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Akira Kurosawa (#110 of 17)

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film Festival

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival’s programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I’d registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year’s fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.

Summer of ‘88: Willow—Fantasy Departed

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Willow</em>—Fantasy Departed
Summer of ‘88: <em>Willow</em>—Fantasy Departed

One of the many residual effects of the massive success of the Star Wars trilogy was the boom of fantasy films that arrived in theaters in the mid-1980s. Movies such as Legend, Masters of the Universe, The NeverEnding Story, The Princess Bride, and others were all released within the span of a couple of years, and each to some degree featured sprawling sets, evocative atmospheres, and extensive use of prosthetics and puppets. These elements were staples of George Lucas’s storytelling, a quality that proved to be a strong companion to the Star Wars films’ grand visual and narrative design. It wasn’t long after the trilogy had wrapped that even Lucas himself had dipped into the bankable commercial lore of fantasy moviemaking when he produced Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. His own contribution to the subgenre followed two years later at a time when fantasy appeared on the decline. With an original story by Lucas, Willow was met with widespread ambivalence upon its release. Retrospectively, however, the film’s graceless hybrid of Star Wars-style mythmaking and leftovers from the short-lived fantasy period in commercial cinema that Lucas inspired offers a pointed reflection and portrait of the filmmaker that has grown more compelling as the full trajectory of Lucas’s career has emerged in view.

Of course, Lucas didn’t direct Willow (we’ll get to that later), but the film bears his authorial stamp almost immediately at the outset. In fact, you don’t even need to see the trademark Lucasfilm logo to sense the filmmaker’s touch. The setting and storytelling influences may diverge from those of Star Wars, but the same propensity for merging age-old legends is evident. Instead of drawing from Joseph Campbell and Akira Kurosawa, Lucas and screenwriter Bob Dolman fold elements of the Grimm brothers and J.R.R. Tolkien into a nakedly bibilical framework. Take the prologue: Willow opens on the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), who orders the slaughter of all newborns for fear of a prophecy predicting the usurping of her power. But the blatant bibilical allusion doesn’t end there. Lucas and Dolman also add a dash of Moses for good measure, when a baby born in secret is placed into a basket and floated down a river. Then, after the baby is discovered by Hobbit-esque folk called Nelwyns, Willow shifts into Star Wars mode, slowing down to allow the larger world to develop.

History As Thriller Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

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History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema
History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

Film-history texts can often be dull, lack real insight beyond a litany of factual information, and plod along to foregone conclusions, structured as simply a lecture, where content overrides form. Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema isn’t only an exception to these rules, but establishes a benchmark for which contemporary film-history research should aim. What separates Miyao from the rest? Numerous qualities, but above all, he’s constructed a historical work that isn’t simply another recasting of Japanese film, replete with a discussion of numerous auteurs and production stories as evidence; rather, Miyao is after the heart of the matter—the very circumstances, through Hollywood and Japanese interaction, which cultivated predominant visual styles, and how these processes of “transnational and cross-cultural negotiation” ultimately yielded certain aesthetic expectations, from producers and viewers alike. Moreover, he achieves this, at least in part, by structuring his scholarship as more of a thriller, than merely the standard (and soporific) fact-upon-fact approach.

Miyao’s begins with a fluid, though rigorous foundation of previous historians and theoreticians, which he appropriates in order to weave together his complex historiographies. Drawing upon the likes of film studies staples such as David Bordwell, Stuart Hall, and Noël Burch, but not simply trotting out their arguments as stand-alone methodologies, Miyao instead juxtaposes and employs them as means to unpack the geographical explanations that are central to linking an aesthetic (and its invention) with a specific time period, particularly on an international scale. Thus, Miriam Hansen’s “vernacular modernism” and Harry Harootunian’s “coeval modernity” are ultimately the kinds of historicizing concepts that compel his line of questioning—especially Haroontunian’s, which Miyao values for its emphasis on “contemporaneity yet the possibility of difference.” Nevertheless, though I have made Miyao’s setup appear to be thoroughly academic (in a theoretical sense), fear not: The bulk of Miyao’s work revolves around historical figures within a system, with recourse to numerous film titles and close-readings. Herein lies Miyao’s keenest eye; rather than having to consistently recall terms and provide extended definitions, the analysis balances the individual and the international. If there were something akin to an academic page-turner, Miyao has produced it here.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Rob Humanick’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Rob Humanick’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Rob Humanick’s Top 10 Films of All Time

To choose only 10 films for this list was a task at once simple and impossible. Had I been given enough time to watch every film ever made, then allowed several decades to narrow down my choices, I would have still bemoaned this challenge. By the time this is published, I’ll have changed my mind. Held at gunpoint, however, the results would probably look something like this, and for my purposes here, know that the difference between “best” and “favorite” is immaterial. Every one of these represents not only a peak of the art form, but an experience I wonder whether I could truly live without. With apologies to Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg, F.W. Murnau, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, Werner Herzog, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, Chuck Jones, Ridley Scott, George A. Romero, and the 1930s, among others.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Glenn Heath Jr.’s Top 10 Films of All Time

It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic while trying to determine one’s favorite films of all time. Memories of first viewings come flooding back, even thoughts of long lost friends who shared those moments with you. In this sense, these 10 films have sculpted my life as a cinephile, programmer, and writer, some even in ways that I’m still discovering years later. While their initial impact was undeniably potent, each one continues to influence how I think about cinema as art, entertainment, and a mirror to human nature. If narrowing this list to 10 entries has taught me anything, it’s that great movies evolve over time, and as I’ve grown older each one has become more personal, more essential to my existence. Not surprisingly, many are concerned with the detailed process of aging, or more specifically the juxtaposition of physical deterioration and emotional vitality. Others even dynamically examine heightened memory and inevitable, sometimes forceful change. But all of my choices waver between visions of lyrical, horrific, and sometimes heart-wrenching transition. They are keys to my decidedly intimate canon, one when taken as a whole acts as a reminder that movies aren’t always everything in this fragile life.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Diego Costa’s Top 10 Films of All Time

I can identify two elements common to the films that ended up on this list. They are either about feminine suffering and/or about the impossibility of language to ever quite translate feeling. The criteria which I came up with for this impossible, unfair, and incredibly fun assignment involved remembering the films that led me to think “This is one of the best films ever made” at the time I first saw them, and which, upon a re-screening, several years later, remained just as remarkable—perhaps for different reasons. Also part of the criteria was my (failed) attempt at not repeating directors, and making a conscious effort to go against a cinematic “affirmative action” that would try to represent different periods of time, countries, and genres. It’s also mind-boggling to notice how half of the list includes films made in the mid 1970s. But the list escapes traditional logic. It’s the warping, re-signifying logic of affect and memory that architected this list, which turns out to be nothing short of this cinephile’s symptom.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Elise Nakhnikian’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but the most creative periods for the movies seem to occur about every 30 years, usually triggered by the advent of some new technology. First came that short burst of experimentation by people like Georges Méliès during the last few years of the 19th century, right after the medium was invented. The latest is the digital revolution that started around the turn of this century, making it possible for almost anyone to make a movie (and enabling a whole new level of intimacy between filmmaker and subject) by eliminating the need for expensive film processing and slashing the cost and size of professional-quality cameras. But my favorite golden age is the one that stretched from the late ’20s to the early ’40s in Hollywood. Old pros who’d cut their teeth on countless shorts showed us what could be done with silent film while upstarts like Howard Hawks and the Marx Brothers played with synchronous sound, that shiny new toy, in movies crammed to the brim with fast, funny talk. That probably explains why half of my 10 favorites were made during a 14-year period that ended as WWII began.

A Meticulously Curated Artifact Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin

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A Meticulously Curated Artifact: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin
A Meticulously Curated Artifact: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin

Stan Sakai is one of the most quietly prolific comics creators in the business. Having trudged down the Way of Self-Reliance with his creation Miyamoto Usagi for 25 years, he trails a devoted fanbase and a considerable reputation in the cultural mainstream. Two thousand eleven was a banner year for Sakai, marking the 200th issue of the long-running series, his being named Cultural Ambassador by the Japanese American National Museum, and their unveiling of “The Year of the Rabbit”—a highly publicized retrospective of his work. In commemoration of these various milestones, Fantagraphics (Sakai’s original publisher) has released a new edition of Usagi Yojimbo: The Ronin, a collection of the character’s earliest appearances. Boasting their usual high-production values and showcasing the genesis of the indie comics icon, The Ronin is a meticulously curated artifact of comics history.

Miyamoto Usagi was born—quite accidentally—in 1984. While working on character designs for a series based on historic samurai Miyamoto Musashi, Sakai doodled a rabbit with his ears tied back like a samurai topknot. The rabbit outlasted the more traditional conceptual drawings, forming the latest addition to the odd tradition of violent, anthropomorphic animals (one of Usagi’s early cameos was with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) in the indie comics of the ’80s. After starring in a couple of Fantagraphics anthologies, he had his own title by 1987—Usagi Yojimbo—following the rabbit ronin in his adventures around a 17th-century Japan populated with anthropomorphized animals. Unlike his contemporaries in the decade’s comic-book bestiary, Usagi emerged astonishingly well formed from the get-go—a supremely confident merging of various cultural influences, ranging from spaghetti westerns and samurai films (the series title is cribbed from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) to Japanese mythology and Kabuki plays.

New York Film Festival 2010 Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda

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New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda
New York Film Festival 2010: Elegant Elegies: The Films of Masahiro Shinoda

”[I am] not interested in the future or in utopian ideals. I would like to be able to take hold of the past and examine it from different angles.” —Masahiro Shinoda

“Modernization. Get with it.”—line from Shinoda’s film Killers on Parade

Masahiro Shinoda was born in 1931, the year Japan invaded China. His strongest childhood memory was of Emperor Tojo’s surrender to the Allied forces, and with it the announcement that the Emperor was not a god, but a man. “I felt that all the gods who had lived in Japan had become mortal,” he told a UC Berkeley interviewer, and the feeling of helpless disillusionment stayed with him. This early loss, he claimed, helped him feel for myriad groups. The Americans couldn’t grasp WWII’s impact on the Japanese, he told another interviewer, just as the Japanese couldn’t understand the pain of Chinese women who had been raped at Nanking.

I have only seen eight of Shinoda’s 30-plus features, 12 of which are showing in the New York Film Festival’s Masterworks retrospective, but the common theme running throughout them is sympathy for the oppressed. It doesn’t matter the group, nor the cultural setting, though indeed Shinoda was prone to making period films. He conveyed this open humanism with a precise formal control, masterful use of black-and-white CinemaScope and edits as clean as a paper-cutter’s chops, all of which still prove stunning.

He studied other mediums before film. Unlike past masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirô Ozu, whose pre-filmmaking backgrounds had been in visual art, Shinoda concentrated on literature and theatre (he was one of only three theater history students at his university). Like peer filmmakers Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda gained a great awareness of European culture, claiming to have learned as much from Shakespeare as he did from kabuki.