His Other Brilliant Career: Remembering David Bowie’s Acting

January 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

David Bowie in "The Man Who Fell To Earth"

David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence”

"The Hunger" (with Catherine Deneuve)

“The Hunger” (with Catherine Deneuve)

"Basquiat" (with Dennis Hopper)

“Basquiat” (with Dennis Hopper)

Like countless others, I was stunned and deeply saddened by David Bowie’s death; nearly two weeks later, I’m still processing the fact that he’s gone. Although I only saw Bowie in concert once, his music permeated my life, providing an indelible soundtrack that began in my childhood and ended with the newly released “Blackstar,” a stunning coda to his 50-year career as a musician, singer and songwriter. (Since this is a film blog, I won’t write a dissertation on his music, but a brief reminiscence of mine appears here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/arts/music/thank-you-mr-bowie-you-changed-our-lives.html?&moduleDetail=section-news4&action=click&contentCollection=Music&region=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=article&_r=0

During the 1970s, as he released a torrent of albums and shape-shifted from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to The Thin White Duke, David Bowie began to appear in leading roles in notable films. Although I had assumed Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (1976) was his screen debut, it wasn’t: he had appeared in a handful of English films and TV shows before it, beginning in 1967. Nevertheless, “The Man Who Fell To Earth” established David Bowie as a serious actor, rather than a rock star dabbling in movies. In it, Bowie is the quintessential alien, but his performance is nuanced and at times quite funny–my strongest memory of the film is of him singing off-key in church, not an easy thing for a singer with excellent pitch.

Over the next 30 years, Bowie went on to appear many more features–23 in all–along with numerous shorts, TV shows, documentaries and music videos. He made his Broadway debut in “The Elephant Man,” (1980), the first rock star to appear on Broadway in a drama. (His performance was pronounced “splendid” by the New York Times.) He was a pioneer of music videos, putting out filmed performances of his songs before MTV existed, as well as two of the most famous videos ever broadcast (“Let’s Dance” and “Ashes to Ashes.”)

Though not all of Bowie’s movies are good, a number of them– including “Just a Gigolo,” “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” “The Hunger,” “Labyrinth” and “Absolute Beginners”–are, and showcase his skill and range as an actor. One of my favorites is Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), in which he plays Andy Warhol. Although Bowie doesn’t nail Warhol’s accent–his English r’s creep in–he captures the artist’s odd way of mumbling out of one side of his mouth, as well as the diffidence that was his most striking characteristic. It’s an amazing performance, and the fact that Bowie’s fame as a musician already matched Warhol’s as a visual artist makes it mind-bending.

In 2006, Bowie’s played Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige.” In his remembrance the director Christopher Nolan wrote, “[David Bowie] seemed to be the only actor capable of playing the part. He had that requisite iconic status, and he was a figure as mysterious as Tesla needed to be.” After 30-year feature film career in which he famously played an alien, a soldier, a goblin king and a vampire, David Bowie’s last movie character, fittingly, was closest to himself: a genius of invention whose work is eternal.

Setsuko Hara, One of the World’s Great Actresses, Is Dead at 95

November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment

Setsuko Hara

Setsuko Hara

Although Setsuko Hara passed away on September 5th, her death was not announced until today. Retired from acting and public life since 1962, Hara maintained “a Garbo-like silence” (as Variety put it) for over five decades. She lived in Kamakura, Japan, where many of her most famous films–those directed by Yasujiro Ozu–were set.

In 2008, I wrote this about Hara and her work.

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/setsuko-hara-ozus-muse-forever-young/

“Like Father, Like Son”: What Was Lost In Translation, And What Wasn’t

February 8, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Two Families of "Like Father, Like Son"/Courtesy Fuji Television Network

The Two Families of “Like Father, Like Son”/Courtesy Fuji Television Network


Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign might recall my 2010 post on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings in American reviews of Japanese films.
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/
In it I talked about two films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Nobody Knows,” and “Still Walking,” both of which were significantly misinterpreted by American critics. Since then, Kore-eda has gotten better subtitling and some of the critics have gotten more savvy: in fact, Manohla Dargis got through her review of his latest film “Like Father, Like Son,” without making any gaffes.

“Like Father, Like Son,” which won the 2013 Jury Prize at Cannes, is the story of two boys switched at birth and given to two very different sets of parents. (There have been a number of baby-switching cases in Japan, including a particularly tragic one that was only just resolved, sixty years after the two newborns were given to the wrong parents.) The film’s protagonists are the Nonomiyas, a well-off Tokyo architect and his stay-at-home wife, whose adorable son Keita turns out to be biologically unrelated. (There’s a casting problem here, as Keita actually resembles Nonomiya more than his biological son does.) The Nonomiyas’ biological son Ryusei has been raised by the Sakais, an earthy working class couple who own an electrical supply shop in a provincial city and have two younger children. Informed of the DNA results when the boys are six, Nonomiya is not only determined to have Ryusei returned but to hold onto Keita. Despite his workaholic life and tepid interest in fatherhood, Nonomiya uses his means, education and sleek Tokyo apartment as justification for gaining a son and keeping the one he has raised. Before he broaches the subject with the Sakais, however, a period of visitations ensues, with Keita having boisterous fun with the Sakai family and Ryusei cooped up in the apartment with Mrs. Nonomiya, since his father is usually working.

What’s fascinating about the story is not so much the obvious lesson–that your child is the one you’ve raised, regardless of blood–but the class element, and this is what the critics mostly missed. Throughout much of the post-WWII era, Japan has prided itself on being a middle-class country, one in which the vast majority share a similar standard of living. No more: while Japan still lacks the yawning income and cultural divisions of the United States, its middle-class society is more ideal than reality at this juncture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” Kore-eda makes this point by not having any middle-class characters. The extremely upper-middle-class Nonomiya is horrified at the Sakais’ electrical shop, the back of which constitutes their home, a typical arrangement in Japan. For their part, the Sakais compare the Nonomiya’s highrise apartment to a hotel–and not in a good way. The two families even eat differently, a significant factor in a country whose cuisine is shared across class lines. The Nonomiyas welcome Ryusei with sukiyaki, an extravagantly expensive meal, while the Sakais feed Keita fried gyoza, a festive but cheap treat.

But the real cultural difference comes at bath time: Ryusei is explicitly instructed to bathe alone, while the Sakai père bathes with his two boys. Anthony Lane, who reviews for The New Yorker, has it backwards when he writes,”[Sakai] even takes baths with the children.” Japanese bathtubs are deep soaking tubs; all the washing and rinsing is done with buckets before entering. Small children can’t manage either part of the process on their own, hence the tradition of bathing en famille when the kids are young. (The only reason the entire Sakai family isn’t bathing at the same time is because their tub is too small.) Thus the unusual bathing custom in the film is the Nonomiyas’ solitary western-style one.

Lane goes on to refer to Nonomiya as a “middle-class professional,” but his fancy apartment building and black Lexus are well beyond the grasp of middle-class Japanese. Not only is he a high-earning architect at an impressive firm but, at forty, he has much of his lucrative career still ahead of him, whether or not he stays on the fast track.

Nevertheless, Lane wraps up the review by making an excellent point: that although Nonomiya is the main character, his wife and Mrs. Sakai are the ones who manage “the righting of elusive wrongs.” Lane then suggests a better title for the American remake, “Like Mother, Like Son.” Which would be great if the Japanese title were actually “Like Father, Like Son,” but “Soshite Chichi Ni Naru” translates “And I Become Your Dad,” a typically vague Japanese title. Dreamworks will probably call its version something else entirely, but whatever else is lost in translation I’m sure the class divisions will come through loud and clear.

Death of a Cinematic Genius: Nagisa Oshima, 1932-2013

January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nagisa Oshima in the 1960s

Nagisa Oshima in the 1960s

It was with shock and more than a little sadness that I read of Nagisa Oshima’s death today. Though he forever will be associated with the youthful themes of the Japanese New Wave, he was 80 and apparently had been in poor health since a stroke suffered in 1996.

Oshima’s films were featured in a major retrospective at the American Cinematheque in 2009, about which I wrote this piece:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/nagisa-oshima-and-japan-in-the-sixties/

During his fiery career, Oshima broke cultural and censorship barriers in Japan and abroad. The product of an affluent and aristocratic Kyoto family, he studied law and had every reason to protect the status quo, both politically and artistically. Yet he was heavily influenced by the Japanese student protests of the 1960s, and by leftist politics in general. As a filmmaker, he claimed, “My hatred for Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it.” He meant it. Oshima had no use for the poetic films of Yasujiro Ozu (on which he got his start as an assistant). He also claimed the goal of his films was “to force the Japanese to look in the mirror.”

There are no equivalents to Oshima among younger Japanese filmmakers: there don’t have to be. In challenging censorship, artistic mores and the very basis of filmmaking, he blazed a trail that made their path smoother, though probably less memorable. RIP.

A link to the New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/movies/nagisa-oshima-iconoclastic-filmmaker-dies-at-80.html?hp&_r=0

Deliver Us From Lollygagging: The Glacial Pace of Tourist Traffic on Beachwood Drive

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beachwood Drive at Glen Alder, with Speed Limit Posted/8-19-12/Hope Anderson Productions

An exponential rise in visitors to the Hollywood Sign has brought not only picture-taking throngs in the middle of traffic but the daily phenomenon of cars traveling well below the posted speed limit on Beachwood Drive. On the mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Hollywoodland Gates, the posted speed limit is 30. Yet the average tourist–status verified by out-of-state plates, rental car stickers and a penchant for running stop signs and not using turn signals–takes it upon himself to drive at a leisurely 20 mph, the better to take in the view.

While this might not sound like a serious problem, it is huge for those of us who live in the Canyon and have schedules to keep. Once we get stuck behind crawling tourist traffic, we are trapped for a mile. Drivers are completely unable to pass north of Graciosa, where Beachwood Drive is a narrow, two-lane ribbon. South of Graciosa, where the road is considerably wider, passing is possible but fraught with hazard. Sudden stops and swerves are common tourist driving tactics, as is road rage: How dare you pass us! seems to be the general attitude, as if no one should have anything better to do than chug up and down Beachwood Drive at 2/3 the legal speed. (I’m neglecting the fact that some tourists go even slower than 20 mph. 15 mph is common.)

The mile-long stretch between Franklin Avenue and the Gates has no stop lights and only two stop signs. At the posted speed of 30 mph, it took me 1 1/2 minutes to drive it at 6:45pm today. Yet it often takes five times as long, an inexcusable length of time for such a short distance. Getting stuck behind tourist traffic on Beachwood Drive is getting more common–and more frustrating–every day.

If you’re reading this and contemplating a visit to the Hollywood Sign, please drive at the posted speed. If you need to take a photo, please pull over, signalling first, and let the driver behind you pass. I’m thanking you in advance, not just for myself but for everyone concerned.

Lost in Translation: American Movie Critics on Japanese Films

September 15, 2010 § 5 Comments

The Mother and Children in "Nobody Knows"/www.media.sbs.com

Most American movie critics have knowledge of a foreign language–perhaps French, Spanish or German. Regardless of the critics’ degree of fluency, however, the languages in question are almost always European languages. Few to none have any knowledge of an Asian language, yet from time to time all will review Chinese, Japanese or Korean films, relying on subtitles to make judgements about the characters, dialogue and story. 

These days, subtitles are usually quite accurate, at least in the literal sense. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve seen a film in which the subtitles didn’t match the dialogue–as I recall, it was a Cantonese film called “Stage Door,” which in places had subtitles rendered so inaccurately (and, to me, hilariously) that they seemed to belong to an entirely different movie. Since then, I’ve found most subtitles to be slavishly literal, which is almost as problematic.

An excellent example of a literal translation gone wrong can be found in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film, “Nobody Knows.” Based on a true story of four children who secretly live alone after being abandoned by their pathologically neglectful mother, the film begins before her departure. In a key scene, she tells her eldest child about her latest boyfriend by saying, “I’ve fallen in love with someone.” Unfortunately, the remark is subtitled, “Your mother is in love with someone now.” This prompted the reviewer, Ella Taylor, to write, “…their primary parent, who chillingly refers to herself in the third person as ‘your mother,’ is frequently away….”

It’s not chilling in the least. In Japanese, people commonly refer to themselves in the third person, particularly in family situations, a linguistic characteristic that has nothing to do with megalomania and everything to do with the importance of family roles. In Japanese homes, people are called–and call themselves–mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, brother and sister; the English equivalent would be “you” or “I.”  In “Nobody Knows,” the mother–however emotionally stunted and criminally negligent–is simply speaking standard Japanese.

Taylor’s mistaken assumption bothered me so much that I wrote the LA Weekly to explain the problem; to my surprise, my letter was printed under the heading “We Stand Corrected.” Re-reading the review, I should have said something about Taylor’s other glaring mistake:

The mother, who’s played by a Japanese television personality named You, for whom the part seems not much of a stretch….

You, a singer and actress who won a Japanese Academy Award for her performance in “Nobody Knows,” is hardly deserving of this slam. (And despite its resemblance to the English pronoun, her name is short for Yukiko [Snow], a common Japanese girl’s name.) 

Last year, the language in a more recent Kore-eda film raised the hackles of New York Times critic Manohla Dargis. In “Still Walking,” the adult children of an elderly couple return home to mark the 15th anniversary of their brother’s death. Writes Dargis, “When Ryota arrives with his wife and stepson at his parents’ home, his father simply grunts, ‘Oh, you’re here.'”

Yes, he does–but that’s a standard man-to-man greeting in a society where emotions are deeply felt but infrequently verbalized. The gruff father, a man of few words, is an archetype in Japan, a country where garrulous types are labeled chatterboxes and fluid speakers are often dismissed as insincere. In singling out this innocuous line of dialogue, Dargis colors the father’s character in a way the Japanese original doesn’t.

Obviously, the nuances of the Japanese language can scarcely be understood by American critics who don’t speak it. But it’s not too much to ask that they run their reviews by people who speak Japanese and know the culture. Until that happens, it’s up to those of us who do to keep correcting them.

Setsuko Hara at 90: Ozu’s Muse, Forever Young

August 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Setsuko Hara, circa 1950

Setusuko Hara is an actress with no equivalent in western film. For 20 years after WWII, she defined contemporary femininity for Japanese audiences, first playing young, unmarried women, then wives, then mothers. In all her roles, she was a vital, central character, never an adjunct to a male star. (If only the same were true for female characters in American films!) So totemic is Hara’s place in Japanese cinema that she earned the moniker “The Eternal Virgin.” By refusing to grow old onscreen–she made her last movie at 46–and never marrying in real life, she further set herself apart, not only from other actors but societal norms.

Although Hara made 73 films in her 30-year career, she is best known for the twelve she made with three major post-war auteurs: Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. A more detailed essay on her life and work can be found in my Pages.

Nagisa Oshima and the Japanese New Wave

May 3, 2009 § 1 Comment

Miyuki Kuwano and Yusuke Kawazu in "Cruel Story of Youth/Courtesy http://www.hokubei.com

The recent Oshima retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood–continuing at LACMA–was a bracing reminder of the Japanese New Wave, which lasted much longer than the French one– from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s–and whose directors included Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki and Hiroshi Teshigahara. Unlike their French counterparts, who mostly began as film critics, most Japanese New Wave directors  came up through the studio system, serving traditional apprenticeships before rebelling against the restrained filmmaking styles of their elders (Ozu, Mizoguchi) .

No one pushed the envelope more than Oshima, who in his rejection of tasteful indirection also depicted an amoral new generation of Japanese–mods and punks, gangsters and juvies–flailing their way through life in a developing superpower. The post-war images of genteel city dwellers in the black-and-white films of Ozu give way to Oshima’s blasts of 1960s neon, bouffant hairdos and stylish outfits, showing the world just how much had changed in Japan during the 50’s.

In “Cruel Story of Youth,” a pretty, aimless high school girl takes up with a sadistic but handsome petty criminal, with predictably tragic results. In “Pleasures of the Flesh,” a besotted young university student’s obsession with his high school tutee leads him to commit murder on her behalf, a crime that renders him both a victim of blackmail and his own bottomless appetite for self-destruction.

The films take place in the Tokyo of my childhood, whose locations–Shibuya, Yoyogi, Asakusa–I recognized with delight. I was far too young to have seen any of them when they came out and it would be decades before they were available on video, so seeing them for the first time was both a relevation and a reminder of how many decades have passed since rich Japanese men aspired to big American cars  (which they apparently used to cruise jailbait on the Ginza).  Oshima’s characters–however stupid, violent or wrongheaded–are so vivid that the screen barely contains them; in their determination to get rich, get the girl,  get revenge, they seem on the verge of bursting through the frame.

The strangest of the Oshima films I saw last weekend was “Japanese Summer: Double Suicide,” in which a hilarious, nihilistic, nymphomaniacal teenage girl hooks up with a suicidal stranger in hopes of having sex. The two wind up in a bunker of paramilitary assassins preparing for the start of a gang war. The result is an unforgettable mashup of Godot’s “Weekend,” “Waiting for Godot,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The female protagonist–ballsy, profane and unlike any other–is still making me laugh a week later.

Other directors have been compared to Jean-Luc Godard, but in this case the comparison is apt; not only do Oshima’s early films and their concerns mirror his, but both men came to filmmaking the same way, starting as critics, which made Oshima atypical in Japan and Godard typical in France. Like Godard, Oshima writes his own scripts and is a master of unexpected dialog. “She’s mute and a little crazy, but she’s nice,” says a madam about one of her prostitutes in “Pleasures of the Flesh.”

The first Oshima film I ever saw was the also the first I was aware of: “In the Realm of the Senses.” When it opened the New York Film Festival in 1976, the police shut it down; arrests were made. It caused rioting in Cannes and has never been shown in its uncensored form in Japan. When it finally came out on video in the early 90’s, I rushed out to rent it, mentioning to the cashier at Rocket Video that I had been too young to see it when it was new. “You may still be too young,” he laughed, and he had a point. What I saw was not only the first hard-core pornography of my life but also the most purely artistic film I’d ever seen, one that burned so deeply into my mind that I remember it vividly nearly two decades later. (It opened the Cinematheque retrospective, but I missed it because of a shut-down of Hollywood Blvd. for a Depeche Mode concert.)

“In the Realm of the Senses,” obsessed me for days, during which I talked about it to any adult who would listen. My tendency to ruminate on it unnerved my boyfriend at the time, who once threatened to get out of my bed if I didn’t stop describing the plot to him. (Spoiler alert: the heroine, a prostitute swept up in a amour fou, cuts off her lover’s penis and carries it around in her obi for a few days, until the police catch up with her. It’s a true story that took place in the 1930s.)

Eventually I stopped talking about the film, but I’ve never stopped thinking  about  its amazing power. Oshima’s psychological fearlessness, coupled with his superb visual and writing styles, are keys to his greatness. His work puts him head and shoulders above most of today’s directors, even the best of whom care more about “likeability” (both their characters’ and their own) than depicting life in all its beauty, brutality and complexity. In a time of increasingly inane and boring cinematic pablum, it’s a relief to know that–at least on DVD–there are brilliant alternatives.

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