Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai' (1999)

Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), shot in New Jersey with Japanese dreams. Stars Forest Whitaker in the title role, as a retainer of low-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). 

The film is a most excellent fantasy piece revolving around Ghost Dog, the quiet assassin; aging gangsters; Raymond, a French-speaking Haitian ice cream truck man (Isaach De Bakolé); Pearline (Camille Winbush), a very young reader of books; and active carrier / messenger pigeons, also known as war pigeons.  
The character Ghost Dog filters the world through Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure / Hidden Leaves (from the early 1700s), which strictly and philosophically lays out the samurai way of life.  Many of its "leaves" are read aloud by Ghost Dog over intertitles that show the corresponding text, in English. 
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Totally hip flick with a groovy soundtrack courtesy of RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. Throughout the film, there are lots of allusions to books, other movies, mixed genres and alternate codes of naming and living. There may be a sequel forthcoming. 
Today's Rune: Protection. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sean Baker: 'The Florida Project' (2017)

I first learned about Sean Baker's The Florida Project (2017) because one of its stars, Willem Dafoe, received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in it. 

The Florida Project zeroes in on some of the people attached by work or residency to the Magic Castle and Futureland motels on the ragged Kissimmee periphery of Disney World. 

We see things largely though the perspectives of circa six-year-old kids, particularly Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera); their mothers/guardians Halley (Bria Vinaite), Ashley (Mela Murder) and Stacey (Josie Olivio); and Bobby, the manager of Magic Castle (Dafoe).  
This film is a gem. The milieu and performances are right on. The perspectives are so evocative that The Florida Project unleashed a flood of memories for me, from when I was six years old! It's so true!

When I was six, my immediate family was living in an apartment complex in Justice, Illinois, about nineteen or twenty miles southeast of Chicago by car. We resided there for a couple of years as a transit point between Pennsylvania and Minnesota, based on my father's job trajectory.

There I had friends and acquaintances named Boatsie, Pic and Misty -- pretty close to names like Moonee, Scooty and Jancey. We would run around the area, in and nearby the apartment complex, exactly as they do in the movie -- it was a most excellent thing being a "Free Range" kid, sometimes on the dangerous side.

We occasionally got into the same kinds of trouble the kids do in The Florida Project, but much more dramatic events for us included seeing the devastation brought by tornadoes ripping through the nearby landscape, a huge building fire in our complex, and helping out afterwards. 
Where were you when you were six years old?  The answer may inform your response to The Florida Project. What you bring may translate into what you see reflected. So, at least, it was for me. 

Today's Rune: Fertility.           

Monday, May 21, 2018

'Fahrenheit 451' (2018)

Ramin Bahrani's 2018 adaptation of the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 on HBO stars Michael B. Jordan as Montag, Michael Shannon as Beatty, and Sofia Boutella as Clarisse.  There's enough action in the novel to make a mini-series; it's harder to pull off in a 101-minute movie. I like the new version, however. It's updated to include recognizable social media and contemporary variations on book burning. In this version, too, the carriers of books and oral traditions are "eels" - derogatory slang for "illegals." Some technology critics seem to hate all of this new stuff, but they also seemed to have missed the boat, the train and the book. When the US is led by a man who does not read, the nation is already half in the bag of dodoville. It's a worldwide trend -- backward. In light of today's socially retarded emotional fascism, one cannot afford to be too subtle. 

In the opening sequence of Fahrenheit 451, there are images of burning books and visual art and, at one point, a picture of Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895).

Fact number one: in the first month of taking office, the current American president said this: "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice." (Multiple sources. Here's oneDavid A. Graham, "Donald Trump's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," The Atlantic, February 1, 2017). Fact number 2: Douglass was born a slave and died long before Trump's birth,  but as he (Douglass, not Trump) learned to read, the possibilities of freedom became more palpable, and eventually he escaped to freedom.

Some folks didn't like the carrier bird in this version of Fahrenheit 451. I thought it was totally cool. Incidentally, I also just saw Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), in which books also play a big part -- as do carrier pigeons, which were also important during the Great War of 1914-1918, of which this year is the centenary of its last year. 
Finally, the flames. I had an English teacher who had my class read Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter / The Firebugs, a play that was first published in 1953 -- the same year as Ray Bradbury's original Fahrenheit 451. In The Firebugs, arsonists are stand-ins for totalitarian brutes who talk their way into people's homes, only to torch them in the end. She --- Joan Boyd -- also had us read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Ann Barlow, another inspiring English teacher, strongly encouraged outside reading, including in my case several novels by Ray Bradbury. Such wonderful English teachers would be classified as "eels" in the new movie, which is like a blend of The Firebugs, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Brave New World, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Fahrenheit 451. Dig it or douse it -- your choice. 

Today's Rune: Breakthrough.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jaroslav Hašek, 'The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War,' Part 2A

Jaroslav Hašek, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War / Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války / Los destinos del buen soldado Švejk durante la guerra mundial / Les Aventures du brave soldat Švejk pendant la Grande Guerre / aka The Good Soldier Švejk / (1921-1923).

Hašek conveys meaning by contrasting the absurdities of treatment based on rank, social class and ethnicity. The distinctions of rank are well epitomized in this brief passage:

"The silence of the night was reigning over the military camp in Most. In the barracks for the troops the soldiers were shivering from the cold and in the officers' barracks they were opening the windows, because it was overheated in there." 

~~ Jaroslav Hašek, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, Book Two. The Samizdat edition of the new English rendition, translated by Zdeněk "Zenny" Sadloň, AuthorHouse, 2009, page 122. 
Colonel Schröder is bonkers, but because he's in charge, everyone has to endure his ravings. In this, Colonel Schröder is a stand-in for every madcap, idiotic control-freaking boss anyone has ever had to suffer through. Furthermore, an amazing truth is not the alternating prevalence of SNAFU and FUBAR within any bureaucracy, but that anything functions at all.

"He was making no sense, mixing things five after nine, talking about how two months ago the front down below and in the east too had halted, about the importance of exact connection between individual detachments, about toxic gases, about shooting at the enemy airplanes, about supplying the troops in the field, and then he transitioned to the internal situation in the military . . . The majority of the officers was thinking at the same time, 'when is the old geezer going to stop driveling,' but Colonel Schröder was babbling on about new tasks of new march battalions, about the fallen officers of the regiment, about zeppelins, Spanish riders, the oath . . ."

~~ Jaroslav Hašek, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, Book Two. The Samizdat edition of the new English rendition, translated by Zdeněk "Zenny" Sadloň, AuthorHouse, 2009, page 186.

Today's Rune: Gateway. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

'Reality Bites' (1994)

Based on Helen Childress's initial ideas and multiple evolving scripts, Ben Stiller's Reality Bites (1994) takes place near the end of both the twentieth century and the analog era. Released twenty-four years ago, it now looks like an entirely different realm of the senses. Only Michael Grates, the goofy Ben Stiller character, lives as if in the twenty-first century: he's the only one with a mobile phone and a lucrative job - producing "In Your Face TV." 

The actors are fun. In addition to Stiller, there's Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawk, Janeane Garofalo and Steven Zahn, among others - Generation X, the all-Anglo version.  

Certain aspects of the film give it some gravitas: Vickie Miner (Garofalo) having to get an AIDS test; Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn) coming out; Lelaina Pierce (Ryder) having to look for a job; Troy Dyer (Hawke) having no social safety net, though he's reading Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit / Being and Time (and incidentally, I read the exact same book in 1991, while working a temp job for a non-profit called AIDSTECH).
Technology. Video recording, videotapes: Lelaina is making a documentary about her Generation X friends called Reality Bites. (Blockbuster, RIP). 

Telephony. Landlines, payphones are used by everyone except Michael and his preferred cellphones, one a clunky car phone and the other a smaller Star Trek style device. Lelaina runs up a long distance bill in no time. The scarcity of wireless and digital technology allow several suspenseful plot points that would be harder to pull off in the twenty-first century.  
Coffee and beer seem to be the preferred drinks. Set mostly in Houston, not much is drawn out of the place to distinguish it from any other large American city of the early 1990s, aside from a few cowboy hats. There's a formal yellow taxi -- no Uber, no Lyft. Lelaina's Dad's gas card covers the extra food expenses. Twenty-four years later, Reality Bites still. Only in the digital age, it's all gooder, man!

Today's Rune: Breakthrough

Monday, May 14, 2018

Jim Jarmusch: 'Permanent Vacation' (1980)

Permanent Vacation (1980): the first completed effort by Jim Jarmusch, a rudimentary one shot on a shoestring budget, telegraphs his future batch of films. 

I found it interesting and fun, whereas most "regular people" would probably find it aimless and pointless. Permanent Vacation serves partly as a semi-documentary tour of bits of the New York City cityscape in the late 1970s -- shabby and in disarray.

Ali (Chris Parker), the main character, would be quite comfortable in 2018 America as a millennial man-child: weird and awkward, without much ambition or drive other than to do whatever he wants without much cash on hand, slightly brain-damaged in his social interactions. He does muster up enough energy to steal a car for $800 in cash -- hardly something to write home about. 

He seems to drift away from his pseudo-girlfriend after examining the architectural ruins of an area "bombed" by "Chinese" in a some fantasy war where he also happened to stumble on a homeless veteran of the US-Vietnam War.

Ali considers seeing a hip film and interacts with a nodding junkie jazz hepcat, with the final scene from Sergio Leone's Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo / The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (1966) playing in the background, just barely audible (one of the strangest touches of the entire movie).

Earlier, Ali and his pseudo-girlfriend read from Les Chants de Maldoror / Maldorer's Lay (1868-1869) by Comte de Lautréamont.

Permanent Vacation is a prototype of more "fully realized" Jarmusch films, more like Bohemian bits of flash fiction or poems loosely strung together than a longer work.  

Today's Rune: Warrior. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Lucian of Samosata and the False Prophet of Glycon

Lucian of Samosata / Lucianus Samosatensis (circa 125-180 A.D.) was disgusted by mouthy flimflam men. Probably after 160 A.D. (in the Common Era), he wrote a scathing text on the False Prophet of Glycon that sounds amazingly contemporary. 

From about one thousand eight hundred and fifty years ago:

"I feel a sense of shame for both our sakes, yours as well as mine. Yours because you're willing to let the memory of a damned scoundrel be committed to writing and so preserved, mine because I'm spending so much time and energy on such a topic, on the acts of a man who ought not be a subject for the educated to read about but an object for the masses to behold being torn to bits by foxes and apes in some vast theater."

(Translation  by Lionel Casson from Selected Satires of Lucian. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962, page 269). 

"Torn to bits by foxes and apes?" And here I was thinking in 2018 that basic impeachment or voting a brute out of office would be sufficient. What do you think? 

Today's Rune: Movement.