That’s what the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival does to you – if you’re doing it right, it stretches you beyond the point of human exhaustion. Wring every ounce of blood from that gracious movie stone. It tests you. It brings you to the point of breaking. You’re tired physically – good luck getting on with a total of 8 hours of sleep over two nights. You’re drained mentally – after seven feature length films in one day, you exit that midnight screening of Zardoz beating your chest, yelling “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT?!?”
Even though this test of endurance takes place once a year, each subsequent festival conditions you for the next. Sleep deprivation. Survival techniques. Making due with irregular and insubstantial sustenance. Remembering to pack emergency nut clusters.
At the 2017 TCM Film Festival I dozed off during only one film – High Anxiety – and survived both midnight screenings with nary a cat nap. I’ve found that a late afternoon lunch supplemented with a little popcorn adequately nourishes the sedentary moviewatcher without inducing the midnight groggies. Which is precisely why I found this whole Egyptian popcorn strike so unsettling.
When asked about the case of the disappeared popcorn, Egyptian staff could only cite the prepared statement that the theater had just been renovated. Popcorn – that apparent defiler of classic cinemas – had become corna non grata. Only packaged items could be sold. You could only buy a packaged bag of popcorn. What brand of heinous trickery is this?
But back to the movie thing.
Each of the past two years, I’ve composed a letter to family and friends regarding my experience at the festival. The first time it happened organically while I waited for my departing flight to board. Last year I still had new feelings to enhance my original thoughts. This year? Meh. I’m running on instinct and repetition. I’m two days removed from the festival and rather well rested, having taken the afternoon flight home on Sunday to save myself the horrors of the red eye with a layover in San Francisco. So now, with sound mind, and a headful of clarity, let’s compose an obligatory message that lacks the bleary-eyed delirium of years past. Just imagine it on a really nice stationery to class it up a little bit.
On my 2016 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival preview post, I showcased a picture of my tentative schedule. It featured more irregular and irrational lines than the roadmap to China I drew up when I was six years old. This year I’m older. It’s my third festival and therefore I must be wiser. That’s the logic. I’m not sure logic holds with reference to these 2017 TCM Film Festival previews, however. It is, after all a four-day film festival. Movies scheduled from 9:00am until 2:00am. While scurrying between theaters and queue lines you have just enough to scavenge for sustenance. This means a Baja Fresh burrito and/or a bag of popcorn.
Pro tip: Buy a large popcorn so you can carry it around with you for days! Offer it to friends!
The uninitiated are reading this with more than a small amount of skepticism. Burritos? Popcorn? When do you sleep? Wait. Do you sleep? If you’re thinking this sounds #amazeballs and you haven’t been to the TCM Film Festival, you owe it to yourself to set aside time one of these years to make the trip happen. The only thing you might regret is catching the bug thereby requiring a trip every year. Because it’s not just the movies. It’s the people you meet. The conversations you have. These are not ordinary people. These are movie people. They are your people.
For my 2017 TCM Film Festival preview, I attacked the printout with far more reserve. Just a green highlighter, a green pen and a whole lot of indecision.
Fun fact: I took all my notes in college with green pens.
Previewing trips to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival is the epitome of solipsism. This is what I’m doing with four days of my life and you probably can’t join me!Fun! Yet it’s an honored attendee/blogger (in this case bl-gger) tradition. What’s the reason for this phenomenon? First, it’s a fun way to share your schedule with fellow attendees. We’ll earmark screenings and plan a quick meet up beforehand — it’s also a handy way to see who might save you a seat at a buzzy event. Second, and this is probably the important part, we like to share our passion with those that won’t be in attendance. Maybe it’ll provide the necessary kick in the ass to plan for next year.
Three Quick Impressions of the 2017 Festival Schedule
The TCM Film Festival boasts the equivalent of the Sedgewick Hotel’s 12th Floor. At best it’s merely a minor disturbance. At worst it’s Thunderdome. It’s called Chinese Multiplex House 4. Traditionally, TCM has shown many pre-codes and rarities in the smallish Theater 4. The 2016 Fest will linger in memory as “the Double Harness Festival,” referencing the twice sold out screening for an average William Powell pre-code comedy.
This year, it seems that TCM has learned from their repeat mistakes. Finally recognizing that most attendees gravitate toward these harder-to-find rarities, they’ve moved many of them to the much larger Egyptian Theater. As a result I’ve only noted a few films that will lure me back to the Theater 4 Thunderdome. While I’m relieved TCM has taken steps to ameliorate the Theater 4 crush, I’m going to miss the war stories and battle scars.
Fun fact: I was one of the select few that witnessed the very first Double Harness screening at the 2016 fest. I’m in the process of stitching my own merit badge.
There isn’t one screening at the 2017 TCM Film Festival that I’ll fight you to see. 2015 had George Lazenby introducing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. 2016 had Elliott Gould introducing The Long Goodbye and Angela Lansbury introducing Manchurian Candidate. Sure, I’m jazzed about Peter Bogdanovich (more about this in a minute) and Michael Douglas and The Jerk, but I also didn’t plan my entire day around any individual screening. This year I’m charting my course through the movies offered on film.
Despite one screening not ruling my festival, I’m faced with no fewer of those “Sophie’s Choice” scenarios where I’m staring down three, four or even five (!) movies I want to see that are all playing at the same time. Look no further than the Friday night conundrum.
Pro tip: Eliminate potential conflicts by watching widely available and tempting movies at home before the festival.
All that said…
My 2017 Turner Classic Movie Film Festival Preview
The non-stop from Pittsburgh arrives slightly later than in past years, so I won’t be able to participate in the “Remembering Robert Osborne” session at 12:30, but I’ll be there in spirit. I’ll also miss out on my 2pm power nap, which could have dire consequences. My filmgoing schedule meanwhile won’t begin until 6pm. While the big spenders dance the night away with Sidney Poitier and the 50th Anniversary of In the Heat of the Night, I’ll begin my evening at the Egyptian… with one of those movies that probably would have played at the Chinese Multiplex 4 in past years.
This year’s theme is “Comedy” — I hear TCM’s awarding a special prize for the attendee who’s face most resembles The Joker by the end of the festival. The 2017 TCM Film Festival preview proper begins now.
Thursday, April 6th
6:00pm – Love Crazy – Egyptian Theater
Not the best of the Powell/Loy collaborations, but Dana Delany’s been chosen for introduction duties. I don’t really need to see Some Like It Hot again. Jezebel, William Wyler’s 1938 “fearless feminine” picture, holds some sway as something I’ve never seen… but even a lesser William Powell and Myrna Loy lark is a lark worth revisiting.
Fun fact: Dana Delany in China Beach, you guys.
9:30pm – The Man Who Knew Too Much – Egyptian Theater
Here’s a tough one. I’ve seen The Man Who Knew Too Much. Quite a few times. I even just picked up the Criterion Blu-ray at the last Barnes and Noble sale. But it’s shown on Nitrate film stock — a rare treat. Meanwhile at the Chinese Multiplex, Harold and Maude, Requiem for a Heavyweight and I’m All Right Jack battle it out for supremacy. Of all of the films in this slot, I’ve only not seen Requiem for a Heavyweight. The “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller introduces, and that might be enough to cause a last-minute disruption in plans.
Friday, April 7th
The first full day begins. So do the tough decisions.
9:00am – Rafter Romance – Egyptian Theater
The Ginger Rogers 1933 romantic comedy is being presented in 35mm and introduced by Leonard Maltin, which gives it the edge over the “Beyond the Mouse” presentation. I’d still love to see the shorts from early Disney animator Ub Iwerks on the big screen, but I own most of these through the numerous Disney collections that have been released. Even though I own three different articles of clothing featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, I’ll defer to Ginger on film, which sounds a little bit like a pornography. Bonus points.
The funny thing about this festival and this time slot in particular is that The Maltese Falcon is being shown in Multiplex 1, and I didn’t even circle it as a possibility. Films achieve higher priority by excelling in the following three categories: 1. Unseen; 2. Film; 3. Special presenter/presentation. If you meet all three criteria, that’s a must see event.
The necessary exclusion that drives me crazy is It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World at the Cinerama Dome. My trip to see Holiday in Spain in Smell-o-vision at the Dome last year unexpectedly became my favorite experience at the festival. Seeing IaMMMMW in Cinerama would be something special, but it would sacrifice two time slots… and I’d really like to see…
11:15am – Beat the Devil – Chinese Multiplex 6
John Huston’s crime spoof has regretfully eluded my eyes for years. I once began watching a DVD of Beat the Devil but the print quality was so poor I couldn’t continue. Bogart and Lorre. Script by Truman Capote. I’ll gladly take this opportunity to scratch another film off my Cinema Shame list. This comes at the expense of the Lubitsch musical One Hour With You and Born Yesterday, both of which I’ve seen. Not recently and not on the big screen, of course. Temptation remains.
Fun fact: This will be the first TCMFF at which I’ve not seen a Lubitsch musical starring Maurice Chevalier.
2:00pm – Monkey Business – Egyptian Theater
Panique looks interesting over in Multiplex 6, but this is out of my hands. Dick Cavett’s introducing a Marx Brothers favorite and I’m going to be there. This renders other options null. Apologies also to Rob Reiner and The Princess Bride, which I’m sure would be a blast on the big screen, especially with this audience.
4:30pm – So This is Paris – Egyptian Theater
I’ll just go ahead and start paying rent at the Egyptian. I atone for not seeing the other Lubitsch with the silent rarity So This is Paris on 35mm. Sure, I could go see old familiars The Bridge on the River Kwai introduced by Alex Trebek (?) or Broadcast News with James L. Brooks in attendance. I could also partake of W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. But I return to the three checkboxes presented above. So This is Paris checks off all requirements. Unseen. 35mm. Live piano accompaniment.
The brevity of So This is Paris will allow me plenty of time to head out into the evening air and return immediately to the Egyptian for…
Pro tip: There’s a very nice breakfast place on the street perpendicular to the Egyptian. Decent coffee. Egg sandwiches to go.
7:00pm – Red-Headed Woman – Egyptian Theater
This isn’t my favorite Harlowe, but it’s a 35mm presentation. I could be persuaded to venture back to the Multiplex for a change of scenery and “The Great Nickelodeon Show” which will recreate the Nickelodeon experience of early 20th century. The Vitaphone and hand-cranked silent presentations of past years rekindled that juicy film school nostalgia.
9:15pm – High Anxiety – TCL Chinese Theater
So. This slot takes no prisoners. I would love to be five places at once. Over at the Egyptian, viewers will be treated to Laura on Nitrate film stock. Howard Hawks’ first sound comedy, Twentieth Century at Multiplex 1. Cat People in 35mm at Multiplex 4. And then there’s Those Redheads from Seattle in 3D at Multiplex 6.
It’s. Not. Fair. But it’s the best kind of not fair.
Fun fact: Festival attendees love to complain about their conflicts, but goddammit they thrive on these decisions.
How much do I love thee, Mel Brooks? A lot. Mel Brooks introduces his Hitchcock spoof and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.
12:00am – Zardoz – Chinese Multiplex 1
Sean Connery. In a red banana hammock. At midnight. Be there.
You’d rather be hungover than get up at 7:45am to get in line for your first movie of the morning, but it only gets worse on Sunday morning so suck it up, shower off the Zardoz and get back in the game.
9:00am – The China Syndrome – Chinese Multiplex 1
I’ll go for Michael Douglas who’ll be there in person. But I’ll have a They Live-style fisticuffs with myself over not seeing Arsenic and Old Lace in 35mm next door at the Multiplex 4. Meanwhile Alex Trebek is over introducing Stalag 17 for some reason. This festival is full of surprises.
12:00pm – David and Lisa – Chinese Multiplex 4
My first trip to the Thunderdome takes place on Day 3. I won’t even need to put up a fight. Lame. This is another brutal time slot, however. The Awful Truth, Rear Window, The Great Dictator and The Last Picture Show with Peter Bogdanovich in attendance all happen concurrently. That’s four amazing films… and then the one I’m seeing. David and Lisa is in fact the only one I haven’t seen. It’s on 35mm with star Keir Dullea in the house. I might shift gears and see Peter Bogdanovich because I’ll miss out on his chat before What’s Up Doc? on Sunday. The problem with The Last Picture Show is timing. David and Lisa gets out much earlier, which allows me to head over to the TCL Chinese Theater to get a good seat for…
2:45pm – The Jerk – TCL Chinese Theater
So I’ve seen The Jerk a few times. Seeing The Jerk on the big screen prefaced with a Carl Reiner chat might by my special purpose of the festival. I saw Reiner and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid last year, but Carl Reiner chats are the best kind of chats, full of wisdom, humor and optimism. I’ll gladly double dip.
6:30pm – Theodora Goes Wild or King of Hearts – Egyptian / Multiplex 6
Toss up. An unseen Irene Dunn screwball in 35mm or Genevieve Bujold in an unseen anti-war comedy. I’ll do some research on home video availability and watch one of these (if possible) before the festival to alleviate any lingering doubts about my choice here. Stay tuned for updates.
Fun fact: I know you will.
9:30pm – Black Narcissus – Egyptian Theater
Scratch another Shame off the list. I’ve long meant to watch Black Narcissus. On Nitrate stock in the grand Egyptian? Doesn’t get much better for a first time viewing. This comes at the expense of personal favorite Top Secret! introduced by the Zucker brothers and the unseen The Incident introduced by Martin Sheen. Also worth noting here is that I didn’t even consider The Graduate or Unfaithfully Yours. I’ll resort to the “I have those on Criterion DVD” defense.
12:00am – The Kentucky Fried Movie – Chinese Multiplex 1
And here’s the reason I’m okay with missing Top Secret! Not only do I get the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams, but also John Landis chatting before a screening of the legendary Kentucky Fried Movie. The crowd will be locked and loaded for this one. John Landis!!
Fun fact: I love John Landis.
Sunday, April 9th
If getting up on Saturday morning is a hangover, getting up on Sunday morning is the equivalent of jumping in front of a moving truck on Hollywood Boulevard. Daylight is your punishment. Mind over sleep deprivation.
Pro tip: Hydrate whenever possible. It’s too easy to forget. Especially when you’re loading up on salty food throughout the day. Upon arriving, pick up a few big bottles of water. Keep them with you.
My abbreviated final day. I must depart the festival a touch early to return home, to return to daily life and function as a real, live human on Monday morning. The only way to do that is a mid-afternoon non-stop. The past two years I’ve taken the midnight red-eye. A regular red-eye is brutal. A sleep-deprived red-eye is banned by the Geneva Convention.
9:00am – Cock of the Air – Chinese Multiplex 6
If there’s a Double Harness of the 2017 TCMFF it’s this little pre-code Howard Hughes ditty. Originally censored by the Hayes Office, the original cut of the print was thought lost. Until 2007 — when it was found, except without the soundtrack. The original cut has been restored using voice actors and new sound effects and music. I’ll be in line early to make sure I get prime real estate.
Pro tip: You know the old saying… the early bird gets to see Cock of the Air.
11:15am – Lured – Chinese Multiplex 6
My final screening of the festival before departure. Also not a comedy. Film noir-esque drama directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Lucille Ball, George Sanders and Boris Karloff (?!?). I know nothing about this movie, but the creative minds involved requires a viewing. I have no problem sacrificing The Front Page for this one because, say it with me, “Criterion DVD.” Technically, it’s just a bonus on the recently-released His Girl Friday Blu-ray.
I’m not especially happy about missing Peter Bogdanovich and What’s Up Doc? Sunday afternoon, but thems the breaks. The reward for leaving mid-afternoon is a non-stop flight and my own bed instead of a 90-minute layover in San Francisco followed still by the upright seat of a cramped airliner for 5+ hours. This will also result in a far happier wife who gets to return to her regularly scheduled Monday activities rather than worrying herself with my ability to function in the real world. She takes days off work to permit me this brief dalliance.
I look forward to seeing the old familiar TCM Festival faces and sharing all that movie talk and queue standing. I’m still lobbying for built in cocktail hours and a full bar in the Multiplex.
Welcome to February 24th. It’s 76 degrees here in Pittsburgh. Everyone thinks its spring and that just means that when it snows again — and it will snow again — they’ll all be in super duper bad moods. I prefer not to get too high or too low about this weather stuff. Either way I’ll still drink my iced americano because I refuse to let the bastards get me down.
I’ve been waiting for that first top-notch rap or hip-hop album of 2017. Celebrate good times; that record has arrived… in what has turned into a surprising week for new music.
30Hz New Music Radar: Stormzy – Gang Signs & Prayer
Straight out of the UK grime circuit dominated of late by Skepta, Stormzy first made a name for himself with his “Wicked Skengman” series of freestyle tapes in 2014. Gang Signs & Prayer represents Stormzy’s first full-length LP.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in UK rap/hip-hop. Beyond my appreciation for Skepta and the occasional track from Dizzee Rascal, my grime experience allows me license (licence?) to identify grime (I know grime when I hear it!) but not dissect the genre specifics with any confidence. So let’s all learn something together.
Grime originated in London during the early 2000’s — a combination of UK electronic music and hip-hop. The sub-genre also borrows liberally from dancehall and reggae. The most identifiable characteristic of grime is hyperactive, syncopated breakbeats, generally 130-140 bpm. Lyrics depict gritty inner-city life. The casual listener will note a rather standard emcee cadence and those aforementioned roots in UK electronic music, specifically breakbeat, drum & bass, and jungle. #TheMoreYouKnow
I normally stumble on modern rap/hip-hop artists when they go slow jam. Stormzy manages to hold my attention even when the bpm’s drop. “Cigarettes & Cush,” as one example of a slow-burner that still hits. Gang Signs & Prayer lacks not for thumpers. A Junkaroo parade strolls through the studio during “Cold,” and “Big For Your Boots” will challenge your speakers with some low-end Gregorian chants laced behind Stormzy’s rapidfire lyricism.
Sample tracks: Big For Your Boots, Mr. Skeng, 100 Bags
Today is a day. Today is a day like any other. In Pittsburgh, the sky is overcast with intermittent rain shows. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. This is what happens in January. Sometimes it snows and wrongly convinces us all that January is not always gloomy in Western Pennsylvania.
A Writer’s Manifesto
Right now, just a few hours south, the inauguration of our 45th President of the United States ushers in an era that more closely approximates something out of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley or, well, Mike Judge — who perhaps most correctly predicted this day in the prescient documentary Idiocracy. Somewhere Three Doors Down is playing in celebration of something. That alone warrants concern.
But I’m not here to engage in any kind of political or ideological discussion. Not right now. This is more about how we react as artists. We’ve probably Tweeted and Re-Tweeted, shared Facebook posts, and even made some of our own. Is that the best use of our talents? Is that the best use of our creative energy?
In the time since the election, I’ve been wading through a swamp of disbelief. Guess what? There’s no drain in a swamp. A swamp just is. I’d love nothing more than to pull the plug on this shitshow. It’s not that easy. We can’t bury our head in the rising tide of muck and filth. And we can’t just hope it all dries up.
As artists, we cannot be sent into a tailspin of malaise. Use this anger and anxiety. Use this hatred and passion. CREATE. WRITE. PAINT. Do whatever it is that poets do. (I kid.) Use this to inspire yourself to pick up your pen and do what you love. What you set out to do. Exact change through your artistic contributions. Now for a writer’s manifesto, a personal statement about how I plan to endure.
So today, on January 20th, 2017 and for the foreseeable future, I vow to do the following:
Respect the Presidency but refuse to respect the man elected president. And for the record, I did not like George W. but I still respected him as a man that always intended to do right by his country.
I will not say his name. I will call him Captain Cuntmonkey or Senior Pendejo. Coming up with the most creatively derogatory names as a regular mental exercise.
I will not legitimize. Never legitimize. The man is a cartoon gerbil and should be treated as such. This is not normal.
When all this gets you down, write more.
Put something of yourself out in this world rather than retreat inward. Be bold. Allow yourself freedom from your inner critic. Trust your instincts. Surround yourself with good people and trust their instincts. Collaborate.
Join me in ushering in an era of personal accomplishment and creative entitlement. Our collective, creative renaissance begins today. This is our Resistance.
Whenever we lose another celebrity the Interwebs assemble into two primary factions. 1. Those that mourn. 2. Those that begrudge the need to mourn. The latter faction shames the former for feeling sorrow in the wake of the celebrity death. “Celebrity” assumes that we had no real life connections to the deceased — that they were merely a face on the screen or a voice on the radio, merely a fictional personality.
I never knew Carrie Fisher. I never spoke to her at a press junket or a fan convention. Zero direct or indirect contact. But as long as there’s been a “me,” there’s been Princess Leia. Let’s start at the beginning. I was born in 1978, the year after the release of Star Wars. I saw the film at such an age that I do not recall any moment in my life that predates knowledge of the film.
I lay no special claim to the following statements, and I know for a fact that I am not alone.
Carrie Fisher was my first crush. Of course, I crushed on Princess Leia and the hair buns and the “into the garbage shoot, flyboy” confidence, the girl that led a rebellion and, lets be honest, the girl that wore the gold bikini. I was of a certain impressionable age. There was just no getting around it. I was and remain only human. Like many others, Leia was my earliest exposure to cinematic badass femininity.
Of course, as I grew older I distanced the Princess Leia character from the actress Carrie Fisher.
Princess Leia belonged to that unassailable, ideal part of my childhood. The part that worshipped all things Star Wars, watched the original trilogy movies on a loop, went as an Ewok one Halloween, made my mom design different Star Wars-themed birthday cakes each year, paused my VHS tape and counted the number of stormtroopers present when Darth Vader arrives on the Death Star and requested that many stormtrooper action figures for Christmas. I had Star Wars bed sheets and posters of all three movies over my bed. I received phone calls on my Darth Vader telephone. These memories cannot be taken from me. They remain pure, perfect nostalgia.
I came to see Carrie Fisher meanwhile as a beautiful, damaged, three-dimensional human. As I struggled with feelings of depression during my early 30’s, I looked to her — someone who’d lived with mental illness — as a figure of hope. Someone who knew what bottom felt like and spoke openly about her experiences, using her celebrity to bring awareness to an issue that remained, apparently, off-limits for dinner conversation. And she did so with wit and wisdom and brazen self-awareness. She’d experienced darkness and as a sort of self-satirist could make light of her troubles without undermining the struggles of anyone else. The world seemed healthier, more honest and more colorful with Carrie Fisher dishing stories about her addictions and the absurdities of her life in Hollywood as Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia and daughter of Hollywood royalty, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
This week we all had to say goodbye to that voice, that wit, that beacon of hope. I have mourned her passing on social media and in the privacy of my home. For the first time in all of our years together, my wife suggested we watch Star Wars to celebrate Carrie, but I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready to admit that she was really gone. Instead I cleaned the house and blared John Coltrane on vinyl. I wasn’t ready to recognize that the 19-year-old woman who’d catalyzed these films that I’d loved throughout my entire lifetime with the line “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” was really gone.
No, I never met Carrie Fisher, but I have shed a few tears over her passing. I will mourn her as an actress. I will mourn her as a voice of reason amidst the madness of our self-obsessed modern culture. And I will mourn the passing of part of my ideal, unassailable youth — my now somewhat imperfect nostalgia. It sounds selfish — but that is our frame of reference for “Celebrity” — the ways in which they’ve touched our lives through their art. I will mourn because I feel sadness, and that’s the first step toward being better, no matter the scope or scale of that loss.
And now having just finished the first draft of this bl-g post, I’ve learned that Debbie Reynolds has also passed. And just like that– another radiant beacon of positivity has been extinguished. As fans of cinema we loved them both like family. I cannot imagine the feeling of loss within their real family.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1960’s
Country of Origin – Japan
#18. Kuroneko (1968)
Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, the Japanese title for Kuroneko takes the prize for most literal name of a transcendent piece of cinema. (I assume.) The literal English translation, “A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove,” paints a very precise picture. Kaneto Shindo’s film showcases bamboo groves and black cats, oftentimes in the same image and beautifully rendered. Truth in advertisement.
Of course, such precision fails to convey nuance beyond the light and shadow. Even without nuance, however, Kuroneko is a beautiful film. A collection of still images could populate an entire gallery installation.
A band of traveling samurai rape and murder Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige. They burn down their house, take their food and depart. A black cat appears and licks the bodies of the women. The women return as spirits having pledged to avenge their death by murdering all samurai. All samurai includes Shige’s husband Gintoki who’d gone off to war in the faraway north. They lure their samurai to an illusory estate in a bamboo grove (a spot near where their house once stood), seduce, then destroy. When news of these samurai butchers reaches governor Raiko, he sends Gintoki to destroy the spirits.
The term “elegiac” resonated while watching Kuroneko. The word itself rolls off the tongue and inspires non-specific romantic pining, sort of like Hector Elizondo. Literally “elegiac” means an expression of sorrow for something now past.
The women react to the lives they’ve lost, the blissful illusion of sanctuary. A home, a family, the belief in the altruism of a protective warrior class. As farming peasants, as women, Yone and Shige represented the lowest tier of the caste system, other than ethnic minorities, convicted criminals, etc. (the “burakumin”). Despite their status, they lived a contented existence. A violent death and total disillusionment ferried them back to their vengeful purgatory where they are charged with more than just measure-for-measure revenge. Within this context of mourning the loss of their life and a worldview of untarnished pastoral purity, the notion of Kuroneko as an elegy becomes especially potent.
Let’s further consider the definition of elegiac within poetry. I had to brush up on the broader strokes of the elegiac couplet because it’s been almost twenty years since I last used or studied the term. Greek lyrical poets used elegiac couplets for themes on a smaller scale than the epic. The couplet stands on its own but contributes to the larger work. Individual, isolated pieces of the whole. Though for this conversation the specifics don’t necessarily matter as much as the function of the elegiac couplet. Let’s dig up some of that Freshman English class.
Each couplet consists of a hexameter verse followed by a pentameter verse. The following is a graphic representation of its scansion. Note that – is a long syllable, u a short syllable, and U is either one long syllable or two short syllables:
– U | – U | – U | – U | – u u | – –
– U | – U | – || – u u | – u u | –
In it’s original Greek and eventually Latin usage, the elegiac couplet was considered a lesser art form. Elegiac poets liberally borrowed the themes of the epic in order to lend more gravitas to the shorter, more accessible elegies. As a horror film, also typically considered lesser art, does not Kuroneko struggle against the same kind of bias? The themes of Kuroneko resonate well beyond the horror genre.
The beauty of the couplet manifests in poetic simplicity. The same holds true for Kuroneko narrative, which relies on light, shadow and often silence. Fog dances among the bamboo forest, the reeds of which appear overdeveloped during processing and reinforces the haunting estate’s isolation. Pure whites and pure blacks. Only the fog lies somewhere in between. Nothing but blackness appears beyond the forest. This turns the most minimal of set designs into limitless space.
Though Shindo handles the seduction of the samurai with a deft touch, and an eye first concerned with visual poetry, Kuroneko embraces the thematic essentials of a horror film. He begins the film with the massacre of the women and their home, but shows none of the samurai’s overt trespasses. The violence agains the women is left to the imagination — only an image of their charred bodies — but our imagination is often more potent. The women, however, exact their pound of flesh by biting their victims in the neck, ripping throats like a big cat killing its prey.
When Gintoki arrives at the women’s lair, the film strays from any horrific imagery and moves toward a Shakespearean tragedy. Two lovers, reunited. An unnatural coupling of man and spirit. Shige surrenders her soul to hell for one more week with her husband. Meanwhile Gintoki’s mother, bound by her oath to destroy the samurai, offers her son no family discount.
Whether you’re spellbound by the imagery or wrapped up in the sworn vengeance of the wronged women, Kuroneko casts a timeless spell. Conservation of language. The visual poetry of the black and white image. Revenge and honor. Love and death. The shattered sanctuary of home. Elegiac, indeed.
After finishing Kuroneko, I sat in silence, watching the Criterion menu. The ultimate sign of respect for any film — silent reflection. (Though, on the flipside, I also sat silently after finishing Nightmare on Elm Street 2 because holy hell that was one terrible movie.)
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.