Tora-San, Films 1-4

A slow week for library releases (Is there some kind of Oscar moratorium?) allows me to roll the clock back to late November, when AnimEigo released the first four of Yoji Yamada’s “Tora-San” films in a handsome, well-produced box set. Only 44 left to go!

Like all of that excellent company’s releases, the Tora-san films come with extensive cultural notes, this time in an accompanying booklet (with an affectionate Donald Richie essay), audio commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV, and subtitles that do their best to explain arcane references and the tortured puns that seem to be central to Tora-san’s comedy. I can’t say that these are films that mean much to me personally (I’ve sampled them sporadically over the years, without making a systematic survey), but clearly they constitute a genuine culture phenomenon, with meanings and associations that are not immediately evident to my western eyes. Perhaps some of the Asian film experts who post here can expand on their significance.

My New York Times review is here.

127 comments to Tora-san, Films 1-4

  • Hollywood Films I’ve always liked the late Howard Zieff’s now-nearly-forgotten Hearts of the West, with Jeff Bridges. Zieff is another guy forgotten in the Oscar In Memoriam montage this year. And Dante’s Matinée, mentioned earlier, is a nice sideways look at Hollywood.

  • Alex Hicks

    Speaking of “Sunset Blvd,” it figures surprirsingly, yet very aptly, in the wonderful “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir,” available at YouTube and, for a while, at “http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/.”

    Also prominent in this enthralling ode to noir, are two more surprising, but in retrospect al apt, films: “Wyler’s “The Letter” and “Laughton’s “Night of the Hiunter.”

  • Johan Andreasson

    I hope it’s not considered a blasphemy to place it above the Cukor version, but my favorite Hollywood about Hollywood movie is Wellman’s A STAR IS BORN. I also like SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and IN A LONELY PLACE very much (and I’m sure there’s others).

    I don’t really know what to say about John Hughes. I was too old at the time (in my mid 20s in the mid 80s), but I’ve seen some of his films, and you can’t deny they have an identity of their own – you certainly can say ”a John Hughes film”, and most people will still know what you mean. I guess the John Hughes of today is Judd Apatow, but to me Apatow has the advantage of having been involved (with Paul Feig) in the TV series FREAKS AND GEEKS, which I think is a truer depiction of what it was like being a teenager than any John Hughes movie.

  • Kent Jones

    Barry, I knew Betty ever so slightly, and it’s not like she was given to making fun of starstruck people. On the other hand, she did not have much patience with rampant obsequiousness. All I know is, I was there that night and that’s what the lady said.

  • Kent – may I speak to you offline? jaime dot christley at gmail dot com

    @ Johan – regarding FREAKS AND GEEKS, absolutely the best thing he’s been involved with. Although there were qualities about 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN that I found appealing, not just the belly laughs. And if I’m not mistaken, Richard Brody thought highly of FUNNY PEOPLE.

  • Tom and Johan, THE BIG KNIFE, TWO WEEKS…, SUNSET BLVD, IN A LONELY PLACE and A STAR IS BORN are all great films (and Johan, I also prefer Wellman’s version). But the combination of style, emotionalism and insights in all the details of moviemaking in TBATB makes in greater for me. And in SUNSET BLVD I have to say I find the constant voice-over a nuisance. There’s just too much talk.

    Other contenders are SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS.

    While we’re on the subject, I would really like to see Vidor’s SHOW PEOPLE.

    I regret to say I haven’t seen MATINÉE either, although I much wanted to when it came out.

    David, there are a few scenes like that in cinema history, and I think they’re particularly frequent in Bergman’s and Minnelli’s films for some reason. A Bergman example would be from SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE when Marianne (Liv Ullmann) calls up a friend to say that Johan (Erland Josephson) has just told her he’s been having an affair, only to find out that her friend already knew, that in fact all of their friends knew, everybody but her.

  • Kent Jones

    I absolutely agree with Richard Brody about FUNNY PEOPLE. Very sharp movie.

  • Steve Elworth

    I agree with Barry that Betsy Blair’s politics is why the Kelly’s moved to Europe. I also think it is important to stress that Blair’s left politics was a way for her to find a space in Kelly’s overwhelming shadow. I have not read Peter Wollen’s wonderful little book for over a decade and I think the importance of Blair’s politics is stressed.

  • Fredrik, It is interesting you bring up SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. I just watched Donigan Cumming’s short-film A SHORT LESSON (2000) and it begins with dialogue from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS: “I have never been sympathetic to the charactering of the poor and needy sir” “whose charactering?” “I’m going on the road to find out what it is like to be poor and needy and then I am going to make a picture about it” “the poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich will find the subject glamorous” etc. The socially assisted poor is a reoccurring subject in Donigan Cumming’s films.

    This is voice-overed a close-up of a balding, unshaven, Montreal senior citizen. There is some drug-related orange marks around his mouth. The man then goes on to talk about James Agee and Manny Farber. I am going to quote what he says as I think it might interest others: “Agee was an alcoholic, and towards the end of his life he got so drunk that he would go to a movie that he was supposed to review for Time magazine, because he was working for Time then as well as The New Republic, and he would fall asleep in the movie shortly after many drinks. And he would go with Manny Farber and Manny Farber would tell him what the movie was about. And then Agee would go home and write a review for Time magazine, a brilliant review for a film he hadn’t seen.”

    Is there any validity to this statement? Donigan Cumming describes the film as “One minute, two mysteries: the euphoria of genius and why we try to make pictures.”

    I have not seen Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE but what you describe does seem very moving and sad.

  • Kent Jones

    David, that doesn’t sound accurate. For one thing, Agee stopped reviewing a few years before he died. Manny and I talked about Agee a lot, and he never mentioned anything like that (not that it proves or disproves anything). If anything, the stories I’ve read (for instance, Manny’s first wife Janet’s account of the period) indicate that Agee could drink anyone under the table and remain alert.

  • Kent, The source of that quote is Marty (Martin Corbin). From what I get Marty and James were personal friends and both lived in New York at the same time. In Cumming’s MY DINNER WITH WEEGEE (2001) Marty brings up a tale of Agee, Agee’s wife and a third party having a ménage à trois.

    My intention is not to slander the well-respected film critic but just to bring attention to the gossip about him in these films. Pertaining to James Agee’s criticism, I remember liking and learning a lot from AGEE ON FILM.

  • Barry Putterman

    Kent, it is possible that you misinterpreted my meaning. When I said that I didn’t think that Betty Comden was the type to make sport of the starstruck, I was agreeing that that is not how her questioner should be characterized. As you tell it, she not only said it, but she said it better than any of us could have.

    I don’t suspect that there were any movie reviewers of note who regularly passed out during screenings. Nonetheless, I’ve always found it curious that when lines of dialogue are quoted in reviews, they so often occurred during the first ten minutes of the film.

  • jbryant

    I feel better about my blind buy of FUNNY PEOPLE now (though I’m an unrepentant Apatow fan). Should be here in a day or two.

    Shame that Zieff was left out of the in memoriam, especially since he directed Goldie Hawn and Eileen Brennan to nominations in PRIVATE BENJAMIN.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    No, Zieff was included in the memorium.

    I actually saw him at work – I was on a tour of the Warners lot around 1980, and in their “jungle” backlot we stumbled upon him directing a scene with Goldie Hawn and Eileen Brennan doing training in a sort of swampy area. I haven’t been on a lot of sets, but my recollection was that everyone involved was having a lot of fun. The scene I witnessed was front and center in the final film.

    To note a passing that will be less noticed – one of the last links to Hollywood silent films, and a centenarian actor to boot, died this week – Dorothy Janis, who turned 100 last month. She is best (only?) know for her role as Tito, Ramon Novarro half-white love interest in The Pagan (W.S. Van Dyke/1929), one of the last silent films. She did not survive sound; she was in her late teens when she made this (she was very pretty, although not remotely “exotic” looking. She retired shortly after, married bandleader Wayne King, whom she survived after he died after 52 years of marriage.

    That someone who costarred with Ramon Novarro in a silent film was still alive of course I had no idea until she died; I wonder how many more like her are still with us.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I think it was on this blog, a couple of threads back, I read that Barbara Kent, the female lead in LONESOME (1928), is still with us at age 103.

  • Kent Jones

    David, the menage à trois stuff I’ve heard from multiple sources (though not from Manny). I understand you’re not trying to demean Agee.

    I remember seeing Zieff in the tribute. He may not have been one of the all-time greats, but HEARTS OF THE WEST is a hilarious film, and I love his remake of UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Great moment, probably written off the cuff by Albert Brooks: Dudley Moore cuts Brooks’ tie in two with scissors and Brooks says, “A Kennedy gave me that tie.”

    Barry – clarification received. In Cannes, people don’t pass out at press screenings, but they do a lot of snoozing, particularly at the 8:30am screenings, for which you have to wake up at 7am if you want to eat breakfast and get a decent seat.

  • I missed noticing Zieff in the memorial so I am glad that he, at least, was there.

  • Barry Putterman

    One of the few things that stuck in my mind from William Goldman’s book about the year that he was both a Cannes and Miss America judge, was how concerned that he and many of the other judges were about staying awake at screenings, particularly on the first jet lagged day. Appearently judge George Miller (the MAD MAX and medical one) suggested chewing gum as a device that would keep you from nodding off. Goldman said that it worked too.

  • In my home town, when I came to be a reviewer for a local once-alternative weekly, I was disillusioned to learn that the long time reviewer for the sole daily was for all intents and purposes a narcoleptic. If one sat somewhere behind him one could see his head bobbing backwards as he succumbed to sleep. He was usually the last one out of the auditorium because he was still dozing. Not only that, he was always late to screenings, famously missing, for example, the first 10 minutes of Blade Runner and thus his review evinced a certain amount of confusion, as I recall. His narcolepsy may have explained his reliance on plot summary as a critical technique, which backstage gossip suggested derived from his reliance on the press kits, though I don’t think that is likely, since press kits usually don’t provide detailed plot summaries. In any case, by missing the beginnings, middles, and ends of most films, this reviewer spent a career not really seeing the thousands of movies he reviewed.

  • Kent Jones

    When Rossellini was in Cannes, he stuck his little finger just under his nose, so that if he nodded off he would be jabbed by his own fingernail.

    I’ve seen THE HEADLESS WOMAN many times, but the first couple of times I was in Cannes and I nodded off. Every subsequent viewing brought a little more clarity to what is an extremely disorienting film to begin with.

  • The issue of falling asleep throughout movies was just on my mind before logging on now, having just tried to watch SILENT RUNNING for the second time this week and nodding off…

    One of my all-time favourite films is the one that took me the most times to watch without drifting off somewhere along the way – LITTLE MURDERS. Although I don’t think the final sense of achievement counts toward my high opinion of it.

  • I was very intrigued by Zieff in the 70s – back in the day, SLITHER seemed as promising a debut as BADLANDS, and it was in the same general ballpark of laid-back, road-movie off-shoot. And of course the script connection there with W.D. Richter, whose BUCKAROO BANZAI was (is) a cult film for cinephiles of my generation (he wrote all sorts of interesting stuff). Zieff’s THE MAIN EVENT has interesting elements, and even the MY GIRL films contain faint traces of his 70s promise. A rather forgotten figure.

  • Kent Jones

    HOUSE CALLS isn’t bad either. He didn’t make many films. A lot of his career was in advertising.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    TCM alert – tonight late (before midnight PT, after ET)

    One usually doesn’t associated the adjective “Bressonian” with Mervyn LeRoy, and I’ll have to rewatch it to remember exactly that thought crossed my mind when I saw this film at a Film Forum 1990s pre-code series, but Heat Lightning is if nothing else a hour long of archetypal pure pleasure Warners studio fare, and for me the most excited I’ve ever gotten seeing a LeRoy film.

    Set at a remote desert roadstand. the cast alone is to die for – Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Preston Foster, Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Jane Darwell, Edgar Kennedy – any of whom individually is usually enough to catch my interest – with MacMahon as a mechanic watching out for her kid sister as a swarm of gangsters and ne’er-do-wells pass by. It is spare, atmospheric and very dramatic. Try to catch it if you’ve never seen it.

  • Barry Putterman

    Tom, I’m also not sure what you found Bressonian about HEAT LIGHTNING, but it is indeed a very good film rendition of an obscure stage play with an excellent cast. Maybe the play became overwhelmed by the popularity of THE PETRIFIED FOREST, which it somewhat resembles—with all of the hot air removed. In any event, I second your recommendation.

  • Would anyone be able to send me a tape of that – me, without cable service? That’s a strong recommendation, and I think very highly of early LeRoy after TWO SECONDS. Would happily cover the shipping and materials. jaime dot christley at gmail dot com if you’re able.

  • jbryant

    I saw HEAT LIGHTNING years ago, when TNT was sort of a proto-TCM. Very good, great cast, great look. Sorry I missed it tonight.