(Check out my previous Studio Ghibli essay here: From Up on Poppy Hill)
In 2010, when Studio Ghibli began a heavy production schedule that would carry on into the next four years, the first film they commissioned was a film by a newcomer to the director’s chair: Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Like Yoshifumi Kondo fifteen years previous, Yonebayashi was a longtime Ghibli collaborator with an impressive resume of work with the company, beginning with work as an in-between animator and clean-up artist on Princess Mononoke under Kondo’s tutelage. Mononoke was Kondo’s final film work before his death in 1998, and in a sense, can be interpreted retroactively as a passing of the torch to a younger animator.
The year following Mononoke, Yonebayashi worked as a key animator on the acclaimed cult anime series Serial Experiments Lain (which I am currently reviewing and can be found HERE). From the late nineties on, Yonebayashi worked in multiple capacities on another ten Ghibli productions, first as an in-between animator on My Neighbors The Yamadas. Later, he worked as a key animator on the short films Ghiblies #1, Ghiblies #2, Mizugumo Monmon, and House-Hunting, and on the features Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo. He also worked as animation director on the highly acclaimed and beloved short-film Mei and the Kittenbus in 2003, which eventually landed him a job as assistant animation director on Goro Miyazaki’s first feature Tales From Earthsea in 2006, and eventually as a prospect for the director’s chair for his own feature.
The film is an adaptation of a classic novel of children’s literature, The Borrowers (1952), written by Mary Norton, a British writer. It follows the life of a diminutive young girl named Arrietty who is a ‘borrower,’ one amongst a race of miniature humanoids who typically live within the walls, floorboards, and crawl spaces of their much larger homo sapien counterparts. She and her father and mother have lived within the same country home for all of Arrietty’s life and she has now grown close to full maturation as a young woman. As such, she moves from mere domestic chores and learning to the knowledge of exploration and ‘borrowing’, or stealing, of innocuous items needed for survival, which they take surreptitiously from the home’s ‘beans’ (the borrowers name for homo sapiens). She and her father travel through a dense network of nails and wall studs in the walls of the home toward the kitchen of the home to find sugar and other items helpful for survival like scraps of cloth and twine.
The home is typically occupied by the owner, an old woman of sensitive temperament and strong imagination who believes in the existence of the ‘little people’, just as did her father. The two of them built a doll house fully furnished with miniature, but functional appliances like real cloth couches and bedding, as well as a stove and kitchen full of pots and pans that could be used by the little people. She did this in the hopes that the little people would make themselves apparent to her, so that she could have friends within the home, and so that the lives of the little people could be made easier. However, the borrowers, or little people, are too careful to enter the house and live there. Thinking it a trap, they have lived in a nice makeshift home beneath the bean’s home and made it a point never to take anything from the doll house for fear that it could be poisoned.
Other than the old woman, an old maid also resides within the home. She is a trickster type who will cause problems for the borrowers later once she realizes that they actually do exist in the home. She tracks down their home and even confines Arrietty’s mother to the space of a jar (with air holes) in the hopes of calling the papers and becoming a sensation for her discovery of these little people living within the home.
As the film begins, a young boy is dropped off at the house by his parents (incidentally, during this sequence a cat resembling Muta from Whisper of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo’s film for the studio, fights a crow in the front yard of the home. This crow resembles Toto in Whisper of the Heart‘s spin-off The Cat Returns). He is sickly and has come to visit his grandmother’s country home for the week before he has a life or death operation on his heart. He has no real friends as he is always separated from other children and cannot play on account of his heart condition. Over the course of the film, he will come to realize the existence of the little people, befriend Arrietty, unwittingly lead the maid to uncovering their existence, and end up saving the ‘borrowers’ from her eccentric machinations. The bond that he and Arrietty develop will give him the strength to later overcome his operation, while his friendship with Arrietty will teach her parents that not all beans are bad, and will help Arrietty grow as a person as well. But they have still been found out by the maid, and by the film’s end, find it necessary to make a pilgrimage into the wilderness to find a new domicile they can call home, where they can remain unmolested by the old maid and hopefully avoid detection for a long time to come.
The film was a huge success for Studio Ghibli both commercially and critically. It is a beloved classic within their oeuvre, but also made nearly $150 million USD at the box office on the strength of a mere $23 million USD budget. This was the best return on a Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki (it surpassed all receipts for even Takahata’s films), the fifth highest grossing film ever for the company (behind Miyazaki’s four previous films), and the highest grossing Japanese film for the year of 2010. Complete with an enigmatic score of Celtic themes from the French-Briton singer-songwriter Cecile Corbel, the film is a powerful vision of how individuals from two completely different worldviews and perspectives with different concerns and existential threats can come together in a meaningful manner emotionally through the larger context of human spirit and will. This is borne home thematically through the use of a British source novel by a Japanese Studio using traditional American animation techniques (Ghibli’s animation is not the traditional mode of production and corner-cutting associated with anime, but closer to the production modes and ethos of Disney or the Fleischer brothers) and a Celtic score written by a French woman to tell a universal story that can, and did, effectively reach children and young adults in an impactful manner worldwide. Hopefully it will continue to do so in the future.
After this film, Studio Ghibli really ramped up their production schedule with a Goro film set for release the following year, and Miyazaki and Takahata working on films simultaneously for releases in 2013. This was followed by a second chance at directing for Hiromasa Yonebayashi in 2014 (but more on that in my next installment of this Studio Ghibli blog series) as well as the studio’s first try at monetizing an animated television series in Goro’s 2014 series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter. Six large, costly projects in a four year period, but they would somehow manage to pull it off.
[My Ghibli series concluded here: When Marnie Was There]
(Check out my previous film noir review here: Dark Passage)
In early 1944, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall acted in their first film together: To Have and Have Not. To film was a success that continued Bogart’s reign as a top-billing actor and jump-started Bacall’s career as a movie actress (this was her first film appearance as she had previously been a model). Although that film, directed by legendary American auteur Howard Hawks, was released in early 1945, he and the two actors were already at work on a follow up as early as October 1944. Shooting was finished in January of 1945 and the film went on to the cutting room from there where it emerged ready for premiere a few months later.
However, the film would not be released in 1945 as the war drew to a close and the studio had a ton of other war and propaganda films on the shelves, which would have done badly in a peacetime filmgoing market. As such, the film was shelved until late 1946. In the interim, Bacall acted in an unsuccessful film, Confidential Agent, in 1945 for which her performance in particular was roundly criticized as thin and lacking conviction. Only two films into her career, the whole thing looked ready to crumble. the studios called for reshoots on scenes in The Big Sleep in order to give Bacall as strong of a performance as possible, and one recalling as close as possible her alluring characterization in To Have and Have Not. The reshoots compelted, the film premiered and blew away audiences at the time and critics since. It’s not established as a film noir classic.
The story was adapted from a 1939 Raymond Chandler ‘Marlowe’ novel of the same name by southern gothic author William Faulkner, as well as two other hands. It is notoriously confusing and complex. At one point the confusions surrounding a particular plot point- the cause of death of one of film’s characters- led Hawks to call Chandler for elaboration. Chandler had no immediate clue as to whether the character considered killed himself or was killed by another character. He reviewed the requisite parts of the novel and was still unable to discern just how the death occurred.
As the film is pretty complicated and one can be expected to watch it, enjoy its performances and scripting, follow each event to the next, but still be confused about the entire plot, I’ll attempt to elaborate on it here. I trust that giving away much of the plot will have little effect on viewer enjoyment for anyone who reads this then watches the film at some later point.
Marlowe is a private detective hired out on a case to the house of ex-General Sternwood, a retired old man with two paralyzed legs, whose perpetually at death’s door. The man used to have a friend who stayed with him at the house (with whom it is implied the relationship was sexual in nature) named Sean Regan. Sean left a while back, but as it turns out, disappeared due to General Sternwood’s youngest daughter, the extremely seductive minx Carmen, who shot him while on a drunken turn made worse through her intense psychosis.
Carmen’s elder sister Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (she’s a widow, and Bacall) took the fall for her sister in the mind of the one man who knew about the death: Eddie Mars. Eddie previously blackmailed the family and was paid off. But a second man, Mr. Geiger, found photo evidence of the murder and is blackmailing the family for the same thing. Marlowe has been hired to track down this second blackmailer and kill him, a wet job.
But before he can get to the guy someone else does. One Joe Brody who kills the man to appease his lover Agnes Lourzier who works for Geiger. Agnes takes the man’s vast book collection the following morning and plans to sell it off en masse to make a quick buck, and a big one at that. But another kid who works at the shop is also in on the job and loves Agnes so he kills Joe Brody and runs off. Marlowe catches the kid and knocks him out, after which point the kid disappears.
Meanwhile, tons of clues keep leading Marlowe closer to the trail of Eddie Mars and Mars, as it turns out, is on Marlowe’s trail as well. Tons of lackeys die in the process, and a few innocent bystander types, before Marlowe manages to invade Eddie Mars’ hideout where his wife is inexplicably hidden away. As it turns out, she and Geiger were going to run away and get married if they got the ransom money from the Sternwood’s. Eddie found out and is majorly pissed off and has her held by his goons in a safe house. But Vivian is there too and has been on the side of Eddie the whole time, but changes her affiliations for Marlowe, which makes sense because Eddie has blackmailed her family after all (maybe the blackmail kept her from ratting out Eddie for so long.
Eventually, Marlowe and Vivian escape the house, beat Eddie’s goons, and make way for the old house of Geiger, which Eddie Mars owned and leased out to his tenant: both of which blackmailed the Sternwood family, giving them a connection and making it clear how Geiger knew what he did. Marlowe calls Eddie, tells him he is on the way to house, and waits within the house he is already calling from until Eddie shows up with four goons. Eddie enters the house alone, with no gun, and plans to be agreeable and to let Marlowe leave first, during which point he will be shot by Eddie’s goons. Marlowe instead forces Eddie out of the house at gunpoint where he is shot by his own goons. Marlowe calls his friends at police headquarters and sirens approach, hopefully scaring off the other goons and not resulting in a gunfight and needless bloodshed. What happens in the end is unknown to the viewers of the film.
The film is labyrinthine and moves in ways much more complex than the short summary I provided above (which now that I’ve penned it am sure is wrong in some way). The complexity of the machinations of each character, each more complex than the next, make for a powerful film filled with paranoia, double-crosses, reveals, ciphers, clue-hunting, femme fatales, and close touches with death that ultimately makes it my favorite of the four pictures in which Bogart and Bacall played opposite one another from the mid- to late 40s. Because the maze at the narrative core of the film, the disorientation, and confusion, and the bare fact that the resourceful hero can negotiate this difficult terrain nonetheless inspires in me hope that in our postmodern social reality, cunning and sophistry can potentially cut to the thick and remove one from the gutters, from Being-down-and-out to Being-on-the-up-and-up. Heidegger’s rolling in his grave. Ciao
[Next up: Beat The Devil]
(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Key Largo)
1947’s Dark Passage was the third out of four films in which Bogart and Bacall would co-star. And when it was released it was something of a big achievement in film history. For the first hour and one minute of the film, the audience doesn’t see the face of the protagonist and nearly everything is shot from his perspective. Such use of the subjective camera was not a novel concept as it had first been used twenty years prior on Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, as well as in another noir, Lady in the Lake, earlier in January of 1947. But whereas the technique was used sparingly in the former example, Dark Passage uses the technique for much longer. And whereas the latter example used the subjective camera throughout the film, the camera seems to have been put to more novel use in Dark Passage, but more on that later.
The film was directed by Delmer Daves, a filmmaker who began in the classical period as a screenwriter. Under his belt before turning directing in the early 1940s include two unqualified classics in Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly (1928) and the proto-noir legend The Petrified Forest (1936): though this last designation confuses me as Fritz Lang and other emigres were pouring into the American Hollywood system since the early 1930s and producing films like Lang’s Fury (1935) and You Only Live Once (1937). Likewise, American directors like Michael Curtiz and Joseph von Sternberg had been creating films that resemble film noirs of the forties in lighting, camera work, themes, and philosophy since the late 20s. But that’s the problem with noir, or any genre, in the classification. Daves would shoot noirs throughout the forties and move strongly in the direction of Westerns in the mid-fifties with classics like Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957).
The last major credit, I’ll discuss here is of the cinematographer Sidney Hickox whose career began in the 1910s, but hit its stride in the 30s with crime films, then in the forties with many noirs. A few notable titles among this latter group include To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and White Heat.
The film opens with a man hiding inside of a trash bin on the back of truck. As the vehicle climbs mountainous terrain and moves along bumpy roads, the contents of its hitch jostle to and fro. Eventually, the can falls out and rolls down an adjacent hill. The man inside incredibly survives the long spin relatively unscathed, though dizzy but no worse for the ware. His name is Vincent Parry (Bogart) and he is on the lam, just escaped from San Quentin. As sirens ring out across the hills, the man thinks about how he can get out of this jam. A car comes rolling past and he decides to hitch a ride, but his driver is awfully nosy and keeps asking Vince about why he’s wearing the odd clothing he is. After a while, the man turns on the radio and a broadcast reports that a man is on the run with the exact same appearance and clothing as Vincent has on. Vincent knocks out his driver, who has gotten wise to the situation, then parks the car on the side of the road, pulls the man into the shrubbery beside the road and steals his clothing.
Before Vincent can escape in the car, a woman, Irene Jansen (Bacall), pulls up and tells him to get in. He decides to do so and hides in the back of her car under her painting supplies. This turn of events is fortunate as a road block is in effect and he would have been caught immediately if he tried to roll through past it or bluff his way through. Irene brings Vincent back to her place in San Francisco and tells him that she was aware of his case. She believes that Vincent was innocent on the count of murder of his wife that landed him in jail, and that he was only jailed because of unfair and unscrupulous media manipulation of the masses, which made him out to be an evil figure. He stays with the woman only one day, but she gives him $1,000 bucks with which to do what he will in making his escape.
That night, as he hires a cabby to take him to his friend’s George’s house, the cabby pegs him for who he is. But the cabby ain’t hostile you see. In fact, he’s an underground figure himself who knows where to go to hide one’s identity, and for cheap. The cabby turns Vincent on to a plastic surgeon friend of his who charges only $200 for a full facial reconstruction. Vincent thanks the man who then takes him to his friend’s house who promises to let Vincent to lay up there for the next week during his recovery from the surgery. Vincent leaves and goes to place the cabby told him about, gets the surgery done, has a frightening dream sequence in which he imagines that the surgeon, a disbarred, currently unlicensed old souse, botches the job, and awakens to find instead that the old man has seemingly done a good job of it. His face is bandaged and will remain thus for a week.
Next, Vincent returns to George’s flat to find he has been killed with his prized trumpet. Vincent struggles through the city toward Irene’s flat where she takes him in with open arms. For the next week he hides out in her flat, convinces Irene that he didn’t kill George, and heals. Eventually, the bandages come off revealing Bogart’s face beneath, which is radically altered from the first look of Vincent Parry’s facial features as seen in the newspaper clippings that abound throughout the film.
The rest of the story involves most of the meat of the action, suspense, and thriller elements as Vincent seeks out the real murderer of his wife and his friend, tracks down his old lover Madge Rapf (the Mercury theatre actress Agnes Moorehead, who was incidentally one of Orson Welles’ favorite actresses), fights off the man who he beat up at the film’s opening (who, it turns out, is a crook himself and is looking to extort money from Irene using Vincent as a bargaining chip), and eventually escapes to Peru where he waits for Irene to meet him.
The result is a pretty solid film noir feature with iconic performances by Bogie and Bacall, as well as Moorehead, an all-star production team, murder, intrigue, the revelation of a cunning Femme Fatale responsible for the Wrong Man’s predicament, and the final revenge and redemption of the Wrong Man. The Wrong Man will never be able to return to America, or at least not until the memory of his ‘crimes’ are forgotten, but at least he’s in that nice seaside Peruvian town in a posh hotel, with the woman of dreams who eventually arrives. And even better, she’s loaded, rolling in it, moolah baby!
[Next up: The Big Sleep]
The city streets. People walking to and from work. On sidewalks, on crosswalks. A woman’s voice: ‘If people can connect to one another, even the smallest voice will grow loud. If people can connect to one another, even their lives will become longer. So…’ So the Wired is the way to achieve this. But the pitfalls my be worse than the assumed gains. As all the tyranny of the majority invades into private spaces on the Wired and figures actively hunt other human beings for information to destroy them with. We know now of echo chambers, but this is 2018, that was 1998. The optimism and cultish mindset was in force.
Cut to Lain’s home. Her father stands in the hallway in front of her room. Lain’s door is cracked. He approaches and knocks, asks to come in, but there is no response. He enters the room to find areas of the floor are flooded and that the room is a veritable cavern of machines all working to give Lain massive computational ability. Lain sits before the computer, chatting with figures on the Wired. The father is no longer able to reach her and she can no longer hear him.
Inside the Wired, Lain is within a domain of pure white. She asks questions aloud to a group of individuals who answer in a manner incoherent to the viewer, just mumbles and growls. Each time they do so, the whiteness of the room is translated into bursts of color. Her avatar in the Wired looks identical to Lain. She is conversing about some next-gen protocol set soon for release and at the end of the sequence reveals her conversation partners to be The Knights.
In the next scene, the night has passed and Lain is on her way to school. Where she saw the two men stalking her from beneath her window earlier, she now sees a child standing there on the sidewalk with arms and face upraised directly toward the sky. He stands there, unmoving. Lain sees nothing but regular clouds in the sky and moves on to school where her friends will confront her about her growing internality and how she seems to be becoming the old, awkward Lain who keeps to herself. Lain explains that she has been more social than ever, just that most of her social experiences currently happen on the net. Reika chides her claiming that net pals are not the same as real friends, but Alice then prods Reika by claiming that she is just old-fashioned.
Later, after school, Lain will go with the girls to hang out in town and do some shopping. As they cross the walk at Shibuya, they all see a young boy on a nearby sidewalk with his arms and face upraised. The soundtrack of voices and incidental music then draws to a halt, and in utter silence Lain turns her head slowly toward two children standing in the middle of the road who suddenly stop moving, look up, and raise their hands toward the sky as well. Lain peers up into the sky to find her own face, in a spectral, ethereal white peering down from within an oval frame of clouds. Everyone else sees her as well and Alice recognizes the image as Lain. The clouds disappear and everyone is left disoriented, confused, the local newspapers and television stations will have something pretty novel to report that night.
Back at home, Mika reclines on the couch as her mother asks her why she has been coming home so early lately. The ‘camera’ pans to reveal Mika in a drugged state, either from real substance abuse or by virtue of the fact that in the previous episode the real Mika was destroyed and only a clone was left behind (for as yet unknown reasons and through unknown mechanisms). Lain arrives back home and immediately enters the Wired. Therein, the world is completely black. She tracks down someone with information who appears in the Wired as a pair of giant lips that she likens to a Cheshire Cat wannabe. She asks the user about the game grade-schoolers are playing (Phantoma), but the lips have not useful information this topic.
Lain pulls up a search query and finds the static image of a man she calls the child-killer scientist. The lips user reveals that ‘in the real world, he [the child killer scientist] is just an old man waiting to die in a private hospital ward.’ The lips depart as Lain prepares her network travel to the Wired domain of the old man, but before they do so, the lips tell Lain to ask about something called ‘KIDS.’
Lain arrives on an ancient stone veranda overlooking the mountains. The scene is majestic, beautiful, picturesque, though mysterious, epic, and Eventful (as in a stage prompting the movement of Events in being). An old man reclines in a chair on the veranda, starting into the sky. He tells Lain that she looks very lifelike (a great complement for an avatar online). Lain asks about KIDS, but the old man, who she calls Professor Hodgeson, merely prattles on about a matter more pressing to himself: his mortality. ‘It’s so peaceful here. I want to relax here until my body rots in the real world.’ The shadow of a woman stands on the veranda before them, never speaking, never moving, possibly symbolizing some great love of the man’s life.
Lain presses him again for information, but the man only responds that the view there is beautiful, ‘That time passes so beautifully here…. And quietly, as if it will last forever.’ Lain asks about some experimental data from 15 years prior and Hodgeson responds that he never meant to put any children in danger. Lain: ‘I don’t mean 15 years ago, I mean the game that all of the kids are playing now. They’re reproducing your experiment, aren’t they?’ He explains that someone must have dug out his information from the trash bin. Lain continues ans asks about the Kensington Experiment. As the scene shifts to a flashback of the experiment, Hodgeson explains that all children have Psi, or latent parasychological ability, but in very minute quantities.
In the flashback, the children are hooked up to a large machine by devices attached to their heads while sleep. Lain asks what these devices are and the man explains that they are called Outer Receptors and were used to harvest the children’s Psi. The scene moves to a large black box in the middle of the lab called KIDS. He explains that he expected something extraordinary to happen once he harvested the Psi and that he believes science was not merely about testing hypotheses. Lain appears frustrated and presses the man about his lack of worry for the children, for what would happen to them once this kernel of what seems to be their life force was drained from their bodies. He does not address this issue at all, but continues his own line of reasoning explaining that KIDS system harvested the weak electromagnetic waves from the children’s brains while also stimulating the region that produced them in the hopes of increasing the children’s latent potential, and therefore, increasing the energy harvested by the KIDS system.
The flashback image of Hodgeson explodes into blinding light and Lain sees visions of children’s limbs protruding from the ground as the dead bodies of other children float around in some liquid solution. She asks how much energy was generated by the process as the images around her amplify in horror, and Lain eventually is unable to take any more and yells for the simulation to stop. Darkness. Back to the veranda. The man explains that he smashed the KIDS system into small pieces to ensure it could never be recreated, but that later its schematics were somehow found and spread throughout the Wired. Someone found these schematics and updated them so they could be used without the Outer Receptors. The man explains that whoever created such a new technology that could take mere hologram emulations and virtual reality headsets to recreate KIDS through Phantoma has to be extremely skilled.
Lain presses the man about his guilt in the whole process. He explains that he did what he could to eliminate the chance of this happening and that he currently has no power to do anything about it. She calls him self-centered, and then, for the first time, the man turns his face towards her and looks her in the eye: ‘Young lady…. All this talking has worn we out. It was nice meeting you. I don’t know what you plan to do in the Wired or what sort of being you’re trying to become, but you’re powerful. Incredibly powerful. If there really is a go here in the Wired, you’re a blessed child.’ He wonders aloud about where the source of the power of the rogues who have manipulated his technology into evil ends comes from. Hodgeson begins to looks faint and explains that it seems his time is up. He fades to light, then his outline dissolves, the man whose shade was produced here in the Wired dies in the real world, and the world around him fades away likewise leaving Lain in a world of darkness. Lain finds herself at a white crossroads within the darkness of the Wired and speaks one word: ‘Knights’.
Lain is next seen outside of the Wired and sitting at her computer terminal in the real world. She is talking with The Knights and asking for information about who they really are, why they are trying to tell her all of this about Phantoma and their plans, and wondering whether they are just using her as a means to some as yet unidentified end. She wonders if all of this is just a game for them when their actions have led to the deaths of children, and she asks if they are just doing it for kicks. Her computer begins to overheat, though Lain is too absorbed in her interrogation to notice.
She calls The Knights a bunch of losers who are just idiots doing anything they want just because they can. No one answers her questions. then the red beams of light from days prior enter the sanctuary of her bedroom. She goes to the window and sees the two men in suits beside their black sedan just standing there watching her. She leaves her house, goes into the street and confronts the two, and asks them if they are Knights. They do not answer her questions initially, but eventually the shorter man, the man whose eyepiece she destroyed (he has a new one) earlier, speaks: ‘Please get down.’
Her window explodes as the computer system inside continued to overheat. Lain: ‘What was that?’ The first man: ‘The coolant system in your room.’ The second man explains that ‘they’ must have planted some sort of parasite bomb in her coolant system. Lain responds, ‘It sounds almost like your’e saying you didn’t do it.’ The second man confirms that it was not them who planted the bomb. Lain asks who it was and the two men walk off and toward the car. Just before entering the car of driving off, the second man tells her it was The Knights.
KIDS has been updated to a VR game called Phantoma used to harvest the Psi of young children for some unknown purpose of The Knights. Accela and Psyche processors may also be the creations of The Knights, but their relevance to this new development is currently unknown.
[Layer 07: Society]
It’s 1948 and Orson Welles is coming off of the bad critical and box office reception for his first film adaptation of The Bard in Macbeth. That film’s staging was eerie, mysterious, dripping in a mise-en-scene. The black backdrops and extreme chiaroscuro, the symbolism of objects and minimalism of sets and characters make it into something of a tour de force of expressionism premeditating Waiting for Godot’s stagings by more than five years. The film has since developed a strong critical appreciation and its revolutionary aspects from the artistic to the use of a Scottish brogue dialect and period-specific clothing (unlike the Elizabethan clothing oddly worn in the play’s traditional stagings, which bear little resemblance to the clothing of the highlands) are now championed pretty widely.
At the time, however, Welles figured he had to go about the production of his next Shakespeare adaptation in a different manner. And so, he did a complete about face. Othello‘s titular character (played by Welles himself, in blackface) uses no vaguely North African dialect and instead opts for the traditional British. He hired two of the Bard’s greatest living interpreters in Dublin’s Gate Theatre co-founders Michael MacLiammoir as Iago, and his partner the producer Hilton Edwards as Brabantio. Besides Desdemona who was played by Suzanne Cloutier (the third actress who played the part on the film and whose performance is the only one Welles didn’t destroy, though he did later overdub her voice with a different actress for the American cut of the film), all of the other principal actors were Italians.
Welles shot the film on locations in Italy (Venice, Milan, Rome, Viterbo, and Torcello) with an Italian Crew for the first few years of the film’s shoot (it took a notoriously long three years to make, all the while Welles moving from place to place to find funds to continue shooting). Later, he shot much of the film on location and in studios in Morocco (at Safi, Mazagan, and Mogador) with a large French crew. This allowed him to shoot in the country, which had great incentives for filmmakers, while using a very professional crew who would be more familiar with his methods. Unlike Macbeth, he rarely shot in studios for Othello, which makes the film a much brighter one, often employing available light from the sun.
Though when Welles did use sets, they were created by the legendary production designer Alexandre Trauner whose work spanned eight decades from 1929 to 1990. Trauner is known for work on sets for many another classic film like Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or in 1930, Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise in 1945, Jules Dassin’s Rififi in 1955, and Luc Besson’s Cinema du Look classic Subway in 1985. Trauner’s work on Othello is so good in fact that it is often difficult to differentiate real locations for sets, and any time I have attempted to do so, and then to check my guesses, I do worse than chance.
Whereas Macbeth lives and breathes in long takes and slow build-up of tragedy, Othello is frenetic, beginning with more than an average of 15 cuts per minute in the first hour (incidentally for young filmmakers, this is probably the fastest anyone can and should cut a film if one wants cogent material, smart audiences to stay in the theatre, and good critical reviews). The speed of the material makes the movie flow in a way much more congenial to the average moviegoer who might have found Macbeth too slow, too thoughtful, too poetic, too sustained a vision, and whatever other qualities your average viewer can’t bring themselves to appreciate about good films.
Welles’ one major thematic cut to The Bard’s material is much of the lines that exploit Othello’s racial quandary: the Moor of Venice being married to a white woman (Desdemona). He cuts many of the lines from the scripting that would later make Laurence Olivier so weak in his role, that could make a white actor in blackface appear even more unsympathetic, that could race-bait. Unlike Olivier, Welles also plays the role as any other Elizabethan role, without adding in touches of modern black culture (something Olivier attempted to do with the way he delivered his lines and the way he moved as a physical actor, which made him a laughing stock at worst and reprehensible at best). This allows his interpretation of the Moor to become universal, even more so than Shakespeare probably envisioned in the first place.
The film is truly one of the great film adaptations of Shakespeare, as are the other two Welles’ adaptations including Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. As always, Welles adapted the screenplay, produced, directed, acted in, and edited the film. In fact, this is one of the only Orson Welles’ films we have today that was in way compromised by a studio during the editing. One of the only films by Welles that therefore reflects his vision of the project. And what’s more, he created three different versions of the film including the Italian cut for its Rome release; the original English cut for Great Britain (which included Cloutier’s voice); and his final American cut that removes three minutes from the previous versions, removing his spoken opening title sequence and adding in different shots for the same scenes but leaving the film intact as nearly the same (and removing Cloutier’s voice and re-dubbing it with that of another, more forceful British actress).
All of the work, the three years of constant moving about from location to location, the constant cutting of the film, reshaping, and restructuring, finally paid off in 1952 when premiered (as one of many premieres of the film) at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. Welles, though an American emigre, using funds he gained by acting in British films, who filmed Othello mostly in Italy, using Italian or French camera crews, and a cast from Italy and Great Britain, ran the film under competition for the Palme d’or as a Moroccan production. Even though the first real Moroccan film would not be made until six years later: Mohammed Ousfour’s Le fils maudit.
The festival was familiar to Welles as Carol Reed had won the Palme d’Or there in 1949 for The Third Man in which Welles starred as the titular character (this was only the third awarding of the top prize for the festival which began in 1939, stopped throughout the war, began again in 1946, and then stalled for another three years until 1949). In 1952, at the fifth awarding of a top prize for the Cannes Film Festival (again, there was no prize in 1950), Welles won the Palme d’Or (then known as the Grand Prix). This was an odd circumstance for Morocco, who had never actually created a film by this point, but won the top prize at the festival because of a technicality. The band at the festival, which is set to play the National Anthem of the winner of the top prize, did not know the Moroccan Anthem and neither did anyone at the festival. So they played some general, anthemy-sounding song instead and awarded Welles, and Morocco, the top prize. Morocco has not won the Palme d’Or since.
(Check out my review of the first part of this film HERE)
Whereas the soundtrack of Vol 1. of the first Digimon Adventure 02 movie is mostly a hip blues exercise ala Trigun, the soundtrack of Vol. 2 reflects influence from another nineties anime classic through its use of urban Jazz: Cowboy Bebop. Where the blues was somber and reflective, the jazz is kinetic and moves the plot along at a much quicker pace than Vol. 1. The result is a growing pace coincident with the heightening of tensions within the film’s plot as Kokomon first disappears in a field, the older Digidestined are sent to a realm where they de-age into children, Wendigomon appears and starts making other innocent bystanders disappear, and eventually battles it out with Gargomon and Flamedramon before he himself disappears and the story moves into Vol. 2 where the pace will quicken considerably.
Davis and Willis, and Yolei and Cody, meet up in Summer Memory, Colorado, not far from Davis’ home. Davis and Willis share a heartfelt, though melodramatic, moment after Davis presses for information about Wendigomon. Davis reveals that Wendigomon was once his Digimon partner. In the American release in its truncated form alongside the first two Digimon movies, this scene was shortened considerably and Davis’ crying was made out to be a gag. The joke never really made too much sense, but the reasoning for cutting the crying scene considerably does as the original makes Davis into a melancholy character, which is almost completely out of character for him.
Wendigomon appears once again and, in this version, almost kills Willis. All the while, the Digimon appears to be experiencing a nervous breakdown and possibly going insane as he shakes back and forth unnaturally (a scene changed in the American dub and placed at the end of the film as if Wendigomon had returned back to normal and was only dancing). He Digivolves into Antylamon and begins to battle Gargomon, Flamedramon, Digmon, and Halsemon. The four Champion-level Digimon overpower him just slightly, and so, Antylamon descends into the waters of a nearby lake.
The body of water turns increasingly dark before the evil form of Cherubimon emerges from within and defeats his four adversaries using the power of his dark orbs. Unlike the American version, odd clown music is played behind the Mega-level Digimon, which makes the encounter all the more unsettling. Now, just as all looks hopeless, the four Champions have become Rookies, and the entire group looks set to be consumed by the evil Cherubimon, Angemon and Angewomon show up and lop off Cherubimon’s arms, which begin to slowly regrow. Cherubimon dissolves into pure darkness and envelopes all of them, the younger Digidestined begin to revert to even younger ages, but Angemon and Angewomon remain in their forms and continue to battle against their foe.
Then Angemon and Angewomon use some power known as the Miracles of Light and Warp-Digivolve into Seraphimon (one of the three Celestial Digimon alongside Ophanimon and the good Cherubimon in the lore) and Magnadramon (and not Ophanimon as many would suspect. Magnadramon is one of the four Great Dragons in the lore alongside Azulongmon, Megidramon, and Goldramon). The two are powerful, but inexplicably not powerful enough to defeat the evil Cherubimon. They use their strength to release the Digi-Egg of Miracles and the Digi-Egg of Destiny (associated in the lore with one of the thirteen Royal Knights Kentaurosmon), which are used respectively by Veemon and Terriermon to Digivolve into Magnamon (also one of the Royal Knights in the lore, though the Magnamon of the Adventure Universe has only three fingers instead of five and is unrelated to the historical Magnamon) and Rapidmon (Rounding out the first historical group of Digimon truly from the Adventure Universe: the Miracle Four of Seraphimon, Magnadramon, Magnamon, and Rapidmon). The two fight back against Cherubimon, but are swallowed whole by him.
As the Digidestined continue to de-age into young children, Davis and Willis yell for their knocked out friends to wake up. They eventually do so and manage to begin their exploration of the innards of Cherubimon, find his heart, which manifests itself as a Wendigo-heart (or a heart that looks like Wendigomon) and destroy it at the Digimon’s prompting. Cherubimon explodes and momentarily turns into its angelic form (one of the three Celestial Digimon in the lore who protect the ‘kernel’ or core of the Digital world where the ‘God’ of that world resides). Cherubimon disappears, all of the Digidestined return to their normal ages (and the older Digidestined presumably return back to the places where they were originally taken by Wendigomon’s wind in the first place). The kids split up with Willis and head back to Japan as Willis leaves for home, making sure to call his worried mother first as she expected him to be back ages ago. On the way, Willis and Terriermon see an egg floating in a nearby river and chase it. The end credits show a painted picture of Willis with both Terriermon and Kokomon, meaning that the egg will eventually hatch to reveal his old friend back to normal.
The weird wind that initially picked up Kokomon will never be explained in the film, and we will never be totally sure that the older Digidestined did not de-age to such young ages that they were never able to return. The wind remains a plot device, and we must just take it on faith that the film is completely canon and that therefore, the older Digidestined were returned back to their own homes. An air of mystery hovers over the film and events often call for the viewer to forget past bits of Digimon world-mechanics. For example, how did Angemon and Angewomon take on their Mega forms do easily when they had never done so before, why were they able to release the Digi-Egg of Destiny when it never made an appearance before, just exactly where does this film fit in the Digimon chronology, what was the wind (just a plot device?), why were these events never referenced later in the series, why Summer Memory, Colorado? The answers are probably out there in a Bandai press release for anyone who can translate Japanese. So if you can, please do so. And send the results my way!
The Digidestined Cody
[Next up: The Revenge of Diaboromon]
(Check out my previous Ghibli essay here: Tales From Earthsea)
Goro Miyazaki’s first outing as a director for Studio Ghibli in 2006 was unfortunate. He produced the only uncontroversially bad film in the studio’s output and left the only true black mark in its history with Tales From Earthsea. What’s worse is he only received the opportunity to helm the film as director in the first place because of his relationship with the studio co-founder Hayao. Pure nepotism, unqualified.
Hayao had learned his lesson. But Studio Ghibli still needed fresh young talent to help continue their legacy into the future, and as such, they were left with no real choice but to give Goro another chance just a few years later. In 2011, he would release his second film for the studio, but under the constant supervision of his father as executive producer on the film. To ensure the film’s story was cogent, streamlined, direct, and poignant, Hayao wrote the screenplay. His help ensured that the film would meet the quality of past Ghibli productions, that it would come in on time and under budget, and therefore, that the studio could support it in earnest with all of the force of its marketing tools and apparatus.
The gambit succeeded and the film went on to win ‘Animation of the Year’ from both the Japan Academy Prize Awards and the Tokyo Anime Awards. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was popular throughout the North American and European markets, driving four times stronger box office turnout in France than Earthsea did in 2006. The film, created on a $22 million budget, garnered more than $100 million in box office receipts and was one of the highest grossing Japanese films of the year of 2011.
The story is adapted from a previous manga property set in the early 1980s. However, Goro wanted to make a period piece, so he pushed back the time of the narrative to 1963. Set in Yokohama, Japan during a period of industrial growth for the nation when it was finally coming into its own as a real potential world economic power, and one year before the Summer Olympics in neighboring Tokyo in 1964, the story follows the development of a relationship between two middle school students. The boy, Shun Kazama, works on the school paper and is particularly active in school politics, especially in the drive to preserve the old clubhouse, the Latin Quarter. But the clubhouse is dilapidated and falling into continued disrepair as all of the boy’s clubs who share the space do little for the upkeep. Furthermore, the city is ramping up efforts aimed toward respectability as the Olympics approach and wishes to demolish any and all old buildings not up to snuff with modern Western architectural fashions.
The girl, Umi Matsuzaki, becomes enamored with Shun’s passion for the old building and for journalism and decides to help him in his quest to save the place. She corrals her forces and gets all of her girlfriends to come and help the boys clean and repair the clubhouse, but ultimately the school’s council of local business leaders and donors vote to demolish it anyway. Shun and Umi go along with their class representative to Tokyo to visit the chairman of the council in his architectural office. They wait there all day for a meeting and eventually gain access to the head honcho who promises, mostly because of the idealistic force of Umi’s plea to save the building as a vestige of their historical past (a sentiment of rootedness and understanding of one’s history not often held by the youth in any time or place), to visit their clubhouse before making his final decision. And when he sees all of the progress and meets all of the passionate kids involved in the restoration, he decides to preserve the building and create the new one he has commissioned elsewhere.
The second narrative driving force in the film is the relationship between Umi and Shun. Umi’s mother is in America studying for an advance degree and her father was a seaman for the Japanese Navy who died when his ship hit a mine whilst transporting supplies to American troops to Korea in the early 50s. Shun is an adopted child. Both Shun and Umi have the same picture of three naval men, friends at arms during the war. Umi knows one of the men to be her late father who looks suspiciously like a grown-up Shun. Eventually Shun deduces that he and Umi are brother and sister, and he begins to back off on the budding relationship between the two. But fortunately, the true nature of their biological relationship is unveiled as the third man’s ship passes through the city, and their father’s friend speaks to them and unveils their heredity. The two are the children of close friends and their feelings are not illicit or dangerous as they once seemed.
When I first saw the film, I remarked on the beauty of its compositions and how well the animators build a world that feels like the real Yokohama of the time. I was amazed at how much growth was achieved in Goro’s filmmaking in such a short time (a five-year span with no other temp or assistant work in the interval). And I was amazed at how much it really felt like a Ghibli film, unlike his previous endeavor for the company.
The film impressed not only audiences and critics, but also the heads of the Studio. In 2014, Goro was commissioned to create the first television series for Studio Ghibli. What resulted was the 26-episode CGI animated Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter: an adaptation of a classic 1981 children’s novel by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. The choice of an adaptation of one of Lindgrin’s works was a deliberate one insofar as Lindgrin’s seminal work Pippi Longstocking was at the centre of a fascination for Miyazaki and Takahata who had attempted to gain rights for that property in the early 70s but were turned down (they would later incorporate elements of the book into their early films Panda! Go, Panda! and Panda! Go, Panda!: The Rainy-Day Circus). This decision established a connection between Ronja and Studio Ghibli thematically, as well as carrying on Goro’s fascination with adapting works seminal to his father’s development (as in his 2006 aborted attempt to adapt Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea chronology).
Although Goro has created no other animated works since Ronja in 2014, he has developed a knack for it. If he has the desire to continue, and if Ghibli has the will to devote future resources to his productions, Goro may become the future face of the company. At this point, only time will tell. Although I hope this is the direction the studio will move toward after Hayao releases his final feature film, I’m no soothsayer and profess to know nothing definitive.
[Next up: The Secret World of Arrietty]