Twin Peaks

My Latest Discovery, 27 Years After the Fact

I have never been a big fan of television series—making time to watch them on a regular basis was too much of a drag on my time—but I have always been a big fan of David Lynch.I have loved all his films I have seen, even the strange Eraserhead (1977). Dune (1984) was something of a disappointment, but then came Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and all his subsequent work.

Over the last several weeks, I have slowly been going over the Twin Peaks (1990-1991) TV series. Even when it does not appear to make any sense, it is brilliant. The people of that strange little Northwestern town beggar all attempts at pat descriptions and then there is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who has fallen in love with the town, its people, its coffee, donuts, and cherry pie. Not to mention Tibetan mysticism and dreams that provide answers to the crimes that have plagued the town.

In this country of ours, very little makes sense in a God-is-in-His-Heaven-and-all’s-right-with-the-world 19th century way. Does Trumpf make sense? Does our Senate and Congress make any sense? Very little, in fact.

The Log Lady of Twin Peaks

To date, I have seen the first thirteen of the thirty episodes that make up the show as it was in 1990-1991. (I am not into binge watching, because I tend to miss too much that way.) Whether I find out, definitively, who killed Laura Palmer does not matter to me. I am not looking for answers. What I am looking for are interesting questions, and the series delivers on this scorebig time!

Favorite Films: The Salvation Hunters (1925)

The Pimp, The Girl, The Child, and The Boy

The first film that director Josef von Sternberg made in the U.S. cost only $5,000 and had only eight characters, none of whom bore anything but descriptive names. We meet the three main characters—The Boy, The Girl, and The Child—at the docks in San Pedro, California, where the center of attraction is a huge dredge sucking up mud from he harbor to deposit into a barge. The Boy (George K. Arthur) makes several attempts to get a job, but to no avail. The Girl (Georgia Hale) hangs around the docks and is hit upon by an oafish character called, simply, the Brute. The Child (Bruce Guerin) is a young boy who is beaten by the Brute until the Boy saves him from his clutches. The three drift together, a kind of centripetal relationship in which they care for and defend one another, but do not have a dime.

When a black cat suddenly jumps out of a closed chest full of harbor mud, the three decide to leave for the city, which presents no improvement. It is full of smoke, telephone wires, and broken-down slums. Here they attract the attention of a pimp (called in the credits simply The Man) who offers them a seedy apartment next to one of his women. He then hangs around trying to figure how how to draw The Girl into the trade.

Georgia Hale as The Girl

Georgia Hale was cast by Charley Chaplin as the leading lady in his next film, The Gold Rush (also 1925). In The Salvation Hunters, she is remarkably beautiful without any make-up whatsoever. When she thinks of hooking for The Man, she uses a burnt-out match the accentuate her eyebrows and borrows a dab of lipstick from her neighbor.

This is the second time I saw The Salvation Hunters. The first time was at UCLA in the period 1968-1972. I was initially so impressed by von Sternberg that I wanted to do my master’s thesis on him. In fact, I visited the director at his house in Westwood around 1969 (the year in which he died)  and asked if he had access to any prints of his films which I could screen. He was actually very kind as a host, though his reputation is as something of an ogre. My friend Joe Adamson, who introduced the film at Cinecon 53 today, told of his answering questions of his painterly vision in film when he had taught at UCLA by saying, simply, “I did it because I am an artiste.” He wrote a book about his career entitled Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in which he takes a couple of hundred pages before mentioning, in a subordinate clause, that he was married.

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969)

Von Sternberg is best known today for the films he made with his protegeé, Marlene Dietrich. Some of these are among the greatest films ever made. Included among them are:

  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite of his films
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

That said, I think all his films are worth seeing. Even if you may not like them, they will change the way you experience film.

I cannot but think that The Salvation Hunter was something of a flop in 1920s America: It depicted a European sense of allegory and universality (a la Murnau’s Sunrise) and poverty. It is not a film that is presented purely for your entertainment. But it is one of the best films made in that decade, along with several other von Sternberg offerings such as Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).

Anything Goes

Poster for Anything Goes

Today was my second day at Cinecon 53 (I skipped Saturday) and came with Martine this time. Today’s highlights were two zany musicals. The first was Anything Goes (1936) with music by Cole Porter and starring Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Charlie Ruggles, and Ida Lupino (as a blonde no less!). The action takes place on an ocean liner on which Bing is stowing away, because he thinks the lovely Miss Lupino is in danger. Notable is the role of Arthur Treacher as Lord Oakleigh, who is escorting Lupino for what Bing suspects are nefarious purposes. I could describe the plot in more detail, but then it was never intended to make sense. It is merely a rack onto which a number of great Cole Porter tunes are (dis)played to advantage.

Universal’s La Conga Nights (1940)

The other loony movie was a 1940 quickie from Universal called La Conga Nights, with an even more improbable plot. First of all, the star is Hugh Herbert, who plays no less than six roles. Then there’s this boarding house which is laboring under an evacuation order for nonpayment of mortgage. The tenants, a musical set led by Dennis O’Keefe and Constance Moore, decide to turn the place into a nightclub called the Conga Room.

Neither of these films was slated for fame. They came out when Americans attended movie theaters in droves to see the hundreds of films that Hollywood cranked out year after year. Americans felt in their bones that there would be another war: Spain was already a demo zone for weapons from Germany, Italy, and Russia. But we had just survived a terrible depression, and people didn’t mind being a little silly. I wonder if the tendency will return with our having elected a president that is trying, under the rubric of “Make America Great Again,” to turn us into a Third World Country. So let’s laugh while we can!

An Unregenerate Auteurist

Film Critic Andrew Sarris (1928-2012)

Although I never met the man, he has made a lasting impression on my taste in films. It all started around 1964, when I was a student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. I ran across the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture magazine. Most of the contents was a 68 page article by Andrew Sarris, then movie reviewer for The Village Voice.  I remember photocopying the entire article while several other students fumed at the time I took to set up every page perfectly. In the end, I had the best survey of the work of American filmmakers then available.

My Original Encounter with the Auteur Theory

By the time I came out to Southern California, Sarris was working the same material into a book to be called The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. The book became my bible, a guide to the real artists of the American cinema, the directors. In both the book and the Film Culture article, Sarris was adapting the work of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma and other French film magazines who were reacting to the French classical cinema and rediscovering American film.

I and my fellow auteurists at the UCLA Film Department ran into heavy opposition from the faculty, especially from my thesis adviser, one Howard Suber, whose idea of film criticism was to do a shot-by-shot analysis of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. I quickly discovered that the people who were most opposed to the auteur theory were not terribly interested in seeing films. In fact, they did not know very much about film. Where my friends and I were viewing upwards of fifteen films a week, I doubt that most of the UCLA professors saw that many in a year.

The Book Version of the 1963 Film Culture Article

Although over the years, my take on films has changed somewhat, I still love the great auteurs such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Charley Chaplin, Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, and Budd Boetticher. Now I am willing to admit that, in certain rare cases, the producer could be the main artist of the film. The only example I can think of offhand is Val Lewton, who as producer, created his own style that overrode such excellent directors as Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise.

Yesterday, I attended the Cinecon 53 Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The very best films were auteur classics: John Ford’s The Brat (1931), George Stevens’s Boys Will Be Boys (1932), and William S. Hart’s Shark Monroe (1918). But where I diverge from the auteurists is my enjoyment of some films by relative nobodies,. most particularly John Blystone’s Woman Chases Man (1937)—which ended up involving three directors and five writers—and Alfred S. Rogell’s No More Women (1934), itself a sequel to auteur director Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926), starring the same leading actors.

There are indeed many terrible filmmakers whose work I would think nothing of walking out on. But at shows like Cinecon, there are some wonderful films by people I have never heard of.

Favorite Films: Paris Belongs to Us (1961)

Production Shot from Jacques Rivette’s Film with Françoise Prevost and Giani Esposito

They called it “The New Wave” as if half a century more would not pass and make a mockery of the term. It’s like those terms such as modernism and post-modernism. What’s next? Postpostmodernism? YetAgainModernism? It was definitely a new movement, breaking away from the stagy studio and going off into the streets of Paris. There were a whole slew of great directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Louis Malle, and let us not forget Jacques Rivette.

Rivette spent three years in making Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient). I saw it several times in the 1960s and early 1970s, and I loved the film anew with each viewing. Then the film dropped out of sight. Today, I watched the Criterion Collection version and once again fell for it. Except, now I think I understand the film whereas before I was merely dumbly enthralled by it.

This is the ultimate conspiracy film. Betty Schneider (Anne) goes to a cocktail party where the suicide of a talented musician named Juan is discussed. The people we meet at this party will continue to play a part in the film. Anne next attends a rehearsal of a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre directed by Giani Esposito (Gérard). She is offered the part of Marina, the daughter of Pericles; and Gérard begins to fall for her. Gérard’s girlfriend is the Sphinxlike Terry, who seems to ward off everyone. Anne goes in search of a tape that Juan had recorded for Pericles, and runs into several people who knew Juan. One of them is played by director Jean-Luc Godard (below).

Betty Schneider and Jean-Luc Godard at a Café

Other people begin to die mysteriously, including Gérard and even Anne’s brother Pierre. There is talk of a worldwide Fascist conspiracy, a theory fomented especially by Daniel Crohem as Philip Kaufman, an American fleeing the McCarthy hearings in the United States. How did Gérard die? Was it suicide, or was he murdered. It appears that Pierre was gunned down by Terry. Why? There are no clear-cut answers. There is only the persistent Betty, making the rounds of people who might know of Juan’s tape in the labyrinth that is Paris.

In the opening credits sequence of Paris Belongs to Us, there is a quote from the poet Charles Péguy: “Paris belongs to no one.” Now, as I write about this film, I want to see it again.


Musashi and the Flies

You Don’t Have to Draw a Sword to Prove Your Swordsmanship

I had forgotten the movie in which this scene took place until I viewed the DVD this morning. The great masterless samurai, Musashi Miyamoto (played by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune), is holed up in a cheap inn in which a loud group of gamblers was partying. When Musashi’s disciple, Jotaro, goes out and tells them to shut up, they decide to teach Musashi a lesson. They charge up he stairs to his room, where Musashi is calmly eating a dish of noodles with his chopsticks. He is not much bothered by the gamblers, but he is irritated by the flies buzzing around him and his meal. Without sparing a glance elsewhere, he reaches out with his chopsticks and kills several flies, one after the other. The gamblers are awestruck at Musashi’s demonstration of icy control and quietly back out of his room. In fact, their ringleader, Kumogoro, insists on becoming Musashi’s disciple.

The film is Duel at Ganryu Island (1956), the third film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy.

Although the Inagaki trilogy is by no means the greatest of samurai films, I have so many happy memories of seeing the films that I have invested them with perhaps more merit than they deserve. They are, in fact, quite good—particularly at influencing a 21-year-old who had just arrived in Los Angeles and found the whole genre congenial to him.

Samurai Swords

Toshiro Mifune as Musashi Miyamoto

The above scene is an evocative moment in Musashi Miyamoto (1954), the first film in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. Musashi, heretofore called Takezo, has been imprisoned in Himeji Castle by the wily (and wise) Buddhist priest Takuan for three years. He has just stepped out of the castle for the first time and takes a look back at the walls that held him while he learned to tame his wild impulses.

I first saw Inagaki’s trilogy at a seminal point in my life. I had just moved to Los Angeles to start studying film history and criticism at UCLA. Before my classes  began in January 1967, the Toho La Brea theater began screening Musashi Miyamoto. In the following months, Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956)—the remaining films of the trilogy—were to be shown. Although I had seen many films at Dartmouth College, I was just starting to get into the whole jidai-geki genre.

Also, I fell in love with Kaoru Yachigusa, the perennially frustrated love interest in the trilogy.

In fact, I got so much into it that, in June, I moved to an apartment on Mississippi Avenue, right in the heart of the Sawtelle Japanese-American neighborhood. At that time, there were two Japanese restaurants around the corner, the O-Sho and the Futaba Grill, where I frequently dined, learning how to tame those unruly chopsticks. My ignorance was still pretty much in evidence: I took the squares of tofu in my miso shiru soup to be shark’s fin.

Kaoru Yachigusa as Otsu, the Love Interest in the Trilogy

Before long, I was going with my film friends to all five Japanese movie theaters in Los Angeles: Not only he Toho LaBrea, but the Kabuki (Shochiku Studio) and Kokusai (Daiei Studio) near Adams and Crenshaw, and the Sho Tokyo (Daiei Studio) and Linda Lea (Tohei Studio). Now all five theaters are gone, but back then, I collaborated with two of my friends (Alain Silver and Jim Ursini) in a column for The UCLA Daily Bruin entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which commemorated not only the Japanese theaters, but some of he others. We wrote under the collective pseudonym of Tarnmoor.

The Criterion Collection has released DVD and Blue-Ray editions of the Samurai trilogy, which are well worth your while.