31 January 2010


As some of you may be aware, the Academy Awards are fast approaching. Tomorrow, February 2nd, the Oscar nominees will be announced. Ballots will be released, tallied, and so forth in preparation for the ceremonies on March 7th. We're entering the time when people will begin to ask me, as someone who studies film, who I think will win, or at the very least, who I want to win. Of course, when it comes down to it, I care very little. The Academy Awards and I disagree on many, many points. Very rarely will a film I truly enjoyed appear as a nominee, and should I ever be happy to see one selected, such as Lost in Translation (2003), it will almost invariably lose to some poorly crafted by star-laden work like Crash (2003). After all, the Oscars amounted to a popularity contest decided by it's largest voting demographic: actors. While I appreciate good acting, I also know that no matter how good an actor is, a film can be ruined by poor directing. Meanwhile, a good director can take a bad actor and produce a good film. As an example of the latter, see Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

But enough ranting about my qualms with the Academy Awards. There is one category that I do pay particular attention to: Best Foreign Language Film. Not because these films are necessarily the greatest foreign films of the year, but because it gives insight into the global market of transnational cinema. Countries that receive nominations and in particular awards will see an increase in global audiences, and many directors can gain international notoriety from it. So for the sake of getting to the point, I will spare you my diatribe on the absurdity of allocating all foreign films to a single award despite the fact that, for instance, India out surpasses the US in film production. The point is that, some 11 months after last year's ceremonies, I have finally gotten around to watching the most recent winner for Best Foreign Language Film—Yōjirō Takita's Departures (2009).

The film revolves around Daigo, a cello player who loses his job and ends up working at, essentially, a Japanese funeral home. Their job is to perform the ceremony of preparing the body for cremation. The film is, perhaps, unusual for an Oscar winner. This is not because of any sort of unusual narrative techniques or other such things I would like to see more of in films selected by the Academy, but rather because of the more culturally specific nature of the plot. While Americans may be a bit queasy about dead bodies, and certainly show a pronounced fear of dying, the dead body taboo just doesn't compare with Japan. Granted, this becomes obvious to Americans watching Departures, but many may still find themselves wondering why it was such a big deal to everyone that Daigo performs these ceremonies. In actuality, anyone who deals directly with dead bodies are still seen as "unclean" in Japanese society and such professions are considered lowest of the low. To a Japanese person, it's not surprising that Daigo attempts to hide his new career choice even from his own wife.

With this is mind, Departures certainly promotes more understanding an acceptance of those with such professions, who are paradoxically seen as unclean and yet also preside over one of Japan's most sacred, heart-felt ceremony. The ceremony in question is featured prominently in the film and is dealt with wonderfully. Much of it attempts to, perhaps somewhat melodramatically, place the audience into the position of those who attend such ceremonies after losing their loved ones. In seeing the ceremony and its power to help people heal after a loss, it supports the profession as important and noble.

That said, I do feel there is a global appeal in the film's general themes of death, life, and relationships. While the particularities of Japanese society certainly add depth and flavor to the film, those completely unfamiliar with its customs will still respond to the universal themes contained. Of course, death is dealt in and of itself, but it is also used metaphorically. As the title Departures implies, this is not a film specifically about departing from life, but about all of life's changes and our difficulties in coping.

All in all, I feel the film may be a little too culturally specific for everyone's tastes, but in general does a good job of explaining the "unique" aspects of the Japanese culture while also dealing with universal themes. Those open to foreign films that may, at times, be a little culturally jarring will most likely enjoy it. It was quite beautiful and uplifting, if perhaps a bit too melodramatic and sentimental.

I tend to prefer a more realistic approach, but for the most part, I enjoyed it. The music felt right most of the time, though in some parts I felt it was too illustrative of what the audience should be feeling, rather than simply allowing the silence and the weight of the images carry the emotions. However, when it was diegetic (i.e. when the music occurred because Daigo was playing the cello), I felt it was most effective. The characters responded to it and it gave it more power and emotion. These instances of music were made emotional because of the story, rather than being included in an attempt to make the story more emotional. But this will often be a complaint of mine, as I generally dislike overly illustrative movie soundtracks.

Here's hoping this year's winner will be as enjoyable.

29 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 6

Here's episode 6 of our Let's Play! ChuLip. Watch as we descend deeper into the dark recesses of Long Life Time, where life is often tragically cut short...

28 January 2010

The Original Steampunk Cinema

New post up on Cinema is Cinema proper about early cinema from the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès as the "Original Steampunk Cinema." I argue that both share the spirit of the spectacle.

Also, expect more ChuLip tonight!

24 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 5

After the set-backs from last episode, we give it another attempt... with little success...

21 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 4

Here's the stunning (haha, not really) fourth episode of ChuLip. It also contains what we were initially planning on being episode 5 for reasons that should become painfully obvious. Painfully.

17 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 3

More ChuLip action in store. This time we meet Mr Saturn!

16 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 2

Episode 2 continues right where we left off. See the excitement unfold.

14 January 2010

Let's Play! ChuLip - Episode 1

Alright, everyone, here's the first episode of the Let's Play! Chu♥Lip collaboration with Menchi. Come along for the ride.

Let's Play! ChuLip - Teaser

Here's the teaser video for my Let's Play! Chu♥Lip with Menchi. Hope you enjoy it.

13 January 2010

Back to the grind

Well, I enjoyed my break. It was filled with far more time with family and friends and much less time watching movies than I had expected, but I can't say that's a bad thing. It was quite nice, though it did end up leaving this blog out to dry. Never fear though, because... uh... I'm going to be busy with classes now?

Okay, so maybe it sounds counter-intuitive that classes will mean more posts here, but keep in mind that I am taking four courses this semester—a grad level film studies course, an undergrad film studies course, a digital cinema studio seminar, and a course in which I prepare my senior exhibition of my cinematic work. So, yeah, for the next four months I am going to be constantly watching films, thinking about films, reading about films, making films, and of course writing about films. I'll most likely end up eating films and breathing films at this rate. I can't say I'm not excited, though I must admit it is a little daunting. Especially making all those films... If I'm ever too busy for this blog, I blame that class.

That said, here's some things to look forward to:

EN 560 - Film, Politics, and Propaganda: This is the grad level course and it should prove very interesting, and will mean you will receive plenty of my thoughts on such controversial cinematic works as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Expect some of these to make an appearance on Cinema is Cinema proper, as they are tangentially related to the interests of steampunk and dieselpunk enthusiasts.

EN 425 - Topics in Film Theory: This undergrad course is an overview of the history of film theory, from the early pioneers like André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer up through genre theory, auteur theory, and (the one I detest most) the psychoanalytic approach. Not to mention University of Wisconsin–Madison's David Bordwell, who would denounce approaches such as psychoanalysis as having little to do with cinema and arguing in favour of a more historical approach. (Have I mentioned that I want to pursue the graduate studies in film at UW–Madison?) Of course, we will apply these theories to many classic, canonized films that I will be sure to talk about here.

Nordic National Cinemas: Given my great interest and growing knowledge in Nordic cultures, I have begun studying Nordic national cinemas in my free time. I am, in particular, interested in the cinema of Iceland. For those interested in worthwhile readings on the subject, I suggest the texts Transnational Cinema in a Global North and The Cinema of Small Nations, which prove to be the only two English sources to have given Icelandic cinema and sort of serious consideration. Don't bother yourself with any other texts published before these two, as they will either not add anything new not stated in these two texts or will be completely and utterly useless (I think in particular of the text Nordic National Cinemas which does an incredibly poor job even before considering the atrocious section on Iceland that likely hurts those interested in the topic more than it helps). I would also again suggest the website ICN. That said, I have numerous Icelandic films either in my possession or in route to me to watch and discuss (including many of the works by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson), and in the process I intend to rewatch some I have already seen for the purposes of this blog. More than anything else, this blog will serve as a sounding board for my personal exploration into Icelandic cinema, and I hope to hear from those of you interested in the subject. I would love to hear your thoughts, and I hope to provide anyone intrigued with my suggestions on how to see many of these often hard to access works.

Gonzo, and my love of films in general: Let's face it, I love films. Even when it's not for class or other studies, I'm going to be watching them. I have Netflix, and I used it regularly. I am also the president of a group on my campus called Gonzo Media which shows classic, foreign, and independent films.

Coming up soon, some brief comments on Ingmar Bergman's To Joy as well as a look at Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon and the early works by the Lemière Brothers.

Oh, and also expect a special collaboration with my friend Menchi, in which we will play through at least a portion of a game which we have never heard of nor played before: Chu♥Lip (alternately Chu♡Lip, Chu❤Lip, Chu<3lip, or simply ChuLip). We hope it's entertaining...