Archive for James Shigeta

It’s Chinatown

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2014 by dcairns

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After watching THE WILD AFFAIR, in which Nancy Kwan is delightful, Fiona wanted more, so we ran THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (some nice elaborate Richard Quine long takes) and then FLOWER DRUM SONG.

FLOWER DRUM SONG is an interesting period piece — some of the DVD extras consider the ways in which the passage of time has changed it from a rather forward-thinking piece, in the days when the very act of making a musical about Chinese-Americans was a radical and positive thing, to a slightly embarrassing hangover from an earlier age. But nobody quite gets to the nub of it, I think.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical is entertaining and funny, and pleasingly presents its Chinese and Chinese-Americans as being just regular folks, with a few different customs but with all the same drives and qualities as anyone you might meet in a movie about white folks, which is fine. It’s just that a lot of the jokes are based around producing Asian versions of conventional situations or dialogue — so someone talks of being “left with egg foo yung on his face,” which isn’t a real expression, just a silly version of an American expression with a bit of cod Chinese culture tacked on as a laugh. It might or might be amusing, but it’s certainly inauthentic, and there’s a point at which the inauthentic becomes slightly racist.

Any time you can’t be bothered to get the details right, you’re showing a lack of respect. In Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN, we are told that all the feminist statements are based on actual proclamations by feminist thinkers. If this is true (always highly doubtful with Fellini) then the filmmaker would be showing a kind of respect to the people he is satirising — he lets them condemn themselves as absurd out of their own mouths. He plays fair. But in HORSE FEATHERS, not only is Groucho’s anatomy class complete gibberish, the serious class he interrupts is equally nonsensical, basically just a stream of long words most of which have nothing to do with the ostensible subject. In this way, the writers show themselves to be above the subject, disinterested in accuracy, and ally themselves with the Marxes’ anti-intellectual side (Harpo is seen gleefully shoveling books into a roaring fire, in hindsight a disturbing image for 1933).

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The racism in FLOWER DRUM SONG is super-mild, it doesn’t mean to offend, and it doesn’t even mean to be disrespectful. It’s just levity, but not quite the right kind for us today. I’m not even sure if it would offend anyone, but it does embarrass.

Still, there are great pleasures, some of them quite odd. Kwan is a knockout, and though she couldn’t do her own singing. she could certainly dance. James Shigeta has a fine speaking voice and he does seem to be doing his own vocals, but he evidently couldn’t dance to save his life, so he’s doubled in the big dream ballet number. For part of this he wears what looks to me like a Japanese mask (the film also blurs Chinese and Japanese cultures and casting), but for part of it he’s just blatantly replaced by another performer. The shot is head-to-toe wide to show the dancing properly, but it’s not like you can’t notice it’s not him anymore: the new guy doesn’t look anything like Shigeta. Sometimes, when faced with a continuity problem with a plant pot or cigarette or glass of wine, a director will say, “Well, if the audience is looking at THAT, we’ve lost them anyway.” But you can’t use that argument when the continuity problem consists of your leading man being suddenly replaced by someone else. When Balthazar Getty replaces Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY, we’re supposed to notice. One does hope that Henry Koster, the director in this instance, was not trusting to the old dictum that “they all look alike.”

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At one point in the film, a Chinese character actually says, “They all look alike,” referring to white folks, which I guess is intended as a kind of satire, but is actually sort of true — we often find it harder to tell apart people of different races from themselves, since what we notice first are the “racial signifiers” of the other. The problem is solved by spending time around people of different races.

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It’s not a problem one could ever have with Jack Soo (a Japanese-American who changed his name to a Chinese one in order to get a role in the Broadway production), though. He’s incredibly distinctive, though, and a lovely presence — he talks like Robert Mitchum, only even more hep, and looks like Brundlefly. I wish he was in more movies.

 

 

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Peace On Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2011 by dcairns

P.O.E. Peace On Earth. Purity Of Essence. That’s the three-letter code obsessing Sterling Hayden in DR STRANGELOVE, and he returns to the subject in Carol for Another Christmas, a TV production from 1964, scripted by Rod Serling and directed by Joe Mankiewicz — and all three are at the top of their game.

Haden plays Grudge, a Cold War Scrooge (his name is the least subtle thing about this impassioned polemic), committed to withdrawal from the world behind a wall of nuclear weapons, convinced by the death of his son in Korea that involvement is to be avoided at all costs. Unlike Dickens, upon whom the work is closely modeled, this show depends on a series of interlinked arguments about charity, international engagement, the threat of the bomb, which don’t necessarily cohere perfectly but are put across with great force and flair, moment by moment.

I’d actually hold this up as exhibit A to convert anyone who thinks Mank was just a dialogue guy, a straight shooter of snappy talk. There are some ghostly effects in the first fifteen minutes or so that appear strikingly modern (Amenabar ripped off one of Mank’s tricks from THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR for THE OTHERS), as when a reflection suddenly appears in a glass door swinging shut — this is the same year as REPULSION… Figures disappear or are duplicated within single takes, as the camera looks away from them for just a second…

Thinking about this, I’m drawn to the conclusion that Mankiewicz must have been looking at Japanese stuff — both UGETSU MONOGOTARI and THRONE OF BLOOD use this technique, letting the long, continuous shot insist upon the reality of what we see, even as the crucial event happens outside of frame. Both those movies were pretty big back in the day, so it’s quite plausible he saw them, and as a fan of long, fluid takes anyhow, he’d no doubt be impressed.

The Ghosts — Steve Lawrence is The Ghost of Christmas Past. I know him from THE BLUE BROTHERS (“Look at you, still in those fakakta suits!”) and Jerry Lewis DVD commentaries. I had no particular expectations of him as an actor. I get the feeling that some in America would have chiefly negative expectations of him. But he’s GREAT. He plays a WWI veteran’s ghost as a hepcat, but that’s the way it’s written, and Serling does write great hepcat. He’s met on a ship laden with war dead, all nations, then leads Hayden through a doorway into searing light and the aftermath of Hiroshima (cameo from James Shigeta). Little girls, swathed in bandages and draped in translucent netting represent the mutilated victims of the First Bomb. One sings a haunting shamisen.

Hayden tries to shrug it off: alright, these are innocent victims of the fight for democracy, for them the news is all bad, but for their children —

Shigeta stifles a laugh of pure pain (an amazing effect): “Children? From these girls?”

Ghost 2: Pat Hingle as Christmas Present. Know him mainly as Commissioner Gordon in Burton and Schumacher’s BATMAN films. He’s brilliant here — gluttonous, avuncular, ferocious. His bit is about the present, the 10 million displaced persons, “the Barbed Wire Set.” Starvation and deprivation. It begins to become clear that this show is still utterly contemporary.

This, the shortest section, takes place at a banquet table under a chandelier amid black void — which lights up to reveal barbed wire and prisoners at a word from Hingle.

Ghost 3: Robert Shaw. You have to admire Mankiewicz’s courage in taking on Shaw, Hayden AND Peter Sellers. John Gielgud wrote that although iambic pentameters say you stress every second syllable, you can only REALLY stress one word per line. I guess otherwise overemphasis means that meaning gets less clear instead of more clear. Well, Shaw clearly doesn’t believe that, he stresses every single syllable as if it were his last and his listener were a long way off. When he really wants to make a point, though, he hits a word so hard it can punch through cinderblock.

This is the postnuclear section, in the shattered remains of Hayden’s local town hall, where mad jester king Peter Sellers stands for the Me Generation — pilgrim fathers jacket with Santa trimmings, stetson with glittery ME printed on it. Preaching a grotesque gospel of self-interest, he stands for a world where egotism will literally take us down to the last man. It’s a startling role for Sellers, who plays it to the hilt, his voice part Clare Quilty and part the Texas accent he couldn’t quite get for Major Kong in STRANGELOVE. Sellers, of course, was the naked ego run rampant, glazed behind the insane conviction that he had no personality of his own at all. “I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed.” Nothing is more dangerous than an egomaniac with zero self-awareness.

Also appearing: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Britt Ekland.

Hayden, as you’d expect, doesn’t overplay his character’s conversion, making him the first Scrooge on record not to come across as a raving maniac in act 3. It’s a striking, harmonious note of restraint in a big, hammy, epic, heartfelt, articulate piece from a major American filmmaker, and shockingly unavailable to buy in any form.