Thursday, June 01, 2006


It's almost that time. If you're thinking about a birthday gift for your faithful blogger and don't know what to get, may I humbly suggest this little item?It's a little pricey and won't be released until after my b-day, but I won't mind if you don't mind. Also, Douglas Sirk. Thanks.

* Nerve's recently launched movie news blog Screengrab is edited by cinebud Bilge Ebiri. In format, this blog is like the indispensable Greencine Daily, but more irreverent and funny (though far less comprehensive). The only annoying thing is that you have to be a Nerve subscriber to comment. But you don't have to subscribe in order to bookmark the page.

* Okay, "objectively" Brett Ratner's comic book extravaganza isn't really comparable to Claire Denis' poetic reverie on mortality and regret, L'intrus. So why the same grade? For one thing, I fell asleep watching L'intrus (though the parts I managed to stay awake for were indeed magnificent if puzzling). For another, Hugh Jackman, besides being a foot taller than the "real" Wolverine, is exactly how I had always pictured the Canadian mutant. Dude's perfect. And the script managed to compress a bunch of X-Men story threads (including the canonical Dark Phoenix saga) into one taut and accessible narrative that didn't betray the spirit of the original stories. All worth some props. But mainly I liked this movie because Madrox the Multiple Man made a surprise appearance (as a bad guy). This was especially awesome since I had ruminated on this obscure, useless but nonetheless awesome character the night before in a discussion on dating.

* You can now find the answer for every question you've ever had on Wikipedia. For example, I now finally understand what the fuck "he is teh crap" means in reference to crappy Sox pitcher Matt Clement (why teh fuck did you not offer Pedro five years, Theo? Why?).

* Following some links from the entry on pwn3d in Wikipedia, I eventually discovered the amusing if unconvincing entry on "Nice Guy Syndrome". Is it me or has pop psychologizing of romantic rituals become the new American pasttime? Witness, for example, the Washington Post's 4 page examination of that all-important role, the wingman.

* During my blogging hiatus, I spent a lot of time commenting on other blogs, mainly about politics and especially about the role of the blogosphere. (Look! LA Times columnist Jonathan Chait gave me props (actually it's buried deep in the comments section, so don't bother).) I had been trying to work my thoughts into a post, but Josh Marshall kinda did it for me (and pretty much voiced my own thoughts on both Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker piece on the Democrats and the New Yorker in general).

Short version: the blogosphere cannot win elections, but it's serving a valuable function in creating alternative narratives and puncturing stupid conventional wisdom. Also, most people who follow the blogosphere understand that the liberal side is not especially ideological -- it's combative and partisan, but doesn't demand litmus tests, contrary to the bullshit "responsible centrists v. nutty activist bloggers" memes perpetuated by clueless pundits. (Centrists like Brian Schweitzer and Mark Warner are blog darlings; Lieberman is hated not because he's a centrist, but because he can't help but "parrot right-wing talking points" about Democrats while kissing Bush's ass.) The problem with the blogs is (1) insularity; (2) overinflates the crime of "transcribing right-wing talking point" or "MSM meme", which I guess can't be helped when the main goal is to provide an alternative narrative;(3) self-importance; and (4) irritating and shrill. Some blogosphere developments, such as the inexplicable worship of nutcase dKos diarist Mary Scott O'Connor, are indeed pretty lame. But the liberal blogosphere is the response to right-wing talk radio; by itself, it can't change politics. In attacking the Democrats' timid, consultant-driven approach, though, it's changing Dem tactics, mostly for the better.

* But the blogs can't do anything about California. What if, in the biggest blue state of them all, you held a Dem primary election for governor and nobody cared? $50 million spent on ads, and still nobody gives a hoot about the colorless monkeys Westly and Angelides.

* One of the best political ideas in the history of the republic.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

RIP Shohei Imamura

Three days ago, Shohei Imamura was one the world's ten greatest living directors. That list will need revising, as Imamura has died at the age of 79. Imamura, whose credits include the masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama and an obscurity called Pigs and Battleships, was a true maverick. As far as I know, he's the first major post-humanist to emerge in Japan, getting his feet wet just before the other great rebel of Japanese cinema, Nagisa Oshima, went into feature filmmaking. While his peers busied themselves telling classical humanist tales with such lofty titles as The Human Condition and The Burmese Harp, Imamura picked at our festering scabs. His movies, adorned with such shlocky titles as The Insect Woman, explore not so much the human condition but the ways in which we resemble insects and pigs.

If you've never seen an Imamura movie, my description might be a little off-putting. In fact, his film sound a little like the formally accomplished but "moronic" films of a similarly zoologically-oriented auteur, the Cannes-feted Bruno Dumont, who makes some of the most repulsive films on the planet. The difference may be that Dumont's method consists of him imposing a set of reductionistic principles (humans consumed by animalistic instincts) pulled out of his ass onto a borrowed "Bressonian" framework. This is passed off as a kind of profound world-view or "vision". However astringent his view of humanity, Imamura doesn't succumb to such reductionism. His wacky peasants and sundry lowlives may plow through life guided only their mouths and loins -- they're largely driven by instinct, thirst, hunger, avarice and sex -- but they still find room for a little fun. In totally commiting himself to a kind of anthropological realism, Imamura disavows the often mushy and sentimental humanism that dominated post-war Japanese cinema. But in retaining his sense of humor and giving his characters at least a chance to dream and hope, he avoids the ant-farm sophistry of would-be anthropologists like Dumont. I guess the difference is that in Shohei's films, sex can be enjoyable -- for the viewer and for the onscreen participants.

It must be said that the old sensei's hands were not entirely steady -- he's not a smooth filmmaker or a graceful storyteller. Much like the world he depicts, Imamura's are messy, unruly, a little unfinished. One moment you'll gawk at a series of stunningly artful compositions (in Pigs, a lengthy sequence of Japanse girls getting raped by American soldiers is composed in abstracted squares within diamonds like a kaleidoscope) that rival Ichikawa or Seijun Suzuki, but the next moment the film will abruptly veer into deliberately artless realism. Sometimes, as in The Pornographers, Imamura's herky-jerky rhythms and taste for unmotivated tonal shifts undermine the material. At his best, though, the oscillating tones and seemingly incongruous visual motifs come together to achieve a kind of grace. In Black Rain, Imamura's deeply moving portrait of post-atomic Hiroshima, the young protagonist's failure to find a suitable mate becomes something of a morbid joke, even as the tragic signs of her radioactive exposure are shown to be ever more pronounced. And one of the most memorable shots in cinema comes at the end of Dr. Akagi, when the doctor's assistant and obsessive whale-hunter finally chases down the giant mammal just as a giant "liver-shaped" mushroom cloud forms behind them. Only a true wacko is capable of creating such unique images. And Imamura, when all is said and done, was probably the greatest wacko director who ever lived.

I've only seen about half of his output (most regretfully missed thus far are Intentions of Murder, Profound Desire of the Gods, and A Man Vanishes -- the major works of his early period), but that won't stop me from offering a personal top 5 of Imamura's films:

1. The Ballad of Narayama (1983)
2. Black Rain (1989)
3. The Eel (1997)
4. Vengeance is Mine (1979)
5. Dr. Akagi (1998)

For more, see Matt Prigge's write-up.