Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.
As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.Read more
I forget who said that perfection is not when there's nothing left to add, but nothing left to take away. Art is as much subtractive as it is additive: you spend at least as much time figuring out the frame of things, where things begin and end, as much as you do determining what to fill that frame with. There may only be twelve notes — at least in Western music — but look what we've been able to get out of them so far.
Every time I come across an embodiment of this sort of thing in music, I instinctively cherish it. It happened with Brian Eno's Music for Films and The Pearl, with Philip Glass's Qatsi soundtracks, with Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and it absolutely happened with Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which I came to only after I had all the rest of those under my belt. And it was only out of sheer ignorance that things came to pass in that way: to me, Aphex Twin was one of the many bands I just pre-emptively brushed away, like so many crumbs off a table, because I didn't think they had anything to offer me. It was nice to be wrong.Read more
This is the first time I’ve ever written an album review twice, but I have a good reason: this was a mutilated album, restored to its proper form. When I reviewed Keith Jarrett’s Spheres in its original CD edition, it was half the album it was meant to be. The original double LP released in 1976 was cut down to a single four-track CD when it was reissued in 1985, with no clear indication of whether Jarrett himself or his label, ECM, had approved the selections within. Worse, some of the best material on the album — especially the astonishing 3rd movement, as featured in the film Sorcerer — had not made the cut, and one had to ferret out vinyl copies of the album to hear it.
All this was rectified earlier this year, when ECM finally saw fit to release the album in its full original incarnation, spread out across 2 CDs and digitally remastered. What’s striking is how the more complete version of the album is also the more problematic version. On the one hand, it means listeners can finally discern for themselves what went missing. On the other hand, it means the album now has that much more dross.Read more
It’s been said that The Who By Numbers was received very poorly by both fans and critics when it first came out, in big part because it was a good album that suffered from the curse of not being a great one. The most succinct statement I can make about The Dark Knight Rises is along the same lines: it’s a very good movie afflicted with two things: a) it comes in the shadow of an outstanding one, and b) it’s forced to serve as the final statement for a franchise that changed the way people thought about comics and cinema. Small wonder many people wrung their hands or stuck their fingers down their throats.
I wasn’t surprised that people would be so divided over the film, but I was a little amazed at the way that divisiveness shaded over into outright hostility. A number of online critics pointedly left it off their lists of 2012’s best films, if only because there were so many other interesting things going on cinematically that year (Holy Motors, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) that throwing praise at a movie that hardly needed the boosterism probably seemed like wasted breath. It wasn’t as if you needed to champion a film that had already raked in the gross domestic product of a small nation. But what we have here is (as someone else said) the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want.Read more
I’m going to start my discussion of the second and third volumes of Paradise Kiss with the sex scene in volume 2. Actually, there’s a couple of such scenes, but the one that comes most crucially to mind involves heroine Yukari and her lover / antagonist / homme fatale George. I mention it not as a way to denigrate the story, but entirely the opposite: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance — the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover — and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.Read more
I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who had died and is now writing.
Fiction is about what's impossible, but not what's implausible. It is impossible that a man would tell us his autobiography in the form of a novel after his own death. It is not implausible that he would use such a story to ruthlessly burst apart the hypocrisy of others, and himself as well. A dead man worries nothing about his reputation or his standing in the eyes of others — except maybe posthumously, and even then why should he, in limbo, worry? — and so who but someone like him would be best suited to showing up the living for the fools they are?
Epitaph of a Small Winner — also known as The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas — is one of those miracles of literature that seems to have barely any right to exist in the first place. Its pessimism and bitter irony seem decades, if not centuries, out of phase from the 1880 in which it was written — more the child of a Luigi Pirandello or even a Louis-Ferdinand Céline (although without that author's repugnancy). Wipe away the topical details of life in late 19th century Brazil, and you have a story that not only hasn't dated but seems immune to irrelevancy.Read more
Takashi Miike's remake of Masaki Kobayashi's Hara-kiri is one of those movies where nothing's really wrong, but that by itself isn't enough for the territory. It's a perfectly competent update for a movie that didn't need it, and maybe that's the problem. The original film was not flawed in any significant way, save maybe in the eyes of a modern audience for having the effrontery of not being in color. In fact, Hara-kiri was and remains a masterwork, a product of the samurai cinema of the Sixties that used the form to challenge authority, to question the mystique and pomp of the warrior class that had been used as emotional propaganda for generations.
Much of that confrontatory attitude has drained out of Japan's moviemaking. Almost all of the samurai productions of the last couple of decades have been redolent with sentimentalism. Even Miike himself — normally one of Japan's bad boys of moviemaking (a label he'd have gained for Ichi the Killer alone) — had veered into weepier territory with productions like Sabu. I liked Sabu a great deal, if only because it showed that Miike was not a one-note Nelson. The man could, and has, made movies in just about every genre imaginable, and learned to reign in his excesses when it mattered. If there was someone to make a confrontatory movie in today's climate, it was him. But this somehow isn't that film.Read more
If Magma had not existed, someone might well have invented them. Here was a band that sang in its own invented language (a pan-European polyglot they called "Kobaian"), that produced albums and songs about a future history of mankind in outer space, and whose sound was, in a marvelous quote from the Rolling Stone Record Guide (2nd. ed.), "combustible strains of Bartók, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and Coltrane", a "dense avant-Wagnerian wall of oppressive percussion, dark jazz variations for guitar, violin, and keyboards, and hellish ... singing". Remember that episode of Star Trek when Worf started jamming to Klingon opera? They missed a bet by not simply dropping in Magma there.
But underneath and aside from the headscratching novelty value, the critical brickbats, and the tongue-in-cheek pop-culture cross-references, this is progressive rock at both its most challenging and satisfying. There are many times when Magma noodled about or got lost in the heady netherworlds of their concept-prog experience ("zeuhl", as the subgenre they spawned is now called), but there are just as many times when they made music I would be happy to list next to any of their aforementioned influences. Mekanïk Destruktïẁ Kommandöh is easily the best thing they've done so far, epic and accessible in about equal measure, and even memorably melodic where so much of this sort of music (Magma's music included) isn't.Read more
When Dennis Miller got up on stage sometime circa the mid-Nineties and lampooned Al Gore by saying “The man’s favorite movie is TRON, for Christ’s sake,” and got massive laughs doing so, that more or less summed up the man-on-the-street view of both Al Gore and TRON. The former more or less redeemed his eggheadedness with An Inconvenient Truth, which single-handedly brought awareness of the impact of global warming into the public mind; the latter had a harder time rehabilitating itself. Fellow fans who had a positive opinion of the movie kept their mouths shut about it lest they be branded fans of Playskool Cyberpunk.
Eventually, the generation that had not only secretly grooved on the film but actually seen remarkable things in it (nifty premise, groundbreaking visual effects processes, first full-blown use of CGI in a movie, more adult and thoughtful than it seemed on first glance, etc.) was able to come out of the closet. By the time TRON showed up in Kingdom Hearts as a playable level, the stigma was fading fast; by the time a certain hush-hush short film played in Hall H at Comic-Con 2010 to massive audience reactions, the stigma was all but gone. A fan culture that had learned to live with the likes of Edward Cullen looked back over its shoulder and realized Kevin Flynn — The Dude, man! — and his binary buddies had been a lot cooler than they had wanted to believe.Read more
There is a moment in Oliver Stone's movie The Doors, when Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) tells the rest of the band, "That's not bad for a bunch of guys who weren't even talking to each other the day the album was recorded." That might well have been the making of Last Rights, which because of everything from its very title through to the downright eschatological sound of the album seemed for a time like the last album the group would ever make.
Or the last album anyone would ever hear, given how determined the record seems to be a final will and testament to everything from its band to its listeners to the world that produced it. It makes Pink Floyd The Wall seem downright upbeat, since that was only about one man's implosion; here, the whole of human creation and experience is in the process of being wiped off the map. This wasn't just "music for the end of the world"; the band had apparently gone and recorded the act while it was in progress. Nobody Gets Out Of Here Alive, indeed.Read more
There was a time when the mere fact of an album’s existence seemed dangerous. Lester Bangs made an unnerving personal case for it with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, when he reported how it wasn’t just the sheer sneering cynicism of the record itself, but the mood it inspired in people, both at large and up close. He and his friends would put it on and feel such disgust, such negative energy accumulating within themselves thanks to that music that they became genuinely frightened at how there seemed to be nothing to do with that black aura except be roasted alive in it. Even the Pistols themselves couldn’t survive being the source of such a miasma; the whole point of the group had been to create something horrible and unstable. After them it was difficult to imagine a group, or a record, released on a mainstream label, whose very existence implied its imminent destruction: it had to be a publicity stunt, right?
Give any cultural marker ten years, and see what the people raised on it will produce. Ministry was far tamer as a cultural phenomenon than the Pistols — it never reached quite the same level of public awareness as Sid's Kids, and even at his most outré Al Jourgensen and the rest of his buddies could still be packed away as "just another rock band", instead of the most scabrous embodiment of a country's cultural souring.Read more
There are two films within Prometheus, one brilliant and the other inane. The brilliant film is preoccupied with questions about man’s place in the universe, and the ghastly indifference of the universe to such questions in the first place — much as Alien itself was before. The inane film is full of people running around like idiots and screaming at each other and getting killed horribly by space monsters. Sorry, folks, but that's the way it is.
It’s not impossible for two such wholly disparate films to coexist inside the same skin. In fact, the one movie that comes most readily to mind is not any of the previous Alien films, but the “Hellraiser-in-space” horror-SF hybrid Event Horizon. Buried within that mess of a film was either a great horror movie or a great SF movie, but the filmmakers tried to have it both ways and the studio a third, and the end result is one of those films that deserves a director’s cut that we’ll most likely never have. Prometheus, on the other hand, was the movie that Ridley Scott and his cohorts wanted to make, so none of them can fall back on the Terry Gilliam Tampering Clause to explain the results.Read more
It was, I think, 1987. I was sitting on the floor in a friend’s room when he announced that a friend of his had passed along a tape from a band with the stupidest name he’d ever heard in his life.
I was sixteen at the time, but I was used to the idea that you could camouflage something great behind a terrible label. When one of the finest books I’d read up until that point had been named Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the notion that a band could be named “Skinny Puppy” didn’t exactly have me giggling, or reaching for the smelling salts. And having already experienced Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte courtesy of an LP at the library, I was no stranger to the idea that music could be about more than just mere entertainment. None of this was defense enough against what came out of those speakers and mugged me.Read more
For some, The Dark Knight was the moment when the “comic book movie” finally became cinema. For others, it was the moment when the bottom fell out, when the “comic book movie” became a self-indulgent and bloated enterprise, a mix of art-film pretentiousness and big-budget spectacle splatter. I take the middle view: this was the moment when the “comic book movie” stopped being a “comic book” — a genre — and started becoming a medium, a receptacle for whatever you could see fit to pour into it.
Small wonder The Dark Knight has been stuck with so many genre labels apart from “comic book”. I’ve seen it variously described as an urban thriller, a heist film, a noir crime drama, an existential revenge picture — anything and everything that would seem to take it that much further from its roots in either the Bob Kane comic, the campy ‘60s TV series, or the Pop Art Deco movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Batman itself has, and comic-book movies generally have, been reinvented to the point where it’s the reinvention that matters far more than the source material.Read more
In John Cage's essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States" (collected in Silence), Cage wrote (in the context of a discussion of composers such as Elliott Carter and Henry Cowell), "Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from [jazz], the situation becomes rather silly." He made exceptions: William Russell, for instance, and Cage also had approving things to say about Harry Partch, whose train-jumping lifestyle and omnivorous ear made for compositions that still sound radical and striking today.
I know Cage was still alive and well when Intents and Purposes was first released in 1966 — eight years after the above essay was penned — but if he had any awareness of it, or reaction to it, I am unable to say. I suspect it would scarcely meet with Cage's stern standards for what constitutes "experimental", and he might well have been dismayed, if only in principle, at the way this serious music (as per the "orchestra" in the group name) derives almost entirely from jazz. It's records like this which convince me Cage, despite still being an idol of mine, held a stance was as naive and divisive as it was sophisticated (shilling for recherché).Read more
Dim-witted but sporadically enjoyable attempt at a crossbreed between revisionist caveman stories (Quest for Fire, The Clan of the Cave Bear) and peplum epics (Ben-Hur). Good points: nice sense of epic scope, especially in the last third or so of the film, which hints at a larger mythology than we actually see. Bad points: inane accents, eye-rolling racial stuff (World Saved By White Guy, Again — More At 11), and one of the dumbest kill-a-character-then-bring-them-back-to-life-because-we-said-so story twists. Directed by the guy who blew up the White House.
Third installment in this symphony of adolescent emotional brutality pits hapless would-be seeker of transgression Kasuga against his (female) mentor in perversity Nakamura, with his would-be sweetheart Nanako caught between them. After Kasuga and Nakamura enjoy — not sure that's really the word, actually — an orgy of destruction in their school homeroom, Nanako's forced to see what Nakamura wants her to think the "pervert" Kasuga is really made of ... except that Nanako is even more pure-hearted than anyone banked on her being. Where the story goes from here ought to be a real challenge; let's see if they branch out even further and more daringly, or simply repeat the same beats as per a goofy sitcom where nobody ever learns. My money's on the former.
Vertical has been attempting to snag a bigger slice of the mainstream manga pie in various ways now. This latest attempt is the adaptation of the Stan Lee + BONES anime which I liked for being an interesting Japan-POV take on the American kids'-comics mythos: kid has his robot toy struck by lightning and it turns into a giant fighting companion (see: Johnny Sokko, et al.), one which comes in great handy when fending off a burgeoning alien invasion. Emphasis here is not on the gimmick but on little Joey Jones's growing accustomed to the idea of being anybody's hero, especially when he's spent the better part of his young life being everyone else's kickball. Bad points: amateurish art by Tamon Ohta, and a translation that seems way below par for the typically meticulous Vertical folks.
It’s been said that genres are reading instructions. A book bearing the label science fiction earns certain exemptions of tone and content right out of the gate that a book labeled fantasy or romance or literary fiction does not. Romance is a label we associate freely with broad brushstrokes of emotion (e.g., hate-that-is-actually-love), coincidence, and a great many other things we’d only tolerate in small doses, if at all, in something not sporting that label.
In other words, a genre is a label for a specific kind of suspension of disbelief, and that may explain why many people turn their nose up at certain genres. Some people find the suspension of disbelief re: human behavior or motivation required for a romance to be far more absurd than the suspension of disbelief re: physical reality required for a fantasy, SF, or four-color comic story. I don’t believe this mechanism underlies all instances of why people snub a romance for something else, but it sure explains why many people never try out certain genres at all. They have evolved a certain discipline for their suspension of disbelief. They do not let themselves play outside of those strongly-painted lines.
It’s a shame, because within any genre there is always the possibility for happy accidents and lively discovery. Shojo manga, the whole subdivision of manga nominally intended for girls, has many titles with plenty of crossover appeal. Having a mainstream breakthrough experience with one of them doesn’t much increase the odds of the others following suit — the Dark Knight Trilogy hasn’t caused mainstream moviegoers to pick up too many Batman comics — but it can at the very least expose the reader to new territory. The very best of shojo manga has included some territory I might never have discovered on my own: Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, for instance, or Moto Hagio’s remarkable work that freely crossed between labels: romance here, fantasy there, science fiction at times, all of it remarkable. Read more
There are two ways to experience John Cage at this point in time: through his work, and through his writing. I had plenty of grounding in the first by way of Indeterminacy and Variations IV and so on by the time I encountered Silence, but even if I had none of those formative experiences I think Silence would have still cracked a good deal of the pavement under my feet.
It has been nearly twenty years since I first read Silence, and I keep it in the small cubby of books next to my desk that is reserved for a few select things I pull out and read whenever I need a moment to see things more clearly. It is the closest thing Cage ever created that amounted to a manifesto, even though he published it in 1961 and spent the next thirty or so years still evolving and mutating. It is the right of any artist, and any human being period, to re-invent himself continuously, but much if not all of what Cage put into Silence serves as an encapsulation of most everything he identified himself with throughout his career.
I am not sure Cage would have appreciated that. He was fondest of the living event, not the artifact that signified it. A recording of music was not for him music, but a recording — it was no more the music than the photo of the Grand Canyon was the place itself. Likewise, his words on paper were nothing more than photos, but all the same there are enough such photos in this book, and from such a diversity of angles, that it’s hard to read it and not feel a first-hand engagement with his way of seeing things. Silence has much of the experience of a performance of his work (bested only by actually attending one, that is), which means that it can be every bit as boring as the real thing — although as Cage once said, do something long enough and you’ll eventually find it’s not boring at all but very interesting. Read more