Archive for Yojimbo


Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2018 by dcairns

Slow news day. And I’m now heading into Hell, as my viewing of feature film submissions for Edinburgh Film Festival crashes into my viewing of short films as applications for Edinburgh College of Art Film & Television Department. There will be hundreds of features and hundreds of shorts. So, probably no time for watching ANYTHING apart from snatches of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and I can’t write about any of the films I see for eminently reasonable privacy reasons.

BUT — my friend Travis, an ace sound editor, got in touch the other day and mentioned a clip he was going to use in a class of sound designers. It’s his favourite bit from RAGING BULL, with the mysterious close-ups of coffee cups and a coffee cup HANDLE. Scorsese is still doing these giant detail shots in SILENCE and WOLF OF WALL STREET, where Jonah Hill spots Leo’s car and it fragments into what Werner might call ECSTATIC SNAPSHOTS. The whole sequence is such a compendium of unusual choices, maybe I can just talk about THAT today.

It’s 11 am. on Wednesday the 31st of January. Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off.We’re an hour into Scorsese’s 1980 monsterpiece. Joe Pesci as Joey La Motta slams Frank Vincent as Salvy’s head in a taxi cab door in a fit of pique. It’s a scene of high noise and chaos, the violent blows underplayed if anything in favour of the vocal panic of onlookers. Then, Scorsese and his mixing team do something very curious.

All the din fades down, while the onscreen action remains furious (though we do withdraw to a more placid, distant high angle, almost a Hitchcock God shot) and Mascagni’s Barcarolle bleeds in, wafting a discordant gentleness over the brutish proceedings. (Scorsese has talked about how the violence he saw in the streets as a kid was often accompanied by wildly contrapuntal love songs on neighbourhood radios, so that the more literal accompaniment he heard in the movies always seemed terribly mediocre.) Emotion recollected in tranquility.Then we cut to the Debonair Social Club, which should be hilarious in contrast to the preceding skull-cracking, but the music and the wideness of the shot kind of quashes the humour, deliberately. Scorsese cuts to the sign AFTER, to avoid making the joke quite coalesce. I don’t know what Travis was going to talk about in class, except that he was struck by how this rainy street scene, with a man running by to get out of the downpour, has no rain FX and no footsteps foley. Just the music, so this transitional mood overlay, which is not emotionally appropriate in any obvious way for the fight scene or the resulting negotiation we’re about to see, dominates the soundtrack and, in one very practical sense, smoothes over the gear change from one to the other.

More detail shots: the club license, framed respectably on the wall (these mob places are impossible to get into if you’re not, ahem, in the club: but I *think* maybe they filmed in a real joint. And it was slightly awkward, iirc.)  Then, as we get details of coffee-making and cups, we hear the gentle voice of “Coach” from Cheers, Nicholas Colasanto, smoothing the ruffled feathers and making nice with Pesci and the heavily bandaged Vincent, which is where the scene DOES allow some humour to break loose.

The voice is so low and reasonable and soothing, it’s the first thing that really makes sense with the music, though the circumstances still seem some considerable ironic distance from the plot of Silvano, Mascagni’s “sea-faring drama.”

That coffee-cup handle… so mysterious. How does one think of something like that. And what does it do? it makes us see an object, really SEE it, in a new way. It gives a great impression of DAINTINESS. You can sort of picture an invisible pinky sticking out as this cup is raised. Again, this could be funny, but isn’t, exactly.Cut to card-players’ hands, with a used coffee cup — is Ozu an influence here? I had been thinking Kurosawa — the bit where Mifune chooses the name Sanjuro by looking at a cornfield in YOJIMBO comes to mind — but using the idea of a coffee cup to dance from the kitchen or bar to the front of the establishment seems very like the way Ozu’s detail shots can transport us through space-time on a thread of mental connections between objects. “You don’t raise your hands,” Colasanto is saying, which is the most specific sound-picture connection we’ve had so far.

And STILL we don’t see the man talking, we just get a wider shot of the calm, stolid card-players.So, if this is what you’ve been doing, you need to keep it up, right? So now we finally go to the group this scene is about, and Colasanto’s voice has finally faded up to full volume (still soft and throaty), but instead of showing the speaker, we’re on the listeners, the patched-up Salvy and the glowering Joey, sort of trying to look like an altar boy, an amusing thing to see as Colasanto waves a hand and says, his back to us, “Now, we’ve heard everyone’s point of view…”

We only see the room in a wide shot when this part of the interview is over, which allows a sort of mental reset for the next piece of business —Finally, by now, the music has finished fading down, so slowly you don’t notice it leaving. It’s replaced by an almost totally inaudible piece of diegetic music playing somewhere, slight atmospheric creaks and clicks and fidgeting noises, the sounds of general movement in the club, but almost no except those of the principles, despite the fact that people seem like they’re probably talking in the background if you think about it realistically, and maybe the distant clank and rumble of an elevated train.

OK, it’s 11.39, time for me to get on with my day…


Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns


Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.


Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”

Slow Talk & Fast Driving

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2015 by dcairns


I’d never seen THE DRIVER but was just coming around to the idea of Walter Hill, after appreciating HARD TIMES, but I couldn’t quite get along with this one. If Bruce Dern is so wired — as he clearly is — why is he talking so slow? And if Ryan O’Neal is such a tough guy, why does he look like a scared little boy except when he puts his sunglasses on? I guess that’s physiognomy rather than performance, essence rather than attitude.


The idea of making a self-consciously Melvillean, existential crime thriller (none of the characters have names) is ambitious, but even Melville sometimes had trouble carrying off the weighty approach to crime drama, and I think pulp dialogue sounds better fast, and you need the right actors. All the leads here are slightly off, and Ronee Blakely just can’t do the role. Hill reportedly wrote all-male scripts whenever possible, and then just gender-switched one or two without changing the dialogue — this worked for his rewrite of ALIEN, and it could have worked here, but Blakely is too warm to play a Melvillean professional. She can never be all business.


I was amused by the Hollywood conceit that a getaway driver would have an agent who sets up his jobs — maybe it’s even true. Nothing felt particularly authentic, though, it felt like other movies. Which is fine, but Melville at his best seems to be about something more than movies — probably what he’s about is his Resistance experience, which is why ARMY OF SHADOWS is so much deeper than LE SAMURAI, as stylish and impressive as that film is.

This isn’t as silly as DRIVE, at least, a movie which was equally slick and equally self-serious. But characters keep doing daft things — sometimes these things work for them, implausibly, which doesn’t make it OK. As with HEAT, I get frustrated when a movie deals with characters who are supposed to be incredible professionals, experts in their field, and they keep doing silly things.


The stunts are good. I think, in fairness, the experience suffered a lot by the print having faded — it was pinkish, with milky blacks, a fatal condition for a movie seemingly based on crunchy shadows and neon and flourescent greens.

THE WARRIORS, by contrast, screened on DCP and looked great. A great 35mm print would have been even better (as with THE JERICHO MILE and SALEM’S LOT) but the vibrancy of the images was nothing to sneeze at. You did need a hankie, though, because the performances and dialogue were sneeze-worthy much of the time.


The Lambada Meinhoff Gang.

“A film for 14-year-old boys,” was Fiona’s not unsympathetic verdict. The plot — a complete fantasy of street life crossbred with Xenophon’s Anabasis, is all engine, with characterisation something snatched up randomly on the way. Women are present as potential rape victims (something Hill has the taste to avoid showing overtly). This nonsense was taken seriously in both the US and UK as something which might INSPIRE CRIME — and it does make hitting somebody with a bat look enjoyable and rewarding, so I guess for the very dumb it could be problematic. I would still blame the actual person with the actual bat, though, rather than the patterns of light on a screen and the sounds emanating from speakers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so camp,” Fiona also observed. Hill, apparently unaware of every possible signifier of homoeroticism, has made a flamboyantly queer odyssey, with costumes, performances and dialogue all reinforcing the man-on-man vibe. While the characters frequently repudiate each other for “turning faggot,” all their threats, insults and figures of speech revolve around sodomy, including a memorable offer to shove a baseball bat up a man’s rectum to transform him into a popsicle. Nice.


The Badder Mime-Hoff Gang.

The lead gang has a nice interracial mix, in defiance of all realism, though most of the rest are ethnically divided. We particularly liked the tough mime gang (silent but deadly) and the guys clad in dungarees with a roller skating scout. The gangs all have names like “the Riffs” and “the Electric Eliminators.” There are a LOT of gangs. I speculate that some of the other names include ~

The Sobbing Godfreys. The Jewish Mothers. The Piccolos. The Munchers. The Traveling Wilburys. The Bathmats. The Venerable Scones. The Black Krankies. The Goofies. The Laughing Pepperpots. The Pummelers. The Hairy Fauves. The Munchkins. The Astral Tucans. The Coughdrops. The Corrs. The Knights of The Iguana. The Erik Estrada All-Stars. The Gardeners. The Joysticks. The Joss Sticks. The Joss Acklands. The Emotional Cosmetologists. The Bunsen-Honeydews. The Windolenes. The Avaricious Pandas. The Nasty Boys. The Sweaty Poppinjays. The Miami Dolphins. The Shrove Tuesdays. The Gelfs. The Muffintops. The Wheedlers. The Men of Harlech. The Pooh Sticks. The Roaring Calhouns. The Toffee Apples. The Bodysnatchers. The Bandersnatches. The Cumberbatches.


The Ho Chi Min-Hoff Gang.

In both movies, Hill has a cut revealing that twenty-to-a-hundred extras have entered the scene with malicious intent without being notices, in a few seconds while a character’s back was turned. In neither film does this work, exactly. Although it gets a laugh, so maybe…

I was pondering Hill’s weakness for wipes, and remembered that Kurosawa had a weakness for wipes too (but he grew out of it). The end of THE WARRIORS follows the end of YOJIMBO rather closely. Poor YOJIMBO, hasn’t it been plundered enough? (Apparently not: Hill was still to make LAST MAN STANDING.)

STOP PRESS — after these enjoyable follies, we ran into THE LONG RIDERS, and THAT one is seriously excellent. More on it later.