the life of oharu (kenji mizoguchi, 1952)

The life of the titular Oharu may remind you of Job. Actually, I made that observation about another Mizoguchi film: "The family at the center of Sansho the Bailiff is filled with good people .... They suffer, oh do they suffer, like Job, or like Björk in Dancer in the Dark." Oharu (spoiler alert) loses her first love (played by Toshirô Mifune) to an execution. She is sent to be the mistress to a lord, meant to bring him an heir. When she succeeds, the lord sends her back home. Her father puts her out to be a courtesan ... she fails and returns home again. She goes to serve a family ... the wife tosses her out. She marries ... her husband is murdered. She tries to become a nun ... she is raped and thrown out of the convent. She becomes a prostitute, but she is aged and in rejected by potential customers.

It's all too much, and in some ways the comparison to a heroine from an early von Trier movie is apt. But Kinuyo Tanaka does remarkable things with Oharu. She feels the low points, at times she is overwhelmed, yet there is something about the actress that suggests inner strength. That strength might be almost comedic if Mizoguchi took a different approach. The film is on Oharu's side, and it paints a dismal portrait of life for a woman in 17th-century Japan. But I'm never sure about Mizoguchi's sympathies. #260 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


what i watched

Geezer Cinema: Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022). I found the choices at the local theater to be uninspiring, so I opted for an in-home Geezer movie this week. Kimi has the feel of a pandemic movie, for good reason ... it was made during the pandemic, and it takes place during the pandemic. The character played by Zoë Kravitz suffers from agoraphobia, and you get the feeling the quarantine, while making it easier for her to just stay at home, nonetheless didn't exactly help her condition. Kravitz is great in the role, emotionally stunted in some ways and yet she believable rises to the occasion in the climax. There are a lot of That Guys (Jaime Camil and Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, and Robin Givens, who even though I knew she was in it I forgot to notice her). As he often does, Soderbergh does his own cinematography and editing using pseudonyms. Soderbergh is the King of Geezer Cinema for some reason. We watched Contagion back when we first started staying at home during the pandemic, and since then we've seen Logan Lucky, Haywire, and No Sudden Move, so Kimi makes #5. I usually like his movies (he is #51 on my most recent list of top directors), and my wife seems to share my enjoyment ... she has picked three of the five Geezer movies we've watched.

(Letterboxd list of our Geezer Cinema movies.)

Revisiting the 9s: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005). [This is the ninth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

When Murderball came out, I wrote:

The film makers don't always seem to trust their material (wheelchair rugby played by macho quadriplegics) ... the movie gives off a feeling of manufactured drama at times. But the stories of the athletes, and the (infrequent for a sports film) action-packed scenes of what is best described as bumper cars played by Mad Max refugees, tip the scales towards excellence. It's also interesting that real-life events conspire to prevent some of the more predictable drama ... I'm trying to avoid spoilers here ... perhaps that's why the film makers try to hype up other dramatic aspects of the narrative. But it works ... when things don't always turn out "right," the film feels far more "real" than when the hype takes over.

I don't have much to add after a second viewing 15 or so years after the fact. The main characters in the film capture our attention, and the film is engrossing to the extent that we care what happens to these people. But one thing about my reluctance to give the highest rating to more recent films is that this doesn't seem to hold for documentaries. If I am taken with a documentary, I'll go all the way with a rating (to cite a recent example, Summer of Soul). I think I may have rated Murderball a bit too highly at the time, and even then, I only handed out a 9/10. Now? I'm feeling an 8/10 coming up.


apocalypse, no

It's been a while since I posted an old Bad Subjects essay, so here's one I wrote in 1994. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years.

Apocalypse, No
Bad Subjects, Issue # 15, September 1994

Know that I fear Thee not. Know that I too ... prized the freedom with which Thou hast blessed men, and I too was striving to stand among Thy elect, among the strong and powerful ... But I awakened and would not serve madness. I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.... If anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is Thou. Tomorrow I shall burn Thee.
-- Dostoyevsky

Thinking about the apocalypse, I construct four categories that describe some various positions we might occupy in relation to this possible Big End. (Already my obsessive-compulsive need to categorize is working to counteract one result of the apocalypse: the destruction of all categories.) One, which we might refer to as 'religious fanaticism' (without condemning either religion or fanaticism), encompasses those who believe in an impending apocalypse, and who believe they will be on the 'right' side; after the scum has been washed away, these people will populate the post-apocalypse world. Another, 'apocalyptic nihilism,' includes those who believe in the impending apocalypse, believe the scum will be washed away, and considers themselves to be on the side of the scum; they likely don't believe in a post- apocalyptic world, because if you wash away the scum, there isn't anything left. A third vision, 'uncomfortable liberalism,' would be constituted of those who believe in the impending apocalypse, and believe the scum will be washed away, and even believe this is a good thing, but are uncertain which side they are on; self-observation does not lead to any clear feeling that they will be around or not, post-apocalypse. Finally, a last group consists of people who don't believe in an impending apocalypse. These people would seem to be uninteresting, at least for the duration of this essay; they are the unbelievers, as such having little apparent value to offer the student of apocalyptic culture.

Common to the three 'believer' groups is the notion that a time will come when huge change will occur. The stereotypical 'religious fanatic' looks forward to this apocalypse, because it heralds a new and better world, free of all which makes our current situation nearly unbearable. The opinion that the world is currently in sad shape is shared, of course, by many; apocalyptic religious fanatics are not the only people who think the world is in dire straits. Confident, though, in their belief that a great change will come, after which the world will no longer be evil, these believers await the apocalypse with something approaching greed: death and destruction can't come too soon in this scenario, for those who die will be Others. The need to make changes now, in the real world, is of little import here. What matters is that when the apocalypse comes (and come it will), God is on our side.

Sharing a sense that the world is evil, even reveling in that evilness, and also welcoming the apocalypse, the 'apocalyptic nihilist' is not as different from the above fanatics as might appear at first glance. My desk dictionary offers two definitions of nihilism: the first, 'a negative doctrine, the total rejection of current beliefs,' the second, 'a form of skepticism that denies all existence.' The apocalyptic nihilist is closer to the first of these definitions, for existence as such is not denied; rather it is posited that all existence is negative, which is not the same thing at all. In fact, it would be hard to imagine anything further from the philosophy of the apocalyptic nihilist than 'skepticism,' for the apocalyptic side of these people is 'proof' in itself of a belief system. One 'believes' in the apocalypse. We can argue over minor issues, such as whether the apocalypse is forthcoming or is in fact already upon us, but beneath all arguments is a simple belief in the apocalypse as real. Ultimately, this belief makes our apocalyptic nihilist all apocalypse and no nihilism, at least according to the first definition above: to welcome the apocalypse with open arms does not represent 'the total rejection of current beliefs' but merely chooses a particularly destructive and enticing belief system that pretends to non-belief even as it anticipates its own emergence.

Somewhere between the religious fanatic and the apocalyptic nihilist we find the uncomfortable liberal, honest (if confused) in their belief in some ultimate apocalypse, but not nearly as certain as our other groups as to the imminence of the apocalypse or their place in the great changes to come. Aware of the problems in the modern world without believing all is lost, believing in their souls that there is 'more to life' and that a final judgment is due without knowing how their report card will read when God performs the final tallies, our uneasy liberal vacillates between attempts to make the world a better place today and to bring their own affairs into proper order on the one hand, and bouts of vague despair and occasional 'sinning' on the other hand. This describes most of us, perhaps, on our best days and on our worst, unwilling to give up the notion that the modern world can be fixed, driven by unspoken beliefs, neither fearing the apocalypse or welcoming it, but rather putting it off as long as possible. The real world awaits us, and we will do our best in the time given us, hopeful that we're passing whatever tests we are being given.

Popular representations of these varying responses to a possible apocalypse are generally either simple-minded or disingenuous. As fundamentalist groups are fond of pointing out, much of our popular culture ignores the existence of religion as a major factor in our lives; it is the rare sitcom family that attends church or thinks about religious matters specifically as religious matters. Instead, religion is treated as just another topic of the week: last week D.J. sneaks off to church, this week D.J. masturbates, next week Roseanne loses her job. This is not a confrontation with the religious, but instead a disingenuous 'solution' which substitutes benign neglect for any real attempt to deal with religion. We applaud a Roseanne for its insistence on the importance of the real world of the here and now, but we can't look to such programs for assistance as we await the apocalypse, because they condescend to the apocalypse, deprioritize it, as if there are more important things to worry about than the possible end of the world.

Not that the culture of our religious fanatics and apocalyptic nihilists is any better, although they certainly have different priorities than Roseanne. But a firm belief in both the apocalypse and our assigned role in that apocalypse effectively shuts off most responses beyond carrying a sign reading 'The End Is Near.' This world is too simple, the options are too clear. Whether we place ourselves on the side of God or the side of the scum, we know who we are, we know what is coming, we know what we want when it gets here. Most liberal culture sidesteps the issue by sweeping apocalyptic thoughts into the closet; the fanatics and the nihilists sidestep the issue by assuming ahead of time that everything has already been decided. There are no choices, only waiting.

Which makes Michael Tolkin's movie The Rapture all the more interesting, because here is one movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who prowls airport hotels with her friends, looking for new sex partners. Sharon gradually becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming 'rapture' whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever. The liberal fantasy would be to reject the rapture as too literal; the nihilist would go back to having sex; the religious fanatic might focus on the rightness of Sharon and her mates as they await the oncoming apocalypse. But Tolkin tries something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen. But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept. When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so not because she thinks she is at one with the scum, as would the apocalyptic nihilist; not because 'the rapture' isn't real, which would be the liberal version (the apocalypse always hiding in the closet, never making itself seen). She refuses salvation because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven. She goes back to the humble.

After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave.

And yet, for myself, even The Rapture is too romantic. Many of us who have fallen away from earlier faiths can appreciate the middle-fingered response of the humble in the face of the terrible demanding God of the apocalypse, but it is ultimately a dishonest appreciation, a nostalgic return to a time when a rebellion against the Father felt like a revolution against all oppression. When The Rapture presents a real God, it ups the ante considerably for those who would rebel, makes fearfully real the consequences of such a rebellion. Yet The Rapture also makes its heroine more heroic. One cannot magnify the importance of the oppressor without simultaneously enlarging the role of the heroine. And heroism is not the only thing that matters.

The Rapture, like our groups of believers, treats the apocalypse as truth. It feeds on that supposed truth, as do our other believers; the apocalypse, and our response to it, defines our actions. At some basic level, all believers desire an apocalypse, a utopia, a definable, different, perhaps distant future where our beliefs will be proven true. Often this desire for a definable future either apocalyptic, utopian, or dystopian, inspires us to great achievements; the attempt to fulfill these desires can make heroes or heroines of the least of us. However, this desire for definition, these heroic acts and individuals, do not make the desired apocalypse or utopia 'true.' For the unbelievers among us, the apocalypse is not pending, the apocalypse does not exist. Once we have had our rebellions, we are left, with the humble, in a decidedly non-heroic state. And there will still be work that needs to be done, and we will need the help of all the disillusioned who staked their claims on the existence of the apocalypse. Long after the apocalypse, long after the revolution, long after utopias have come and gone, there you will still find the humble, igniting fires at the feet of our heroes and heroines to light our way into the darkness.

I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?
-- Albert Camus

Copyright © 1994, 2022 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


what to pass on

They're all over our neighborhood: little "loan libraries", small cubbies where you can leave a book and take a book. I often think I should leave something, except virtually every book I have bought and read for the past several years has been for my Kindle, and thus has no hard copy.

But there is a bookshelf next to where I am typing this, filled with books from the pre-Kindle era. Nothing new, but at some point in my life these were books I actually read. And as I look at them, I realize they are a bit like a time capsule of my life back in the recent day.

There are reminders that I was once in the PhD program in English, like The Education of Henry Adams and Faulkner's Light in August.

There is one of the anthologies that includes an essay of mine (in this case, James Bond in the 21st Century). And the screenplay to Do the Right Thing.

There's Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan. Also Dead Elvis by Greil Marcus.

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination by Susan J. Douglas (I used to teach Mass Communications at Cal).

And if I squint, I can see The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord, and Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin, which includes "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".

How does this compare to what I read now? Here are a few of the  books I've read recently on my Kindle:

The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics by Tim Harford.

Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage by Heather Havrilesky (a favorite author of mine).

Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC by The Editors of New York Magazine.

The Science of Baseball: The Math, Technology, and Data Behind the Great American Pastime by Will Carroll.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron (we just watched the TV series based on the book).

Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game by Craig Calcaterra.

 


thief (michael mann, 1981)

Michael Mann has always been an interesting filmmaker. He has several Oscar nominations. He is highly regarded among his peers. And yet, after more than 40 years of Michael Mann movies, I still think his best work was the two television series he created, the innovative Miami Vice and the (even better, in my view) Crime Story. I've never hated a Michael Mann movie, and I've actively liked a couple.

So I was glad to finally see his feature debut, Thief, because I think it's his best film. His style is already evident, but Thief isn't an example of style over substance. Mann gives us a picture of a man who thinks he has found a way to finally get through the crap of his life. That the man is a thief matters in terms of our enjoyment because Mann called on several real-life thieves as consultants (and in some casts, gave them parts in the film), so while I don't know anything about stealing jewels, I'm convinced that what I'm seeing is real. Mann uses the actual equipment real thieves use, and breaks down heists in such detail that you almost think you've learned how to pull off the robbery yourself.

He gets great performances from his leads. James Caan is as good as he ever was, and the underrated Tuesday Weld delivers, as well. (I'm always reminded of what David Thomson once wrote about her name change: "If she had been 'Susan Weld' she might now be known as one of our great actresses.") Caan has said that outside of The Godfather, Thief is his favorite of his films. And he thinks that this scene is the best work of his career:


the color of pomegranates (sergei parajanov, 1969)

Gregory J. Smalley wrote, "If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all." He later added, "Many simple folk don’t like Pomegranates because they don’t like seeing something they don’t understand: they fear they are missing out on the meaning of the film. It’s their loss."

Call me simple.

Ranked #249 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


geezer cinema: doctor strange in the multiverse of madness (sam raimi, 2022)

I liked the first Doctor Strange movie, although I don't seem to have written about it anywhere. Strange was one of the few Marvel characters I actually read in comics, we having bought the entire first series in the hippie days when the Doctor fit with our mental proclivities. I can't really remember any more why I liked that first movie ... and I only liked it enough to have fond memories, not enough to actually watch it again.

Anyway, I didn't much like this new one. I was excited ... I'm a fan of Sam Raimi, at least the Sam Raimi of the Evil Dead movies, along with the return-to-form Drag Me to Hell (has it really been 13 years?). Sure enough, the occasional Raimi touch breaks through. But mostly, In the Multiverse of Madness is a CGI extravaganza, impressive in its way, but not my favorite genre. Elizabeth Olsen makes a great Big Bad, and I'm always glad to see Hayley Atwell. But Xochitl Gomez didn't do much for me. I liked the goofiness of the Multiverse, but I think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it much better.

My favorite Sam Raimi moment, and thus my favorite moment in the film, is the inevitable Bruce Campbell cameo, with its homage to Evil Dead Ash. He even (spoiler alert) shows up at the very end of the credits, one of the few times it's worth sitting around for ten minutes.

And for old times sake: