Frederic Back was one of the most important and acclaimed animators in Canada throughout his relatively short career in the 1970s through the early 1990s. Although born in The Territory of the Saar Basin (a dual-occupied U.K.-French territory that created from the acquisition of German holdings after WWI), he grew up in the cosmopolitan French-German town of Strasbourg. Many of his teenage and young adult years were spent in Paris before Back moved to Quebec in 1948 along with his family to take a job with Radio-Canada TV as an artist for TV show title sequences. During this period, he honed his minimalist skills as an animator, creating beautiful, albeit minor works, akin to those being developed simultaneously by Jean Giraud ‘Moebius’ back in France. After a dozen years in Canada working on title sequences as well as stained glass artistry, he was given the opportunity to direct his first work for Radio-Canada TV: 1970’s short film Abracadabra.
Directed, animated, and co-written by Back (alongside screenwriter Graeme Ross), this first work would lay out much of the groundwork for Back’s future projects. The artwork is very minimalistic, and his characters (four young children of different ethnicities) border on stereotype as Back works to develop a film about a subtext, about ideas rather than about characters. His bold line is reminiscent of Herge and other classic comic artists, and thereby openly at odds with the Disney Paradigm of animation, as well as the burgeoning Japanese animation styles popular at the time. Back’s art is staunchly within a European tradition of cartooning that was being lost to much of the world, and is today nearly completely absent except in the most underground of Underground Comix or Graphic Novels. It draws from deep wellsprings of tradition: from tribal and cave art, from traditional comics, from impressionism and pointillism, and overall from a rather effete artistic context.
However, the content of the film is itself quite banal. Abracadabra is a fairy tale of sorts recounting the children of the Earth living an idyllic life amongst the flowers and sunshine, innocents untarnished by the industrialization and commercialization of a post-WWII post-God post-modern world. A sorcerer enters the picture and decides to use his magic to steal the sun, to use his techno-fascist alchemy to claim total rights to a resource that ought to be open to all, part of the commons. He spirits away the sun, and total darkness descends upon the land. All plants begin to die, storms pour forth rain perpetually, and the joy of the our young Scandinavian blonde girl is destroyed. But she is no pushover. She decides to travel the world to find others like herself, ecological warriors who wish to fight back and return joy to their world by combating the exploitative forces whose wastefulness and capitalist evil threaten to make the world into a veritable hellhole.
The film is only nine minutes long and obviously serves as a pedagogical tool for the network Back was working for at the time. Its sentiments and approach are a bit obvious, but excusable in the context of a work broaching complex topics to a young audience. These ecological and socialist sentiments were very important to Back and to much of the world at this particular point in time, 1970, and would be topics that would only grow in prominence and import in the modern world to this day. Unfortunately, Back made the egregious mistake in his first film of portraying the polluters of the world as total, unrepentant evil fools. The realities of socio-economic forces that drive capitalists to make the world a worse place to live within, on occasion, are quite matter of fact, and those who engage in such activities are rarely as evil as represented in artistic works. And works like Abracadabra unfortunately perpetuate stereotypes that prevent the average person from better understanding such complex issues. Luckily, Back would become a more nuanced activist and artist in his future works that broach topics like environmentalism and animal rights.
Back in Japan, a young animator named Isao Takahata who had already directed his first feature film, Horus: Prince of the Sun in 1968, would come across the works of this middle-aged Frenchman Frederic Back and champion him as a cause celebre years later for his inspirational role in Takahata’s own works. Specifically, Takahata found that Back’s approach to filmmaking and animation was one of the first real, modern attempts to import meaningful issues into the medium and to create an animation for adults and children alike. He valued Back’s willingness to attack issues in the real world through his animation’s narratives rather than merely serving up facile surfaces for mass consumption, or worse yet, mere fables and banal morality tales ala Disney.
And most importantly, Takahata valued Back’s artistic proclivity and interest in making his films look great from a painterly perspective, his ability to condense and elongate time along with the best live-action directors, and the poetic pacing of his films. Although the 1960s were over and the hippie movement had been dealt a decisive death blow at Altamont, the ecological, social, and political consciousness of artists was still in vogue. And visual artists, above all others, were still producing highly ambitious works of an experimental nature that rejected brutal art in lieu of aesthetically pleasing works. Together, Back and Takahata, through their willingness to create conventionally beautiful art that tried its best never to talk down to an audience whilst essaying important topics and reflecting the real world, helped to promote a new artistic movement within animation that I refer to as Animated Poetic Realism (and discuss in more detail HERE) of which their later respective films L’homme qui plantait des arbres and Gauche the Cellist would serve as paramount examples.
But while Takahata was already well on his way to creating works in this vein, it would take a few more tries for Back to really crack the critical bubble and make himself well known. At least as well known as he would ever really become in a market wherein quality is always the first element discarded in favor of bullshit for the least common denominator.
[Next up: The Creation of Birds]
It now appears that Alex Rosewater, and by extension Paradigm Corp., were aware of the existence of foreigners outside of Paradigm City, as well as foreign sleeper agents from The Union within the city, all along. Alex has made some sort of trade with The Union, which ceded the three foreign Megadeuses back to their own people, as well as some undisclosed further item, in exchange for the non-functional Big Megadeus known as Big Fau. However, after receiving the Megadeus, Alex Rosewater had everything he needed from The Union and instead of protecting their existence within the city any longer, he has alerted the Military Police and Lieutenant Dan Dastun to their existence, and tasked this group with tracking down the 24 Union Sleeper Agents in the city and arresting them. Dan Dastun hasn’t taken kindly to this turn of events, especially since Angel, or Agent 340, is one amongst the Union members he must arrest. He feels as if he is a mere lap dog for Paradigm, and further, that the rains pouring down on the city seemingly non-stop must be some sort of divine message that what they are doing is wrong.
At Paradigm, Alex Rosewater has set a meeting up between himself and Roger Smith. As the two are aware of each other’s true identities as Dominus of Megadeuses (Big Fau and Big O, respectively), Alex Rosewater wastes no time in their discussion before discussing the current attempts to bring power up Big Fau. He explains that the machine has no memory core, that he believes that he himself functions as the mecha’s memory core in lieu of one as his Dominus, and that no amount of electricity- currently being diverted from the city’s power grids every night- seems able to revive the machine. As mentioned previously, this notion of a great beast constructed out of the parts of numerous corpses of past organisms (or in this case, many Big Faus) is very similar to the concept of Frankenstein’s Monster who was revived through electricity, created from the bodies of dead men, and given a brain that retained little knowledge of life before its death. Likewise, Alex Rosewater is like Dr. Frankenstein: a figure who will eventually be usurped as a false master.
Alex also explains to Roger that ‘since the disaster forty years ago, this city has been the only stage where humanity can continue to preserve their civilization.’ The idea seems to be that although foreigners exist outside of Paradigm City, none of them have made any effort o create a city of their own, and largely live as nomads in the vast desert wastelands of the world. Alex continues, ‘ I have the utmost respect for my dad, he is the man who built this stage. However, my dear father had forced himself to lose his own memories before he was kind enough to pass them on to his son.’ If everyone in the city lost their memories forty years ago after the disaster, then this means that the civilization created by Gordon Rosewater was made sometime before this Event. That it managed to endure whatever the Event wrought, and that the remainder of the world did not, added to the fact that no one remembers much of a re-building of the city, means that something other than The Event was the cause of the world’s current state. An apocalyptic event visited upon the earth twice (first as a physical scourge and secondly as one removing the memories of this planet’s denizens?).
Something isn’t quite right here. The Event has always been a mythical sort of historical force that somehow wiped the memories of all people on Earth (save a few). That an event occurred before the Event is unexplained, does not compute. Alex: ‘Preserving human civilization is this city’s reason for existence.’ Roger, not knowing about how prescient his words really are, chimes in: ‘You mean their memories?’ Alex: That’s right. They exist in this city and in this city alone.’ The implication being, once one has finished viewing the series, that Paradigm City is a simulation of humanity, a storage unit for the collective memory of the human race who have presumably evolved beyond their current forms or been destroyed in the real world. And as we shall we in the series’ denouement, the simulation is set to run infinitely. That is, unless Roger Smith can somehow manage to prevent it from doing so, somehow manage to end the program and thereby, end the eternal sufferings of millions of Artificial Simulated Human Beings trapped within an infinite loop in this monstrous universe.
At Roger’s Mansion, Dorothy and Norman are alone once again for the evening. Angel, now the fugitive known as Agent 340, arrives to speak with Roger, but finds that he is not at home. She decides to deliver her message to Dorothy instead: ‘The memories that Alex is searching for, the memories of this whole world that have been left behind in Paradigm City alone, are vitally important to Roger as well. We mustn’t let Alex take them.’ At this point in the narrative, the viewer ought to no clue what these memories truly entail and should be more confounded than ever before at the notion that these memories have an existential importance to Roger and to the city. Angel also tells Dorothy that they must not let the memories fall into the hands of anyone who wishes to gain them as the result would be equally catastrophic. And before whiling away into the night and into the dense rain and fog of the city, Angel tells Dorothy that she is sorry for their past, and that despite the fact that Dorothy doesn’t like Angel, Angel likes Dorothy and wishes the best for her.
Later, Alex explains to Roger that only the two of them are valid players on the world stage, that only they two are true Dominuses of Megadeuses, wielding the power of the gods. Alex also professes to know what Roger truly is, though he won’t disclose the truth to him. As Roger leaves the meeting, focusing intently on trying to remain un-manipulated by Alex Rosewater, Alan Gabriel approaches Alex. The cyborg has proven himself to be a tricky character as he played both sides during the power play between Alex Rosewater and The Union previously. Now, he holds a blade to the neck of his current employer in the hopes of assassinating the man, presumably at the direction of Vera Ronstadt and The Union for no meager sum. But just at that very moment, Alex offers Alan the opportunity to own something ‘special’: a promise that piques his interest and prevents him from taking Alex’s life right there and then.
Alex’s assassination would have been the first event in a chain of actions that might have led to the downfall of Paradigm City as Vera Ronstadt appears within the underground of the city and calls upon a large three-headed Megadeus with regenerative powers called The Hydra, which has been created and modified from The Eel in Act 03. The being can harness electricity and begins to use its powers on the city, destroying anyone and anything in its path toward the Paradigm Corp. HQ, wherein Alex should have been dead if Alan had followed his orders.
Luckily, Roger Smith is out about town picking up a bouquet of flowers for his android love interest when he gets the call from Norman about the disruption in the city. He calls upon Big O and quickly rips apart two of the three heads of The Hydra, which regenerate instantly and prove to Roger that this will be a tough battle indeed. The Hydra directs its electric volley toward Big O, rendering the Big Megadeus immobile, and eventually reaching within its cockpit to electrocute Roger Smith himself. The jolts trigger a memory within Roger’s mind of a similar time somewhere in his deep past when he piloted the same Megadeus, and fought the same enemy, but alongside a platoon of Big O Megadeuses. He was clad in brown military fatigues and looked to be one amongst a group of soldiers. However, Roger Smith is in his thirties, surely not old enough to have lived before The Event that seemingly wiped out these memories. What’s more, in the flashback he appears to be the same age as is he is currently. Roger Smith seems to be an android trained for battle and for the complex operation of a Megadeus. One that does not age. So how does this relate back to the visions of Roger Smith as one of those genetically engineered children, the tomatoes of Gordon Rosewater? Could all of these memories be deja vu from experiences in past lives? Experiences in different simulations and timestreams wherein Roger Smith oscillates between different identities. Such a concept could at least make Gordon Rosewater’s claims that the events of his book Metropolis never happened, or at least not in the current simulation.
Roger’s memories alert him to the presence of a secret valve within Big O that activates his plasma weaponry and shields. These allow Roger to divert The Hydra’s electric attacks from himself and to consequently launch a powerful attack back at it that incinerates the beast-like Megadeus. But not before the electric volley is picked up by Alex Rosewater’s lab through a large lightning rod apparatus, an apparatus that feeds the energy back to Big Fau and gives him enough strength to rise once again.
Cast in the Name of God,
(Catch my previous Western film review here: Decision at Sundown)
Unless the film I’m reviewing has a really novel plot or rare characters or an interesting subtext I’ve yet to fully reflect upon, I often opt for an essay on the placement of the film within its cinematic and historical context. In this case, Buchanan Rides Alone, the fourth of seven films in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle of Westerns is a relatively simple story. A lone gunman named Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) enters a small Texas-Mexico border town, and although unusually jovial and easy to get along with compared to figures like Clint Eastwood’s (Sergio Leone’s) Man With No Name, Buchanan still ends up provoking the ire of the Agry Family who own and operate the town, which is even named Agry.
Over the remainder of the film, a young man named Roy Agry comes galloping into town with a young Mexican bandit named Esteban Gomez following closely on his heels. The young man kills Roy Agry, and somehow Buchanan becomes caught up in the entire scandal, and is taken for an accomplice by the Agry Family. Buchanan narrowly avoids being killed by a duo of hired guns by the Agry Family, ostensibly to send the old gunman on his way out of town, when Pecos Hill (played by the great character actor and Sam Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones) warms to the old man and double crosses his fellow gunman to free Buchanan. The remainder of the film is something of a comedy of errors in which Pecos is killed and Buchanan is returned to jail, escapes jail and saves Juan Gomez, is returned to jail, and eventually has a final confrontation with the Agry Family Sheriff.
Like all three previous films in the Ranown Cycle, Buchanan Rides Alone displays revisionist tendencies within its subtext. First off, Juan Gomez is a criminal who killed Roy Agry while he was unarmed, and thereby, from the perspective of the townsfolk, Tom Buchanan is an anti-hero. His alliance with Juan Gomez, a convicted criminal, promises to upend the Agry Dynasty and make the territory a better place for its non-Agry inhabitants. As such, on the very face of it, the film is a Revisionist Western in which the rich and the entitled are murdered for political reasons of making the plight of the average person better. However, only Buchanan learns of Juan Gomez’ reasoning for killing Roy Agry: the young man raped and killed Gomez’ sister and was running from Juan when he entered what he thought to be the safe haven of Agry Town. This means that Buchanan is a bit more morally conventional, though the prospect of a young white man (Roy) being the villain and of a young gunman of color (Juan) being a moral hero is still revisionist as it steers clear and subverts the typical Western racial characterology.
Buchanan Rides Alone was the second film nominally scripted by Charles Lang. However, his initial edit was not up to snuff, not up to the standard at which Randolph Scott or Budd Boetticher were accustomed, and as such, they hired on Burt Kennedy to shape the script into a workable form. When the film was released, Land retained billing as the screenwriter, despite the bulk of the work being actually completed by Kennedy, and purportedly because Lang was falling on hard times and really needed the money. All in all, Kennedy would be the go-to screenwriter for the Ranown Cycle, eventually penning five out of seven of the film’s in the series (the other two being Lang’s sole true script, as well as a script by Boetticher himself). The film also continued the Boetticher-Scott partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown who produced the majority of the films in the cycle.
Another notable figure involved in the production of Buchanan Rides Alone is the cinematographer Lucien Ballard who was then just beginning the most prestigious period of his career. In 1956, two years prior to Buchanan, Ballard scripted the classic Stanley Kubrick film noir The Killing. A year prior to that, he began his long career alongside Budd Boetticher as cinematographer on The Magnificent Matador. Ballard would later collaborate with Boetticher on The Killer is Loose in 1956, episodes of the TV show Maverick in 1957, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond in 1960, and Boetticher’s final films in the late sixties, early seventies, and mid-eighties: A Time for Dying (’69), Arruzi (’72), and My Kingdom For… (’85).
Two years after the completion of the Ranown Cycle, in 1962, Lucien Ballard would provide cinematography for Randolph Scott’s final film: Ride the High Country. A fitting end to a great, esteemed career, the movie was also the first real critical triumph of Sam Peckinpah’s directorial career. Together, he and Ballard would continue to work together on a number of important films including The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Junior Bonner.
Martin Scorsese once spoke of the Ranown Cycle as a series of Westerns in which a lone gunman encounters trouble and meets an outlaw who shares a moral code and a sense of honor with himself. The outlaw in these films is supposed to be something like a shadow, like the dark eternal opposite, of the the protagonist (always Randolph Scott) who has merely been unlucky in life and has fallen into ruin, into disrepute, and into a life on the run. Scott and Richard Boone, or Scott and Lee Marvin, are the examples par excellence in the four films I’ve reviewed thus far. These men are charismatic and seemingly good, and thereby their proclivity toward evil serves as a reminder of the evil dwelling within all men, just waiting for the opportune moment to escape.
They are foils for Scott that reveal that he is only noble, his is only morally upright because of his social predicament, and that if something were to change in that society, he could easily become like The Misfit of John Ford’s The Searchers or in the fictions of Flannery O’Conner. That at a moments notice, the animal side of his nature might make itself apparent, and through it the absurdity of life with all of its banality and lack of ontological grounding for morals, for the belief in higher powers, or for even common human feeling toward one another. And the weakest element of Buchanan Rides Alone is that this foil for our protagonist is not present, and thereby the whole exercise seems for naught. Beyond the basic commercial qualification of providing audiences with an easily understood piece of media to consume, this particular saga in the Ranown Cycle is of little merit. Especially when measured up to the power of The Tall T or Seven Men From Now.
[Next Up: Ride Lonesome]
As Bonaparte, the Union’s powerful pseudo-Big Megadeus, pummels away at Big O, Roger’s Big counterpart remains inoperative. He merely blocks the oncoming drill attacks from his aggressor as Roger wonders aloud why Big O is not moving. Outside on the streets of Paradigm, Dastun notices of the tide of the battle becoming one-sided and thereby commands his troops to attack Bonaparte with all they’ve got to support Big O. An image is transmitted to Roger within the cockpit of Alan Gabriel attacking Dorothy and readying himself to destroy her with his own drill hand attack, and it then becomes apparent to Roger why Big O has shut himself down: He has a connection with Dorothy, sensed that she was danger, and is advising Roger to go and save her while he fends off Bonaparte’s attacks.
Back at the Union’s meeting place in the now-defunct Grand Central Station (an icon whose appearance once again supports some form of alternate history interpretation of the series), Dorothy has been analyzing Alan Gabriel and come to the realization that he is neither man nor machine, and something more akin to a cyborg in between. As Roger approaches Dastun for a ride out to where Dorothy is being assaulted by the psychopathic cyborg Alan Gabriel, Angel approaches the cyborg, calling him Agent 271, and pleading with him to spare Dorothy’s life, to stop attacking her as his actions seem to have no purpose. But Alan explains that the purpose ought to be obvious: to humiliate Roger by ‘destroying this android he cares for more than anyone.’ The comment deeply wounds Angel, who has come to know Roger on romantic terms and developed an attachment to him. She breaks down, drops her gun, and stops protesting Alan Gabriel’s destruction of Dorothy, possibly in the petty hope that with Dorothy gone, Angel can take over as Roger’s amorous partner.
Dorothy, realizing that Alan will not stop his attacks and that she has lost all allies in the immediate vicinity, strikes out and knocks Alan Gabriel to the ground, momentarily prolonging the terrible tortures of his sociopathic drill hands, which aim to do no other than rend her asunder utterly. Back in town, Bonaparte has given up punching against the seemingly impenetrable defenses of Big O and departs to attack the city itself, demolishing buildings and the domes themselves with powerful laser beams. Roger arrives to Grand Central Station, Angel runs off into the shadows, feeling guilty for her inaction, and Dorothy, understanding that she has won in the fight for Roger’s affections, smiles broadly, displaying emotion for one of the first times thus far in The Big O. Roger attacks Alan Gabriel, and threatens to throw away his own life in the process, before Dastun breaks them up with a gunshot and a promise to apprehend Alan, as Dastun, and not Roger Smith the Negotiator, is the only lawman in the room. But Alan departs without taking a bullet, and Roger leaves to return to Paradigm where is now most needed, after alerting Norman to the pick-up point for the wounded Dorothy that is.
Before Roger can get back, however, Alex Rosewater premiers his new Megadeus: the third big, Big Fau. The giant Megadeus is a powerhouse model that quickly and easily rips through Bonaparte’s defenses and then limbs, before searing a hole directly through the Union’s most powerful Megadeus. We learn that Alex is piloting Big Fau without a memory core, as this particular item, usually necessary to the proper functioning of a Megadeus, was missing when the Union found it and consequently when Alex acquired it. The machine is a revived being without any knowledge of its past. These elements of its identity as well as its elongated head and the large bolt-like aesthetic mechanisms on the sides of its head strongly resemble and mirror the story of Frankenstein’s monster who was revived from the body of a dead man with the brain of a different individual, and no memories of his past.
And like that aforementioned gothic beast, Big Fau is only under the thumb of his master and revivifier for a short time. After defeating Bonaparte, Big Fau takes back control of himself and aims his lasers toward the architecture and skyline of the city of Paradigm, much like Bonaparte. Only this time, the aggressor against Paradigm City is much more powerful and unwieldy. Roger appears in the nick of time to battle this new Big, which seems an impossible task, a herculean effort as even Bonaparte proved too difficult for Big O to easily destroy. Luckily, Alex Rosewater is freaking out, ranting and raving in the cockpit of Big Fau and making a fuss to his Megadeus about being the true Dominus. Big Fau analyzes his host once more and the sensors read ‘Ye Not’ before fizzling out. Big Fau shuts off, goes limp, and Alex Rosewater is enclosed within the cockpit, seemingly with no way out.
Back at Grand Central Station, Dastun approaches Angel and returns her dropped firearm to her. He realizes immediately that she feels romantically attached to Roger but has been spurned by his feelings for another. And although he cannot know that she is a foreigner and a member of the Union who has now disavowed her own people and has no real place to call home, he does recognize a down and out soul when he sees one. Dastun explains his own feelings of inadequacy in the face of Megadeuses and Foreign Terrorism, which are almost always only defeated through the help of Roger and his black Megadeus: Big O. Dastun feels as if the world is merely a stage, and he and all those around him are actors who must play out some vicious destiny the nature of which is completely unknown to them in thrust or denouement. He tells her that the only valid thing to do in this world is to accept who one is and to work one’s hardest to protect those around them.
But these are hard times, confusing times. And although Angel accepts Dastun’s reasoning and takes her pistol, it is obvious that she is unsure. What is the meaning of life without a past, without a history, without an identifiable culture or homeplace? What is being hidden behind the memory barrier of The Event from 40 years ago? Who is Angel? Who were her parents and why has she thus far been so gung ho about supporting the cause of her people despite not knowing anything about their past history? Could Paradigm have been an egalitarian, democratic sort of land? One that was targeted by dictatorial and autocratic peoples like her own and merely destroyed the world as a defensive response?
Many of these questions will never be completely answered for us, the fans of The Big O, but they are important questions because they all relate back to our world wherein political identification with one’s nation is problematic for almost every nation-state in existence by virtue of their problematic pasts. The polar opposite difficulty is the innate desire to belong to a community, which is often bracketed politically by those with a rational moral compass. Maybe this was the super-human strength Nietzsche alluded to that is requisite for anyone who wishes to become liberated: the strength to deny our inner calls and feelings and to become supra-rational calculating beings, beyond good an evil. Forces foretelling the twilight of the gods, and hearkening the dawn of a new day.
Cast in the Name of God,
(Catch my previous Western film review here: The Tall T)
The third film in Budd Boetticher’s Western Ranown Cycle is also the second picture the director made in 1957. Like his previous picture, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown was produced by Harry Joe Brown would continue on to produce three of the remaining four pictures in the cycle. This film was Boetticher’s first collaboration with screenwriter Charles Lang who would later contribute the screenplay for one more picture in the series. But most importantly, the heroine of Decision at Sundown, was one Karen Steele who would later appear in two more films from the cycle, Ride Lonesome and Westbound as well as Boetticher’s first film after completion of the Ranown Cycle: 1960’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond.
A man named Bart Allison (Randolph Scott) and his friend Sam open the film as a pair of outlaws who have commandeered a stagecoach and forced its drivers to bring them a few miles out from a town called Sundown. From there, they ride horses into town and immediately begin to use their gifts of gab to track down a man named Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) who has apparently done some wrong to Bart in the past. After asking around, they find that Tate is indeed in town, and has become something a big shot in these parts with his connections to the town’s lawmen Sheriff Swede Hansen and Deputy Spanish. Furthermore, today of all days is Tate’s wedding day and he is set to marry a young dame named Lucy Summerton (Steele) whose father’s riches are the real object of Tate’s attentions.
As Sam and Bart make their way into a barber shop and make clear their open animosity toward Tate, the aforementioned father of Lucy Summerton, Mr. Charles Summerton, is present. He runs back to tell Tate about the two seedy-looking rogues who came into town with five o’clock shadow and bad intentions. But when Summerton visits Tate, he finds him holed up in his hotel room with a young woman named Ruby James (Valerie French) who has long captured Tate’s amorous attentions, but has escaped his matrimonial intentions by being of low breeding and with no family fortune to function as a dowry. Tate is revealed here to be a player, a greedy man, and an all around jerk, though none of these attributes quite qualify the man as one deserving of death by the guns of an outlaw.
As Sam and Bart cavort around town, they make their way to the local saloon where drinks that day are all on Tate’s dime. Bart, not wishing to accrue any debts of any kind to his mortal enemy, decides to pay the barkeep instead of mooching off of Tate. But the local Sheriff, who is in Tate’s posse and pocket, dislikes this behavior. He takes Bart’s money, throws it in a spittoon, and then hocks a big one right in it. Bart keeps his cool, which throws the Sheriff into an even more hostile attitude. Unfortunately for him, Bart has broken no laws and as such, cannot and should not be subject to any brute force by the sheriff’s hands. Sheriff Swede leaves in disgust, much to the pleasure of the barkeep who openly dislikes Tate and all of his ilk.
After depositing their horses at a local stable, Sam and Bart meet the town Doctor, one Mr. Storrow, who also admits that he dislikes Tate and what he and his friends have done to his town. When time for the wedding comes around, the doctor attends arm in arm with Ruby James as a visual sort of protest. Bart enters the chapel with his gun, and instead of pumping Tate full of lead right there and then, he speaks up when given the chance during the ceremony (‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’) and promises to kill Tate before sundown that evening. He also warns Lucy not to marry the man as she will surely be a widow the following morning.
The concept sounds good in theory, but in practice going to a wedding and making such big proclamations about planning to kill the groom don’t go over so well. The Sheriff and his Deputy follow Sam and Bart out, pick up their guns at the door, and end up trapping the two men inside the stables where a stand-off occurs for hours on end. Eventually, Deputy Spanish makes his move and tries to enter the room from a window, only to have his gun arm hacked into with a large meat hook. Sam and Bart spare his life, the doctor arrives and heals him up, and as time carries on, the townsfolk begin to realize that this moment might be their only chance to rest back their town from the likes of Sheriff Swede and Tate Kimbrough.
After an egregious event in which Sam leaves the stable to give up and is shot down in cold blood by the Swede, the Doctor, the barkeep, a local ranch owner Morley Chase and his boys arrest and disarm all of the Sheriff’s men and local militia who have the stable surrounded. The Sheriff is then forced to take on Bart Allison mano e mano, which ends in the former’s death. And then, only Tate is left.
By this point in the film, there have been mentions of Bart’s reasons for wanting to kill Tate. We learn that Tate screwed Bart’s wife Mary years ago while he was away on a trip. Mary killed herself some time thereafter and Bart blamed Tate who he thought had raped his wife and left her with the requisite psychical trauma to go and off herself like she’d done. It is slowly revealed that in fact, Mary was a loose woman and was seeing men like Tate behind Bart’s back all the time. Moreover, she was so difficult to reign in not because of some mere moral defect, but because she suffered from some sort of psycho-sexual disorder that also pushed her toward suicide. As Bart learns of this reality, he ends up leaving Tate alive, though the townsfolk cast him out of Sundown nonetheless, and they champion Bart as a hero.
Unlike the traditional Western with its clear black and white distinctions, here we have only obfuscation. Tate is no devil in disguise. No, he is a man with a sordid past and a charming demeanor who finds it easy to woo women, and just so happened to woo the wrong one. Bart is no true hero vanquishing evil from a town for the benefit of the good townsfolk. He is bent upon revenge based on mistaken assumptions about a past event. And he couldn’t ultimately give a damn about the well-being of the town itself. Neither man is totally evil, and neither is unrepentantly good. They are real people, populating one of the most realistic Western scenarios wherein gunslingers are not gods with inhuman reflexes working in the name of one metaphysical entity or another, but human beings, flawed and weak-natured as any others.
[Up next: Buchanan Rides Alone]
In the deserted outskirts of Paradigm City, the winds sweep across sand dunes, and the camera pans down toward a series of vehicle tracks as the sounds of a human voice humming mingle with ambient sound. Visions of burning books and of burning cities, set ablaze by giant robots, by the Big Megadeuses, swarms of Big O, Duo, and Fau. And children with bar codes in their eyes. An image of Gordon Rosewater offering a tomato, of Big O reaching out toward someone, of the that child’s eyes reflected back to reveal a genetically engineered child with a bald held: obviously created by a scientist connected with Gordon Rosewater, if not he himself. And then Roger Smith, Paradigm City’s Negotiator, awakens from this nightmare stream of images from the past.
He realizes then that he must find answers, must track down his past. And as such, he rides out to the countryside, artificial natural dome of Paradigm wherein Gordon Rosewater reclines forever on his porch as large farmhands work the ranch around him. Roger passes Alex Rosewater and Alan Gabriel along the walking path to Gordon’s home. the two have returned home, and a cluster of blue flowers, not native to Paradigm or its environs, sits within Alex’s lapel. When Roger approaches Gordon Rosewater, he finds that the old man has a cluster of these flowers in his overalls, and later learns from the old man that these flowers are known as blue bells. Over the course of their conversation it becomes apparent that the old man has not lost all of his memories of the past and is merely hiding this from public view.
Gordon Rosewater chides Roger for searching for things as intangible and inconsequential as memories when the world operates without them nonetheless. But Roger refuses this reasoning. Things in Paradigm are not going well, and people are occasionally having resurgences of memories, which threaten to challenge Paradigm citizens basic notions of who they are. Roger insists on learning why he is able to pilot Big O, and the old man merely responds that he was chosen by Big O to do so, that he was made to do so through some obscure contract he had with Gordon Rosewater. A contract that Gordon seems to remember clearly, but Roger has totally forgotten, and which Gordon Rosewater is unwilling to fill Roger in on the details of.
Roger has another flashback to his past and begins coming around to the conclusion that he may have been genetically engineered, like one of the tomatoes, to pilot Big O by Gordon Rosewater. That, or he may have been born human by natural means, and then only later agreed to have his memories modified, which gave him the ability to pilot Big O, the ability to harness the power of the gods. Roger has since left the ranch and has found himself inside a club in Paradigm where he has been thinking hard. Angel appears and finds that Roger has a blue bell flower on his lapel. She explains that the flower is not found in Paradigm, that it is, rather, native to her homeland. It is a flower with which she is very familiar, one that holds some sort of symbolic significance to her people.
The two realize that Alex Rosewater has been gone out of town to meet with foreign powers in the city of Angel’s homeland. The purpose of this meeting is undisclosed, and if I’m not mistaken, will never fully be disclosed to the viewers of The Big O. Angel and Roger depart for a diner on the other end of town wherein they discuss how Alex Rosewater, de facto King of Paradigm City, is working to track down memories in the hopes of creating and piloting a Megadeus. To what end, the two have no clue. But they are pretty sure that this most recent trip outside of the city was directed toward this end.
Elsewhere, Dorothy is seen listening to a song on the winds of Paradigm’s cavernous streets. A blonde woman named Vera Ronstadt, who will later be revealed as Agent 12 of The Union, is rounding up the dozen or so Union sleeper agents within the city and drawing them, like a pied piper with her song, toward a ruined chapel wherein their people once sang hymns to a god that the world has forgotten along with its history after The Event. A Megadeus appears in the city, first as a series of parts left over from the three foreign Megadeuses Robespierre, Carnot, and Fouche. And then, the pieces, flying autonomously converge and form a large Megadeus known as Bonaparte (another French historical figure: this time the identity of which is quite obvious). Previously these parts had been under the control of Alex Rosewater, and these leftovers from the process of restoring Big Duo may have been sold or traded back to the Union in exchange for something that Alex Rosewater wanted from them.
Later, we find Alex Rosewater almost salivating at a looming figure, the Big Fau Megadeus, which has remained completely immobile. The machine is a real Big, and as such, will only function for its true Dominus, who was apparently not one amongst the numbers of the Union or its foreign populace. But the Union, they will later find, has made a disastrous trade. For the time being, they have betrayed Alex Rosewater’s trust and sent the new Megadeus Bonaparte out to destroy the man and his city. As Dastun’s Military Police try to destroy the beast rampaging through their city, Norman calls up Roger who has been having a deeply romantic conversation with Angel about their destinies, about whether they are on the same side in the upcoming battle, and whether they can ever truly find love in one another’s arms. Angel leaves when she discerns that Roger is truly in love with someone else, someone she believes to be the android Dorothy R. Wayneright, and then Roger spirits himself off to pilot Big O and combat Bonaparte.
Whilst Angel heads toward the Union meeting, Dorothy happens to be heading in the same direction, following the song that has triggered something akin to curiosity within her programming. The two converge at the church and Angel is revealed to be Union Agent 340, the one in charge of terrorist activity in Paradigm, the one who has seemingly betrayed her country to go gallivanting about with the Dominus of Megadeus. Vera Ronstadt is in charge of operations now and plans a full-scale assault on the city. In the shadows lurks Dorothy, who moves too quickly, disturbs the silence and is found out. In the far corner of the building, another android appears the shadows: Alan Gabriel. He is a Union member apparently working both sides of the battle (Paradigm and the Union). Vera sicks Alan on Dorothy, and he revels in the chance to destroy such a beautiful piece of technology as Angel pleads with Vera to have mercy on Dorothy (as Angel truly wishes for the well-being and happiness of Roger, even if he can only gain kit through romantic union with a machine).
As Alan shoots Dorothy in the arm and then in the leg, immobilizing her in the process and hovering over her with a drill hand mechanism to rend her asunder, Big O dukes it out with Bonaparte and finds himself wanting. None of his attacks break through the defense of the foreign super-Megadeus, an then the worst case scenario occurs: ‘Cast in the Name of God’ on Big O’s console distorts and becomes, momentarily, the barcode from Roger’s memories, the barcode that must be within his own eye, and the one scanned by Big O that shows Roger is programmed to be his Megadeus. Big O shuts down, stops moving, and his gears lock. At this moment, Roger understands that he truly was programmed to be Big O’s Megadeus. We realize that Roger has become more than a mere bio-genetically engineered organism. He has become truly human, and as such, Big O can no longer be piloted by him.
But in this moment, as the drill of Alan Gabriel descends upon his beloved (an event which Alan plans to project to Roger through his own communicator watch) and Bonaparte’s drill descends toward the prone Big O, Roger denies his programming fully. He accepts the absurdity of the situation, the reality of his identity, and despite being a changed man, an awakened man, he claims that he, the new Roger Smith taking reigns of his own destiny is’ the Dominus of Big O.’ If the gambit works and Roger can pilot a Big by sheer force of will, it means that he has established an emotional connection with Big O that goes beyond anything physically possible. It means that his will has the power to the literally change the world order, and Paradigm City’s very ontological make-up.
Cast in the Name of God,
An old black sedan, at first resembling Roger Smith’s Griffon, is smashed within a press as a scrap yard. An old man and his worker android, and best friend, are just finishing up the day’s work and discussing when next to go out for supplies like food and high quality oil for the android, when out of the blue, a dart latches onto the back of the android. The dart pulsates a red glowing light that begins slow and then speeds up rapidly before unleashing a powerful explosion, which utterly destroys the android. The assassin slinks off undetected.
Dan Dastun and his Military Police regiment are on the case, which is one out of a number of developing cases in which androids have been assassinated in the same manner. A Paradigm investigator appears on the scene to help handle the case, much to Dastun’s chagrin. He is only further incensed when he finds out that the investigator, R. Frederick O’Reilly, is actually and android himself who has been sent to work alongside Dastun specifically for this case. Elsewhere, Roger’s existential questioning begins anew as he explains that forty years, not only the memories of human beings, but the memories of androids as well, were all lost. Could these androids being targeted, like the humans previously who began to recover memories, have become targets because their own memories began to surface?
At Roger’s mansion, recent repairs on Big O have been completed for the most part, and all that remains to put on the finishing touches is to retrieve some oil to grease the Megadeus’ joints. Norman sends out Dorothy on this errand, which works out as she too needs to retrieve premium oil for herself and the oil drums weigh a ton. However, on her way back from the market, the assassin makes an appearance and shoots Dorothy with a homing bomb. The message is clear: the assassin is targeting androids through their connection with this particular oil vendor. The purpose of these assassinations, however, remains completely unclear. Norman, who decided to leave the mansion on second thought, watches as Dorothy is hit with the bomb and tries his best to pull off the incendiary device to no avail. Luckily, Dorothy is no lightweight. She catapults into traffic, takes control a man’s car by manipulating the wheel through the windshield after breaking it with a swift kick, and then she manages to get close enough to a large semi-truck, which knocks the bomb off of her side with the force of its grazing impact.
The whole affair is one of the most dynamic action sequences thus far in The Big O. And the encounter results in Dorothy’s being detained by Dastun and ‘Freddie’ the Android Investigator for further questioning, as she is the titular eyewitness. In fact, she is the only eyewitness as all other androids that came into contact with the assassin have been killed.
Dastun, meanwhile, has remained openly hostile to Freddie’s presence and dislikes the fact that he must have a partner in this investigation. When the two go out to a rich district of the domes to interview an old man whose android friend and companion was previously killed by the assassin. Freddie takes this opportunity to make his disdain for Dastun known as well as he chides Dastun for interviewing a man who could give them no useful information regarding the identification of the assassin.
Elsewhere, Roger has been interviewing the old man at the scrapyard who lost his friend as well. The man seems to have some knowledge of mechanics and hopes to be able to remember enough memories to one day rebuild his friend anew. Later, Roger visits the Big Ear, the Informer at the town’s Speakeasy Club. He alludes to the fact that in Paradigm City, people are generally safe and murder and crime rates are extraordinarily low. He explains that the only time this truism proves false is when someone foolishly claims to have recovered memories from forty years ago, and thereby hints toward the fact that some of these androids who have been targeted may have been doing likewise. He gives us, the viewers, a bit of background explication by explaining that all of Paradigm’s previous efforts to extract memories from forty years ago out of the memory banks of androids have proven totally futile, despite the androids memory’s not functioning like human beings. There is one theory that in the universe of The Big O, something in fact did occur. However, if even android memory banks contain no information prior to the mythical Event, maybe this assumption is false.
At the end of the conversation, Big Ear alludes to the possibility that the androids could be experiencing false memories, like deja vu. However, Dorothy was a target and we know for a fact that she was not experiencing deja vu or recurrence of once-forgotten memories. No, it seems that the assassin is merely targeting high-functioning androids in Paradigm City through their connection with a particular machine oil market that sells high-quality oil for androids who might merely hold the possibility of having such memories, like the Senator Roscoe Fitzgerald previously. This reasoning will later lead Roger to suspect Alan Gabriel, Alex Rosewater’s henchman and the assassin responsible for the death of Roscoe Fitzgerald whose memories never left him. Alan Gabriel is an obvious suspect as he killed the ageing Senator merely to claim the disc on which his memories had been burned: Something Alan Gabriel may now be doing to other androids in the hopes of unlocking some secret technological memories for Alex Rosewater and Paradigm Corp.’s benefit.
As such, Roger visits Paradigm Corp. to track down Alan Gabriel. He finds that Alex Rosewater is out of town, presumably in a foreign city or region far away, on business. Roger meets Angel outside, sitting within his car as he leaves the building. She reveals that Alan Gabriel likewise left the city with Rosewater, and as such, he cannot be responsible for the murders. As the two drive off toward the ocean, the sun begins to set and the mood takes romantic turn as the two muse over questions of why people retain certain memories, of why Roger can pilot the Megadeus. He tells Angel that he feels guarded around her, as if he can’t trust her, and yet he confides in her that both of them seem to share a quest, a search for the truth and a willingness to follow their questions down the rabbit hole wherever it leads.
The episode ends with Freddie and Dastun tracking down the assailant, and Freddie completing his mission: to serve as a target for the assassin who can simultaneously get close enough to kill the assassin. Freddie sacrifices an arm in the process of killing what turns out to be a mad android assassin. Outside of the city’s prison, a large Construction Megadeus, piloted by a member of the Union, appears and tries to track down and destroy Dorothy. Norman fends off the beast with his motorcycle’s heavy artillery until Big O arrives and puts the machine out of commission. Angel watches as the machine is destroyed, and she mouths a foreign word, indiscernible in nature, but quite clearly the name of one of her compatriots in the Union. After the mecha is disposed of, a red balloon floats into the air, seemingly signalling the death of the pilot inside the Megadeus.
Is Roger truly the ordained protector of Paradigm? Some sort of programmed being meant to pilot Big O as a defense against foreigners? And if so, why does Angel stay so close to him? Is it just an attempt to keep her friends close, and her enemies closer? Why did the Union target Dorothy in the Construction Megadeus? Is this somehow connected to the android assassin’s mission? And if so, how does this make any sense when the purpose of the Union is make the existence of foreigners known throughout Paradigm City? If Alex Rosewater was out of town, who sent Freddie out on this assignment? He is the first of his kind, the first android police investigator in Paradigm’s remembered history. Who could have authorized his being sent on this mission? And how much about the mission was he told before he left to complete it?
There are, in Act 19 of The Big O, way more questions than answers. Each more confounding than the next.
Cast in the Name of God,
(Catch my previous Western film review here: Seven Men from Now)
The Tall T, released in 1957, is the second Western in actor Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher’s late-fifties Ranown Cycle. The film was the second collaboration in the projected series with screenwriter Burt Kennedy, as well as the first film collaboration in the cycle with producer Harry Joe Brown who would continue on to produce three more of the films. The Tall T is probably also the most well-known of the film’s in the Ranown Cycle today as it was discussed by popular American auteur filmmaker Martin Scorsese in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, specifically in his Western subsection of Part 1 The director as storyteller.
In this fifteen minute segment of Scorsese’s sprawling send-up to the films that inspired him as a young man and a budding filmmaker, he discusses how the changing of the times in American society in the mid-twentieth century can be registered and understood merely by watching three different Westerns starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford, each separated by a production window of about a decade each. The winsome, roguish Wayne of Stagecoach evolves into the middle-aged, morally commanding general of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon before finally evolving into the Misfit of 1957’s The Searchers. This figure is nihilistic, hardened by his times and more of a comment on post-WWII sensibilities in the new moral vacuum of our world’s wasteland than anything truly reminiscent of the figures of the Old West.
Scorsese recounts how the same trend toward nihilism, toward moral relativism, and toward absurdity in the Western, and by consequence in the artistic and cultural landscape of American life, became more obvious than ever before in the 1950s. He points to the example of Anthony Mann’s sparse Freudian Westerns like The Furies and works like The Naked Spur in which even the usually-jovial and father-like James Stewart becomes an unrepentant immoralist, as a bounty hunter who has lost all sense of honor and dignity, as a man who would track down an innocent man, a framed man, with a bounty on his head, kill him, and then haul his body into town merely to claim a reward.
Likewise, through the example of The Tall T as a stand-in for the entire Ranown Cycle, Scorsese explains that the nihilistic and amoral culture fomented by the rock and roll revolution of the late 40s and early 50s was reflected almost solely in one cinematic genre, the Western, which would premeditate the American New Wave by more than fifteen years. Auteurs like Budd Boetticher worked at this time within the uniquely American cinematic genre of the Western, and those auteurs amongst the studio ranks brought to bear upon it a feeling of moral vacuity in a world wherein scientific advances had increasingly chiseled away at any sense of human moral, ontological, spiritual, or cosmological superiority. A world wherein religious men and women could commit genocide against their brothers en masse in concentration camps. Wherein Christian nations warred against Christian nations and scientists at the beck and call of their military superiors created tools and weapons to harness the very power of the gods themselves.
Boetticher’s lone gunman, always played by Randolph Scott in the Ranown Cycle, is a moral figure with a code of honor, a code of right action. In this sense, he is a classical Western protagonist, a force of good and a stand-in for the bringer of salvation. However, his antagonists are never as morally simplistic, never totally evil figures in any sense. In Seven Men from Now, Lee Marvin played opposite Scott as a roguish figure out to help the lone gunman in his quest to decommission those who killed his wife in a hold-up at the bank back in his hometown. But Marvin’s only condition is that he must get the money at the end of the mission, which runs counter to Scott’s plan to vindicate himself by returning it to the bank, becoming a hero in his town, and once again being named Sheriff. Marvin’s aim is not immoral as he did not kill anyone to get the many except for murderers, but he nonetheless runs up against Scott for personal reasons, which eventually forces the two men to shoot it out, and honorably so I might add.
In The Tall T, Scott plays Pat Brennan, an ageing ranch owner who is unmarried and thereby without an heir to his vast holdings. After a visit to a neighboring ranch on which he makes a bet for his horse that he can ride a particularly aggressive bull, and loses, he is forced to walk the twenty or so miles back to his ranch. Along the way, his friend Rintoon, a local stagecoach driver picks him up and allows him to ride with the newlyweds therein, Willard and Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan), as they just happen to be passing by Brennan’s ranch on the way back into town. Unfortunately, at the first stagecoach station along the way, they find that the entire place has been taken over a trio of outlaws who have also killed everyone within and placed their bodies out back in the well. The group is more brutal than most outlaws portrayed by this point in time in Western films, and the gruesome nature of their actions is more closely akin in its depravity to the inscrutable actions of outlaws from the Western fictions of Cormac McCarthy more than two decades later, or to the antagonists, like The Misfit, in Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic works being published contemporaneously in the mid-1950s.
Brennan’s pal Rintoon is gunned down, as would be his three passengers if not for the fact that Mrs. Mims’ father is a big copper mine businessman in the region and may potentially be able to pay a handsome ransom for her safe return. The money-hungry Willard Mims is the one to originally propose such an option to the bandits, which unveils his character as corrupted, and will ultimately lead to the much more honorable leader of the bandits, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), to gun the man down.
Usher takes a liking to Brennan over the course of their days waiting for the ransom money to turn up out in the desert, and he reveals that his two misogynistic, drunken pals are kept around for their skill with pistols and other firearms. Usher has tired of their presence and seems to be intimating that Brennan could live if he helped him to take out the two goons, turned his back on his ranch, and decided to join Usher. But Brennan will have none of this talk, he is a plain spoken man who understands that life is hard, but that crime is no way to build one’s fortune, and that Usher’s past crimes will dog him till the day he dies, preventing him thereby from ever attaining a ranch like Brennan’s, and the sense of home, of security, and belonging it brings.
In one of the greatest scenes in the film, Usher responds merely that he has no choice but to live his life of crime, no choice but to continue falling in with this crowd. Brennan merely responds, ‘Don’t you?’ The tensions are palpable and Usher becomes heated, almost reveals his scorpion nature beneath the jovial exterior, and then decides to suppress it when he hears his companions approach from below the ridge.
Ultimately, the two men must face off in mortal combat with one another, something which could have been avoided if not for the animistic tendencies of Usher’s very being. And we all know who the victor turns out to be, though neither man is diminished in heroic stature by the end of the conflict.
[Next up: Decision at Sundown)
In my previous Satoshi Kon film review, I mentioned that GKIDS recently acquired the rights to re-release his first film, Perfect Blue, on home video, specifically on a much-awaited Blu-ray release. I also discussed how the studio was apparently planning to theatrically release the film sometime in 2019 as a way to promote their upcoming home video release. Now, it has come to my attention that this whole plan may be going underway much sooner than ever expected. There is word that the film is to be released theatrically in the United States through Fathom Events as early as September of this year (2018), next month. So keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for that.
If it is indeed released at that time, I’ll be going to the cinema more than I ever have in a month-long period since last year when Blade Runner 2049 was released and I went to six different cities on six different nights to view it. Through August and September of this year, the itinerary seems to be My Neighbor Totoro 30th Anniversary, Grave of the Fireflies 30th Anniversary, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie 20th Anniversary, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, and Perfect Blue. I hope you’ll be able to go see a few of these pictures, and if you’re in the Charlotte, NC vicinity, let me know if you want to meet up to view one of these films at Concord Mills AMC Theatre, and get some Chinese from the food court beforehand (my new ritual it seems).
After the theatrical run and festival circuit was completed for Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon’s initial idea was to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s sci-fi novel Paprika immediately. However, due to financial problems at the production house who distributed Perfect Blue, the project fell through and would be put on the back burner for a few more years. Instead, Kon opted to create a totally unique and original project, which he co-wrote and developed with Sadayuki Murai, the screenwriter who began his career as a writer on Perfect Blue and would later go on to write for legendary productions like Devilman Lady and Cowboy Bebop before reuniting with Satoshi Kon to work on his second film in 2000. The story they developed is loosely based on an amalgamation of the lives of Japanese actresses Setsuko Hara (of Yasujiro Ozu collaboration fame) and Hideko Takamine (whose career I know much less about), who is now a reclusive, ageing woman with health problems.
A man named Genya Tachibana, who used to work for the same production house as this actress, named Chiyoko Fujiwara, is now also an old man. He now runs his own small documentary production house called Lotus Productions: a name he chose for its connections with Fujiwara, who loved that plant above all others and knew it as a symbol of purity in Japanese poetry (itself adapted from its symbolic significance as a purifying agent in Indian Buddhism). As the old classic studio is being demolished, and Chiyoko has fallen on hard times physically, Genya senses that the new millennium has brought with it a new era, a different time in which the movies of yore will be revered less and less often, and by an increasingly shrinking group of movie buffs.
He feels as if he himself is becoming something of a dinosaur in these new times and that thereby it is his duty to document the life of his favorite actress, the one whose work has occupied his gaze, and the gaze of millions of film-goers the world over, for generations. Genya Tachibana loves, and always has loved and been enamored with Chiyoko. But this male gaze is not the same as the disruptive, paranoid gaze in Satoshi Kon’s previous film. No, this gaze is the very thing that allowed Chiyoko to enjoy a great career as one of the defining cinema icons in fictional-Japan’s cinematic history. It allowed her to run the gamut of roles as a young girl playing in street pictures, to classy young ladies courting gentlemen in early Meiji Japan. She played as princesses and empresses, as samurai and kunoichi in Jidaigeki spanning the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa periods, and in her final film role, before disappearing from the Golden Screen and from public life altogether for thirty years, she played in a space opera that has become legendary in Genya’s eyes.
As Chiyoko and Genya converse about the past; the present, the real past, and the cinematic past converge in a kaleidoscopic play on time, memory, and cultural history as the two play important roles. Chiyoko as the actress who began her profession only to track down a young man she met during war-time, a young man she ultimately chased her entire life until she felt too old to do so any longer. Genya as the young man who worked for Chiyoko’s studio and witnessed many of her triumphs, many of her defeats, the young man who saved her life on multiple occasions, and is now bringing meaning to that life once again in her final days. Genya, the man who has always been by Chiyoko’s side but was always ignored, the man who ought to have been her husband instead of the manipulative studio director Otaki. But no, Chiyoko was chasing a romantic dream her entire life over, a dream that often was mirrored by her greatest roles on film, which consequently brought something urgent to her performances and made her the greatest dramatic actress of Japanese cinema’s first full century of art and commercial production, of the world’s greatest and simultaneously most terrifying century, the 20th century.
The film was Satoshi Kon’s first collaboration with the great Japanese electronic musician Susumu Hirasawa, of the legendary band P-Model. Their collaboration would last for the remainder of the decade, for the remainder of Kon’s short life, and would propel Hirasawa to the forefront of the American and Japanese high-art anime consumer markets where he stood, and still stands, as a titan whose orchestral and electronic themes remain unmatched in complexity, in mystery, in mood, and in their ability to heighten the mise-en-scene of a production to an unearthly sphere and level of operation. Within this trompe-l’oeil of a film, Hirasawa’ often disorienting style is most at home.
When I first researched this film and re-watched it for this blog, I came across a bit of news about the acquisition of its theatrical and home release rights by GKIDS, like the aforementioned Perfect Blue. I was excited to report that the film was set for a theatrical release sometime in Autumn of 2019, but if we are lucky, and the earlier reports are true, it might also turn out that Millennium Actress gets a 2018 Autumn release instead. And most importantly, a widely available home video release for I, and American like myself, to spend our expendable income on.
Satoshi Kon is dead, long live Satoshi Kon!
[Next up: Tokyo Godfathers]
(Catch my previous Bakshi review here: Spicy City)
It’s been a long time coming, but here we are. I’m finally wrapping up my review series of the filmography of American animator and director Ralph Bakshi. If you missed the beginning of this series, you can backtrack and start HERE with my review of Bakshi’s first feature length film Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated American cartoon, and still the highest grossing independent animation ever released ($90 million USD in 1972, or the equivalent of $550 million USD in 2018).
After Bakshi’s 1997 series Spicy City was cancelled, he retired from the film industry entirely and began producing art and small-scale independent works on occasion. In 2012, fifteen years after his retirement, a 75-year old Bakshi began a series entitled Bakshi Blues in which he planned to comment on modern social and political issues in short animated episodes. The first of these was called Trickle Dickle Down and was a critique of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his party’s failed economic model. The episode, however, was not the Bakshi Renaissance some reviewers of the time hopes it would be, as it included almost no new animation, instead choosing to cannibalize a 1970s Bakshi film called Coonskin for animation. Furthermore, the projected series was never picked up by any network and Bakshi gave up Blues after just the one outing.
But there was one more hope. In 2006, Bakshi worked with a small team of animators to create the first eight minutes of a project he called Last Days of Coney Island, which he hoped to shop out to studios as a proof of concept. Bakshi believed then that the idea was born to succeed, that any studio would be salivating at the prospect of financing his next work. But none were. And despite animation being a much less expensive medium today than in Bakshi’s heyday, he was still unable to self-finance such a large project as a feature-length animation, not to mention setting up a distribution network for a film that would most likely be rated R. The project sat on the back burner for another seven years, until 2013 when Bakshi decided to use Kickstarter to get the project going once again. The gambit paid off and ultimately collected more than $170k from almost thirteen hundred backers. And two years later, on October 29th 2015, Bakshi’s 77th birthday, Last Days of Coney Island was released online.
The film is the ugliest, grittiest work in Bakshi’s oeuvre. Characters appear drawn off the cuff, with inter-lining and modeling lines always apparent underneath their rough-hewn forms. The urban landscape of this dilapidated New York amusement district, Coney Island, is made up of found objects, old posters, and other real, physical media attached to the animation as a backdrop. Live-action footage of JFK’s assassination, Oswald’s assassination, and various retro pornographic materials are on display alongside traditional animation and l’art trouvee. The result is a mixed-media approach akin to the types of stylistic work Bakshi was creating in the early 1970s before his high fantasy turn.
The seediness of this city, of New York City, is reflected by the art style and other artistic choices made to represent it. And it seems that Bakshi’s last refuge for the muck and mire and down and out living in the Big Apple is Coney Island. The short film’s look is only obviously similar to one other filmmaker’s works, at least to my mind, and that man is David Lynch. And the films I’m talking about here are not the features Lynch has produced over the years, but his early experiments with animation on works like The Alphabet or Six Men Getting Sick where one feels, through viewing the films, very keen tactile sensations of not only what the film looks like or sounds like, but what it feels like, what the materials of its rough-hewn construction feel like to the touch. The effect of such an art brut technique is to make the viewer even closer to the world pictured within the films, and no doubt, Bakshi understands this element of his production well.
The story is of an NYPD detective named Max whose beat is out in Coney Island amongst the freaks, the clowns, the prostitutes, and the drug dealers of this seedy place. He has fallen in love with a prostitute named Molly and finds his relationship to the woman one that limits him from doing his job as well as he could. One day, his partner sends a group of police officers to check out a trap house wherein they kill numerous drug addicts and prostitutes, before arresting the last ones left alive, Molly amongst them. Max blames himself and begins to drink himself into oblivion, becoming more and more unhinged and resentful of his station in life. And when Molly returns, his self-loathing is so deep that he refuses to return to her side, refuses to burden her with his presence (which she welcomes with open arms and would surely not interpret in the same manner).
A second man, Louie, grew up in Coney Island. He began as a weak man who was constantly at odds with those around him. But as he grew, he became as vicious and animistic as his surroundings. He extracted protection money from the town’s freaks with the threat of violence always an implicit for any of those who refused. He caught his mother sleeping with a clown, with one of the freaks, and responded by violently killing them both. This brought him to the attention of the mob, for whom he became the major connection in Coney Island.
But as a boy, Molly was the only person who spoke to him kindly. The only one who smiled at him and made him feel like everything was going to be alright in a world that had obviously gone to hell, and was ever-worsening partially through the influence of his own impotent rage. He coveted Molly and hated Max, and when Molly returned from prison and immediately forgave Max, the man whose actions landed her in the brig in the first place, Louie could no longer take it. To add insult to injury, Max sauntered off, feeling sorry for himself, leaving behind the vulnerable Molly who was a dead soul, the type who had little left of redeeming quality to give to the world, little left of joy to get from it. And she would not go to Louie in her pain, the thought would never occur to her. So Louie shot her, he shot her until his clip was empty, until his rage subsided, and extinguished the last flame that helped him to see his way through the morass that was Coney Island.
The film is an artistic work, first and foremost. The type of movie that a kid tries to watch and has no real clue what’s happening. It’s cultural references are dated, its look is not commercial, it soundtrack is jazz, its mood and mise-en-scene is that of a pulp thriller, of a crust punk film noir. If this is the final film by Ralph Bakshi, now almost eight decades old, it is a fitting close to a long and distinguished career. And rather than presenting its audience with a moral, with a hope for the world, with some beacon of a promising future, it presents us with the truth: That life is shit, that love is hell, and that violence always has a reason, that each person’s logic is sound, and that’s the final word.