Thursday, February 19, 2015

‘The Color of Pomegranates’

One of my favorite films is going to be shown in Los Angeles soon: Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (Նռան գույնը, 1969), from the late, unlamented Soviet Union.  The film will be shown at the venue Cinefamily on Fairfax Avenue beginning Friday, February 20.  Because I can’t get around as well as I used to, I haven’t been to Cinefamily since it was the old Silent Movie Theatre.  But they screen such intriguing fare that I’m sure it would be worth the trip. 

Speaking of “worth the trip,” I once made the trek from L.A. to San Francisco and stayed there for a week just to be able to watch The Color of Pomegranates several times at a Mission District movie theatre.  Why didn’t I just watch it on video?  Because it wasn’t available at the time.  I was so knocked out by the movie the first time I saw it circa 1979 (at a special screening at the University of Southern California) that I wanted to write about it.  When the film was finally distributed in the U.S. by Kino International, it was booked for a screening at the Roxie.  Wanting to see it again, and wring an article out of the experience, I thought that traveling the almost 400 miles to get there was a bargain. 

The Color of Pomegranates remains one of the most unusual films that I’ve ever seen.  Ostensibly about the life of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (c. 1712-1795), the movie isn’t a standard biopic but a series of presentational tableaux and pantomime, which does little more than hint at the events transpiring on the screen.  Writer-director Parajanov (like Sayat-Nova, an ethnic Armenian born in Soviet Georgia) cloaks these cinematic happenings in colorful and intricately designed costumes that dazzle the eye.  In the late 1970s, most Americans, including myself, didn’t think of Soviet culture beyond the gray tones of Moscow: the existence of all these other ethnic cultures beyond Russia (Armenian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Azerbaijani, etc.) was off our radars.  To see a Soviet culture brought so stunningly and enigmatically to life was nothing short of a revelation to me. 
Director Sergei Parajanov
However, The Color of Pomegranates wasn’t the first Parajanov film that I had seen.  That distinction — and what a distinction it is! — goes to his Ukrainian production Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1964), which I first saw on my local Washington P.B.S. station in the mid-’70s (although it took me a while to realize that the two films had the same director).  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was another disorienting blast of noise and color, one that pinned me to my chair in front of the TV and wouldn’t let go.  If Parajanov could direct two such stunning films, he was definitely someone I wanted to write an article about.

Here is a link to the article that I wrote about Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, the article that I went to San Francisco to write (my article uses the Russified Romanization of the director’s name: Paradzhanov — and for some reason, the periodical captions the stills from the film with the alternate title, Pomegranate Red).  The version of The Color of Pomegranates that I saw was the Russian cut that had been made after Parajanov’s Armenian edit had been taken out of his hands.  The Russian version was the only cut of the film available for viewing in the 1980s and early 1990s.  However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Parajanov’s original Armenian version became available again.  The Russian cut of The Color of Pomegranates possesses some aspects that I like, such as the division of the events into chapters that can be followed more easily, and I like the ending imagery of the Russian version better than the Armenian version.  But it’s still good to finally see Parajanov’s original vision (which I first viewed at a Los Angeles film festival in the mid-1990s).  And here is a link to film critic Tony Rayns’s explanatory article on The Color of Pomegranates, which helped me a great deal in writing my own.  (Here is also a link to the Russian version of The Color of Pomegranates on YouTube.)

One of the great tragedies of cinema is that Parajanov was persecuted by the Soviet authorities for most of his career.  After he found his voice with Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and The Color of Pomegranates, he wasn’t allowed to make another feature film until 1985 with The Legend of Suram Fortress (ამბავი სურამის ციხისა) in Georgia.  He only completed one more feature, Ashik Kerib (აშიკი ქერიბი, 1988).  While shooting The Confession (Խոստովանանք) in 1990, he took ill, and The Confession remained uncompleted when Parajanov died later that year.  The mind staggers to contemplate all of the visionary films that Parajanov wasn’t allowed to make.  At least the Green Integer Press in 1998 printed a small paperback of seven of Parajanov’s film treatments, SevenVisions, which can give us a small glimpse into the splendors of the screen that might have been.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Lion Never Sleeps

Solomon Linda
Many songs must have labyrinthine and perplexing histories, histories murky by design in order to deny their creators any rightful share of royalties.  But I doubt that there are as many songs with as mysterious a backstory as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  After that falsetto megahit by the Tokens topped the charts in 1961, it never really went away.  But the song was given new life in 1994 by its inclusion in another megahit, the Walt Disney cartoon The Lion King

As most music mavens can tell you, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was derived from the song “Wimoweh,” which had been making the rounds in the folk clubs ever since it was introduced to a mass audience in 1952 by the folk group the Weavers.  But while the Weavers presented “Wimoweh” as a traditional South African folk song, the melody that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was actually authored by Solomon Popoli Linda (1909-1962). 

In 1939, Linda, a black South African, and his a cappella group, the Evening Birds, recorded a song called “Mbube” (the Zulu word for “lion”) in the Johannesburg studios of Gallo Records.  While the song’s compelling bass line may have been derived from a traditional Zulu chant, Linda’s falsetto improvisations above it were his own, including the tune we now think of as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  It’s the same old story: Linda sold “Mbube’s” rights to Gallo Records for a pittance, and while “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went on to gross tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in royalty revenue, the song’s original author died a pauper, whose family was unable to afford a headstone for his grave. 

The twisting, turning story of “Mbube” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which includes an apparently happy ending for Linda’s grown children, was meticulously detailed in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine by South African author and journalist Rian Malan.  His history/exposé is titled “In the Jungle” and still makes for compelling reading.  I highly recommend Malan’s article. 

Fortunately, many of the songs that shaped the history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” are available online. 

Here is Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds original 1939 recording of “Mbube”:

Pete Seeger transcribed the song from Linda’s South African record (which was brought to his attention by American musicologist Alan Lomax).  Unfamiliar with the Zulu language (which might be expected), Seeger transcribed the Zulu refrain uyembube as “Wimoweh.”  Here is the first recording of “Wimoweh” that Seeger and his group the Weavers made for an independent record company circa 1950:

After the Weavers were signed to the major label Decca Records, they did a second recording in 1952, with orchestrations by Gordon Jenkins:

“Wimoweh” was a hit in the U.S., and the Weavers’ record was soon followed by cover versions.  Here is Yma Sumac backed by Martin Denny and his orchestra, also from 1952:

Another well-known version is by the Kingston Trio from 1959:

South African artists still recorded the song as “Mbube” (although I don’t know if any of royalties at the time made their way to Solomon Linda).  Here is Miriam Makeba’s version from 1960:

A hit in the United Kingdom was this 1961 version of “Wimoweh” by Scottish guitarist-cum-yodeler Karl Denver:

The amateur doo-wop group the Tokens included “Wimoweh” in their repertoire.  After they signed with RCA Records, the label’s producers reworked the song for a youthful pop audience, which included new English lyrics by tunesmith George David Weiss.  The Tokens’ rendition, titled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” released in 1961 to resounding success, remains the best-known of version of the song:

Solomon Linda’s original version of “Mbube” was such a success in South Africa that the Evening Birds’ forceful style of a cappella singing created its own vocal musical genre named after the song: mbube singing.  A descendant of mbube singing is the softer style called isicathamiya, whose best-known practitioner is the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Appropriately, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has its own version of “Mbube” from 2006:

This version by the Soweto Gospel Choir combines “Mbube,” “Wimoweh,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”:

And the song continues to inspire.  Here is Angelique Kidjo’s version of “Mbube” from 2010:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

‘Imagine’ Another Guilty Pleasure

You know what I hate?  A movie that’s nothing but a bundle of contrivances but that wins me over anyway.  Such describes the contemporary gay-themed British romantic comedy Imagine Me and You (2005), written and directed by veteran scribe Ol Parker.  From beginning to end, Imagine Me and You is chock-full of far-fetched confabulations and coincidences that beggar belief.  Still, the film’s story creates such a fanciful “what-if?” that I find myself putting my better critical instincts into hibernation

Let’s start with the premise: The lead character, Rachel (Piper Perabo), has, for all intents and purposes, never really been in love until she’s struck by Cupid’s arrow on her wedding day, a bolt from the blue brought about by someone other than her groom — namely, her female florist.  A woman in her 20s, Rachel is very fond of her betrothed, Heck (Matthew Goode), but she has never really been passionately in love with him.  However, precisely when she’s walking down the aisle, Rachel’s brief glimpse of her lesbian florist, Luce (Lena Heady), brings down a disorienting (in more ways than one) coup de foudre that calls the bride’s life into question.  “Unlikely” doesn’t begin to describe this outlandish set-up, especially in the less homophobic 21st century, but non-fictional stories of late-in-life team-changers (such as Meredith Baxter) tell us that this kind of situation is not outside the realm of possibility. 
Lena Heady as Luce (left) and Piper Perabo as Rachel
Set in contemporary middle-class London, Imagine Me and You — with gentle, underplayed humor — tells the story of Rachel growing away from Heck and giving herself over to her unexpected romantic feelings for Luce.  But director Parker challenged himself with a task that layers this improbable premise with another level of artifice: he didn’t want any of the leads to be the bad guy of the piece.  If one were to imagine a real-world scenario of a bride who inopportunely discovers her lesbianism on the day of her “traditional” wedding, the mind would visualize scenes of deception, cheating, and flagrant lies that would likely lead to an unhappy ending.  But because Parker wants to narrate a sunny comedy with likeable leads, he devises some convoluted scenes, such as Heck — via a perfect storm of circumstances — unwittingly setting up Rachel and Luce’s very innocent first “date.”  Other improbabilities include Rachel being clueless as to Luce’s lesbianism until a coincidental encounter in a supermarket, Luce helping Rachel’s grade-school-age sister with a class project without anyone knowing (serendipitously enabling Rachel and Luce to get together again), and Heck having a best friend, Cooper (Darren Boyd), utterly unlike himself in every respect. 

After they acknowledge their love for each other, the very considerate Rachel and Luce agree not to see each other again in order to spare Heck’s feelings.  But good-guy Heck realizes he’s in the way and willingly leaves so that the two women can have a de rigueur (for a rom-com) race to the airport in the third act, a mannered girl-gets-girl climax, and a happy ending.  Not to worry, the closing credits (set, as one might expect, to the Turtles’ “Happy Together”) extend a potential love interest to Heck, so that story thread is neatly tied up.  (Moreover, none of these contemporary Londoners smokes.  What kind of alternate universe is this?) 
Luce symbolically “marries” Rachel by placing
her lost wedding ring on her finger.
So, why do I (a heterosexual male viewer) like Imagine Me and You?  Well, for all its improbabilities, the screenplay is put together with a healthy dollop of wit.  The characters are fleshed out well enough to make their unlikely actions credible.  And the underplayed performances by the cast prevent these relatable characters from devolving into stock figures.  Therefore, simply in terms of filmmaking craftsmanship, Imagine Me and You makes for an enjoyable, elating example of the romantic comedy.  But even though it sometimes strains credibility, Rachel’s story of discovering her heart’s desire at the most infelicitous moment, but eventually overcoming herself to get what she wants, is so intriguing — and sets up a fantastical premise that I like seeing played out — that I can easily forgive its occasional artificial-feeling moments.

Darren Boyd as Cooper (left) and Matthew Goode as Heck
Although the character of Cooper, the single-minded and somewhat simpleminded Lothario, comes the closest to being a one-dimensional stereotype — and we wonder why the more thoughtful and considerate Heck would bother hanging around such a rake, never mind wanting him for best man — the film surprises us by showing his other side. Throughout Imagine Me and You, Cooper makes clear that he frequently hits on married women and gets them to cheat on their husbands.  But once he gets wind of his best friend being possibly cuckolded, Cooper suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a font of morality and chews out Luce for driving a wedge between Rachel and Heck.  There’s more than one side to Cooper after all: cheating spouses are acceptable to him as long as it’s not the wife of his best friend.  Also (and teasingly) the end credits show us Cooper acting all paternal with a baby.  Whose baby is it?  I’m left to guess that Cooper is the father to the baby of the pregnant Irishwoman (Sharon Horgan) who buys a bouquet from Luce and awkwardly hugs her and tearfully tells her that the boyfriend (Cooper?) will “hate” this unplanned gravidity.  But the film never makes clear whether Cooper is the father or not.

However (and I’m not the horse’s mouth on this subject), some gay critics have blasted Imagine Me and You as a make-believe palliative that assuages any heterosexual discomfort over real-life gay people and their real-life issues.  Writer-director Ol Parker is heterosexual (he’s married to actress Thandie Newton), and he chose as his romantic couple the gay configuration easiest for a mass audience to accept: two conventionally beautiful women (played by heterosexual actresses), a tactic not dissimilar to girl-on-girl porn for straight men.  Imagine Me and You is a film by heterosexual artists primarily intended for a heterosexual-dominant audience, so one can easily think of it (like The Crying Game or Brokeback Mountain) as a heterosexual film about the trendy topic of gay people, not as a gay film in any politically progressive sense of the term.

At the same time, the very fact that gay characters can be the unproblematic protagonists of a feel-good romantic movie intended for a popular audience demonstrates the enormous political strides by real-world gay people in recent decades.  If Rachel and Luce had fallen in love two or three generations earlier, their story would have likely been a Children’s Hour-style tragedy.  Instead, Imagine Me and You is the exact opposite of a “problem” play.  No individual film is going to boast a “complete” picture of a complex and multifaceted subject like homosexuality, and none should try.  The very existence of a frothy gay-themed romantic comedy like Imagine Me and You proves how malleable and accommodating the mainstream can be, despite some predictable resistance.  Popular culture must be enlarged, not overthrown.

So, to what extent does Imagine Me and You distort and misrepresent homosexuality by catering to a mainstream audience, and to what extent does it acknowledge the equality of gay people by welcoming them as fellow human beings who can populate a popular genre like the feel-good romantic comedy?  Not being gay, I can’t say for sure.  But this modest, well-crafted movie of someone who reinvents her sense of self in order to find her true love tells a hopeful story that can inspire us all — no matter how frivolous and awkward it can be in some spots.  Imagine Me and You isn’t an example of great filmmaking, but that doesn’t stop me from revisiting it over and over again. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Second Thoughts on Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’

If anyone follows my blog (stop laughing), they would know that unlike many other cinephiles, I’m not a big fan of Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu: his films strike me as disagreeably reactionary, implicitly yearning for a “return” to a Japanese society based on patriarchy and filial piety.  However, I still watch his films to take in their unusual cinematic “grammar” — close-to-the-ground camera angles, characters speaking almost straight into the lens, abrupt cuts, unpeopled transition shots — and how it might change my positioning as a viewer.  I also remain intrigued by the sense of the transcendental or ethereal in his black & white films, a sense harder to detect, as I said before, in his color movies. 

I started watching Ozu’s films again while reading the book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader.  The book discusses how Ozu (in Japan), Robert Bresson (in France), and Carl Theodor Dreyer (primarily in Denmark) use a form of storytelling and imagery that suggest a realm or state of mind where there are no distinctions between humanity and nature: the Transcendent.  I won’t go into all of Schrader’s book here, because my focus is on Ozu, but its argument, in looking at the Japanese director’s films in relation to a concept of something seen to stand outside culture — the Transcendent — also risks naturalizing his conservative way of looking at the world. 
Yasujirô Ozu (1903-1963)

Indeed, the references to seasons and times of the day or year in so many of the Japanese director’s (English) titles — Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Tokyo Twilight (1957), Equinox Flower (1958), Good Morning (1959), Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (1961), and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) — not only sound almost comically repetitive, but by linking his characters to the inevitable passage of time, Ozu seems to imply that the rightness and desirability of traditional Japanese culture are equally inevitable. 

Recently, I watched, for the first time, Late Spring (晩春, 1949), the first of Ozu’s family dramas (shomingeki) to have a season/time-based title, and my first impression of the film was that the narrative was in the same conservative mold as the director-screenwriter’s other films: Noriko (Setsuko Hara), a single woman in contemporary Japan, is recalcitrant to the idea of getting married, which her extended family pressures her to do, but she finally and reluctantly gives in after her widower father (Chishu Ryu) lies to her, saying that he plans to get married (again) himself.  Furthermore, the father’s speeches to his daughter on the benefits of marriage sound like didactic lectures straight out of an after-school special.  So, Noriko, whose single status calls the patriarchal social order into question, capitulates to an arranged marriage after constant badgering and being told a falsehood, consequently assuming her designated role in society.  And to me, the film seems to portray her capitulation in a positive light.  Not my kind of movie. 
Setsuko Hara as Noriko in ‘Late Spring’

Noriko and her father live alone together in the same house, with her performing the domestic role usually undertaken by a wife, such as picking up her father’s clothes as he drops them on the floor while changing into his yukata.   Noriko is satisfied with her role in the house, and when asked why she doesn’t get married, she says that her father would be “lost” without her.  When I heard this line of dialogue, I said to myself, “That doesn’t sound like a reason; that sounds like an excuse.”  That told me Noriko’s character hadn’t really been developed.  Also, Noriko’s Western-marked and sometimes obnoxious friend Aya (Yumeiji Tsukioka) married for love but later got divorced, which seemed to me like a plug for traditional arranged marriages. 
Chishu Ryu as Noriko’s father (wearing his yukata)

I watched Late Spring on a DVD put out by the Criterion Collection, a company whose meticulous attention to picture quality and supplemental materials of canonized classics makes it a cinephile’s best friend.  One of the supplemental materials on the disc was a commentary track by Richard Peña, an associate professor in film studies at Columbia University.  After listening to his remarks on the commentary track, I began to reconsider my first impression of the film.

To begin with, I didn’t take into account that Late Spring is contemporaneously set in the immediate aftermath of World War II (four years afterwards).  The fact that Noriko has assumed the role of the mother within her father’s house (in which the two live alone) only struck me as an example of filial piety.  A single woman past the ideal marital age (Noriko is 27) taking on a wife’s capacity in her father’s house (outside the bedroom, of course) would have struck a contemporary Japanese audience, according to Peña, as an odd arrangement.  (In recent decades, the ideal age for a Japanese woman to get married has been no later than 25, so young Japanese women of marriageable age are sometimes snidely called “Christmas cakes”: after the 25th [of December/birthday], “no one wants them,” or so the thinking goes.) 

This arrangement also (to more alert viewers) calls attention to the absence of both the mother and any male siblings, which, given the context of 1949, might have led Japanese viewers to infer that they died, directly or indirectly, because of the war.  And the absence of a larger family structure makes Noriko’s reason for not wanting to leave her father’s home more credible.  Noriko’s servitude — at least to her father — is not as positively portrayed as I first thought. 

And then there is Ozu’s singular cinematic style: the camera angles of most shots imitating the POV of someone seated on a tatami, full-frontal (as opposed to angled) close-ups of the characters, shots without any people in them, somewhat disorienting transition shots, etc.  This unusual approach to filmmaking is the reason why so many cineastes (myself included) keep returning to Ozu, and his champions say that this approach encourages the viewer not to take
the on-screen proceedings at face value.  After all, if Ozu wanted to make a film merely propagandizing Noriko’s capitulation to marriage, wouldn’t he want to use a film style as “invisible” to the audience as possible?

Noriko and her father at a Noh play
I’m very aware of Ozu’s critical view of the Western influence on Japanese culture, and how it compares unfavorably to his seemingly more positive view of traditional Japanese culture.  Late Spring early on associates the father with the accoutrements of traditional Japan: often clad in a yukata, often seated at a chabudai, enjoying a Noh play, etc.  By contrast, even though we first see her at a traditional tea ceremony and dressed in a kimono (albeit, as Peña points out, clutching a Western purse rather than its traditional Japanese equivalent), Noriko is thereafter associated with Western things: she almost exclusively wears dresses, and her room has occidental décor.

In the scene where the aunt (Haruko Sugimura) insistently has her first serious conversation with Noriko about the younger woman’s prospects for marriage, and the aunt refuses to let Noriko laugh off the idea (as she had previously), both start out seated at a chabudai.  When the conversation turns serious, a stubborn Noriko gets up from the chabudai and petulantly plops herself down on a Western-style chair. Because of these character markers, I get the idea that Noriko’s recalcitrant attitude towards marriage is a Western influence.  (Japan was governed at the time of Late Spring by the allied occupation, which imposed many Western ideas on Japanese society.)  Near the film’s end, when we see Noriko dressed in traditional Japanese wedding garments and formally thanking her father for his care, I’m left with the impression that this heretofore Western-styled woman has capitulated not only to marriage but also to a traditional Japanese social role.  

To me, the film seems to say that Noriko was wrong not to immediately accept her family’s desire for her to get married: in other words, she was in the wrong from the get-go.  And along with other telltale signs of criticism, I’m left with the message that Western culture is a force that has vitiated a “purer,” more positive Japanese culture. 
Noriko’s father persuades her to get married

But Peña says that Late Spring is more complicated than that.  According to him, Ozu’s singular cinematic style is not the only element to elicit a critical viewer; so does the story’s structure.  After all, why begin the film with a seemingly ideal mate for Noriko (her father’s younger assistant), only to take him out of the running early on?  Why leave gaps in the story that the viewer must fill in?  And most intriguing of all, if Noriko’s capitulation to marriage is portrayed so positively, how come the wedding itself is never shown?  Furthermore, Peña regards the father’s didactic-sounding speech on the positive aspects of marriage as something that the man doesn’t entirely believe himself; the speech’s very didacticism, to Peña, is so out of character that the commentator believes it to be a mere piece of “theatre” between the family members.  Ozu, to Peña and others, is too much of a modernist to be an effective propagandist, so, it follows, propaganda must not be his goal. 

To his champions, Ozu’s films are too thematically rich merely to advocate nostalgia for a Japan that may never have existed.  To them, Ozu does not naturalize Japanese culture or imply that his characters’ social circumstances are unavoidable.  What Ozu sees as inevitable — and this is reflected by his films’ similar titles — is the passing of time, and the ephemera it takes with it, which, of course, is indisputably inevitable.  What concerns Ozu, then, is how his characters occupy their time on Earth and the emotional consequences of the decisions they make.  I see a dichotomy in Ozu’s films between traditional Japan and the West.  But Ozu’s defenders say that the director’s portrayal of Japanese life is too unusual and too complex to invoke a mere dichotomy. 

Therefore, what I’ve seen as positive portrayals of things traditionally Japanese, to Ozu fans, aren’t straightforwardly positive; these are instead wistful, non-prescriptive observations of how the characters inhabit their space, making their pent-up emotions too intricate to be attributed to a single story-driving cause (as is often the case in Hollywood cinema).  For example, I see Noriko’s marriage as endorsed by Ozu, but Peña says in his commentary that Ozu, without judgment, evokes the sense that events in their lives may have very well turned out differently.  Furthermore, the marriage, according to Peña, is not the point of Late Spring because the film never shows us the wedding.  Like Peña, Ozu’s defenders say that his films, instead, communicate the poignant evanescence of all life — the very Japanese notion of mono no aware.  

Noriko in traditional Japanese
bridal garments
Late Spring and Ozu’s subsequent films were commercially successful in Japan, enabling the director to make on average a film a year for the rest of his career, until his death at age 60.  I get the feeling that his audience didn’t go to his films to have their sense of traditional Japan — a sense of tradition impaired by the loss of the war and by the allied occupation — challenged or questioned.  I think that they went to Ozu’s films to revel in specifically Japanese subjects and to approve the traditional and conservative choices his characters (usually) make.  So, I can’t help wondering if this audience viewed Ozu’s unusual film style as consciously anti-Western, as an attempt to discover a traditionally Japanese discourse within (to them) the implicitly Western medium of cinema. 

In his book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1983, Robert B. Ray says that the most successful American feature films have differing aspects to them that different viewers can key into.  A successful film will have both conservative elements that conservative viewers can appreciate and liberal elements that liberal viewers can enjoy.  I get the idea that Ozu’s conservative-styled stories entertained his tradition-minded audience, while his unorthodox cinema grammar engaged his less tradition-minded audience. 

But Peña’s commentary about the modernist aspects of Late Spring made me realize how much of an oversimplifying dichotomy my liberal/conservative approach to Ozu’s films has been.  Just because a movie portrays something regarded as traditional or conservative without expressly criticizing it, that doesn’t automatically denote the film’s approval.  And even if Ozu’s intentions were thoroughly conservative (as I understand his politics were), his unusual shooting and editing styles blatantly rupture the “invisibility” of Hollywood film grammar and invite critical readings of his films’ conservative elements.  Finally, the understated performances that Ozu coaxes from his actors, portraying people with weighty feelings they can barely express, endows those characters with emotions more complicated than the usual story-driven Hollywood offerings.  Yes, emotions are complex, and Ozu’s underplayed and taciturn characters give us a better sense of that than most actorly monologues. 

So, I’m willing to give Ozu another chance to impress me.  Maybe I’ll eventually join the multitudes of movie lovers enraptured by his films.  Because so many voices that I respect sing Ozu’s praises so highly, there’s got to be something more going on. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

10 Cool Crowd-Pleasers

Was my list of “10 Favorite Films” too art-housey for you?  Okay, to make up for it, here is a list of ten movies whose carefully honed, audience-tested appeal has won a place in the sprocket holes of my heart, oldest to youngest:


With crackling dialogue and a sure-footed storyline, the film that defined the romantic comedy. 


Made in 1942 but officially released in January 1943, it won the latter year’s Oscar for Best Picture.  Hollywood’s studio-era apotheosis.  


Epic. Action-packed. Awesome.


Silver-screen Hollywood craftsmanship at its heartwarming best.  (Listen to the DVD’s commentary by Bruce Block to realize just how much thought and care went into this film.)


Shoot-’em-up excitement with an art-house edge. 


The Seven Samurai (or at least their cowboy counterparts) saunter south of the border.


The funniest film I’ve ever seen. No joke. 

MAD MAX 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior, 1981)

Casablanca with a case of road rage. 


Stop saying that Saving Private Ryan was robbed of its Oscar! Shakespeare in Love is a compelling, character-driven masterwork with lots of laughs and an air-tight story. Methinks its critics protest too much. 

KING KONG (2005)

Peter Jackson’s Kong-sized do-over of the 1933 classic is going to give CGI-heavy remakes of pre-sold properties a good name. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

I Am a Tingler!

For as long as I can remember, a light touch to my head or face, or maybe even a certain sound of voice, would give me a quick tingling sensation in my head.  The tingling was very pleasurable, like swarming beads of euphoria dancing around in my cranium, and sometimes around my face, with joyous abandon.  This sensation was very infrequent — it would only occur a handful of times a year — and very fleeting.  I could only enjoy the ecstasy of the sensation for a few seconds before it was gone and I had to get back to whatever I was dealing with before it hit.  Because the sensation was so rare and so ephemeral, I barely thought about it at all, despite the immense pleasure it gave me.  And it never occurred to me to give the sensation a name.

That all changed last year.  It changed while I was surfing the Web.  I don’t remember how or why I came across what I did.  Given the importance of the discovery to me, you’d think that I would remember my path to it in great detail.  But no such luck.  What was my discovery? 

Last year, while exploring the Internet, I stumbled upon the phrase Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR for short.  And I learned that it described that tingling sensation that I had experienced all my life.  My electronic travels led me in short order to a series of YouTube videos by various users, videos whose purpose was to trigger the euphoric feeling in their viewers, usually by the video-maker whispering to the camera.  So, this pleasant tingling sensation, I realized, was something that others felt as well, and it was something that could be induced.  My mind was blown like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.  

I’m trying to remember more about my reaction to this discovery.  But I recall so little about that day that it might as well have been 100 years ago.  Maybe I don’t remember it very well because I was so overwhelmed: not only did other people feel the sensation, but it was important enough to have a name.  The only other thing that I can remember about that day is my bewilderment about why it had never occurred to me to try and trigger the rapturous tingling in myself. 

YouTube’s most popular “ASMRtist,” GentleWhispering, who has over 300,000 subscribers

I checked out some of the ASMR videos, most made by whispering female YouTubers, often role-playing some moment of intimacy or tender attention, such as a haircut.  As I watched these videos, wave after wave of intense tingling swirled around the inside of my skull.  Although each wave lasted only ten seconds at most, and usually less, it would quickly be followed by another.  I felt as though I had discovered some high-inducing opiate. 

And now, I need to make the disclaimer that everyone who experiences ASMR is quick to note: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is not sexual.  Despite some of the ASMR video-makers’ affectations of intimacy, this is not a sensation that I experience below the belt.  While others (I have since learned) report of feeling it throughout their bodies, my own experience is usually confined to my head and never goes lower than my shoulders.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the brain’s activity during ASMR draws upon the same pleasure centers that are activated by sex, but the sensation itself is not erotic. 

While “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” is a scientific-sounding name, nothing is known about it scientifically.  Scientists have not found a way to measure ASMR.  Some studies have begun that examine the ASMR experience with an MRI, but last I heard, those studies were still in the preliminary stages and far from complete.  The phrase “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” was coined by one Jenn Allen.  She felt that such a phrase was needed because those who would talk about the sensation, lacking a better name, would liken it to a sexual experience and call it things like “brain orgasm.”  Allen wanted to distinguish the sensation from sex, so she invented a name without carnal connotations.   

An ASMR role-play video by the YouTube user VeniVidiVulpes

You might wonder why it’s taken me so long to post about ASMR.  Well, when watching my first batch of tingle-triggering YouTube videos, the intensity of the sensation began wearing off after about half an hour.  I returned to watching videos the next day, but the tingling, when I felt it at all, was barely noticeable.  I had to stop watching the videos for several days before the intensity of the tingling would return.  Because of this, I took a hiatus from ASMR videos for several months.  Only recently have I started watching them again, and only recently did I truly realize just how important this euphoric experience is to me. 

I have also joined an ASMR community on Facebook.  From what I have read there and elsewhere on the Internet, I get the idea that others who experience ASMR find it very easy to trigger in themselves.  If this is true, I seem to be someone in whom the sensation is difficult to induce and who, unfortunately, becomes inured to it relatively quickly.  Maybe I can find a way to change that.  At the moment, the YouTuber who can best induce ASMR in me is the user GentleWhispering (a.k.a. Maria), but other video-makers who specialize in triggering ASMR — or “ASMRtists,” as they call themselves — abound on YouTube.  For those who don’t experience ASMR, these videos will appear boring, perhaps not unlike the way pornography would be boring to a viewer without a sex drive. 

Since I have trouble remembering how I came across the phrase Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, I’m embedding a video of a This American Life radio broadcast, in which the correspondent, who also experiences ASMR, recounts her discovery of the phrase and the community that has grown up around it.  I’ll also link to a couple other articles on the Web.

Two years ago at this time, I didn’t know the phrase Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.  Now, I realize that I’m part of a small community that has the ability to induce a euphoric natural high in ourselves.  Because of that, I feel very lucky.  I hope that the scientific studies of ASMR bear fruit before too long, and we can all learn more about this intriguing and pleasure-provoking phenomenon.