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May 25, 2004

Kurosawa & Dickens?

I've been catching up on my Kurosawa flicks with DVDs from Netflix. Sunday night it was Red Beard, which I hadn't seen before. Earlier in the week it was Seven Samurai for the third time. He continues to amaze me.

The first of his I saw was a bit over twenty years ago. I went with a friend who new him from film classes. At that point I had not had a class in film, and I was a bit ignorant about films in general since my parents were of the generation of Christians that frowned on Hollywood films due to the lack of morals of most actors. I had, on the other hand, read a few Shakespeare plays.

The film was Throne of Blood. I remember walking out of the theatre with Pat, my friend, and suddenly in a flash of insight recognizing the influence of Shakespeare and cross-connecting to MacBeth. I stopped and said "MacBeth in fuedal Japan. He remade MacBeth." She looked at me with that "duh" expression and said something like, "of course. You didn't know that? That's why I wanted you to see it."

Well, anyone who remakes Shakespeare that well is okay in my book, so he went on my mental checklist of directors that I would watch for. Over the years I caught a few more in arts theatres, mostly. I think we saw one in the Into to Film class I finally took years later too. I remember that I first saw Seven Samurai at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. That when when I first began realizing how influential Kurosawa is in filmmaking. Film class confirmed that.

I tend to associate Kurosawa with Shakespeare now. When I watch a film of his, I am always semi-consciously watching for parallels or influences. So, Red Beard was a surprise.

It's very long, like Seven Samurai (something over two hours). Both have intermissions built in. About one third into it I suddenly thought Dickens. Thematically, the handling of the poor, and the contrast of severity and caring in the doctor, Red Beard, all contributed. As the film went on, the handling of the poor children and the pathos of the poisoning, the calling back from the dead of one little boy, all confirmed the impression. Even the ending, the wedding with the reconciliation, the coming of age of the young doctor, added to the effect.

I have no idea if Kurosawa actually read Dickens, but now I strongly suspect that he did. No direct parallel to one of the novels occurs to me, though. Doctors certainly inhabit Dickens, and there are plenty of scenes of nursing the sick, which are important in the movie, but I can't think of a story arc that focuses on doctors in this fashion in Dickens. So, it doesn't seem to be a remake a la Throne of Blood. I does start a bit more in media res than does Dickens on the whole. We don't see the young doctor get himself into the position he's in at the start or find out about the reasons for his obstinance and bitterness until much later, but the movement historically form that pre-film state to the conclusion is Dickensian.

We non-Japanese speaking viewers can't hear if he plays with dialects the way Dickens does. He certainly has opportunity with his sweeping cast from the lowest all the way to the personal physician of the Shogun. It seems there were some suggestions of dialect in the sub-titles, though. Dialect is something Shakespeare deploys too, however, so use of dialect to highlight "otherness" in some characters could stem from Shakespeare as much as Dickens (who probably took Shakespeare as his master in any case).

It is a very good flick, for those who haven't seen it. It's black and white and subtitled. The cinematography is Kurosawa, which is to say, stunning. The scene of the maids calling down into the well to call back the soul of the little boy from death is powerful. The camera moves up to look down the well, then zooms down to the water far below. We can see through the water and the reflection far above of the well mouth and the heads looking down. Then the picture shatters as something falls into the well from above. After that initial shock, we realize it's a drop of water, since aside from the ripples there's nothing to be seen. And then we make the leap, it's a tear, and must be the little girl's. To call it poignant is to understate the moment.

But the master does not dwell on it after that. Immediately, Red Beard pokes his head out the door and says the poison is out of him, that the boy is weak but should survive.

The film, despite it's main story, does offer up some martial moments. It seems Red Beard is a master of one of the unarmed schools of martial arts. When he takes the young girl from the brothel where she is effectively enslaved to treat her at the clinic, and the guards, about twenty of them, try to interfere, he flattens all of them. It's no choreographed dance; it's brutally effective butchery. There is at least one compound fracture. And he's a doctor.

In the aftermath, Red Beard tells the young doctor to take care of them. As he's doing so he's evaluating their condition. He notes that he overdid it with the one with the badly broken limb. It's a sort of horridly funny moment. He's a bit ashamed and embarrassed at all the havoc he's wrought, yet at the same time he's conscious it was necessary to get the girl away from the brothel to the clinic where she could be treated for her high fever and her obvious mental problems from all the abuse.

Red Beard is a sort of medical Robin Hood. He blackmails the rich with what he knows from being their doctor into doing favors for the poor, or charges them exorbitant rates so that he can personally support the clinic when the government cuts its budget. The social criticism, the criticism aimed upwards, is more subdued than that aimed outward, but it's present all the same. It's more present in the situation than directly in words. We never see the Shogun or "the government." It remains a nebulous authority, unlike Red Beard's benevolent tyranny in the clinic. It sees its subject in the same fashion, we are led to believe.

But in the progress of the film we see the players move from seeing each other as "others," generalities such as "poor," "patient," or "thief," to real humans for which they each can care. That is the Dickensian movement. And we see those who can only see other humans as mere parts of the environment, to be controlled and exploited as they choose, villified. By extension, if not by explicit statement, the government is moved into this category.

When the young doctor, in the end, chooses not to become the Shogun's personal physician, he's choosing to not move to that side again. At the beginning of the film he can't see people as people. He learns, and he learns well enough that his goals in life shift.

Posted by dan at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)

May 11, 2004

Diluting Democracy

Reading Steven den Beste's entry on the causes of the Civil War today lead me to a realization. The very system that the South sought to preserve, the agrarian society based on slave labor, doomed them to fail in political attempts to maintain their system within a democracy in which slaves could not vote. This was due to the nature of the U.S. Congress combined with the low voter census in areas which used large numbers of non-voter slaves to maintain their economies. Where slavery was abolished, the labor force all could vote (all males, that is, but both North and South were alike in that regard). And the population of the Northern states was rising faster overall due partly to the availability of jobs resulting from the absense of slave-labor.

Den Beste points out the consequences of the population (of voters) imbalance, but not that the chattel system did most of the work in creating that imbalance. One could almost suspect that some of the brighter minds involved in writing the Constitution, who set to one side the issue of slavery as unresolvable politically at the time of their work, may have understood the implications of the system they created, but carefully did not point them out for fear it might destroy chances of adoption of what has proven to be a resilient and effective system of governing free people.

Den Beste mentions the fight to ensure as many slave states entered the union as did free states to ensure the balance remained constant in the Senate. He also points out that this tended to increase the imbalance in the House over the long run, but not this (of several) reason why. Even if the population in a slave state is equal to its Northern counterpart, the number of voters would be significantly lower, and thus its representation in the House would be smaller, due to the swelling of population by slave, non-voting labor.

Posted by dan at 11:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

Recognizing Pattern Recognition

I read William Gibson's Pattern Recognition this weekend and it left me wanting more. That's both good and bad. It left me wanting more in the good sense in that I enjoyed reading it, had trouble putting it down, and want more of that enjoyment. But the plot left me wanting, it felt a bit lighter than I expected, considering the source.

Gibson's Neuromancer was my introduction to "cyberpunk," the genre of near future science fiction that usually incorporates a dark, pessimistic millieu. On the whole it's very tech saavy and joys in exploring the implications of the extension of today's technical innovation into tomorrow's unexpected or common use. While Gibson continues that in Pattern Recognition, I felt like he was slipping behind the curve. There wasn't much that really made me take note, that provoked real thought about what might develop, that felt edgy.

The closest I came to that feeling was with the guerilla marketing tactics, more an extrapolation of social engineering than what we would normally think of as technology, per se. But I grant that this is a hard act to pull off. And it gets harder and harder as the pace of technology accellerates, as it certainly has. It is entirely possible that when Gibson wrote the first draft he was edgy, but by the time the manuscript had perculated up through the publication process to bubble onto Amazon.com, it was already bordering on obsolete.

Examples of this: The protagonist, and others, use laptops that don't seem to have more power than my Dell. They're Apples, which is probably appropriate since most of the characters inhabit the marketing segment of business, but the insertion of a keystroke logger which sends off logs of the protagonists activities is about as exciting as the tech gets there. She's not even properly unwired. To connect to the internet, where she browses, visits a BBS type system, and uses email (and that's about it), she has to connect via copper. Where's the wireless? And wireless is last year!

The same applies to what I've read of Neal Stephenson. It's fun (though the man couldn't end a novel gracefully is his royalty depended on it... though he may have come up with a good strategy for avoiding his great weakness, long sequences of long books that never quite end), it's pretty tech saavy (though security geeks and hackers may wince fairly often), but it isn't future. Mostly it's yesterday, or last week.

Is that still science fiction? I suppose. But it doesn't quite grab the gut the way the earlier cyberpunk stuff did, where I came away thinking "could this come about?" Now I most yawn at that aspect.

But I still read the books because they are good reads. And of the good reads, Gibson is right there at the pinnacle with a very few others.

I chatted about the book a little with coworkers who haven't read it yet. Some of them knew Neuromancer, others didn't know Gibson at all. (Everyone seems to know, and overrate, Stephenson though.) I pointed them to Bruce Sterling as someone else who's excellent working in the same space. It's interesting to compare these. Sterling knows how to finish a book, he has that on Stephenson. Heck, he has a lot on Stephenson. Sterling is a great storyteller, a fine writer, and a very satisfying read. In fact, in ways I've found him more reliably satisfying than Gibson. But Gibson's best is best.

Gibson is the most literary, and to me that's a plus. He doesn't sacrifice the story to style, but he's selfconsciously a stylist and the resulting prose draws attention to itself. Mostly this is good, because what draws attention is the interesting use of words and language. Maybe that's part of my dissatisfaction with his plot in Pattern Recognition. The quality of the writing begs an equivalent quality of tale, and I felt the tale came off a little behind there. I felt no frisson of importance.

Sterling, in contrast, immerses the reader in his world, his characters, and his story, and rarely draws attention to his prose itself for its own sake. I wouldn't say that Gibson's literariness makes him difficult, though. His prose still reads fast, which is a contraindication to difficulty. But he does provoke pauses, and rereading lines, for the sheer pleasure or because a word choice is startling. And that does slow the pace some.

I do recommend Pattern Recognition. And it does, at times, make me wonder about how things may develop. It just doesn't do it as often or as profoundly as Gibson's first books did.

Posted by dan at 04:40 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 03, 2004

The Phantom Menace

Watching The Phantom Menace again, after playing Star Wars Galaxies for some months, changes the experience. Suddenly it's like watching a movie about the Amazon, where I criticize the popular myths, wince at the standard biases, and generally squirm in my seat at the silliness inherent in an outsider's view of a world I considered my own. They just don't know the truth!

Well, maybe that's overstating my reaction. Actually, it was fun seeing the fauna of Tatooine and Naboo in the film after running around shooting at and being bitten by them. Fambaa looked smaller in the movie, as did kaadu. This may have something do do with perspective in the game, however. I often play tiny characters, female humans of very smalls stature, Bothans, Rodians, and such. When I play a big human male I realize just how small those others are, and realize how they can skew perspective.

But I don't much like The Phantom Menace in any case. I find it the weakest of the Star Wars series I've seen. The acting is generally poorer, the plot is as limp as that of a B-flick, and the treatment of the two droids left me feeling apathetic. After watching Hidden Fortress and listening to Lucas talk about the influence of those two clown-peasants on the create of R2D2 and C3PO in Star Wars I, I expected more. The droids were present, but barely. For all that R2D2 saved the Queen's escape cruiser (some cruiser!) and was recognised for its action, it didn't create any feeling of importance or portent. The thing would have been utterly meaningless except for the forward story that we already know. And their roles as clowns, a la Shakespeare, were missing. The slightest gesture in that direction was the scene where they were introduced, and that was edited so that C3PO's grumbling was overridden by the action of the human characters.

Anakin and the Queen, while sympathetic, were painful to watch. Their dialog was stilted. Anakin may be an exceptional child and as such outside the norms of behavior, but even making allowances it just didn't come across as real. Ditto for the Queen.

In fact, I found no performance by the actors moving or even interesting. Their movements reminded me of troopers in that heavy armor that makes them run a bit funny. The droidekas were far more smooth and natural-seeming in their mechanical movements, oddly. It's almost like the producers go so involved in the artificial portions that they transfered that artificiality onto the performances of the "real" actors.

What I disliked intensely about the performance of the Gunagans in my first viewing years ago, I now found myself the most comfortable with. Perhaps it's because I knew to take them less than seriously this time, so I was not annoyed when they were all clowns. It appears they have stolen the place that the droids occupy in the earlier (later in the sequence) films, that of "fool."

That brings me to the battle between the Trade Federation and the Gungans. Having just watched Kurasawa, the influence was starkly plain. The long shots of uncountable riders and footsoldiers, the banners on the back of kaadu in place of on the back of horses, the lush though open vegetation (Naboo is the most beautiful of planets!), even the stacking of munitions by the Gungans. Then the careful and orderly formations meet and chaos ensues. The long shots are replaced with mid-distance and close-up shots, with the action moving past the camera in the latter. The violence is explicit yet oddly sanitary. There is no emphasis on blood, but devastation does result.

Also included, of course, are the choreographed fencing bouts. Out of this flows the idea that a select superior (morally and physically) few are those on which the turning points of all battles rest. The sheep flock about the outside, the soldiers are a bit more disciplined, but as uncontrolling of their own fates, only the sensei and his disciples, the chosen seven samurai, can defeat the outnumbering and overwhelming evil enemy through a blazing example that inspires the others to make the needed sacrifices. Sometimes they die, sometimes they live, but always they lead from the front.

Another aspect that annoyed me at a gut level (which my be due to my upbringing, or may be due to inept mythologizing, in this case) was the reference to Anakin's origins. I didn't go back and isolate the section and watch it over and over to see exactly what was said, but it seemed to me that his mother said he had no father. This might be taken as a remark that there had been no father figure in his life until then, but it seemed more a reference to a virgin birth. Without more explanation as to how this came to be in a fantasy/scifi millieu, it rang wrong. It became a failed gesture towards the birth of Christ. That Anakin was working at making things (droids, pod racers) already, at a very young age, also fit with Jesus's upbringing as a carpenter. (Are we to take the Queen's arrival along with two Jedi knights as analog to The Three Kings?) Then Anakin is tested for the force-sensitive thingies that permeate all life and found to have the highest concentration even seen in a human by orders of magnitude. So, we now have established a Christ-figure. Okay, maybe this is worked out better in the next two films, but it doesn't feel right considering what comes in 4-6. So I kept hearing a distant gong sounding over and over "wrong, wrong, wrong..."

But if I don't much like The Phantom Menace, it's undoubtedly due in large part to shattered expectations. I liked the first three a lot. I expected something closer to those in quality. I haven't seen the other, yet, I will rectify that lapse very shortly thanks to Netflix. I hope my reaction to that one is better.

And, don't get me wrong, I did have fun watching it.

Posted by dan at 02:12 PM | Comments (0)