Steak dinners

Easter Dinner was two two-inch thick porterhouse steaks slathered with olive oil and melted butter, sprinkled with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, and laid in a 12-inch cast-iron pan that had been heating in a 500 degree-oven for twenty minutes, and pan-roasted--8 minutes one side, 7 minutes the other. Steaks put aside to rest for five minutes, said pan was placed on medium stovetop heat, deglazed with half a cup of cognac, splashed with a cup of heavy cream, and whisked till sauce is thick, around five minutes.

Served with a crusty baguette and a spinach-and-arugula salad with apple-butter dressing (extra-virgin olive oil, cider vinegar, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, dijon mustard, crushed garlic clove, cider, and enough apple butter to drown in, all whisked together).

Dessert was strawberries and blackberries in mascarpone cream (two egg yolks mixed with 4 ounces sugar and 4 ounces mascarpone; whipped two egg whites till foamy then folded whites into egg-cheese-sugar mix a little at a time; chilled for an hour before adding the berries).

Tonight did a variation on pan-fried steak. Slathered olive oil on four bone-in ribeyes, sprinkled them with kosher salt and cracked black pepper, laid them in two 12-inch pans (the cast iron one worked so much better, have to buy another one) on medium high heat, two minutes on each side, and maybe a few extra minutes searing the fatty sides. Set aside steaks to rest, poured out the extra oil (leaving around two tablespoons in each pan).

On medium heat, dropped half a cup of sliced shitake mushrooms in each pan, fried em for a few minutes; poured in maybe half a cup of Madeira wine followed by half a cup of heavy cream, whisked a few more minutes till thick; poured sauce over steaks, and sprinkled everything with chopped Italian parsley.

Served as side a spinach salad with an orange marmalade vinaigrette (extra-virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, a crushed garlic clove, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, a tablespoon of dijon mustard, and plenty of orange marmalade). Topped salad with mandarin orange segments.

Sliced a ciabatta bread open, spread herbed butter (garlic crushed with kosher salt, cracked black pepper, Italian parsley, chives in softened butter) on each side, and toasted the whole thing in an oven at 350 degrees till the bread is lightly browned.


Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)

Shohei Imamura (1926-2006)

His films weren't easy to see--only managed to see two of his films on the big screen: Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi, 1998) in the Hong Kong film festival, and Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods, 1968), and only managed to write a short piece on the former; the rest I had to see on video, or even laserdisc.

I had this to say about Kanzo Sensei:

Shohei Imamura's "Kanzo Sensei" literally translates from the Japanese as "Dr. Liver"--which, when you think of it, better captures the fleshy, somewhat absurd nature of the film than the artier-sounding "Dr. Akagi," the film's official English title. Imamura is a Japanese filmmaker from an older tradition than, say, Kore-Eda Hirokazu ("After Life," "Maborosi") or Kurosawa Kyoshi ("License to Live"). He maintains a fashionably modern distance from his subject but his storytelling style--lively, intimate, totally engaging--recalls Japanese masters like Ichikawa, Mizoguchi and the older Kurosawa.


The film is about a World War II Japanese doctor who literally runs all over the small town that is his territory, diagnosing hepatitis left and right. The town authorities think he has hepatitis in the brain, but that's because the disease is everywhere, in epidemic proportions. The latter half of the film concentrates on Akagi's quest to isolate the hepatitis virus--he throws together a delightfully elaborate device involving flasks, microscopes, a slice of a dead man's liver, and (nice touch) a broken-down movie projector. He almost succeeds (which would have made the film science-fiction) but fate keeps throwing distractions in his way--like the escaped Dutch prisoner all the soldiersare looking for, or the lovestruck nymphomaniac that insists he spank her bottom (Imamura's comic erotic scenes perk you up, like cortisone injections). Akagi muddles through anyway, and achieves an ironic apotheosis--staring into an atomic mushroom cloud in the distance, he recognizes "a huge liver…magnificently hypertrophied!" "Kanzo Sensei" is a tragicomic film about World War II Japan, seen through the befuddled eyes of a benign monomaniac.

Businessworld, 4/23/99

I remember seeing Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo in the Detroit Institute of Arts, in the early 90s. Thirty years since I saw that film, and images still stay with me--the priestess with her breasts being mashed, the giant rock hanging above the pit, and how it eventually drops to crush the incestuous lovers, the figure of a woman, prancing on the tracks, before the oncoming train...

His films were often bitingly funny and wonderfully erotic, and that the satisfaction of sexual desire onscreen was often frustrated or interrupted, which only aggravated one's thirst for fulfillment. It gave his work a dirty thrill, a live-wire energy you don't find in many filmmakers today. Also, that the focus on diseased livers probably makes Kanzo Sensei his most prophetic film, and that 'benign monomaniac' might be a good description of the man--he dwelt on the most disturbing subjects with an air of equanimity, as if talking about some pleasant subject (weather, or better yet bar chow), and trained his camera towards his characters with all the attention and intensity of a monomaniac. A great filmmaker.  


Fan mail (a response to my "Da Vinci Code" article)

Found in my inbox today, in response to my article on The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006):
(Note: Lito Lapid is a former Filipino action star)

Mon, 29 May 2006 18:52:14 -0700 (PDT)


From: "al diaz" aledgeds@yahoo.com  

Subject: So dumb the Crap of Noel Vera

I could not believe that someone let you write this ignorant movie review you just did on The Da Vinci Code in their publication.  And I cant believe that you are this stupid.
Please tell me Noel Vera that you are not this fucking stupid..... Answer these questions for me please... I couldnt believe someone is really this dumb. 
1. What part of "FICTION" didnt you understand about this movie???
2. Since when did Dan Brown's objective in writing this COMPLETELY FICTIONAL NOVEL is to destroy the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church???
3. Since when did the "The Da Vinci Code" become a historically educational film?
Let me quote this incredible Noel Vera stupidity....
"The Da Vinci Code isn't good history, isnt good criticism of the catholic church, isnt even decent entertainment; it deserves not our censure...."
Let me quote another incredible Noel Vera stupidity....
" (Ron Howard)... or entertaining the notion that he is in any way a director) "
And lastly you dumb stupid fuck is, how did you become a movie critic when you are this biased?  Anticipating falling asleep even before the movie started? What kind of a movie critic are you? I BET YOU GAVE ALL LITO LAPID MOVIES 5 STARS!

Mon, 29 May 2006 22:04:01 -0700 (PDT)

From: "Noel Vera" noelbotevera@yahoo.com

Subject: Re: So dumb the Crap of Noel Vera

Wow, hey--get that plug out of your butt, maybe you'll feel better.


Mission Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)

Mission Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)




Hello, Tom.


Your two previous big-screen missions as IMF operative Ethan Hunt have been quite successful. Your first, directed by Brian De Palma, showed a breezy disregard for the complex script (by legendary Hollywood screenwriter Robert Towne ("Chinatown")) that at the same time managed to be lucid and exciting (never mind that, as die-hard "Mission Impossible" fans point out, you trashed the premise of Bruce Geller's original TV series by putting a premium on maverick adventuring over closely coordinated teamwork). Your second, also written by Towne, was more openly emotional (a response to complaints that the first was cold-hearted and difficult to follow); as directed by John Woo, it sacrificed plot twists for Woo's signature action sequences, complete with slow-motion axe kicks, eyepopping motorcycle stunts, a pair of blazing handguns, the flight of fluttering doves.


On your third outing you have carefully considered your next choice of director, having previously discarded Joe Carnahan ("Narc") and settled for J.J. Abrams, creator of the hit TV series "Alias" and "Lost," on his big-screen debut. Abrams, who has admitted that the original series influenced his own "Alias," must have seemed the perfect director for this movie. His screenplay posits a more domesticated, more human Hunt, one who has found true love in Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and is willing to propose, marry, have a baby with her--this closely mirroring your real-life engagement and impregnation of starlet Katie Holmes. Perhaps the only details that differentiate your onscreen story from your real-life one are 1) You do not jump up and down on a sofa, shrieking about true love, and 2) you do not offer to eat your child's placenta (something, it must be pointed out, that the mother and not father traditionally eats, to reduce postpartum depression).


Preaching to a bear

From Glenn H. in Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities:

A priest, a preacher, and a rabbi all served as chaplains to the students of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. They would get together two or three times a week for coffee.

One day, someone commented that preaching to people isn't really hard. The real challenge would be to preach to a bear.

They decided to do an experiment. They would all go out into the woods, find a bear, preach to it and attempt to convert it.

Seven days later they're back to discuss the results.

Father Flannery, walking on crutches and with his arm in a sling, says: "Well, I went into the woods to find me a bear. And when I found him I began readin' him the Catechism. Well, the bear wanted nothin' to do with me and began slappin' me around. So I grabbed me holy water and sprayed him and, Holy Mary Mother o' God, he became meek as a lamb. The bishop's comin' out next week to give him farst communion and confirmation."

Reverend Billy Bob spoke next. He was in a wheelchair, an arm and both legs in casts, trailing an IV drip. He declaimed, "Well, brothers, y'know we don't sprinkle! I went out and found me a bear. I began t'read mah bear God's holy word! But the bear wanted nothin' to do wid me. So I took a-hold 'a him and we began to wrassle. We wrassled down one hill, up another, down yet another till we came to a creek. I locked him in a full nelson, dunk'd him and baptized his hairy soul. And jus' as you say, he became genn'l as a spring lamb. We spent the rest o' the day praisin' Jesus."

They both looked at Rabbi Goldstein, who was on a hospital bed, in full body cast and traction, with IV's and monitors running in and out of him. He says "Looking back on it, circumcision may perhaps not have been the best way to start out with my bear..."


Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

Saw the Critierion disc of Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise again tonight and it sparkles on the umpteenth viewing, like the moon in that wonderful champagne. Peter Bogdanovich talks about the beginning--which Lubitsch and Raphaelson spent three days trying to think up--saying it's a twist on the Venice of the Grand Canal and its gondolas. Here the gondola is a trash barge and it's easy to say that's a way of pulling the perfumed atmosphere of Venice down a notch or two (something the Hays Office was actually worried about), but I see it differently--I think it's the garbage that's being uplifted. Garbage on a gondola, drifting down the canals of Venice--what better treatment of unpromising material can you get?

Characters like Kay Francis' rich widow or Charles Ruggles (who looks like Harvey Keitel with a moustache and a deadpan sense of humor) and Edward Horton's emasculated suitors, or Aubrey Smith's faithful chairman are revealed to have clay feet, the same time outsiders like Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall's thieves are shown to have their share of hidden gold; that's what I think that garbage gondola--and this film--is really about.

I can't help but suspect Larry McMurtry somehow saw this film and was inspired to create the character of Aurora Greenaway and her several lovers, one of which is a dead ringer for Ruggles' military man; if so he's forgiven for copying such a memorable character--even if, much as I like Aurora in McMurtry's novel, she doesn't compare to Francis' sexy, scintillating original.

As for the film itself--what else is there to say, except to mention a few in an endless list of inimitable moments? Hopkins and Marshall reclining on a sofa, fading away as if into a higher plane of existence (or ecstacy); Kay Francis swinging both legs over her head, looking straight at us (at Marshall) with a provocative smile on her face, and asking if we approve (I sure as hell do); Francis later taking her pearls off (as intimate a gesture as if it were her underwear) and saying "but I don't want to be a lady." The way she fingers those pearls while saying this causes a tingling sensation in a corresponding (if considerably larger) part of the male anatomy. Everyone talks of Lubitsch's 'light' touch; personally, I think this is powerful, heady stuff, not to be seen with a beautiful woman unless you're both ready to follow through on what happens next.


The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972)

The Poseidon Adventure (Ronald Neame, 1972)


"The Poseidon Adventure" came out in 1972, two years after "Airport" had proven that there was money to be made in disaster pictures--again (actually, Hollywood had gone into a disaster-flick kick at least once before, when "San Francisco" (1936) became a hit, followed by John Ford's "The Hurricane" (1937) and "The Rains Came" two years later).


"Poseidon" set the formula; "Airport" thirty-plus years later is a dull affair, a movie literally and comprehensively about the running of an airport--how to cope with passenger stowaways (less possible now with all the high-tech security), should they or should they not offer disaster insurance, and which stewardess is sleeping with which pilot.

Irwin Allen knew what was missing; he thought he could do better, and does. "The Poseidon Adventure" is about the cheesiest enchilada in a decade full of sticky rolled tortillas--not the best, not even the most bizarre, but easily the ripest, complete with a set of the saltiest hams available.


Uhaw na Pag-ibig (Thirst for Love, 1983) Mario O'Hara

New article out on Criticine, an online magazine specializing in Southeast Asian cinema:

Uhaw na Pag-ibig (Thirst for Love, 1983) Mario O'Hara


I watched Mario O'Hara's Uhaw na Pag-ibig (Thirst for Love, 1983) expecting a mediocre production—no awards, no admiring words from anyone—and for the first thirty minutes or so it pretty much confirmed my suspicions. It's your run-of-the-mill, fallen-woman story where Lala (Claudia Zobel) fights with her mother (Perla Bautista), gets pregnant by her boyfriend (Patrick de La Rosa), plans to elope with said boyfriend (who is stabbed while waiting in an alley), and eventually runs away from home.

Matters become more interesting once she leaves. She hooks up with Bong (Lito Pimentel) who gives her a dancing gig in a nightclub, then asks her to “entertain” a select clientele of men to the tune of two thousand pesos each (roughly 250, early '80s U.S. dollars). Bong's pimping is just one of his sidelines; there's the suggestion that he's also a drug-smuggler, and when one of his men bursts into his bedroom with a bullet wound in the shoulder and a police officer not far behind, Bong handles the situation with such cool ruthlessness (O'Hara's clean staging and editing of the action reminds you of Sam Fuller, or Raoul Walsh) that you suck your breath in dismay: this guy is bad news, and too damned smart to beat easily.

Carciofi alla Giudi (Deep fried artichokes)

So we tried something a little different: Carciofi alla Giudi, or deep fried artichokes, Jewish style. Cleaned and trimmed six chokes (first time I ever did this and it's a bitch of a job), soaked them in acidulated water; prepared a pot half full of oil and water, and simmered the chokes for fourteen minutes. Took em out, drained them in paper towels; when they've cooled, their soft yellow inner leaves easy to spread out, like the unopened buds they really are. Heat two inches of olive oil in a medium pan; deep-fry the opened chokes in the oil, pressed down so they stay opened up. Eight minutes of this, then take out, drain, and sprinkle with salt (kosher, what else?) while still hot.

The result are crispy gold blossoms, salty and surprisingly satisfying. By way of side dish (I know, they're appetizers, but after wrestling with six chokes I wasn't in the mood to cook anything more), I just heated a loaf of bread and dipped it in the chokes' cooking oil with a bit of salt.


Role playing sex

From Sense and Sensuality:

Rosemarie: We have fictional characters we play. He's a American wartime journalist in Berlin and I'm an American call girl who ran away from home at fourteen with aspirations of a more edifying life in Europe, and we're drinking buddies and best friends.

Roy Kay: I was chatting with a woman who was seriously thinking about being a labor organizer. I musingly teased that that would be an interesting scene, since I'd fit the role of "Capitalist Exploiter". It's a good thing she's into piercings, because that would provide a use for my diamond stickpin.

It doesn't have to be obviously glamorous, does it?

What about a numbers-cruncher who works for a big accounting firm--a small, colorless man who tends to blend in the background in office parties (he's painfully shy), doesn't seem to have a girlfriend, and goes home alone to his pet dog?

At home (a studio apartment) he's reasonably neat, likes to read food magazines, cut out simple recipes, and try them out. Watches very little TV (no cable), on weekends takes walks outside, just wandering the city by himself, either by bus or subway or on foot, sometimes to parks, sometimes to little quiet corners he finds hidden away in the city, where he can sit down with a sandwich and a soda he fixed up to eat.

He has a secret: he plays the violin. Pretty good, not concert-hall league, but he can play. Doesn't like the classics, but he can do folk songs, pop, and he even composes. One short little melody he once did is actually touching. He dreams of playing it to some girl someday.

Sexually--not much experience. He's had some girlfriends, here, there, sometimes for years, but it isn't so much that there's something wrong with him or them, it's just that there were no sparks. He's still friends with all his formers.

He has one friend, an old man in a retirement home, was a friend of his father's; he goes there on weekends to play chess with him.

Sounds dull? Or interesting? What d'ye think?

amiable: Too much work.

I just like to fuck.

sparky: oh, my.

Roy Kay: Not sure where the plot is headed, Noel, so I can't much essay a judgment. Could we have a little more?

Uh, I DO approve of where Amie's plot is headed, though. More. More! MORE!

He's arrested under suspicion of being a terrorist (computer glitch plus he looks vaguely Arabic), tortured, injected with a modified virus under a genetic engineering program, grows a second schlong beneath his first, escapes to India where he learns from a yoga master the deepest secrets of the Kama Sutra, and now rangers through America fucking male and female rightwing conservatives alike in both orifices at once, converting them to liberalism with his mindbending sexual techniques as the darkly sensual terrorist known as "W."

Roy Kay: Well, it sounds all in a good cause - especially in Ann Coulter's case.

Oui, oui.

Rosmarie: Well, that plotline certainly took a turn, Noel!

Could hear the snoring from the balcony, is why.

I actually rather liked your initial premise, for a short story or something. It didn't exactly get my sexual juices flowing, but it was a nice vignette.

I tried on my little Dom Hat yesterday...still finding my footing, as it's not my usual inclination. Basically, I had him wash me in the shower but wouldn't let him touch me for his own pleasure. If he started looking too smitten or dreamy, I'd get very stern and detached and make him take his hands off. It was quite enjoyable. I felt slightly awkwardly bossy in moments, but he seemed to like it in the context.

You remember to tell him to scrub behind his ears?

Among other things, yes.

Clean ears are important. Among other things, of course.

But don't let me catch you appearing to enjoy those ears or you'll get a smack! Stick tostrictly business, please!



David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (film vs. graphic novel, and other matters)

From Forum With No Name:

TonyaJ: I'm very impressed by what Cronenberg did with this film - the themes operate on more than one level; love of family, deceit within families; the myth of the perfect family; how violence can shape our lives and make liars of us. It's also a deeply-felt thriller (you could even call it a violent fable) which poses hard questions, such as can the violence Joey Cusack/Tom Stall left behind but resurfaces be more honorable than the violence at the very beginning of the film, where two low-life drifters on a seemingly endless roadtrip of utter depravity kill at random, not to protect, but in a self-serving way? Whereas Stall kills them to protect his business and employees? Also,what are the limits of forgiveness?

What's even more interesting is that you don't really need to know why Joey walked away from it all, though you can read between the lines. Perhaps first it was fear of retribution, but can a man who was once evil redeem himself by living a good life that he believed to be a true one?

The ending of this film was utterly brilliant. Maria Bello as Edie could have been starting to utter a number of phrases as Tom gazes at her, "Where have you been," "Welcome Home," "What are you doing back here," and he can only wait for whether it's forgiveness or condemnation. I wouldn't say the ending is ambiguous but it's left unfinished. Wonderful acting by everyone concerned and William Hurt's short but effective turn a real treat.

We talked about the sex scenes to some extent in Film and Politics, and some of the ideas that came up was that the second sex act was not loving but hostile, where Bello was challenging Joey to show how good he was, sexually--trying him out in place of her husband, in effect (well, this is more my version of what happened; the group may have come up with various other interpretations). Some of them believe the first sex act had unhealthy implications too, but I don't agree--felt it was a bit of role playing and oral sex (someone--don't remember who--noted that Cronenberg acted out the sex to the two actors, which freaked them out no end).

Harris and Hurt played their roles in a humorous vein, but I don't see it as less threatening for all that; if anything, I felt the clowning was more unsettling because it implied confidence in its ability to mete out violence.

The ending--David E's interpretation I largely agree with. The son does seem dismayed at the possibility of genetic inheritance. I don't think Bello accepts Joey at all; I think that's a very uneasy truce there, that the final image is full of tension. One implication is that it's only a matter of time before Joey turns on them all, and the son has to face off against the father.

Browsed through the graphic novel, incidentally; found the fight sequences more believable in the film. Noticed that Bello's character is a plain housewife in the novel (and not a lawyer, as in the film), and is treated more of a prop than the social and psychological equal Bello plays. The novel's latter part is grotesque beyond believability, and I think Cronenberg (or the scriptwriter) is right to cut much of it out; and there is the novel's conceit that Joey and his brother are kids who manage to outfight and outsmart the mob and are never part of it--that's a real stretch of credibility (the film implies that Joey is a fully initiated member, which I prefer--it explains where he got his gun and hand-to-hand combat training).

Finally, the novel has none of the sex. Cronenberg added that, and I think it improves the story--and Bello's role in it--immeasurably.

Tonya J: One thing I don't agree with is that Joey might turn on his whole family. It's plain, at least to me, from the point where he comes in the door after the interlude with his brother and sees his family starting dinner that he's trying to feel out whether he'll be accepted back into the fold. I get no sense of malevolence from him. And in the absence of any action on their mother's part, the children offer the first olive branches or indications of acceptance; the dinner plate put out for him, the food handed to him. Maybe a father who deceived them is better than no father at all?

I don't think Maria Bello's look signifies much acceptance. No, there's not much malevolence on Viggo's face as he enters the room--but you have to remember that each time his alter-ego surfaces, there's precious little warning. His old self seems to come out easier each time, and each time his new self has less and less control over each eruption. Then you also have to remember the propensity for violence flows through the son's blood as well, and that was also recently released, it's implied, by his father's example. Right now their outbursts of violence are justified by extreme circumstances (bullying, threat to life and loved ones), but for how long? There's a lot of tension in that family (which the little girl is blessedly unaware of--but not for long), and if violence erupts again, it'll probably come out of that very tension.

TonyaJ: Yup, I got the whole son thing but there's a part of me that wishes they could go back to the way they were before the incident in the diner, but as you point out the new self comes out at times of extreme stress (but I'm wondering what his family could possibly do to trigger that?).

Any number of things, from the wife saying she's leaving him to the son saying he's gay to someone cracking up the car. Right now his other self only surfaces in dire need--but can we be sure that'll always be the case? A gun just sits there, waiting; sooner or later, it's going to be used.

(Postscript: Bill Krohn, in A_Film_By, had these thoughts:

Cronenberg is only pessimistic from a humanist perspective. He is optimistic from his own perspective, which is Gnostic. Let's not forget that Gnositicism is the most anti-humanist of religions: it considers the created world - Nature - to be a mistake and a prison from which our individual pneumae are struggling to get back to the Hidden God, who did not create this mess, and lives at an infinite distance from it. The god or gods who rule this world (the Archons) are prison wardens who are keeping us here, as portrayed in Kafka's novels.


The leap from the Gnosticism of Videodrome and Naked Lunch to the ideas contained in A History of Violence is a leap of auteurist faith, in a way, but I think it explains a few things.


The big question for interpreting this film is: Is the ending a happy ending or an unhappy one? The logical possibilities are:


1) It's a good thing. Tom's evil past has erupted, threatening his family's happiness, and he has been forced to eliminate the threat. Now things can be as they were.


2) It's a bad thing. The virus of Tom's violent past has infected his wife, who now likes rough sex, and his son, whose pacifism is a thing of the past. Nothing will ever be as it was before.


3) It's a mixed bag. The family has survived the threat, but their illusions are shattered. They will carry on, but they will have to live with their new knowledge.


4) It's a good thing. They were sleepwalking through a state of Innocence that had to be destroyed. Their awakening has reintroduced passion into Tom and Edie's sex life and saved them from the fate the son prophesied for himself and, implicitly, his parents: boredom, infidelity, alcoholism.


5) It's a bad thing because they're going to fall back into denial of their instincts. They have returned to their "dirty water," like Orphee and Euridyce at the end of Cocteau's Orphee.


(4) and (5) would be analogs of a Gnostic reading, with the rediscovery of atavistic impulses that had been buried by Tom's conversion (he does say he was "born again") taking the place of the mystical awakening sought by Gnostics. I think there is a lot in modern culture - the "edge culture" that Cronenberg's films are part of - to support one or both of these readings, which are ironic with respect to 1) and 2). In other words, (2) is the humanist unhappy ending, but Cronenberg may consider it a happy ending (4); (1) is the humanist happy ending, but Cronenberg may consider it an unhappy ending (5).


I believe that irony was operative in Videodrome and Naked Lunch as it is in Orphee, where the happy ending is a debacle from the point of view of Death and Heurtebise, and I guess I believe it's operative here, although as usual Cronenberg leaves it up to the audience how they will read the ending.


The only film where he actually tried to point up a happy ending in a tragedy is The Fly. It originally ended with the birth of Geena Davis'child, who turns out to be a marvellous insect-human version of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey (that great Gnostic film). Barry Diller made him cut the ending after it was shot so that the film ends with Davis killing the mutated Seth.


But Cronenberg has always been there to suggest in interviews that the horrors in his films aren't horors, and I can't think of any Cronenberg film where weird sex, in particular, is seen as a bad thing. He usually says something to the effect that the various forms of monstrous coupling may be an evolutionary leap forward. In A History of Violence, it's both: a regression to atatvism and an evolution to some higher form of Innocence, where there is no disconnect between "Joey" and "Tom."


Maybe this would be (6): the Gnostic (or para-Gnostic) analog to the "mixed bag" of (3), only seen from a perspective where the fact that they will live with their new knowledge will be a good thing. Of course, they might eventually turn into the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey, who had an SM room in their basement where her body was found....)


Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)

Man in a high castle

(Written in response to Walter's Miyazaki Fest at his Quiet Bubble blog, now ongoing)

Hayao Miyazaki's version of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle doesn't look as good on DVD as it does on the big screen. That opening shot, of mysterious fog through which the castle suddenly lurches into sight (a gigantically mutated armor-plated version of the Baba Yaga's chicken-leg house, complete with gun-turret eyes and goldfish fins (is Miyazaki familiar with Russian folklore?)), loses much of its impact on the small screen. But as with most of Miyazaki's projects, there are other pleasures to be had.

It's an encyclopedically monstrous patchwork compendium of his previous films, if you want to see it that way--the castle moves in the same sliding-plates manner he developed for the Ohmu in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; clouds and airships loom over grassy hills as they do in parts of Laputa, Castle in the Sky; tarry spirits menace our hero and heroine the way they did in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away; a fire demon quips from his grate, much like the cat does in Kiki's Delivery Service. Even some of the aerial battleships recall, in design and movement (metal fins or cilia rowing in the air), mechanical versions of some of the more bizarre monsters you find in the thousand-page manga version of Nausicaa.

What's new is Jones' intricately plotted story of a young girl cursed to be an old woman, and the heartless wizard she meets; that, and the sense that magic plays a common if occasionally complex fact of life in her world, much as technology does in ours. Miyazaki doesn't include all the details; he picks and chooses. Jones' heroine Sophie is plucked whole from the novel, a girl so gray and timid she seems old long before she's cursed with an aging spell; Howl's knotty relationship with his fire demon Calcifer makes it intact--remains, in fact, the heart of the film (in more ways than one) as it was the book's.

Miyazaki downplays Sophie's sorcery--she does talk to objects, but whether they obey her or not is not immediately apparent; when the Witch of the Waste turns her into a ninety-year-old, the spell appears to strengthen or fade, but Jones implied as much (if aroused, elder Sophie calls upon reservoirs of strength she never even suspected she had). The moments when her youth returns seem arbitrary, but I think John Lasseter in his DVD introduction to the film was right in saying it comes in times of high passion--when Sophie is provoked, or feels the need to rise to the occasion (her most sustained period of renewed youth happens after Howl (who has admitted to caring for her) walks into danger).

His biggest change, however, is in altering the basis of conflict. It's still the twin story of Sophie's coming out of her shell, and of Howl assuming the mantle of responsibility and commitment (both crucial requirements for young people to become adults), but what causes them to do this is not the Witch of the Waste (she's pretty much sidelined midway through) but the war that in Jones' novel merely loomed in the background. In Miyazaki's film the threatening crisis has become a full-blown conflict, and Miyazaki reserves his most spectacular effects for depicting its horrors, from smoldering battleships limping into harbor to hellish night-time bombings that leave cities glowing like hot coals (the level of technology has been advanced from what seemed like the 18th century in the novel (sailing ships, horse-drawn wagons) to around the time of the Second World War, and in fact the bombings recall the London Blitz). Instead of a personal antagonist as in the book, a former lover who insists that Howl recognize her claim on him (insisting, in effect, that he grow up), Miyazaki gives us a society suffering the fever of war, a society under which young men and women are forced to choose between fighting--giving in to the fever, the societal madness--and the perhaps more mature alternative of resistance. From the more focused threat of a fearfully powerful Witch Miyazaki shifts to the broader one of a besieged police state, desperately recruiting its warlocks and witches, turning them into monsters, and hurling them against its opponents (shirkers like Howl, conscientious or not, are ruthlessly hunted down as enemies of the state).

It's not a matter of which is better, I think; Miyazaki has simplified the plot twists, dropped or changed several characters, and along the way lost much of Jones' unique flavor (the way Sophie point of view departs from, or collides with, reality; or the way magic is cunningly introduced, either as a bit of trickery, or as a fragment of a poem by John Donne) and understated humor (Howl with nonchalant pride parading past Sophie, trailing a blouse several miles long); on the other hand, he's made a film that speaks more urgently to us, what with the recent images of war and violence lingering in our minds.

As for the dub voices, it's a pleasure to hear the new Batman (Christian Bale) speaking out as Howl (you sense the spoiled Bruce Wayne ultraconfidence in some of his line readings); the beautiful Jean Simmons playing the elderly Sophie; Emily Mortimer, she of fresh face and fine figure and delicate yet emphatic warble, matching Ms. Simmon's own voice as a young girl. Critics didn't much like Billy Crystal's Borscht Belt fire demon, but I did; he goosed his lines the way a good comedian gooses his audience--that is, hard and often.

The ending is problematical--perhaps the first really obvious misstep in Miyazaki's career (please skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film). I'm not talking about all the loose ends suddenly being tied up (Jones' novel had a similarly hurried conclusion), but the way Miyazaki has the authorities end the war, as if it were a silly game you can call off and not some collective insanity that requires radical therapy for everyone concerned--war and the hatred that creates war can't be so easily dismissed as all that. Miyazaki's ending has the unintended effect of almost trivializing the tremendous scenes of destruction and carnage he's worked so hard to create.

Almost; perhaps I'm just saying the glass is half-full when it's half-empty, but the ending doesn't quite wipe out my memory of those war scenes, and what it meant for Howl to be in the middle of them, acting out his defiance. It's a wonderful picture despite the flaws, full of indelible images--of lonely Sophie on her stool, working on a hat; of Howl looking down at the fallen star nested in his palms; of the castle itself, a rickety, clanking wonder that in terms of charm and sheer amount of bolted-on imaginative detail leaves Katsuhiro Otomo's larger (if far more bulky) Steam Castle in the dust. One of the best films I saw in 2005, and easily the most complex and ambitious animated film in recent memory.


Some other articles / posts I wrote on Miyazaki:

Sherlock Hound DVD, Disc 1

Sherlock Hound DVD, Discs 2 & 3

Miyazaki and Takahata's Panda! Go Panda! DVD

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Links to posts of other blog-a-thon participants:

Tuwa on My Neighbor Totoro

Walter on Spirited Away

CultureSpace on Spirited Away

Walter on Princess Mononoke

Cinemarati mention ofthe Miyazaki blog-a-thon

Walter on Kiki's Delivery Service

Walter on Porco Rosso

Walter on My Neighbor Totoro

Walter on Laputa, Castle in the Sky

Walter on Nausicaa, of the Valley of the Wind (my favorite Miyazaki)

Walter on Castle of Cagliostro


Europa, Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

Europa, Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)


"Europa Europa" makes for a fascinating parable despite the fact that--or perhaps especially because--much of the story is true. Salomon Perel's story--of a young Jew who flees Nazi persecution, is forced to join the Russian "Kosmonol" and later the "Hitler-Jugend"--speaks to our morally ambivalent age: was Salomon (or Solly, as he's sometimes called) a hero or heel? How far should someone go to guarantee his survival? Is his declaring his Jewishness at war's end Salomon's way of rising up to reclaim his original identity, or yet another ploy he's playing to be accepted, to stay alive? And--though we may not actually have seen such an event and Salomon never admits to doing so (and I would understand if he never did), the thought comes up in one's mind--did he ever turn in or have a role in turning in a fellow Jew during his time with the Nazis?


Intimacy (Patrice Chereau, 2001)

From Forum With No Name:

Patrice Chereau's Intimacy is terrific--his take on a grittier, more realistic Last Tango in Paris, and what Closer could have been if it had a pair of balls exposed and hanging on the big screen.

The sex is photographed in a ghastly clouded-day glow, as filtered through frosted glass; Chereau makes odd cuts here and there, not so much cutting away extraneous moments as he is fast-forwarding the footage, keeping us as off-balance and unsettled as the two lovers onscreen.

As Jay, Mark Rylance is the film's vivid center, a twisted knot of frustrations and hostility; he strikes out at his new bartender and his gay friend; he can't strike out at his lover because he knows zero about her, and it galls him--it's a situation he wants to correct. Kerry Fox is wonderful as the complexly unhappy Claire, trying to find a measure of peace and happiness. Timothy Spall is heartbreaking as Claire's husband Andy--he's smug in his contentment, but there's a poignancy to his smugness; it's so small and vulnerable it feels like a cruelty to tear apart.

Chereau, I'm told, doesn't get all the details of British life right--I don't know enough to comment on that. Ebert, though quotes one Kristina Nordstrom as saying 'no woman would be attracted to sex like that,' and 'Any woman would know this movie was directed by a man.' I don't know--seems to suggest to me that both Nordstrom and Ebert have been too offended to think clearly or they just haven't met enough women. Ebert goes on to say the film 'lets Jay off the hook.' It lets go of Jay before he reforms and lives a better life (implying that he probably doesn't); I don't see the film letting him off any hook. If anything it leaves him on said hook, hanging helplessly, hopelessly.

Tonya J: It's so odd David E. and I agree completely about this film, especially when it involves hetero sex, and that the director, Chereau is gay. He's pretty reasonable about films like this, but re Brokeback Mountain impossible to have a conversation with. Glad you liked it Noel, as did I. Way back I had that real sex in movies thread, which I'm thinking about reviving in some form, and it's a record of how my thinking was able to come around to acceptance of the brief, but real sex there was between the actors in the film.

And this Nordstrom woman is an idiot. When I was 19, ill-informed about life and more than a bit selfish, I had an affair with someone who was married with a child. It went on for 1 1/2 years; stolen moments and hours here and there. I think I was fairly obsessed and when it was over I was devastated. My reasons were much different than the Claire's and the setting(s) weren't grubby like theirs, but still ... yes, women do want sex like that as an escape, as a need, as a release.

Ah, well, there you are. But I was thinking of someone I know, who lived a life not too dissimilar, and wrote a terrific erotic screenplay that was an extension, exaggeration and in a way fulfillment of the life she lived. Interesting Filipino film, and I wish it was more easily available.

And she was--ow--breathtakingly sexy. Best argument for adultery that ever walked on two legs.


Slither (James Gunn, 2006)

Slither (James Gunn, 2006)


What with very real horrors readily visible in news broadcasts (from Iraq, for one), escapist horror seems the order of the day in the multiplexes. Last year there was "Saw 2," "Hostel," "The Devil's Rejects," "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," "Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist" and remakes of "House of Wax" and "The Amityville Horror" among many others; this year there's "The Hills Have Eyes" and the just-released "Silent Hill."


Maybe my biggest problem with all these slash-and-splat flicks is the lack of humor in them; solemn horror now being the dominion of Japanese filmmakers (I'm thinking of Hideo Nakata, whose "The Ring Two" was an underrated little gem, and Kurosawa Kyoshi, the best living practitioner of the genre in Japan--and one of the best in the world, for that matter), most attempts by American directors to be taken seriously will end in a fit of giggles. American directors are better off going in a different direction--the 'horror comedy' for one, which requires the kind of aggressive irreverence they are particularly gifted at (and in fact there already is one American master of the genre, the late, great James Whale). American horror needs, in short, to get back to being fun again.


James Gunn's "Slithers" is horrible fun, a mishmash of half-a-dozen titles including a few classics (the opening is straight out of the original "The Blob"), with references to half a dozen more, including "Rosemary's Baby," "The Thing," "Basket Case," and "Tremors" (don't be intimidated by all the arcane allusions, though--there's plenty to cringe at, and laugh at too).


Whispers of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)

From The Forum With No Name:

Something I posted at the Nausicaa Mailing List six years ago (has it been that long?!):

Saw Whispers of the Heart (Please note: plot discussed in close detail). The difficulty here is this is the first I've ever seen of the genre of realistic Japanese high school romance-type anime. I'm not a big fan of young love on film--high school, grade school, nursery, or delivery room--in the first place; hard to put a film into context when you don't really know the context (or have previously held said context in utter contempt) (Note: I've seen a few since then, and this film holds up as one of the best in the genre, I'd say).

That said, the film has enormous charm, is a quiet story of a painful first romance.

The first ninety or so minutes, as Shizuku and Seiji fall in love, are a flawless romantic comedy--wonderfully understated, enchantingly told. I like the device of the library books--as if Seiji where stealthily and obsessively laying his presence all around Shizuku without her noticing it until the right time. I like the cat, fat and self-satisfied--I defy any real cat to come up with as insouciant a performance. I like the precisely executed slapstick bits, the perfectly timed embarrassing revelations, the momentum building up to that delightful moment on the rooftop, where everyone is listening in to the two of them talking.

The last twenty or so minutes are necessary, I guess, to lift this beyond being a mere (if perfect) romance, to explore the consequences of these two particular people falling in love. I can't really object to this part--at this point, the film pretty much could do what it wanted with me--and at least it kept true to its characters, bringing a rather ordinary (if nonetheless true) message home without the thud of obviousness or heavy moralizing.

You can say the marriage proposal at the end is a happy ending--but people declaring undying love at that age have a special pathos, in that they don't really know what the rest of their life will bring to them, or to their relationship. I think the credit sequence--the people walking across the bridge, with only that wonderful cat as recurring character--implies this life-goes-on warning.

I did think that though the fantasy sequence features a lot of flying and floating objects, it didn't have that special spark of a flying sequence actually directed by Miyazaki. (Not true; turns out it WAS directed by Miyazaki; I guess I just wasn't impressed with this particular sequence of his).

The film's special strength is in the Impressionist light that filters through trees (this was Yoshifumi Kondo's first and last directing effort--he died in 1998--and he seems to be a master of leaves and sunlight). One scene--where Shizuku and a boy hold hands--is especially memorable for the beauty of the image (again, with leaf-filtered sunlight), and the emotional charge of the moment.

Sweet and slight (in this case, slight being a high compliment); the best thing I can say for it is that it stays honest to its admittedly sentimental title: it does whisper something to your heart.

And a sequel--

I couldn't help but think of the Scott Spencer novel Endless Love (I can sense the raised eyebrows--but the novel is really much better than that hilarious Brooke Shields travesty).

The lovers there are roughly the same age (though far more, shall we say, physically precocious), and they do make some kind of commitment, though not of marriage. The boy tries to stick to this commitment, and is committed to a mental asylum (this is how we view commitment nowadays?). In the end, they separate, but the boy insists that, outside of time (and in a beautifully written final passage), his feelings for the girl remain the same.

It's not that they love each other less, or that they were incapable of deep or real love; it's just that things change, sometimes beyond one's reach or comprehension.

The two lovers in Whispers have the courage to make such a commitment--though I doubt if they knew what they were really up against. I don't find their gesture implausible, and I definitely appreciate the spirit behind it, but it's a brave thing to do in an essentially impermanent world. I think they know themselves enough and they know how they feel; I just don't think they know enough about the world at large just yet...which is why I find it so tragic and hopeful at the same time.


Asoka Handagama's "Letter of Fire" under fire

Sri Lankan rights group fears ban on film about incest

The protest letter I sent in response:

It should be noted that Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981) dealt with incest and is regarded as one of the Philippines' greatest films.

The portrayal of incest in a work of art does not imply approval or endorsement of it. Mr. Asoka Handagama, who I met in New Delhi's 2001 Cinefan Film Festival and whose film This is My Moon I managed to see and love in Cinemanila, is a wonderful, humane man, and a true artist. He should be allowed to show his films, whole and unmarred.

Send your own protest / Contact him

Jay Presson Allen, dead at 84

Jay Presson Allen, dead at 84

I liked her adaptations from novels and the stage best--films like Deathtrap, Prince of the City, Alfred Hitchcock's flawed but fascinating Marnie and, above all, her adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories into what I think is the greatest musical film ever made, Bob Fosse's Cabaret

According to Los Angeles film critic David Ehrenstein, her screenplay for Just Tell Me What You Want is based on her affair with producer Ray Stark.

Church thinking of lifting condom ban

Catholic Church thinking of lifting condom ban


ROME, May 1 — Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.