I’m as tremendously fond of the book as I’m exasperated with its two film adaptations. The problem seems to be the text itself is a huge burden, so ornately conceived and masterful in many ways it’s hard to see right into it. Kubrick did not outright miss any of the elements, but reduced in a simple way to divine farce. This filmmaker, likely aware of Kubrick’s failings, goes the opposite way—this Lolita is far too sombre and serious, too earnest about sentimental loss.
To be fair, it’s not all wrong. It’s sensuous enough to be Lolita. The actress is spot on, a whirlwind of bratty ego. Its visual fixation with everything around Lolita, touched by her breath and body, the sock in one leg, the skimpy shorts, her movie mags and bubblegum stuck under the dashboard, all that is worthy of a book that is deeply about uncommon fixations and spends pages upon pages enumerating the trinkets of drama. And there is some wonderful Americana in the travelogue portion.
But the book’s deep peculiar beauty is in the way it’s remembered. Not a simple flashback, the more the poor narrator tries to grasp having known Lolita the more she escapes into the desert with another man.
The heartbreak, the elegy, the biting humor; these are all entries into it.
So why bother at all with this one, which means an uphill struggle with moralists, if you’re going to squeeze out another tragic love story?
I do believe we’ve had cinematically more interesting Lolitas outside the text, even in Bertolucci’s Last Tango. I do think a visual solution to Lolita is hidden right in this film—the scene of Dolly reading a comic-book on HH’s lap, she begins rocking and for no ‘real’ reason throws her head back in seemingly rapturous passion. What has happened is that we have seamlessly shifted from reality to what may be happening, may be imagined or embellished in the narrator’s eye, all being equally true as you watch which is how Nabokov expands the reader’s mind.
However as to the overall effect, that is ruined in this film in favor of something reasonable and straightforward. I miss all the humorous reinvention, irony of illusion and layered madness that bring Lolita to life as both tragicomic and the result of mysterious machinery of mind.
You can tell that the filmmaker has no notion of the deeper implications by looking at the character of Quilty, always a big key to what this is. He is mostly right here (by contrast to Sellers who was way off), but seems wrong because Humbert is wrong.
Here is another of those elusive Franco films that in its proper context is neither horror, nor porn or sexploitation, in spite of the hardcore inserts, but wandering around mind.
Now I really appreciate Franco. Like a good friend you’ve known forever, I appreciate the guy in part for his familiar flaws and habits. So I won’t mollycoddle him or pretend in his face: he was often sloppy, charmless as a thinker and embarrassing in a number of ways. Whereas his fans read profundity in the stuff here about mirrors, madness and theater as staged inner life, for me they’re are as sophomoric as it gets, bordering on stupid.
Let me say here that it’s not the elements themselves, which others like Rivette, Resnais and Ruiz have used to the same effect, but the narrative distance they are placed away from the viewer.
As for the notion expounded in another comment here that next to Ford (!) and Godard, Franco is one of few directors who have deeply probed in their cinema the illusory world of appearances, the position is simply unfathomable and bizarre.
But I accept all that as part of the experience of shared intuition that’s possible with a good friend—for me Franco is worth knowing because going past what he goes on about, I can relax in his fluid fabric of images, which he seems to stir up from life as he walks through it. The more of his films I watch, especially of this elusive kind, the more I relax because of memories of previous travels.
It’s all in the last scene here.
Leading up to it we have, as said very obviously layered madness about a woman reliving guilt from her past, inserts of incestual cunnilingus and hardcore sex (in the Italian version I saw), and relaxed wandering around bars and later exotic Madeira. As a whole, the film evokes in plot and tone Franco’s films with Soledad, She Killed in Ecstasy and Eugenie. It is not as ‘pure’ as Female Vampire nor as testing.
The idea, tremendously simple, is that a woman wanted to get married, her beloved sister killed herself from desperation and perhaps spurned love, and she carries this burden in her unfulfilled affairs with men.
The Spanish version without the inserts may flesh out the story a bit more, but story is not the main point, for me it’s swimming across to where images acquire a sort of life of their own.
In the last scene we have the wandering, the madness, the repressed emotion, all coalesce together in a beautiful way as a bridal veil flutters in the wind.
The story-idea behind the film is so powerful and simple I am surprised it hasn’t been tapped before in a film; akindergarden teacher has no way to prove he was not ‘inappropriate’ with one of the children at his care. It’s gripping in the most basic, visceral sense. It sure had me glued.
Philosophically, it is rich enough to have those inclined interpreting for days. The overall idea is that sin inexplicably manifests in the world, a very Protestant thing but beats similar works by both Trier and Haneke in the emerging tapestry.
The only prerequisite for any of it to work is plausibility. Oh Mikkelsen and everyone else is superb in conveying the turmoil of soul, but you have to buy that it could happen to you and you would be helpless in just this way. I admit the supermarket scene seems far- fetched, but the rest is generally fine by me, doesn’t pull me out.
A few talking points.
Law and ‘experts’ are largely absent, this may strike some people as unrealistic but I think it rings truer to a primal experience of life where, good or bad, you simple have to work out problems inside the community without appeal to authority; at least men will be able to relate. It matters that the law eventually decides, but that does not of itself make things right in the minds of people.
The film goes the easy way, trusting to the viewer the overall truth that is kept from the characters. We know from the first that the claims are unfounded which creates all the gut-wrenching tension of an innocent man being persecuted, in Hitchcockian terms this would be us knowing about the bomb under the counter.
But if you shift around inside the film, you will find progressively more valuable viewpoints to contemplate.
From the perspective of the man, as said, we have a simple existential intensity and revulsion at injustice, simple as in to understand. From the perspective of the community, the more complicated nature of the experience is that we can’t know the truth, have to go on faith and emotion. And this has to be masked with reason, to be respectable, which means all those psychological tools about repression and suggestion, which do exactly what they try to bring to light and explain.
As said, superficially all this is with guilt and sin in mind, but if you really look it’s about the nature of truth and reality.
What we see is the profound inadequacy of logic to explain, logic being a relatively recent tool that is still being perfected. At root, a story has been circulated and from that ‘truth’ is inferred and agreed as the most logical.
So ‘sin’ manifests because something is believed to have gone wrong. At the deepest level, we have a powerful insight on the original causality. The filmmaker either knows a great deal or simply happened on it, either way it matters that we truly know the following; there was genuine feeling in the girl for the man, the girl was shown an image that was wrong for her. At root is feeling and image, not story. And a third thing, self. We are all self-centered beings, but kids are hopelessly so.
The filmmaker has not sculpted with the camera from this as his fulcrum so I miss the deep cinematic meditation on images, but his tapestry allows our ruminations.
Now there is no logical reason why the girl has swapped in her mind the man showing his penis with her beloved teacher, other than she loves him, and has swapped this being an illusory image for the real thing, but that is what has happened, and we go on to see in the film how this can create a story with the power to alter reality. From the perspective of the girl which is the most inscrutable, we have a single subjective shot in the film; when in her bedroom she mistakes her father for Lucas, a sort of hazy seeing that possibly links everything.
This is great stuff. It all points to a powerful inextricability of feeling from image from self both shaping and being shaped by them, all three being illusory by the exact same degree.
It all ends with another image that is feeling taking shape in the woods, which is the karmic chain in the utmost sense.
I’m not a big fan of stand-up comedy in the sense of someone who closely follows the scene, but I am interested in the creative process and here we have four guys who are top in their business exchanging views about the mechanics of the craft.
About the craft itself, of all the narrative forms comedy is the one which aims the most at short-term effect. Laughter sanctifies all. So you will not glean much here on ‘long’ structure, but within the ‘short’ framework you will find some valuable stuff here with general application.
I discuss the four guys in order of how they rubbed me here, which is also how I rate their insights here and work on the stage. A valuable lesson right on the start is that these two things are deeply interwoven, who you are and the art you make. ‘Putting on an act’ can’t help but mean channeling yourself a certain way.
Each of the four can be said to represent a certain way of thinking and channeling self.
Gervais comes across as needy and a bit of a jerk. Maybe because he is supposed to be the host directing the discussion, maybe because that’s who he can’t help but be, he keeps butting in, has no chemistry with the rest and forces laughter to ingratiate himself. Indicative of his character, of the four he is the only one who keeps trying to logically explain how it all works.
Next is Seinfeld, cool and composed as usual. But both himself and his art are entirely too clean and smarmy, he nicely frames but will not put his own self in the life he frays, he’s there but ironically sits above, better than you. (Louis chalks it up to Jewishness, I think in the context of secrecy). It’s why his sitcom never appealed to me one bit.
The other two guys I like. Chris Rock is spontaneously present, full of alertness and vitality but not a jerk. A cool tidbit here is ‘making fun of what they do and not who they are’.
Louis CK is my favorite. Oh I am not big on his scatological outbursts, but that is one of several ways he has of putting himself in the thing as worse than you, usually fat and disgusting. He combines a spontaneous stream-of- consciousness, conveys the exasperating life around the joke and (as you listen to him talk here) he has the best insights.
Incidentally, of the four he is the one who renews his act the most, the opposite of that is the conservative Seinfeld who rarely does.
Even more revealing difference between the two; Seinfeld (and Gervais) believe the audience comes for the man on the stage, Louis (and Rock) believe we come for the act.
Watch this folks with an eye on learning about your own self.
Some will say it is an exciting blockbuster, others a Greek tragedy or heroic epic, or even cinematic opera with its focus on riveting but stagy drama and lush, harmonious cinemascope. It is of course all those things woven in one. The story is the same archetypal journey since Ulysses and Mahabharata—the hero is torn in the waking world of logical opposites, good and evil, duty to country against friendship and ambition, defeated with the divine trickery of a loose tile, thrust into hell to suffer oaring for some time, from where he emerges as a ‘son’ in splendid white clothes, and revitalized returns home to claim victory and love.
That is the standard reading anyway such as you’d see in those screen writing guidebooks, not much interesting.
It is at the same time a ‘tale of the Christ’, and this is a bit more fruitful in its spiritual dimension; the film does not end with material victory over the hated opponent, there is no peace to be found there. The idea is that the hero is properly a man when he learns to let go, forgive and accept transience. In this context, the journey is one of self realization not world redemption.
You will see this with some clarity when Ben-Hur symbolically visits his mother and sister in some horrible underworld, but he realizes he cannot see them and only listens as they wish him well. Parting from there, he chances upon the Sermon on the Mount—one of the three Magi of Bethlehem is there, a mentor who reveals that ‘the child is now a man’ (he is talking about Jesus) and we know this also applies on a second level to the protagonist.
But he won’t listen, being perhaps too proud or harried to sit and reflect, which only prolongs his torment for a while more, that is until he realizes who the rabbi is and follows the passions from up close.
Oh the presentation is archaic and sermonizing, which is to say from the outside, symbolically presenting reflection but not making it the fabric so that you reflect.
What is of more interest to me is noting this bit on the cinematic dimension: the contrast between a placid theatricality in the Jesus portions, with some exciting perspectives in the ship and chariot race segments which captivate the eye.
The first is impersonal and removed from experience, imparting the awe of spectacle but not the spiritual essence, you will see for instance Calvary Hill as a stage in the distance. The latter exhibit a dynamism and placement of the eye inside the swirl of life, for instance the subjective shots of rowers looking out at the battle from ports in the hull of the galley or the powerful shots of dashing chariots as they hurl through the racetrack. There’s cinematic energy here that sweeps you into what it is, instead of making you a spectator of opera.
What is interesting is that the filmmaker, the very talented Wyler, had the immersive means but rested his hand outside the action.
I briefly dipped in the infostream the day of the Boston bombings, looking for a specific thing; sure enough, within hours there were calls of conspiracy, and of course chief among them cries for a ‘false flag’. This right here is why the detective film matters to me, we are all detectives in life looking to apprehend governing truths which is a fundamental attribute of mind. It seems nothing can happen without it affirming the story of who you are. The political aspects are of little interest to me.
So a good detective film to my mind is one that attempts to shed light into how much of this apprehension of truth is mind itself. The Long Goodbye is near the top of my list of great films, next to several noir.
So this isn’t for me, in the sense that there is no study in perception, just a plot. At best, it tries to sketch a political landscape: the soldier was manipulated, one of police or DA is in on this but not both, the bad guy is a corporation but headed by an ex-gulag prisoner exploiting holes in the free market. Our guy can straddle the law, because he’s pursuing what’s right, existing mysteriously outside the system.
It is all entirely too clean, for instance we follow the idealist lawyer as she pieces an ‘objective’ view of the victims of a mass shooting, the idea is that bodies are not crime statistics but had a life out there. See the shots as we glimpse into these lives on the day of the shooting, all clean and bright, all framed like life insurance ads. All were good folks being brave that day, striving to be better. But no, the sleuth reasons that two were having an affair, and even this subversion of fundamental goodness feels fabricated and squeaky clean.
What seals the deal for me is Cruise and his character. Both entirely too smug, but this is not the ironic Phil Marlowe effect where the cocksure PI thinks so far ahead he possibly invents part of the case, the joke being on him. Reacher simply has the answers, he is without flaw or irony. And he has the chiseled body of the action hero. There’s even a scene, tangential but indicative of sensibility, where he poses without a shirt on next to the attractive lawyer, but instead of seducing, being so above it all, he tells her to go.
So here’s a film that similarly has all the answers, but none that explain beyond the superficial mugging. It’s a silly film.
At least Herzog seems to know this, playing up the voice we know as narrator of a cosmic creepiness.
Character. Ethics. Reason and storytelling versus the universal void.
The Coens have told this story a dozen times, starting with their debut. The story here is the classic Dashiel Hammett setup from Red Harvest, both Kurosawa and Leone dipped into it in the 60’s but in the hands of the Coens it is something else. We follow a man, punishing angel who as he flies through different lives weaves with the flutter of his wings a tapestry of cosmic buffoonery. All we see here are human leaves kicked off the forest ground, dust and leaves.
Was it all so he could pay a debt his way? For no good reason at all?
We think there is going to be pattern there, but no. It is all about the hat being blown this way and that by winds. The hat doesn’t mean anything, it’s not transformed into something wonderful (as the woman is quick to wishfully interpret the dream, as were we)—it’s merely the tip of the thread, the invisible string being pulled, pulling us into a story of stories.
This isn’t noir in its heart. It’s noir in the clothes, the snappy talk, the characters and some of the tropes, the doublecross and whatnot, but insofar as noir is the stuff of dreams, there is agency in its winds.
There’s some doodling with dreams here, ‘mental states’, the whole thing with the body in the woods. But it’s just that, a perfectly folded origami. I’m pretty sure there was a more elaborate structure here that the Coens decided to scrap at the last minute, perhaps thinking it wouldn’t mesh well with the gangster shell. I’m pretty sure they made that film about ‘the life of the mind’ their next project, Barton Fink.
So far as gangster movies go, I’d trade Goodfellas for this anyday.
But how about the bellowing gorilla? That was so strange, it may be the moment that will most stick with me, causal transference by air.
I adore this one. I’ll have you know it is my ‘feelgood’ movie, having seen it now a dozen times it never fails to lift my spirits. After some deliberation, I am finally putting it on my list of must see films.
What the Coens have done here is a very delicate thing. The obvious first. What you see in the film is both ‘real’, a loving trailer trash couple cannot conceive a child, and sleepless bending of reality as the urge to steal one so they can finally have a ‘full family unit’ manifests around them in all sorts of crazy situations. The biker from Hell is the tip of the thread, first dreamed about and in a weird confluence of forces soon appears in reality as dreamed.
From that point on, everything is askew while pointing to anxious dreaming. Prison pals from HI’s criminal past show up in the middle of the night. The frantic hunt for Huggies, starting with another botched holdup. HI’s boss as the dreary dead-end of family life. More obvious, the business with the hole in the ground.
It isn’t simply surreal, a term normally associated with vaguely weird stream-of-consciousness. It’s film noir, the film is sandwiched after all between the much more openly noirish Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. The Coens get noir, where the desire for life to be other/better than it is (not for sex or money as in noir, but blissful family life here personified in the baby) causes peculiar whims in perception, and those whims mysteriously manifest in the narrator’s ‘choosing’ of the reality he remembers, collapsing in the process.
Noir is magical, alluring to this day, because all those things are causally inextricable, desire from dream or memory from mysterious happenings in the story, which is why we often collapse the whole knotted mess to the workings of some celestial fate.
There’s all sorts of stuff woven on top. Reagan’s morning in America as neurotic hyper-normalcy, the bum HI as the flipside of that, laid-back and tied to the American tradition of glorified frontiersmen and criminals, lampooned in the biker. 1980’s suburbia as consumerist limbo. It’s a helluva ride. Next to Blue Velvet and Society, the definitive 1980’s film. It does all sort of collapse together by the end, which supports and enhances the idea of the random , whimsical arising of dreams. Big Lebowski starts here.
Its charm? You can ‘get’ this without ‘getting’ it.
The whole Huggies sequence is as profound to me as any cinematic dream. But it isn’t like Tarkovksy who bypasses the mind by long mystifying sweeps, hitting deep in this way. It strikes an amazing balance between self-conscious intelligent conception and the bypass in spontaneous asides of fun and tremendous heart—HI and Ed (the lovely Holly Hunter) are one of the most loving couples in filmdom. Intelligence, fun and emotion, these three are inextricable. This being so, you can ‘get’ the film via any route.
It ends with an Ozzie and Harriet movie dream of the perfect life.
MIYAMOTO MUSASHI III: DUEL AT GANRYU ISLAND (1956)
Dir: Hiroshi Inagaki
WAY OF CUTTING FROM THE VOID
In cinematic terms, the trilogy looks to both East and West. West: the Hollywood western feel and tone of romantic adventure in a lawless land. Usually in a western this is rooted in landscape, the vast expanse of sky and desert that crystallizes being, which reflects Western notions of god. By contrast here, the landscape is fluid and dynamic: a recurring and important motif is transient bodies of water, and often bridges, human effort to ford time.
Isn’t this how each film ends? With these evocative shots of running waters, as lovers part with the tides. The last shot leaves Musashi on a boat and we’re unsure where the tides bring him next. Oh, a lot of the film is otherwise steeped in studio-lot artifice, you will often see for instance painted skies and sunsets but that is cinematic decor.
The underlying visual inspiration is Japanese ukiyo-e painting. Buddhist- inspired in its original context, images (often of water or bridges) reflected this floating world of sorrows and melancholy yearning. We see this in Musashi’s own journey of mastering self, reaching here the almost ascetic contentment of working the land.
Mizoguchi was more somberly portraying this floating world at the time. Later jidaigeki would more bitterly question the heroism and samurai devotion. Here it is a rustic, straightforward rendition in keeping with public perception of Musashi as a straight soul; so are the images, so is the drama. Handcarving, folk instead of high art. In the Japanese context, the films are more in line with pulpy chambara like Tange Sazen, Satan’s Sword and the later Lone Wolf than Kurosawa, but the visual wrap has been given specific care to emulate idyllic perceptions of Musashi’s time.
So, a heroic story of romanticized legend, acted by a great Mifune, who like Musashi, had an intuitive rather than studied grasp of life. Told by referencing artistic tradition of that time which is romanticized by the same step, which is (roughly) the same distance in time to us. Fabricated but nice.
So let’s wrap this by talking a bit of Musashi.
As said, the trilogy does not mine in a cinematic way Musashi’s rich ideas about the ‘Way’, expressed in writing near the end of his life and passed on to a student. Well, how could any of what he wrote be cinematic? Musashi wrote on swordsmanship. Roughly speaking, Musashi’s teaching is layered in the following way: realizing the many crafts as one, right technique, right strategy, refutation of flawed strategy, void as principle. (meant in the Buddhist context)
At the outset, let me point that Musashi did not intend to establish a rigidly complicated system of study, but rather quickly sketch a practical handbook for the continuation of his school. He was not a learned scholar, nor from the Buddhist standpoint a spiritual master in the ordinary sense. His writings are not artistic, nor is he attempting to specifically illustrate spiritual principles. When he says ‘cut the opponent with a void spirit’, it is not metaphor nor poetry nor metaphysics. Using words, he is trying to distill an experiential state of mind, strictly practical wisdom.
The specifics of fighting do not interest us here, so let’s have a more abstract look at first principles. Okay, so the idea is that fighting before we even get to blows is two viewers coming together, establishing a situation. Referred to in the books as strategy, what Musashi is talking about is ways to manipulate the psychology of the situation. This is the usual understanding.
Some it is makes amazing common sense, for instance approach the other feigning a lazy or weak demeanor then close the gap in the last steps with an explosive burst, what he calls ‘getting someone drunk’. All sorts of stuff, ‘passing on’ mental states, creating mental states in the other, imaging yourself as the other, controlling and directing perception of the situation.
It seems what rules in these and other instances is the enigmatic ‘twofold gaze’, perception and sight. What can this be? Musashi does not explain, but I think it’s this; understanding the difference and, ultimately, the inseparability of seeing and perception as the whole stageplay carried on in the mind’s eye. Actually experience this. This is when you walk to an opponent, sight is a calm lake while perception is throwing emotion-pebbles (fear or arrogance) in that lake, rippling the mirror.
Oh, we have similar notions in the West of how the latter bends the first. But Musashi is worth studying for the purely intuitive immediacy of the imports, it was after all something he learned as a matter of life and death; it’s a living insight.
This is understanding ten things for every one you see. This is observing dynamics instead of trying to decipher intent, which is theorizing. Fixing the eyes but not stopping the mind coming and going, cultivating an inquisitive and broad spirit.
The idea is that none of this is an idea, but something that can be directly practiced and observed. This is the practice of perceiving the inner self of things through the outside image. Exciting stuff with its own cinematic sense, but you’ll have to know for yourself.
MIYAMOTO MUSASHI II: DUEL AT ICHIJOJI TEMPLE (1955)
Dir: Hiroshi Inagaki
BOOKS OF WATER THROUGH VOID
Step the second in my cinematic sojourn through these Musashi Miyamoto films. The first part was setting up the story, visually resplendent but leaves you out in the open—it could go on any number of ways. In this second part, the direction is solidified. Musashi is set up to choose between the way of the sword or love for the girl Otsu, while having to face his nemesis Sasaki Kojiro, foreshadowed for the closing chapter.
What puts me off this second chapter, which I rate the lowest of the three, is that we had a set of characters in the first film, and suddenly we have another set of characters. The film revolves around his feud with the Yoshioki school.
So in a way, this loose narrative foreshadows the third chapter. As it emerges in this second film, the film is not one long epic split in three parts. Neither is each of the two films so far self-enclosed. The narrative is a loose stitching together of episode and digress, thrust and feint in many directions; observant viewers will notice the same in the elliptical shooting mode.
I will not say more about this as a film since we are still halfway there, instead I’m going to pack all cinematic insights in the comment for the third.
As promised, I’m going to be providing with each comment some context around the films. Here, I’m talking on the fluidity of self.
This is a core precept of Buddhism, which features prominently in the films; Musashi receives key lessons by monks, his journey is one of self-realization, internal abating of ego.
In terms of religion, this fluidity is seen in the transmission and establishment of Buddhism in Japan over several hundred years through several attempts, several travels of Japanese monks in China. Both notable Zen schools in Japan were initiated by monks of the Tendai sect who had been to China. The film’s main two centerpieces take place outside Buddhist temples (one is referenced in the title, the other is Sanjusangen-do), both belonging to Tendai. The Sanjusangen-do, a marvelous structure, is also famous for housing one thousand and one statues of the thousand armed Kannon, this is the boddhisatva of compassion. The little wooden statuette that Musashi is seen carving in spots, is of Kannon.
Now simply saying that the self is illusory in nature sounds weird, metaphysical or philosophical at best. Buddhists have many of the same lofty words as we do, about ‘void’ and ‘self’, but whereas we’re accustomed to theoretical construction and analytical philosophy (we love words in the West), they resort to words as a last means of describing practiced stuff—also evident in Musashi’s own writings where he stresses experiential appreciation.
So when they say ‘void’, they don’t mean a generality but something which can be felt, has been felt, as one feels the temperature of water. When they say ‘self’, they mean when a single thought arises while you’re washing the dishes.
So it’s a pain in the ass to talk of it, because how can you say exactly how warm it is? It either is to you or isn’t. Just stick your hand in. Zen Masters (as well as Musashi whose ‘Way of strategy’ is Zen-flavored) knew this, which is why they often concocted non-sensical mindgames, loved paradox, urged silence or beat and kicked their students when they asked logical questions. The point is knowing for yourself. A similar thing happens to Musashi in the first film when he is tied by a Zen monk from a tree, a fictional event.
This monk, Takuan, existed, though his interactions with Musashi in the film are fiction, presumably he did know Musashi. He wrote on this business of illusion and nonself using sword metaphors, because the writings were intended for Yagyu Munenori, sword instructor to three shoguns and with Musashi the most famous swordsman in his day. Munenori briefly appears in the third film.
Munenori and Musashi both wrote books with background in all this. Both are still being widely read in the martial arts and business worlds, by people looking for insights on either real or metaphorical war.
Musashi’s first four books comprise technique and strategy. The last one and shortest, Book of the Void, which is held in separate esteem, probably because of the portentous title, is where Musashi speaks of the Zen void as deeper principle—it should be the most interesting but isn’t, Musashi’s practical conveyance falls short. No, it’s the books on strategy that deserve study once you look past hand-to-hand combat, at least for our purposes here.
Suffice to say, both Zen and Musashi urge direct observation of mind instead of general reasoning. Suffice to say, from the perspective of Zen a Kannon statue is no more sacred than the piece of wood it was carved from. And that the act of carving is the manifestation of self, this can be practically observed in the carved image—is it sloppy, elegant? This is important. So neither spoken word, nor teachings in a book, nor sacred image, nor Zen or not Zen, but observation of the mind behind. I’m going to wrap this in the third post.
The story is only beginning in this first film in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy. Many different conflicts are foreshadowed, this is along classic giri-ninjo lines typical in Japanese jidaigeki, duty versus feeling. Parallel selves being set up, the payoff perhaps for later—two loving girls, two manipulating mothers, resolute Musashi and the contrast in his weak- willed village friend. It roughly begins from the Battle of Sekigahara.
So there is not much yet to say, the film is more like the opening act of an epic film than something you may evaluate of itself, it ends just as Musashi embarks on his journey of swordsmanship. Seeing just this, you’re left with an open-ended sketch, groundwork. What sketch though! This first film does not show that it mines in a cinematic way Musashi’s own rich ideas about the ‘Way’, but that may be because he is not yet really ‘Musashi’. I hope to find more in tandem in futureinstalments.
But for now?
It’s well worth seeing, imagine a classic Hollywood western but instead of Monument Valley, a compendium of sorts of Japanese visual poetry in lush Eastmancolor. Waterfalls, bridges, cherry- blossomed branches against majestic pagodas—all of them emblematic of medieval Japan. Romantic and painterly, as samurai of the time regarded their art of bushido. (though seldom adhered to it)
I plan to watch and write about all three films, lacing each comment with a few notes on the overall context. Some historic groundwork here. The Battle of Sekigahara signalled the end of a long warring period and the beginning of the last Japanese shogunate. Whether or not postwar Japanese audiences consciously identified with the situation, Sekigahara followed the failed attempt to create an Empire over Korea and Ming China, the next such attempt would be undertaken in the 1900’s starting with another annexation of Korea and cover much of the same ground as originally coveted, including Manchuria. So the timeline covered in the three films is in essence a postwar period.
The outcome of the battle was largely decided by loss of the war and a depletion of troops in Western Japan over the Korean campaign. At Sekigahara, Musashi fought on the losing Western side. Contrary to what is shown in the film, he was a teenager at the time and had already fought duels.
It was the leader of the losing Toyotomi fraction that had a few years prior solidified the samurai as a heritable caste.
It was at around this time that Rikyu perfects practiced asymmetry in the tea ceremony—Rikyu was tea master of the Toyotomis, eventually forced into seppuku in the years leading to Sekigahara.
The ensuing Edo period would more broadly see, forged in relative seclusion, the crystallization of a Japanese identity of which Musashi is among its most emblematic figures. During this time, we have the consolidation of many practices—previously introduced from China—from the tea ceremony to calligraphy and landscape painting, frequently used as diversions by the samurai. Musashi incorporated many in his own practice.
So what you see in the film is visually this amalgamation of identity, wonderfully so. It isn’t refined beyond appearances, neither were the samurai. This is mingled with a lot of western stuff starting with the score, a rousing piece that reminded me of Morricone.
A core principle of this identity is of course bushido, the ‘way of the warrior’. It would be exploited in time in the second run for an Empire, with disastrous consequences. However, unlike most warrior lore of the time that simple-mindedly exalted a devoted death, Musashi wrote about more layered stuff. Referred to as strategy in his Book of Five Rings, it is much more, cinematic for our purposes. But more on that later.
I think it was Einstein who said that creativity is intelligence having fun. I do think the three go hand in hand, whether or not the finished work is ‘fun’. Fun can be all sorts after all, to my my mind it’s less to do with jokes and more with relaxed awareness, fresh mind, a capacity for spontaneous appreciation of what’s going on. In cinematic terms, I have the most fun with Altman. Celine and Julie Go Boating.
In TV, that’s Dennis Potter, though his work is closer to the cinema than anything. I do think this is subpar work compared to Singing Detective, but that’s setting up a tough comparison. It falters with a bit of sloppy writing in the latter episodes, and an absolutely annoying protagonist in the bookish Welsh boy. Overall, it can be said to be a rehash of Detective and Pennies in Heaven.
However, it fits everything just mentioned. It’s creative work, intelligently conceived. Like Altman, it has narrative space enough to wander, to unfold time as it trickles. Like Celine, it is layered fiction about a real world that stifles youthful dreaming.
Youth trapped in menial work, three army guys working in the British War Office and a blonde bombshell, she an usherette in a movie theater, who gets to intimately know all three. Each episode begins with newsreel footage of what’s going on in the world; cinematic light as it creates, out of nothing, the world of responsibility and organized anxiety.
It’s the middle of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which adds to dreary routine a sense of impending catastrophe. There is some getting to understand that this was the end of an Empire, from the adult perspective there’s a lot of worrying and despair.
It really was a volatile time, with Kruschev threatening with (nonexistent) nukes London and Paris if they didn’t pull out of Nasser’s Egypt. The main focus, though, is noting all this distant absurdity against what really makes the heart beat faster.
It is searching for true love. It is finding the girl who is right for you, dreaming about her, staring out the window at night summoning her to you. We have these marvellous shifts from humdrum reality at the Office to marvellous, sometimes plain silly daydreaming.
It is fun not because of the jokes. It is fun, in the sense of an exhilarating spirit, because the mind is not bogged down by drama. This is the the real lost youth, the innocence of gaze not having the mind ‘stop’ at every worry. Isn’t this what happens in the film when we escape via song? There is movement in mind, even to sometimes inane stuff. I saw this spread over a couple of days, oddly enhanced by my reading of a series of essays written by a Zen monk and calligrapher in the 1600’s. He was talking about something like this, letting go of the mind that holds the mind.
For me, that is the the look of exhilaration on Ewan McGregor’s face as he dreams of being Elvis. Well, that is sending out the mind. Even more penetrating films show how that is the same as having the mind return, but that’s another story.