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August 2016

52 Movies: Week 35 - Red Beard

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When I sat down to watch Red Beard, I had no intention of writing about it since this will make the fourth film by Akira Kurosawa in this series.I changed my mind. It wasn't just because I enjoyed the movie; it was because it was so unlike the Kurosawa movies that I had already seen.

It didn't start that way. As the movie opens, we see a man with topknot, kimono and sword walking into what seems a rundown village. This is a black and white movie set in the 19th century, and this scene is reminiscent of the earlier samurai movies. Soon, though, we find this is something different.

The young man, Dr. Noboru Yasumoto, has just completed his medical training and is expecting that he will soon follow in the footsteps of his very successful father. He is arriving for what he thinks is a visit at a government-run clinic in a poor suburb of Edo (Tokyo). He is surprised when he is eagerly welcomed by the doctor who has been working at the clinic for three years who can't wait to get his replacement, Dr. Yasumoto, settled in. The departing doctor gives Yasumoto a very disheartening tour of the small, inadequate facility. The waiting room is packed wall-to-wall with sick patients awaiting treatment. The current patients are lying in a room where their mats are laid out like floor tiles with no space in between. But worst of all, Yasumoto hears, is that he will be constantly watched by Dr. Kyojô Niide, Red Beard (Toshirô Mifune).

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Yasumoto is filled with resentment as he begins his internship at the clinic. He resists Dr. Niide's authority, refusing to even put aside his sword and wear the uniform of the clinic doctors. As the story progresses, however, we see his transformation through a series of encounters with the patients of the clinic, and his increasing appreciation of and respect for Red Beard.

Even before his arrival at the clinic, Yasumoto has had another disappointment when he was betrayed by his fiance, so he isn't exactly a stranger to suffering; however, in treating these indigent patients, Yasumoto comes face-to-face with suffering in away that he had never experienced before. For the first time he watches as a woman undergoes excruciatingly painful surgery without anesthetics. He sits with a man who is dying in agony. He also witnesses the death of Sahachi, a permanent resident of the hospital who spends all his time making objects to sell in order to buy things for the other patients. In Sahachi's final hours Yasumoto learns the tragic story of his life.

There is one patient who is not poor, and who is not bodily, but mentally ill. She is kept in a small house on the clinic property and watched over day and night by a female employee of the clinic. Only Red Beard is allowed to treat this patient. She is called The Mantis, and during an encounter with Yasumoto, we find out why.

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The most touching of all these vignettes it the story of Otoyo, a twelve-year-old whom Yasumoto rescues from a brothel. Otoyo has never known kindness and is completely withdrawn into her own little world until Yasumoto takes over her care. Eventually, she begins to improve and in her turn, offers help to another child in desperate straits.

Of all the Kurosawa films that I have seen, this is the most realistic. The characters and situations in Red Beard are characters and situations that are familiar to us. The acting for the most part is not exaggerated. It could very well have taken place in the United States with only a few costume and set changes. In a way it reminded me of old Dr. Kildare movies with Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore, although I don't really remember much about those movies and I'm sure Red Beard is much better.

Robert Reineke, the author of this very interesting website, says that in many ways Red Beard was a turning point for Kurosawa.


Although they likely didn’t know it at the time, Red Beard marks the end of an era. It’s the end of Kurosawa’s most productive period where he directed 23 movies in 22 years; he would end up directing only seven films over the last 28 years of his career. It’s Kurosawa’s last black and white film. It was the end of a contract with Toho Studios who was finding it increasingly difficult to fund Kurosawa’s films due to their cost since television was changing the Japanese film industry, even though Kurosawa’s films were proven money winners. And it would be Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune.

Reineke's review of the film is very good, but replete with spoilers. I would not advise reading it before watching the movie.

The 52 Movies series has become for me an elementary education in Asian films. The more I watch these Japanese movies, the more curious I am about them, and I really wish that I could take a class in the history of Japanese film. Maybe I can find a book.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

The Truth About Bagels

This may taste good to someone who has never eaten a biscuit.

--Novelist Lee Smith's mother, on her first bagel

From Lee Smith's memoir, Dimestore. Which I recommend.

Bagels are fine. I've eaten a good many over the years. But they aren't as good as biscuits. And really I never quite got over the fact that they look like doughnuts but aren't.

The Church...

...forgives everything more readily than an attack on truth. She knows that if a man falls, but leaves the truth unimpaired, he will find his way back again. But if he attacks the vital principle, then the sacred order of life is demolished.

--Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy

I came to this realization long ago and it became one of my fundamental principles, in a sense preceding the doctrines of faith. But it seems a common error in our time to be unable to distinguish between the failure to live up to a principle and the denial of the principle.


52 Movies: Week 34 - Tokyo Story

This is a long movie in which very little happens, which as a rule is precisely not my cup of tea. But it's really good--generally considered a classic, in fact, and consistently places very high in polls of critics and filmmakers. It's by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and was made in 1953. I'm always a little surprised that so many good movies were being made in Japan so soon after the war.

I wrote about it once before, something over three years ago. I decided to include it in this series because it's so good, and because I've changed my view of it somewhat since then. Here's what I said then:

It's a really fine film, but it's so slow and so modest in scope and means that I couldn't help being a little impatient with it. It's widely considered to be the best work of the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Late Spring I wrote about a while back. And my reaction to this one is very similar: I admired it more than I liked it, and I think much of my problem is simply cultural: the characters remained somewhat foreign-seeming to me, to a degree that prevented my feeling as engaged by them and their situations as I might have had it been a European movie (I can't really imagine it as an American one).

I had thought at the time that I might want to see it again sometime. A year or two passed and one day I noticed that it was going to be shown on Turner Classic Movies (yes, we still have that AT&T U-verse service that we hardly use--I don't want to talk about it). So I recorded it and watched it again. And this time I liked it much better. On this second viewing, I didn't feel that the characters and the style of acting were as foreign and as hard to read as they had been. It wasn't only that, though. It was also the same effect that one can experience with any art, and which I find especially frequent with music: it may just take more than one hearing or viewing or reading for it to sink in, for me to really hear or see it, to be touched by it. 

As I said in that earlier brief note, the plot could not be much simpler. An old couple, Shukichi, the husband, and Tomi, the wife,  (who are about my age)  travel from their small city (Onomichi) to visit their adult son, daughter, and daughter-in-law in Tokyo. The children are busy with their own cares: the son is a doctor, with children of his own, and the daughter runs a beauty shop. The daughter-in-law is the widow of a son who was killed in the war. Another son works in Osaka, which is on the way to (and from, obviously) Tokyo, and they visit him briefly, but I'm not sure this is even shown.

When they arrive in Tokyo, the couple find that their children don't really have time or energy to for them. Only the widowed daughter-in-law, perhaps because she is not married, or perhaps because she is just that kind of person, seems genuinely happy to see them and willing to spend time with them. In general, though, the visit is not a success, and the couple return to Onomichi. 

There is only one really significant single event, and on the assumption that you haven't seen the film I'll leave it for you to experience. I also won't give you a link to Roger Ebert's review, because it does include that information. But as I'm too busy and distracted to write a real appreciation of this film, the kind of appreciation it deserves, I'm going to quote a couple of paragraphs of Ebert on the movie's craftsmanship:

 "Tokyo Story" opens with the distant putt-putt of a ship's engine, and bittersweet music evokes a radio heard long ago and far away. There are exterior shots of a neighborhood. If we know Ozu, we know the boat will not figure in the plot, that the music will never be used to underline or comment on the emotions, that the neighborhood may be the one where the story takes place, but it doesn't matter. Ozu uses "pillow shots" like the pillow words in Japanese poetry, separating his scenes with brief, evocative images from everyday life. He likes trains, clouds, smoke, clothes hanging on a line, empty streets, small architectural details, banners blowing in the wind (he painted most of the banners in his movies himself).

His visual strategy is as simple (therefore as profound) as possible. His camera is not always precisely three feet above the floor (the eye level of a Japanese person seated on a tatami mat), but it usually is. "The reason for the low camera position," the writer Donald Richie explains, "is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." So we are better able to appreciate a composition because Ozu lets us notice its lines and weights and tones -- which always reflect his exact feeling about the scene.

 And I'll leave it to you to discover the richness of the simple, subtle portraits of these people which Ozu gives us. The trailer will give you some idea. It appears to be the original trailer. The film itself is visually crisper and brighter than this.


I now very much want to see Late Spring again. I think it may be as good or nearly so. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Dante Update

Several months ago I asked for recommendations for a Dante translation. Since then I've taken a look at Esolen, Musa, and James, and have settled on Esolen. I would have looked at Sayers, too, but it would have required inter-library loan, which I didn't want to bother with, since there seems to be general agreement that her translation is a little flaky. I may try to get hold of it at some time in the future, because I read her Inferno many years ago and thought the notes were really fine (on which there also seems to be general agreement, at least among Christian readers). 

James's translation is the one that in the pursuit of poetic vividness plays somewhat loose with the original, and eschews the heavy annotation and commentary that usually go with a translation.  It is an interesting effort, and it does seem to be lively. But I know it can't be Dante, and if I can't have Dante's poetry I want to at least have his vision and theology, for which I need the assistance of notes and commentary. Also, I wanted the Italian text, even though I don't know Italian.

Esolen and Musa seemed, at a brief look, more or less comparable poetically, so I chose Esolen because I know from various other writings of his that his commentary will be sound and insightful. 

So I picked up reading the Purgatorio with Esolen at about Canto 27. In Canto 30, where Dante encounters Beatrice, I looked at the Italian on the facing page, and saw

Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice.
(Look at me well! I'm Beatrice, I am she.)

And even though I only have a rough idea of what that should sound like, it gave me a thrill, and I think I heard a few notes of the real Dante there. It made me wonder if I could possibly learn enough Italian in a short time to read along in the original with the translation. 

52 Movies: Week 33 - Kwaidan

Kwaidan is a 1964 Japanese anthology film by director Masaki Kobayashi, based on four Japanese folk tales as transcribed by late 19th century American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn stayed in Japan after a visit there in 1890, taking a Japanese bride and assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, the name by which he is still primarily known in Japan. The title, pronounced Ki-dan, (with the ‘w’ silent) comes from a Japanese word meaning “strange stories” or “weird tales.” Although only two of the four are technically “ghost stories,” the film has the reputation of being one of the best ghost films ever made. It won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1965 and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that same year.

When it was filmed it was at that time the most expensive Japanese movie ever. Almost the whole thing was shot in a Nissan automobile warehouse, a former airplane hangar, because the studio buildings were not big enough to hold the huge, hand-made and hand-painted sets. The film thus seldom looks “real,” but this is intentional. According to those who have commented on the film, Kobayashi was trying for a semi-artificial, stylized look that has roots in Japanese art and theatre, creating a world that walks the line between realistic and fantastic.

What is almost immediately striking about the film is the use of colors. They are not only phenomenally rich and deep, but they are used in such a way as to give the whole endeavor an otherworldly quality. This, and the highly stylized sets and backdrops strongly communicate the idea that you’re watching the playing out of myths and legends, not stories of the “real world.” This was Kobayashi’s first color film, and one gets the sense that he really wanted to go for broke and make the colors a major aspect of the film. I believe it was only his second period film as well, as his previous work had been mainly contemporary dramas.

To go along with the stylized visuals Kobayashi chose as his musical composer the great Japanese modernist Toru Takemitsu. What’s fascinating about this collaboration is that Takemitsu’s score, albeit “modern” in many ways, fits perfectly with the ancient subject matter. The music includes a large number of sound effects, some strictly musical, some not, like the breaking of sticks and the creaking of floors. It adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, but is in no way distracting or obstreperous, so that after a time it becomes so much a part of the filmic experience that you almost forget it’s there.

Kwaidan runs a bit over three hours, and includes an intermission. As it’s an anthology film, one with no framing device, it can easily be watched in sections. The first two stories run approximately 50 minutes each, the third lasts about an hour, and the final one about 20 minutes.

The opening tale, “The Black Hair,” is the probably the creepiest of the four, and comes closest to what Westerners would consider a traditional ghost story. The second one, “The Woman of the Snow,” with its marvelous snowstorm sequence and highly stylized sky full of eyes, stars and comets, is more like a dark fairy tale than a ghost story. It features Yuki-onna, a well-known figure in Japanese folklore. It’s astounding to consider the effort it must have taken both to create the sets for this sequence and to film it.

The third story, “Hoichi the Earless,” is the longest and cinematically most ambitious. It includes a full sea-battle, and two large “outdoor” sets – a monastery and a ruined palace or temple, all, it seems, filmed indoors. Its story about a renowned minstrel called upon to play and sing for a supernatural retinue has its roots in Japanese medieval history. The final short segment, “In a Cup of Tea,” concerns a man who keeps seeing another man’s face in his cup of water, and becoming increasingly unnerved in the process. It’s a somewhat comic story, with a pointedly ambiguous ending, which serves as a fine way to close the film.

As these stories are based on folktales, they do not necessarily have any sort of direct lesson or moral to impart, although two of the four involve consequences of the breaking of vows (a theme of course prominent in folktales the world over). These aren’t parables, however – there’s more Grimm here than Aesop.

The best way to enjoy Kwaidan is to let yourself be carried along by the sounds and the visuals in an impressionistic, as opposed to an analytic, way. In some ways the stories do not “make sense” in a Western manner, as we’re dealing here with the folklore of a very different culture. Above all it’s a work of true beauty, such that some critics consider it one of the most beautiful films of all time. I’m inclined to agree, as some of the imagery will stay with you long after the film is over.


—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


One personal silver lining in the dark cloud that is the Trump candidacy is that I no longer have to try to defend the Republicans, or at least those who don't really deserve it. I've been voting almost exclusively for Republicans for a long time despite never having had the slightest inclination to register myself as one, and knowing that their principles are not entirely mine. To quote myself (again--I'm sure I've done it before), the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans for me has been the difference between an enemy and an unreliable ally. It's not possible to see Trump himself as any sort of an ally, and it's only common sense to assume the same about the segment of the party hierarchy that supports him. 

Now when some Republican politician says or does something stupid or offensive, or that can be made to seem that way by the ever-vigilant media, I don't have to cringe, or try to explain that he didn't really mean that, or put it in context, or be angered by the media bias and distortion. 

So go ahead, Democratic media. If you want to twist or exaggerate something Donald Trump says, have at it. If you want to shout for three days about some trivial remark from him, while going easy on Hillary Clinton, well, you will still have disgraced yourselves, but I won't much care. You can even make stuff up if you want to, because it probably won't be any worse than something he really said. You'll only have the constraint of limiting yourself to what people will believe he said, and that's not much of a constraint at all.

I'm like, whatever. I'll just shrug, and it's quite a relief. 

My sister is obnoxious so you're wrong.

That was the gist of someone's response to me in an online discussion a week or so ago. It seems worth preserving. I think it's my favorite internet argument ever.

The topic was the election. Someone I know had written a Facebook post saying that while Democrats are voting based on ideas, policies, etc., Republicans are driven by one thing only: a deranged personal hatred of Hillary Clinton.

I argued against that, saying that while Hillary's opponents on the right do certainly dislike her, it's fundamentally because of her politics, and that if she had right-wing views people on the right would vote for her whether they liked her or not. The person I'm referring to here (not the author of the post) disagreed, giving as "part of his reasoning"--the only part he actually stated--that his sister, with whom he was formerly able to converse, now only rants. And that therefore I was wrong, deceived by my "bias." 

I replied that I could only withdraw in the face of that argument, though probably not for the reason he might wish.

52 Movies: Week 32 - Akira Kurosawa's Dreams


Previous to watching Akira Kurosawa's Dreams I had seen four movies directed by Kurosawa: Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and I Live in Fear. All of these movies were made early in his career, between 1950 and 1961. The first three are jidaigeki films (from which Jedi warriors), period dramas set in the Samurai period. I Live in Fear is the story of a man who, after living through World War II, is obsessed with idea that there will be further nuclear war and who is desperately trying to move his family to a place in Brazil that he thinks will be safe. All of these films are very serious. Where there is humor if there is any, it is a sort of comic relief, and we need it. There is no humor that I can remember in I Live in Fear. All these films employ to some extent that over-exaggerated style of acting that we have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams on the other hand, was made in 1990, only eight years before Kurosawa's death, and while it incorporates elements of the older films, for the most part it is very different. I don't remember where I came across the film. I must have been looking around Netflix when it caught my eye, and I put it on my DVD list. Wikipedia cites The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa by Stephen Prince as saying that this film is based on dreams that Kurosawa said he had had repeatedly. There are eight dreams in which the main character is Kurosawa. They vary in style and mood from the very serious to the whimsical. They also vary in quality.

It may be the uneven merit of the different dreams that accounts for the wide disparity of opinion on the film. The Rotten Tomatoes website gave it a Tomatometer rating of 55%, and looking around the web, that seems about right. Vincent Canby in a New York Times review on August 24, 1990, used terms like, sublime, astonishingly beautiful, and pure screen enchantment to describe the film. He also said, “For Kurosawa, the present is not haunted by the past. Instead, it's crowded by an accumulation of other present times that include the future. The job is keeping them in order, like unruly foxes,” which I think is accurate, although I'm not sure I entirely get what he means.

On the other hand, Hal Hinson writing for the Washington Post (September 14, 1990), opined, “By titling his new film 'Akira Kurosawa's Dreams,' the Japanese master has engaged in a little false advertising. 'Pontifications' might have served as a more accurate header. Or better yet, 'Sermons.'" His description is at least partially true. The dreams are a bit, sometimes quite a bit, heavy-handed on the topics of nuclear radiation, and the environment. Of course, this isn't unusual in Japanese films, and it's quite understandable. It occurs to me that the Japanese are preoccupied with these topics in much the same way that we in the United States are preoccupied with race.

And then, while the dreams are more than sermons, they only resemble dreams in certain ways. For one thing, for the most part they aren't really finished. They may end like dreams, and leave you with that same feeling that you get when you are in the middle of what I think of as a story dream, and you wake up wondering, and really wanting to know what happened next. And then things happen that would not happen in real life. However, they are more coherent than any dream I can ever remember having. While mysterious things happen, Kurosawa, never finds himself suddenly in a different place or with different people, and the story never changes in mid-stream.

For the most part, I really enjoyed the film. I liked some of the dreams very much indeed, and one not at all. I think that most viewers, even those who most liked the film would feel the same, although their choices of the best and worst might differ. Some of them are quite short, and others fairly long. Some are very beautiful, and others rather hideous. I'll give a brief introduction to each one.

The first three dreams draw heavily on Japanese tradition and folklore.

Sunshine through the Rain

Unfortunately, this first dream is in my opinion the best. I kept waiting for another to match it in beauty and mystery, but none did, although there were a few that I liked almost as well. I was disappointed, but now you won't be, having been forewarned, but then, you may not agree this is the best.

In this dream, Kurosawa or “I” as the billing reads, is a small boy, about five. His mother warns him not to go out in the woods because the sun is shining through the rain. Foxes, which play a large part in Japanese folklore, like to have their wedding processions in this kind of weather and they don't like to be seen. Needless to say, the boy loses no time running out into the woods to see what he can see, and the procession that he sees is both beautiful and mysterious. Unfortunately, his curiosity leads to more serious consequences than he expects.

The Peach Orchard

This dream takes place on Hinamatsuri or Doll's Day , when Japanese families display dolls of the emperor and empress and others on a platform made of a series of steps, and have a special tea ceremony. In the dream, Kurosawa is about seven and his sister is having a celebration of the day with four of her friends. He sees a sixth girl, dressed in pink, who lures him outside where he finds the dolls come to life in the former peach orchard. This dream is also very beautiful, and I liked it almost as well as the first.

The Blizzard

Now grown, Kurosawa leads two other men on an exhausting and dangerous trek through a blizzard on a mountain. When they have reached the end of their endurance, they meet a Yuki-onna , a Japanese Snow Woman. What happens next confuses me, and if any of you watch the movie, I would love to hear what you think.

The Tunnel

We find Kurosawa walking down a deserted, unlovely road in the evening twilight when he is accosted by a mysterious, glowing dog running out of a tunnel. The dog never touches him, but as he exits the tunnel at the other end, he meets the ghost of man who had been under his command during the war, and who had died in his arms. In this dream, Kurosawa is man coming to grips with his past.


I love this one. This is the whimsical one. Kurosawa with his paints and canvas under his arm (he was a painter) strolls through a museum exhibit of paintings by Van Gogh and finds himself inside The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing. After consulting with the women, he crosses the bridge and finds Van Gogh in a hay field, head wrapped in a bandage, played by Martin Scorsese. A review of the movie on the website Open Culture said that it wasn't so much Scorsese playing Van Gogh as Van Gogh playing Scorcese. It is in any case humorous. Kurosawa wanders further afield through one Van Gogh painting after another in scenes that will be recognizable even to those who aren't particularly interested in art. He gets deeper and deeper into the paintings until he is walking on the very strokes of the paint. There's no story here, just a look an appreciation of Van Gogh's work. And it's fun.


Mount Fuji in Red

Crowds of people are running away from an abstract Mount Fuji from which flames are erupting. Is it a volcanic eruption? No, there are six nuclear plants exploding and there is no place to go. It's a warning and since the film was made 21 years before the Fukushima disaster, it seems to have been an apt warning. It is not, however, a good film.

The Weeping Demon

This one is painful to watch. Following on the theme of nuclear and environmental destruction, Kurosawa finds himself in a desert with giant dandelions, talking to ragged man with a horn on his head. This dream reminds me of the nuclear disaster sci-fi movies of the 50s, especially The Amazing Colossal Man. The only thing I can really remember about the movie, though, is that he was out in the desert and there were enormous dandelions.

The ragged man is a demon and he tells Kurosawa about the aftermath of the great disaster, and the people in the desert that used to be men, but are now demons. There is one scene that is reminiscent of a sort of Japanese Hieronymus Bosch. It is also reminiscent in a way of Kurosawa's earlier movies and has that over-emotive acting.

Village of the Watermills

In a complete change of atmosphere, Kurosawa finds himself in a beautiful little village built around a stream filled with watermills. At first, I thought this was just a movie set, but it was filmed at the Daio Wasabi Farm, which you can tour and where you can get, oh wonder of wonders, wasabi ice cream, and don't you wish we could all just go now. Anyway, it is very beautiful.

Here we see a great deal of the preachiness that Hinson talks about in his review as a 103 year old man tells Kurosawa about the wonderful, simple life that the villagers live. They don't have electricity, and they don't have a lot of inessential things, and they respect the environment. Now, all these things are very good things, and I agree with him in essence, but it's not always so simple. Still, it's very lovely and the movie ends with a joyful funeral procession for an old women who lived a good life. It is full of music and dancing and color, and brings us full circle from the quiet and somber wedding procession of the foxes.


A painting by Kurosawa

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

The Green Greene Book

It isn't often that I run across something that makes me think "Everybody should read this." But this is one of them.

The book referred to is The Negro Motorist Green Book, compiled and marketed annually from 1936 to 1964  by Victor H. Greene. It was a guide for black people traveling in the U.S. It "listed all the restaurants, filling stations, museums, hotels, guest homes, grocery stores and establishments that readers would feel safe being Black in." 

This piece, by a writer whose name I don't recall having seen before, Carvell Wallace, discusses the book and its significance to black Americans, which would be interesting enough, but then he goes on to reflect on the way in which the people and places mentioned in the guide have vanished, and on the place of place in American life in general. His search for one address in particular, which now denotes only an undefined space below a freeway overpass in Oakland, California, leads to penetrating observations about the country and its culture. It is a really, really fine piece of writing. Click here to read it. It's rather long for online reading, but very much worth it.

Thanks to Janet for pointing this out to me.


52 Movies: Week 31 - True Grit

My stepdaughter has recently become interested in movies not starring teeny-boppers. I think it began with wanting me to watch movies with her at night, and her knowing I will not watch just anything. We started by making our way through all of the Quentin Tarantino films, and now we are sporadically (not by date) going through the Coen Brothers oeuvre. I told her that Fargo and No Country For Old Men were probably the top two. She liked the former a lot, but not so much the latter. She picked True Grit last night as our next one, and I was okay with that. I had fond memories of seeing it a few times and had though it enjoyable. What I did not think would happen during this third viewing is that I would feel it is every bit as good as the two previously mentioned films, and in some ways better.

I went to see True Grit in our downtown independent movie theatre here in Mobile. Often times before a movie begins the owner will come out and say a little something about it. What he said about this one is that we would quickly notice that the people in the film did not use contractions when they spoke. He informed us that there was a time in America when the English language used was more “proper” than it is today. I did not know that. Nor do I know if it is true. However, he was correct, and it’s fun to watch the movie and see when and who might fall out of this and say “don’t” (for instance) instead of “do not”.

Suffice to say that the dialogue in True Grit is quite engaging. I laughed so much at what the three main characters were saying that I probably missed much of it. So it is a good movie to re-watch. For one thing, this version of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) speaks in such a low guttural tone that you really need to become used to his cadence to really understand him. The Mattie Ross character is played by a young girl named Hailee Steinfeld, and she is just outstanding. Matt Damon holds his own as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Bridges and Steinfeld were both nominated for Academy Awards, and deservedly so.

I should probably mention what most I’m sure already know, that this is a remake of a 1969 film starring John Wayne. Wayne won his only Oscar in his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. I know I have seen the older movie, but I have little memory of it. John Wayne movies are all kind of lumped together in my mind – his own character being bigger than any singular one of any movie he made. At the time of the release of their movie the Coen Brothers stated that their version would more correctly follow the book, written by Charles Portis. The book is written from the viewpoint of the Mattie Ross character, which is how this newer movie version is told.

Mattie travels from Yell County, Arkansas up to Fort Smith in order to collect her father’s body and seek to catch the man who killed him. She is only fourteen, but quite precocious and smart; she will not be taken advantage of by adults seeking to treat her like a child. There is a scene involving Mattie and a shop owner that is just priceless. He is haggling with her, letting her know what he will and will not do involving two ponies, a horse, and other goods which I can’t recall. At the beginning of the scene he is almost not paying attention to her. But as the parley continues he is more and more drawn in, and shocked that a young girl can be so bold to challenge him. This lets us know what to expect from Mattie Ross for the remainder of the movie.

I said I don’t really remember what John Wayne was like in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, but I have the idea that other than the eye patch there probably is not much in common between these two characters. I’m a big fan of Jeff Bridges and sometimes have to defend his acting from naysayers who seem to think he is playing the same slightly different version of one character for the past twenty years. The Fisher King, The Big Lebowski, Crazy Heart, and now True Grit. Well, I suppose there is a little similarity in these characters, but his Rooster Cogburn was really quite a singular achievement. The voice he uses which I already alluded to; the way he seems to peer with his one eye in so many scenes; his casual ease with Mattie as he tells her stories; his quick wit when arguing with LaBoeuf. He is so pathetic and at the same time so heroic that he really wins you over. I thought Bridges should have traded in his Oscar from Crazy Heart and earned it instead for this role. He is something else!

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I’m trying to not give away too much of the story, but in its set-up the viewer is already going to have an idea of how it all turns out. As far as I know the original might be quite memorable for some of you, and perhaps ends in much the same way. I don’t remember at all. Suffice to say that it is the familiar “there and back again” theme without an unwilling hobbit being drawn along. The main characters must either catch or kill the man who they are chasing into the Oklahoma Territory, and they do so at risk to themselves.

The main storyline takes place around 1878, post-Civil War period. Wikipedia states that it was filmed mostly outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is beautiful. The acting is great, the story is interesting, the dialogue is first rate, there is very little offensive (it is a Western so expect dead bodies). True Grit is a great Coen Brothers movie that fans of theirs might not think about when droning on about their wonderful films. Watch it!

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.

A question

Posted on Facebook as well as here:

Is there any living non-fiction writer whom you would recommend for the quality of his or her prose alone, regardless of subject? Is there a Newman of our time? Not in absolute quality (highly unlikely) but commanding a similar regard? Preferably not someone who specializes in rich descriptions or taut narrative, as in "creative non-fiction," but one mainly interested in ideas.

I'm looking for someone I can learn from. From whom I can learn.

Going With the Flow

When people my age were young--in our late teens and early twenties--and very conscious of being part of a youth culture that was very different from our parents', we sometimes joked about how funny it would be if our children grew up to be middle-class conservatives, perhaps even churchgoers. We envisioned middle-aged hippies pleading with their children to let their hair grow and stop listening to Lawrence Welk. We especially joked about music: we assumed that whatever music our children listened to would be as different from ours as ours was from our parents, and that they would regard Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, the Dead, and all the others as being as laughably old-fashioned as Glenn Miller was to us. 

The business about the music certainly didn't happen. Young people in general have throughout the last forty years or so retained a great liking for the music made by pop musicians of my age and older; I mean not only people who are young at the moment but those who are now well into middle age. And the music made by all those young people has been very much in the same general style. There was never any rebellion against rock-and-roll.

Nor did that first amusing scenario play out very often. It happens occasionally, sure. There are some notable instances of children of atheists converting to Christianity. But in general young people have not rebelled against the various rebellions of the '60s, but rather have embraced them. Most treat sex casually, many if not most smoke pot, a great many do harder drugs, most seem to have a vaguely leftist political bent, and at least a large minority seems to have rejected "organized religion." 

Great numbers who are raised as Christians slough off the faith, apparently pretty easily, as if it were an unbuttoned shirt. I doubt it's an exaggeration to say that there are millions of Christian parents who have watched, heartbroken and helpless, as this happens. But it's really not so surprising. What once was a rebellion is now the mainstream. Even if a child grows up in a strongly Christian community of some kind, and finds leaving it difficult and painful, he or she knows that the mainstream is but a short swim away, and that once there he will no longer have to deal with the isolation of being out of it. Plus he'll get to have all that fun that everybody else is having. The world will make him comfortable and call him brave and independent, while in the other direction lies a stigmatizing association with one of the few groups which can be stereotyped, mocked, and slandered with little disapprobation, in fact with the hearty approval of powerful and prestigious elements of society. 

Nothing is easier than going with the flow. This dynamic was already forming when I was a teenager, and is now normal. I do wish the media and the entertainment industry would adjust their categories of "conventional" and "unconventional" to reflect reality. 


This was a long time ago.

Blue Heron Feeding

Sometimes I forget that the group of people who read this blog and the group who see what I put on Facebook overlap but are not identical. I posted this on Facebook one day last week, so some of you have seen it. Here it is for those who have not.

I was sitting in my portable chair working by the bay one day a couple of weeks ago when this heron landed nearby. That's a bit unusual, so I took out my phone and started recording, mainly for the benefit of my local grandsons, who have seen these birds but not so close. I wish I had zoomed in before the bird caught the first fish. Probably someone who knows something about video could bring out more detail in the bird, which is mostly in shadow. But I decided not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.