Gumby Dharma

Gumby Dharma will screen Thursday night at 7:00 at the Balboa. In addition to the movie, the evening will include live music and a panel discussion.

Gumby–the green, animated, clay boy who has graced children’s television since 1956—is an acquired taste. I can’t honestly say that I acquired the taste; I must have seen some Gumby cartoons as a child, but I don’t remember them. And while I thoroughly enjoyed a Gumby evening at the UC Theater (of blessed memory) many years ago, complete with a live appearance by creator Art Clokey, I never became a fan.

But Gary Meyer, who ran the UC back then and now owns the Balboa, clearly has a taste for Gumby. In addition to the show he put on back then, he’s presenting the documentary Gumby Dharma this Thursday. It’s a memorial for Clokey, who died in January at the age of 88.

And while I’m not a fan of Gumby, I do like Art Clokey. Or at least I like the Art Clokeygumbydharma that filmmakers Robina Marchesi, Klara Grunning-Harris and Tim Hittle present in their Emmy-winning PBS documentary. He’s engaging, spiritual, and upbeat, yet brutally honest about his many mistakes.

Even if he hadn’t created a long-running TV character, Clokey’s life would be worth learning about. He was abandoned by his mother at a young age. Then, in middle age, he abandoned his own wife and children to pursue a hippy lifestyle. Raised a religious Christian (he studied to become an Anglican minister), he later dabbled in Eastern religions, becoming a follower of guru Sai Baba. One of his children committed suicide. Yet he could still show a certain playfulness before the camera.

Speaking of playfulness, the documentary is narrated by Gumby, himself. That’s gimmicky, of course, but it oddly works. Gumby even gets serious when the narrative demands it.

Gumby Dharma runs less than an hour, and by itself isn’t worth a movie theater admission. But the evening also includes a panel discussion with local artists and animators. And composer J.Kleinberg, who scored the documentary, will give a live performance.

I don’t know if there will be any Gumby cartoons.

No Newsletter This Week

Sorry, folks, but no newsletter this week. My mother died Sunday morning. Obviously, seeing what’s playing isn’t the top thing on my mind.

(Yes, posts went up Monday and Wednesday, but they were already written and set to go live automatically.)

The Sun

D-

Historical drama

  • Written by Yuri Arabov
  • Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Few movie-going experiences are worse than a really bad film about a fascinating subject, and few subjects are as fascinating as Japan’s 1945 transition from imperial power to occupied country. And what a cast of characters! You’ve got a war criminal who thinks he’s a god (Emperor Hirohito), a strutting peacock of a victorious general (Douglas MacArthur), a nation told to fight to the death of every man, woman, and child, the birth of the nuclear age, a fascinating moral dilemma (in order to keep the peace, the criminal most at fault is let off the hook and allowed to remain emperor), and a successful transition to democracy by a country under US occupation (almost inconceivable now).

Yet with all that going for it, this film by the director of Russian Ark blows it—seriously. It’s dull, cold, and contains very little insight. Although it’s told entirely from the emperor’s point of view (I don’t think there’s a scene without him), it never lets you get close enough to see what makes him tick.

The photography (by director Sokurov, himself) itself works against the film. Judging from the print screened for thethesun press, the images are dark, muddy, and often out-of-focus. (Could this be the fault of the projection? I doubt it. The subtitles were in focus.) The result didn’t add to the mood; it just made the actors and action hard to see, distancing and annoying the audience.

To make matters worse, screenwriter Yuri Arabov left out some pretty important chunks of the story. The first half, sort of a Japanese Downfall, takes place in Hirohito’s underground bunker, as servants tend and worship him while his officers try to convince him that all is lost. One line of dialog implies that the European war is still going on, suggesting that the end is still months away. Then, Hirohito composes a letter to his son explaining the surrender, and a servant comes in to tell him that American soldiers have arrived to take him to see MacArthur.

Nothing about the atom bomb. Nothing about the USSR’s last minute declaration of war (odd for a Russian film). Nothing about Hirohito’s decision—possibly humane, very likely selfish–to do the officially unthinkable and surrender.

The rewards are few and small. The movie has a few moments of subtle visual comedy, and star Issei Ogata does a credible and subtle Charlie Chaplin imitation for American photographers. And his relationship with an old, devoted servant is occasionally touching. But these small virtues aren’t enough for a film that fails to enlighten or to entertain, and succeeds mostly in boring the viewer into a stupor.

By the way, the press release states that The Sun “is in Russian with English subtitles.” Not true. It’s in Japanese (with English subtitles) and English.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 14: Going Widescreen

I’ve now arrived at an important transition in Akira Kurosawa’s career. In my project of watching all (or all available) Kurosawa films in chronological order, I’ve completed his pre-widescreen work.

Every film I’ve watched so far, from his first, Sanshiro Sugata, to his 17th, The Lower lowerdepthsDepths, was shot in the old Academy Ratio of 1.37×1—almost exactly the same shape  as an old, 4×3 television. (That isn’t a coincidence, by the way. Television engineers replicated film’s aspect ratio for compatibility. Film studios then switched to widescreen to be better than television.) But starting with his 18th film, The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa went wide.

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six films Kurosawa made in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, Tohoscope. He used the format aggressively, boldly, and brilliantly.

Curiously, he eschewed the other major format change of the time: color. All six of his Tohoscope films, even the extremely big-budgeted Red Beard, were in black and white.

hiddenfortress

In my one chance to ask Kurosawa a question (when he received the San Francisco International Film Festival’s first life achievement award for directing), I asked him why he embraced scope so quickly but waited so long about color. He said he avoided color until he felt the stock was good enough—a reasonable answer. Not so with scope. He said he liked scope for big epics set in the 16th century, but not for contemporary, intimate films. A strange answer, considering that he shot the intimate and contemporary High and Low in scope, but not Kagemusha (his latest film at the time), an epic set in the 16th century.

I found a more believable answer when I read Stuart Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. According to Galbraith, Kurosawa didn’t like what anamorphic lenses (the key component to scope photography) did to color film.

That makes sense. When Kurosawa finally accepted color, he dropped scope and never used it again. Only one of his color films, Dersu Uzala, is presented in scope, but it was actually shot in 70mm, which gives a scope-compatible aspect ratio without the anamorphic lens. (It also provides a clearer, more detailed, and less grainy image.)

With the exception of Dodes’ka-den, for which he returned to the old Academy Ratio, the rest of his color films were all shot in standard, 1.85×1 widescreen. That’s wider than Academy, but not as wide as scope. And it doesn’t require an anamorphic lens.

The General at the Paramount

I’ve seen The General countless times, in classrooms, museums, theaters, festivals, and home. I’ve rented it on VHS, and have owned it on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray. Yet Friday night at Oakland’s Paramount Theater, I had what is probably my greatest General experience.

And it wasn’t even, officially speaking, a movie event. It was part of the Oakland East Bay Symphony 2009-2010 season. And the Oakland Symphony Orchestra didn’t even accompany the movie.

In case you’re not familiar with The General, here’s my boilerplate newsletter description:

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no  one else when he made thisgeneral one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used it as the setup for a punch line told in a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Organist Christoph Bull accompanied the movie on the Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer. I had never heard of the LA-based Bull before reading about this performance. After being introduced by the Symphony’s musical director, Michael Morgan, Bull discussed the attributes of the Wurlitzer, played some of the sound effects, and told us that although he had seen The General many times and researched Civil War-era music in preparation, he was going to improvise the score.

The music may have been improvised, but it was one of the best General scores I’ve wurlitzer[1] heard, coming close to the Carl Davis’ orchestra recording available on Blu-ray. Like Davis, Bull treated Buster Keaton’s comedy as an epic adventure (which, to a large extent, it is), never cuing us the audience when to laugh. Aside for some drums for the marching armies, he never used those sound effects he demonstrated before the feature. The result, of course, is that we laughed all the more. Bull, like Keaton, understands that if the joke is funny, the audience doesn’t need to be told.

And he played this great score over a pristine, high-quality 35mm print. To my eyes, at least, it never looked better.

So we had a perfect print of a great silent movie, with a fantastic score I’d never heard before. What else made this such a great General screening?

The audience. Although the Paramount was hardly packed, there were probably keatonfilm[1] 1,500-2,000 people in the house. These were, by and large, symphony goers, not silent movie fans who already know the movie by heart. The laughter, cheers, and applause were spontaneously, heartfelt, and full of surprise. I think the theater shook from laughter during the cannon sequence.

The General was only the first feature in a double bill. After the intermission, the orchestra finally took the stage for a performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’
Symphony No. 3, the Organ Symphony–with Bull, of course, on the organ. It’s an interesting piece, but as vaudevillians knew a hundred years ago, Buster Keaton is a tough act to follow.

There’s another performance tomorrow (Sunday), at 2:00. Don’t miss it.

What’s Screening: March 19 – 25

The Asian American Film Festival plays through Sunday, and the Tiburon International Film Festival continue through the week.

horror_express[1]Creature Features Presents Horror Express, Balboa, Thursday, 7:00. Bay area film  buffs old enough to remember TV before the VCR have fond memories of KTVU (channel 2)’s late night series Creature Features. Each week, host Bob Wilkins–or in later years John Stanley–would bring us a horror or Sci Fi flick, usually tacky, occasionally uncensored, and interspersed with interviews and trivia. This Thursday, Stanley will be on hand at the Balboa to recreate the whole experience (without commercials, I assume). The feature will be a little something from 1972 that I’ve either never heard of or willfully forgotten: Horror Express.

A+ The General, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00 and Sunday, 2:00. Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no  one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy withgeneral battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used it as the setup for a punch line told in a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. With organ accompaniment by Christoph Bull. Also on the program: The Oakland East Bay Symphony performing Camille Saint-Saëns’
Symphony No. 3, also known as the "Organ Symphony" (and again with Bull at the organ).

A- Double Bill: Kagemusha & Sanjuro, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. That A- goes exclusively to Sanjuro. In this sequel to Yojimbo, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantly helps a group of naïve young samurai clean up their clan. This action comedy ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history. On the other hand, Kagemusha, Kurosawa’s 1980 epic–made largely with Hollywood money–is one big, long, and empty bore. Visually beautiful, it lacks the warmth and humanity we expect from Kurosawa, and it offers nothing to replace that warmth–such as humor, irony, or insight. The story of a petty thief posing as a warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai in two roles) could have had all those things, but here is little more than an excuse to show thousands of soldiers massing and preparing for battle. But it is beautiful to look at. Although I have revisited both films in the last few years, I have not yet gotten to either of them in my Kurosawa Diary project.

A Double Bill: The Idiot & The Lower DepthsStanford, Wednesday through next Friday. Once again, the Stanford offers a mix of excellent and horrible Kurosawa. The Lower Depths is the one that earns the A, despite it’s feeling like a filmed stage playlowerdepths (which it is). Set in a grim flophouse in the 19th century (and based on the play by Maxim Gorky), the film examines several characters at the very bottom of the economic ladder. It’s depressing, of course, but it’s also warm, sardonic, and funny. A rare Kurosawa period piece without swordplay. The Idiot is also based on a work of Russian literature–a Dostoyevsky novel—but this time Kurosawa blew it badly. The dull and lifeless story concerns a man with a mental disability, his romantic prospects, and those prospects’ other romantic prospects. That sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is. For more on these films, you can read my Kurosawa Diary entries on The Lower Depths and The Idiot.

A Double Bill: The Bad Sleep Well & Throne of Blood, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. In The Bad Sleep Well, Mifune plays a young executive who leaps up the  corporate ladder by marrying the boss’s crippled daughter. But the company has a suspicious past, including athroneblood2 possible murder, and this new hotshot may have an agenda of his own. Kurosawa stands Shakespeare on his head with Throne of Blood, his haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer manipulated by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. You can read my Kurosawa Diary entry on Throne of Blood now, but you’ll have to wait for The Bad Sleep Well.

The Return of Cerrito Classics

I’ve just received word that the Cerrito will revive its old Cerrito Classics series, now running the second Thursday night of each month. The series begins April 8 with Diva.

Other films on the schedule include Chinatown, Born Yesterday, Jaws, To Catch a Thief, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rosemary’s Baby, The Red Shoes, and White Christmas.

More Screenings of Playland

In my newsletter Friday morning, I mentioned the premiere screening of Remembering Playland at the Beach at the Balboa Tuesday evening. I’ve just discovered that the screening has sold out.

But there will be extra screenings Wednesday at 7:00 and 9:15, and next Saturday at 12:00 noon. Filmmaker Tom Wyrsch will be at all of the screenings.

Once again, I have not seen this documentary and therefore cannot tell you if it’s any good. But it does document a well-loved piece of San Francisco history.

What’s Screening: March 12 – 18

Slim pickings this week. If it wasn’t for the Stanford’s Kurosawa series, there would hardly be anything.

I hope to soon get back into the festival routine, which would give me much more to write about for weeks like this one. The Asian American Film Festival continues through the week. And the Tiburon International Film Festival opens Thursday.

World Premiere: Remembering Playland at the Beach, Balboa, Tuesday. I moved to the Bay Area in 1975—three years too late to have ever experienced Playland at the Beach. This documentary, which I have not seen, examines the history of this long-gone amusement park.

A Double Bill: The Hidden Fortress & Yojimbo, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Kurosawa has made samurai movies that were epic tragedies, existentialist dreams,yojimbo and black comic westerns. But The Hidden Fortress is just plain fun–a rousing, suspenseful, and entertaining romp. It was also his first widescreen film, and  contains two comic peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who were the inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO. Yojimbo is the above-mentioned the black comic western. A masterless samurai (who else but Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, he uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. My Kurosawa Diary entries on these two are yet to come—although The Hidden Fortress is next on the list..

A Mary Poppins, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books.

A Double Bill: The Bad Sleep Well & Throne of Blood, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. In The Bad Sleep Well, Mifune plays a young executive who leaps up the  corporate ladder by marrying the boss’s crippled daughter. But the company has a suspicious past, including a throneblood2 possible murder, and this new hotshot may have an agenda of his own. Kurosawa stands Shakespeare on his head with Throne of Blood, his haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer manipulated by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. You can read my Kurosawa Diary entry on Throne of Blood now, but you’ll have to wait for The Bad Sleep Well.

A Double Bill: High and Low & I Live in Fear, Stanford, Friday. High and Low is one of the best crime thrillers of the 1960’s. Toshiro Mifune stars as a successful businessman who thinks he’s off the hook when a kidnapper snatches the wrong boy, leaving his own son safe. But the kidnapper still insists on receiving the ransom (large enough to destroy Mifune’s tenuous hold on his company), forcing the man into a moral dilemma. I Live in Fear (also known asRecord of a Living Being), while a good film, is easily the worst work from Kurosawa’s best period (1952 – 1965). The story concerns an aging industrialist (Toshiro Mifune, made up to look twice his 35 years) driven insane, or at least irrational, by his fear of the the atom bomb. His family is trying to declare him mentally incompetent before he ruins them financially. You can read my Kurosawa Diary entry for I Live in Fear, but it will probably be a few months before I post one for High and Low.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 13: The Lower Depths

Akira Kurosawa turned two classic European stage plays into Japanese films in 1957. But while the first of these adaptations, Throne of Blood, is exciting, action-packed, and expressionistic, the second, The Lower Depths, is dialog-heavy and relentlessly realistic. I was also going to call it low-key, but I realized that wasn’t quite accurate. There’s a lot of yelling in this movie.

I watched The Lower Depths Wednesday night, as part of my ongoing project of watching all available Kurosawa films in chronological order.  I had seen it twice before, both times theatrically. The last time was in 1980, so I didn’t really remember it.

Based on the play by Maxim Gorky (which I have neither read nor seen), this picture feels more more stage-bound than Throne of Blood. (Of course, Macbeth is a very cinematic play.) It takes place entirely on the grounds of a horrible, poverty-ridden flophouse, at some point in Japan’s feudal past. Everyone, men and women, sleep in the same filthy room, with worn and patched curtains over their bunks providing the only privacy. An old woman is dying, painfully, on the floor as her tinker husband desperately buries himself in his work. The landlord, landlady, and thelowerdepths landlady’s sister live in an adjacent house that, while simple, looks like paradise to their tenants.

If all this sounds like a very depressing film, it is, but not entirely. Once again with Kurosawa, human kindness makes the unbearable bearable. The characters bicker and fight, but they also help each other, share what little they have, and take care of the sick. There are moments when the characters cheer themselves up with jokes and songs. A dark, sardonic humor permeates the film.

At a time when Kurosawa’s films were looking more and more like Toshiro Mifune star vehicles, The Lower Depths plays an ensemble piece. Mifune has a juicy role as a thief afforded the luxury of a room of his own (it’s never explained if this is because he can pay more than the honest paupers, or because the landlady is sweet on him), and he gets top billing, but the movie doesn’t really belong to him.

I said in an earlier post that Takashi Shimura appeared in every Japanese Kurosawa film made before the actor’s 1982 death . I was wrong. He’s not in The Lower Depths. Why? I don’t know. Starting with Throne of Blood, Kurosawa stopped using Shimura for anything but bit parts (I don’t know the reason for that, either), and there are no bit parts in The Lower Depths.

Actually, there is a part that would have fit Shimura quite well—an old pilgrim who embodies the Kurosawa spirit of kindness and charity. But Kurosawa cast Bokuzen Hidari—the comic, timid peasant from Seven Samurai—in the role. He gives a marvelous performance, so I can’t object.

Next up: The Hidden Fortress.

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