Movies, Toons

An obnoxious reason for walking out of a movie

Have you ever walked out of a movie theater? I have. I walked out of Supari, once upon a decade ago, and I walked out after 30 minutes of that Vishal Bharadwaj film with Pankaj Kapur and Imran Khan whose name I cannot recall, it was that bad. Oh yes, Matru Ki Bijli. A screening of Profundo Rosso that was part of a double-feature, and it was so late in the night that my brain had turned to mush. I am fairly sure this number would have been higher had I not been with other people in the theater. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, for example, and even the first Hobbit movie. In all these cases, I walked out because the films did not engage me in any way; there was some amount of revulsion involved, and the thought that if I did not allow more of my time to be wasted in that darkened theater, it would imply redemption of some sort.

Yesterday, I walked out of a theater for another reason altogether. It’s possible that in doing so, I startled the rest of the audience. I had been the first person to arrive at the theater, half an hour before showtime, and was able to pick the best seat in that sea of red faux-leather, that perfectly centered spot that brings the rectangular screen, uh, square in the center of your vision. There I sat, indulging myself in butter-covered food of the gods, acknowledging the matinee crowd that traipsed in slowly, film buffs, couples out on dates, parents with young children in tow, or the other way round. We laughed as the ads played, and the sounds of my chewing found sympathetic patterns in the mastication of other film-goers. The film trailers got over; the passive-aggressive switch-off-cellphone ads got some of us to double-check our devices, and we clapped as the theater darkened for the main feature. And once the movie began, it took me about 20 horrific seconds to realize what I was in for. To decide I did not want to see it anymore.

The movie was Mamoru Hosoda’s Boy and the Beast, and you see, the version playing on that particular screening was the one dubbed into English.

No. No no no no.

In my head, there is a clear breach of expectation that happens when I go to watch a film in one language and get another. It does not have to be Japanese anime; I have found myself cringing when listening to Pixar movies dubbed in Spanish, or even a Cantonese film in Mandarin. For anime, it hits me in the worst kind of way; the closest analogy I can give is when you go to a restaurant and order a plate of samosas. When the waiter brings the plate in, you smell the delicious samosa-smell and your mouth begins to water. The waiter has even remembered to bring chutney, and it’s the right kind of chutney, the syrupy, tangy tamarind recipe that goes perfectly with samosas. Eagerly, you pick up one of them. It is the perfect temperature too; freshly fried and kept aside for just the perfect amount of time that you know there will be no waiting for the filling to cool down, and that your tongue is safe. You dip the samosa in the tamarind chutney and bite into it. How would you feel if that samosa, for some reason, is sweet, instead of salty?

When the opening narration in the movie began in English, in my head, I was sure that there was A Problem, and only Swift Decisive Action could solve it. I remembered that I had double-checked to see if the matinee show had the original language or not, and the website said that only the 4 PM show would be dubbed. 1 I could be that hero the rest of the audience needed. I ran outside, and the girl selling tickets was gone, and so was the manager, who had been lounging around reading a newspaper. There was only the guy selling popcorn, and he agreed with me, that the movie playing should be a subbed version. The manager came into view, finally, and he pointed out that Saturdays they only have two shows, and the 7 PM screening is when I would see the subbed version, if I wanted to come back. Unsure about my plans for the rest of the day, I got a refund. At 7 PM, however, I had come back. This time I did not buy the popcorn, and I made sure to ask about which language would play, before getting my ticket.

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The movie? It was okay. Visually stunning, like Mamoru Hosoda films are. Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai are two anime film-makers who have distinct visual styles of storytelling. More importantly, their films contain stories with an emotional depth that other, more lackadaisical animation film-makers either glaze over or dumb down. This however has the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) of appending any discussion of the two film-makers’ work with a comparison to Hayao Miyazaki’s ouevre. I am guilty of making the same analogy when it comes to selling any of their work to my friends, to be honest. But here’s an admission — I think Hosoda and Shinkai, the latter in particular, bring in more emotional honesty and vulnerability into their work than Miyazaki ever did. Miyazaki protagonists are idealized archetypes, asexual and wide-eyed. These latter-day filmmakers make their characters more fragile and human, and that makes their work much more appealing to me.

On the surface, Hosoda’s style is much more aligned with the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli — a little-known fact is that he was tapped to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but Miyazaki took over due to creative differences. Much like the veteran film-maker, Hosoda’s work is rooted in Japanese tradition. Scenes from Wolf Children play out like extended homages to My Neighbor Totoro, and both Wolf and Summer Wars are as much about family ties and bonds with nature as any Ghibli movie you can think of. In Boy and The Beast, there are striking similarities to Spirited Away, especially with the concept of a parallel world that exists just beyond our world, and one human child that makes his way to the other side. There, Chihiro became Sen, with a flick of the characters in her name; here Ren becomes Kyuta because he is aged nine. There, our heroine was trapped in the land of the Others, who are unfamiliar and mostly horrific and unkind to trespassers; here, Kyuta willingly crosses over into a world of beasts who, though suspicious of the motives of the runaway human, mostly accept him in time. The theme of finding your family — blood or surrogate — loom large throughout the movie’s storyline, as does the idea of belonging.

My main issue is that most parts of the film feel rushed. It opens with a narrator explaining the situation, skimming through the world-building, telling us more than we can see. We never really understand certain characters’ motivations. There are too many montages — one where the characters go on a journey of self-discovery, for example, and meet a variety of powerful beasts in that world —no payoff to those scenes follow. Things get interesting when Kyuta begins his training under Kumatetsu, and the central theme of the film, that of these two unlike creatures finding themselves through each other, is cemented in this all-too-brief sequence. The third act falls apart almost completely, especially as grown-up Kyuta begins going back to the real world. Subplot brimming with threats and conflicts come out of nowhere, as do the resolutions; the romantic angle is all Jungle Book meets anime cliche, Ren’s meeting with his biological father is angst and adolescent fury, and the final boss-fight involves a character who is woefully under-explained. The only place, therefore, where Boy and The Beast really succeeds is in making us root for the titular characters right off the bat.

All in all, the movie suffers just because Hosoda’s previous work has been so good. Of course it’s a wonderful movie, full of wit and charm and moments, but it manages to not live up to expectations. But hey, this is from the guy that hated Howl’s Moving Castle the first time he saw it, and changed his mind later. If you get a chance to watch it, please do — and if you haven’t seen any of Hosoda’s previous work, check them out after this one.

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Notes:

  1. This had happened once before, you see, with a screening of a Ghibli movie, where but for an epiphany just before clicking the buy-button, I would have been sobbing through a dubbed movie after having taken a bus across town.
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Movies, Music

On watching and listening to Under The Skin

Pal William handed me a DVD of Under The Skin last week, a movie that we had talked about before and which he recommended with such enthusiasm that I bumped it up my queue. Took me a while to finally pop the disc in, but glad I did. The movie is bizarre and unsettling and wonderful, and Scarlett Johansson’s character makes me afraid and aroused at the same time. In the beginning, it is a strange mix of what feels like candid, unscripted moments of Ms Johansson driving around a strange land and picking up strangers. Scenes of seduction that make you hold your breath while waiting for the pay-off. When it ended, two-odd hours later, I found myself tingling with excitement, the kind  that comes from consuming something that is beyond what you expected. 1

Nowadays, I prefer to go into movies without the burden of expectations that the publicity machine brings along. Oh, I am not talking about the big-budget franchises. That’s an infinite hype train subway where the exit doors lead to yet another platform and yet another ride. But it’s films like this, that come sans trailing numbers or colon-separated sub-phrase in the title, that bring me the most joy. Not just the way they play with the monotony of the three-act structure, but the way they give an actor like Johansson a role beyond the mundane.

But therein lies the problem – not boarding the hype train also makes it hard to pick a journey, and sometimes the ones you pick prove unworthy of your time. My criteria for this is simple – if I pause or get distracted while watching a 2-hour movie, I rethink whether it’s really worth my time. One of the ways to get around that is to watch movies only in someone else’s company, but that brings down the opportunity to watch a film at home by a large degree. I realized, after having finished Under the Skin in one non-stop sitting, how rare it had become for me to switch on my TV after I get home.

What also got me about that movie was the judicious use of music throughout the nearly-wordless sequences. Violins that play like cancerous lungs gasping for breath; creepy pitch-bends that make me feel as if there are glitches in my audio-spatial perception; the steady thump of a muted drum. This is music that truly lives up to the idea of the movie, the musical accompaniment to an anomalous entity exploring herself (itself?). The composer is a British lady named Mica Levi, stage name Micachu, and this is the first time she has worked on a soundtrack, can you believe that?

Parts of the music reminds me of both classic horror scores – mostly Bernard Hermann’s flamboyant use of the violin and Morricone’s intense giallo works. But the album that I had to go revisit, after the movie, was Wojkiech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; at first glance, there isn’t much of a similarity between Skin and Dracula, but my brain somehow established a connection between Levi’s keening violin scrapes and Kilar’s old-school orchestral maneuvers. In case you are wondering, there isn’t much of a resemblance. It was probably a resonance of the feeling in my gut when I watched Dracula for the first time as a kid.

 

Notes:

  1. I have yet to watch Her and Lucy – two very unlike films, I know, but part of ScaJo’s recent filmography that convinces me that this lady is one of the finest actors in the business today both in terms of skills and the choices she makes. I loved the short appearance in Chef, for example, and her New York Jewish girl in Don Jon
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Books, Movies

Beasts of No Nation – the book and the film

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I read Beasts of No Nation after watching the movie. Written by a Nigerian author named Uzodinma Iweala in 2005, it came about as a continuation of Iweala’s award-winning thesis in a creative writing course in Harvard, way back in 2004. It is a work of fiction based on true stories, and was an attempt to capture the life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. But really, Agu, the protagonist could have been any orphan in any war-zone in the world, brainwashed, abused and thrown into circumstances that are too horrible to comprehend for someone like me.

An excerpt from the book, the description of a child slaughtering a grown human being as a rite of passage. Enough to turn your stomach and make you want to curl up in a corner and cry. The narration and dialogue in the film follows the tone of this passage very closely, but is more linear than the book.

He is squeezing my hand around the handle of the machete and I am feeling the wood in my finger and in my palm. It is just like killing goat. Just bring this hand up and knock him well well. He is taking my hand and bringing it down so hard on top of the enemy’s head and I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body. The man is screaming, AYEEEIII, louder than the sound of bullet whistling and then he is bringing his hand to his head, but it is not helping because his head is cracking and the blood is spilling out like milk from coconut. I am hearing laughing all around me even as I am watching him trying to hold his head together. He is annoying me and I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink while I am hearing the laughing KEHI, KEHI, KEHI all around me. Then I am hitting his shoulder and then his chest and looking at how Commandant is smiling each time my knife is hitting the man. Strika is joining me and we are just beating him and cutting him while everybody is laughing. It is like the world is moving so slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face.

I thought the movie version was much more well-rounded. The cinematic experience is something you need a strong stomach to sit through, and not only because of graphic content. It is hard to not take it in as a guerilla documentary, shot among real people with a hidden camera, except that it is singularly gorgeous through and through. Some of my favorite scenes in the film involve Idris Elba and the photography. The kids, especially Strika and Agu are incredibly good, of course. Surprised to learn that the actors in the movie were former child soldiers and mercenaries who participated in actual warfare, and had problems shooting in Ghana because they were on a watch-list.

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Books, Movies

Talking about books I read: ‘How Star Wars Conquered The Universe’

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Pal Seamus was reading this book when I went to meet him one evening in Larchmont Village. Even though there were other books in my queue, hard to resist a book about Star Wars. Not that I have much love for the franchise – people’s reactions to it make me shake my head in bemusement and back away slowly.  1I suspect the most invested I was in the series was while reading a bunch of Star Wars novels about 10 years ago, specifically The New Jedi Order series, which begins with the death of Chewbacca in the first book. Don’t worry, this is not really a spoiler, none of the books are canon anymore, especially with The Force Awakens and the planned one-Star-Wars-movie-a-year releases. Just so you know, this book talks about that happening too, with the kind of cold-blooded objectivity that sends shivers down your spine.

When fan grief over the death of Chewbacca surpassed anything Shapiro or Stackpole expected, a rumor surfaced that Randy Stradley of Dark Horse Comics had told the meeting to “kill the family dog,” and compared Chewie to Old Yeller. But Stackpole denies that, insisting they all stuck the knives in at the same time, like Roman conspirators. Shapiro, who would edit the book, was happy to wield a blade. “You’ve got to get people’s attention. Otherwise it’s just ‘Oh, another adventure, another super weapon,’” Shapiro explains.

Why the interest in this book then, you ask? Because the behind-the-scenes affairs with the series has always fascinated me. Stars Wars’ tendrils encompass a lot of sci-fantasy pulp fiction, old-school Hollywood space operas, and world cinema. Alex Raymond and Akira Kurosawa, EE Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs coming together in a cultural bouillabaisse that is timeless and appealing to multiple generations, clunky dialogue be damned. Lucas, an avowed non-writer, worked his way through anxiety and budgetary nightmares to try and bring back to life his childhood fascination with film serials; to deconstruct what made his heart soar in a darkened movie theater. And – pardon my mixed pop-cultural metaphors – he even went boldly where few screenwriters had gone before, tapping into primal myths and stories, specifically the themes and archetypes that writer Joseph Campbell identified in his seminal works. For me, knowing about Star Wars was much more enlightening than watching the movies. 2 That’s why I jumped on this book immediately.

Also, turns out Campbell had nothing but good things to say about Lucas, who met him later in life and befriended the academic:

“I was really thrilled,” Campbell said of the Star Wars series in a later interview. “The man understands the metaphor. I saw things that had been in my books but rendered in terms of the modern problem, which is man and machine. Is the machine going to be the servant of human life? Or is it going to be master and dictate? That’s what I think George Lucas brought forward. I admire what he’s done immensely. That young man opened a vista and knew how to follow it and it was totally fresh.”

The book opens in a wonderful manner, a screening of Star Wars dubbed into Navajo, where the writer tries to find Star Virgins, people who hadn’t seen any of the movies before. He spirals out into how pervasive the movie’s references have become, and how it is very hard for anyone at all to come into Star Wars with a blank slate. (If I remember right, someone did a Star Wars virgin watch on Twitter recently.) Alternate chapters of the book talk about fandom and the weird ways in which everyday lives of people have been affected by the movie. I had no idea, for example, that light-saber classes existed:

The easiest way to describe light-saber class is that it’s one part fencing, one part yoga. The goal is to learn a numbered system of fight choreography worked out by Bloch and his co-founder Matthew Carauddo, who runs the same class in a studio in Silicon Valley. You and I could meet for the first time with our light-sabers at a Comic-Con, say, and I could utter a string of numbers and you would know that I was going to slice around your body in a star formation and parry appropriately. We could even throw in flourishes such as the figure eight, or something more elaborate Bloch calls the “Obi-Annie” (but which is actually a move called “plum blossom” from the martial art Wushu). We would for one moment shed our nerd shells; we would look cool.

Or that the imperial storm-troopers you see at conventions are part of an officially-endorsed Stormtrooper legion created and managed by loyal fans, called the Fightin’ 501st. They later went on to be name-checked and referenced both in novels (Timothy Zahn’s Survivor’s Quest) and in the prequels, though in an ill-fated turn of events, they will forever be known as the baby-jedi killing storm-troopers.

It was, friends agreed, a pretty neat idea. They helped him hand out leaf-lets at conventions: “Are you loyal? Hardworking? Fully expendable? Join the Imperial 501st!” In 2002, Johnson mustered roughly 150 Stormtrooper costumers in Indianapolis at Celebration II, the second official Star Wars convention, and offered their services to a skeptical Lucasfilm to let the 501st help out as crowd-control when the event’s security proved woefully inadequate for the thirty thousand attendees. Lucasfilm was won over by the tireless, hyper-organized troopers, and started to use the 501st as volunteers for all its events. Lucasfilm licensees followed suit. If you’ve ever been to one of the Star Wars Days held at dozens of baseball stadiums across the United States, if you’ve seen multiple Stormtroopers, or Darth Vader or Boba Fett at a store, a movie theater, or a mall, you’ve almost certainly been staring at the forces of the 501st.

The 501st Legion is now recognized as one of the largest costuming organizations in the world. It has active members in forty-seven countries on five continents, divided into sixty-seven local garrisons and twenty-nine outposts (those units that comprise fewer than twenty-five members). More than 20 percent of the troops are female. The 501st absorbed a once-independent UK garrison and established a garrison near Paris, though some French Stormtroopers have gone their own way with the 59eme legion. The Germans, meanwhile, have a garrison consisting of five squads that are all large enough to be garrisons on their own—but are loath to undergo any kind of de-unification.

Swooping into a quick history of Lucas’s childhood and influences, the book talks about his early avant-garde career – one of his acclaimed student films, for example, was comprised entirely of panning shots of photographic images with music playing in the background. The takeaway is that Lucas always had ideas, but they were unconstrained by any Hollywood pretensions – the three-act screenplay was not for him, until American Graffiti came about. The nugget there is that the name did not quite appeal to the studio bosses, because the word “graffiti” was not in popular usage then.

It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from being covered in spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas tried to follow up this success with options of Dune and Flash Gordon. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis happened to get Flash, and Alejandro Jodorowsky got hold of Dune. Flash Gordon ultimately got made as a campy pastiche in the early 80s, while a different version of Dune made it to the screen. The book talks about trippy possibilities that the latter presented, and this reminds me that I need to check out the documentary soon:

Jodo, appropriately enough for Dune, was something of a cult leader himself. He persuaded the great Orson Welles to act as the villain of the piece in exchange for hiring his favorite Parisian chef, and even managed to hector Salvador Dali into agreeing to a cameo as the Emperor of the Universe (for $100,000 a minute, Dali insisted). He got the Swiss artist H. R. Giger, possibly the only person in Europe weirder than Jodo and Dali, to do a bunch of nightmarish concept paintings, and recruited French comic book artist Moebius to storyboard the entire film at lightning speed.

Most of the making of the actual Wars movies was not new to me. Too much have already been written about the process, and the different iterations of the first movie’s screenplay that Lucas banged out. One thing however stood out, the short-lived gender reversal of the lead character, a telling choice for a series that has been plagued with gender/race allegations until the recent sequel. Think of what might have been.

In March 1975, Lucas decided to fix that at a stroke: Luke Starkiller became an eighteen-year-old woman. After all, he’d been reading an awful lot of fairy tales as research into the mechanics of storytelling, and it’s rather hard to ignore the convention that the protagonist of fairy tales is almost always female. (Think Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks—as much as they have to be saved by princes or woodcutters, we at least see the story through their eyes.) This gender reversal lasted for a couple of months, long enough for the female Luke to show up in a McQuarrie painting of the main characters.

The discussion becomes much more entertaining with the movie’s release. Taylor goes into an inspired examination of the first few words on the screen – words that apparently were rewritten at the last minute by Brian Coppola to lessen the original verbosity.

Consider instead that this is exactly what every fantasy epic needs to give you right off the bat: a setting in space and time that says, relax. Don’t bother trying to figure out the relationship between what you’re about to see and your own Earthbound reality, because there isn’t one. This isn’t Planet of the Apes; the Statue of Liberty isn’t going to turn up in a last-reel twist. No other movie had ever announced its divorce from our world so explicitly before; with the exception of Star Wars sequels, none would ever be able to do so again without seeming derivative. The perfect simplicity of those ten words appears to have been hard for a lot of people to understand in the run-up to the movie’s release. The words that open Alan Dean Foster’s novelization (“another galaxy, another time”) aren’t quite the same—that might place us in the future, rather than in a story that is safely in some history book. Fox didn’t get it at all: its trailer for Star Wars opened with the words “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.” The ten words remain on the screen for exactly five seconds, long enough for the casual viewer to think, Isn’t this supposed to be a science fiction movie? Aren’t they all set in the future?

It is this modern myth, that of how the Star Wars machine became what it was, in the first weeks and months after the release of the first movie, that the book really captures so very well.

In May 1977, repeat viewers didn’t necessarily add to the ticket gross: they could simply stay in the theater, wait an hour or so, and watch the movie again. This was not something viewers had tended to want to do before. Indeed, it was because of Star Wars that most cinemas instituted a policy of clearing the audience out of the theater between shows. But as soon as they left the theater and came back, the repeat viewers were responsible for an incalculable amount of box office takings. For many—and this is something you see time and again in television and newspaper reports from 1977—the number of times they’d seen Star Wars took on the tone of a competitive sport: “I’ve seen Star Wars twenty times!” But for many more who weren’t quoted by the news media, it was simply a thrill to invest themselves in a story with such eminent repeatability. You could see it twenty, thirty, forty times and not get bored.

***

The manager of the Coronet, a cranky old soul named Al Levine, had never seen anything like it. He offered a now-famous description of the crowds: “Old people, young people, children, Hare Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker players, we have chess players; people with paint and sequins on their faces. Fruit eaters like I’ve never seen before, people loaded on grass and LSD.”

***

In June 1977, the monster crowds at the four theaters in New York showing the film each required police on horseback for crowd control. All walks of life rubbed shoulders in those lines. Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and Senator Ted Kennedy waited at their theaters like everyone else. Elvis Presley tried a different tack; the King was in the process of securing a Star Wars print to screen for himself and Lisa Marie at Graceland the day before he died.

***

In May 1977, the most popular poster in America was an image of Farrah Fawcett, chief Charlie’s Angel, in a bathing suit, with a noticeably aroused nipple. By July, Star Wars posters were outselling Fawcett five to one.

***

Toy sales came to the rescue. Despite the movie no longer being in theaters, despite the disastrous Holiday Special, and against all expectations, Kenner announced that it had its strongest holiday season yet. Sales of Star Wars action figures, spaceships, and play sets had crossed the $200 million mark, funneling more than $20 million into Lucasfilm subsidiary Black Falcon. Without that cash injection, there’s little question Empire would have been sunk. There’s something poetic about it: millions of children joyfully acting out the further adventures of Luke Skywalker literally funded the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. Call it a karmic Kickstarter.

It’s funny how Taylor blazes through the three prequels all in one chapter. Star Wars fans from the New Hope generation are so predictable.

All in all, the book was an excellent read; it did make me want to re-watch (or watch, in case of Jedi) the original movies, and put in pieces of the Star Wars history that were missing from my understanding of the history of the seminal series, especially the debt Lucas and Co owe to concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, whose designs really helped sell the movie to both Lucas’s friends, his team and studio heads. My dismissive tone about the series is at odds with my fascination for its metadata, as you can clearly see. I know the technical details of where the sound of Wookie comes from (‘a bear starved in a zoo and then shown a bowl of milk outside the cage’, for your information) or how Lucas made a note when someone asked for Reel 2, Dialog 2 in the editing room of THX 1138, or the story behind how Han Solo’s sprezzatura in saying “I know” came about. I can also appreciate how it probably is the only bit of mythology that America can truly call its own. The person sitting next to me at the morning screening of the Force Awakens cried a few times as the movie played. My local comic-book shop (and others) had large “Star Wars Spoiler Free Zone” signs up the first two weeks of release. All I wonder is how long this reverence will continue to play out. A major part of Star Wars is to do with how little we know about the Star Wars universe and its details – and it only takes a few years of misbegotten scripts to run a special thing into the ground, to turn a mythic tale into something mundane.

Notes:

  1. while growing up, some people distinguished between Star Wars and Star Trek as the series with the tube-light lights and the series with Mr Spock. Star Trek played on Doordarshan in 1985, a year before we bought our first TV, so I bypassed that too. But there were kids in school who would pinch you really hard on the back of your neck, because Mr Spock.
  2. Here’s a confession: I saw the first 20 minutes of Empire Strikes Back when I was 11 or 12, and did not make sense of it, obviously. I have vague memories of watching one of the Ewok movies a year later, and that was a cutesy experience where storytelling did not matter. I saw New Hope in my second year of college, shaking my head over the outdated effects at the end but letting myself be sucked into the world. Then came the prequels, and much as I enjoyed them in the theater, the relentless barrage of wtf-ery in both plot and dialog overpowered the love of the world Lucas created. Yes, I have never seen Return of the Jedi.
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Movies, Myself

A Very Bloody Christmas

“So, Satya”, she said. “Which M was your Christmas this time?”

I was confused. Which M? Like James Bond M? Was my friend making some arcane pop culture reference that I did not get? Was I doomed to begin the year on a note of failure, unable to respond to a simple query? I must have blinked more than a few times, because she laughed. “I meant, was it Merry, Melancholy or Meh?”

“Oh”, I said. “Sorry, you lost me for a second there.” And then when I was about to answer her, I realized that my life is such a blur sometimes that it took me a couple of minutes to retrace my steps and answer her question. Merry, I said. But not the way you would think. And very very special. In fact, I told her, if I did not write this shit down, I would forget all about how special Christmas 2015 was.
“Goddammit are you going to not answer me right now and write one of those roundabout, self-aware blog posts of yours?”, she said, and seeing the twinkle and the grin, added, “You know nobody reads blogs nowadays, right? I mean, this is 2016. If you were writing this down, I would have lost interest right about now.”

Too late, for my eyes had already glazed over, as my mind flashed back to a few weeks ago. A time when events of major import were unfolding in another part of Los Angeles as I sat at my work-desk whispering arcane spells over cauldrons overflowing with bubbling ichor. Or debugging code, if you want a narrative that fits in more with your frame of reference.

You see, the New Beverly – which is a heritage theater that Quentin Tarantino used to frequent as a struggling screenplay-writer, and later on bought when the owner died and building was due to be broken down in 2007  – announced that they were going to play Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair on Christmas Eve. KB:TWBA, in case you didn’t know, is the NC-17 cut of the movie, both volumes played in one single screening with an intermission, with a combined runtime of 257 minutes. It has additional material, the whole House of Blue Leaves sequence is in color, as opposed to the b/w version that was aired for audiences because the excessive bloodletting did not make for happy Film Certification boards. Only one print of this cut exists, and QT owns it. It has French subtitles because it was cut for the Cannes screening.

Now here’s the important thing – the only public screening was in Cannes, for the premiere of Kill Bill. The only other time it had been screened until this happy announcement was also at the New Beverly in April 2011, for Tarantino’s birthday. I know the month because I bought tickets off Craigslist for the event; I had to sell them because of an unexpected trip back to India. The tickets yielded a profit, but the cruelest blow was the Tyler Stout Mondo poster that was released during the screening. I did buy the poster a few years later, but had to pay a huge premium; I complained to the moirai, out of frustration and resentment. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, for the sake of his living room wall.

Anyway, the point of all this nerdtastic regurgitation of facts is: The Whole Bloody Affair is kinda special. Especially more so because out of Tarantino’s oeuvre, Kill Bill was the movie that mapped the movie-viewing landscape for me in the second half of my twenties. You know how when you are young and you like certain things, but you don’t really know how to classify them, or find more things like them? Before Kill Bill happened, I never really knew how to go around and figure out what I should watch next, but suddenly there was this explosion of taste; this whole spectrum of genres that QT’s homages and references opened up for me – Italian giallo, Shaw Brothers films, Spaghetti Westerns, *good* anime, the Yakuza movies of Kinji Fukasaku, the soundtracks of Morricone and Bacalov, Japanese noise rock; and surprisingly, a renewed interest in the likes of Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Godard. Films and film-makers that I had considered too pretentious or stuffy for my tastes suddenly felt warmer, cast in a new light; swathes of genre film that I had dismissed as not worth my time revealed deeper veins of style and substance. So it made the wait to see Tarantino’s original cut for the film even more special, a 12-year tunnel at the end of which a light flickered, finally.

But of course, all 200 tickets for the December 25 show sold out in 2 minutes. I was ready at the appointed hour, refreshing the tickets page. By the time I added tickets to my cart, the number came down to 92,  and by the time I got to the payments page, they were all gone. Somewhere, the moirai laughed. But I pulled myself up, brushed off the dirt of disappointment while muttering “So that we may pick ourself up” to imaginary Alfred in my head, and went on with my life, because there is not much else one can do.

That Christmas morning, I went to watch Hateful Eight in the morning; it was one of the few movies of 2015 that I was looking forward to, and to say I loved it would be an understatement. By the time I was done with lunch and came back home, it was nearly 4 PM. I am not sure why I checked Twitter, but I did, and in my feed there were tweets from the New Beverly Theater talking about the show due in a few hours. But huzzah, they mentioned a standby line. A moment or two of indecisive laziness, and then I found myself saying – fuck this, I can either stay at home and cry, or go stand in line and at least try. Moments like these – when one’s brain speaks in rhyme – defines one’s very existence. I walked out, paused, and ran back in, because it was really really cold outside – shut up, non-Los Angeles people – and put on another jacket, picked up a scarf, and drove like crazy to the theater. Hoping that there weren’t already 30 people in the standby line.

There were 7. I was the 8th. And after 3 hours of waiting, and talking to the guys standing ahead of and behind me, and hearing stories of how one of them sat next to Quentin T himself at one random movie screening and how the other fist-bumped Edgar Wright just a few days ago, it turns out there were 11 returns. I swear Tomoyasu Hotei played when I walked inside the theater. There was a line at the refreshments stand, which has one of the most wondrous cinema food prices in the world – $1 for a small drink, $4 for a popcorn – and even though I had only just been in line, I stood there again for a few minutes to grab me some nourishment. The pre-movie ad reels are always fun at the Beverly; this time around, we had an animated Max Fleischer Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ‘toon in its entirety; followed by trailers for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, the Western Navajo Joe, Bronson’s Death Wish, and the Clint Eastwood starrer Hang ‘Em High, which I realized I have never seen.

Thoughts on TWBA:

  • The music that begins Kill Bill, with the somewhat old-timey ‘Our Feature Presentation’ animation is actually QT’s homage to the New Beverly, which plays before every movie. This music therefore played before the movie actually began, and then again within the movie’s credits. We applauded, of course.
  • French subtitles throughout. ‘Buck’, for some reason, is subtitled  ‘Buckaroo’ in French.
  • Boss Matsumoto’s killing is defs more gruesome in this cut. Pun completely intended.
  • The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves sequence is all-color, and has a bunch of unedited blood-and-gore snippets, obviously. It also features the kid that gets his ass whupped with the non-business end of the Bride’s Hanzo sword in yet another sequence, where his mask gets knocked away. That also misses the close-up of the Bride’s eye in the upstairs room – in the normal cut, she blinks, and the color flips back in.  Gordon Liu as Johnny Mo also gets a little more fight-time in this version.
  • Because both movies are linked together, Bill and Sophie’s scene from the end of Vol 1 does not have the line “Does she know that her daughter is still alive?” line. None of the preview snapshots (‘How did you find me?’, ‘That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die’, ‘She must suffer until her last breath’) at the end of Vol 1 appear in the uncut version, for obvious reasons.
  • It also does not have the opening ‘Bill, it’s your baby’ sequence from Vol 2 – which is the same scene from Vol 1 but with the theme music from ‘Navajo Joe’ playing in the background. Also, the Bride looking into the camera saying ‘Thought you were dead, didn’t I?’ is not in this cut.
  • Love the way Gheorge Zamfir’s ‘The Lonely Shepherd’ leads into the intermission. Very very stylish.
  • There is a 7-second blooper at the end of the credits. For those of us who stayed until that point – and there were a lot of us – the staff at the New Beverly handed out custom beanies. Woo hoo!

My Christmas, therefore, was M for Merry. It was B for Bloody and T for Tarantino-esque and F for Fuck yeah, a gargantuan goal overcome.

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