Seijun Suzuki has throughout his long, up and down career, that started with his first feature in 1956 and is still going, made several cult classics of Japanese cinema. He'll likely be largely remembered for his earlier, off centre crime dramas, two in particular being Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967).
Tokyo Drifter is certainly an interesting, entertaining and
significant pop-icon flick of the '60s, but it's the follow up that I want to talk about
here. Upon its original release Branded to Kill caused a great deal of stir and
damaged the director's commercial career. Since then, the film has become a
source of inspiration for various and varied filmmakers who undoubtedly have used this film and this filmmaker's techniques to enrich their own style and ideas. Three such directors who have
acknowledged this are John Woo, Beat Takeshi and Jim Jarmusch (who even recreated a scene from Branded to Kill for Ghost Dog).
When I finally saw Branded to Kill I did not expect from a '60s Japanese gangster
movie that it would be such a dark, demented Coen Brothers style movie, creating
an almost satirical atmosphere where mythical characters merge with realistic
ones, where caricatures bewilder in mundane situations and with various people
standing around being all archetypal but impotent nonetheless. And all woven into a bizarre, twisted plot of betrayal and misdirection and quirky murders.
Just as equally, it was a David Lynch movie with his use
of composition, lighting, weird angles, seemingly still images of characters locked into the architecture, personas overlaid on female forms of desire, illusions
projected, one way or another, over decay and surrealist interior decoration.
And it has Lynch's sense of sound design and his iconoclastic use of music. It also
has his loving way to drape dead bodies over the domestic clutter. And all through
the portentous pretension was the prankster, trickster director, laughing from deep
in the back stage.
And as equal to Lynch and to the Coens, Branded to Kill was a Cronenberg movie, using his was of making reality dissolve, morph, into semi-organic scapes of rearranged dead things, like sets for normal movies moved about to make them abnormal. And creating that sense of eroticism, death and paranoia; of things just behind the walls that reveal the awful truth of mortal disillusionment but try to remain hidden, scuttling away like rats.
There's a scene where our anti-hero (a cold as ice hitman who gets sexually excited at the smell of cooking rice) enters the apartment of a strange face girl for whom he has become entranced. A woman that loves and hates him as he loves and hates back. He's come to kill her and she's been ordered to kill him but they end up in a bizarre ritual of threatening each other with various weapons as they struggle to make love while both are physically and emotionally inhibited (she needs dead creatures of flight and he needs that smell of rice).
And this is all happening in an apartment where the girl's bedroom is covered from floor to ceiling with moths and butterflies pinned to the walls, almost as thick as wallpaper, and her bed is made of dead birds. And at one time, in the most Cronenberg of fashions, as they are physically conjoined, a large unrealistic moth comes down from the ceiling, lands on the woman's thigh and moves along suggestively. This doesn't weird out the girl but it sure weirds out the guy. A moment where Lynch and Cronenberg merge while the Coen characters wait outside.
It was all fucking weird but it was great fun. Even the paranoia gets so intense you have to laugh at it, especially when another hitman insists our hitman anti-hero go everywhere with him arm in arm and continually promises that he'll kill him eventually.
Oh, and this is the famous movie where the butterfly lands on the hitman's rifle barrel altering the shot and changing the course of the man's life. Prior to seeing Branded I knew of the scene (Jarmusch philosophises around it for Ghost Dog) and I knew of the importance of Branded to Kill, but I did not know that the butterfly incident was from that film. So it was with obvious delight to finally witness this great moment in chaotic theory in alternative, cult cinema.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a filmmaker hard to dislike, especially if you like things a bit phantasmagorical. Prior to A Very Long Engagement (2004), his big hit Amelie (2001) and that one we don't talk about, Alien Resurrection (1997), Jeunet, with his filmmaking partner Marc Caro, excited the festival scene with Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995). Both still refreshingly original films in design, idea and atmosphere.
Delicatessen is my favourite of Jeunet's films, though I'm sure I'd be outvoted and the charming Amelie would win in wider circles. And yes, Jeunet's skills as a director have improved since the earlier films, his last two features are much better structured and paced. But there's something I like about his two first features that I just respond to.
Anyway, here's a short film (7mins) written and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring one of his regulars, Dominique Pinon, that captures what it is about his films that I like so much. Made in 1989 it is called Foutaises or Things I Like, Things I Don't Like.
Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was recently awarded one of the most prestigious children's literature awards The Newberry Medal. We also put it in our ten favourite books of 2008. It's a great little read designed to be a great little read by an author who's two gifts are to be a master appropriator of myth, legend and history and to have a well considered understanding of his audience, something he has shown since he wrote the very first Sandman comic.
Gaiman is also an astute literary businessman who knows how to portray himself in public and how to promote his work. Indeed, he is a role model for those dreaming of a successful critical and commercial career as a fantasist and children's author. Especially if you dream of having your work adapted to film some day like Gaiman with his Stardust and Coraline made into nicely received movies. I'm guessing The Graveyard Book will follow in the near future.
Still, it was a little surprising to see him appear as a guest on The Colbert Report, who's satirical host, Stephen Colbert is someone who's own book I Am America (And So Can You!) would likely have ended up in our 2007 top ten if we had done one.
Anyways, I enjoyed Neil Gaiman's chat with Stephen Colbert enough to want to share it with you.
James Morrow has been round a long time quietly writing semi-classics of social satire and spiritual mischief. Steadily he has been building his following. But though Morrow seems to keep missing the big literary fame loveboat the pier it departs from is over flowing with fans of his master works like This is the Way the World Ends, Bible Stories for Adults, Only Begotten Daughter and especially his Godhead Trilogy of Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman. Recently, though, the broader literary-scape has come to the party with praise, good reviews and good sales for his last two major tomes, The Last Witchfinder and The Philosopher's Apprentice.
James Morrow is a wordsmith and a philosophical prankster and he deeply understands the role of storytelling and the role of the narrator. Though there's always a surface of clever wordplay, it is to break up the clouds of literary illusion to shine through to the truths below. Even though he has many awards and honours to his name, he deserves to be read more widely. And readers who's fav authors range from Kurt Vonnegut to Neal Stephenson to J G Ballard to Michael Chabon to Salman Rushdie should check out the works of James Morrow.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, his latest, is a short novel set during the last years of World War II. It is a tale told by a reminiscing actor of cheap '40s monster movies, usually having played the monster itself. He is thespian of the old school, basking in the adulation of his horror loving fans, but he readily accepts a secret mission to don a monster suit to convince the Japanese to surrender or prepare to have giant mutant lizards destroy their cities. Might sound a tad absurd, but In the hands of Morrow this becomes a clever political satire on military, politics and war. It's funny and very clever in the way it brings old Hollywood and the military industrial complex together. Yes, funny clever, but the message underneath it all is a most somber one.
1984 was a good year for lowbrow cinematic entertainments, but the shining light of independent off-the-wall filmmaking would probably have to go to anarchist punk sci-fi flick Repo Man. This was the debut film for maverick writer/director Alex Cox and still stands out as his most popular film (although his next film Sid & Nancy has also achieved a following). It was also Emilio Estevez's debute as leading man and remains his most memorable role (despite the efforts of Breakfast Club fans). It is also the place of one of Harry Dean Stanton's seminal performances.
Repo Man came out at the right time, just before the VHS revolution. Nowadays this sort of movie would go straight to video after an obscure run at some minor film festivals (where people with wine can nod about it). Instead it got launched like a mainstream slacker comedy and freaked out almost everybody who went to see it. Enough were freaked out in a good way and thus the legend was born.
So you'd expect a sequel or remake, right? Well, a sequel by Alex Cox hasbein talked about for some years. And supposedly, Repo Chick is in the can but I know little more than that. Cox tried to make a sequel before which
continued the adventures of Repo Man's protagonist but the powers-that-be, namely those who own the rights, were not simpatico to Cox's vision. It didn't help that Emilio didn't want to do it. That version may never be filmed, but that doesn't mean you can't see it ... and read it.
Gestalt Comics very cleverly turned Alex Cox's unmade screenplay into a graphic novel. For all intents and purposes Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday is the sequel to the original Repo Man. Otto is back, now named Waldo (for legal and artistic purposes) and he has to deal with the post-punk mess of a world it is today.
Gestalt Comics is a Perth based independent company that has produced a good quality piece of work. Nicely illustrated by Bones and Randall, finely laid out, beautifully produced. I'm sure Alex Cox is happy with the result. It's an Alex Cox film on paper. So if you are one of the old and new Repo Man fans, I recommend Waldo's Hawaiian Holiday while we listen out for further news on that other sequel.