Saturday, April 28, 2007

Friday

Yesterday I saw two movies at the AFI Theater* in Silver Spring. The first of these was Kenji Mizoguchi's Street of Shame (Akasen Chitai, literally, Red Light District, 1956).* This was the last of a seven-part Mizoguchi program presented by the institute over two months; five of which I managed to see. It was also Mizoguchi's final film. And it's excellent. Returning to the themes he pondered during much of his career, Street of Shame follows the vagaries of everyday life among the women of the Dreamland bar in Tokyo's Yoshiwara pleasure district. For three hundred years, Yoshiwara has been losing its patina of social nobility: houses of geishas and courtesans have devalued into the cathouses of prostitutes. At the same time, many decades of war and social upheaval have made life in Japan almost unendurably harsh, forcing more middle-class women into adopting a degrading lifestyle. Mizoguchi's work often seems to explore how the hardships of life are particularly cruel to women. Or maybe by using the word "degrading" I'm needlessly reading moral imperatives into this deceptively simple movie:* it gracefully roams from character to character presenting individual stories without moralizing. In fact, Mizoguchi nonchalantly covers both sides of an issue facing Tokyo at the time the movie was made. In the movie, as in real life at the time, the post-war social order was seeking anti-prostitution legislation, placing many people with no other marketable skill at their wit's end. Mizoguchi stops well-short of attempting to answer the questions his movie asks about the moral merits of prostitution versus sickness, social ostracism, or eventual starvation. It is content to genially note the interactions of a handful of achingly human women working hard to endure. His characters are not hookers with hearts of gold, but they do have heart. [Cavin]

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thursday

Today I stopped into Starbucks to have a latté and read. I'm enjoying Graham Greene's compelling espionage novel, the Human Factor; I'm arranging my days in such a way that I have plenty of time to read. I was at Starbucks right before shift change, standing in the predictably long line. There were two cashiers and one person making drinks. Both cashiers were calling out orders while ringing-in customers: "one grande mocha with soy hold the foam" and other complexities rattled-off two at a time. As I approached the counter the manager pitched-in, pre-calling drink orders from those of us still waiting for a register: "let me know what you'll be having, sir." By the time I was crowded with everyone at the pick-up counter, many empty pre-labeled cups were sitting at the espresso machine, there was no longer any line, and the clock struck four. The employee making the drinks got off. Then the manager left the scene, "my work here is done" he seemed to be saying. He was actually saying something along the lines of "make these drinks" to the team member punching-in. She seemed a little surprised she'd be making drinks today. She thought she was replacing a cashier. She wasn't thrilled. But she jumped right in and started knocking those orders out. Orders out of chaos. The crowd grumbled about her attitude: she wasn't being very nice in her hurry. My latté was perfect, by the way. While I didn't witness this scene alone, I suspect I was the only person present with the experience to understand it. Hey four o'clock barista: you did great during your first few minutes on shift today. Your manager, on the other hand, was a useless ass. On the third hand, I'm roundly happy to be retired. [Cavin]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wednesday

On Monday I saw two movies at AFI's Slver Theater* in Maryland. I covered the first yesterday.* The second was Fred Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal (1973),* a political thriller based on a bestselling contemporary novel of the same title. The movie realistically fictionalizes France in the Summer of 1963, just after the Algerian war of independence. In reality, this war inspired a militant nationalist movement called the OAS,* which sought to eschew this weakening of empire through judicious application of bombings and assassination aimed primarily at the government of General Charles de Gaulle. After one flamboyant attempt in August 1962, French police uncovered nearly every last member of the OAS, executing ranking officers by firing squad. Or so the history books go. The movie covers this territory in the first few minutes (or less: my scratchy print skipped over all but the last line of the background narrative above). But this fictionalized account goes on to suppose that several leaders of the OAS remain in hiding, their patriotic goal of colonial nationalist terror augmented by a desire for revenge. Lacking resources after the gendarmerie rout of their group, the survivors attain the services of a renowned, nameless British contract killer--he seemingly dubs himself "the Jackal" on the spot--to assassinate de Gaulle. The remaining two-hours-plus running time is devoted to the clever cat-n-cat between the best of the best as pan-national police forces lock wits against a Europe-trotting master killer. Zinnemann's treatment of this material is a revelation of offhand naturalism, glorifying neither the international scope of the story, nor the keen intellects driving it. This results in a documentary-type feel that rather justifies the confusion overheard in the audience as to whether depicted events really took place: it all just seems too plausible to discount. [Cavin]

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tuesday

Yesterday I watched Mon Oncle (1958),* the last of five Jacques Tati movies recently screened at AFI's Silver Theater* in Maryland. Here, Tati again follows his charming, often bewildered alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, through an unstoppable onslaught of modern society. This movie falls squarely between the director's advancements in hyper-naturalism in Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953),* and his nearly avant-garde visual turn in Playtime (1967).* Some of my thoughts on those films can be referenced here and here. Throughout Tati's career, his focus on individuals and warm, reactionary slapstick began to pull back, giving over to handfuls of iconography in tableau. By Mon Oncle, the camera lingers, increasingly distant, on characters trapped within whimsical anecdotes propelled by environment: packs of dressed dogs scurry around packs of children pranking unsuspecting commuters between some-urbia and the local plastic factory. M. Hulot cocks his head, diligently trying to parse each new absurdity. This seems to mark the middle of a narrative trilogy bookended by the other two films. If Tati has played off provincial France in the past, and will, in the future, create a world of pitched and ludicrous futurism, then this is the movie in which the new world encroaches. The nephew to Hulot's Oncle lives in a rapidly advancing modern suburb with his family. Their house is a confusion of gadgets surrounded by a yard of comically landscaped intersecting patches of multi-colored grass and gravel, crisscrossed by serpentine paths of stepping-stones. Hulot lives back in the city, in a teetering patchwork tenement constructed exclusively of windows and stairs. He navigates the Escher-like complexity of his own home but cannot master his nephew's front yard. Between the two houses are telltale signs of what's to come: construction, machines, men at work. The modern suburb is already taking over. [Cavin]

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Monday

In case you were wondering, my new shoes are working out great. I tested them Sunday, and felt comfortably barefoot with nary a nod toward breaking them in. This is a good thing since I had to dash for the train three times between here and the movie theater today. Well, I didn't "have to" the first time: I arrived on the platform, breathing hard, just after the carriage doors shut. The train sat on the platform for another twenty seconds while I looked forlornly through the windows. It's very difficult, under these circumstances, to adopt an attitude of nonchalance. Everyone on the train, looking through the windows at me, knew exactly to what extent I'd been thwarted. Later I made a dash for my Metro Center connection; again, just outside the nick of time. In the first of two firsts: I was shut in the closing doors of a rush hour train. My crowd waited politely as disembarking rush-commuters exited the train. Then we all began our mad crush in. Even in a crowd, the doors slammed shut on just me: one on each shoulder, stopping me cold. Like an elevator, the doors sprang open again immediately and I was able to pack on in. The second first happened while I was standing up the next eight stops. Around Tacoma I got into a conversation with a stranger. We were sort-of introduced by a beggar-man who wanted fifty cents. He was chatting-up the whole car. "Mighty fine weather we got today," he told us, "cold last week, then--bam--hot." This stranger-woman and I then discussed the merits of seasons versus California. The rareness of this human contact, not counting the ersatz group hugs necessary to ride after five, didn't dawn on me until after I'd disembarked. [Cavin]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Saturday *

Somewhere deep in a numbered box labeled "Bietnam", staged someplace along the bureaucratic route between Monterrey and Saigon, there's an eighteen- by eight- by eight-inch red metal box filled with tools. A few hammers, a selection of screwdrivers, wire cutters--all neatly tucked away beneath leather work gloves awaiting the next time they are needed. Recently, I went to Silver Springs Maryland to see a couple of Japanese movies. Did I ever mention that Silver Springs is basically a mall? Sure, Discover Channel has a home office there, commuter housing megaliths and high-rise office parks with corner Starbucks sit around, but mainly it's a mall. I'm unclear whether "Downtown Silver Springs", propped in three-foot tall iron letters at the corner of Red Lobster and Macaroni Grill, refers to the enormous warren of shopping opportunities beyond the food court, or if it really does advertise downtown. With some extra time Thursday, I decided to buy a pair of walking shoes. Something comfy and lightweight. All the shoeboxes were marked incorrectly, but I found something that fit both my needs and feet eventually. Then I ate Lebanese fast-food and had coffee before carrying my new shoebox into the theater with another half-hour to kill. I thought I might lace the things and use them for the half-mile uphill trek awaiting me at the end of the metro ride tonight. But the clerk had neglected to remove the security device from the left shoe: a double-weaved plastic-coated steel cable permanently crimped to a white plastic device labeled "WARNING: permanent staining dye may cause injury." It took till yesterday evening to eventually hack through that cable with just the stuff I had in the kitchen. I only cut myself once, but it took two bandaids to keep the blood off the shoes. [Cavin]