dir. Yoji Yamada
Opens Fri July 23.
I've always been anxious about attempting cultural readings of foreign films, fearing that it will reveal more about my own ignorance than about the films themselves. Twilight Samurai, however, demands it--and considering that much of my argument here was guided by people much more familiar with Japanese culture than I am, I think we can be reasonably comfortable with the result. Without such a cultural grounding, the film appears to be nothing more than a well-made example of the middle-of-the-road foreign family film--for which it hits all the required characteristics with eye-rolling accuracy: cute children, a chaste and slightly tragic romance, an overall tone of unspecified nostalgia, an unnecessary framing device explicitly connecting the story to the (near) present, vaguely liberal sensibilities, unquestioning admiration for an almost superheroic parent....
The first thing that makes Twilight Samurai stand out is that it takes the samurai genre out of the semi-mythic setting that Western audiences are used to. It depicts the unglamorous daily routine of a samurai who doesn't actually do much fighting, even if he does always carry his sword on his belt. Seibei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the twilight samurai himself, is a lowly (and low-paid) bookkeeper who works in food storage. Additionally, the film displays a sensitive awareness of class. Just as Iguchi is constantly reminded of his inferior social and economic status in relation to other samurai, so too are we never allowed to forget the peasantry, who form a consistent, and troubling, background presence.
Most important is the film's insistent commentary on contemporary Japan. Iguchi's youngest daughter (as an adult) narrates with hushed reverence. She, and the film, venerate the unaggressive, humble Iguchi precisely because he embodies the opposite of nearly everything Japanese society values in its males, then and now. Iguchi is an ideal family man, who loves his family in ways that his fellow samurai don't understand. The idea that a samurai--or a sarariman--could have meaningful relationships with his daughters, and that he would choose to spend time with them instead of furthering his career with after-hours discussion over drinks, is nearly unthinkable in large chunks of Japanese society. Even more radically, he's the only character in the film to treat women with respect.
A sizeable box-office hit in Japan, the film has evidently struck a chord with native audiences. Critics and audiences here have been reluctant to read much into it besides the 'beautiful love story between idealized people' aspect, or the filmmakers' decision to make a socially realistic samurai film, but that's only half the movie. The more interesting half, and the real reason to see the movie, is a little less accessible for American audiences. ADAM HART
The Hunting of the President
dir. Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry
Opens Fri July 23.
The 2000 (s)election. The war in Iraq. The PATRIOT Act. John Ashcroft's "Let Freedom Reign"--the past four years have been so horrible, so disastrous for our nation, that it nearly makes you forget the travesty that occurred, with alarming regularity, from years 1992 to 2000.
You still remember that time, though, don't you? Back when there was much fuss over blowjobs and stained dresses and inappropriate uses of cigars? Back when Hillary Clinton warned of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" and Bill Clinton waffled over his definition of sexual relations? Perhaps you even remember key names: Whitewater, Ken Starr, Susan McDougal, Vince Foster. If not, then you can't really be completely blamed--after all, compared to the past four years, the chaos of the '90s seems rosy, and therefore easy to let drift from your memory.
But we shouldn't let it drift; what the GOP machine did to Bill Clinton (beginning, it should be noted, even before he took office) remains one of the ugliest maneuvers in our nation's history. And now, thankfully, The Hunting of the President is here, washing ashore on the welcome and surprising wave of lefty docs to serve as a handy reminder of just how malicious the GOP can be. Not the entire GOP, of course--just enough bad Republicans to infest the entire crop.
Based on the book by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President offers very few new insights for those who were paying attention during the right's attempted coup d'état. But then again, it's not really supposed to--a mere 90-minutes long, the film is little more than a quick highlight of the entire debacle, from Gennifer Flowers to Ken Starr, and as such it does what every good documentary should do: immortalizes a series of events, be they positive or, as in the case here, soundly shameful and negative. We will never forget, the post-9/11 slogan goes, and it is a slogan all of us on the left should adopt for the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton. We will never forget what the right did, and we will never forget what the right is capable of. This film, despite its flaws (including occasionally overloaded direction reminiscent, in a bad way, of Oliver Stone's JFK), won't let us. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War of Journalism
dir. Robert Greenwald
Now available on DVD.
Fox News is owned by an Australian billionaire named Rupert Murdoch--the man who certainly inspired the mad media mogul in Tomorrow Never Dies, Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce). There is very little difference between Caver's CMGN (Carver Media Group Network), a global 24-hour news network that James Bond has to bring down before it triggers World War III, and Murdoch's Fox News Network. Both do not report news but create it; and in terms of tempo, both are deliriously hyper. The documentary Outfoxed examines the Fox Network's inner world by primarily interviewing men and women who were formerly employed by the right-wing cable channel. Some of the interviewed don't want to be identified; their voices are disguised as they speak with real fear about their experiences under Murdoch's direct power. Fox News claims to be "Fair and Balanced," claims to offer its viewers well-rounded versions of events, but in fact Fox is nothing more than a publicity department for the Republican Party.
In terms of display, Fox has all of the codes of a neutral network--serious-looking anchorpersons at prime time, political analysts in power suits, casual morning shows--and this is why people believe it is legitimate: It looks like the real thing. But this is old news; anyone who lives in this city knows very well what Fox News is all about--that it's staffed by absolute nutters who yell at their guests and tell them to shut up. So why is this documentary of any value to us? Because the Fox News it describes is even creepier than you imagined. The little internal memos from the top that strictly dictate policy, the micro-management of employees and information, the encouraged "us against the rest" mentality--this has added up to an institution that has completely lost contact with reality. And then there's the creepy matter of the 2000 election. The head of Fox News' election analysis division, John Ellis, who happens to be George Bush's first cousin, called his relative the winner long before the results were conclusive. Author John Nichols suggests that Ellis' intervention lead other networks to prematurely announce Bush's victory, and, ultimately, what was false information become a fact of American life at the start of the 21st century. What this abuse of power exposes, and what constitutes the root evil of Fox News, is how the agency has severely destabilized the already vulnerable news system in America. Instead of challenging what are often blatant lies and unfounded claims, the other networks are trying to match (or catch up with) Fox, which, like Carver's CMGN, has very high ratings. CHARLES MUDEDE
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism is available for sale through www.outfoxed.org.