Archive for July, 2010

“Let ‘em sweat it out”: Stray Dog

Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog opens, fittingly enough, on a close-up of a panting dog, cooking in the summer heat.  One of the film’s two main characters, both policemen, played by Takashi Shimura, continually wipes his face and brow of pouring sweat.  Throughout the film, his partner, Toshiro Mifune, looks disheveled in a crumpled linen suit.  No one’s clean and no one can get out of the heat. But when Mifune loses his gun, a very serious occurrence, things really heat up.

Most of the action centers on Kurosawa regular Mifune as a naive rookie cop, and his efforts to retrieve his gun.  But he’ll do so only under the patient guidance of Shimura’s wise mentor.

Stray Dog is a Japanese film in a class all its own.  Kurosawa loved detective novels, especially those written by Georges Simenon.  Stray Dog is his love letter to these influences and a terrific police procedural. It is often categorized as being film noir and rightly so, however this genre masterpiece, like many other Kurosawa films, is difficult to pin down.  It was released in 1949, eight years after the birth of film noir (black film) with The Maltese Falcon (’41) and almost 10 years before Touch of Evil (’58), what film critic Paul Schrader calls the genre’s death knell.

Many elements of a good film noir are here: the conflicted hero, the femme fatale, light and shadow, and a blurring of the line between good and evil. But all of this seems like an opportunity for Kurosawa to break the rules.

Kurosawa was a great student of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, humanist-realists who preferred not to pass judgment on their characters.  Kurosawa’s “stray dog,” though wrong for stealing a policeman’s gun, is revealed to be in deep emotional turmoil through Mifune’s careful digging into the man’s personal life. And while we’re not sure we understand what he’s going through when he shrieks in the middle of a white flowerbed at the film’s conclusion, we feel his pain.

Even aesthetically, Kurosawa brands his signature on film noir.  He balances a heavy use of dark shadow with a breathtaking scene in which Mifune and a pickpocket look up at the star-filled night, connected but still miles apart. Or a riveting montage in which Mifune poses as a Japanese soldier, searching desperately in the growing black market for his stolen gun.  Blinding white scenes filmed in the blazing sun are contrasted against a provocative night sequence in which Mifune, a naive rookie, saunters along a fence of prostitutes.  Kurosawa’s comments about the dangerous effects of post-war Western capitalism and the loosening threads of tradition are obvious but always handled deftly.

Stray Dog is an early-Kurosawa masterpiece and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cooler movie to ditch the summer heat. The film is available in an excellent DVD release by the Criterion Collection.  Be sure to check out Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince’s insightful commentary track.

The Summer of 2010 Reaches its Peak

LeBron James has made a decision. He finally joined Twitter on Tuesday afternoon, as announced by former Wake Forest star Chris Paul (@oneandonlycp3). As I write this, LeBron (@KingJames) only has three tweets, but he is well over 250,000 followers. When I heard about the account, I thought that he may announce his signing decision via the social networking website, but a rep for him later denied that idea.

Even so, the world of NBA free agency has still been like no other in its history due to the caliber of the players available and the prominence of social media.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – who are each making a documentary about the free agency process – have tweeted details throughout the free agency period. Bosh delivered news on what teams he met with and uploaded a picture of going to dinner with Wade during free agency, while hinting that someone (implying LeBron) was missing. ESPN reported on this.

Wade has not been as active on Twitter and said that on June 18 he would be on a hiatus until free agency was over; however, he followed that message with three tweets and officially broke his “silence” on July 2. And even though Wade announced his decision to sign with the Heat in a TV interview on SportsCenter with Bosh, he still posted the following later and utilized YouTube: “Message to Miami Heat fans….”

In another example, Amare Stoudemire (@Amareisreal) used his page to say goodbye and thanks to all his Phoenix Suns fans because he had chosen to leave for the New York Knicks.

Even ranks of NBA management – personnel that usually stay pretty quiet or reserved during free agency until someone signs on the dotted line – have been involved with social media. For example, Daryl Morey (@dmorey), the Houston Rockets general manager, tweeted about his meeting with Bosh and also later encouraged Rockets fans to send “we want you back” tweets to two of their players that are free agents.

Certainly in an increasingly-social-media-inundated world, I can see more scenarios happening where players break their own news before media outlets can get the scoop via their own reporting. Rising star Kevin Durant (@KDthunderup) certainly beat reporters to the punch by announcing that he had agreed to a five-year extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which would prevent him from becoming a free agent next summer. His tweet was then reported by ESPN, among others.

One of the biggest tweets though came from LeBron in which he guided people to his website and officially confirmed reported rumors of how he would be announcing his decision, which brings me to my next point of discussion.

By now you know that LeBron and his management team have set up a one-hour TV special to be televised on ESPN at 9 p.m. EST tonight. The show is called “The Decision” and frankly the name – let alone the concept of having a show to announce where he is headed, which no one has ever done before – comes off as arrogant. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did announce their decision to play together on SportsCenter, but it was not well-planned and hyped beforehand. Those two and several other big-name players were available this summer, but LeBron’s show is not called “A Decision,” it is called “The Decision” as if no one else matters.

But let’s be honest, we all know that LeBron has a big ego; he has a tattoo on his back that says “Chosen 1.” Last summer Nike confiscated (although later released) video footage of LeBron being dunked on at his camp after talking to LeBron. His nickname is “King James” and he uses that to refer to himself e.g. his twitter domain. Now in my opinion he is a terrific player, but you can hardly be the “king” when you have not won a single championship.

All of these things point to being self-centered, but then there’s a twist that may get lost in all of the hoopla. LeBron’s management wanted to be able to sell sponsorship on the show to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of America. Therefore, I have to wonder if his ego drove the creation of the show or if he simply saw an opportunity to help a charity that he cares about. Regardless of his true intention, I know two things: First, I am all for a TV show that gives back. Second, since several teams believe that they have a shot at getting LeBron, it seems clear to me that if he makes them wait as long as the rest of the world to know what he is doing, he is going to tick off and alienate some teams’ brass and their fans – with Cleveland being the most vulnerable.

Beyond the motivation for the show though, I have to wonder: why does the special have to be an hour when 30 minutes would suffice? LeBron reportedly will announce his decision within the first 10 minutes of the show so why is the show so long? Is it to raise more money for charity? Does he want that much attention? Did ESPN dictate the longer time slot?

Here is a scenario where an hour would be logistically necessary: LeBron knows he is going to the Miami Heat to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Wade and Bosh will be involved in the show in some way. Perhaps they will show up in person, which I think would get leaked before 9 p.m., or (if LeBron is really dedicated to keeping the surprise) he will have his future teammates appear via satellite. This scenario of creating a three-star monster team would be fit for primetime TV and a one-hour slot unlike any other decision that he could make. Therefore, I think that this serves as more evidence that LeBron is not going to pass up on the opportunity to team up with two of his good friends, and will sign with Miami as I predicted in my previous blog before free agency started. (Note: I do not have a prediction for a jersey number. No. 23 is retired in Miami in honor of the greatness of Michael Jordan and No. 6 – the number LeBron was going to switch to – is taken by Mario Chalmers and I do not believe NBA rules will allow him to change it because he has not been with the Heat or in the league long enough.)

Regardless of where he plans to sign, I will certainly watch the special and it will be interesting to see if the secret gets out – maybe even via Twitter – beforehand.

– Gaither Jones

Starting the Senior Bucket List

So, I have put together a Senior Bucket List: things I want to accomplish before I graduate from Carolina. I’m still not used to the idea that my college years are coming to a close, but so it goes.

  1. Go to every coffee shop in Chapel Hill/ Carrboro. If you know me, you know that I love coffee.  True, I’m currently trying to cut back on my caffeine consumption, but we all know that’s not going to work out.  And hey, if I can justify my coffee addiction as part of the Senior Bucket List then I’ll feel much less guilty about it.
  2. Take One Class Second Semester Just Because it Looks Interesting. *Must Not Be in Major or Minor* I’m a Communications and History double major with an English minor, so I need to take a class outside of these three departments just for the pure sake that it looks interesting.  I’ve got time in my schedule (I was able to graduate December 2010 but I wanted to stay for the full four years).  If anyone has any suggestions for good classes outside those departments, let me know!
  3. Go Into Every Non-Dormitory/ Non-Medical Building on Campus. Even if it’s just to peak inside, I want to get a look.
  4. Join a Club. I know it’s a bit late to join a club, but so far in three years at Carolina, I’ve yet to actually join a club.  I’ve been involved in various organizations around campus, but have never actually been a member (unless you count the three weeks when I was in College Republicans freshman year…long story).
  5. Go see a show by one or more of the A Capella Groups on Campus. Because I sadly haven’t done that yet…
  6. Take advantage of the free movies in the Union more often. Free is free…and don’t lie, you’re looking forward to Eclipse coming to the Union, if only to make fun of the Twihards.
  7. Climb the Bell Tower.

There you have it.  My Senior Bucket List.  Somewhere in between all of these things, I’ve got other personal goals to accomplish, such as figuring out what I want to do with my life, getting a job, and maybe getting in to Law School, oh, and get good grades in my classes and keep up three jobs.

Stay classy, Class of 2011.

– Samantha Ryan

Working class love: “The Shop Around the Corner”

I was talking with someone this week about the lack of film knowledge among the people in my generation.  It’s true.  The majority of us are film illiterate.

Just because you’ve seen The Godfather (’72) and Taxi Driver (’76) doesn’t mean you know about film.  It’s a start, but about the equivalent of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and saying you’re versed in the classics.

We ended the conversation affirming something I’ve known for awhile now: my moral obligation to pass along the films that I’ve seen to others. Don’t confuse this as a statement of vanity.

We could argue all day about whether film needs saving.  I’m arguing that people need saving, and film can help.  Film is contagious.  It has a way of grabbing your mind and soul and not letting go.  If we root ourselves in good film, at the end of the day, we can all be film preservationists.

If you’ve ever seen a film that no one else you know has seen, it’s a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you feel like you’re the owner of a terrific secret while simultaneously you feel a great emptiness when you realize everyone else you know isn’t in on the secret.  So share it!

And so, we find ourselves in Budapest, Hungary at, well…the typical shop around the corner in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (’40).  It’s a charming place, busy with the hum of the proletariat, working hard but never getting ahead on their small wages.

Against this backdrop, we find one of the best romantic comedies of the Golden Age of Hollywood between Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart. The Shop Around the Corner is one of the film gems that I mentioned earlier.  Admittedly respected among film buffs, it’s wrongfully fallen into obscurity as the lesser companion to better-known comedies of the era such as The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby (’38) or His Girl Friday (’40).

If you’ve ever held down a service job, you’ve probably worked at a place like Matuschek and Co.  There’s the overbearing boss, the snobby dandy, the brash kid, the older man ticking off the days until retirement, the young man unhappy with his place in the world (Stewart) and the newly hired go-getter (Sullivan).  Stereotypes were common in early Hollywood pictures, but Lubitsch’s characters come across as familiar friends and associates rather than offensive caricatures.  The film deals with such serious topics as suicide, depression, joblessness and adultery.

The film’s hook is the relationship between Stewart and Sullivan, and it’s not a stretch to see the same kind of knowing, honest comedy fans see between Pam and Jim in The Office. Stewart’s relationship with Sullivan begins on a sour note as he tries to convince her there are no vacant positions at Matuschek and Co.  Sullivan, desperate for work, won’t hear it.  She impresses Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, best known for his portrayal of the Wizard in Wizard of Oz (‘39)) to such a degree that he hires her as a full-time clerk, leaving Stewart with egg on his face.

While Stewart’s professional life might not be going according to plan, his personal life is red hot. He’s in love with a woman he’s met through a personal ad in the newspaper.  They write letters to one another, filling them with passionate, intelligent language.  As far as he’s concerned, Stewart’s met the love of his life in the Mystery Woman at the end of those letters.

Sullivan has also found her true love through written correspondence.  More than once, she points out the fact that Stewart could never be as intelligent and romantic as her Mystery Man.  All the while, the two give each other grief about the petty things we encounter in our daily lives.  If this premise sounds somewhat familiar, it was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, which does a good job capturing the farce and good nature of the original.

The action is bound to only a couple of locations, but the character interactions are so enjoyable, that we barely notice the change in scenes anymore than we would for a stage play.  However, for such a simple production, Lubitsch’s photography is excellent.  Stewart and Co. are captured in rich black and white. Lubitsch is constantly moving the camera and there are some amazing dolly shots, particularly in the scene where Sullivan excitedly sticks her hand in the post office box only to find it empty.

The film’s writing, acting and technical achievements remind us that The Shop Around the Corner is a special comedy and one that deserves to be shared like love… or a letter.

– Jonathan Michels