Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Prejudice and Pride

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sarah Gadon in Belle

I didn't grow up reading Jane Austen. The cult of Austen has always eluded me. I've often been sympathetic to Mark Twain's attitude to Austen, which he summed up as a desire to exhume her bones and brain her skull with a thighbone every time he tried to read Pride and Prejudice. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit to having had stereotypically masculine reading tastes when I was young, and I thought that Austen had very little for me. I never expected to marry or even embrace my own gender identity. I put on a good front of masculinity when I was a teen and young adult. Lately, though, I've been enjoying the hell out of entertainments that are deeply influenced by Austen to the point where I think I might have to revisit her. I've spent the last ten years reading books like Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, which are sometimes equal parts Austenian comedy of manners and C. S. Forester naval adventure and, more recently, Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist books, which introduce a touch of magic to the regency romance. I hesitate to suggest that this is a gendered response. It might be. It might not be.

Here's the thing, though: we are living in an era where diversity is becoming more and more the norm and part of that process is reevaluating the past from a post-diversity point of view. Reevaluating, I say, and reinterpreting. Adding an awareness of race and gendered oppression and intersectionality to new works derived from old ones has a tendency to engergize them. Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, to name one example, turns that story into something radical by adding color to Heathcliff (something that has some justification in the text of the novel, it should be said). Casting Djimon Honsu as Caliban and changing the gender of Prospero in The Tempest does the same thing. People who complain about this sort of thing should probably examine why it is we need new not-diverse versions of these kinds of stories when the mountain of human history is littered with non-diverse versions just for the picking? This does not subtract from them. They're still there. No one is burning them or adding them to lists of "politically incorrect" proscribed works. Last time I checked, Sense and Sensibility was still on the shelf at my local library in its original very white, very English form. So was Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus. So was Gone With the Wind. But, really, it's time to move on.

It is an awareness of race and oppression that enlivens Amma Asante's Belle (2013), which is otherwise a painfully straightlaced costume drama of a sort you've seen a hundred times before. In its particulars, this is a Jane Austen story in which two sisters--one an heiress, the other destined to be penniless unless she marries well--navigate the waters of matrimony, searching for the right match, avoiding fortune hunters when they can. The film complicates things considerably with the race of its heroine, and therein lies the film's hook.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 1967 Blogathon: Dragon Inn

This is my second entry in the 1967 Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema. Pay them a visit over the weekend and check out all the other writing by fine bloggers across the net.

1967 was a watershed year for the wu xia film as it began its transformation into the modern martial arts movie. Chang Cheh, working within the Shaw Brothers studio system, began his major work with The One-Armed Swordsman. King Hu, who had directed the successful Come Drink With Me for the Shaws a year earlier had broken ranks and moved to Taiwan. No longer under the thumb of Sir Run Run Shaw and the restrictive rules imposed by the Shaw formula, Hu was free to explore his own ideas of what the wu xia film was capable. The resulting film, Dragon Inn (sometimes called Dragon Gate Inn) is entirely under Hu's control. It's a film that casts a long shadow: remade twice (both times by Tsui Hark) and a centerpiece of Ming-liang Tsai's arthouse film, Goodbye Dragon Inn, in which Hu's film is a talisman for a fading cinema, it's one of the foundational films of Taiwanese cinema. This is in addition to being one of the first shots fired in what would eventually become the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 90s. It's all of this, yes. An important movie. But more than that, it's hugely entertaining. These things are not unrelated.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The 1967 Blogathon: Branded to Kill

Joe Shishido in Branded to Kill

This is my first entry in the 1967 Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud Cinema. Pay them a visit over the weekend and check out all the other writing by fine bloggers across the net.

By 1967, director Seijun Suzuki had had enough of formulaic Yakuza films. These were the kinds of assignments that his home studio, Nikkatsu, kept feeding him. He was a good soldier, turning out what the studio wanted in films like Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell Bastards or Underworld Beauty. Indeed, some of Suzuki's Yakuza films were some of the best films of their types. Suzuki, speaking years afterward, is without guile when he says that he continued making these films because they provided him a living, but he chafed at the restrictions of genre. his films between 1964 and 1967 became increasingly ambitious and daring stylistic experiments as he pushed against the limits of what he could get away with and still deliver what the studio required. When allowed out of the genre, he produced personal almost-masterpieces in Gate of Flesh, The Story of a Prostitute, and Fighting Elegy.

His restless experimentation began to creep into the Yakuza films, too. Tattooed Life, Youth of the Beast, and, especially, Tokyo Drifter show a director who had more to offer than Nikkatsu was interested in using. The living end of Suzuki's growth in the 1960s was 1967's Branded To Kill, which is one of the masterpieces of the Japanese New Wave. Nikkatsu, famously, didn't see it that way. They fired Suzuki for making, "incomprehensible movies," a designation for which Suzuki sued them for defamation. The damage was done, though. Suzuki's career as one of the lions of the Japanese New Wave was effectively over. It would be ten years before he made another feature film before finally reviving his career with his arty and challenging Taisho trilogy in the 1980s. What a waste.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Once in a Blue Moon

An American Werewolf in London

There's a full moon tonight. It's June 13th. A Friday. I'm told by social media that the next full moon to fall on a Friday the 13th will be August 13th, 2049. I'm sure this blog will be long forgotten by then, a distant echo on the electronic aether, assuming human beings are even still alive by then. Friday the 13th is a date so linked with horror films anymore that it seems a shame to let one pass without watching and writing about one. Given the lunar rarity of this date, I chose An American Werewolf in London (1981, directed by John Landis), a film with a more than passing acquaintance with the cycles of the moon.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Night of the Living Hipsters

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, directed by Jim Jarmusch) is another in a long line of films that examine the problems of living as a vampire in the contemporary world. Like most such films, it postulates a crippling ennui to plague its undead protagonists, and dresses it up in a certain amount of glamour. Certainly, its lead actors--Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton--lend the film an appeal that many another vampire film lacks. Indeed, I'm not sure of why Tom and Tilda haven't broken the internet yet, given that both of them are in dishabille in this movie. You never can tell with crowds, I guess.