Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Crimson Kimono

The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959) When TCM was programming their "Asian Movie Month" this one ran three times (that I could count). It's an odd choice, but I was grateful as it's one of those Fuller movies that hasn't been all that available from any of the sources I search for these things.

As usual, it's a mixture of Fuller's higher sensibilities and his cynical carnival-barker understanding of what 'sells" to the public. Take a look at that poster; if that isn't "red meat" for an audience living in the America of 1959 where a third of the nation had laws against "mixed-race" marriages, I don't know what is. Fuller had an understanding and affection for Japanese culture—his House of Bamboo was filmed there and was one of the first American films post Second World War to do so—but, Japanese-American culture and the conflicts it imposes is a different matter. Visually, he marks the contrast by filming in L.A.'s International District with the L.A. courthouse looming only a few blocks away.

But, if you think this is a serious study of post-World War II prejudice and the intolerance of American white patriarchal traditions (it was, after all, okay for Robert Stack to woo Shirley Yamaguchi in 1955...), then you don't know Samuel Fuller.

How does he begin it? With a strip-tease sequence and the murder of same stripper (Gloria Pall) being gunned down in an L.A. street after witnessing a murder in her dressing room (a sequence that Fuller shot—with three hidden cameras—on Sixth and Main at night, without permits, which would have ruined the verisimilitude of the shot). Two detectives, Det. Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Det. Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) are assigned to the case. The two partners are as thick as thieves: they share the same apartment, and are blood-brothers, literally, as, during their Korean War service, Kojaku gave blood to save Bancroft's life. The pair are secure in their knowledge that they have each other's backs, and nothing could complicate that.

In the course of their investigations, they're going to learn different.

Their initial investigation is to the strip club in Little Tokyo, where the "ecdysiast," "Sugar Torch" was working. Her dressing room is a-clutter with renderings of Japanese-style sketches, as it turns out she was working up an act that has a little more content than the usual bump-and-grind solo, with kimono costumes and a love triangle story where she and her love are killed by a jealous karate practitioner. I guess everybody has ambitions. Charlie seeks the artist to see if he can get any background on Sugar's acquaintances, while Joe hits the local dojo's to see if Sugar had contacted them about the act.

The artist turns out to be Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), a USC art student living in a sorority. Christine tells Charlie that the kimono drawing was a commission by a Mr. Hansel, working for Sugar on the act, and—here's a convenience!—Christine can do a pretty good sketch of the man. Also (another convenience) Charlie is attracted to Christine and flirts with her ferociously, to which she responds.
Joe's investigation bears some fruit, too. He tracks down the guy who was supposed to provide the stunts for Sugar's act, but when Joe confronts him, he panics and Joe loses him in a chase through Little Tokyo. Christine finishes her sketch and the detectives release it to the newspapers as part of their investigation. What they don't know is that this will complicate things...on many fronts. Charlie is warned by his bohemian artist-pal Mac (Anna Lee, of John Ford's stock company) that once the sketch has hit the papers, Christine won't be safe, and, indeed, someone takes a pot-shot at her at her sorority. Although it may not be the best of ideas, Charlie and Joe decide that Christine be put under police moving into their apartment—while they're working, Mac keeps an eye on her.

Joe and Charlie try to run down Hansel, fearing another attempt on Christine's life, and they talk to Roma, a wigmaker, who was doing the hair for Sugar's act. Turns out Hansel's real name is Paul Sand and used to work for the library as an "Asian specialist" and has disappeared, "gone to ground" somewhere. But, he'll show up, probably to make another attempt on Christine's life, so the search intensifies. But, the circumstances add another complication—one that is Fuller's true focus rather than the lurid murder investigation.

Joe has developed feelings for Christine. Deep feelings. And Christine has them for him. Complications lead to conflict—Joe and Charlie are best friends, but also partners in a dangerous profession. Joe knows Charlie is smitten with Christine, and he feels guilty about his coming between that. He doesn't even want to bring it up and hides it from him. But, he's of two minds in more ways than that: he also has some cultural clashes—the woman he's been seeing is Japanese, born, bred and living there and he's Nisei. His American roots has led to some doubts about continuing his relationship. And then, along comes Christine... From her side, Joe is the better man, more caring, more sensitive, less egotistical: how to break it to Charlie? As Mac sagely tells her, "Love is like a battle...Someone has to get a bloody nose."
Now, when Fuller was making this, he got push-back about it from the studio. There was pressure on Fuller to make Corbett's character "a sonofabitch" (in Fuller's words—from his biography "A Third Face"). For the studio, this would make Joe the more obvious suitor, and reassure audiences—white audiences—that the Christine character would prefer Joe and reject Charlie "even though he's white." Fuller wouldn't have any of it. "The girl chooses the Japanese guy because he's the man for her, not because the white guy's a sonofabitch. The whole idea of my picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They've got chemistry."
It's as simple as that. Joe's a good guy—Charlie's a good guy, too—but Christine is drawn more towards Joe because of who he is as a man, in colloquial terms "he's more her type." The tragedy comes, as in most triangles—if there's any conscience involved—for the third making a crowd. Joe, in this position and being sensitive to it (the very aspect that attracts her to Joe over Charlie), buries his feelings in frustration and Christine is hesitant and seemingly aloof around Joe when Charlie's around—which Charlie, at first, reads as racism on her part. It all gets very complicated, as the three stop being people and act as though they're relegated to "proper roles." Everybody begins to make assumptions about things they don't understand, and this triangle gets a little bumpy.
It's tempting to say that the story of the investigation gets pushed aside for the "love story," but, in fact, the two are mirrors of each other, both involving secrets and others filling in the holes with their own interpretations of what's going on. The film resonates more once the crime has been solved, but it only provides context for a story that, on the face of it, looks to be about racial identity. Given the completion of the movie, it looks to be more about suppression of self in order to satisfy a perceived role, especially where emotions are concerned. I've written elsewhere that love can be perceived as a form of madness—it certainly can put one off one's game, and make you do things you wouldn't do "where calmer heads prevail." It make look like prejudice, but it is subjugation, even if it's self-imposed.
The Crimson Kimono is rough around the edges. It's a pot-boiler, frequently filmed with guerilla techniques, and temperatures—and performances—can run a little hot. But, Fuller, who had a reporter's sensibilities (and a huckster's sense of flamboyance and salesmanship) tells a story fully intended to knock one out of one's safely-balanced comfort zone. His action sequences are kinetic, sometimes frantic, and he wasn't afraid to go overboard when making a point—I always imagine him directing by jabbing two fingers, with his ever-present cigar between, for emphasis. He wasn't subtle, but he'd take you places you may never have thought of before—or places you didn't want to consider. "Maverick" is the most obvious adjective. "Human" is another.

He despised that poster, by the way. Pure racism, and that is what he was railing against.
A word about James Shigeta: this was his first film role after years as a singer. It was Corbett's first film, too, but where both men are comfortable in front of the camera, Shigeta acts like he lives there, far more relaxed, less on-guard, and not afraid to take chances. He'll chew an apple through a scene, casually grilling a lead, and he's more than believable in action scenes. Fuller gave his most notable parts to women (usually), whereas the men, even men in conflict, could be stoic and pretty stiff. Not Shigeta. He's actor enough to let the audience in to feel his pain, but not enough to lose their respect. It's a very impressive debut, and one wishes he'd been given more opportunities like this throughout his career.

Of COURSE, Christine's character prefers him; who wouldn't?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Julie & Julia

"Too Many Cooks Spoil the Froth"

Nora Ephron directed movies have the same half-circle trajectories as "Star Trek" films: you get a good one, the next one stinks. Whether by virtue or vice of over-confidence or coasting, it seems you can't have two good Nora Ephron movies back to back. For every Sleepless in Seattle, there's a Mixed Nuts and for every You've Got Mail there's a Bewitched.

That's if you're a normal person. For me, I have yet to see an Ephron effort that hasn't made my toes curl inward in their shoes. There's a slap-happy spunkiness to her movies that just make me want to plunge my fore-head into the seat-back in front of me. Her nadir came with her last movie: how in the Hell can somebody screw up
Bewitched? It wasn't due to the Kidman Komedy Kurse, but a clear case of a writer-director trying too hard, Bewitched showed the ruination of tailoring material to attract a star—Jim Carrey as Darren—and then not going back to Square One to re-tool it when they don't get him. Will Farrell could be an astonishingly good Darren, but in another movie, not so driven by the character as it was re-tooled. And her efforts to make it a one-off Bewitched just seemed pitifully neutered—here's a concept where the woman has all the power, and Ephron compromised it. I know a lot of women who were fans of the TV show could not believe how badly the movie botched the premise. They felt betrayed.
Fans of Julia Child and "The French Chef" might feel the same way, but at least the effort was made to make a better film. Julie & Julia is based on the book written by Julie Powell cribbed from her blog, a breezy chatty thing done for the same reasons as the blog you're currently reading: to write. And the only way to improve your writing is by writing, and then writing more. I don't write about cooking (but I know people who do), and it is that discipline to produce and take stock and put it Out There that (supposedly) makes you better at it, whether it's writing or cooking or (non-committal generality). Sometimes, like Powell, you get an audience, but it doesn't matter: becoming a better (non-committal generality) is what matters. This is my way of giving kudos to Powell, who's gotten a lot of stick lately for a) not being a good cook—she blogged about cooking out of a recipe book (doy!) and b) being successful when there are a lot of food-bloggers out there who aren't (see a).*
Having said that, Ephron made a stupendously wise choice to actually combine Powell's story with that of 1948 Parisian-based Julia Child (Meryl Streep) on a parallel course. Both women find themselves tethered and adrift: Julia, after working for the OSS, and married to diplomat/spy Paul Child (Stanley Tucci's best role in years) does not know what to do in Paris other than effuse, and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) finds herself in a bad Queens apartment,** at a bad job (at a post 9/11 Lower Manhattan management company), and with nothing satisfying in her life—her dream of writing a distant memory. JC decides to take cooking classes—in a class entirely of men, while JP decides that since she finds solace in cooking she's going to spend a year following Child's recipes and writing about the experience. Ephron's film then follows the two women through their various experiences until reaching their final triumphs—both of which involve being published.
Good enough. Enticing enough, actually. But, truth to tell, despite the best efforts of the impeccable Amy Adams (trooper that she is—she's perfected a mono-syllabic babble in moments of confusion), the movie just stops being interesting every time we jump to the present day story, probably because that story goes through the Ephron story-grinder—get a goal, have your effervescent highs, have your debilitating lows, but everything works out in the end (Cue Uplifting "Standard" Song).

Julia Child sections fare much better because Child was doing something a bit revolutionary and she was a fascinating personality and is played wonderfully well by Meryl Streep. But it's like banging the oven door on the soufflĂ© every time we move away from the past because like a good balloon, you can't take your eyes off something that defiantly floats. That Child has interesting people to play off of—Tucci's husband and, in what might be the acting scene of the year, Streep bouncing off the brilliant Jane Lynch playing her sister—while Adams struggles in relative self-involved*** isolation, might be part of the problem.
But, truth be told, just as Julie falls in love with Julia the person, the audience does, too, and the movie falls victim to its own story; when the person keeps stating over and over what a great person "blank" is, you tend to believe it, even over the person who's stating it. And Streep's Child is far more child-like than the real person, finding the charm in everybody and everything, head-strong and a foot taller than everybody else in the vicinity (they did some careful casting and set design for this), crowing with delight and bouncing in triumph, you can't help but love her...and admire, once yet again, how Streep can take ordinary reactions and make them extraordinary.
You can still see Julia Child on TV. There's a new regurgitation by PBS called "Dishing with Julia" which features celebrity chefs watching old episodes of "The French Chef" and making comments—none of which approach critical. The most recent one had Top Chef Carla Hall observing Child slapping bread dough around on a cutting board and doing a hilarious imitation (they all do, actually) with every slap: "THIS isn't precious! THIS isn't precious!"

* Not to belabor the point, but look, she did it for self-improvement—that she made a success of it and is surfing her high tide well is just, well...gravy. Or just desserts.

** That I think New Yorkers might kill for.

*** Ephron hammers the "self-involved" blogger bit a might hard considering the number of bloggers and Facebookers and Twitterers in her audience (so says this self-involved blogger).

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: Adaptation.

The Story:
When looking at Adaptation. recently to re-post a review from a few years ago, I was struck by the weird nature of it (although given how Hollywood "changes" the facts—even in moves with the slug-line "Based on a True Story"—I shouldn't have been). The people in the story are real people—writers Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean, orchid fancier John Laroche—they exist, they knew the movie was being made (although when Orlean read the screenplay, she was "horrified" and, at first blush, wanted to shut it down). But, the story, "based on real events" was fictitious.

All except for the part that Charlie Kaufman had no idea how he was going to write a screenplay based on Orlean's book. The screenplay became less about the events of "The Orchid Thief" and more about the struggle to adapt it for the screen. A lot of the people are real. Kaufman's twin brother, Donald, is not, but presents a foil for Charlie to talk about his struggles. The real Kaufman even put "Donald" as one of the screenplay's authors and dedicated it to him.

Then, there's Robert McKee. He's real. Very real. Real enough to suggest Brian Cox play him in the film (over, reportedly, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, or Christopher Plummer). McKee has done well with himself with his lectures and seminars in the burgeoning market of potential screenplay authors and serves a need for those who are stymied by being too close to their subject: he provides perspective. It might seem a slight thing, but that can often solve the problem authors have to "crack"—if not their story-problems—their own myopia to it. For someone mentally spinning in a hamster cage, that provides possibilities and freedom; sometimes you can't get from "A" to "B" without taking a 90° jag along the way. You can only stare at a blank page or a white screen for so long before getting up and leaving it is the best strategy.

I just like the scene because movie-Kaufman has a very specific problem and movie-McKee is such a generalist that he doesn't address it and movie-Kaufman is so meek that he still gives him an perfunctory "Okay...thanks" for something that dismisses his issue with an over-arching rant.

What's also funny—and somewhat the point of what McKee does—is that he does provide the answer to his riddle, which solves the problem and provides the screenplay for the very movie the audience is watching, as unconventional as the solution is. Mind-bending, it is. Revelatory, too, on so many levels.

The Set-Up: Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has a conflict: he has been hired to make a screenplay of Susan Orlean's book, "The Orchid Thief" and he can't do it. He can't even get started. His goal is "to make a simple movie about flowers" but the facts that made up the book are just not compelling for a movie, or the kind of metaphysical things he writes. His brother Donald (Nicholas Cage) doesn't help. He doesn't know what to do. In desperation, he attends one of Robert McKee's "Story" seminars, and during the Q and A, gets up the courage to ask about his very specific problem in a lecture about story-telling.

Yeah. You...

Kaufman, bleary-eyed, sits in the back. McKee paces. 

MCKEE Anyone else? 
Kaufman timidly raises his hand. 

(cont'd) Yes? 

 Sir. What if a writer is attempting to create * a story where nothing much happens, where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies. 
They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world -- 
MCKEE The real world? 
The real fucking world?
First of all, (sighs) if you write a... 
...screenplay without conflict or crisis, you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly: 
Nothing happens in the world? 
Are you out of your fucking mind? 
People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! 
Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! 
People find love! People lose it, for Christ's sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! 
Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! 
If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know much about life! 
And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your movie? 
I don't have any use for it! 
I don't have any bloody use for it! 

Okay, thanks.


Words by Charlie Kaufman (and Donald Kaufman)

Pictures by Lance Acord and Spike Jonez

Adaptation. is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Image Entertainment and Shout! Factory

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Please Murder Me!

Saturday is "Take Out the Trash" Day.

Please Murder Me! (Peter Godfrey, 1956) Sometimes, the world just syncs up: While scouting around for something to watch late at night, I was gravitating towards a late showing of a later episode of "Perry Mason" (Brian Donlevy was accused of the murder in that one) when I came across this low budget film-noir done just before Raymond Burr was cast as "Mason" (and before he appeared in the Americanized cut of Godzilla) starring Burr as a defense attorney trying a "cheap courtroom theatric" to get the accused (Angela Lansbury!) off a murder charge.

Now, Burr had done trial pictures before—he was the prosecutor in A Place in The Sun—and between that picture and this one he had done a lot of work in lots of genres, but most memorably noirs playing heavy-set villains ("It was me and Bill Conrad trading off roles" he'd crack) usually much older than his years. He had that sort of gravitas that would seem out of place in a light comedy.

Please Murder Me! (which is in the public domain) borrows lots of tropes from the "noir" hand-book—it was directed by Peter Godfrey, who'd made The Two Mrs. Carrolls with Bogart and Stanwyck—starting off with the "lead-narrates-the-picture," this time with the Double Indemnity angle of recording the story for a colleague to find in the eventuality of his demise. Burr's lawyer-character, Craig Carlson, has just bought a gun and taken it to his office after-hours to sit in the dark and tell his story into a tape recorder. He's desperate, probably a little delusional, and...if all goes well...he'll be dead in an hour.
That is some twisted basis for a movie...and for a protagonist. But, he's been pushed to it by his own actions. It's a story of selfishness, deceit, and "useful idiots," of how he betrayed his best friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran) by having an affair with his wife, Myra (Lansbury), how Myra wanted a divorce, and how the discussion turned violent and Myra was forced to kill her husband. Who does she get to defend her? Why Carlson, of course, and the prosecution (led by John Dehner) has a pretty convincing case. It is only during final arguments that Carlson pulls the little detail of the affair into the mix to save her from the gas chamber. Nice trick, using that little known detail to get her off. But, he doesn't know everything, and, once he does, the mixture of shame and humiliation get all mixed up with professional pride...and a sacrificial sense of public duty.
Godfrey was a pretty good director, who was just straight-laced enough to make such a weird story seem plausible and keep from going off the rails, but had an eye towards the Grand Guignol, that would pop out at any moment—the weird askew angle here, the blanketing darkness there, the claustrophobic staging that seems—and give you the creeps. He was good at invoking dread—Bogart's performance in Godfrey's The Two Mrs. Carrolls is as bizarre as any he's done (that wasn't a studio miscalculation, that is), and Burr's sober, weighted, mandarin performance—not that different from the way he carried "Perry Mason"—goes a long way to dispelling any audience rejection of the premise.
That goes for Lansbury, too. Lansbury had been straddling the good/bad fence from her first movie performance in Gaslight, and had the acting cunning to make each persona equally appealing while not succumbing to making her characters cyphers. She is the perfect actress to play the noir femme fatale and why she didn't do more is a mystery that even the crackest of gumshoes couldn't scrape to the bottom of. She's the perfect conspirator and any director would be lucky to have her as a co-conspirator.