Posts Tagged ‘David Lynch’

Satoshi Kon; A Sad day for Anime and Film.

August 25, 2010

This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.

The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.

I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.

A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.

Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.

Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.

Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.

Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.

Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.

As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.

At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”

Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.

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The Browning Versions; What is a Remake and When is it Not?

January 6, 2009

After my last post, regarding the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, I received quite some negative replies – as well as some positive comments. I’ve replied/clarified some of my points in a number of forums and on the IMDB. I’ll let this long winded series of musings serve as a final summing up of points I’ve not had space to address on previous occasions. Almost all the negative feedback had to do with the perception that I, being more or less familiar with film history, could never view a remake “on its own terms“; meaning, I assume, that the spectre of an original – and fondly remembered – film, would always come between me and the new “work of art”.

I mainly disagree with this notion, but I can’t dismiss it altogether. Film reviewing and criticism has as much to do with knowledge of what has come before as with anything else. Film criticism, it seems to me, is not the art of analyzing a film and only that single film, as if no other films have been made. Without the ability to compare films, to hold them up against each other, it would be very hard to decide what quality is and what it is not.

la_confidential_be1Can one, for example, fully appreciate L.A. Confidential with no knowledge of the period in which it is set – and in the kind of films they made in that period? One can like it for its plot, suspense, action scenes and to a certain degree its characters, but I would certainly claim that a more thorough appreciation hinges on recognizing certain archetypes and archetropes of film noir and in seeing this film’s treatment of such. Also, while one can easily like the film without any comparative knowledge, one can never know whether it is really good; if there has already been made 1000 better films in the genre, one would be hard pressed to find the thousandandfirst film more than average at best. No one ever sees all the films ever made, so a truly exhaustive comparison is never possible, but if one hasn’t seen enough films to have at least a tentative understanding of what constitutes a genre, one can well rent films and privately consider every seeming novelty the best film in the world, but one should keep silent about them in polite company, if not on the internet…

Genre is one of the ways we can make sense of films. It is also a tool that enables us to talk about films that in some ways have something in common, usually having to do with subject matter and/or film style. It is usually ridiculous to compare a film (in terms of quality )of one genre to one in another genre. While I may like, say, the anime Mononoke-hime better than Die Hard, I can’t really claim that it is definitely the better film (it is!!!), as both seem to succeed in what they set out to do in a manner that is exemplary for their respective genres (Anime and Mainstream Action). I can, however say that Die Hard is better than American Gangster. I could also imply that I prefer a well made Anime over a well made Mainstream Action film, and thus validate my preference. It is after all the reviewer’s subjective take on the films that constitute the review. However, this must not mean that he disregards films in a genre that he doesn’t hold in especially high esteem as positively inferior. Ideally a reviewer should be able to appreciate all genres for what they are, what they can be.

mononoke_hime_mediumGenre, thus, constitutes one way we judge newer films by what has come before. As mentioned above, there were some protests that implied that I, having seen the original TDTESS, was incapable of judging it in a way that had anything to say to those that had not yet seen the original. This is not far from claiming that the less informed a reviewer is about the history of film, the better equipped he is to communicate what the general public is likely to appreciate. I will approach the matter of judging and validating remakes by another example, that of sequels.

In the case that a film is deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, one of two things generally occurs: 1: The studio hopes to earn some easy money by replacing everything that made the original any good (if it had ever been good in the first place) with a second rate production or less known faces in front of and behind the camera. Often these films end up going direct to DVD, or at least sells gradually less and less (a number of Disney films come to mind as well as any sequel featuring members of Saturday Night Live. And let‘s not forget any mildly or very successful horror-film; Puppetmaster, Halloween, Friday 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes, Tremors, Resident Evil, Child’s Play, Critters, Jaws, Highlander, Mimic, etc, etc. By the way, none of these has less than 2 sequels, and some have already been remade as well). 2: Other films were maybe so-called sleeper hits, or films that the studio felt insecure about upon their original release, and when having proved successful beyond expectations, a bigger, more expensive and expansive sequel is arranged, with as many of the same players as possible. Sometimes these films do reasonably well commercially, such as the mentioned Die Hard-films, the Jason Bourne– or the Matrix Trilogy, other times they bomb as if there is no tomorrow, as, let’s say, Speed 2. Once in a blue moon, the sequels are actually almost on par with the original of what has now become a kind of franchise, or it betters them: Godfather II, Superman II, Spiderman II, Empire Strikes Back, Dawn of the Dead, Mad Max II, The Dark Knight (which is not called Batman II, so I don‘t know if it counts as a sequel) and let’s not forget Revenge of the Nerds II.

In the case of the lower budgeted sequels, it is generally not that necessary to have seen the first part of the series in order to understand/appreciate the following films. I find that the opposite is usually true for the ones that add a bigger budget. This is strange, as one would assume that the more expensive a film is, the more the studios would want the film to be able to stand alone. Oh well, I digress. My point here is that in order to determine whether, say, The Matrix: Revolutions is any good, or rather, how bad it is, one would be expected to have seen the preceding film(s). Seen by and for itself, one could perhaps confuse it for an original sci/fi-action film utilizing exciting and ground breaking new technology. I find it strenuous to think that someone would accuse a reviewer of being biased because he had seen the first of the trilogy and found the sequels to be severely lacking in comparison. Again, the point is that the quality of the film is in some ways bound to comparisons with already existing films. I doubt that the fact of having seen Tremors invites the viewer to base his entire impression of the quality of the sequels upon whether they follow the same formula as the original. There are other aspects that come into play, such as competence, direction and story. I fail to see that judging sequels differs enormously from reviewing remakes.

In the matter of remakes, one has a very definite and literal source of comparison. The film makers have decided for some reason – and these reasons can be good or bad – that they want to have another go at a cultural product. I put it as loosely as that, because in most instances they don’t really want to make the same film again – Gus van Sant’s Psycho being the possible exception – but to take a story, a character, a concept or – in too many cases – merely want to capitalize upon an established title, a brand, so to say, and try to make something new or financially viable of it.

gabriel-as-the-winslow-boySeeing as the film makers – or studio – has thus invited comparisons by retooling an already existing cultural entity (how’s that for being obscure?), I think any reviewer would be amiss if he didn’t consider how the newer version differs from, improves upon, takes away from, or expands upon the original concept. This by no means implies that the reviewer should automatically perceive the original version as a biblical text and any deviations from it as heresy. I very much like Anthony Asquith‘s original The Winslow Boy, and, seeing as it is based on a play by the excellent Terence Rattigan, I could see very few ways in which to improve upon the film. In David Mamet’s remake, almost the exact same story was told in almost the exact same way, with a very few exceptions. These exceptions had to do with some of Mamet’s usual concerns, a certain delivery of speech and stressing of relationship between truth and seeming truth. For me some little extra scenes and a very slightly different ear for dialogue was enough to more than appreciate Mamet’s new version.

I think the biggest problem some reviewers and many mere viewers have with remakes has to do with the quality of the original. If a film was really good, why remake it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to remake a flawed product that one perceives as having potential to be better than it actually turned out to be? In other cases, usually concerning some supernatural or sci/fi- concept, the effects available at the time of the original were so few that one thinks that adding green screen and blue screen and sensors on everyone’s faces will automatically make for a better viewing experience. The idea is not silly. The better the effects in these kinds of films, the easier to lose oneself in the reality of the film, one might say. So one “reinvents” Planet of the Apes and The Day The Earth Stood Still. It is needless to say that none of these will survive the test of time. I think part of the reason is that it was not the technology per se that made them function as films but the story and direction. So any remake has very little to gain but much to lose by relying on better visual effects to validate its existence.

Sometimes the results are indeed honourable, as in the recent versions of King Kong and War of the Worlds. I still prefer the 1933-version of the former. This has to do with being able to compare it to other films of the time, and thus seeing how inventive and adventurous the film really was and is. Another reason might be almost archaeological in nature, as if it stands before us as a beautiful artefact of a time gone by, and we should be glad it still exists for our pleasure. Both these reasons might be said to be more theoretical or intellectual than aesthetic, but I think that one can’t overlook that the story is extremely well told and as long as the story is captivating enough to hold our attention, the technical means of telling it does not matter a whole lot. My preferring the original did not, however, make me disposed to hate Peter Jackson’s remake. On the contrary, I liked it and thought it among the better block busters of its year. Much the same I can say for Steven Spielberg’s retooling of the classic invasion film. While not his best work, it was by no means a disaster, and I particularly liked how he made the action happen outside the reach of his Everyman. It reminded me in this aspect a fair bit of Marvels, the excellent comic book by Kurt Busiek.

This begs the question: Why remake films where the only available new technology to speak of is colour, and even that was available for most of these films? Why remake Father of the Bride, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 3:10 to Yuma, The Manchurian Candidate, The Women, The Pink Panther, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and many, many more? If it was the story that seemed old fashioned, why remake it, why not make something entirely new? If one thinks the acting style seemed too old fashioned, well, why pander to fads and make everything so goddamn easy for everyone? And why have Steve Martin try to badly copy Peter Sellers? Even some of my favourite directors are guilty of this meaningless retooling of already very good films, as in the case of the Coen Brother’s remake of the Ladykillers. And that, as they say, is a shame.

Maybe the first lesson the Remakers should take is “never remake a film made by a distinct director, someone who has/had their own vision”. Try to remake some journeyman director instead. I don’t think anyone alive, maybe except Stephen King, much appreciates the remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Well, at least they had the wits to call it Stephen King’s The Shining… I shudder to think of the day they decide to remake A Clockwork Orange. David Lynch has made one film that is not a master piece, but seeing as that was based on a series of novels and not even he was satisfied with the final version, I don’t find it scandalous that they remade Dune. However, imagine in 20 years a producer wanting to have a go at Blue Velvet or conceive of Eraserhead: The Mutation!

Now, while mentioning The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, I took pause, wondering if any new version of a novel or play is really a remake of the film or just another version of the literary source. In, let’s say films based on works by Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens, one doesn’t really think of them as remakes of films, does one? Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V or Hamlet are not really remakes of Olivier’s versions as much as interpretations of Shakespeare, methinks. Neither are new versions of Emma, Othello, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights or Dracula as much remakes of existing films as they are yet another way to bring the book to life. War of the Worlds, though, is considered a remake of the 1956-film more than an interpretation of H.G.Wells, and a number of Western films that have later been remade also had a literary antecedent, without this being considered when we talk about the remakes. Maybe it has to do with the classic status of the original work, or whether the novels predates Film itself?

browning_version_1951_xl_01-film-bIn closing, I’d like to take the opportunity to mention a case where I saw the remake first and only much later the original work. I have seen Mike Figgis’ film The Browning Version two times. It is based on a play by already mentioned Terrence Rattigan. Neither viewing left much impression on me. I thought it a so-so film, with good actors trying to play as good actors should. Recently I saw Anthony Asquith’s original and was blown away. Michael Redgrave delivers a portrait of the retiring teacher that put Albert Finney’s portrayal if not to shame, than at least rendered more or less meaningless. The difference in acting and actors was not all, though. It was made in another time, yet the original felt emotionally a hundred times more relevant to me than Figgis’ remake. Why this is so, and why the earlier film was so much better is something I hope one day to put into more words, maybe here. Perhaps they just made better films before, or perhaps when something has been made once, it can very seldom be bettered. I don’t know. I do not, however, hate those that try. Unless they insist on bringing Steve Martin along. And unless they fuck with my favourite films. Now, go and remake the Phantom Menace. With a director.