image of washizu and wife from Throne of Blood

Quick Note on Throne of Blood

Here’s the late Donald Richie on Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood:

I was present during the location shooting for much of the film. Particularly fine were those rushes of the advancing hunting party, both the long silhouette shots and, later, the advance, taken with longdistance lenses which flattened the figures out and looked like a medieval tapestry. After they were taken Kurosawa said he was pleased. “I have about ten times more than I need.”

In the finished film this morning’s work takes ten seconds. Gone are the living tapestries (“they only held up the action”); the wonderful turning shots of the messenger (“I don’t know—they looked confused to me”); a splendid entrance of Mifune skidding to a stop (“you know, Washizu wasn’t that upset”); and a lovely framing shot of the procession seen through the gate (“too pretty”).

I still think of Kurosawa that morning, up on his platform, directing everything, always quiet, suggesting rather than commanding, looking through the view-finders, getting down to run through the mud to the other camera, making jokes, getting just what he wanted. And then—having the courage, the discipline to choose from that morning’s richness just those few frames which contained what would best benefit the film.

It is, indeed, a very good film. As Kurosawa’s fans point out, literary critic Harold Bloom has written that Throne of Blood is the “most successful film version of Macbeth.” (Perhaps more interesting to note the subordinate clause Bloom tacks to the end of his declaration: “though it departs very far from the specifics of Shakespeare’s play.”)

In any case, Richie’s description of what was cut leaves me wanting to see the deleted scenes.

The trailer:

image of washizu in command

art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie


“Steamboat Willie” was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. [First distributed in theaters, not first produced —Ed.] It premiered November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. It was also the first cartoon to have synchronized sound.

If you watch the whole thing, which I had never done until last year, you’ll see it’s also a catalog of animal abuse that would not pass muster today.

screenshot of mickey mouse pressing his shoe on the back of a cat's neck

Since I mention abuse: About halfway through, the song “Turkey in the Straw” starts playing. I never gave much though to the single verse of lyrics that my brother and I learned for this song as kids. (I also never learned that version asking if your ears hang low.) A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that they were from a variation sung by George Gobel on television in the ’50s. Ours went a little like this:

Oh, I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg,
So I poured hot water up and down her leg,
Oh, the little chicken hollered and the little chicken begged,
And that darn little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

Ouch! Poor little chicken.

1918 sheet music cover portraying a fashionable african-american man called the zip coonLike folk music in general, this song has undergone all kinds of tweaking and transformations. In fact, one of the earliest versions had the unfortunate title “Zip Coon,” a minstrelsy reference to an African-American who was sharply dressed, urban, and free. Or, to use another more subtly charged word that is still around: uppity.

Maybe that earlier song variation could makes sense in the Steamboat Willie context, given the criticism of Mickey Mouse as minstrel.

Fortunately, we were spared the blatant racial mockery when we learned our lyrics. Though if you want to insist on some social subtext, I suppose there was some gender silliness: the hard-boiled-egg-laying chicken’s sex was variable in our singing. Sometimes we poured hot water up and down his leg.

journalism, life, movies

Enjoy it while it lasts: Woody, Ira, and the kindness of strangers

Inevitably, I will post at least one of the seemingly numerous videos available of Ira Glass telling people how to tell stories. But until then, I’ll stick with the video above. It’s a clip from a Woody Allen film.

If you haven’t seen his Hannah and Her Sisters, I’m spoiling things a bit by putting it here; I think of this as the climax of that movie, though we can debate that.

But when I watched it—and, especially, heard it—I couldn’t help thinking of Ira Glass. The tone, the delivery, the tics and timing of the narration. The actual story, as told. I suspect that our Mr. Glass learned a lesson in storytelling from Mr. Allen’s films (as many others have).

In fact, the pacing and sequence reminded me of how Glass structures his stories. As Glass said in an interview conducted for Current, a public broadcasting publication:

This is the structure of the stories on our show: There’s an anecdote–a sequence of events. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And the reason why that’s powerful, I think, is because there is something about the momentum, especially in a medium where you can’t see anything, especially in radio. That you just want to know what happens next. It’s irresistible. You just cannot help but want to know what happens next.

Then, there’s the part of the story where I make some really big statement like there’s something about the kindness of strangers. Because you can’t just have an anecdote. It’s got to mean something. You can have people read the little story from the Bible, but unless you tell them, you know, the lesson they’re trying to draw from it, it’s not a real sermon. And radio, in particular, is a very didactic medium.

The way that we’re taught to listen to it is, I think, largely from news shows, where they’re constantly telling you: here’s what happens, here’s what it means. And so we’re used to that. And if I didn’t say, “There’s something about the kindness of strangers,” this story just would not be as satisfying.

So the way that my staff and I talk about stories is we talk about, okay, what’s the anecdote and then where’s the moment of reflection. And we structure the stories like that, over and over and over.

Now watch listen to that scene with Woody again.

money, movies

Oscar’s Alimony

In The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison admits to his ex-wife in California that he’s weeks late paying his alimony. He gets off the phone, sits down with his poker buddies, and announces: “I’m $800 behind in alimony. Let’s raise the stakes.”

Eight-hundred dollars. We wonder how much that would be today.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics hosts an inflation calculator that we can turn to in situations like this. If we calculate using the value of a dollar in 1968, when the movie came out (the play debuted in 1965), translated to 2008 dollars, we get:

$800 (1968) –> $5029.49 (2008)

Oscar’s five thousand dollars behind.

That’s some inflation. It’s hard to imagine a sports writer, or any kind of print journalist, being able to pay five grand a month for just about anything these days. But life was different forty years ago, and so was the dollar. Gas was cheap, food was cheap, rent was cheap. Or so it seems in hindsight; presumably some of these things were proportional in cost to today while others simply were cheaper in real dollars.

Speaking of rent, Oscar Madison lives in an eight-room apartment—in Manhattan, by himself, as a reporter.

Those were the days. Adjusting for inflation, I wonder how many rooms Oscar’s apartment would have today.

[Thanks to Alisa for the question, who uses a different inflation calculator.]

environment, movies

Watch This Movie: Up the Yangtze

Although the flooding is near completion–the last city to be inundated is going under this fall–the consequences of China’s Three Gorges Dam will shudder through generations.

But that’s a big story, and big stories are hard to tell well. One way is to find a character, a family, a community, and to show how the big story reverberates on the smallest level. The Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang has found Yu Shui, her family, and a floating tourist ship offering Farewell Tours to the gorges, and through them he shows us some of those consequences in Up the Yangtze, his first feature-length documentary.

What we come away with is a multi-layered portrait of modern China, one whose brief moves beyond the dam and, in a series of subtle strokes, illuminates the conflict and paradox that define life for hundreds of millions. The strands are numerous and finely woven together: urban vs. rural, ambition, ownership, education, migration, resource allocation, and the uncomfortable relationship between Westerners and Chinese.

It’s worth noting that the dam has put people in uncomfortable situations since before it was built, such as when the People’s Congress passed a resolution in its favor in 1992. In that vote, fully a third of the congress either voted against or abstained from supporting the already controversial project, notable results from a body that is often dismissed as a rubber stamp.

I’ll grant that my perspective and enthusiasm is colored by my own limited experience in rural China, where many of the same themes I listed earlier are evident. But you can leave behind the political and social lens and enjoy the documentary for any number of other features, including the incredible cinematography, the intimate portrayal of family dynamics, and fleeting moments that are visually stunning and yet heartbreaking or frustrating.

I missed the film when it was in theaters this summer, but was lucky to catch it on PBS, where it screened as part of the POV series. You should now be able to watch it on DVD. In the meantime, here’s the trailer:

[Photo by Jonathan Chang]

India, international, journalism, movies

Golden Gate, Inc = Bollywood in Bay Area

Exterior shot of movie set in San Jose. 

Bollywood production with big Bollywood star comes to the Bay Area, and they wouldn’t let me take any photos. That’s the view toward their San Jose set yesterday. The city hall rotunda in San Jose was “Golden Gate, Inc.,” hence the sign outside. It is apparently also called “Golden Gate Engineering,” if the signs inside the rotunda were any indication. The discontinuity nerds will like that.

There’s nothing like a 600-word story with a three-person byline. But that’s what we got in the San Jose Mercury News today

Apparently, it is a bridge engineering firm. Hence the banners with the bridges in the windows of the rotunda, (barely) visible below.

 rotunda close-up with bridge banners

art, movies

The Abenteuer of Prince Achmed

I recently saw a scene from a film called The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed), accompanied by original score, on an arts channel a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a short clip of what I saw, with a new score by the Khoury Trio. Achmed has escaped to China with the princess. The villain is, of course, in pursuit.

The film was made by a German artist named Lotte Reiniger. It is the oldest animated feature in existence (even older films, created by an Argentine animator, are reportedly lost). The images are silhouettes of cardboard and thin lead sheeting; the look is reminiscent of Asian shadow puppetry.

Reiniger finished the film with her husband in 1926. As leftists, the pair fled Germany as the Nazis rose to power and bounced around Europe in the 1930s before settling in London for the rest of their lives.

There are a few Reiniger works from the 1950s on YouTube, fairy tales she animated for BBC. Jack and the Beanstalk, for example:

But they don’t quite have the audacity of a scene like Prince Achmed visiting a harem.

cool, money, movies, music, race, video

It’s a Mad World

As is customary when wasting any significant amount of time on YouTube, I stumbled across a cute enough little animation about an ambitious, yearning kiwi. And then another version of the same cartoon, this time with the Gary Jules/Michael Andrew song “Mad World” dubbed on top. It all seemed suitably angst-ridden. Kiwi and other videos, plus attempted exegesis, after the jump. Continue reading

art, money, movies

Makin’ movies. How do you do it? What’s it like?

An older and very accomplished journalist once wrote to me that the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he went, is “a jealous god.” And sometimes, I think, so am I. Let’s say “demigod.”

That accursed Wes Anderson. He is so good, our sensibilities are so complimentary, I would love to make the movies he makes–I have no choice but envy and resentment.

I’ll spare you the exegesis on Anderson’s films for now, on their strengths and sometimes quite significant weaknesses, the value they place on guileless wonderment, their sense of race and class, their use of art as both a vehicle for storytelling and object of contemplation, their critiques of the media, their consideration of ambition and success, their emphasis on decency and strangeness, their existentialism, their music. Instead, here is this, it’s so commercial, but well done, indeed. Two minutes:

If you are interested in a recent movie about making movies and the complications of literature, one with a slightly similar sensibility as Anderson’s, though rather more realistic and less precious, I recommend Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. It’s difficult to explain.

journalism, movies, photography, publictransport, San Francisco

You don’t look 1981.

The following was intended to be blogged, but at the time I had no blog. The related pictures have been viewed more than any of my other, better pictures. But linked to it, so what can you do?

September 21, 2005

I was walking to my train stop at Duboce Park this morning when a woman patrolling the entrance stopped me. “I can’t let you walk through the park.” Why not? “We’re filming a movie. It’s set in 1981. And you don’t look 1981.” So that’s it then.

I never look 1981 enough, though I try and try.

For the last several weeks, I thought San Francisco Muni was building a nice, new stop at Duboce Park, where I get on the train to work. But they built it very quickly, which is not the municipal way. And it had expensive-looking, polished granite exteriors, when we all expect plastic. And it had escalators going underground, which doesn’t make any sense, since it’s an above-ground stop. Then they put up the BART sign.

So if you’re familiar with the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system you know there is no high-speed electric train line that goes to Duboce Park.

My sources on the street (seriously) said there would be filming today, so I brought my camera. I was late for work, but it was interesting to watch. We don’t get a lot of Hollywood action like Southern California. The movie is called “Pursuit of Happyness.” The scene they were filming showed Will Smith running away from a cab, escaping into Duboce Park. Pictures are of varying quality–some second unit director or something wouldn’t let me get any closer. As usual, I didn’t pass for a Teamster, many of whom are to be seen lounging at stage right.

Hey, it’s Will Smith! Sure, you can click on that photo.
It just means Will will maintain his most-viewed domination.
Help Will crush Su Lin in the rankings, who, like China, is on the ascendant!
There can’t be more Best Actor Oscar winners in the wild than giant pandas, right? So which is really the endangered species?

China, movies, politics

Ha Ha Ha America

It is sometimes immature and sometimes inappropriate but mostly pretty funny. “Ha Ha Ha America” is an intentionally mistranslated short documentary that is gaining popularity due to its brevity, its humor, and its availability on the internets. The narration is, I think, not translated at all, but simply affected so as to read like a mistranslation. Created by Jon Daniel Ligon, whom I believe lives in San Francisco and works at his own advertising firm (and is apparently a University of Michigan alumnus if that matters to you—maybe you knew him, it’s a small campus), the film highlights Bush’s foreign policy failures in light of a China ascendant.

While one might be tempted to highlight the irony of a communist country using the tools of capitalism against us, as this film does, I’d caution the legitimacy of the term “communist” in describing to China. In May 2005, I interviewed a climatologist named Stephen Schneider about the junk science used by global warming skeptics. He made this comment:

You know, “Fox News Fair and Balanced” is like painless dentistry and bargain antiques, or democratic peoples’ republics—if it’s in the title, it’s because it’s not true, but anyhow… (ba dum bum)

Which upon reflection is a stretch for me to bring up, since he is technically referring to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of North Korea, while it’s the Peoples’ Republic of China. But the point is that China is not truly communist, and whether it is of or for its people is questionable.

It might more accurately be described as a fascist state. A couple of years ago, the New York Times columnist and former China correspondent Nicholas Kristoff, wrote in the New York Review of Books that China today is more fascist than communist. Part of his reasoning: fascist states do better, economically, than communist states. He pointed to the bustling economy of Franco’s Spain or South Korea under its decades of homegrown military dictatorship, in contrast to states like the Soviet Union, with its long lines for bread or milk that may not even be on the shelves.

The green architect Bill McDonough once told me:

The surprising thing is that China, structurally, looks exactly like a U.S. corporation, which does beg the question, “Are corporations totalitarian regimes?”

He continued:

The point being the administration, the executive branch, says, “Let’s do something,” and people start moving. I think in the case of China it will definitely be government-sponsored initiatives based on what’s considered the public will.

Which I find interesting, because he says China is acting based on the “public will,” implying that its citizens have some say in how policies are formulated–which I hope is true. (An aside: China has adopted McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” philosophy as its own national policy. Which is a good move on its part–better now than when it’s absolutely, gravely necessary, which is when the U.S. will do it. So he’s been hired to design seven cities in China from the ground up. At its current rate of construction, McDonough tells me, China will run out of all its coal just to make bricks. This country is growing beyond all comprehension: more than 200 cities with more than 1 million people each; and “this year alone,” writes David Barboza in the New York Times, “Shanghai will complete towers with more space for living and working than there is in all the office buildings in New York City.” The Chinese translate McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” catch-phrase as “virtuous cycles.”)

So we have people calling China “communist,” “fascist,” and “totalitarian.” It is probably a combination of each of those. Which is why it is disappointing, if not disturbing, to learn that the local power brokers in San Francisco’s Chinatown have drifted to Beijing’s side after years of Chinese nationalist (read: Taiwan) support. Says an anonymous source, “five years ago, you saw Nationalist flags all over Chinatown. Today, it’s all communist China. They are the new power source.” The issue is floating in the background as a small controversy has ensued over whether followers of Falun Gong, a persecuted sect in China, will be allowed to march in San Francisco’s legendarily large Lunar New Year parade.

Seventeen years ago, during the Tiananmen Square protests–which was a burgeoning democracy movement that ended in massacre–those same power brokers were probably distancing themselves from the “all powerful leaders…in hiding somewhere within the bowels of the Great Hall of the People,” as Pico Iyer puts it in a Time magazine profile of the Unknown Rebel. I think most people my age (I was 9 at the time) and older remember the photos of that unknown rebel. It is among the most powerful images ever recorded: the harried man, carrying a bag (Iyer speculates that he’s carrying his groceries) standing in front of a line of tanks. He manages to hold them at bay for some time, confounding the soldiers inside–soldiers who were part of the same military that killed hundreds of innocent Chinese and fired at a nearby hotel housing foreign journalists. He climbs on the tank, speaks to the driver. When he returns to street-level, he’s pulled back into the crowd and, presumably, back into anonymity—although it is hardly reassuring that, when asked by a journalist what happened to that man, Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin replied, “I think not killed.”

Fortunately, if you don’t know what I’m talking about you can just Google “Tiananmen”. And if you happen to live outside of China, you’ll actually see the pictures…

…as the SF Chronicle shows us in the above graphic, following the lead of Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who mentioned trying the search at at a hearing yesterday of the House’s Human Rights Caucus. (Also part of the caucus is Bay Area Democrat Tom Lantos, who has an interesting biography: a Holocaust survivor and member of the anti-Nazi Hungarian underground and anti-Communist student movement.)

The image in the Google graphic homes in on the photo taken by the talented Stuart Franklin for Magnum. You should take a closer look to get a real sense of what’s happening (a nod to Simon World for the info). If you like, you can also see the Jeff Widener photo for AP on Wikipedia.

It is a heartbreaking, exhilarating moment, and one that inspires a sort of pride in the species. Here is someone exercising the courage of his convictions—whether those are a sense of democracy or just a sense of decency (he’s believed to have said to the tank driver, “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.”).

Incidentally, Tiananmen was a real career-maker for the American journalists on the scene. Stuart Franklin won a World Press Award for his shot; Jeff Widener was nominated for a Spot Photography Pulitzer. Nicholas Kristoff won a Pulitzer for his NYT coverage of the protests with his wife Sheryl WuDunn (though success may have been in the cards for that guy once he left the cherry farm). Recently-injured ABC anchor Bob Woodruff was inspired to move from corporate law to journalism after his experience in Beijing during Tiananmen. And also on the scene was John Pomfret, who, as I understand it from a mutual friend, may now be sort of persona non grata in that country because he is too good a reporter (he’s now the Washington Post’s Los Angeles Bureau chief). With all the talk of China’s ascendancy, Pomfret says we should take it with a grain of salt for reasons of economics, military, environment, population, and geography. All we hear about is the economic craze of urban China, rather than the 900 million rural Chinese leading crushing existences and being left behind. And McDonough’s point about coal is just one example of the myriad ways China is driving its environment–and ours–to breakdown. It may not become the superpower we think it will be.

Which makes sense. It probably is rather difficult to make “progress” or “leap forward” or whatever and take 1.5 billion people with you. Or is it 1.2 billion?