Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award
March 10, 2021 § Leave a comment
This review contains plot spoilers
At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears. Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.
In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara’s struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .
Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.
The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary–she elects adoption via Baby Baton.
Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)
Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose “Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.
New Year, New Forum
January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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Give the Gift of Documentaries: Under The Hollywood Sign’s December Two-For-One Sale
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, 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. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s
September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.
Revisiting Peg Entwistle’s Life and Death: Myth vs. Reality in Netflix’s “Hollywood”
May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments
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:
COVID19 Two-For-One Sale on DVDs
April 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
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
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.
“Remember My Name”: David Crosby’s Memories, Insights and Grudges
July 23, 2019 § 1 Comment
There’s a lot to love about “Remember My Name,” the fascinating new documentary directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe. David Crosby is a great raconteur, and the fact that he’s having a late career renaissance–four new albums in as many years–makes this a far more dynamic film than the recent “Echo in the Canyon.” (Interestingly, Crosby enlivens that one too.) His eloquence and candor are evident throughout, and Eaton, an excellent interviewer, helps to organize the stories and put them in historical context.
We learn about Crosby’s family life–his father, Floyd, was an Oscar-winning cinematographer who shot some of the most important aerial footage of World War II, while his mother, Aliph, loved music–and his introduction to guitar via his older brother, Ethan. Success came early via the Byrds, but when Crosby was fired from that band he went on to even greater heights with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the first supergroup. After Neil Young joined the trio in 1969, CSNY’s debut performance at Woodstock was a high point of the festival.
Crosby recounts the heady days of his career as entertainingly and insightfully as we’d expect. And when things turn bad, beginning in the 1970’s–with his worsening drug addiction, the tragic death of his adored girlfriend Christine Hinton and the breakup of CSNY–he’s just as frank. But about one of his defining traits–a talent for alienating those closest to him, including the bandmates who stood by him in his darkest hours–he’s less open. Though Crosby says it can’t be a coincidence that none of his musical colleagues will speak to him, he’s vague on the reasons, aside from those that broke up the Byrds (speeches from the stage about the Kennedy assasination conspiracy theories, for starters). It’s striking that a man who’s wise enough to write an advice column has a blind spot about his character, apart from his acknowledgment that he’s “an asshole”.
Then there’s Crosby’s penchant for petty, permanent grudge-holding. Passing by Ciro’s, he recounts meeting Jim Morrison there and developing an instant hatred for him. Why? Because Morrison took off his sunglasses, saying, “You can’t hide from me.” Beyond the fact that this incident took place in a dark club more a half century ago, it should be noted that that Morrison has been dead for 48 years and never made it past the age of 27. But Crosby isn’t done with him yet. At his next stop, the Canyon Country Store, he eyes a photo of The Doors and says “I didn’t like those guys”, adding, “Morrison–what a dork.” In a final, mind-boggling slam, Crosby says, “I don’t think they ever lived [in Laurel Canyon]”–though he could have thrown a stone and hit Jim Morrison’s house from where he stood.
Things get better with a lengthy, photo-filled segment on Joni Mitchell, his girlfriend circa 1968-1969, in which she finally gets the attention “Echo in the Canyon” denied her. Still, there are some digs. Though Crosby praises Mitchell to the skies–“she’s the best songwriter and musician of all of us”–he also grouses about her ingratitude for his contacts in the music business, as if she really needed him to open doors for her. When he recalls how Mitchell broke up with him via a new song (probably “For the Roses,” though he doesn’t say) that she performed–twice–at a dinner party, we understand her reasons.
In light of his obnoxious, self-destructive tendencies, David Crosby is a lucky man, and he knows it. After serving four years in Federal prison for an assortment of drug-related charges, including running from the law, he married his longtime girlfriend Jan, had a son, and got a new liver (paid for by Phil Collins, though he doesn’t mention that generous gift). Despite professed financial problems, Crosby now lives with his family, dogs and horses on a ranch in the lovely Santa Ynez Valley. In light of his tumultuous, drug-fueled life, surviving to tell the tale for posterity would be feat enough. Instead, at 77, an age when most of his fellow musicians are retired or dead, Crosby is touring and recording new songs, unstoppable in his musicianship.
The Immortal Influence of Jim Morrison
July 18, 2019 § Leave a comment
Since seeing the newly restored version of “The Doors,” I’ve been on a deep dive into the band’s music, interviews, reviews and concert footage. I was a child during The Doors’ heyday and clearly remember first hearing “Light My Fire” on the radio: it was thrilling, a song like no other. I was particularly impressed by the second verse: “The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire/Try now we can only lose/And our love become a funeral pyre.” Though I didn’t know then that these lines were Jim Morrison’s contribution to Robby Krieger’s first-ever song, I recognized that rhyming mire and pyre with fire was genius.
Later I would learn why The Doors’ music sounded so different from other bands’. The bass lines played by Ray Manzarek’s keyboard instead of a bass guitar were one reason. Robby Krieger’s bottleneck, pick-less guitar playing and flamenco background were others. John Densmore’s jazz influences set him apart from other rock drummers. Finally, the Latin, jazz and blues roots of all three musicians came through in The Doors’ sound.
Then there’s Jim Morrison, frontman for the ages. If no other band has successfully imitated The Doors, it’s safe to say that most rock singers have tried to imitate Morrison, whose wild, immersive performances set a high bar. In Tom DiCillo’s 2009 documentary “When You’re Strange” (Netflix), there’s stunning sequence at the 22 minute mark: footage (set to “Love Me Two Times”) in which Morrison leaps, writhes and flails his way through a series of increasingly chaotic concerts. Timeless in his leather pants, boots and Dionysian curls, Morrison fearlessly connects with his audiences, fighting his way through police lines to hold them in his thrall. Ray Manzarek often compared him to a shaman, and there is a touch of the divine in his Native American-inspired movements and trance-like writhing. Though he considered himself a writer first and foremost, Jim Morrison understood stagecraft as few other singers have. His all-out performances, enabled by copious drinking and drugging, no doubt contributed to his death at 27.
Then there’s his voice, a doomy baritone that was much-criticized in the band’s heyday but which seemed, even to the childhood me, perfect for songs that were often in minor key. Both Morrison and the rest of The Doors worried that he wasn’t a good enough singer, and his purported lack of musical talent led his father, Rear Admiral George S. Morrison, to write a disparaging letter that caused a permanent rift between them. Yet from 1970s onward, his vocal influence is everywhere in rock. Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis, Ian McCulloch, Dave Gahan and Trent Rezner are just a few of the singers who owe Jim Morrison an enormous debt. And don’t get me started about his leather pants.
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