what i watched last week

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966). The original Japanese title is Tanin no kao; an alternate English title is I Have a Stranger’s Face. The basic plot is reminiscent of sci-fi films both good and bad: man’s face is completely burned, a doctor (in this case a psychiatrist) offers to perform an experimental technique to graft a copy of another’s face onto the man, complications ensue. In this movie, though, subtexts are brought to the surface. In a cheapie movie, we would have to extract subtext from the cheesy movie, but Teshigahara is up to something serious here, and he’s not worried about hiding it where we can’t find it. So the psychiatrist is openly fascinated by the experiment ... he expects that the man will struggle mightily to maintain his sense of self once he starts wearing the mask, and he has no apparent qualms about this. The man does indeed start to question his identity. Meanwhile, he seduces his wife (wearing his mask so she won’t recognize him), then accuses her of infidelity when she succumbs to the seduction. Not quite, she says ... she knew it was him all along under the mask. While all of this is going on, a separate tale is told of a beautiful woman who’s face is only partially scarred. No attempt is made to connect the two stories. It seems like a mess, but a planned mess ... I might have been confused, but I never felt that Teshigahara was confused, if that makes sense. The look of the film adds to the slight otherworldly feel. The doctor’s office in particular reminded me of THX 1138, although obviously if any influence occurred, it would have been in the opposite direction. Rewarding and creepy. 8/10.

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). With certain exceptions, James Bond movies can be grouped according to the actor playing the lead. Spectre is the fourth Daniel Craig Bond, and in the future, when we look back, we will think of all four movies as one. This isn’t to say they are all the same ... Casino Royale put 007 on a new direction, and it was one of the two or three best-ever Bonds. But after four Craigs, it is clear that while Casino Royale is a different kind of movie than Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan Bond that preceded Royale, the other Daniel Craig movies are essentially variations on the Bond introduced in Craig’s first appearance. Spectre may recall earlier 007s, particularly the ones with Sean Connery where SPECTRE the organization plays a part in the proceedings, but ultimately, it is tied far more closely to the previous three films, especially Skyfall. No one has had the nerve to really break free from Bond conventions, and in that way, the films are all somewhat alike. But I’m starting to think it more useful to look at the subgenre level: not at the group of James Bond movies, but rather at the groups of Sean Connery Bonds, Roger Moore Bonds, Timothy Dalton Bonds, Pierce Brosnan Bonds, and Daniel Craig Bonds, respectively. (This omits the goofy 1960s version of Casino Royale, which is no loss, and also neglects to find room for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the very best James Bond movies but with the problematic George Lazenby as Bond.) If you were to make a list of all the Bond movies from best to worst ... well, this has been done many times. But I’m suggesting we first make a list of the actors (this has also been done many times), and then order the films by each actor. The question isn’t whether Spectre is as good as, say, Diamonds Are Forever. The question is, instead, a two-parter: where does Daniel Craig fit into your appraisal of the various Bonds, and how does Spectre compare to the other Daniel Craigs. Since I’m the one writing here, I’ll offer my lists. For Bonds, either Craig or Connery are at the top, and Moore is at the bottom (well, Lazenby is at the bottom, but I don’t think even the best Moore Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, is as good as OHMSS). I have a fondness for Dalton’s version of Bond, especially in Licence to Kill, but I think Daniel Craig offers a stronger version of what Dalton offered. Anyway ... for the Craigs, I’d order them best-to-not-best: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Spectre, Quantum of Solace. For what it’s worth, though, when I made my Fifty Favorite Movies lists a few years ago, the only James Bond movie on the list was Tomorrow Never Dies, because of Michelle Yeoh. Which gets back to my comment that some Bond conventions will never be broken ... otherwise, Michelle Yeoh would have become the New Jane Bond. 7/10. (Another FWIW note: I had an essay published in an anthology about Bond, where my topic was The Best Bond Villain. My choice was Klaus Maria Brandauer in the non-canonical Connery, Never Say Never Again. If Michelle Yeoh suggested what might have happened if Bond was a woman, Brandauer suggested what might have happened if Bond was a villain.) (One last note: the publicity made a big deal of Monica Bellucci being the oldest-ever Bond Girl. Leaving aside the silliness of calling Monica Bellucci a girl, I'm going to offer a spoiler. Bellucci is on the screen for maybe five minutes.)

blu-ray series #27: my neighbor totoro (hayao miyazaki, 1988)

I was introduced to Miyazaki some years ago, and took to his work instantly. I usually watched his films alone, and I don’t recall ever watching one with a kid. So when I decided to re-watch Totoro on Blu-ray, I was glad to have a ten-year-old with me. He wasn’t really looking forward to it ... he wanted to watch a Star Wars movie, and he hadn’t ever heard of Totoro. I don’t think it quite succeeded with him, either ... after fifteen minutes he was already expressing his boredom, and later he said that nothing made sense, which is why he didn’t like it. Still, he made it to the end of the movie.

We watched the Disney English-language dub, which I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t really recognize any of the voices, including the stunt-casting of Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters. It was fine, in any event ... I think I only notice English dubs when they are terrible. I liked the movie as much as ever, even with the semi-negative vibes in the room. I think Princess Mononoke is my favorite Miyazaki film, but to be honest, they all kind of blend together in my mind as the years pass, so I couldn’t really explain my preference. My fondest memories are of Spirited Away, probably because I love the soot thingies. Even the lesser movies are enjoyable, though, and often quite loony. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

music friday: dean martin

I finally read the highly regarded biography by Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. I’ll try to write more about this book later ... for now, here are two quotes that hint at the existential void that was Dean Martin:

He was a wise man. Wisdom had blessed him with a disregard for the worth of his own racket. Where others sought nobility in acting or art in song, he had known things for what they were, and that knowledge had set him apart. Wisdom too had blessed him with an understanding of human nature, and that understanding had set him apart as well. It had never been his own compulsion for lontananza or his own abhorrence of communication that had been a problem. The problem had been the pressure from others to change, to become more like them – to share, to relate, to confront, to lend the lie of meaning to all those meaningless verbs and more. To him, the problem was theirs: they who could never accept what they were nor live alone with it. Wisdom had given him the strength to do both. And wisdom, in its way, was leading him now to withdraw from the world in fact as well as in spirit. He no longer cared. He never really had.... When he returned to the Riviera in October, he seemed “as if he were someone impersonating Dean Martin.”

As Tosches puts it more succinctly early in the book, “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Some of his hits:

That’s Amore

Memories Are Made of This

Everybody Loves Somebody

His only music video, from 1983, “Since I Met You Baby”:

And this medley, from the great Rio Bravo ... with Dino, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan ... “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and “Cindy”: