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Three stills from chanbara: Seven Samurai, Twilight Samurai, Harakiri

Dissecting Chanbara: The Evolution of the Samurai Film Genre

There are samurai films, and then there are films that, while falling into this genre by happenstance, become the high points of cinema itself. I intend to examine three films in the chanbara tradition, and, in doing so, I will show how they’ve helped evolve the genre, advancing it into high art by building on previous achievements.

Perhaps the most important (even if not the best) film in the chanbara genre is Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), which tells the story of a group of warriors recruited by a village aiming to free itself from harassment by local bandits. It is a great action/adventure film that manages to transcend that label because of its pristine characterization and Kurosawa’s skill as a storyteller. The village farmers have only rice to offer in exchange for the service of the samurais, so that the viewer knows the only warriors who will agree to help are those righteous enough to sympathize with their struggle, or those desperate enough to take the job.

From its opening, one of the film’s few limitations becomes clear: Kurosawa’s proclivity for melodrama. As one of the farmers (Bokuzen Hidari) overhears bandits planning their next raid, the villagers whine and scream, worried about their future. However, even this aspect of the film is ameliorated by two things: 1) although the presentation is a bit cheesy, it makes sense for the farmers to be upset, since their lives are at risk; 2) the film is extremely concise and well-paced, with this scene an immediate point of departure. In fact, although Seven Samurai is three and a half hours long, it feels more like two. This is partly due to Kurosawa’s editing, which often cuts amid a character’s movement to maintain seamlessness in the flow of each sequence, then alternates loud and quiet scenes, so that they rarely feel monotonous. […]

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Shot from Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder"

The Assertion of Character in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959)

Do we ever really know anyone? Are we defined by our actions, or more so the perceptions of our actions? How exactly do we assert one’s character when our basis is only an impression? So begins the dissection of Otto Preminger’s 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder.

I love when I uncover a classic film I’ve not seen. As a Criterion Channel subscriber, this happens only on occasion given their copious selection. Likewise, I have made an effort to see all films with James Stewart (who won me over in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life), as well as George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove) and Ben Gazzara (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). With this cast, and Otto Preminger directing, I was prepared for excellence.

The film begins with Stewart as Paul Biegler, a small town semi-retired lawyer who spends his evenings playing piano while studying law books over a glass of bourbon. He appears to enjoy his bachelor life. Soon, he is approached by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) in her attempt to land him as her husband’s (Lt. Frederick Manion, played by Ben Gazzara) lawyer, who is in jail for the murder of Barney Quill—a man she claims raped her. We learn early that Lt. Manion has a propensity for jealousy, and that Laura is an overwhelming flirt. Upon meeting with Biegler (Stewart), despite her black eye that she covers with sunglasses, she immediately begins eying him, ‘Call me Laura,’ she says. ‘I see the way you look at me. Don’t you like the way I dress?’ she asks, while curled up on his couch during their meeting. She appears to be more interested in flirting than in clearing her husband’s murder allegation. […]

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A screenshot from Andrew Kotting's "This Filthy Earth" (2001)

Des Morts, Des Semences: On Andrew Kotting’s “This Filthy Earth” (2001)

British cinema has had an unsatisfactory history – in its battles with censorship, and public morality, and the untenable economics of it all. You only need to look across the Channel to see what can happen when free of even a few of those constraints – you get a French new wave, or later, cinema of the extreme. That’s why films like Andrew Kotting’s This Filthy Earth aren’t made – because to be frank, nobody will watch them.

Derek Jarman struggled with similar problems, because for all of his technical expertise, his films never sated British appetites. His explorations of the texture of cinema might be a bit too continental. Andrew Kotting, an adherent to Jarman’s rampant style, has found something similar, because This Filthy Earth is an example of a movie going largely ignored by the country it concerns.

Maybe Kotting knew this, and that’s why he loosely adapted this story from a seminal French novel – La Terre, by Émile Zola. Loosely is operative, as the film attempts to translocate the themes Zola put forward through the characteristics only cinema can embody. Texture, montage, diaphanous images that fade into each other, all while stripping away the characteristics of its literary counterpart. This is to the film’s strength until its troubled third act, when it listlessly melts into weightless resolutions. […]

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A stylized montage of ladies in hats

Ladies in Hats: or, Aesthetics vs. Reality

De gustibus non est disputandum, goes the medieval Scholastic saying: “About taste, there is no dispute.” At first blush, this seems a pretty straightforward statement, opposing reason—which is purportedly objective—with preference, which is subjective.

For instance, I like ladies in hats. Not the pillbox, Jackie O–type, or the Roaring 20s close-to-the-head, cloche-style, or even the fedora-style, but hats with brims, floppy hats, summer hats, the kind of hats which to me, even make the Wicked Witch of  the West look good, the kind Julia Roberts wore in “Pretty Woman.” I also like raspberry sherbet in a waffle cone.  Both of these preferences do not admit to some kind of logical argument. If I were asked why I like ladies in hats and raspberry sherbet, I’d just say, “because.” I would feel no imperative to explain, no need to go on social media to bolster my statement with some ideological gymnastics.

I suppose those who MUST have a tidy answer to everything, or those who claim some insight into the dark and labyrinthine  recesses of the human consciousness, would say something mind-boggling mushy, something which smells like psychological determinism:  I like women in floppy-brim hats because my mother or grandmother or sister or first grade teacher wore them; I like raspberry sherbet because one idyllic summer I was sharing a raspberry sherbet cone with my first crush and I had my first kiss on a grassy knoll overlooking a placid lake. […]

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A still shot from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" (Zerkalo) (1975)

Contained In Captivity: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo)

I open this essay unsure how to approach it—I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror about a dozen times, and each viewing is different. Each is a separate experience and yields something new. I find myself mentally revisiting certain scenes over others, but then in rewatching, my mind will rearrange into whatever I am feeling at the time. Perhaps, then, this is the best way to interpret this memorable film about memory, where it captures just how the mind drifts between past and present and often interchanges people’s faces with that of one’s dream. Reality and dream—is there a difference? To Tarkovsky, they are one and the same, as the director admitted that he often utilized his own dreams as an inspirational source for his films. And his films really are the closest one could get into being inside another’s dream. Decades pass in moments and then the past returns and then some occurrence in present day alters the viewers—we come to remember another’s memory and so on.

The film begins with a television screen—this gateway into fantasy—where the viewer, presumably the speaker (named Alexei), is witnessing on film a young man with a stutter—he is undergoing treatment at the hand of a nurse, and the film, which involves so much of the mind, begins with the body. ‘Your hands are tense,’ she says. ‘Lean back,’ she instructs, continually coaching his physical form. Then, in some hypnotic attempt, the young man is cured of his stutter, wherein we are then transported to another form of ‘hypnosis’— that is, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dream. All this occurs before the title credits roll.

Margarita Terekhova is the actress who plays both Alexei’s mother as well as his ex-wife, Natalia. ‘I always thought you resembled my mother,’ he tells her. ‘When I imagine my mother, she always has your face.’ This is an insightful move on Tarkovsky’s part, as how often have we thought of someone only to imbue another’s face from memory onto them? That the scenes move back and forth between Alexei as a boy in 1935 pre-war to that of present day, only adds to this element of passage. Life and time are interchangeable. Our minds are just the onlookers, the photographers left to interpret what we’ve witnessed. […]

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A screenshot of the protagonist from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

Straight out of the gate: Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven is not a great film. It’s not near-great. It’s not even that good. It is seriously flawed and oftentimes disappointing. However, I argue that despite its flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is not garbage, nor even very bad. My judgment: Kingdom of Heaven is a so-so film with a weak screenplay, subpar acting from its male lead, and some glimmers of what could have been a great film. I also argue that although many rightfully skewer the film for its historical inaccuracies, historical in/accuracy is not the end-all-be-all criteria for evaluating historical films. In addition, I argue that the film’s saving grace is its look, and Ridley offers the viewer enough of a spectacle that Kingdom of Heaven rises just above the murk, however stained.


It is 1184. The film opens in a gloomy, miserable France, where we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), the protagonist. He is the resident blacksmith, ex-soldier, as well as a widower (his wife having committed suicide after the death of their infant) and wears an “expression” of bleak, handsome indifference which may or may not alter in minute degrees during this three-hour-long epic. He has a half-brother (Michael Sheen), a sniveling, greedy priest, who wants Balian’s property for himself. He half-asses the burial of Balian’s wife, which will later prove his undoing.

The events of Kingdom of Heaven are kicked off by the arrival of a crusader named Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) with a cohort of other warriors, including a Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and asks him to join their journey back to the Holy Land. Balian refuses, and the crusaders leave. Miffed by Balian’s stolidity, his brother admits to beheading the corpse of his wife, the “true” punishment for a suicide, in an effort to enrage Balian into leaving. Of course, it backfires, and Balian murders him via impalement and burning. […]

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Three images of Carl Sandburg, including a bust of the poet.

The Grit and Dirt of Carl Sandburg (Four Poems Analyzed)

The first time I read Carl Sandburg I was in high school wherein the words, ‘Hog Butcher for the world,’ composed the first line of text, which is of course the first line to his famous poem “Chicago”. I recall not knowing what to make of the poem upon my teenaged read, as I always preferred to reexamine poetry multiple times. But I always remembered it. The poem puts me in mind of Upton Sinclair’s well-known novel The Jungle, which is also set in Chicago, and both Sandburg and Sinclair share a love for exposing the political underbelly of culture. It has been argued that Sandburg is a Neglected Poet in that, while his reputation is not obscure, it perhaps should be grander than it is.

At his best, Carl Sandburg is an excellent poet that does not steer away from the grit and dirt of life—the life of the struggling poor, or just his love of city and nature. At his worst, he can at times veer into preaching cliché (however minimally) and his lesser poems don’t hold the heft as those of someone like Robinson Jeffers or Wallace Stevens. But while Jeffers and Stevens are more philosophical, Sandburg is more social. […]

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A simulated, dramatized seppuku ritual in Japan, which the author contrasts with wokeness

Our Age of Atonement: Seppuku, Sarah’s House, and Wokeness

The Winchester Repeating Arms Company made about 720,000 copies of  the .44-.40 Winchester rifle and carbines between 1873 and 1923. It killed a lot of people; it was the “gun that won the West”; Jimmy Stewart had one in a movie; it was a legend. The Winchester Company made a lot of guns and made a lot of money for Oliver Fisher Winchester, and when he died in 1880, he left his estate to his wife Sarah, an estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which she needed when she moved West from New Haven.

Her daughter died of a wasting disease, and with her husband’s death, one can only imagine her heartbreak and depression. A medium, supposedly channeling her late husband, told her to move and continually build a home for herself and all the spirits made incorporeal by Winchester weapons. By way of expiation for past wrongs, building a house is not in the same class as disemboweling oneself, yet Sarah was no samurai, but a heartbroken widow.

When she moved, bought land in San Jose, California, and proceeded to use a part of her vast fortune to build…and build….and build. Originally seven stories before the 1906 quake (now just four). The house is a hodge-podge of architectural wonderments, with windows overlooking other rooms, stairs which don’t go anywhere, much less to Heaven, and odd-sized risers for the staircases. It is expiation in Queen Anne, Late Victorian style. It is hara-kiri with hammers, paint and nails. […]