“Aggretsuko”: Netflix’s Brilliant Anime Series

October 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

Retsuko and Aggretsuko

This post contains plot spoilers


Netflix has aired a number of excellent Japanese TV series, including “Sparks,” “Midnight Diner” and “Terrace House,” but the animated series “Aggretsuko” surpasses all of them in its writing, acting and insight. A show about anthropomorphic characters developed by Sanrio, the inventor of “Hello Kitty”, sounds like a gimmick; instead, “Aggretsuko” is very funny, occasionally sad, and always compelling. And its depiction of Japan’s corporate hamster wheel and the plight of office workers, especially women, is profound.

Retsuko, an adorable red panda, is a junior accountant for a big corporation, which means she not only gets extra work at the end of the day but is expected to fetch tea and tidy the office of her boss, Director Ton. An obnoxious pig (literally) who spends his days practicing his golf swing and complaining about how overworked he is, Ton insults Retsuko, screams for tea and labels her a “short-timer,” destined for a career-ending exit. Retsuko maintains a docile and cheerful exterior, but inside she roils with resentment. Her anger finds an outlet in karaoke, in which she becomes Aggretsuko, a death metal head who adapts her favorite song, “Rage” to fit the day’s indignities. In a private booth, she howls:

Neanderthal knuckle-dragging chauvinist pig/ Looking at your face just makes me sick/ How can any person be such a dick?!/ Shitty Boss!

It’s not only Director Ton who earns Retsuko’s wrath. In Season 2, Retsuko’s overbearing mother mounts a maddening campaign to get Retsuko to grow up and find a suitable mate. After sending Retsuko an absurdly childish pink, bow-covered dress—“It’s practically cosplay”, remarks one of her co-workers—her mother tricks her into trying it on for a photo, ostensibly for her grandparents but in reality for a matchmaker. This leads Retsuko to reject the attractive, likable man she meets, not only because she doesn’t want to be fixed up but because marriage, usually a zero sum game in Japan, is too daunting. At this point I realized that Retsuko is more complex than most human characters in movies, plays and TV, and not only because of her karaoke alter ego. Under her cute red panda exterior, Retsuko is deeply stubborn, confused about her desires and unwilling to admit fault. 

But she’s also capable of change, and by Season 3 Retsuko is living on her own terms. No longer bottled up and insecure, she has broken up with a fabulously wealthy slacker/tech entrepreneur because he didn’t want marriage and wanted her to quit her job. Happy at work, she achieves success both as an accountant and, through a series of twists, as a death metal “idol” in a girl band. Her friends and co-workers grow too, and even Director Ton proves to be more than he seemed: an accounting whiz (though he still uses an abacus) and a source of insightful advice for Retsuko.

Three seasons weren’t enough for me, but Japanese programs are designed to end before they get old. A bonus for Japanese speakers is the treasure trove of contemporary language. For those who don’t speak Japanese, the dialog is brilliantly subtitled by John Haguewood. Kudos to Rarecho, who not only wrote and directed every episode but supplied Retsuko’s death metal voice. And Kaolip, who happens to be Rarecho’s wife, is pitch perfect as Retsuko. Forget the dubbed version; even if you don’t know a word of Japanese, the voices speak volumes.

The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s

September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments

Werner Herzog

For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve been going to screenings with Q & A’s afterwards. Though the films varied in quality and genre, there was a stultifying sameness to their aftermath: an interviewer and the director, sometimes joined by the lead actors, talking onstage in canvas folding chairs. The questions were rote, the answers rarely memorable, and the audience questions frequently inane.

Since the pandemic closed theaters, post-screening Q & As have changed, for better and worse. No longer inhibited by live audiences and stage lighting, interviewees seem at more at ease, and thus more likely to provide interesting answers to their interviewers’ questions. For the audience, seeing directors in their home offices, shelves of books and memorabilia in the background, is a far more intimate experience than seeing them onstage. 

Charlie Kaufman and Tony Gilroy

Still, Zoom Q & A’s are a mixed bag, as two recent programs at the American Cinematheque illustrate. An interview with Charlie Kaufman on his new feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, might have been illuminating if not for the interviewer, writer/director Tony Gilroy, who made it mostly about himself. After several minutes of Gilroy saying how excited he was to be interviewing Kaufman and how amazing it was that they hadn’t met earlier, given their mutual friends and professional connections, and then interrupting Kaufman when he tried to talk, I gave up. While bad interviewers weren’t unheard of at the Egyptian, I usually stayed for the Q & A’s, not only because they were live but because there were enough distractions—my companions, the rest of the audience, the huge gilded scarab on the ceiling—to engage me.  

I fared better with Werner Herzog’s Q & A about his new documentary, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”. Herzog, who has been preaching the gospel of low-budget indie filmmaking for decades (his Rogue Film School, which meets periodically in Los Angeles and other cities, has become an institution), has often talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker. But this time, surrounded by books and binders in his office, his story seemed more vivid than in previous iterations, and more moving. About the arduous job he took during high school, Herzog said:

I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory, and I financed my own films….At that time it was expensive because you had to buy 35 millimeter raw stock celluloid and…develop it in a laboratory and cameras were big and clumsy and expensive….Today even with your cell phone, you can shoot a feature film that you can show in theaters….Never complain. Roll up your sleeves and you can make a one-and-a-half-hour documentary for under $5,000. And you can make a narrative feature film with actors for under $30,000. Just go out and earn it and start shooting.

“Coup 53”: Taghi Amirani’s Documentary Masterpiece

August 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

It’s rare that a documentary reminds me how much I loved making documentaries, but Taghi Amirani’s “Coup 53” did just that. A ten-year project gleaned from tons of archival material, numerous eyewitness interviews and 532 hours of footage, the film details the MI6 and CIA-led coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran,  Mohammad Mossadegh. Plotting the story as tightly as a thriller, Amirani and his editor Walter Murch follow Britain and America’s lust for Iranian oil to its tragic culmination: a violent overthrow that changed the course of Iran’s history. As Amirani said in a live interview afterwards, “Everything is rooted in ’53.”

Mossadegh’s nationalization of the joint British/Iranian oil production facility in 1951 was Iran’s response to years of capital theft by the British. Expelled from the Abadan plant, British Petroleum engineers sabotaged the equipment, rendering it inoperable. After Mossadegh took Iran’s case to the World Court and won, Britain attempted a coup in 1951. Lacking U.S. support–Truman had rejected it–the coup failed miserably. But in 1953 Truman was gone, and Eisenhower agreed to a second coup that succeeded. Mossadegh was ousted, spent three years in prison and the rest of his life under house arrest. The Shah returned from exile, and his  repressive regime lasted until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

What initially drew me to the film was the participation of Walter Murch, best known for picture and sound editing on Coppola’s films, and Ralph Fiennes. Initially I assumed Feinnes was a producer, but he plays a thrilling onscreen role as the late Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 agent who planned both coups. Darbyshire, who was interviewed for the 1985 Channel 4 series “End of Empire,” never appeared on camera, and his revealing interview was cut from the final program. (To this day, Britain has never admitted its role in the coup. The United States has, and a statement by the CIA in 2017 expressed regret for its participation.) Amirani initially received a heavily redacted transcription of Darbyshire’s interview; later, he was given the unexpurgated version. The latter is what Feinnes performs uncannily, according to Darbyshire’s widow. 

Walter Murch, Jon Snow, Taghi Amirani and Ralph Fiennes


The on-camera presence of Feinnes, Murch, and Amirani adds complexity to an already fascinating film. Beyond the interviews, old and new, and archival pictures and footage, there is animation for scenes that where film or photographs don’t exist. All these elements add up to a mesmerizing, tragic and finely crafted documentary that deserves a wide audience.

In the interview afterwards by the journalist Jon Snow, Amirani talked about the fact that “distributors didn’t touch this film, just like funders didn’t.” Raising money privately added years to the project, but the “Coup 53” was finally finished, and it’s a triumph. To see it online, go to http://www.coup53.com.

“The Truth”: Kore-eda’s French Film

July 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

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Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Catherine Deneuve and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth”

“The Truth” (La Vérité) is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first movie made outside Japan, and except for a couple of Japanese visual touches (e.g., a lingering shot of leaves falling from a tree) it’s a genuine French film, and a lot more French than many recent films from France. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, a haughty, extremely Deneuve-like movie star; Juliette Binoche as Lumir, her embittered screenwriter daughter; and Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s easygoing TV actor husband, Hank. The movie begins with the arrival of Lumir, Hank and their young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) at Fabienne’s country house outside Paris. The reason for this uneasy trans-Atlantic reunion: the imminent publication of the Fabienne’s memoir, The Truth

Family get-togethers are to Kore-eda what Westerns were to John Ford, and as in “Still Walking” parent-child wounds and misunderstandings propel the plot. Fabienne has been famous for so long that she treats everyone, including her current husband, as a robot whose only function is to smooth her way through life. A monster of narcissism, Fabienne defends her high-handed behavior as not only permissible but necessary. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress,” she declares to Lumir, as no one could possibly succeed in all three roles. “You may not forgive me, but the public does.” (Given her imperiousness, it’s hard to believe Fabienne can fathom what her public thinks, but this statement goes unchallenged.)

As for the memoir, we immediately learn that its title is risibly ironic. Far from telling the truth, Fabienne has concocted a liar’s fantasy in which she was a devoted, hands-on mother and actress who got her most famous part on merit. In fact, she was a mostly absent mother who stole the role from her best friend, Sarah, by sleeping with the director. Though Sarah, a mother figure to Lumir, killed herself after that coup, Fabienne never mentions her in the book. Also absent from The Truth is Fabienne’s longtime, long suffering manager, Luc. Lumir’s father, Pierre, fares even worse: though he unexpectedly turns up at Fabienne’s house and stays for dinner, according to the memoir he’s dead.

At the same time, Fabienne is acting in a sci-fi film called “Memories of My Mother” whose star, a young actress called Manon  (Manon Clavel) bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Sarah. Manon’s character, struck by a fatal disease, goes into space to avoid dying, and consequently never ages. Every seven years, she returns to earth to visit her daughter, who ages normally and is played by progressively older actresses, including Fabienne. Beyond the strangeness of playing the child of a much younger woman, Fabienne is alternately threatened by and admiring of Manon, and treats her in similarly extreme ways. 

Despite the film-within-a-film structure and its recollection of “All About Eve” and “Day For Night,” “The Truth” is essentially a mother-daughter grudge match, the kind that transcends culture and nationality. Generational  family conflict is a familiar theme around the world, and Kore-eda’s script makes the most of it. He also makes the most of Deneuve, who seems to relish playing a deeply unflattering version of herself. “The Truth” is replete with echoes of her life,  including a dress like one she wore in “Belle Du Jour.” An even more uncomfortable reference is Sarah, whose acting talent and shocking death recall Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died tragically at 25. Perhaps for that reason Kore-eda gives Deneuve all the best lines, including, “Nowadays anybody can be an actor,” and “What matters most is personality, presence.” Sometimes it’s not even dialogue: when someone adds Brigitte Bardot to Fabienne’s litany of great French actresses whose names share the same first letter, she merely widens her eyes, shrugs and grunts.

While “The Truth” isn’t a great movie, its cast and director make it worthwhile. Particularly good is Ethan Hawke, who plays another of his charming Americans abroad with skill and grace. Hank is well aware of his flaws and shortcomings, yet he remains a good husband, father and—despite Fabienne’s attempts to insult and undermine him—son-in-law. Though he could easily have made the situation worse, Hank gracefully brings mother and daughter to an understanding. And as in “Boyhood” and “Juliet, Naked,” he’s wonderful with kids, adept at entertaining not just his on-screen daughter but an entire children’s table. The rapport between Hawke and Grenier is amazing to watch: while most child actors give purposeful, one-dimensional performances, Grenier’s is full of fleeting looks and gestures, and so natural that their father-daughter relationship looks real. Credit also goes to Kore-eda, whose skill at directing children made “Shoplifters” and “Nobody Knows” the masterpieces they are. In “The Truth” he works the same magic but in a foreign language, through an interpreter. 

Related posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/like-father-like-son-what-was-lost-in-translation-and-what-wasnt/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/on-directing-children-hirokazu-kore-eda-reveals-his-secrets/

The Return of Netflix’s “Midnight Diner”: Food, Memory and Geography

June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner”

This post contains plot spoilers

Readers of this blog might recall my previous piece about “Midnight Diner,” Netflix Japan’s show about a tiny backstreet eatery, its mysterious chef/proprietor and the colorful night owls who make up its clientele. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/midnight-diner-and-sparks-two-compelling-netflix-shows-from-japan/ Over the past three years, the series has found a devoted fanbase of not only cooks and Japanophiles, but afficionados of the moving and universal tales of love, loss and missed connections, bound by the dish highlighted in each episode. the latest installments of “Midnight Diner” are labeled Seasons 1-3, it’s the same show as before, plus or minus some characters. The earlier two seasons, called “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”, are still on Netflix and provide a good introduction to the major characters. This time around, the proprietor, “Master” (Kaoru Kobayashi) offers his customers less advice but sticks to his old policy: a single unchanging menu item (pork noodle soup), plus whatever he is asked to make from ingredients at hand or ones that his customers bring him. As in earlier seasons, these dishes, like Proust’s madeleine, evoke the lost world of the characters’ past. They also provide tantilizing clues to the geographic origins of the customers who order them.

In Episode 5, a portly restaurant critic and food snob orders butter rice, a dish that immediately identifies him as a native of Hokkaido, Japan’s dairy belt. As it happens, the diner has another affixiando of this unusual (and, to most Japanese, off-putting) dish: an impoverished busking guitarist who sings of his lost love in Hakodate, Hokkaido’s second-largest city. Improbably, the two men are acquainted: the busker was the high school boyfriend of the restaurant critic’s sister, and the critic sets out to reunite the long lost lovers.

Another geographic clue pops up in Episode 8, with the appearance of Rinko (played by You, baby-voiced, one-named actress best known for her role in Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows”) a former teen idol who always orders her favorite childhood dish: yakisoba (fried noodles) topped with a fried egg. When a homeless man returns Master’s lost wallet and refuses a reward, Master offers him a free meal instead. The man sees Rinko interviewed on the diner’s TV. When Master tells him she’s a regular who always orders yakisoba with egg, the man tells him to sprinkle green nori from the Shimanto River on it. “You won’t believe it’s the same dish,” he says. Master obliges and buys the nori, then adds it to Rinko’s yakisoba the next time she comes in. At that point, the mystery unravels: the homeless man is Rinko’s long-lost father, who abandoned her as a child. But before he left, he was a devoted father who cooked his daughter’s favorite dish, always making sure to sprinkle Shimanto nori on top.

Although there’s no happy reunion between Rinko and her father, Master is able to convey the homeless man’s love for his daughter through a regional food. Intrigued, I did some research on the green nori that elevated Rinko’s yakisoba. Although I grew up in Tokyo, I had never heard of the Shimanto River, which is located in southern Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. Nor did I know that nori, usually translated as seaweed, is also found in fresh water. I was fascinated to learn that the Shimanto is not only Shikoku’s largest river but the last pristine river in Japan. Unspoilt by channels or dams, it is famous both for its natural beauty and its 22 footbridges that, lacking sides, allow flood waters to pass over them.

Regional details such these illustrate Tokyo’s role as Japan’s great melting pot, a megacity of dreamers and strivers who sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. As several of the new episodes illustrate, both the successes and failures of “Midnight Diner” find themselves unable or unwilling to return to their hometowns and families. Adrift in the nighttime world of Shinjuku’s entertainment district, they are pulled back in time through food: the childhood dishes that Master, a fine cook in a humble establishment, recreates for them.

related post: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

Next time: Mizushobai: The Origins of Tokyo’s Vibrant Nightlife

Revisiting Peg Entwistle’s Life and Death: Myth vs. Reality in Netflix’s “Hollywood”

May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments

Peg Entwistle in 1932/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

Filming “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss and Laura Harrier in “Hollywood”

Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.

Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.

At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.

Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.

In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of  movie stardom and true love.

Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.

As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.

For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:

DVDs

eBooks

COVID19 Two-For-One Sale on DVDs

April 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

“Jim Thompson, Silk King”/Copyright 2015 Hope Anderson Productions


Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price. Beginning today, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”

This offer does not apply to digital downloads and will end as soon as the lockdown ends in Los Angeles. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/

Remembering Kate Johnson, Visual Artist, Teacher and Editor of All My Films

April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment

Kate and Me 1

Kate Johnson and Me at the 2009 premiere of “Under the Hollywood Sign”/Hope Anderson Productions

I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.

Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.  

Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.

In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.

Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.

Out of Place, Out of Time: Thinking About Films During Covid19

April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s “Safe”
Debra Winger and John Malkovich in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky”
Ralph Fiennes in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient”

During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.

At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.

Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.

Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.

Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:

The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.

“Parasite” and the American Aversion To Subtitles: An Evolving Story

February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

“Parasite” with English subtitles

Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.

Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.

Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.

Japanese subtitles with kanji, hiragana, katakana and furigana

After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”

Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.

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