Last week was depressing. We lost Robin Williams, then Lauren Bacall, bang bang. I went to bed one night in 2014 and when I watched the news the next day, I had apparently awakened in 1964, without the attendant youth and energy I possessed in ’64. Then again, I think ’64 was the year one of my numerous bouts of pneumonia nearly succeeded in killing me, so perhaps this uneven version of time travel was for the best.
This week? Just as depressing.
If I stand for nothing else, I certainly stand for escapism in my entertainment. So let’s see…
I completely fail at escapism in my first choice from Netflix, Nanking (2007), which is about the Japanese occupation of that city in 1937, and its attendant horrors. The narrative drive of the film is provided by diary and journal entries, largely from a group of Western missionaries and businessmen who took it upon themselves to establish a “safety zone” for refugees; many of these people were rightly honored as heroes by the Chinese, and they paid the price for that heroism, often in unfortunate and yes, depressing ways. The entries are spoken by actors like John Getz, Mariel Hemingway, Chris Mulkey, Jurgen Prochnow, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dorff, Rosalind Chao. This is bolstered by interviews with survivors, many of whom break down in tears about things they witnessed while still children.
This is a tremendously sobering movie. It makes all too obvious the evil of which men are capable, but also the tremendous good of which they are equally capable. This is not a movie for light viewing, but it is very, very good: history made all too real and gut-wrenchingly horrible.
I was on slightly more sure footing with a blu-ray I had picked up at my local used disc store, which is Olive Films’ 60th Anniversary Edition of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. It’s hard to typify The Quiet Man as anything but escapism – hell, I’m sure there are many people in Ireland who would love to visit the version of Ireland presented here.
In case you’ve not had the pleasure: John Wayne is Sean Thornton, a retired prize fighter who returns to his birthplace, the Irish village of Innisfree. There “The Yank” runs into Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), and immediately falls in love with her, as who wouldn’t? There is a fiery, tempestuous courtship (although “the proprieties will be observed” as declared by village marriage broker Barry Fitzgerald), and they are wed. The main conflict is with Mary Kate’s brother, the bellicose Will Danaher, who refuses to pay Thornton her dowry. The Yank doesn’t care about the money, but it is a tradition ingrained in his Irish bride, and it nearly destroys their newly minted marriage. Thornton is reckoned a coward because he won’t fight Danaher – but only the local Protestant vicar knows Sean’s secret – he killed a man in the ring, and swore to never again strike another person. Everything turns out alright when Thornton and Danaher finally throw down, much to the delight of the entire village (and the movie audience).
This was Ford’s dream project, which also meant that no studio in Hollywood would touch it for years. I always thought it was kind of odd that this was a Republic picture, but an included supplement hosted by Leonard Maltin cleared that up: Republic was trying to break out of its reputation as a maker of serial potboilers and B movies, and signed Ford to a three picture deal. Still, they wouldn’t let him do Quiet Man until he delivered a profitable picture first, on a lower budget than he was used to: Rio Grande, supposedly to offset the losses The Quiet Man would produce. After convincing Republic of a number of things, not the least of which was using Technicolor, shooting on location, and upping the budget to $1.5 million (and he delivered it a few thousand under budget), he finally made his dream movie – and a dream it is, as gentle and humanistic a story can be that ends in a fifteen minute fistfight. An unusual movie for Wayne, not known for making romantic comedies – nor for playing straight man to a bunch of fine character actors.
I felt a bit disappointed in the transfer on the Olive Films blu-ray, until I watched the Maltin extra, which was obviously sourced from video, and it had the chroma turned up absurdly high. The Technicolor on the Olive transfer is much more realistic, and is fine, really – it’s just that previous versions had led me to expect to be hit between the eyes with vibrant green in every shot.
For maximum escapism, I returned to Netflix and something I had intended to watch ever since I heard it had been added: Space Pirate Captain Harlock, or, as Netflix calls it (confounding my searches for a while) Harlock: Space Pirate. Because, well, come on; who doesn’t like pirates? In space?
Though I really like the character Harlock, I have to admit my exposure to him is pretty limited. I first encountered him in Galaxy Express 999, which was showing at the local art house theater. In those days, finding anime was tough, let me tell you. I managed a couple of dubbed episodes of the TV show, and one movie, Arcadia of My Youth, which was, in those days, called My Youth in Arcadia.
This is a motion-capture CGI movie, and more than a bit of a reboot. A prologue tells us that as Earth began to die, mankind reached out tot he stars, and with its usual aplomb, failed miserably. There was a general exodus back to Earth, but so many people would have finished the job, as it were, so something called the Homecoming War happened, with the result that the Gaia Communion operates Earth as a closed, gated community, with no interlopers allowed.
Of course, Captain Harlock and his crew are tooling the Arcadia around the galaxy screwing with The Man, but they’re also up to something, and a spy manages to worm his way into the crew to find out what. Harlock is setting up “dimensional detonators” at specific nodes, with which he hopes to disrupt the fabric of time, basically resetting the universe.
I had a brief discussion on Facebook about live-action adaptions of the anime of our youth, and how the modern versions of Devilman, Gatchaman and even Cutey Honey got bogged down in tidal pools of mega-angst. (This was pretty nicely parodied in Karate Robo Zaborgar – “You can’t punch me! I have diabetes!”). There is mega-angst in this Harlock, too, but it doesn’t seem needlessly tacked on (and to be fair, most of my memories of Arcadia of My Youth is of people crying). Harlock is apparently immortal, well over a hundred years old, and tired. He has a deep dark secret deeper and darker than anyone would suspect, and so does our spy.
I was originally drawn to anime for its ability to present the amazing imagery in service to stories that were, to me at least, coming from unique viewpoints. The space imagery in this CGI movie is pretty marvelous, for the most part. The story gets really ponderous in the last 20 minutes or so, but it was still pretty solid entertainment, and took me somewhere else for two hours.