Archive for April, 2012

Two Films about Japanese Artists

April 28, 2012


A scene from Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Eugene’s Bijou Art Cinemas just hosted the Cinema Pacific Film Festival, which is devoted to films from Asia and from the Pacific Northwest. This annual festival is just one of the many benefits of living in Eugene. (If I seem to be on a civic boosterism kick, it’s because of a recent ESPN article that portrays Eugene as a warren of zonked-out hippies with questionable grooming habits.) I regret that because of previous commitments I was not able to attend all of the films. Based on the ones I did see, however, I was impressed by the selection job that the festival organizers did. I found every film I saw interesting in some way. Two that particularly stood out for me were documentaries about two artists in Japan.

Jiro Ono is Japan’s most famous sushi chef. He runs a sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station. The Michelin guides have given the place a three star rating. People make reservations months ahead of time just to eat there. David Gelb’s film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi examines the life and work of this cook who, at the age of 85, says he will never retire. He dislikes taking days off. He is assisted by his son, Yoshikazu, and by a small, hard-working staff that he trained himself. An apprentice at Jiro’s restaurant has to train for ten years before he is considered a shokunin (chef).

Yoshikazu is destined to take over the restaurant after his father’s death. However, a sushi chef tells us that because of his father’s reputation, Yoshikazu would have to be twice as good just to be considered his equal.

Jiro tells us that he arranges his meals like music. He starts with light, subtle flavors and gradually works his way to heavier ones. Gelb builds upon this idea with a shrewdly constructed musical soundtrack. As we watch Jiro and his assistants, they at times almost seem to be moving in sync with the music.

On a somber note, both Jiro and Yoshikazu report that they have seen both the quality and quantity of fish sold in markets decline over the years. Yoshikazu blames this on over-fishing. He is particularly critical of the way tuna are caught, saying that many of these fish are captured before they are mature.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It made me hungry for sushi.

I watched Astro Boy on TV when I was growing up. This show would likely strike contemporary children as crude (it was in black & white, for one thing), but to me it was magical. I remember I was puzzled at how his feet would suddenly disappear and flames would shoot out of his legs when he would fly through the air.

So my curiosity was piqued when I heard that the festival was showing a film titled The Echo of Astro Boy’s Footsteps. This movie is about Matsuo Ohno, who did the sound effects for Astro Boy. Actually, he was the sound designer. He would actually get mad at people if they said that he did sound effects. Instead of trying to imitate noises, he would create whole new sounds. The title refers to the curious sound for Astro Boy’s footsteps, which he created by manipulating recording tape.

Ohno became interested in electronic music in the 1950’s, when he heard a Stockhausen recording. He continues to compose and perform to this day, trying to create what he calls “ethereal music”. A traditionalist, he continues to use reel-to-reel tape players and oscillators, instead of computer programs.

Ohno has a reputation for being irascible and difficult. Yet he devotes a large part of his time to teaching music to mentally disabled persons. He says that we can all learn from such people. However, this film will not dispel the stereotype of artists as eccentric people. A friend of Ohno’s tells us that when the latter was young, he preferred to enter buildings by climbing through windows.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

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ESPN Goes to Pot

April 21, 2012


A typical backyard in Eugene. Just kidding.

The good people at ESPN are shocked – shocked, I tell you! – to discover that some college athletes are smoking marijuana. The intrepid reporter, Mark Schlabach, reveals that:

    NCAA statistics show a bump in the number of stoned athletes. In the NCAA’s latest drug-use survey, conducted in 2009 and released in January, 22.6 percent of athletes admitted to using marijuana in the previous 12 months, a 1.4 percentage point increase over a similar 2005 study.

Only 22.6 percent? It seems to me that we have a crisis of honesty among student athletes, although the situation has improved by 1.4 percent since 2005. Schlabach continues:

    Some 26.7 percent of football players surveyed fessed up, a higher percentage than in any other major sport.

If I knew that 300-lb guys were about to repeatedly run into me, I think I would want some medication beforehand myself.

What really annoys me about all this, however, is that they’ve singled out my alma mater, the University of Oregon for abuse. Sam Alipour has written an article, in which he claims to rip the lid off the modern-day Sodom & Gomorrah that is Eugene:

    Nowhere is Oregon’s laissez-faire approach to marijuana more apparent than Eugene, the state’s counterculture and cannabis capital. “Business here is almost overwhelming,” says a student-dealer who lives on — no joke — High Street. “Here, everybody smokes.” Not surprisingly, The Princeton Review and High Times both have ranked the University of Oregon among the most pot-friendly schools. Another telltale, anecdotal sign: Into the 1990s, the Grateful Dead made Autzen Stadium a regular tour stop. “It’s the weed capital of the world,” says former Duck Reuben Droughns. “Long dreads. Girls with hairy armpits. Where there’s hippies, there’s weed.”

This offends not only my sense of civic pride, but my sense of chivalry as well. None of the women I know have hairy armpits. None. (I would demand satisfaction from this person, Droughns, were it not for the fact that he’s probably a lot bigger than I am.) And I have met maybe three people with dreadlocks since I moved here. Also, I met a lot more pot smokers when I lived in Boston, “the Hub of the Universe”. (There’s a drug joke in there somewhere, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet.)

Alipour also quotes a unnamed member of the UO football team, who says he and a bunch of other players got stoned just before the Rose Bowl game. Well, they won, didn’t they? Maybe they should get stoned before every game. Then maybe we won’t have any more embarrassing losses, such as the ones to LSU and USC.

Just a suggestion.

Two Films about Dance: Pina and Crazy Horse

April 19, 2012


A scene from Pina.

I recently saw two documentaries about two very different approaches to dance. I find it very hard to write about dance, since I don’t know very much about it, though I like to watch it. Last year, I saw a production by the Eugene Ballet of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I found it deeply moving, but I don’t know how to explain in words why it affected me so much.

I’ve never been very good at dancing. Many years ago, I was, for a brief time, a theatre major in college. The department head told me that I was required to take a dance class, so I would “know how to use my body”. So I signed up for a ballet course. There were 25 people in the class, and I was the only male, besides the teacher and the piano player. I learned how to plié and stretch. I got to be pretty good at it, or so I thought. One day the teacher made us do this exercise, in which one by one each of us would run across the room and jump in the air. After I finished my turn, the woman behind me started to follow, but the teacher immediately stopped her, saying that she wasn’t moving in time to the music. She protested that she was following my moves.

“Oh, don’t pay any attention to Austin,” he said casually. “He follows his own beat.”

I dropped the class.

The people we meet in Pina clearly had happier experiences with their first dance classes than I did. This documentary by Wim Wenders is about Pina Bausch, who was the choreographer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal. Bausch died while this film was being made, so it is really a memorial to her. The film starts with an amazing performance of The Rite of Spring. Later, we see members of the troupe dancing in the streets of Wuppertal, as well as on the city’s elevated railway, the Schwebebahn. (Now, why can’t they build something like that in LA?) There are also interviews with the dancers, who come from all over the world. They all talk about how Bausch inspired them. They describe a woman who was patient and understanding with them. This is in striking contrast to the popular notion of dancing masters as barking autocrats. (An idea that is vulgarly portrayed in the critically acclaimed potboiler, Black Swan.)

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Crazy Horse, a documentary by the legendary filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, is about the famous club in Paris that features nude dancing. This place is not like your ordinary strip club, however. The people who work here all take what they do very seriously. They regard their work as art, just like the dancers at the Tanztheater Wuppertal. (The artistic director says that the government should require everyone in France to visit the club.) As with his previous films, Wiseman has no narration. Instead, his camera follows people around as they carry out their business, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions from what they see. Of the various people we meet in this film, the one I found the most affecting was the head costume designer. She agonizes over every detail of the skimpy outfits the dancers wear. Crazy Horse seems to take us into another world, where things like wigs and g-strings acquire enormous importance.

This is another film I highly recommend seeing.

Tomboy

April 14, 2012

In Tomboy, the French director, Céline Sciamma, has created a touching and sensitive film about children. Laure (Zoé Héran) and her family have just moved to a new town one summer. Laure decides to make the children she meets think she is a boy named Mikael. Her masquerade is highly successful at first. She becomes romantically involved with a girl, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who thinks she is a boy. However, her imposture is inevitably revealed.

Tomboy is an examination of how ideas about gender shape children’s sense of identity, as well as their sense of self-importance. It also touches upon how children pick up homophobic ideas from society. After Laure’s real sex is revealed, a boy tells Lisa that it is “disgusting” for girls to kiss one another. Lisa feels compelled to agree, even though she kissed Laure in an earlier scene.

The story is told through a series of quiet vignettes involving either Laure playing with the other children or dealing with her family. The scene in which the other children confront Laure about her deception is emotionally wrenching, but Tomboy never veers into melodrama the way all too many films about childhood trauma do. I found all the child characters in this movie completely believable. Sciamma must be a highly skilled director to be able to get such unaffected performances from children. I highly recommend seeing this film.

Titanic in 3D

April 13, 2012

James Cameron’s Titanic has been re-released in 3D. I was going to use this as an opportunity to write a snarcky review of the film, but Lindy West at Jezebel.com has beaten me to the punch. So, instead I will make a few observations about this movie and what it tells us about Hollywood.

I well remember the year that Titanic first came out. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must say that this was a dark period of my life. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, people were talking about how Titanic was the greatest movie ever made. Those of us who found this film vapid and pretentious began to feel like a beleaguered minority. I will never forget the vitriol that was heaped upon Kenneth Turan, the film critic for Los Angeles Times, when he admitted that he hated Titanic. (Turan’s comments provoked a public tantrum from Cameron.) I felt a bit like that character in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, who watches while other people turn into irrational beasts. Fortunately, this time the response to the film has been more muted. Perhaps this is because America is a different place from what it was in the 1990’s. Titanic 3D has been overshadowed by The Hunger Games, a darker and more disturbing film. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems, people are less inclined to go all to pieces over a sappy romance.

Titanic won the 1997 Academy Award of Best Picture. It beat out L.A. Confidential, which was a better film. The Academy tends to give the Best Picture Award to movies that are considered “uplifting”. This year they gave the award to The Artist, which is a saccharine fairy tale depiction of Hollywood. Last year, they gave it to The King’s Speech, which romanticizes the British royal family. Titanic fits into this pattern. True, 1,500 people freeze to death in the North Atlantic, but Kate Winslet is saved from an unhappy marriage, so everything turns out all right after all. One can see why the Academy preferred this film to L.A. Confidential, which is about corrupt, racist cops – clearly not a movie that makes you feel good about the world. (Besides, as we all know from watching police dramas on TV, cops are never corrupt and racist, are they?)

I know that some will say that I’m being a grump, that Titanic is just meant to be fun. Titanic, however, is not supposed to be escapist fantasy like John Carter. It purports to be an accurate depiction of a real and tragic historical event. (Cameron reportedly went out of his way to make sure the correct star field was in the night sky.) For that reason, it has to be held to a higher standard. The story of the Titanic deserves better than corny dialogue and melodrama.

John Carter

April 9, 2012

When I was a kid, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) novels. The first few, anyway. I don’t remember much about them, except that the characters struck me as a bit slow. It would take them a long time to figure out things that were immediately obvious to me. So I stopped reading them. However, I’m told that some people have fond memories of these books. One of these is the director, Andrew Stanton, who in John Carter, based on the first novel of the series, A Princess of Mars, has recreated in loving detail Burroughs’s fantasy vision of Mars. I’m starting to think that perhaps I was too hard on the books, for I found this film entertaining, a pleasant way to pass two hours. No one does anything really dumb, except for John Carter, who throws away a medallion that enables him to travel between Earth and Mars. (This turns out to be a big mistake.) One thing that did bother me is that there are a lot of sword fights in this film. I’ve never understood why they have sword fights in science fantasy movies. Why would people who have the technology to make guns use swords? (This is one of the problems I’ve always had with the Star Wars films.)

John Carter cost an enormous amount of money to make, and it is widely believed that it will end up losing money. I think that is a shame, for – dare I say it? – this is actually a better film than Martin Scorceses’s Hugo or Stephen Speilberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. The action scenes all advance the story, and the characters are believable (within the logic of their fantasy world, that is). And there are none of those annoying slow-motion shots that mar Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

John Carter is played by an actor with the perhaps unfortunate name of Taylor Kitsch. I must say he acquits himself reasonably well in the role. His love interest, Princess Dejah Thoris, is played by Lynn Collins, who is extremely good (think of a sort of an American version of Noomi Rapace).

In perhaps the ultimate nerd touch, we are told that this film is dedicated to Steve Jobs, who, we are told, “inspired us all”. Really? By making overpriced gadgets and exploiting cheap labor in China? Would John Carter have approved of that?