April 26, 2016 § Leave a comment
Recently I read a great novel: Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the book that made Murakami a literary superstar when it was published in Japan in 1987 and later, in translation, around the world. The fact that it’s a bildungsroman makes Norwegian Wood more accessible than Murakami’s other novels, which feature supernatural elements, historical delvings and post-modern puzzles. Though more layered than most mainstream fiction, the novel’s relatively straightforward storytelling and universal themes–love, loss and coming of age–explain its worldwide popularity.
The novel, which largely takes place between 1967 and 1969, follows Toru, a student at an elite university in Tokyo. At eighteen, Toru has left his hometown of Kobe for personal as well academic reasons: his best friend from high school, Kizuki, mysteriously committed suicide during their senior year, leaving a lingering sadness. In Tokyo, Toru is able to make a fresh start until he runs into Kizuki’s fragile girlfriend Naoko, who has moved there for similar reasons. Bound by their grief over Kizuki, Toru and Naoko begin spending Sundays together. In time they embark on a tentative romance, at which point Naoko abruptly withdraws from her college and disappears. Before he finds her, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student who is Naoko’s opposite: quirky, opinionated and sexually frank. They soon strike up a close friendship, but Toru, still in love with Naoko, resists Midori’s romantic overtures. In time he reunites temporarily with Naoko, who has exiled herself to a remote psychiatric facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. In the course of these events, Toru becomes the man he is meant to be: a caring friend and lover, an intellectual and a genuine adult.
Despite the deaths described in the novel–five, including three suicides–Norwegian Wood is less sad than you might expect. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, Toru experiences his share of pleasures–literature, music (not just the Beatles song of the title but a wide range of classical, jazz and rock), food, drink and sex–quite a lot of sex, befitting a college student in a sexually liberated time. In some ways, the novel is a late 1960’s time capsule, containing all that was exciting about the era. (I was a child in Tokyo during those years and can attest to the novel’s veracity, not just the musical references but the radical student movement that roiled Toru’s university–they used to riot outside my house.)
Although there are some specifically Japanese elements–buying sake from vending machines, visiting love hotels, getting drunk legally in parks–most of “Norwegian Wood” could take place anywhere. Part of Murakami’s genius is creating characters who are very much like their American and European counterparts: they eat the same foods, listen to the same music and have the same frustrations and goals. This universality makes Norwegian Wood adaptable for the screen, which brings us to Tran Anh Hung’s 2012 film, “Norwegian Wood.”
Though a French-Vietnamese director who (presumably) isn’t fluent in Japanese would seem an unlikely choice to adapt a Japanese novel into a Japanese-language film, Tran (“The Scent of Green Papaya”) does a good job with “Norwegian Wood.” The cinematography is beautiful, the locations–among them Kobe, Toru and Murakami’s hometown, and Waseda, their alma mater–are perfect, and the acting is excellent. If Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) is more handsome than Murakami describes, it’s an understandable exaggeration, and the script logically omits minor characters and back stories. Where Tran goes wrong is in ignoring the novel’s humor, not only Toru’s wry exposition but Midori’s hilariousness. Unlike the wispy, troubled Naoko, Midori* has her feet firmly planted on the ground. Her great obsessions are food and sex, and she enjoys wearing outrageously short skirts even at the hospital where her father is dying. Although it would have worked beautifully onscreen, Tran leaves out this exchange between Midori and her father’s surgeon:
Doctor: Wow, that’s some short skirt you’re wearing!
Midori: Nice, huh?
Doctor: What do you do on stairways?
Midori: Nothing special. I let it all hang out.
The nurse chuckled behind the doctor.
Doctor: Incredible. You ought to come and let us open your head one of these days to see what’s going on in there. Do me a favor and use the elevators while you’re in the hospital. I can’t afford to have any more patients.
Tran even makes Midori’s skirt is more modest than described–it’s short, but not indecently so. Choices like these make Midori’s outré moments–for example, her expressed desire to watch hard-core porn films with Toru–seem discordant, rather than a natural extension of her curiosity and free spiritedness. As a result, “Norwegian Wood” is much sadder than Murakami’s novel, and not to its advantage.
*A language note: Midori, which means green, is not only a modern name but a word that was not widely used before the late nineteenth century. Before then, blue (Aoi) was used for both blue and green, and green was considered a type of blue, not a separate color. Beyond representing life, Midori’s name provides a direct contrast with Naoko’s: Nao means upright or obedient, and the traditional feminine suffix ko means child. Through their names alone, Murakami makes clear that Naoko, “Obedient Child,” is Midori’s polar opposite.
April 6, 2016 § Leave a comment
While there’s nothing wrong with telling an artist’s story in a straightforward way, it’s fascinating when a filmmaker chooses another path. That’s what Don Cheadle does in “Miles Ahead,” which begins during the musician’s drug-addled hiatus from recording and performing in the 1970’s and ends with his comeback in the 1980’s. Although there are flashbacks to Davis’s early career and first marriage to the dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), Cheadle doesn’t bother to show Davis as a child or even a trumpet-playing youth. I’d like to think this decision isn’t because Davis grew up in a middle class family–his father was a dentist–and studied at Julliard, but because Cheadle preferred a laser-like focus on what matters most: Davis’s music.
“Miles Ahead” is helped immeasurably by the fact that Davis is only depicted as an adult and only by Don Cheadle. The actor captures everything about Davis: his creative genius, his ferocity and his mercurial charm. In doing so, he transforms himself both inside and out. I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been to pull of such feat of acting and also direct the film, but it’s a rare accomplishment for anyone, let alone a first-time director.
At a Q&A last Friday night, Cheadle declined to say which parts of the film are factual and which are fictional, but there are a lot of both. The journalist played by Ewan MacGregor is fictional, yet there’s nothing fake about his character or his function: showing us Miles Davis’s dark period of drug abuse, gunslinging and reclusion. Davis’s abuse of Frances Taylor is factual–she has said, “I actually left running for my life,” and does in the movie. But other things that couldn’t have happened are true in their essence. Davis pushes against the wall of an elevator at Columbia Records, which becomes a door to his past as a musician. A punch thrown at one character lands on another. As the film lurches from place to place, traveling through time, watching it becomes less like observing and more like entering Davis’s complicated mind. In his abstract, improvisational approach, Cheadle weaves many strands into something pure. It’s a lot like jazz.
March 24, 2016 § 2 Comments
Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.
In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.
I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)
Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.
As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.
Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”
March 15, 2016 § 1 Comment
No one who has seen “McCabe” could forget its climactic shoot-out, or the opening scene, a long pan over the mountainous landscape that Beatty traverses on horseback, disguised by his huge bearskin coat:
The Q & A afterwards featured Robert Altman’s widow, Kathryn, and the actors Keith Carradine and William Devane. All spoke fondly of the shoot, which took place in Vancouver and featured real snow, real carpenters (some of whom lived on set) and communal living in a nearby subdivision. Carradine, only 21 at the time and fresh off the Broadway run of “Hair,” talked about his death scene (being yanked off his horse by a wire into freezing water) and the magic of the roughly six-minute, music-free shootout that ends the film. It couldn’t happen in movies today, he said, with their omnipresent scores. (I agree: the fact that the score of “McCabe” consists almost entirely of three Leonard Cohen songs seems in retrospect wildly, wonderfully new. Someone should try it again, dispensing with the sonic wall that too often serves as an emotional crutch in today’s films.)
Six days later, I was shocked to hear that Kathryn Altman had died suddenly of a heart attack. Though she was 91, she seemed far younger, and her death was unexpected. The screening of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” at which she paid tribute to the late Vilmos Zsigmond, was her last public appearance.
March 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
Then came the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity. Residents of the twelve-mile-radius evacuation zone were resettled in other areas; as cleanup is estimated to take forty years, they are unlikely ever to return home.
In the aftermath of this unprecedented triple disaster, it was impossible to know how quickly Japan would recover, or even if it would. If the earthquake’s epicenter had been in Kanto, it would have been a different story, as Tokyo would have suffered the brunt of the damage. But Tohoku is considerably less populated–think New England versus the New York metropolitan area. Another reason for Japan’s recovery is its institutional strength: thanks to a strong central government and well-developed prefectural and local governments, debris was quickly cleared and roads, railway lines repaired in record time. All of the region’s many ports were operational within the year.
Though the Daiichi plant continues to leak radioactive water, today there are few reminders of the disaster outside Tohoku. When I went back to Japan on vacation in 2013, I found both Tokyo and Kyoto more opulent and overrun by tourists than ever before. Each year has brought record numbers of visitors to Japan, and in 2020 Tokyo will host the Summer Olympic Games for the second time.
As heartening as these developments are, I haven’t forgotten what happened on 3/11 and never will. Here are two posts I wrote immediately after that terrible day five years ago:
February 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
The second time I saw “Close Encounters” was on video sometime in the 80s. By then François Truffaut had died (of cancer at 52), and I was as focused on his strong performance as the lead scientist as I was on the story and effects. I’d forgotten a lot of the details and thought the film could have been considerably shorter, but the effects were still impressive.
The third time I saw it was last weekend, again on the big screen. It was shown as part of the American Cinematheque’s tribute to the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Academy Award for his work on “Close Encounters.” It was the film’s only Oscar, and no one deserved it more than Zsigmond. As his colleague James Chressanthis described, “Close Encounters” was such a difficult shoot that when Zsigmond was fired (more than once), no other cinematographer would take over, forcing his return.
The technical challenges were enormous. There were multiple, far-flung locations, each with its difficulties. The film that was used in the 70’s demanded more lighting than today’s, which resulted in vast shipments of lights to the main location in Alabama (and a corresponding shortage in Los Angeles). The set for the spaceship landing area was housed a vast dirigible hanger that was further enlarged, necessitating even more lighting. Add to these logistics the fact “Close Encounters” was filmed before CGI: all the effects were done with models that had to be shot separately in 70mm and matched to the 35mm film. The effects budget was so large–$3.3 million of the $18 million total–that Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects supervisor, joked that it could have paid for another film.
Yet the effects and cinematography remain the best things about “Close Encounters,” despite advances in cameras and CGI in the decades since it was shot. Other aspects of the film that should have aged better than the effects haven’t fared as well. The script (credited to Spielberg but written with four other screenwriters, including Paul Schrader) is unwieldy and lacking in character development. Women and children are stick figures, and less interesting than the aliens (who, unlike them, have no lines). Dreyfuss, never a subtle actor, chews the scenery so much that it’s hard to fathom why Melinda Dillon would spend two minutes in his company, much less climb Devils Tower with him. And Spielberg’s obsession with angelic little boys, absent fathers and overwhelmed single mothers plays better in “E.T.” For anyone who has seen both,” “Close Encounters” sometimes resembles a rehearsal for the later film.
These significant problems keep the film from being a masterpiece, but they don’t diminish Vilmos Zsigmond’s achievement in the least. Along with the work of Douglas Trumbull and Carlo Rambaldi (who created the aliens, and later E.T.), his work stands the test of time: nearly forty years later, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” remains beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s well worth watching again, in as large a format as possible.