When a Film Ascends Its Generation (21: Unedited)

The late 1950s and early 60s hold, for most people, a representation of free love and civil action, unless you’re a veteran of Japan’s post-war economic polarity of flaunted wealth and struggling poverty.

Mikio Naruse’s interpretation of this duality is When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, a poignant look at 30 year old Keiko (frequently called Mama), trapped as a hostess to rich businessmen in Tokyo’s famed Ginza district. Widowed and financially responsible for her mother, brother and nephew, Keiko spends much of the film bumping against the boundaries of class, love, and money.

For Americans, the film is easily prone to misinterpretation as a simple vignette on the life of a struggling barmaid, which it isn’t. Instead, through the scope of Keiko’s actions and situation, Naruse offers an idea of existence and life’s expectations, and what happens when we answer or refuse its call. The film also suggests a reconsideration of what it means to commit suicide to escape debt (via Keiko’s friend, Yuri), and examines the cause and effect of marrying before falling in love, and vice versa.

The Criterion Collection of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs offers an insightful commentary by noted Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, which proves itself vital for a full understanding of the film’s cultural references, explanations and clarifications, and important biographical details of Naruse that pertain to his slow-paced, subtle style.

Richie proposes that every Japanese director struggles with the Japanese-ness of himself and his art, “The essence of the Japanese tradition…that connotes a contented resignation, and a sort of observation of the way things are, and a willingness to go along with them, identifies experiencing the basic nature of existence,” he said.

“Savoring the comforts of being at harmony with the cycles of the universe, and an acceptance of adversity, and the idea of accepting what’s on your plate, and eating it… this is exactly what’s supposed to happen, therefore it is good.”

Almost all of the dramatically tense moments in the film come at times when Keiko makes decisions between doing what is considered right, doing what she believes is logically feasible, and doing something irresponsible in the harrowing moments of emotional reaction. Every decision she makes turns out to be the wrong none and her life cannot be escaped, and so all of Keiko’s peaks are flattened again.

The absence of hostess bars in America makes their function confusion, though it’s important to understand that they are not brothels. In the commentary, Richie explains the women’s occupation and the role of the bars, “In Japanese society, in that period, it was practically homo-social; just guys getting together and doing things and being uncomfortable with each other.”

“That’s one of the things the geisha did, was to act as a social oil between males boasting their egos on one hand and toning them down on the other. It’s easier to do a business deal if there’s some girl snuggled up on the side- it lent a kind of normality to the closeness that the men were experiencing as they attempted to drive deals with each other. So the main effect was economic, and that was what the guys who paid the bills were paying for.”

“One of the themes that occurs in this film, and other Naruse films is the possibility of suicide, “ Richie explains, “Suicide is not treated in Japan as it’s treated in other, Christian countries… there’s no religious prescription or social prohibition against it, and so it’s one of the known alternatives to general wretchedness of existence.”

To be in debt in postwar Japanese society is to lose face, and Yuri’s attempt at faking suicide to avoid her lenders ultimately proves fatal when she overdoses on sleeping medication. The many layers of the film and actions of Keiko’s friends represent the multiple options she can attempt, and highlight exactly where she would’ve failed.

Experiencing the walls run into by the people she associates with, and the walls she runs into, she is eventually rendered immobile- left without options to progress- and reaches her standstill. Keiko never gets anything she wants.

The Criterion release also comes with a short interview with actor Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko’s manager, who offers a lot of insight to Naruse’s directorial style and personal demeanor. The included 36 page booklet provides critical essays by Phillip Lopate, Catharine Russell. Audie Bock, collection of memories about Naruse by Hideko Takamine, the actress who played Keiko in the film.


Anime for People Who Hate Anime (20: Unedited)

Most people brush it off as juvenile and nerdy, while others dedicate the entirety of their money and free time towards it. It’s almost completely impossible to find a middle ground between these two extremes when it comes to anime.

Anime, or stylized Japanese animation, is almost immediately identifiable when contrasted to other type of feature-length films. Anime characters usually have large and pointed eyes, sharp and colorful hair, and represent hyperboles of standard characters- in both physique and disposition.

For the curious and normally uninterested, twoe films stand out from the common fighting, mecca, or cutesy anime, and transcend the DVD players of adolescent boys. These films ignore action and fighting to tell interesting stories and cast philosophical questions. Really, they’re pretty much the only two I’ll watch.

Cat Soup

In a family of quiet white kittens (that act like humans), Nyatta, the younger brother of Nyaako, finds Death walking his sister away from their home where she has been very ill. Nyatta catches up to the shaman and his sister, and the two play tug-of-war from Nyaako’s soul. It rips into two parts, and Nyatta runs home to put it back inside his dead sister. She isn’t restored, but instead walks around brain-dead and bored.

Nyatta decides that to search for the other half of her soul, which leads to a fantastic odyssey where elephants are made of water, an old man eats halves of planets, mechanical butterflies help the kittens navigate a metallic river, and a pig offers his hindquarters for dinner.

Only 34 minutes long, and with only a few text bubbles of conversation, the 2001 feature becomes a mirage of debatable hallucinations of a kitten trying to help his sister. What does the orange flower mean? Why does the circus tent look exactly like the frozen tidal wave? Which kitten is actually dead? The questions are hard to answer, and repeated viewings (and director commentary) alter your interpretation every time.

Mind Game

In this 2004 full-length film, Nishi is a nervous loser who’s never told his old girlfriend, Myon, how he felt about her after they had lost touch. When she tells Nishi she’s to be married, Nishi begins to despise his nihilism and wonders why he’s such a wimp. The two decide to eat at Myon’s family restraint when two yakuza come in demanding money from Myon’s father. Nishi wimpers under the bar, and to prove a point, one of the yakuza puts a gun in his butt and pulls the trigger, instantly sending Nishi somewhere else to be made fun of by God.

As bizarre as it sound up front, Mind Game gets much more interesting when Nishi runs away from God (who changes shape, since Nishi’s indecisiveness can’t place what he/she should look like) and goes back to Earth minutes before he’s killed. Nishi decides to live life to the fullest, completely unrestricted, and kills the yakuza instead. Nishi, Myon and her sister flee the scene in a car, ramp off a bridge, and are swallowed by a whale.

From the moment they meet an old man in the whale, the three undergo deep periods of self-reflection and confusion, while cut scenes switch between memories, hallucinations, and an entire scope of the character’s future actions and the world. Mind Game is hyper-stylized with a variety of animation methods, including film, and frequently switches between highly detailed segments and abstract cartoons. The film also has multiple complex scenes that last only a few minutes, one of which is a glimpse at Nishi’s text message, which represents the larger idea of the film- “Your life is the result of your own decision.”


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (19: Unedited)

I’ve never been one to stop watching movies after the first ten minutes, but the Criterion Collection re-release of William Greave’s 1968 documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm severely tested my patience and interest, until I realized how brilliant the film, and its creator, actually were.

It opens with a terribly scripted scene between two lovers having a fight about the husband’s sexuality, when a cut in the scene continues the dialogue with a second set of actors, and even another pair of actors continue their dialogue until the director, Greaves, interrupts the scene. The camera pulls back and reveals the entire crew, and the opening credits roll.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, tentatively titled Over the Cliff, is another movie about making movies, but in a completely unscripted and unplanned way. This lack of structure and sight of a plot point or conclusion becomes immediately apparent, and the audience soon becomes as frustrated as Greaves’ three crews; one that films the scene, one that films the crew filming the scene, and a third that films everything.

After the initial credits, Greaves asks his crews to focus, in every thing they do on set, on the sexual interpretations of an action or object, and demonstrates by looking for a woman with large breasts. This misdirection initially engages the viewer in a study of sexuality in the sixties, in which three camera crews revolve around a cliché scene that’s voiced by undirected actors.

But sex isn’t the focus of the documentary, and after the viewer realizes that Greaves is intentionally acting as a “bad director” (an accusation that comes out in an impromptu crew meeting Greaves was absent from), it becomes obvious that Greaves is subtly sabotaging and confusing the people working under him.

Why a director would willfully derail his project is a mystery, but it opens the film up to interpretation as a study of how humans behave when a type of chaos theory is unknowingly applied to them. The crew quickly realizes that this project is not just an experiment to compare the different screen tests (the short scenes the various actors are performing) and decide to film their discussions in an effort to figure out what the project is really about. These discussions, one cameraman points out, as far as the audience knows, aren’t directed by Greaves and are the result of his ambiguity when asked about the film. However, because the audience cannot say for sure that Greaves is disconnected from these scenes (although he will edit them in the end), an argument about the levels of reality and what we expect to be true emerges.

So, Greaves is asking the actors and crew, and audience, to do a lot of work. The actors are trying to perform a successful screen test so that they can be paid, and exercise their art, and the crew has its own motives for the success of the project, and therefore meet Greaves with huge amounts of frustration and complaints. The audience, used to being told what to think or shown what to believe, is almost instantly confused.

I spoke with Mr. Greaves, now almost 40 years after his project, about the various poignant moments and important concepts he addressed, and the conversation only widened the aperture of the film’s enormous topical scope. The couples’ scripted argument about abortion, “You’re killing my babies one right after the other,” reflected not only abortion itself, but the anti-Vietnam sentiment felt by much of America at the time.

The Criterion release includes Take One, the original film, and its sequel, Take 2 and a half. It also comes with a full-color booklet that includes an essay on the film by Amy Taubin, and most importantly, liner notes by Greaves for Take One. The liner notes are fascinating, and after watching the film, reveal Greaves’ motives and personal interpretations about his project, “What is the psychoanalytical significance of this piece… Is it chaos masquerading as order or order simulating chaos?”

Although I made the claim that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a movie about making movies, it’s open-ended concept and potential for endless repetition and interpretation shifts the film into a separate realm. This documentary, through the medium of film (including its technical problems, its ability to capture spontaneous visits from homeless people, and its ability to disconnect sight and sound) is actually about human frustration and understanding. Greaves challenges everyone around him, and that watches the film, to consider how their actions influence life and how it responds to situations, without the heavy handed metaphor and symbolism too prevalent in modern art.


Check into Kang's Motel (18: Unedited)

Dodging the restrictive stereotype of Asian-American cinema is a difficult task for modern day filmmakers, especially in comedy. If the film isn’t martial arts based, then it usually focuses heavily on the difficulty of living in the U.S. through the scope of a character’s Asian ethnicity. The Motel, written and directed by Michael Kang, operates on the uneasy deadpan humor that made Napoleon Dynamite famous, but in a more genuine and less annoying way.

In The Motel, Ernest Chin is a semi-autobiographical 13-year-old character based on Kang. Ernest and his small nuclear family (a younger sister, his mother and grandfather) are English-speaking Chinese that own and operate a small hourly motel.

Ernest is an awkward adolescent going through the torturous and immediately identifiable period of puberty, and the changes he faces and endures are the heart of this story. His Chinese heritage has almost nothing to do with the plot, other than the two lines spoken in Chinese and the taunts he receives from an older bully.

The world of The Motel is a small and slow moving universe in which Ernest comes home from school and cleans up the rooms after the three-hour rentals. He’s bored, as most teenagers would be, and inattentively listens to the scolding of his bat-wielding mother with rolled eyes and a “whatever.” When Sam, a young and successful businessman, rolls through the motel drunk and with a woman under his arm, Ernest cautiously attaches himself to the wild, but cool 20-something.

After late nights of hanging out and sharing found chicken legs, Sam shows himself to be a sad and confused husband, either abandoned by or fleeing his wife.

With that realization, the audience begins to catch glimpses of everyone’s insecurities and how they try to deal with them. Ernest’s older love interest, Christine, smokes and drinks to be cool, and repeatedly shoots Ernest down when he finally musters up the courage to make a move on her from Sam’s advice. His mother, afraid of the feeling of abandonment already made familiar by Ernest’s father, tries to keep him on a short leash and discourages his contest-winning short stories with an emphasis for hard work. Even a bully, the son of a poor long-term room renter, expresses his insecurity by attacking Ernest and making him kiss his sister.

Although the characters and their situations are sad and humiliating, the film is hilariously written and acted. The subversive and situational humor of Ernest’s little sister asking why customers are so loud during their naps, while watching the infamously violent “Happy Tree Friends,” is trumped only by Ernest’s discovery of pornography and Christine telling him to “get your boner out of my face.”

The humor is very similar to Me and You and Everyone We Know, and most of the laughs come from your own discomfort. The dialogue between Ernest and the bully’s sister is as memorable as the “back and forth, forever” scene in Me and You, and the same naïve sense of maturity lends itself to heavy and embarrassing ridicule.

Ernest and Sam’s time together apexes when pair screams, “We want to be happy” at the top of their lungs, and the movie changes gears for the upsetting fight and self-realizations between them about themselves and each other.

The disc’s special features are great, the funniest of which is a half-hour behind the scenes documentary called, “The Making of The Motel.” In it, cast and crew members break down the casting process and their excitement over the professionalism of working with child actors. There are also a few bizarre tidbits about a fire breaking out and their dependence on power generators. The extras also include the original theatrical trailer and four “Director’s Picks” with outtakes and commentary.

Unfortunately, this independent film missed Houston’s theaters, but PALM’s DVD release offers the opportunity to relate the pains of adolescence most of us try to forget, without suffering the stereotypes of Asian-American cinema.


MOViES Offers Unique Selection, Community (17: Unedited)

Montrose area residents may have noticed a new independent business next to the post office on Richmond Ave. last December. MOViES is a new DVD and VHS rental store-front owned and managed by Rob Arcos, a former Landmark Theaters city manager.

With last year’s March 31st closing of Cactus Music and Video, the independent DVD rental market was left with a void that could only be filled by Netflix. Cactus offered its customers a wide selection of obscure and discontinued titles that couldn’t be found in the local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. The store’s closing upset many Houstonians, and left most without a place to find the low-budget cult classics Cactus was infamous for.

Arcos hopes to fill that void and offer Inner-loop patrons a convenient location and interesting selection. He doesn’t expect to compete with the rental giants and Netflix, but he hopes to develop a status in the community as a go-to guy for rental recommendations, and welcomes feedback and discussion from his customers. In an interview with Montrose Monitor, a podcast and website by John Buffington, Arcos tells Buffington that he appreciates customers spending 10 to 20 minutes discussing their rental choice and what they thought about it.

Although MOViES can’t guarantee and stock 40 copies of a new release, the store does offer other promotions and discounts. For example, Arcos recognizes the addictive nature of television series box-sets, and gives a discount and extended rental period when customers rent two or more discs at once.

“I know that people aren’t going to be driving out here from Katy to visit the store, “ Arcos said, “but judging by how many people live in the area- in a mile radius there’re 14,000 addresses, and 6,000 people go up and down Richmond a day. From the almost 300 memberships I have, most are people that just drive by the store.”

But how is a small, one store rental company supposed to survive in the wake of downloads and Netflix putting movies in mailboxes? Arcos plans to make MOViES another stop in the eclectic down-town community with screenings on the store’s back patio, trivia and game nights, and even local director spotlights and festivals.

The actual retail space MOViES is in used to be a fitness center, which explains the floor to ceiling mirrors on the west wall. The building has a brown interior with concrete floors, and a TV on the counter- Arcos, always a movie lover, has something playing at all times. The new releases are on a lit shelf to the left, with the rest of the store’s selection on hand-made shelves to the right. The far corner has boxes of free movie posters, and the former-gym’s fitting rooms still occupy the left part of the back wall.

Arcos plans to take the fitting rooms out to free up more room for future ideas; oscar parties, small theater productions, and annual film events. MOViES seems to put more focus on community than making sure people take home DVDs, but Arcos stresses his ideology that pleasing his customers and building relationships with them is what’s most important. “I want to remind people why it’s fun to watch movies,” Arcos said, “not just for the simple sake of a distraction, but for the love of it.”

Contact information: http://www.moviesthestore.com/ 1407 Richmond Ave. Houston, TX77006 Phone: (713) 527-9997


Extras, Gervais's Second Album (16: Unedited)

Most fans of the BBC sitcom The Office will adamantly argue that the British version is much better than its American remake, not only because its funnier, but because the style of slow-paced storytelling and British witticisms work better in an English setting. The character the show is based around, the annoying boss David Brent, was invented and best acted by Ricky Gervais, the show’s co-writer and producer.

In the special features of The Office, Gervais and co-creator Steven Merchant explain why the show ended where it did (after only two seasons and a special), leaving fans without much else to chew on. The pair did a series of free podcasts, which were basically hour-long segments of Gervais making fun of their friend Karl Pilkington, but they didn’t have the creative acting and storytelling provided by a TV series. However, in 2005, HBO picked the pair up to do a semi-autobiographical recount of how The Office came to be, with a few details changed, and simply called Extras.

Unlike the realistic documentary style of The Office, which allowed characters to take asides and speak to the camera, Extras is meant to be entirely fictional. We learn about Andy, played by Ricky Gervais, Maggie, played by Ashley Jensen, and Andy’s unnamed Agent, played by co-creator Steven Merchant, by watching their interactions with others and the featured celebrities, much like a standard drama.

However, Extras is still unlike the fast-paced American sitcoms about making TV, like Studio 60. Extras instead resembles the slow movement of Wernam-Hogg’s cubicle space in The Office. The show’s transitions are a guy moving a light around or some actors walking to the catering table, the actors and extras take their time getting to places on the set, and the crews huddle around in quiet discussion. This movement takes the drama away from getting something done in time and puts it on the people in the show. The people answering phones at Wernam-Hogg are the actors looking over scripts on the set.

Most of the show is about two “background artists,” or film extras, named Andy and Maggie. Andy spends most of the show trying to get speaking lines, get his face into frame, and talk to the celebrities on-set in a seemingly vain attempt to network. His agent is completely useless- he greets Andy with a newly discovered calculator trick that spells out “boobs” upside-down on the screen- so he butts himself into conversations with producers and tries to impress people like Patrick Stewart in order to advance his acting career.

The six episodes in the season are titled by the A-list celebrities that star in them; Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, Ross Kemp, Samuel L. Jackson, Les Dennis, and Patrick Stewart. These actors and actresses are not the center focus of the episode, but instead appear in the cinematic sequences and the awkward conversations between Andy and Maggie. Maggie’s discussing her new boyfriend’s fetish with talking dirty on the phone when Kate Winslet walks up in a nun’s wardrobe with some suggestions to spice up the phone sex.

Also similar to The Office, with an extra page taken from Curb Your Enthusiasm, is the awkward moments and uncomfortable confrontations between characters. Maggie frequently makes childish observations about race and sexuality, oftentimes when speaking to someone of that nationality or gender.

The six episodes may not seem like much, but the special features more than make the DVD set worth its list price. Both discs include blooper reels, which are mostly Ricky Gervais sabotaging a scene by making everyone laugh (just like in The Office) and redoing the scene thirty times. Disc one also has some deleted scenes, but the real bonus features are on disc two; “Finding Leo” is a panicked Gervais and Merchant trying to find Leonardo DiCaprio’s agent to fill a spot in an episode originally casted for Jude Law. The segment is about 10 minutes and absolutely hilarious as Merchant and Gervais try to figure out how they made it this far in show business when they can’t even dial outside the hotel room and only manage to be slightly productive- by doodling a monster with a phallic nose.

Also on disc two is the half-hour and insightful interview of Gervais and Merchant called “The Difficult Second Album,” where the pair talks about the creation of Extras and what it’s like to work with A-list celebrities. Merchant explains that the show uses the celebrities to add realism to the show and that they come with certain baggage that can be used to help the show’s humor, “you can play with the image they already have, and it’s like a shortcut to comedy.”

The second season of Extras started airing on Sunday, but because the series follows a greater narrative, viewers should consider picking up the first season before turning their TVs onto HBO. If you’ve already memorized the lyrics to “Freelove Freeway,” consider seeing Gervais’s other embarrassing character and awkward humor.


A Note, and Our DVD Collection

To start, I want to do more with this blog. It's primary purpose is to post my columns, unedited, for everyone who doesn't- or can't- read The Daily Cougar. However, I'd like to start posting more frequently with other news about DVDs, deals and bargains, and information about new releases that I don't have room for in my column. I'd like this space to become more of a resource concerning DVDs, and I want to answer any questions asked of me, whether they come from comments or emails.

After I spent about an hour cataloging Caitlin's and my DVDs in Delicious Monster (see my September 26th post), I figured I would print to a .pdf, put all of the pages together in Photoshop, and size it down so you guys could see it. This blog is about DVDs, right? Obviously, some of the titles are missing directors, proper covers, etc. But I was too excited to go ahead and post this than spend time fixing all of the little errors (which I'll do later). Unfortunately, the program I used is only for Mac OS-X, so only Apple users can utilize it.

The image below is a link to the full-sized image (click it), which you may have to click the magnifying glass to enlarge to its full size. There are 174 titles, 13 of which are Criterion Collection, and 9 of which belong to my Stanly Kubrick box-set.

Thanks, and feel free to check back soon.