I won’t spoil it—but that revelation comes through heartbreak; she’s revealing that she loves him in the very same speech. Vocal inflection, pauses, halting gestures, and resolute eyes—these are the tools Iwasaki uses to convey the warring emotions, usually three or four roiling at once, of a character that’s deeply resilient but who so desperately needs to be held. Beneath all the slow cinema, under the fast production, to the side of a straightforward samurai flick, there’s a tragic love story in Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. And it’s Kaneko Iwasaki—and not Shintaro Katsu—who gives it to us.

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Commonplace (Sunday morning sermon)

A long interview with Frank Schaeffer, author of Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God and Crazy for God, two of my favorite, most tough-minded, and funniest books on the religious life.

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