Criterion

For my birthday, T got me a three-month subscription to the Criterion Collection’s streaming service. Why three months, you ask? As she pointed out, it’s a time frame short enough to motivate us to watch as many movies as possible to get our money’s worth. Plus, for a teacher, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are the most relaxing time of the year. I expect to be glutted with film by the end of February.

Last night, we watched Kurosawa’s High and Low, a police procedural from 1963. I’m not planning to review each Criterion movie we watch, but here are a few notes about the film.

  • Along with obvious “high vs. low” imagery, Kurosawa plays with light and darkness. Gondo’s living room is flooded with white light, which makes him vulnerable. He must close the curtains to be safe. His wardrobe also goes from white to dark over the course of the movie.
  • T commented on how Westernized everything in 1960s Japan was. The characters wear business suits. The children pretend to be cowboys. There’s an extended scene in a frenetic dance club populated by Americans (where, according to IMDb, Tarantino got his inspiration for the famous scene in Pulp Fiction). Mrs. Gondo goes back and forth between wearing a traditional kimono and wearing the garb of an American housewife.
  • In American crime dramas, the detective almost always works alone, sometimes outside the bounds of the law. In High and Low (as in Memories of Murder, which I also watched recently), the detective is surrounded by a team. This is extremely obvious in the scenes where the members of the team report on their progress. The whole frame is packed with people.
  • Kurosawa’s long takes let the actors make the most of the time between cuts. ‘Twas delightful.

Must Watch

1917 002

The best compliment I can pay to any movie is this: “You just have to see it.”

Like all great films, 1917 must be seen to be understood. Nothing I say can capture the experience of watching it. Once it was over, silence seemed the only appropriate response. Words fail. I just want to see it again.

A Few Great Families

Well, I finished Season Two of The Mandalorian last night. The show is creative, especially when it comes to random side characters. I was interested in the expanded Star Wars universe for the first time since before I watched The Phantom Menace. The practical effects of baby Yoda and other random side characters made up for the fact that the main character literally does not change expression the entire time.

Apart from overly loud action sequences and a constant barrage of “strong female characters,” I enjoyed the show. But, as usual, I can think of a couple ways it could have been improved.

Here be spoilers.

First, the series’s most powerful mystery isn’t the Child or the presence of the Empire or why Bo-Katan doesn’t have helmet hair. It’s the Mandalorian himself. His invisible identity makes the story hum even in its action-less moments. When are we going to see the vulnerable human being underneath the suit of armor? The reveal was wasted in a three-second shot in Season One that literally served no purpose. If the nurse droid must remove the Mandalorian’s helmet in order to save his life, why not show it happening from behind Mando’s head to keep his face hidden and the mystery alive? I found that moment quite bizarre, actually. After Mando says that no person has seen his face since he put on the helmet, the droid responds, “I am not a person,” and takes it off. Ok, fine. Nice loophole. But then the audience sees his face, implying that… the audience isn’t made up of persons? We’re all droids? It shows that the creators aren’t really thinking about how movies work.

The second time Mando removes his helmet turns out to be completely useless in terms of plot. The guy he’s with can’t use the facial scanner in the officer’s mess because he thinks an officer might recognize him. Mando volunteers to go instead, and has a moment of agony as he weighs the importance of getting the information against the importance of keeping his vow. In the end, he decides to go for it, but gets into trouble with the officer. The other character rescues him and – ta-dah! – the officer does not, in fact, recognize him at all. That was nice. You made the Mandalorian break his vow for nothing.

The third time he removes his helmet (to say goodbye to Baby Yoda) should have been the first time was saw his face. What a powerful moment that would have been—our two main characters face to face for the first time.

Speaking of powerful moments, the ending was extremely lame. I liked The Mandalorian because it showed that there’s room in the Star Wars universe for heroic stories that aren’t centered around the Skywalker family. Silly me. Just when I started to get excited about meeting a new, powerful Jedi (and another interesting male character, too!), he pulled back his hood and revealed his true identity: the Madame Tussaud’s version of Mark Hamill.

In W. H. Auden’s poem For the Time Being, Simeon sings about the birth of Christ, declaring that it has redeemed even the lowly because it has elevated the conflict everyone experiences in his own soul. Each humble one of us now fights the good fight.

The tragic conflict of Virtue with Necessity is no longer confined to the Exceptional Hero; for disaster is not the impact of a curse upon a few great families, but issues continually from the hubris of every tainted will. Every invalid is Roland defending the narrow pass against hopeless odds, every stenographer Brünnhilde refusing to renounce her lover’s ring which came into existence through the renunciation of love.

The Star Wars saga has tried to tell stories about characters other than the Skywalkers before (e.g., Rogue One), but the centripetal force (Force?) always proves too strong. The culmination of every story turns out to be about Luke or Leia or Emperor Palpatine or whomever. It’s getting old, frankly. Rian Johnson beautifully wrapped up Luke’s story in the Last Jedi and made many, many efforts to show that Star Wars is about more than just one bloodline, but all of his efforts were utterly quashed by the creators of the Rise of Skywalker. No every day heroes allowed in Star Wars. This is and always will be a story confined to the Exceptional Hero, the saga of a few great families.