Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My 2011 Rehoboth Independent Film Festival Journal - Part 2

Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival
Rehoboth Beach, DE
November 9-13, 2011

Day 2: Friday, November 11, 2011

On our second day at the film festival, we headed back to Midway Movies to avail ourselves of photo ops with cine-lebrities like Luis Bunuel (that's what his name tag said!) - who's very much alive and well in his new role as Midway Movies ticket-taker (as shown below)...

Luis Bunuel is alive and well and working as a ticket-taker at the Rehobeth Beach Film Fest

...and Miss Piggy, who was promoting her latest Muppets feature film:

Tom beams his bedroom eyes at an awestruck Miss Piggy @ Midway Movies

"Judas!": Miss Piggy is stunned to smell bacon on Amy's breath

Our shameless media whoring over, we headed in to see our first Asian film of this year's festival, The Piano in a Factory.

directed by Zhang Meng
(China, 2011, 119 minutes)

Watch "The Piano in a Factory" trailer.

Despite this film winning the Miami Film Festival's "Grand Jury Prize," the Hollywood Reporter found Zhang Meng's second feature to be a stylish failure.
Stylish "The Piano in a Factory" offers fitful entertainment value but little narrative cohesion or momentum, playing like a series of disconnected setpieces in search of context. Chinese writer-director Zhang Meng's sophomore feature (following 2007's "Lucky Dog") centers on a humble musician's attempt to hold onto his music-prodigy daughter by securing her a piano by hook or by crook. Melancholic comedy demonstrates considerable flair for camera movement and use of music, but is too fragmentary to realize its crowdpleasing goal...The most important relationship here, between Chen and daughter, is relegated to a few stilted scenes. Instead, Meng focuses on ornate setpieces that are pretty in a late-Fellini, self-consciously theatrical way, but play as empty pictorialism.

That said (especially the highlighted text comments above), we loved it. Yes, this film set against the economic hardship of life in northern China during the 1980s quickly loses its narrative cohesion (scenes with the musician's daughter and upwardly mobile, estranged wife are far and few between) and the pacing gets a little laborious near the end (rumor has it that an additional 17 minutes were, thankfully, chopped out of the first cut before its Toronto Film Festival screening), but the style is so striking that it overwhelms everything else - with the result that the medium becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan would say. More to the point, I felt like I was watching an Aki Kaurismaki film wherein the play's not the thing, but the players. The singer not the song. A world of offbeat characters like something out of a Daniel Clowes graphic novel.

I was hooked right from the opening scene that had a band of musicians playing Cold War-era Russian pop ballads in the pouring rain at a funeral service held outside a decrepit factory that looked like Three Mile Island.

Fellini-esque? Check.

Interesting artistic misfits (a la Bergman's theatrical troupe in The Seventh Seal)? Affirmative.

Aforementioned scrappy misfits banding together on a daunting project that bonds them forever and gives meaning to their lives a la The Full Monty? You got it!

What's not to like?

The programmers at the San Franciso International Asian Film Festival got it right when they called this film "the latest in a series of acclaimed Chinese films concerned with the human cost of the country’s rapid economic development. But while other films in this de facto subgenre, such as Jia Zhang-ke’s STILL LIFE (2008) and Lixin Fan’s LAST TRAIN HOME (2009), have skewed sad, PIANO tempers its pathos with a refreshing comic whimsy."

It worked for us.


Blogger's note: I lost my program guide and all my notes, so suffice it to say I don't have much to say about the remaining films we saw that night and Saturday morning except that both Take Shelter and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (in 3-D) were excellent and highly recommended.

directed by Jeff Nichols
(USA, 2011, 120 minutes)

This one, starring Michael Shannon (the creepy G-man on HBO's Boardwalk Empire) and Jessica Chastain (The Help), was really good and had twist ending that - given the way global warming's made recent weather forecasts almost apocalyptic - was not the stretch you would think it was. Shannon plays a young man plagued by doom-and-gloom visions who obsessively builds a backyard shelter to protect his family from a coming storm and the End Days it promises to deliver. Or is it all a paranoid delusion? Director Nichols gives nothing away and keeps viewers guessing until the very end.

directed by Werner Herzog
(Canada/USA/France/Germany/UK, 2011, 90 minutes)

We had already seen Herzog's latest documentary feature at Baltimore Charles Theater, but only the 2-D version. Since we were wowed by it in two dimensions, we treated ourselves to a second helping in 3-D and were elated to be able to score tickets for that evening's screening. It was even better the second time around.

So what's it about? In 1994, a group of scientists discovered a cave in Southern France that was perfectly preserved for over 30,000 years. The Chauvet Cave contained the oldest known human paintings in history. Knowing its cultural significance, the French government immediately cut off all access to it, save a few archaeologists and paleontologists - and Werner Herzog, who realizing the cinematic opportunity this limited access afforded, quickly gathered a film crew to photograph the preserved artwork of our ancient ancestors. The idea to film every nook and cranny in 3-D brilliantly adds to the sense of "being there" and viewers are treated to the same sense of real-time discovery that the scientists themselves must have felt upon unearthing this natural wonder. As usual, the ever intellectually curious Herzog questions what our ancestors were like and his cameras tries to convey what the cave drawings looked like to their eyes, as well as ours. He attempts to build a bridge from the past to the present, while putting the whole thing into a spiritual and metaphysical rumination on existence itself.

Mission accomplished!

Day 3: Saturday, November 12, 2011

We began the day by answering Amy's pumpkin-crepe-for-breakfast craving at the Gallery Expresso cafe in downtown Rehoboth Beach.

Behold the transcendent taste sensation that is Gallery Cafe's Pumpkin Crepe

"Ohmigod!" Amy moans as the pumpkin crepe finds her G(astronomical)-Spot

Satiated, we once more  trekked up Coastal Highway 1 to the Midway Movies...

directed by Dorota Kedzierzawska, Poland, 2011, 118 minutes
In Russian and Polish with English subtitles

Though it won this year's Berlin Film Festival’s International Children’s Jury Prize, this film from Polish director Dorota Kędzierzawska (Crows, A Time to Die, Nothing) was clearly aimed at an adult audience span, because it was pretty tedious.

Three homeless Ukranian boys, "contemporary Huck Finns," cross the border in search of "a better tomorrow" in...Poland? Um, yes, Poland...the land of opportunity. Drifting around towns and markets, loitering at train stations, begging food and stealing what they can’t beg, the kids are survivors. But once they take off across the countryside, the possibilities of a new life seem to imbue the children with near invincibility, no matter the reality that looms ahead.

Writer/Director Dorota Kędzierzawska's film, photographed by her husband, Arthur Reinhart, is visually beautiful, but the juvenile principals - played by street kids met during her search for locations - ultimately got on our nerves. There was too much mugging for the camera by the youngest kid (obviously meant to be the cute, endearing one to appeal to the audience's hearts), which we found cloying and annoying.

Amy and I will definitely not be adopting Ukrainian tots anytime soon! (Or visiting any of the Polish villages featured here on our next vacation.)

Directed by George Ratcliff
(USA, 2011, 96 minutes)

Amy wanted to see this one because it looked to be a spoof of the world of mega-churches and corrupt Holy Rollers. But the casting of Pierce Brosnan as an American televangelist is a show stopper from the gitgo, and the A-list cast of Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connely (hot, as always), Ed Harris and Marisa Tomei (also hot, as always, even as a Deadhead stoner security guard) can't save it. Salvation Boulevard is one of those "dramedies" - films that want to be both a drama (there's a murder subplot) and comedy, and come up short on both, Though Amy enjoyed some of the humor, overall it lacked depth and was pretty much a one-joke concept. It was our lone outright bummer of the festival.

The less said about it, the better.

And that's all I have to say about the 2011 film festival!

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Monday, November 14, 2011

My 2011 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival Journal - Part 1

AKA, "The Amy Picks Fascinating Flix Fest"

Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival
Rehoboth Beach, DE
November 9-13, 2011

When my girlfriend Amy Linthicum gets into something, she gets into it in a BIG way. Recent cases in point are her newfangled "Is there an app for that?" smartphone addiction, her completist-bordering-on-OCD obsession with the criminally-neglected music of 10cc (including auxiliary bands, solo projects, soundtracks, web sites, merchandise, gossip, etc.), and her ongoing, never-ending quest to buy back all the music of her youth in retro (often dead) media formats (vinyl, cassette tape, VHS). So when Amy became a card-carrying "Associate Producer"-level member of the Rehoboth Beach Film Society this year, she wallowed in all the perks that membership entails - from receiving e-mail updates and a fancy laminated card to scoring an advance copy of this year's 2011 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival Program Guide.

You see, in 2010 Amy and I had both grudgingly signed up as RBFS Associate Producers after learning that this was the cheapest membership level that allowed us to buy tix to all the films we wanted to see in advance, during a single trip to the festival Ticket Tent; this decision followed our disastrous introduction to the fest back in 2009, when (in addition to suffering through an unexpected Nor Easter storm that week) we couldn't see ANY of the films we wanted because RBFS members got the first shot at them before "non-members," who are also known around here as "the general public," "the great unwashed" or "the hoi polloi" (see my rant about the festival's snootiness here). But we forgot that one of the perks of being an Associate Producer was the ability to buy two tickets per screening - meaning that we only needed to buy a single membership, not two - which we rectified this year! (Live and learn where money is concerned - or burned!) And it's a good thing Amy got that AP privilege, because this year's five-day fest featured 51 sell-outs.

OK, what this all meant was that Amy spent a lot of time researching the festival in advance, with the result that I left it to her to pick all the films (especially after I questioned my own usually snooty judgment for inexplicably sitting through the Ann Hathaway-Jake Gyllenhaal disease-of-the-week romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs) (Yes, I am ashamed of that one!).

Film Program Pix Decoder 101
She used the "catalog photo decoding" methodology we had worked out in previous years' exposure to the festival, which helped eliminate from consideration all the gay, lesbian, bi, transgender and "whimsical" films that didn't appeal to us. (Not that we're against those films - hey, I'm as big a fan of Lesbian Vampire Films, for example, as the next guy - but they don't really relate to our day-to-day lives or interests. Sorry! Or, to paraphrase Morrissey complaining about lamestream music in The Smiths' "Panic," films like these "say nothing to me about my life.") You see, the RBIFF reflects the demographics of its left-leaning, GLBT-friendly, middle-aged retiree-dominated base (i.e, "The Gay & the Gray") - which is a good thing, and what makes Rehoboth Beach itself such a cultivated alternative to younger, more rambunctious beach resorts like Ocean City.

Our photo-decoder visual literacy approach was fairly accurate: headshots of two men = gay, photos of two women = lesbian, threesome shots (either two men and one woman, or two women and one man) = bi (or occasionally a variation on the old Jules and Jim love triangle), old man and woman in bed = disgusting, pics of children = flimsy whimsy for Pop-Pop and MeeMaw. Used in conjunction with our "keyword decoder" rules - "green"-themed movies = self-congratulatory self-righteous fodder for Yuppies and New Agers, and any film mentioning "non-narrative" or "visually-stunning" or "poetic images" typically = boring/pretentious arthouse snoozer - this approach was fairly accurate.

Two Guys = Gay

Two Women = Lesbian

Three's a Bi Crowd

After careful weeding, Amy picked seven interesting films of which five were out-and-out winners - the first five films we saw, in fact, and only two were disappointments, if not outright duds. (We knew her "5-in-a-row" streak had to end, and end it did, but what a ride while it lasted!) The first two films she picked as essentials to see were Werner Herzog's new 3-D documentary about the prehistoric Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave drawings in southern France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (we had seen it in 2-D at The Charles, but seeing it again in 3-D was like seeing an entirely new film!) and the only Japanese-themed entry this year, a documentary about the 85-year-old proprietor-chef of an elite 10-seat, $300-a-plate sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. We agreed we'd make a beeline for the ticket tent to try and score tix for those two films first; everything after that was negotiable.

DAY ONE: Thursday, November 10, 2011

We always skip the opening and closing nights of the festival (the Rehoboth Beach Film Fest illuminati always ensure that the opening night features are sold out anyway), prefering to hit town Thursday through Saturday and head home by Sunday). So for us, Day 1 is the second day of the festival.

Welcome to Dramaville & Other Forge Follies
Of course, whenever Amy and I take a roadtrip to Rehoboth Beach, it's always a bumpy ride. During our first visit, we experienced an act of God in the form of a NorEaster with 50-mph winds, followed by three straight Curse-of-Airhead-Tom bummers. Last year I forgot to load my suitcase in the car and arrived at our motel with the clothes on my back, a toothbrush and (fortunately!) my wallet. The year before that I left the front door of my house wide open - my neighbor thought I had suffered a home invasion and called the police (thankfully, the only thing lost was my standing in the neighborhood - already tarnished years before when the community association wrote me up for displaying a pink flamingo on my front lawn, which apparently is verbotten according to the "Rodgers Forge Community Covenant"!).

Amy: "Your battery's dead." Tom: "God hates me."

And this year, well, the minute Amy and I got in the car to head off to the film festival, my car battery died! Gott in Himmel! But no worries, AAA came to the rescue within 15 minutes and, after losing an hour or so to installing a new battery and dealing with post-traumatic car stress disorder, we were on our merry way.

"I have a musical surprise for our trip," Amy said after plugging in the GPS.

"I have a feeling I know what it is," I replied, thinking it could only be related to her current obsession with All Things 10cc. "Is it 10cc?"

"I'm not saying," she said, adding "Look away while I pop it in your CD player."

Yup, 10cc it was, from the opening power chords of "Silly Love" through the set-ending extended jam-out of "Rubber Bullets." Amy had scored 10cc In Concert, a King Biscuit Flower Hour live recording of their 1975 Santa Monica Civic Arena show. Surprisingly, though this was a tour in support of 1975's The Original Soundtrack LP - their biggest commercial success (and the one with their biggest hit "I'm Not In Love") - everything in this live set was from the first two albums (10cc and Sheet Music). Word has it they also performed material from their just-completed third album The Original Soundtrack and one track from their upcoming 1976 album How Dare You (the last to feature all four original members before Godley and Creme left to make videos and the ill-fated, three-LP opus Consequences) at this Santa Monica gig, but for some reason King Biscuit left them off this release. Pity.

Still, it was great driving music and proved once again what everyone said about 10cc: they were just as great live as in the studio. Indeed, given all their intricate studio wizardry (like the 256-voice multi-tracked "virtual choir" singing chromatic chords in "I'm Not In Love"), it was amazing to hear them flawlessly reproduce their canned sound on a concert stage. Even more interesting was the way they tweaked some songs to give them a new twist, like the all-gizmo guitar backing on "Old Wild Men" and an acoustic version of "The Sacro-Iliac" (which, as Amy cheerily reminded me, was "The first 10cc song to feature Graham Gouldman on lead vocals!").

We arrived in Rehoboth Beach well before our checkin time at the Crosswinds Motel, so we decided to stop first at the film fest ticket tent to score tickets for Cave of Forgotten Dreams (in 3-D) and Jiro. Much to our surprise, our mission was accomplished (we were sure the 3-D Herzog doc, with only two screenings at the fest, would be sold out, but were delighted to be wrong and score tickets for Friday night's screening), so we set about seeing what we could see in the afternoon before that evening's presentation of Jiro.

Many of Amy's pre-fest program picks were already sold-out, including the Israeli comedy The Matchmaker (we were intrigued by the description "Yankele, a Holocaust survivor, has an office in the back of a movie theater that shows only love stories, run by a family of seven Romanian dwarves"), so that made our choices that much easier. Amy decided on Norway's King of Devil's Island (Kongen Av Bastoy), China's "offbeat ballad of friendship and devotion" The Piano in a Factory (Gang de Qin), and the good 'ol USA's haunting psychological thriller Take Shelter, starring Boardwalk Empire 's Michael Shannon and riveting redhead Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life).


directed by Marius Holst
(Norway, 2011, 115 minutes)
In Norwegian with English subtitles

Watch "King of Devil's Island" trailer.

Based on a true story, this youth-centered drama starring Stellan Skarsgard (and a cast of relatively unknown actors and non-professionals, including stellar leads Benjamin Helstad as "Erling/C19" and Trond Nilssen as "Olav") tells the story of a notorious "borstal" (turn-of-the-20th-Century "reform" prisons for under-21 offenders) whose boys revolted in a William Golding/"Lord of the Flies" manner against their oppressors - and in particular, the child molesting guard Brathen (Kristoffer Joner). The wooded isle where where the boys serve out their corporeal punishment, Bastoy Island (literally "Devil Island"), was a real-life Alcatraz for teenage boys located about 45 miles south of Oslo. In 1915, the Norwegian Army was called in to quell an uprising after the boys burned buildings and chased their keepers away; it was one of only two times in Norway's history when its armed services fired upon its own citizens. Ironically, today this former prison colony is trying to become an environmentally-friendly "eco-prison" with inmates housed in wooden cottages and allowed access to horseback riding, fishing, tennis, and cross-country skiing in their free time; no doubt, this is why Bastoy the repurposed "Summer Camp" prison was featured in the DVD extras for Michael Moore's 2007 the-rest-of-the-world-is-better-and-more-sophisticated-than-us documentary Sicko.

Watch Michael Moore visit Bastoy's "Prison of the Future."

Watching The King of Devil's Island's brutal bullying and the inmates' cruel "Lord of the Flies" social pecking order reminded me a lot of another Scandinavian film, Mikael Hafstrom's powerful Evil (Ondskan, Sweden, 2003), while child predator Brathen made me think of current events up in "Happy Valley" - where former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry "Just Horsing Around in the Showers" Sandusky is accused of molesting as many as 40 under-age boys. I couldn't help but think of Sandusky, who retired from college football at the height of his career at age 55 and eschewed pursuing any head coaching jobs to instead work around young boys at a charity organization. At one point in The King of Devil's Island, Stellan Skarsgard's borstal governor asks Brathen why he has stayed in his lower-rung position for so long when more ambitious men would have moved on to new challenges. It clearly raises his eyebrows, much like Sandusky's decision to work with kids in lieu of pursuing the head coaching job he was clearly qualified for. A red flag, in retrospect?

Designated Receiver: Illegal motion in the backfield

If this one sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend David Graham's Eye for Film review that sums it up very well:
...Holst's film is much more artful than many of its predecessors, quickly establishing the grim atmosphere through chilly locations and the bleak, barren landscape but utilising a stirring score and striking cinematography rather than the sort of stark in-your-face realism of Alan Clarke's 'daddy' of the genre. The story takes its time so that we get to know the boys, building to become truly epic and rousing, with riot scenes effectively conveying a sense of how dangerous their revolt was for themselves and those they were retaliating against.

Little details make the film more poignant and harrowing as barely-concealed revelations come to the fore; in particular, the way Holst sensitively handles one weak child's abuse and fate is absolutely heart-rending. Elsewhere, C19's treasuring of a letter offers up the extended metaphor of a huge whale that battled on despite being repeatedly harpooned - an appropriate allusion for the boys' experience.

In the lead, Benjamin Helstad makes quite an impression, convincingly progressing from keeping a survival-motivated distance from his peers to eventually becoming inextricably linked with their struggle to overturn the adults' tyranny. His reaction to a pivotal tragedy is especially well wrought, making us fully invested in his subsequent fight to defeat their oppressors. His character is made the more interesting for his desperate determination to get off the island, having seemingly led a more or less adult life previously, which he gradually comes to share with some of the boys. The relationships he hesitantly forges are also established believably, with initial resentment and rivalry giving way to respect and solidarity.

Trond Nilssen is also excellent as the head boy of the facility, trying to hold on to his hard-won privileges and imminent emancipation even if it means turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around him. Much of the film's pleasure derives from observing how the boys grow to trust and look out for one another, while the tension comes from waiting for their burgeoning collective strength to turn into revolt.

Stellan Skarsgard, as the governor, is as watchable as ever, conveying concern and guilt despite his authoritative stance, while Kristoffer Joner is outstanding in a crucial role as the boys' biggest enemy; his sallow features and sunken eyes are perfect for the portrayal of the predatory Brathen, a sullen bully who has been rejected by adult society.

Holst's film takes on a truly tragic tone that some will find too much to handle, but it's a massively engaging effort that should reward those that stick out its hefty running time. The chaotic climax really hammers home the savagery of both the children and the adults who they're supposed to look up to, while events become almost apocalyptically chaotic in the final stretch. There is a real emotional pay-off to the film's closing moments, done full justice by some talented youngsters who manage to do much more than merely glower. King Of Devil's Island works well as both historical drama and a William Golding-esque fable, and should strike a chord with audiences of all ages.


directed by David Gelb, USA, 2011, 81 minutes
In Japanese with English subtitles
Official Movie Site

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the story of 85 year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. He is the master chef and proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, $300-a-plate sushi-only restaurant located near a Tokyo subway station that was the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded Michelin's coveted and prestigious 3-star rating. Sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage, calling months in advance to get a seat at Jiro’s sushi bar. While this quiet, lushly photographed documentary shows all the intricate planning and preparation that goes into the complex art of making sushi - from getting up early in the morning to select seafood at the fish market to the laborious way to massage an octopus, and even the subtle nuances of properly serving left-handed customers and (feminists beware!) the almost imperceptible practice of serving women slightly smaller rolls - it is the family and cultural backstory that resonates most. At the heart of this story is Jiro’s relationship with his eldest son Yoshikazu, the heir apparent bound by tradition to take over his father's business - yet still waiting at age 50 to step out of his father's shadow and shape his own identity.

This is the way we roll: Jiro & his sushi crew
(Jiro is center, no. 1 son Yoshikazu to his right)

Much luckier is his younger brother who, unconstrained by the burden of family honor and tradition, was able to leave and start his own sushi business. The intergenerational tension of legacy and succession is ultimately a "beast-of-burden" situation for Yoshikazu, who reveals he was unable to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a race car driver due to family obligations. As one critic observed, "This emotionally resonant study of a son living in his father's shadow is couched in an operatic spectacle of some of the world's preeminent chefs at work, making Jiro a tasty treat that will satisfy all viewers' cinematic cravings." It sure made us crave sushi, and we made plans to finally try the highly touted (and much less than $300-a-plate) sushi on offer across the street from our motel at the Cultured Pearl Restaurant & Sushi Bar, where Master Sushi Chef Hiro reigns. (We would not be disappointed and even saw a first - a female sushi chef on staff! Think about it, it's a male-dominated craft. I wonder why?) More on this later.

Watch "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" Trailer.


Related Links:
"My 2011 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival Journal - Part 2"

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (*****)

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
by Shigeru Muzuki
English translation by Jocelyne Allen
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011, 368 pages)

I just finished reading Shigeru Mizuki's graphic novel - his first manga translated into English! - about his traumatic experience (he lost his left arm and most of his friends) as a Japanese soldier in the South Pacific during WWII, Onward Towards Our Noble Death (Soin gyokusai seyo!, originally published in Japan in 1973 and reissued in April of this year by Drawn & Quarterly). Though Mizuki is best known for his yokai (ghost) horror manga subjects (especially those involving one-eyed boy Kitaro of the Graveyard, or GeGeGe no Kitaro, pictured at right), it was this fictionalized memoir of his 1943-1944 tour of duty at Rabual on the island of New Britain (now Papua New Guinea) that serves as one of the best anti-war testaments of all time. Though fictionalized, it is a 90% factual gunki-monogatari (war-tale); Mizuki only took the liberty, for dramatic impact, of having all soldiers in his graphic novel perish, when in fact 80 survived.

Mizuki's style is characterized by "cartoony" characters (and I have to admit, even though he lists his cast of characters at the beginning of the book, I had trouble telling them apart!) set against realistically detailed background drawings, an example of which is shown below.

"Noble death," WWII Japanese style

Scenes like those above remind me of another anti-war graphic novel, one from the other side of the world: Jacques Tardi's chronicle of pointless slaughter in WWI, It Was the War of the Trenches (C'etait la guerre des trenchees, Fantagraphic Books, 2010). Tardi also realized the absurdity of sending "cannon fodder" soldiers to their deaths in pointless charges out of the fetid, rat-infested trenches of France during the Great War, a conflict in which retreating soldiers were shot as traitors for not willingly falling on their swords - an M.O. echoed over 20 years later by Japanese brass in the jungles of the South Pacific. Stanley Kubrick masterfully captured the French military's absurd notions of "honor on the battlefield" in his early masterpiece Paths of Glory. A "trenchant" Tardi panel is shown below:

"Noble death," WWI French style

Publishers Weekly's review of Mizuki's book noted, "Onward joins the growing library of gekiga published by Drawn and Quarterly. Gekiga, roughly translated as “dramatic pictures,” is a manga genre that often focuses on the serious and tragic nature of life and can be compared to American indie or alternative comics. Mizuki is the fourth creator of the group of mangaka credited with creating gekiga in the late 1950s, a group that also includes gekiga pioneers Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and Susumu Katsumata."

Perhaps Mizuki's account of wartime horrors was his attempt to exorcize his own personal demons (and lingering guilt over having survived). As he writes in the book's afterword, Rabual was one of the worst places to be in WWII for Japanese soldiers, who were considered less than human, and where almost 11,000 of these "subhumans" died during one of the war's bitterest campaigns. As a new recuit, Mizaki was beaten repeatedly for, as one officer in the story remarked, "New recruits are like tatami mats. The more you beat them, the better they are."

"In our military, soldiers and socks were consummables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat," Mizuki writes. "Officers, NCOs, horses, soldiers: in the military hierarchy, soldiers were not even thought of as human beings, We were instead creatures lower than a horse...But when it came to death, it turns out we were human beings after all."

In other words, only when ordered to die in a pointless suicide charge against superior enemy forces - to go Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths - did the soldiers actually exist in the eyes of the honor-bound military hierarchy.

"Whenever I write a story about the war, I can't help the blind rage that surges up in me," Mizuki concludes. "My guess is, this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers."

War Is Over? If only!

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011


Sametka (aka Caterpillar, The Velvet Caterpillar)
Animated by Zdenek Miler
Based on the story by Norman Colwin
(Kresleny Film, Prague, Czechoslakia, 1967, 14 minutes)
Released in the US in 1971 by Learning Corporation of America

I work at a large public library that still has hundreds, if not thousands, of videos in this, The Digital Age of the DVD. One of the things I most enjoy about shelf-reading "the Stacks" - the movable-shelves storage area that houses most of our educational videos - is discovering old and obscure videos for which there is little or no information. Usually, these are the blandest of the bland in terms of packaging and the scantest of scant in terms of the library's catalog record. I'm talking about a video for which there's basically a black VHS case and a title (typed on an index card!) - and, if I'm lucky, maybe a date of publication, running time, and one-sentence description (often inaccurate) in the library catalog. One such delightful recent discovery matching all of the above criteria was something called Caterpillar, "an animated fantasy about a caterpillar who dances his way to success and fortune as an internationally recognized performer."

Googling this title turned up nothing betyond what I had already learned. In fact, the title, release date, and running time were all inaccurate. But I like animation and I like discovering new videos in our collection on which no previous light has shone. Taking the video home, I was immedialy struck by its style, which I loved and which was distinctly European - this even though the video was credited to Learning Corporation of America - and its bright, simplistic animation and wordless narrative structure reminded me of Czech animator Zdenek Miler's Mole films; Miler, who is considered the Czech equivalent of Walt Disney, created dozens of wordless (for international market appeal) children's film shorts starring his little mole (or Krtek in Czech) between 1956 and 2002 for Prague's Kresleny Film Studio. And there was good reason why Caterpillar looked so familiar - it was a Zdenek Miler film!

Krtek the little Mole

The importance of "the Mole" to Czechs was underscored when Krtek was recently chosen as the mascot for NASA's space shuttle Endeavor - the brainchild of shuttle crew member Drew Feustal, who has indirect Czech roots through his wife. It's rather fitting, as Krtek had previously starred in a 1965 film and book adventure called Little Mole and the Spaceship! Zdenek Miler, now 90years old, was delighted by his fantasy becoming reality: “I never imagined anything like this for Krtek." Miler approved of a toy designed specifically for NASA and of Krtek’s mission logo (as shown below):

NASA's 2011 Little Mole logo

OK, back to Caterpillar...

Warning Film Scholars: there's hardly any information anywhere about this film. The most detail I could find on the Web as this forum thread by "DavidVillaJr" (surely not the FC Barcelona soccer star?) at the fedoralounge.com:

"Learning Corporation of America, 1971. The inevitability of change is revealed to a little boy in this animated tale of the caterpillar who danced. One day a little boy playing his harmonica, discovers a caterpillar who dances to his tunes. An entrepreneur discovers both the boy and the bug, and soon the dancing bug and the boy become big business all over the world. Suddenly, one day the caterpillar disappears. The boy searched everywhere, but could not find his friend. Then spring comes, and then one day a beautiful butterfly appears, dancing to the boy's tune. The boy decides to set the butterfly free. Primary to intermediate."

Even more intriquing was another thread at fedoralounge.com by Subvet642 that claimed "There is a live action version of the same movie starring Cary Grant. Once Apon A Time (1944) A Broadway producer finds fame with his new act - a dancing caterpillar."

Cary Grant bugs out watching a dancing caterpillar

Even weirder: it's true! How had I never heard of this Cary Grant film about a caterpillar that dances only to the song "Yes Sir, That's My Baby!"? A film directed by Alexander Hall with an all-star cast including Janet Blair, James Gleason (as McGillicuddy "the Moke"), Preston Sturges regular William Demarest (My Three Son's Uncle Charlie!), and Ted Donaldson as "Pinky" the mouth-organ-playing boy who discovers the caterpillar "Curly." Turns out that Once Upon a Time was originally a CBS radio play called "My Friend Curly" by Norman Corwin (from an idea by Lucille Fletcher Herrmann).

Watch the opening of Once Upon a Time.

Reading through the thread, I liked one fan's remembrance of how the boy-with-a-harmonica and his dancing caterpillar turned into an overnight, international sensation akin to the Beatles in the early '60s. As he described the boy and the caterpillar appearing on billboards all over the world, making their escape via helicopter from throngs of swarming fans, and even journeying to the Moon to play for astronauts, I knew the film was not only an example of classic animation, but also a cogent commentary on fleeting fame and the inevitability of change. Ah yes, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, life's only constant is change. Or as Heraclitus put it back in the Classical Greek Age, "You can't step twice into the same river." Even George Harrison noted, via Eastern mysticism, that indeed All Things Must Pass. Which is pretty heavy stuff for the Primary to Intermediate set!

Dancing on the Moon: "One tiny step for man, one giant leap for mole-kind!"

But, as usual with my raging, caffeinated ADD, I have digressed. Back to Caterpillar the film itself. For your viewing pleasure, I have tracked it down on YouTube and included the video clips (in two parts) below:

Watch "the Velvet Caterpillar Part 1."

Watch "The Velvet Caterpillar Part 2."

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