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#28: fires on the plain (kon ichikawa, 1959)

(This is the 23rd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I think Fires on the Plain is a great film, but I’ve never been eager to recommend it. Perhaps a few words from Bosley Crowther’s negative review in the New York Times will help explain why:

Never have I seen a more grisly and physically repulsive film … So purposely putrid is it, so full of degradation and death as it recounts the harrowing experiences of a Japanese army straggler in Leyte toward the end of World War II, that I doubt if anyone can sit through it without becoming a little bit ill and losing appetite for the next meal. That's how horrible it is.

He goes on like this for quite awhile.

I have re-watched every film on my list so far, and done so with pleasure. Fires on the Plain was the first time where I wondered if I really needed to subject myself to it again.

I’m glad I did.

I’d say Ichikawa is relentless, but that’s not entirely true. There are moments of black humor, and in the leading role, Tamura, Eiji Funakoshi (later to appear in the Gamera films) has at times a befuddled blankness that could also be considered a bit funny. But the way Ichikawa shows the gradual breakdown of “civilized” behavior is relentless indeed. The abuses Tamura suffers at the beginning of the movie are among the near-comic scenes; later, as Tamura falls deeper into starvation, sees his fellow soldiers in the same predicament, commits a few atrocities of his own, and then confronts one of humanity’s greatest taboos, Ichikawa tightens the noose until we realize it is too late to escape the film’s implications. When is the will to survive “too much”?

I have no idea why this film isn’t more highly regarded critically. It didn’t make the Top 1000 list at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, a site that collates critical opinion. Me, I’d put it on a list of 50 favorites, 50 best, 50 most underrated, 50 films you should see before you die … you get the point. In most cases, you don’t need me to tell you to watch the films on my list. Either you’ve already seen them, or you’ve heard enough about them to make a preliminary judgment. My guess, though, is that many of you have never even heard of Fires on the Plain. I think I should start eagerly recommending it.


The comments for this one validated my claim that most people have never heard of it. One person admitted to this, while Phil and I spent the rest of the commentary discussing what would show up on Pauline Kael’s 2012 Sight and Sound ballot.

i have a memory

I had my students read two speeches by Martin Luther King, one of which was the inevitable “I Have a Dream” (the other was “Where Do We Go from Here?”). Their assignment was to write a five-page essay analyzing why “I Have a Dream” is so much more a part of American culture. Everyone knows it, it gets trotted out every year on his birthday, and it gets taught in classes beginning at a very young age. Meanwhile, you have speeches like “Where Do We Go from Here?”, which demands a guaranteed annual income and, ultimately, a restructuring of American society.

I hoped the students would point out the ways the ubiquitous presence of “Dream” tends to sanitize our view of King, eliminating his more radical side. And a few students picked up on that. But most of them pointed to more obvious reasons, and they were right to do so; many of those reasons were right on target.

And so, many essays noted that “I Have a Dream” was given before a crowd of hundreds of thousands, and was broadcast live on television and radio, while “Where Do We Go from Here?” was given at the meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, resulting in an audience far smaller than its more famous counterpart.

I found myself walking down memory lane. As much as I hate nostalgia, I’ve come to mistrust memories in general even more. Mistrust … that’s the right word, memories can’t be trusted. Which means I’m not sure how close this memory is from when I was 10 years old, but …

I remember watching “I Have a Dream” on television.

The memories are vague. The black-and-white TV was in the corner of the living room … my mom was watching as well (in my memory, she is ironing clothes, but I have no idea why that’s part of the scenario) … no one else was there. The latter doesn’t make complete sense. My dad would have been at work. It was summertime, so none of the kids would have been at school, which explains why I was home on a Wednesday. But where were my siblings? My older brother was 16, and the younger ones were 6, 5, and 3. Most, if not all, of them should have been home. Still, in my memory, it’s just me and my mom and the black-and-white TV.

Funny thing is, I don’t remember a bit of what King said. I feel like I knew it was important, or why were we watching it? But that’s about it. In subsequent years, I filled in the blanks. I know what he said now, I can hear his voice, I know some of it by heart, just like so many Americans do.

But that’s how memory works. It starts with a kernel, which is then influenced by outside forces, until you start remembering things that didn’t actually happen.

As is often the case when you have written a blog for almost nine years, I am repeating myself to some extent. Here is what I wrote back on August 18, 2009:

Look at this picture:

david bell

This is David Bell scoring the winning run in the game that put the Giants in the 2002 World Series. I was at that game, and I can remember it as if it were the proverbial yesterday. In my mind’s eye, I can see Bell sliding across home plate on his belly, as we in the stands shared the joy you can see on the players in this picture. That memory looks exactly like the picture, in fact, which is one reason I love the picture so much.

Except … my seats were just to the left of home plate, so the angle from which I saw Bell was … well, I’m not good at describing spatial stuff, but whereas the picture is taken from someone who experiences Bell sliding towards them, my vantage point was such that Rich Aurilia (#35) was leaping in my general direction. In other words, my memories of this moment, which match the picture, are not really my memories of Bell’s slide, but rather of the picture of Bell’s slide. And that’s one reason why memory is a funny thing.

what i watched last week

Holidays and paper grading kept the movie watching to a minimum.

Dumbo (1941). Short animated feature from Disney that is one of the odder classic cartoons you’ll see. Most of the film is taken up with the emotionally-charged story of the little elephant with the big ears who is the butt of everyone’s jokes and is separated from his beloved mother. If you haven’t seen it for awhile, you might be surprised at how much you respond to this part of the movie. There’s a sequence where faceless men put up the circus tents while “Song of the Roustabouts” plays: “We work all day, we work all night, We never learned to read or write … When other folks have gone to bed, We slave until we're almost dead!” About 2/3 of the way through, Dumbo and his mouse friend accidentally get drunk, leading to “Pink Elephants on Parade”. For almost five minutes, Dumbo enters the realm of Fantasia, as psychedelia fills the screen. Finally, we get five crows who are stereotypical African-Americans (the leader is named “Jim Crow”). They act like cutups and sing a fun song. All in 64 minutes! #448 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1,000 best movies of all time. 8/10.

#29: a better tomorrow (john woo, 1986)

(This is the 22nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

A Better Tomorrow is not John Woo’s greatest film, nor is it my favorite. But it belongs here nonetheless, because it came first. There are many stories about the cultural impact of A Better Tomorrow. It is said that Hong Kong youth were so attracted to Chow Yun-Fat’s character that they all started wearing dusters, and that the kind of sunglasses Chow wore in the movie sold out all over HK. What I found interesting on my latest viewing is that Chow is really only the third-lead in this one … Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung as brothers on opposite sides of the law are the key characters. And they are both very good, plus the late, lamented Cheung was one of the greatest stars ever in HK pop culture, as an actor and a singer. Chow, at the time, was a TV star on the downhill slide in his career. But he steals the movie with his remarkable blend of charisma and good looks; he was the Chinese Cary Grant, and this film is where his movie career exploded. His character, Mark, was so appealing that even though he dies in the end, when A Better Tomorrow II arrived, Chow played the heretofore unmentioned twin brother of Mark, just to get him back in the picture. Mark personifies cool, yet he spends most of the movie as a marginal lackey with a bum knee. It doesn’t matter; it’s Chow Yun-Fat.

The HK triad films are often variants on the standard buddy movie, but the emotions are pumped up and on the surface; the subtext in the American versions is right in your face here. Yes, it’s overblown, but it was amazing when these films arrived and the heroes and anti-heroes were not strong silent types, but rather men given to excessive displays of love and respect amongst brothers (brothers extending beyond mere family).

And, of course, John Woo has a way with violence. The plots of his movies often argue against the violent way of life, but the operatic aesthetics of his action scenes overwhelm the plot machinations. A Better Tomorrow started a new trend in Hong Kong action that made its way to America, in particular in American hip-hop culture, and the rise in popularity of these movies wasn’t rooted in moralistic stands about the violent life. No, the movies were Cool with a capital C, not just in the way Chow held a matchstick in his mouth, but also in the way he used a gun in each hand to blow away his enemies.

I had another 200 words listing all of my fave HK movies, but I’ll limit myself to this: if I had chosen my true favorite instead of the film that kicked off the HK explosion, it would have been Woo’s Hard Boiled.


One person expressed confusion, as others did throughout this series, about why I chose a movie that I declared was neither “favorite” nor “best”. I admit to my own confusion, since I often went back and forth and back between favorite, best, and “important”.

conversion narrative

Souciant is running a piece of mine today that I hope you’ll check out. You can find it here:

I am very suspicious when people say something changed their life. It seems to me that life-change is a process, that if we change at all, it takes a lot more than a moment, that it must be spurred on by more than just one event. And, in any case, I have no idea what was actually occurring as I rolled on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. But I do know that to this day, I think of my life in terms of what happened before that night, and what has happened since.

#30: taxi driver (martin scorsese, 1976)

(This is the 21st of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

It is hard to place ourselves back into the time when a famous movie was released. We all know the catchphrases; we probably think we know the movie well enough that we don’t need to watch it again. And when we hear the words “Taxi Driver,” we think of Travis Bickle, who we know, and we miss just how mundane that title seemed when the film was released, before it became Taxi Driver. It’s a pretty boring title that promises little, but we can’t hear that any longer.

While I can’t avoid personal anecdotes in these write-ups, I try to limit them. But I think my reaction to Taxi Driver says something about the movie’s power. When it came out, I was 23 years old. I had been working in a factory for a few years, a job I hated. I had a lot of pent-up anger, and this was a few decades before I started taking meds to calm myself down. My favorite author was (and is) Camus, so I was drenched in my version of existentialism.

I went to see Taxi Driver, and when I got home, I told my wife I had seen my story on the screen. Although it seems clearer to me on subsequent viewings, that first time, I had no idea Travis Bickle was sick until near the end when we see him in his Mohawk.

Bickle was based in part on the real-life Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace, and Taxi Driver was an obsession of John Hinckley, Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan as a love offering to Jodie Foster. Travis Bickle was a loner, alienated, psychotic … he fit in nowhere, he had headaches and couldn’t sleep, when he asked if someone was talking to him, the someone was himself … he struggled to talk to anyone else.

I was never a psychotic, and I’ve never shot a gun in my life, much less killed anyone. But I identified with Travis Bickle, because the representation of Travis draws us into his worldview, allowing us to connect with those parts of Travis that we recognize in ourselves.

And who hasn’t occasionally felt alone and alienated?

Premiere magazine called this one of the 25 Most Dangerous Movies ever. It’s dangerous because it makes it so easy for us to recognize ourselves in the crazy man at the center of the picture. I don’t think we are all Travis Bickle, but we may all be John Hinckley, Jr., watching Taxi Driver over and over and seeing ourselves on the screen.


Jeff Pike had this at #8 on his list. For some reason, when I put it at #30, everyone was hoping for something light-hearted. When I posted Taxi Driver, I said, “Here’s a comedy for you guys.” One person commented, “Taxi Driver is indeed a very funny film, and the Bertrand Russell line’s one of the funniest of the decade.”

what i watched last week

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). Roger Ebert wrote that this “is a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.” It may turn out that future generations will say that Malick’s greatest skill was to get intelligent critics to say stuff like that on his behalf. I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin listing humility as a virtue one should aspire to, describing it as imitating Jesus and Socrates. At least Franklin seemed to appreciate the irony of thinking the imitation of Jesus would reflect on one’s humility. Malick lets his mouthpieces say it for him.

The Tree of Life is indeed ambitious. It is also beautiful, as Malick’s films always are. And it is as personal a vision as you’ll see in a mainstream film. It is perhaps the latter that is the biggest problem, for the film is mostly impenetrable … the only person who knows what it means is Malick, and he’s not telling. A work of art can challenge its audience, and there is no need for every movie to do all the work for us, allowing for a passive reception to what is on the screen. But I’m not a fan of willful obscurity; in fact, I’ve never figured out why I should care about art so insular it closes me out.

Malick doesn’t leave much room for his actors in The Tree of Life. Brad Pitt does what he can, and he is arguably the best thing about the movie. But Malick doesn’t seem that interested in actors. Sean Penn famously said after the film’s release, “Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.” Jessica Chastain fares no better, through no fault of her own. There isn’t much to her character; Malick seems more interested in the dinosaurs.

Writing about The New World, I said “Malick deserves credit for being true to his vision of filmmaking. He doesn’t care that I’m bored, and he shouldn’t care.” I still believe that, but I was as bored with The Tree of Life as I was with any of his films. I care about that, and I should. 5/10.

My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936). Effortless in so many ways. It is breezy in the style of screwball comedies, it feels improvised even when it’s not, and the social message slides right in. Actually, that message isn’t particularly clear; the film shows the surface differences between rich and poor, but the solution isn’t to distribute the wealth more equitably, but rather to encourage the rich to be more charitable. Given that, it makes sense that the “forgotten man” of the film’s title is actually a refugee from a rich family, himself. The acting is great across the board, which is to be expected when the leads are Carole Lombard and William Powell and the supporting cast is filled with the likes of Alice Brady and Mischa Auer. 9/10.

Vengeance (Johnnie To, 2009). I always think I like Johnnie To’s movies, but looking back at some of them, I seem to have been less impressed than I remember. This one is different. I really did like this one, quite a lot. The plot is remarkable in its twists and turns, and yes, I can see why some would think it incoherent or just plain silly. But I bought into it. The action scenes (i.e. violence with lots of shooting) are top-notch, and a couple of HK veterans, Anthony Wong and Simon Tam, are good as ever. But it’s French pop star Johnny Hallyday who steals the movie as an aging Frenchman seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter’s family. Side note: this is the first movie I watched on my Kindle Fire. 8/10.