Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world

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Speaking loudly
Speaking loudly

We men have been speaking loudly for centuries, and at last, we have spoken all we had to say. As the male-dominated mainstream pop-culture engages in a cannibalistic downward spiral of reboots, remakes, repeated cliches and post-modern irony, it becomes obviously clear that women are our only chance for saying something new and original.

As male-dominated societies go, Japan is often seen as an extreme among developed countries, but its culture, too, is currently being saved by active, creative, independent women, whether in visual arts, music or film. The “new wave” of Japanese female film directors started about a decade ago, and Naoko Ogigami is my favourite – and perhaps best known – of these.

Most fans of Japanese cinema will have heard of at least one of her movies: “Kamome Diner”, the whimsical tale of a Japanese woman opening a low-key diner in Helsinki. That sentence summarizes the movie’s entire plot: little else really happens in the story. Characters come and go, little self-contained vignettes happen to them or around them. Life goes on.

The same one-sentence summary may be applied to Ogigami’s other late movies – “Megane” and “Rent-a-neko”. A woman travels to a lonely guesthouse on a tropical island. A woman wanders the streets of a city renting cats to lonely passer-byes. There is more of a plot in her earlier work – “Yoshino’s Barber” is a proper story, with an established setting, character development and a denouement of sorts; the English-language “Toilet” is half-way there – there’s a plot, but very faintly drawn, with many of the threads forgotten or leading nowhere.

This is storytelling that will be familiar to those who enjoy Japanese film-making: from Yasujiro Ozu to Yoji Yamada, you can draw a straight line of directors who revel in telling non-stories, sketching non-events, portraying characters in blink-of-an-eye snapshots; the cinematic equivalent of those hanging scrolls, which would present an entire landscape in a few strokes of a brush.

Ogigami’s movies are all that, with a dash of Wes Anderson’s penchant for whimsy and magic realism, but with an added uniquely female perspective. You’ll have noticed that all the above summaries have one thing in common: a Japanese woman does something. The “Toilet” is the only exception to that rule, not just because the main characters are Canadian, but most of them are male; but even they are not your typical movie males: a cross-dresser, a suspected gay, an effete geek; one could easily call them “effeminate”, if the word didn’t have so many negative connotations. Rather, these are simply men drawn in the same subtle and original way as the women.

Most importantly, though, Ogigami’s women live in a world of female fantasy. And this is a dramatic change of pace from what most movie-goers are used to, which is, predominantly, a world of male fantasy. We are so used to seeing men in incredible, cliched situations, that we either completely ignore it, or, at best, shrug it off with an ironic smile.

Nobody wonders anymore about men of action withstanding multiple bullet wounds, chasing cars on foot, or being ever ready to sleep with beautiful women at their whim. These are male cliches that we take for granted, eagerly suspending our disbelief.

Ogigami asks us to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the fantasy shared by women not only in Japan. Her characters are all strong, independent, economically self-reliant – and single. Just like nobody asks how John McClane could survive all those falls, so nobody asks where Sachie got the money to run an empty restaurant in a foreign city; nobody knows what Sayoko really does for a living, even though her Rent-a-cat business obviously is not enough to support her. Nobody knows who their families are, what their surnames are, where did they come from, and where will they go. These are women who are not defined by their jobs, their families, their partners; none of this is important to what they truly are. And yet, you know they are full, three-dimensional characters. It’s that hanging scroll effect again: a simple sketch tells the whole story.

Run these movies through a Bechdel Test, and the results will be off the scale. Apart from “Toilet”, men appear as background or plot devices; there’s not a hint of romance: even what may seem like it in Rent-a-neko is swept away like the floating summer noodle before it gets a chance to develop. In these fantasy worlds, nothing, and no-one, stands in the way of a woman’s self-discovery. These are the most perfectly subtle feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

And then there’s the Obaa-chan. A character – or rather, a living trope – played by the enigmatic Masako Motai. The obaa-chan’s presence weighs heavily on what little of the plot there is, at once focusing and blurring the actions of everyone else around her. And although there is no actual connection between Masako’s characters in each movie, you could try to trace her progression of sorts throughout Ogigami’s oeuvre: starting out as a noisy and strict conformist in Yoshino’s Barber, she changes her ways and leaves Japan in search of new experiences in Kamome Diner; in the summer she sells shaved ice on Megane’s island, and, at the end of her life, is brought to Canada, to change the lives of her lost grand-children. In Rent-a-neko, she’s just a memory, a spirit in a shrine, but even in death (and I’m convinced that the dead grandmother in the movie is “played” by Masako Motai in absentia) she’s at least the second most important character in the story. Masako’s Obaa-chan is not the wise-but-sweet grandma of Miyazaki’s movies: rather, she, too, is strong, self-reliant, and with a blurry, unimportant past left behind. By the time we see her in Megane and Toilet, a lifetime of  independence gives her a Yoda-esque presence and authority. She is the fulfillment of the dream that all of Ogigami’s characters, more or less inadvertently, pursue. And, as the symbolic final scene of Rent-a-neko shows, she has raised the next generation of independent women well.

Soon after the success of Kamome Diner, together with her producer, Kumi Kobata, and a few other female movie makers, Naoko Ogigami established an independent production studio, Suurkiitos. I am now going slowly through their catalog, and from what I can tell, the movies created there continue the tradition of telling beautifully sketched, simple, subtle stories with strong female characters. “Suurkiitos” means “Thank you very much” in Finnish, and it is a fitting name for a company whose work inspires so much gratitude in the viewers.

Writer’s anime – unblocking the block

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The Withering FlameDraft Two of “The Withering Flame” is now happily done, and I finally have a little time to rest and write the blog.

There was a point earlier this year where things didn’t seem going in that direction at all. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had a hard time starting with this book, struggling through a long and arduous writer’s block all through the summer and autumn.

Out of several things I tried to break through it, there was one that helped the most, and it’s something I hadn’t tried in years – watching some anime. I used to be a serious anime and manga fan a long time ago – not quite otaku level, but I did watch a lot. It’s been quite a while since I watched a full new series; I lost track of what was going on; after a few years of binge watching, like any pop-culture genre, it all got a bit samey.

But then, while mindlessly browsing YouTube for “inspiration”, I stumbled upon two new series that got me hooked – and, eventually, helped me break out of the stupor. Their subjects were similar: slice of life shows about struggling artists. Even the titles sound almost the same – Barakamon and Bakuman.

59321[1]Barakamon

Barakamon is a fantastic series; a true gem of an anime, calm, with all the whimsical, summery lightness of Yotsuba&! It’s a tale of a calligrapher overcoming an artist’s block – so obviously, a story close to my heart. Barakamon is, quite rightly, widely praised for its characters, art and smooth pacing. It’s a short series – only twelve episodes; as such, it doesn’t suffer from the common anime problems, like fillers and over-the-top plot complications. It’s a simple, straightforward story: the main character moves to a remote southern island, to find inspiration far away from the big city crowds – but the true inspiration comes to him not from self-imposed solitude, but from interactions with the local villagers.

The series relies on child characters, so it was easy to make it either too sweet, or too annoying, but the writers manage to steer clear of either of the obstacles. The script is an exercise in life-like moderation. There are teenagers here, but no angst. There are good friendships, but they are not overbearing. Even the ending nears perfection, breaking through the common cliches and expectations.

Twelve episodes is a quick watch, and it’s all on YouTube, so do yourselves a favour and try it out.

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I actually ended up reading the manga, rather than watching the anime of Bakuman. It seemed fitting: after all, this is a manga about writing a manga.

If this sounds a bit meta, that’s not even the start of it. Bakuman is a shonen battle manga about writing shonen battle mangas, written by the masters of the genre – the authors behind Death Note and Hikaru no Go; so when they set out to show what it takes to create a #1 series, you can take their word for it – these guys know what they’re talking about.

I did say that it’s a battle manga… The battle element comes from the publishing system used by manga magazines like Shonen Jump: weekly rankings and ratings are the key to having your series continued or cancelled. Every issue of Jump is a new battle, every new mangaka is a potential enemy.

This is all fairly interesting, but it’s not what makes Bakuman the perfect series for breaking out of a writer’s block. It’s the passion all the characters show for their work. The mangaka’s life is, by all possible measures, a terrible one. No sleep, no holidays, pushing the deadlines, constant need to be on the top of one’s game… in a faint hope that you’ll be the one guy or girl out of the struggling hundreds to make the big time. A failure is unforgivable – and, often, irreversible. And yet, they keep doing it, just for the sake of creating art and telling stories.

The manga is not without its flaws. Unlike Barakamon, Bakuman is a long and winding series, and it tends to get rambling at times. The cast of characters is mind-bogglingly vast, the plot arcs at times get ridiculously complex and unrealistic. The romance plot is far too romantic and sugary for my liking – although, to their credit, the authors don’t stray from showing the sexism prevalent in the entertainment industry. But all that is insignificant compared to the sheer force of inspiration emanating from the pages, a force that makes you want to drop everything and start drawing/writing/composing that long forgotten piece of art you had lost all hope for.

There are 176 chapters of the manga available as scanlations, and three seasons of anime. Even if you stick to manga, you will want to watch at least bits of the anime, to see how the “shows within the shows” are brought to life – the fake openings are better than most real ones I’ve seen lately :)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 – (largely) spoiler-free review


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I don’t watch a lot of Western animation. Most of it does nothing for me, a lot of it irritates me. My general grumpiness and cynicism mean the strings of my heart remain firmly untuggable. I despise musical numbers in movies, I can’t abide by dancing mascots and animals must have a valid reason to talk. Even the first HTTYD movie had left me largely underwhelmed, even though it was, arguably, the first successful dragon-franchise since Dragonheart (let’s not mention Eragon), and even though it largely inspired the relationship between Bran and Emrys. In short, I am definitely not the right target for those sorts of movies.

So, after all that is said, it may seem a faint and indeed damning praise for me to say that HTTYD 2 (or “Draktranaren” as it’s called here in Sweden) is probably the best Hollywood animated movie I’ve seen in years, certainly since the best since Wall-E. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much watching anything produced by either Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks – and I’ll try to explain why in these three points:

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1) Valka

Much is always said every time Disney decides to create a heroine somewhat different to their usual Princess line, or put them in a situation or relationship other than Princess vs Prince, or man vs woman. But no Disney woman, not Merida, not Elsa, not even Mulan, have ever gotten close to the level of the epic bad-assery shown in the opening scenes with HTTYD2’s main female character, voiced by Cate Blanchett struggling with what, I think, is supposed to be a Slavic accent.

In fact, Valka is at the moment probably my favourite female character in all of recent Hollywood output (I haven’t seen Edge of Tomorrow yet), precisely because the movie makers manage to retain that crucial, and difficult balance between strong and weak (wrongly called “manly” and “womanly”) traits that make a character three-dimensional instead of paper, and that make Valka a  real, complex female instead of a man in drag; and also, because the script writers refrain from any moralizing in presenting her and her life: Valka is who she is, unashamedly and with only a (realistic) hint of self-doubt, and both the audience and other characters have no choice but to accept that.
True, it’s been argued that she suffers from Trinity Syndrome later in the movie, but I disagree with this assessment: HTTYD2 is not an ensemble cast movie, it’s a movie about Hiccup, his friends, and their adventures, so naturally everyone else must eventually be overshadowed by the protagonist and the plot; and the first hour of Valka’s presence more than makes up for the script’s later short-comings in my mind.

And that’s even without getting into Astrid, who, in a side-plot crucial to the main story, does her own thing, becoming at some point a much more capable and active protagonist than even Hiccup, and proving that, eventually, she’ll become much more than just a “chieftain’s wife”; and without mentioning Ruffnut, who, though largely a comic relief, does things in the movie that no Western animated female character has ever, to my memory, done before.

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2) Serious plot, serious threats

HTTYD2 is that rare, in the West, breed of an animated movie: neither a fairy-tale, nor a comedy – though there’s plenty of laughs thrown in; a true fantasy movie, though still aimed for a younger audience.

What we have established in the first movie, despite its much more childish outlook, was that the Vikings of Berk are real Vikings, not fairy-tale ones. They fight, they loot, they kill, they get hurt, and they die. This sequel, moving on five years, deals with young and old adults, instead of kids, and the situations they’re in, despite some comic relief, are serious and truly threatening.

And though Hiccup retains his resolve to change his people and his world, we are shown clearly how difficult it is, and how no amount of “power of love” or some other sentimental invention, can change everyone, everywhere – because Hiccup’s world, despite the presence of dragons and some clockwork-punk technology, is not a fairy-tale.

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3) Treating the audience as (young) adults

Tied to the above, HTTYD2 never stoops to patronize its audience. It’s lacking all the paraphernalia that render Western animation unwatchable for me – as mentioned above; the characters don’t burst randomly into song and dance (except one scene, which makes narrative sense, though it’s a bit too long for me, and a blatant shot at the Oscars nomination). No animals or inanimate objects speak, and not even the largest and smartest of dragons utter any discernible words.

Since the main characters are 20 years old already, this is not a “coming of age” or “character development” movie – another rare; Hiccup is an almost fully formed human being, Astrid even more so; all they need is just a confirmation of themselves and their life choices, rather than discovering them from scratch. This, too, is a rare thing.

But most important of all, the characters ACT like real, adult human beings. Not only is there plenty of proper violence (though wierdly bloodless – a compromise, I’m guessing, aimed at getting a PG rating, though what 10-year old can comprehend the movie’s plot and still be squeamish about blood, is beyond me) but there is more than a hint of s.e.x. and budding sexuality, both  male and female, even if played largely for laughs, is shown as a perfectly normal thing.

The relationships shown are so natural and realistic, it’s almost shocking. When a 3D-animated character appears on the screen, you’re expecting some level of cliches and simplifications; it’s part of the package. But the scenes between Astrid and Hiccup could not be more real if they were played by live actors – even despite the still glaring drawbacks of 3D animation and DreamWorks in-house character design style, which I’m not terribly fond of.

HTTYD2 is not a movie without its flaws, naturally. Most of them concerning the plot. It’s a bit too long – not in terms of time, but in terms of pacing – though that’s my complain about all recent movies; the plot is rather disjointed, especially near the end, and there’s quite a few “but what about…?” moments (though not as many as in, say, “X-Men: Days of Future Past”). But these are just nitpicks in a movie that’s so overwhelmingly superior in almost every other aspect compared to its immediate competition.

Snowpiercer – Review (spoiler-free)

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Snowpiercer (or “La Transperceneige”, which is the much stronger-sounding title of the original French graphic novel) is a difficult movie to review. Going by the gut feeling, I’d have to say I enjoyed it a lot. When I left the cinema, I realized I was actually holding my breath throughout most of the second half, and my hands were shaking with tension: that is a very rare thing to happen, and mostly after watching an Asian horror.

The visuals are nothing short of stunning, especially in the second half (of both the movie and the train). Of the many recent graphic novel adaptations, this one does probably the best job of having a strong “comic book” feel without over-stylizing to a fault.

On the other hand – somewhat consistent with previous of Bong’s work – there’s a lot of wtf-ery and facepalm-worthy moments; the plot is shot through with holes like Swiss cheese, and despite what must be the third of the film spent on lengthy exposition dialogue, a lot of the symbolism, including most of the secondary characters’ backstories, remain unexplained. If you try to engage your analytic part of the brain too much, you may leave the cinema disappointed. Too many things just “do not compute”.

But if you focus on those, you focus on all the wrong things. The best review of Snowpiercer I’ve read so far (The Philosophy of Snowpiercer) says this:Snowpiercer is as good a sci-fi movie as Animal Farm is a farming manual. Despite the sci-fi trappings, this movie is an allegory, a brutal fairy-tale. Trying to over-analyze Snowpiercer is like trying to scrutinize Terry Gilliam’s movies for plot-holes and lack of realism. Indeed the closest cinematic equivalent to Snowpiercer I can think of would have to be “Brazil”.

The plot is linear almost by definition, as straightforward as the train’s relentless run, but that doesn’t mean it’s not smart. The movie has a lot more to say about tyrannies and revolutions than the average simplistic Hollywood fare in the vein of “V for Vendetta” and “Elysium”, and what it says rings more true. It is also much grander in the scope of its satire; even the very ending reveals still another layer of social criticism (hint: who dies, who survives?).

I can’t find much fault with the acting, given the material, though characters here are secondary to the plot. Chris Evans plays pretty much a gruff Chris Evans, or a less-crazy Christian Bale – imagine Captain America who had to live through a death camp. Tilda Swinton’s “Thatcher” is a delicious caricature. Hurt and Harris give decent, but unremarkable performances. By far the best are the two Korean actors – Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko – who shine throughout; you can tell they struck the best rapport with the director. I also enjoyed the largely silent performance of Luke Pasqualino (Skins, Musketeers), and I hope being in this movie will kick-start his career in Hollywood.

Snowpiercer had the potential for a 5-star masterpiece. It’s certainly one of the more engaging, thought-provoking and original sci-fi movies of recent years: it could be easily marketed as “The Matrix” of the new generation. If it falls short it’s because of too many unexplained quirks in the plot, and the fact that there’s simply way too much of the story left to tell, even for the full uncut 125 minutes. Perhaps if Snowpiercer was made into a trilogy like Matrix, or a high-budget TV series instead, it could have reached true brilliance.

Yamamoto Yae – Joan of Aizu

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Tsuruga Castle in Aizu
Tsuruga Castle in Aizu

Aizu-Wakamatsu is today a small, sleepy town, nestled in a cozy valley deep in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. It has a surprising number of tourist attraction for its size and remoteness, from ancient sake distilleries through cherry-blossom-filled castle gardens to skiing resorts and climbing routes on nearby Mount Bandai. It also has its share of famous people, either having born and lived in the city or passed through at one point.

This abundance stems from the city’s rich history as the capital of the powerful Aizu Domain, led by the Matsudaira family. The Matsudaira clan, ruling most of northern Honshu, spawned many sons, of which the most famous was one Ieyasu – who later took on the surname Tokugawa and became the first Shogun. Thus, the Matsudairas of Aizu became one of the most powerful clans in Japan, kindred to the shogun, and fiercely loyal to the Edo government.

It was to prove, of course, their downfall. The Shogunate lost the Boshin War, and the Aizu fought to the bitter end in and around the castle grounds. The defeat, and the harsh treatment they received afterwards, was a disaster from which neither the clan, nor the city, ever fully recovered. But the bloody Battle of Aizu did manage to produce two very different heroic figures in Japan’s history.

Byakkotai Reenactment
Byakkotai Reenactment

The first of these, and for many years far more popular ones, were the Byakkotai 19. The Byakkotai, or White Tigers were a reserve in Aizu army, a group of young samurai – boys, really, aged between 16 and 17. In the heat of the final battle, cut off from the castle, nineteen of these boys committed suicide on the slopes of Iimori Mountain.

The Japanese, always suckers for heroic sacrifice, naturally turned the Byakkotai first into a tool of war propaganda, and when that went out of fashion, a tourist attraction. All trips to Aizu-Wakamatsu had to include a visit to their graves at Iimori Mountain; local schoolchildren played out the story on festivals; and of course, Byakkotai Hello Kitty.

If any of that strikes you as tasteless and unnecessary, I have good news for you. The Byakkotai are no longer the only, or indeed, main heroes of Aizu. Thanks to the soaring popularity of a 2013 TV series based on her life, there’s a new boss in town, one that swept away the Byakkotai in the imaginations of the locals and took over all poster walls and souvenir stores – and this time it’s a woman.

tumblr_inline_mgp0n4Wi5v1rx699n[1]Yamamoto Yaeko, or Niijima Yae, is one of the most bad-ass female characters not only in the history of Japan, but the world. Not just because of what she did during the Aizu War – there were a few other onna-bugeisha, women-samurai, at the final stage of the conflict – but also, and perhaps more importantly, how she lived out the rest of her life.

There was a streak of military brilliance in her family since the days of Yamamoto Kensuke, the famous strategist of the Warring States period. Her father was a gunnery instructor to the daimyo, and her brother, a child prodigy, was a scholar of Rangaku and military science. In any other Japanese family, at any other moment in time, Yae’s interest in guns would be dismissed as an improper fancy, but both her father and her brother soon noticed how earnest the girl was in her pursuit. Another lucky factor was the introduction to Japan of modern Western rifles, which were lighter, easier to use and more accurate than the heavy, bulky arquebuses of yore.

YaeThe Spencer Rifle, a US Civil War surplus gun, became Yae’s weapon of choice, and is now associated with her in the same way that famous swords are associated with their owners. With this rifle, and with a unit of artillery she also commanded, Yae, wearing male clothes and haircut, fought on the walls of Aizu Castle with remarkable skill and effect.

The castle fell, and the story of many Aizu warriors ends here, but not Yae. She was after all only 23 when the war ended, and had a long, fruitful life before her. In fact, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable than her short stint as Aizu Amazon.

Yae and Joe
Yae and Joe

She moved to Kyoto in search of her brother, and met there a man called Jo Niijima, an Edo-born, America-educated Christian feminist missionary, whom she soon married. For the next fifteen years, they ran together a private school in Kyoto which was later to turn into a highly respectable University, and fought for tolerance and equality within Japan’s strict society. But not even that was enough for the ever high-spirited Yae, who in addition to all her duties studied both the difficult arts of tea and flower ceremonies in Kyoto’s famous establishments, Urasenke and Ikenobo, becoming a certified master of both later in life – as befitted an accomplished samurai.

After her husband’s death, Yae’s interests turned from taking lives to saving them. She became a chief nurse in the Japanese Red Cross, and led a group of 40 nurses in Japan’s increasingly violent wars with its neighbours: in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 she became so distinguished she received not one, but two Orders of the Precious Crown for her services to the nursing profession.

Yae and Evangeline Booth
Yae and Evangeline Booth

The fiery spirit was stubborn to leave Yae’s body. Indeed, she lived long enough to receive yet another award from Emperor Hirohito – the grandson of Emperor Meiji in whose name Aizu Castle had been razed when she was a girl – in 1928, and to witness her country descend into the war frenzy of early 1930’s.

Throughout the 86 years of her life, Yamamoto Yaeko was a sniper, a gunner and a samurai; a master of tea and flower ceremonies; a scholar and a civil rights fighter; and finally, a distinguished nurse. If there was ever a role model for strong-willed girls everywhere, it’s definitely Yae of Aizu.

(and of course, I hope you’ll find more than hints of her in the character of Takashima Sato in my Year of the Dragon books.)

PS: The TV drama I mentioned above can be seen in a few places on the internet, and I highly recommend it. It is one of several such series in a very laudable string of recent efforts by NHK to portray the strong and powerful women of Japan’s otherwise testosterone-awash history, from Tenshoin in 2008’s Atsuhime through Oeyo in 2011’s Go to last year’s Yae no Sakura.

They’ve killed Ripper Street. The bastards.


I’ve just learned the BBC decided to axe Ripper Street for the next season.

For those who don’t know, it’s a criminal series taking place in East London in 1890s – after Jack the Ripper murders. Think CSI meets From Hell.

It had its highs and lows – like every drama series in history – and it suffered from several irritating, ongoing problems, like interchangeable, 2-dimensional female characters and bad sound quality. But overall, it was a very high value production, with lavish sets and costumes, decent acting (rising to great in places) and frankly rather brilliant storylines, smuggling in a lot of unexpected historical facts. The general idea: 1890s London was when the modern world began. All our current problems could be traced to that time and place: drugs, feminism, racial and religious tensions, immigration, gay rights, and so on.

The worst thing about the cancellation is that series 2 was so much better than series 1. The depth of the three main characters was developed in the last few episodes far beyond what is usual in the period drama. The episode ideas grew more interesting. The writing improved. In proper hands, with proper budget, this could have been a jewel. The hit of the autumn.

Ripper StreetBut it fell in ratings, because most Brits preferred to watch “I’m a Celebrity…” on ITV, running at the same time. And that was its only fault: not enough viewers. Quality be damned.

I hold little hope for the reversal of this decision. BBC is not known to un-cancel its shows, Doctor Who’s exceptional comeback notwithstanding; and in recent years, they were known to cancel even the popular shows, like Ideal or Mongrels, for no real reason. I’m guessing they just like to rile their viewers once in a while. Or maybe they’re running out of money for new Strictly or Top Gear series.

If you want to help – there are a few petitions around, twitter and facebook pages dedicated to saving the series – you might try these, if you’re so inclined. The best you could do – if you’re in the UK – would be to WATCH the last episode, and tell as many people as you can to do the same: it’s being shown next Monday, December 16th, 9pm on BBC1. You may want to catch the first 7 episodes on iPlayer first, though, or else you’re likely to be rather confused.

A lesson in Poland’s history…


…in movie form.

On Monday, when most of the Western world celebrates Armistice Day (and Japan celebrates Pocky Day) Poland has its Independence Day.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The main reason is that I’ve stumbled on YouTube upon an old TV movie, “Squaring the Circle” which I saw for the last time as a politically curious teenager back in Poland, on a secretly pirated VHS tape. I didn’t understand as much of it as I do now, and I don’t understand as much of it now as I probably should… but it’s a great movie for more reasons than one.

First, the cast and the crew are amazing in their own right: the script was written by the inimitable Tom Stoppard, the director was Mike Hodges – of Get Carter and Flash Gordon fame. The star-studded cast included Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings), Richard Crenna (Rambo), Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) and other classic British actors of the era. The script is a typical Stoppard: a mixture of hard historical observations, swift dialogue and comic surrealism. The production is very theatrical – all sets, apart from the Black Sea beach, are built in one studio, which plays at the same time a communist party assembly, Walesa’s private apartment, and a striking shipyard.

The characterizations are stunning, although that can probably only be appreciated by a Pole, or a historian of the time; you’ll have to take my word for it, but the characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who paid attention to Polish politics in the 1980s and early 90s. Not only the big star Walesa, but more obscure (abroad) characters like Kuron, Mazowiecki, Gwiazda – and even the communist leaders of the time – are played beautifully, with all their idiosyncrasies and ticks replayed to the dot; what makes it specially touching now is that most of these people are today, sadly, dead (Mazowiecki had just had his funeral last week).

Second reason why the picture is so important is as a historical document. It was made in 1983/84 – when the Martial Law had barely been lifted, when many of the main characters were still in prison, before Gorbachev and Perestroika, before anyone knew how things would end (in fact, there was still a very real possibility that it would all go tits up) – and, crucially, before the political wars of the 1990s destroyed the image of Solidarity and obfuscated the events of 1980/81. In that manner the movie is almost like a Gospel: a second-hand account of historical events, but as close to eyewitness as was ever possible. Nobody in Poland could make such a movie at the time, and by the time we could, it was too late: the hindsight, pettiness and personal animosities have obscured the truth. Not to mention, we didn’t have a Tom Stoppard to write it.

To anyone interested in Europe’s history of the late 20th century, this is a treat. To anyone interested in Poland’s recent history and politics, this is an obligatory viewing.

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Part 10:

5 reasons why Tarantino is the new Kubrick – and 1 why he isn’t.

killbarry

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I’ve recently come to terms with the idea that Quentin Tarantino is the only possible heir to Stanley Kubrick’s crown of the best Hollywood director of his generation. He’s not quite there yet – his hit-to-miss ratio is bigger than Kubrick’s – but I don’t see anyone else emerging from the herd at the moment. Now bear with me, as I explain my reasoning.

5. Turning pop culture into art

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Kubrick’s choice of movie genres was far from orthodox for a respectable director at the time. Space Opera. Horror. Anti-Utopian Sci-Fi. Apocalypse comedy. Sword and sandals. He even came close to making a high-budget porn movie, and adapting the Lord of the Rings. It’s all well and good for Ridley Scott to do this kind of thing in the 80s and 90s, but an artistic sci-fi movie in the 1960s? That was nothing short of revolutionary.

And of course, this is Tarantino’s trademark as well. His own generation’s idea of pulp: trashy crime dramas, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns… and he’s turning it, in his own idiosyncratic way, into pure cinematic art.

4. Taking his time

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After the initial burst of creativity in the late 50s and early 60s, Kubrick started taking his time with new releases. In 70s and 80s he did only two movies per decade, polishing each to perfection.

Tarantino made five movies in his first 10 years of career – and then only four in the next 15, including a half-hearted effort in Grindhouse and a six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill.

3. Innovative soundtracks

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Ever since 2001: Space Odyssey, Kubrick disposed of the traditional soundtrack, preferring to use ready-made songs and instrumentals to great effect. His music choices were revolutionary, both inspired and inspiring, producing sequences which have no peers in cinema: the Blue Danube from Odyssey, the Singin’ in the Rain in Clockwork Orange, the Women of Ireland in Barry Lyndon.

Tarantino does exactly the same; reaching deeply into his personal collection of records, he creates the best and most innovative soundscapes in modern cinema. Never content with what the likes of Hans Zimmer or John Williams can give him, he plays with ready-made tunes to astonishing effect, and creates as memorable scenes as Kubrick: the twist in Pulp Fiction, Stuck in the Middle With You in Reservoir Dogs, Woo Hoo in Kill Bill…

2. Getting the best out of actors

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Even in the weakest of Tarantino’s movies, I am awestruck by what heights of talent his actors strive for. Of course, they are always good or great actors in their own right, but you still need a skilled director to carve the diamond of an actor’s talent to perfection. I mean, just look at John Travolta. People say he got his career restarted after Pulp Fiction, but the truth is, he’s never had a better role since. Samuel L. Jackson is an all-around entertaining and fantastic actor, no doubt, but only Tarantino gave him an Oscar nomination.

Kubrick’s casting was always flawless – and often idiosyncratic. You can’t really imagine anyone else play Jack Torrance, David Bowman or Alex, even though Keir Dullea or Malcolm McDowell were back then as unlikely choices for leads as Travolta or Pam Grier were in Tarantino’s days. Kubrick was the first (and for a long time, only) director who got Peter Sellers to play straight, to great acclaim. Finally, both Kubrick and Tarantino allowed their actors improvisation in key scenes, a trait shared with many other great directors, but which in their case made movie history every single time.

On one curious occasion, their tastes in actors almost converged: it may well have been Kubrick who gave Uma Thurman her great breakthrough role, in Aryan Papers, rather than Tarantino.

1. The painter’s eye

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There are three parts that are necessary for a movie to be considered great: script, acting and cinematography. Kubrick’s movies had all three – everyone knows that. His movies are pure visual bliss; but so do Tarantino’s, perhaps surprisingly for those who only regard his work as over-ambitious schlock.

The way Tarantino works with the camera, when he’s at his best, surpasses pretty much anything other block-busting directors currently achieve. “Impeccable” is a word often bandied about when describing his craftsmanship in Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Django. There is an almost baroque lushness to the way he plays with angles, lights and sets – much the same as with Kubrick.

Both directors have their famous trademark shots: Kubrick’s point perspective, Tarantino’s “looking up”. Both like to set their scenes like paintings. And Tarantino of course wouldn’t be himself if he didn’t sometime quotes Kubrick’s scenes verbatim (parts of Django are straight out Barry Lyndon).


And one reason why Tarantino is not quite yet Kubrick:

1. Technical innovation.

Kubrick was the James Cameron of his day and age; for every movie, he came up with a new toy; although never as flashy as Avatar’s 3D or Titanic’s CGI water, his technological innovations were recognized by the critics and picked up by the moviemakers.

Tarantino’s innovations are limited to editing and scripting; he lets Cameron be the Cameron  of his age, focusing instead on the fun of film-making. In fact, in his love of the old cinema, he’s positively a luddite: he loathes CGI. Paradoxically, his use of old school gimmicks, like the car chase in Death Proof, could be just the kind of technological revolution modern cinema needs.

New BBC2 trailer

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For Christmas, BBC2 unveiled their new trailer. It’s got Peter Capaldi on voiceover. They’re really exploiting the guy this year :)

Celebrating BBC2

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen,
But still I long to learn tales, marvellous tales,
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
How others fought to forge my world.
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What wild ecstasy?
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Step forward,
To feel the blood run through the veins and tingle
Where busy thought and blind sensation mingle.
Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late,
For we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems;
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.