November 28, 2008

David Milch and Language

Taking my cue from Sam's analysis of HBO's The Wire and Deadwood--the two finest shows to ever grace television (along with Rome, a flawed but relatively close third), I found an interview with David Milch regarding his thoughts on creating and writing Deadwood. Incidentally, if you haven't seen any of these shows, you are less of a person. Seriously. There should be a social restriction on when you are allowed to wander freely from your homes.

Deadwood takes top spot for me, in part due to my own nostalgia for Westerns films. What sets it apart from everything else is its dialogue. Milch's use of language is what Shakespeare would have written had he grown up a few hundred years later, in the wide, brutal expanse of America. Profane, artful, and bearing an internal rhythm that rivals Milton's Samson Agonistes. Even if the diction is a little too complicated for legitimate representation of the West in those days, it has to be closer than the strange minimalist responses we've all grown up with.

In the article, transcribed from a live interview at Bartos Theater with David Thorburn, Milch explains his emphasis on obscenity as follows:

As for the obscenity in Deadwood, I was trying to identify what organizing principles exist in a place without laws. Because Deadwood was a criminal community, built on land that had just been ceded to the Indians, they didn't want to pass any laws, since allowing law to exist would undermine their claim to the town. Language therefore had to serve two functions: to beat down any expectations of civility, and to show how words generate meaning through the context and emotion with which they're used. This is how one word can bear the weight of an entire story if the emotions and the context are there. In Swearengen's scene with Wu, I wanted to show how even with all the stereotypes about Asians, and the language barrier, a kind of order could develop.

And his use of profanity:

The guardians of the classical movie Westerns were offended, and asked me to prove that the language was accurate. The great Westerns were made under a strict moral code that prohibited obscenity, since the Jewish immigrants who ran Hollywood didn't want to rock the boat. There was a period in the late 'teens and early twenties when films started to become racy. They developed the Hayes code, which strictly regulated the language used in the films. When artists are faced with those kinds of strictures, they can either choose not to participate, or to find a way to internalize them in a way that serves the story. The image of the laconic cowboy was the result of the Hayes code; a character that not only used no profanity, but few words of any kind. The stoicism invoked a set of values. When people bond with works such as films, the works take on a kind of reality, so people don't say “I like Shane, ” they say “That's not how they talked in 1870.” That's not my problem. I did my research, and from what I read, in the West, obscenity was used to establish dominance, like apes beating their chests. With no law, any question could have lethal results. Language developed as an alternative to law.

Go out and find these shows, people....

November 22, 2008

Kurosawa is Overrated (Japanese Culture Through Film)

One of the highlights of this semester, if not the past year or so, has been sitting in a classroom, watching Japanese films--for bloody credit. Supplemental readings and lectures are provided too, but it's the films I find the most remarkable.

Director Akira Kurosawa garners a lot of attention in North America. He's influenced the likes of Sergio Leone, George Lucas (king of crap), and Spielberg, so maybe that's why. I haven't seen all of Kurosawa's work, but I shit you not, what I have seen pales in comparison to the other Japanese films viewed this semester. What makes Kurosawa films sub-par, in my mind, is their inability to present their themes or moral compass with subtlety--something I think can arguably be considered Western influence. Unlike Miyazaki, who infuses his themes directly into the story, leaving the viewer to draw from the scene what he or she can, Kurosawa beats us over the head with heavy-handed dialogue and obvious imagery. The films are entertaining, sure. But so is Bloodsport--and there's nothing great there by any stretch of the imagination.

Case in point, after viewing Sanjuro and Yojimbo, I decided to try of Kurosawa's more recent films, Dreams. Experimental in comparison to the linear story-lines of his Samurai epics, Dreams tells eight chapter-like tales through the form of dream sequences. Sounds inventive, I know. And to a certain extent is is. I mean, what other form for story-telling is so unrestricted? To a degree, Kurosawa uses this to his advantage. Visually speaking, this film is astounding. Each scene is careful and lush, drawing metaphor from setting as much as from the story nuance (what little there is). Why then does the director insist on falling into what I like to call the Spielberg trap?

Spielberg weakens a lot of his own films by assuming his audience is stupid and spoon-feeding them the "just in case you didn't quite get it" explanation at the end. Watch Minority Report and tell me otherwise. Great film right up until the last half hour or so. Same with A.I. In Dreams, Kurosawa goes the same route. A beautiful village, along a river dotted with water-mills, is a useful enough metaphor for pastoral elegy without having a protagonist lectured to about the perils of modernity by an old wise man.

There are exceptions. Two of the chapters are simply gorgeous. Kurosawa's indictment of war, told though the eyes of a soldier confronted by the ghosts of all his dead comrades, is a work of art. So is the following chapter where an artist steps literally into the world of Van Gogh's paintings, walking through their landscapes and conversing with the artist himself (played by Martin Scorcese). So it's not like Kurosawa doesn't have the knack. He's just too influenced by Western stupidity. His films embody what is wrong with American cinema.

I'm not saying avoid Kurosawa. Far from it. All of his films have something redeemable about them. But you can't consider yourself reasonably knowledgeable about Japanese film-making until you've sampled from the truly great. Directors like Ozu or Takehashi. Try the following films and see if you disagree:

Twenty-Four Eyes
The Taste of Tea
Always: Sunset on Third District
Early Summer
Spirited Away

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November 7, 2008

Rhubarb Publication

Months ago I sent a short-story to Rhubarb magazine for consideration. Got the rejection email to prove it--ha ha. However, the editor happened to stumble upon my other blog and asked to publish a few of the entries instead. Of course I agreed, being the whore for publication that I am. So, if you're out and about and happen to see this little magazine gracing a book shelf somewhere, pick it up and give it a read-through. Patrick Friesen, Elsie K. Neufeld, Robert Martens--all in there too. A far better reason to read it, if you ask me. I feel rather privileged to be paged alongside them.

If you're curious which blog posts of mine made it in there:

A Man Amongst Women

Music as Metaphor

Two samples of the five they chose.

November 5, 2008

2008 American Elections Are Finished

History baby, and I'm proud to have witnessed it. In my limited understanding of American politics, I think the best and right man won. The Republicans have not done an admirable job these past eight years. And who else has a chief strategist with the last name of Axelrod? Can't get more American than having a last name based on car parts (that's a joke folks).

What moves me most is the potential I see with this election. The potential for a government to take care of its people, to not censor their dissent, to actually work with the opposition to create unity in the senate and the house. Overly-idealistic, I know. But the potential is there. And I say this understanding the colossal amount of money used by both parties to finance their campaigns. Who knows how much change Obama can actually implement? But damn it I am so excited that the potential is even there.

The speeches given by both candidates were remarkable. A gracious concession by McCain and a victory speech from Obama that rivaled any southern gospel preacher's sermon. Both were passionate and sincere. Truth be told, I found McCain to be pretty likable, lacking the idiot-rhetoric of the right wing Republicans we get on Fox.

Obama's speech.

McCain's speech.

What I'm saying here is I'm relieved. After eight years of looking south from Canada and shaking my head in dismay, I see the spark of something new: the notion of putting people first, their well being, their safety, their equality.