Quiet, isn’t it…

Not that I suppose you’re really that interested, but here’s what I’ve been reading over the last few months:

1. Jules Verne, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Thomas Butcher, trans.)
2. Abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut (Leonard Tancock, trans.)
3. Ivan Turgenev, Spring Torrents (Leonard Shapiro, trans.)
4. Ariel S. Winter, The Twenty-Year Death
5. Anonymous, The Cavern of Death
6. H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon
7. R.K. Narayan, The Mahabharata
8. John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
9. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Poor Folk and Other Stories
10. Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days
11. Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent/Ennui
12. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
13. J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company
14. Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer
15. Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator
16. Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor
17. Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch
18. Jack Vance, The Dying Earth
19. Lu Xun, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China
20. Soseki Natsume, Botchan
21. Aboud Dandachi, The Doctor, The Eye Doctor and Me
22. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
23. Gustave Flaubert, Three Tales
24. Petrus Borel, Champavert: Immoral Tales
25. Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror and Poems (Paul Knight, trans.)
26. Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, Atala & Rene (Irving Putter, trans.)
27. Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera
28. Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual

Just so you understand I haven’t been doing nothing while not updating this.

The desire to watch films shows minimal signs of coming back in a hurry; all I’ve watched lately has been old Warner cartoons and Doctor Who serials that I’ve seen more times than I can count anyway. I did put myself down for this month’s ICheckMovies forum challenge, Japanese cinema, which is something I have a good amount of unwatched examples of, but obviously that didn’t provoke me into watching any of them. Mind you, I’ve actually been buying some stuff again in recent weeks after a period of not doing so; a few BFI imports but also some Blu-rays (for the days when I finally upgrade to high-definition; in the meantime I rip them to mp4 to watch on the HD TV). Some of these are new, some of them upgrades of things I already have on DVD, e.g. the Quatermass Xperiment package which also contains Quatermass 2 AND X the Unknown, and which was accordingly too good to pass up. Plus I finally own Barry Lyndon, having refused to invest in the original DVD cos it was shit quality (at least the BD is anamorphic).

I’m sure the inclination to watch will return, but in the meantime I think 2014 will be more a year of reading. Seems to be going that way at present.

Solaris (1968)

Director: Boris Nirenburg

I’m having one of my periodic reading jags at the moment; I’m in the mood for books rather than films. Got through eight books since the start of January, whereas the only thing I’ve watched since that review of Zelig was an afternoon TV screening of The Maltese Falcon on Saturday. Great film, of course, but no need for me to review it again.

So one thing I’ve been doing lately is haunting Amazon.com.au, the Australian branch of Amazon that only sells Kindle ebooks. I’ve kind of gone the e-book route for new purchases for an assortment of reasons, not the least important of which is the decreasing amount of space I have for actual hard copy books. Price is also a consideration, it should be said. There are certain publishers like Valancourt Books and Black Coat Press who have fascinating catalogues (the former specialises in original 1790s-1820s gothic novels, the latter in 19th century French SF) I’d like to explore but I don’t really have the space for all the books I want to read nor the money for them. Their electronic editions may be less, you know, nice than their print versions, but eh. I paid, for example, $6.25 for one of Black Coat’s ebooks that would’ve set me back nearly $21 if I bought the physical book. And that’s if I bought through Book Depository, who are themselves selling it cheaper than the RRP of $24.44. You see why I went electronic. (It’s also a damn sight easier to dispose of the book and get money back for it if I find I don’t like it…)

This is all by way of introduction to our subject proper: the 1968 Russian TV adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Bear with me.

So I was browsing for Penguin Classics. Saw they have an edition of Lem’s Cyberiad due later this year. That sent me in search of Lem’s other works. Unfortunately most of the electronic editions are in Spanish, but they do have a new translation of Solaris (the old one, translated from the French translation of Lem’s Polish original, was condemned by Lem himself and seems to be widely considered crap). I bought that, cos, you know, only a bit over five dollars. Then I went to Wikipedia, cos I didn’t actually know much about Lem beyond his reputation (I read a story by him in an anthology once)… and there I read this sentence: “He is known as the author of the 1961 novel Solaris, which has been made into a feature film three times.”

Hang on… THREE?

Tarkovsky, yes, Soderbergh, yes… who was the third one?

So I followed the appropriate links, and there I discovered the existence of the FIRST screen adaptation of Solaris, Boris Nirenburg’s production for Soviet state TV. Which the Wiki page told me was on DVD, but apparently only in Russia. Hmm, I wondered, could this thing possibly be on Youtube? A quick search revealed it not only could be, it WAS—subtitled in English, too, which I don’t suppose the Russian DVD would be. Admittedly, the subtitles did prove to be a bit wobbly, as I expected they might, but they weren’t an insurmountable obstacle.

Now, I’ve not actually read the book yet, but wanted to get into the TV version anyway; I gather that, despite Lem’s carping about how the film versions told his story (“to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space”), Nirenburg actually remains more faithful to it than either Messrs Tarkovsky or Soderbergh; no lengthy preludes on Earth or anything like that. That said, I don’t suppose Nirenburg’s budget would’ve actually extended to anything of that sort in any case; if I’d ever wondered what a 1960s episode of Doctor Who in Russian might look like, I suppose this could be it (I’m presuming, owing to a few tell-tale signs, that it was in fact shot probably in much the same way as 60s Who, i.e. on video in long takes with multiple cameras, and the source material for this release is a 16mm telerecording). It’s kind of rudimentary on the technological level, maybe even more so than I’d thought it might be; come to think of it, I’m not even sure if there’s a shot of the planet Solaris itself (there’s one bit in the first part that I think was meant to represent it, but I don’t know).

The pace is somewhat more grinding than even 60s Who could be, though, which is probably its major issue; at 142 minutes it’s not too far off the length of Tarkovsky’s version despite not containing any of the stuff he introduced. It is kind of wilting stuff. On the plus side, Nirenburg actually does achieve some not bad moments of semi-horror; there’s an atmosphere on the station that borders on the gothic at times. It’s not bad on the whole, but I suspect it’s mainly now of comparative interest; Tarkovsky’s film might be less faithful to Lem’s book but it works rather better as a production in its own right. Still, I’d rather watch this again than the Soderbergh version…

Zelig (1983)

Director: Woody Allen

As I daresay you’ve noticed, it’s been quiet here for a while; having one of those periods again where finding the inclination to watch stuff is proving difficult for some reason (think I might leave the Laurel & Hardy box for another time when I’m in the right mood). Anyway, doing a bit of random channel-surfing earlier this evening, I discovered ABC2 were running this (it wasn’t listed in the paper guide), so I decided to try breaking the drought… plus Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers I know I should probably try to see more stuff by, so why not take the opportunity. What a delightful opportunity, too… I kind of knew what the film was about, the titular “human chameleon”, but I don’t think I realised it actually took on the “mockumentary” form, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for the film to actually follow its premise through to its logical conclusion. Leonard Zelig, the human chameleon, wants so desperately to be liked by other people that he actually takes on their characteristics; in the presence of Chicago gangsters he becomes a Chicago gangster, among East Coast socialites he becomes one of them, among their kitchen staff he becomes one of them too, and among a group of black jazz musicians… yeah, Woody actually goes there. HOLY SHIT, that must’ve taken some nerve even in the 80s; needless to say it made for a number of “fucking hell” moments three decades later. Plus, in those pre-digital days, inserting Woody and Mia into the original period newsreel footage was actually a major technological achievement, difficult enough that Woody had time to make two other films while the effects work on this one was carried out. So it’s notable for that too. But the really important thing is that it’s often screamingly funny; Allen nails the form precisely (right down to the narrator), and Zelig’s own story offers quite some food for thought. One of the film’s “talking heads” opines that Zelig’s desire to fit in with everyone around him reflects so much of the Jewish experience of the early 20th century, and then later we see him in Nazi Germany because fascism offers him the most logical way of letting himself be subsumed in the mass. Quite remarkable stuff, glad I discovered it was on…

Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Directors: George Marshall & Raymond McCarey

Although, that credit notwithstanding, Ray McCarey (Leo’s brother) doesn’t seem to have actually done an awful lot on this film, most of which seems to have been Marshall’s work (the latter also plays the army cook Stan & Ollie antagonise cos the actor hired for the part never actually turned up on set). This was the boys’ first feature film to have actually been planned as a feature film, although it shows them still not fully adapted to the extended form yet. Story’s quite a good one; WW1 breaks out, Stan & Ollie get drafted, and when the war’s over they go home to help a pal killed in battle by returning his baby daughter to his parents from whom he was estranged. The only problem? Stan & Ollie don’t know where the grandparents live. Still, there can’t be that many people out there with the surname “Smith”… can there? IMDB notes the presence of at least two more uncredited directors, which may or may not explain the somewhat uneven tone of things (most jarring in the scenes with the foster parents being paid to care for the child; there’s a darkness to those that meshes poorly with everything else, and indeed they were cut from reissues of the film for decades. I can’t really say the film would’ve suffered for their loss either). It doesn’t have quite the same feel of being made up as they went along that Pardon Us tended to give off, but it is still somewhat episodic, although I still felt like there was generally a better flow from one episode to the next. And though it could perhaps have been compacted into a three-reeler, it might’ve lost something in the act. The good bits tend to be really good, too; the wartime scene where Stan & Ollie inadvertently capture a whole platoon of German soldiers is glorious. Maybe not fully there yet, but definitely an advance on their first feature.

Pardon Us (1931)

Director: James Parrott

So, back to films with audible dialogue! And back to a box set I started quite some time ago, that being the Essential Laurel & Hardy set from a few years back; all the sound shorts (I gather none of the silents were “essential”) and most of the features (inessential, or rights problems?). I decided to approach it this way: rather than strict chronology, watch the shorts (and the foreign-language versions of same also featured in the box) first and then come back for the features. I also decided against reviewing the shorts cos there’s too many of them, but I resolved to tackle the features when I finally got around to them… so here goes.

Now, L&H’s first feature occupies a slightly odd place in their filmography; by the time it came out, they’d already made feature-length versions of some of their shorts for foreign-language release, and this one wasn’t even meant to be a feature in the first place. Essentially, Pardon Us was a two-reeler—the boys go into the bootleg liquor business and get sent to the big house for their efforts—that got fantastically out of hand; starting in June 1930, the production wound up costing so much that turning it into a feature was deemed the only thing to do with all the footage that had been shot. The net result feels exactly like what it was, i.e. a film that should never quite have been… Mind you, I’m judging the film based upon the original August 1930 preview version on the DVD, which is some 14 minutes longer than the version actually released a full year later, and which has a lot of material cut (some reshot as well) from the release print. Does the shorter version feel quite as disjointed and padded as the longer one does? No idea, and to be honest I can’t be bothered hunting for it (can’t see it on Youtube). That said, although it’s a film of individual bits—the plot really is pretty bare and not terribly driven—those individual bits are often pretty good (though the protracted blackface scene will make many shudder), and whatever its problems Pardon Us does demonstrate how useful the still-newish sound film would be to furthering Stan and Ollie’s career; the silent film just couldn’t give you that singing voice…

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The spot-the-Hollywood-film-poster game is particularly amusing in this film: less overt than in these other early Ozus, but also particularly ironic because in this case it’s the French poster for All Quiet on the Western Front… ironic because, as the booklet essay observes, this Japanese film is otherwise full of English signage. Indeed, that’s been perhaps the most striking aspect of Ozu’s “gangster” films for me, this preponderance of English words in signs, graffiti, etc (hell, even one of the intertitles here actually uses the letters “OK”), and it’s made me wonder just how common this actually was in actual 1930s Japan… Cos the other point the booklet essay makes is that Ozu’s Yokohama in this film is, as they say, “a little unreal”; it looks “realistic” but there’s something kind of stylised about it. There’s a scene where the secondary love interest of the film’s gangster boss Joji says something about him putting on an act, and it’s a key moment, cos the film itself is kind of putting on an act… even more than the last two films, Dragnet Girl “plays” at being “American”, but—more impressively—goes further by arguably playing at being noir, which even the Americans hadn’t invented in 1933 (on top of that, is it also one of the first instances of the “one last job before going straight” trope?). Joji is a former boxer turned small-time hoodlum without any real evident passion for being one, while his girl Tokiko maintains a veneer of decency with a respectable office job during the day, but when Joji falls for the aforementioned other love interest, she realises she’d rather be the “good girl” instead of just playing one. Curious film; it feels somewhat disjointed, not fully hanging together, and narrative plausibility isn’t exactly rock solid. And while it’s pretty strong as an example of how refined silent film style was, it’s also so heavy on dialogue titles it’s one of a very small number of silent films that give me the impression they would’ve liked to be a talkie. Visually, though, an amazing achievement; genuinely amazing to see some of these things in an Ozu film. I’m not sure his own heart was fully in the crime genre, but it would’ve been interesting to see him essay it again later in life…

That Night’s Wife (1930)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Already 16 films into his career by this point, Ozu had yet to settle into being “Ozu”, as this film demonstrates; if Walk Cheerfully “acted” American, this one goes a step further by deriving from an honest-to-god/dess bit of American pulp fiction by one Oscar Shisgall… whose only film credit this seems to be as well (was he the same as Oscar Schisgall, who apparently had about 4000 short stories to his credit?); surprised this didn’t get discovered and turned into a B-programmer by Hollywood in the 40s or something, cos thar’s effectively what Ozu did with it. Indeed, one IMDB review characterises it as a European-style quota quickie, which might actually be nearer the mark. The story deals with a young husband, his wife, their deathly ill daughter, and daddy’s criminal attempt at getting money; however, in order to tell the story straight (because Ozu disliked using flashbacks, which the original tale’s structure would’ve required), a certain amount of fiddling had to be done that introduced certain narrative problems that the DVD booklet essay observes—most notably the fact that after stealing the money to buy medicine for the child, Shuji never actually then buys the stuff (not to mention the question of why the office he stole it from was still open at that time of night)—and I’m not sure how well it works as a result. While there is certainly some tension in the situation, particularly when a police detective comes knocking, I also felt the story was kind of stretched; even though it’s only just over an hour long, I still got the impression (especially in the last third or so) that Ozu was drawing it out longer than he perhaps should’ve done. The expressionistic stylings are obviously interesting, it certainly feels less “Hollywood” than Walk Cheerfully did and more European, perhaps, but I felt it was lacking something. It’s OK but I liked it rather less than some more recent critics do.

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Did a gangster film ever have a less “gangster” title? Actually, although Walk Cheerfully finds the most “Japanese” of filmmakers at his most “Western” (so says Tony Rayns in his DVD piece), technically it actually predates the real rise of the gangster trend in the US; he might’ve been working in a popular genre, but it technically wasn’t popular just yet. That said, while Ozu may have been anticipating things a little, he still had some models to draw on, particularly Mr Sternberg’s Underworld (Rayns speculates that he might’ve also seen Docks of New York and Thunderbolt by the latter, though I’m kind of doubtful of the latter at least). But Ozu’s narrative concerns are markedly different; there’s the romantic triangle aspect, but here it’s two girls fighting over the one man rather than the other way round (and the relationship between the fairly small-time crook Kenji and his underling Senko adds a markedly bromantic edge I don’t recall from Sternberg). And the ending is markedly happier; Kenji winds up leaving the life of crime thanks to the love of a good woman, gets out of jail alive and gets the girl too (even if the DVD booklet essay thinks it’s a more uneasy ending than it appears on the surface). From the historical vantage point, of course, probably the film’s main attraction now is its sheer difference from his later films; Rayns cites the hilarious case of the person who loved Ozu because his films never resorted to violence, noting they’d clearly never seen this one at least. If the student films took their influence from American films, Walk Cheerfully wears that influence on its sleeve with even greater obviousness; indeed, it’s such a slick bit of work that if it weren’t for the fact that entire cast is quite frankly Japanese you could almost mistake it for an American production from the late silent era (which was, of course, all but over in the US itself when this came out in March 1930). What really got me, though, that Hiroshi Shimizu was the original intended director, and as limited as my acquaintance with him is, it feels even less like something Shimizu might’ve made than Ozu, even though Shimizu also actually came up with the damn thing…

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (1932)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

The first notable difference between this film and the others in this set is that the print quality is quite stunning; it makes you lament that the surviving prints of the other films are so rough by comparison. Second difference: this time I could actually identify Chishu Ryu in it. He’s in the others but only in very small parts; here he actually had a featured character. JESUS CHRIST, I thought he was young-looking in Ornamental Hairpin nine years after this; I actually would barely have recognised him here if I couldn’t have pinned the specific character on him. I said of that film that it could be the dictionary definition of “bittersweet”, and Dreams of Youth is only even more so. That’s the third notable difference: it’s a lot darker than the other films in the set. It starts out with a similar degree of levity, the group of college chums scamming their way through school and exams and so forth; but when one, Tetsuo, gets word of his father’s illness and has to assume control of his company, things change between all of them… especially when the economic crisis bites and the other three ask Tetsuo for work. The old relationships are complicated thereby, especially once romance with the girl Tetsuo fancied back then rears its head. Although there’s still humour in the later parts of the film (the deputy director, Tetsuo’s uncle, curses him for frustrating his efforts to pair him off to another girl five times, Tetsuo tells him it’s actually been six times), the general tone is more serious, culminating in a climactic confrontation that I don’t think has any parallel in Ozu’s other work (not that I remember); Tetsuo laments the way their old friendship is no longer, and perhaps can never again be, what it used to be, and it’s a kind of violent lament. Definite and clear resonances of the later Ozu in this one; powerful, emotive stuff.

The Lady and the Beard (1931)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

I was more amused than I perhaps should’ve been by the featured Hollywood poster in this film (they’re a recurring thing in these early Ozus) being for The Rogue Song, one of the early colour musicals; the poster makes a song and dance (sorry) about it being all-talking and all-colour, two innovations Ozu himself famously resisted as long as he could (1936 and 1958 respectively)… In this notably silent black and white film, we find Ozu considering the clash of the old and the new, embodied in his protagonist Okajima, a new college graduate perhaps not entirely in tune with modernity; the beard of the title is the thick bush of black hair he sports in honour of “great men” of the past century like Lincoln, while the lady is Hiroko, whom he saves from being harassed by small-time crook Satoko (whose thugs he then frightens off with his kendo skills). Finding it hard to get by after studying, Okajima accepts Hiroko’s suggestion that maybe the beard should go, whereupon life changes, and not only does he have a nice job, he also has romantic interest from three women—Hiroko, the sister of a former classmate who had earlier snubbed him for being conservative, and Satoko. The little subplot that reintroduces the latter is, as the DVD essay observes, strange and I don’t understand what was actually going on in that scene, but it’s the only real mis-step in the film which is otherwise delightful; flung together in just eight days, it was a critical and commercial hit and Ozu was happier with it than other films he’d made that took months to prepare. As he recognised, too, much of the film’s success is down to Tokihiko Okada in the lead role, he gives the film so much of its charm as the somewhat insecure Okajima; tragically he’d be dead from TB just three years later. The funniest thing about the film, though, is its blithe reversal of the message of the last film we saw; even in the Depression, sometimes all you need for a job is a shave and a haircut…


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