Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Discovery #11

Jolie Holland - The Living And The Dead (2008)

So often, when we hear the term country music, it's so easy to simply close our ears and pretend that it doesn't exist. With the ACM crowd that exhibits a perverted quality of sound that incessantly pervades our culture, those of us who find some connection to the roots of our nation found in real country music must look for it outside mainstream culture. I guess I shouldn't be surprised when that is the answer to so many of my cultural dilemmas. So we look for this essence of country music in the side genre that pops up so that we can differentiate our rejection of country-pop blandness from the truth; folk and americana and the blues. All American music goes back to that in the end anyway, right? African music brought over by the people when they were enslaved hundreds of years ago has penetrated every aspect of our modern music, a culture built on oral communication where the soul of a song is one of the last places where the heart of freedom still resides. Jolie Holland is the kind of country music I like, or folk or whatever you want to call it. Her voice is a distinct masterpiece and each tune flows with pure reverence to another era. Her songs reach for an intimate time and place that harbors some ache that still resonates in her heart and the warble of her words make the ghost inside them come alive. I call it country music because that always seems to be the goal of those songs. When you hear the weepy desire for loss or heartbreak or a bottle to drain your tears in, then you know that person has a deep understanding of the old days, the heart of the pasture where the sights and smells of horse dung used to settle over the land like oppression.

Ikiru - Akira Kurosawa (1952)

Ikiru is a strange film that is elevated by the hand of a master. Made in 1952 after Japan's militaristic regime had been decimated by many years of war, the ensuing government bureaucracy that settled in the dust was needed to rebuild the nation. In less than ten years the stilted nature of bureaucracy had already reared its ugly head. It appears that not much has changed with the way government is run in over half a century as even today we deal with many of the problems the people in this film faced. Kenji Watanabe is part of this bureaucracy and people come to the department that he runs for various ills that exist in society and they always get the run-around, of course. He does very little besides make sure that his stamp has enough ink for all of the paperwork that crosses his desk but after discovering that he has horrible stomach cancer and has only six months to live, the time of reckoning is upon him. The ultimate question arises, 'What has he done in life that has provided any value for anyone?' The first half of the movie deals with many of these questions and, though the cinematic story-telling is fairly impressive, there's nothing extremely special for the viewer beyond some good film-making. The second half of the film is where Kurasawa excels. It's told from the vantage point of those who remain after the old man's death. At his wake his family and co-workers share in some of the memories they had of Watanabe. This is when we discover that he left a parting legacy for the community, building a playground for a poor neighborhood that had been in his office very early in the film requesting some assistance. But it's the way that his philanthropic touches are revealed that makes the movie so exquisite. Those at his wake start to talk more and more as they get more and more drunk and it turns into a detective story of a kind as they try to uncover Watanabe's last desires, which are then shown through various flashback sequences. The story that is weaved works so well that by the end of the film your heart has been lifted. It's film-makers like Kurasawa that have always brought us into the theatre and the creative artists of the cinema of today are trying as hard as ever to make something a special as Ikiru.

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