Review: Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

In many ways every film is about its filmmaker, even when the ostensible subject is a different person. A viewer who approaches Werner Herzog’s documentary about the British travel writer Bruce Chatwin expecting a biography will likely be disappointed since the clearest purpose of the film is to explore Herzog’s relationship with Chatwin, which started in the early 1980s. Consequently, the aspect of Chatwin’s career that I myself find most interesting is mostly ignored. Chatwin is often credited with reviving the art of travel writing with his bestseller In Patagonia, but that wasn’t his aim, which was to make himself useful as a citizen of the world. An office worker whose first few attempts at being published failed due to lack of focus, he became the nomad of Herzog’s title because he was always in search of something he couldn’t grasp until he actually found it. His travel writing is different because it isn’t really about travel. It’s about going to a place and discovering everything there is to know about it, right down to the geology and the natural history. 

It’s this latter facet of Chatwin’s work that overlaps with Herzog’s, whose own movies are often anthropological in conception. However, he doesn’t examine Chatwin’s work itself, and, for that matter, rarely even quotes from his books. He essentially reminisces about the times he spent with Chatwin and then tries to build parallels between Chatwin’s thoughts and his own movies, which are referenced at least as much as Chatwin’s words. Herzog is straightforward about how Chatwin directly influenced his own movies, but we learn nothing about the writer’s frustration as a young corporate factotum, or, for that matter, much about his sexual conflicts (Chatwin died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 48, still in the closet though his wife of many years was aware and tolerant of his relationships with men). Instead, we get a lot of ruminative narration about Chatwin’s “obsession with prehistory” and his conclusion that “all history is myth.” Though these ideas are interesting in and of themselves, it is up to the viewer to forge the proper connections in order to make some kind of linear sense out of Chatwin’s life. Herzog’s patented English voiceover, at once clipped in tone but grandiose in style, can often sound like a parody of itself, especially when expanding on such abstract matters. 

The movie, which itself travels all over the world, is beautiful, but because it is essentially a compilation of footage shot over many years for other projects, it’s easy to get the impression that Herzog was simply looking for a means of putting that disparate footage to use, and Chatwin, the ultimate peripatetic writer, became the ideal subject. At one point, Herzog tells an interlocutor that Chatwin is the subject of their conversation and the movie we are now watching, as if to remind himself what he should be doing. As erudite and probing as Nomad is, a more honest title would have been Bruce and Me

Now playing in Tokyo at Iwanami Hall Suidobashi (03-3262-5252).

Nomad home page in Japanese

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Review: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan

The centrality of “authenticity” comes and goes in the annals of music criticism. In its most common usage it represents an artist’s commitment to music as craft, which is why hip-hop and techno were originally dismissed by self-serious, trad-oriented types. But in the sense of being authentic to one’s beliefs, the term really came into its own during the punk revolution of the late 70s and 80s, when artists themselves dismissed music that felt unrepresentative of the human condition. As a rock documentarist, Julien Temple has made this notion his metier, and his two-hour-plus study of the music and career of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan is more successful in this regard than his docs about the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer, if mainly because MacGowan himself sets both the pace and the tone of the film by being front and center for most of the movie.

MacGowan was authentic in an unusual way: An Irishman who celebrated his Irishness as a native Londoner. Already a drunk and hellion as a teen, he appeared to his family and friends to be on the short road to oblivion until he saw the Sex Pistols and adapted the punk image for his own purposes. What’s interesting is this image should have rightly put him on the even shorter road to self-destruction, as MacGowan, speaking from a wheelchair and with an often difficult-to-understand slur in the present to Temple, as well as to friends such as Johnny Depp (one of the film’s producers) and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, recalls how punk helped him find what can only be termed a constructive outlet for his self-destruction. And while he did start out as a rocker he quickly transmogrified the punk attitude to celebrate and expand on Irish traditional music forms with the Pogues. 

“I was put here by God to save Irish music,” he says without irony. More essentially, he used Irish music to talk about those things that have always been explicit in Irish literature, such as the Irish diaspora and the idea of exile. Though he claims Brendan Behan as his poetic soulmate, he sees James Joyce, who lived his life abroad and was, he points out, a great singer, as his true model for how to live as an artist. Though Temple makes much of MacGowan’s oft-repeated line that he purposely acted the drunken Irish stereotype in order to throw it back in the face of British racists, MacGowan’s romantic streak, as illustrated by songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and his classic Christmas song “Fairytale of New York,” is fully explicated as a means of putting his bad-boy reputation and demolished physical form into proper perspective. 

What’s most remarkable about the film, aside from the staggering array of source material that Temple got his hands on, is how MacGowan, who has railed not only against the establishment over the years but also against his bandmates (whom he’s “divorced” twice) and mentors like Elvis Costello (whom he fired once), now finds himself rock royalty and one of the giants of 20th literature, as Strummer (his replacement in the Pogues, don’t forget) once called him. The movie ends with a 60th birthday party on stage where he’s feted as an original for the ages, and while the movie emphasizes his physical deterioration it also celebrates the sharpness of his mind in the witty and cutting comments that seem so effortless for him. Crock of Gold is hagiography as a presentation of stark contrasts, which is why you can’t accuse it of being inauthentic. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Crock of Gold home page in Japanese

photo (c) The Gift Film Limited 2020

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Review: An Officer and a Spy

Roman Polanski is old and probably doesn’t have many more films left in him. Though he’s considered one of the most important directors of the last 60 years, his output since the turn of the millennium has been riddled with asterisks due to his status as a fugitive from justice, which, based on the spotty distribution of his last several movies, would seem to have rendered him persona non grata in the Anglophone cinematic universe at least. Depending on how you feel about confessed statutory rapists, this informal blackballing could be deemed unfortunate given the quality of his latest feature, a very involving retelling of the infamous Dreyfus Affair that rocked French society at the end of the 19th century and which, reportedly, is a subject Polanski had been keen to tackle for some time. From what I can gather, the only public screenings of An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse is the original French title) with English subtitles have been at festivals. 

Japanese distributors are less squeamish about Polanski’s notoriety, and here the movie is being promoted as a kind of detective thriller, which is about right, though viewers shouldn’t expect anything as delightfully tawdry as Chinatown. Alfred Dreyfus (Louis Garrel) was a captain in the French army who, despite an excellent record and undiminished loyalty, was convicted of selling secret weapons technology to the Germans and exiled to Devil’s Island. What made the trial and subsequent sentencing scandalous is that Dreyfus was scapegoated because he was a Jew during a period when anti-semitism was ascendant in France. Eventually, the writer Emile Zola published an open letter accusing certain officers by name of using dodgy evidence to railroad Dreyfus as a means of covering up army corruption, knowing that it would be easy to stigmatize a Jew. The fallout exposed the institutional anti-semitism of the age and became a basic text for future scholars of institutional discrimination. 

Polanski, working with the writer Robert Harris, who published a novel about the Dreyfus Affair as preparation for the movie, doesn’t center his film on Dreyfus or Zola, but rather on Col. Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin), an officer who served above Dreyfus and, following the latter’s conviction, was promoted to the head of military intelligence, where in the course of investigating a suspected double agent realized that the man he was following was the person who actually traded secrets with the Germans, not Dreyfus. Though Picquart himself admits to being an anti-semite, he is also a soldier of honorable disposition and cannot countenance the idea that an earnest and upright officer like Dreyfus was cynically framed in order to cover up the incompetence of the upper ranks. After painstakingly collecting evidence with the help of a detective, he confronts his superiors and they immediately and resentfully not only reject his findings, but banish him to Africa where he will not cause any problems.

But Picquart will not leave the matter alone. He returns to Paris some time later and takes up where he left off, recruiting a sympathetic lawyer to help him rehabilitate Dreyfus along with a group of politicians and Zola, who eventually publishes his essay. This leads to Picquart’s arrest for insubordination and a defamation suit against Zola. Because a good portion of the public also hates Jews, it is easy for both men to be convicted, but a fellow officer who previously gave testimony against Dreyfus succumbs to guilt and confesses his perjury, thus resulting in Picquart’s release and a second trial for Dreyfus.

The real object of Polanski’s attention is the toxic privilege of the French military. The men occupying the highest ranks are no different in temperament and prejudices than their counterparts in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, who blithely sentence men to death for empty principles. To a 21st century viewer these proud men are not just ethically compromised. They embody a class-derived evil that will become a leitmotif for the 20th century. But Polanski plays by their game by focusing on their foil, Picquart, who while opposing them also personifies the noble qualities they claim as their stock in trade. Harris’s suspenseful script and Polanski’s zig-zagging direction—his use of flashbacks and flash-forwards is masterful—make for a police procedural with uncommon depth. More essentially, An Officer and a Spy feels like living history, though I suspect Harris expanded a lot on the record. In any case, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who likes detective stories and detailed historical reenactments, this movie is right up your alley. 

In French. Opens June 3 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

An Officer and a Spy home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2019 Legendaire, R.P. Productions, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Elise O Cinema, Raicinema (c) Guy Fernandis-Tous droits reserves

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Media watch: LDP heavyweights scramble to kill own redistricting plan

Hiroyuki Hosoda (Asahi)

For years, concerned citizens have asked Japanese courts to address the vote disparities that have plagued national elections since the electoral system was revamped nearly 30 years ago. In almost all the cases, judges have found that such disparities are provisionally unconstitutional but nevertheless refuse to order new elections to be held in accordance with plaintiffs’ desires, saying that it is up to the Japanese legislature to remedy the situation, presumably by redistributing Diet seats in accordance with changing demographics. Now, the Diet has a plan that will pretty much do that and, what’s more, it was formulated by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which implies it should be easy to implement. However, in recent months, several high-powered lawmakers in the party have finally come to understand what carrying out the plan would mean and that if it is they could actually lose their constituencies and thus are now trying to undermine it.

An April 15 article in Toyo Keizai Online summarized the plan, which has been dubbed the “add 10, take away 10” formula, because it would remove ten Lower House seats from rural districts that have been losing population for several decades and add ten seats to predominantly urban districts where populations have risen. The plan was prompted by demographic calculations made following the 2020 census and released last June. As a result, Diet Affairs Committee chairpersons from all the political parties have agreed to establish a joint deliberative council to lay out the 10-10 plan for the prime minister’s approval, but there have been delays because a substantial portion of the LDP has voiced objection. And while Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has indicated he supports the revision, those with reservations have a lot of pull within the party. Kishida is supposed to submit the revision by June 25, or just before the Upper House poll, and while the revision would not effect that election it might cause strife within the party that could be a distraction from campaigning activities. 

The calculus for the plan was first submitted in April 2016 by the ruling coalition and was subsequently passed by both houses. The concept follows what is called the “Adams method,” which, in Japan’s case, means that the number of Lower House seats assigned to each prefecture is determined by the prefecture’s population. According to the census, which is carried out by the interior ministry, the Lower House represents a total of 289 constituencies, ranging from Tottori #2 District, with 274,160 people, to Tokyo #22 district with 573,969 people. These extremes represent the largest gap in terms of voting disparity—a factor of 2.049—meaning that votes in Tottori #2 are worth 2.049 times the votes in Tokyo #22. In fact, there are 20 constituencies where the vote value is more than twice as much as as what it is in Tokyo. The object of the 10-10 plan is to reduce this disparity at least to less than 2.0 times. Specifically, the plan will increase the number of seats for all of Tokyo Prefecture by 5, Kanagawa Prefecture by 2, and Chiba, Aichi, and Saitama Prefectures by one each, because these areas have seen substantial increases in population over the years. At the same time, Miyagi, Fukushima, Niigata, Shiga, Wakayama, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Ehime, and Nagasaki Prefectures will each lose one seat, because they have lost population.

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Review: Mothering Sunday

Adapted from a Graham Swift novel published in 2016, Eva Husson’s debut feature feels like an attempt to inject oxygen into the stuffy atmosphere that usually surrounds the so-called British prestige picture. Comprising three different time periods but centered on the titular holiday in 1924, the movie is a blend of highbrow dialogue and overly impressionistic direction that aims to penetrate the genteel surfaces of English aristocracy and show how, deep down, the rich are just as capable of suffering as the poor. The main difference is that the poor, thanks to a closer proximity to reality, have a readier capacity to probe their suffering for meaning.

This latter idea is personified by the protagonist, Jane Fairchild (Odessa Yound), an orphan employed as a maid at the country estate of Lord and Lady Niven (Colin Firth, Olivia Colman), who lost their two sons in the trenches of France. In fact, the town has lost most of its generation of high-born men to World War I, a circumstance that unites the local gentry under a pall of open-ended mourning. Their only sense of hope is invested in the impending nuptials between the sole surviving youth, Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), and the bitterly resistent Emma (Emma D’Arcy), who was once informally betrothed to one of the Nivens’ sons. As it happens, Jane has been pursuing a passionate, secret love affair with Paul for some time, and on this particular Sunday that affair will come to an end since the wedding, to which Paul has willingly assented out of class obligation, is scheduled to take place in less than a fortnight. 

Husson capably interweaves Paul’s and Jane’s lovemaking, their postcoital discussions about fate and literature, a strained riverside lunch attended by the three manor families of the town, and Jane’s future some years down the road as she embarks on a writing career using this pivotal afternoon to explore her traumatized psyche. This blending of two versions of the past (later there will be a second flash-forward, so to speak) and how they speak to each other highlights the inventiveness of the plotting and the sharpness of the characterizations, but the effort exerted to pull it all together into a thematic whole comes across as even more pretentious than what you get in the worst kind of Merchant-Ivory project. All this existential drama is siphoned into Jane’s life as a writer, as if it were all set up by the gods with that end game in sight. Though I’m tempted to blame Swift, it’s mostly due to the heavy lifting on the part of Husson, whose reliance on closeups and hazy rays of sunlight borders on the obsessive, not to mention Morgan Kibby’s derivative chamber music score, which repeatedly calls attention to itself. Fans of Downton Abbey may find the sexual candor and interclass dynamics shocking and thrilling, but for those of us who approach this milieu with less fawning regard, the movie offers nothing provocative except a clever story. 

Opens May 27 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).

Mothering Sunday home page in Japanese

photo (c) Channel Four Television Corporation, The British Film Institute and Number 9 Films Sunday Limited 2021

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Review: One Second

At one point the most celebrated and revered member of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, Zhang Yimou has since turned into an equally notorious example of submitting to a repressive system for the sake of survival as an artist, if necessarily a diminished one. Younger film aficionados mainly identify him as a maker of large-scale entertainments in the wuxia style, though older movie fans probably mark his turning point as accepting the role of the artistic director of the Beijing Olympics, both the 2008 and 2022 versions. As such, these jobs supposedly revealed his latent nationalism, an opinion that was bolstered by movies like Hero or, more critically, his Hollywood co-production The Great Wall

In his latest offering, One Second, Zhang returns to the theme that first made him internationally famous—a stubborn will to live in the face of hardship. It’s a theme that’s inherently sentimental, and as such the movie’s most direct cognate is his 1999 feature The Road Home, which not only sealed his reputation on the festival circuit, but made a superstar out of Zhang Ziyi. More to the point, Zhang places the narrative at the center of the Cultural Revolution in such a way as to show that the resilience on display is in reaction to pressures brought to bear by the government’s brutal social engineering plans. Reading several reviews of the film I noted that, while Zhang still seems to enjoy the authorities’ favor, One Second was pulled from festivals before it could be screened. 

The movie is also about movies in the most elemental way. An escapee from a farm prison, Zhang (Zhang Li), crosses the desert on foot to watch a movie in a backwater town. When he arrives, however, he learns that he is too late. The screening, which is carried out by a local workers unit, has already concluded, the film reels packed up and ready to go to the next town. While trying to learn more, Zhang notices an unkempt waif, Liu (Liu Haocun), steal one of the film cans from the delivery motorcycle and pursues her. What ensues for the next half hour is an almost slapstick level cat-and-mouse game, as the film cannister changes hands between Zhang and Liu as they make their way to the next town, where, as it happens, Liu lives in abject destitution with her younger brother. 

Certainly the story’s most striking impression is how central movie-going is to the people who live in this place (Hebei Province in the middle of nowhere) at this particular time (the 70s, I would guess). When the film that is in the can falls out and ends up being dragged through the dirt for many kilometers, it arrives in the town scratched and grimy, but the dedicated, resourceful projectionist, Fan (Fan Wei), afraid that he has a potential riot on his hands, enlists the entire town to restore the film to at least a screenable state. As it turns out, Zhang the fugitive’s self-imposed mission is to see this particular segment, a boilerplate newsreel in which his estranged daughter supposedly appears as an ideal student. The upshot is that because of his “crime” (the preternaturally hotheaded Zhang assaulted a Red Army soldier) his wife was compelled to divorce him and his daughter forced to denounce and disown him. The “one second” of his daughter on the reel is the only chance he may ever have to see her again.

Zhang’s script skillfully taps this theme of parental despair as a contrasting motif to Liu’s story of parental abandonment. Not yet an adolescent, she cares for her younger brother by stealing and scheming. Though Zhang the director does not overtly try to make the claim that both Zhang the protagonist and Liu are victims of a “system,” it’s clear as the movie develops and becomes at once more melodramatic and viscerally exciting they are dealing with their situations, emotionally and practically, the only way they can. Zhang stages the action with an economical efficiency that proves he still sees himself as a technician first, but the movie’s power as pure cinema also shows that his artistic vision is undiminished, regardless of what uses it serves. 

In Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868—5024).

One Second home page in Japanese

photo (c) Huanxi Media Group Limited

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Media watch: Trial of Utoro arson suspect receives scant coverage

Utoro after the fire (Yahoo)

May 16 was the first day of the criminal trial of Shogo Arimoto, the 22-year-old man arrested for starting a fire in the Utoro district of Uji, Kyoto Prefecture, last August. Arimoto admitted to all the charges, though he denies the prosecutors’ characterization of his motives for starting the fire, which is that Arimoto has deep feelings of enmity toward Koreans. Utoro is famous as a community of Japan-resident Koreans who are descendants of workers brought from the Korean peninsula during World War II to help build an airport. In April, a memorial hall containing items related to and explanations of the history of the Utoro district opened, and the fire that Arimoto allegedly set destroyed not only seven buildings, but about 40 items that were destined to be part of the memorial hall’s archives. In December, we reported on the incident and its background here

Though the Asahi Shimbun covered Arimoto’s first day in court, for the most part the significance of the arson as a possible hate crime has been ignored by the media. In their opening statement, the prosecution explained that the defendant quit his job last July and expressed his frustration by setting fire to buildings associated with Koreans. At first he set fire to a South Korean school and the Aichi Prefecture headquarters of the Korean Residents Union in Japan, but neither received any press coverage, so he planned the Utoro arson with more care, targeting the memorial hall artifacts because he thought “society” would pay more attention. He was arrested in October for the July arson attack, and the arrested again in December for the Utoro fire. 

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Media watch: Nothing new in Kishida’s new capitalism

Prime Minister Kishida talking in London (Asahi Shimbun)

The amount of cash that Japanese people keep as savings is legendary. At present, it roughly totals ¥1 quadrillion, an enormous sum and one that many people interpret as being a sign of frugality. Japanese people are averse to risk, and thus are anxious about investing. 

These views have been discussed anew after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave a speech in London earlier this month to drum up foreign investment. The gist of Kishida’s speech was that he will actively promote a substantial shift from savings to investment, and thus he encourages foreign businesses to invest in Japan as well. The response in the media has been skepticism, mainly over Kishida’s air of confidence, which was similar in tone to that of a speech given by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 on Wall Street when he asked members of the New York Stock Exchange to “buy my Abenomics.” Kishida simply said, “invest in Kishida,” but the intent was the same: Trust me personally to help you get what you want. 

What Abe was selling wasn’t bought; or, at least, not enough that it made a difference in the long run. In a widely circulated opinion piece, Bloomberg’s Gearoid Reidy pointed out that Abe’s entreaty was “temporarily” a success but eventually “ran out of gas.” Thus, Kishida’s speech is expected to have even less of an effect, especially when you count the fact that the Japanese stock market has lost 2.4 percent of its value in the meantime. Nevertheless, Reidy is relatively bullish on Japan as a haven for investment for various reasons, including the liberalization of financial services, “healthy banks,” the decline of China as an investment destination, the weak yen, and the country’s relative success in limiting the harmful effects of the COVID pandemic.

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Media watch: Japan’s promotion of IR/casinos looking increasingly unrealistic

Artist’s rendering of planned casino for Osaka

On April 20, the Wakayama Prefectural Assembly rejected an integrated casino resort project being promoted by the prefecture’s governor and other prominent politicians. That leaves just Osaka city and prefecture, and Nagasaki as localities that have said they will submit bid plans to the central government for permission to construct IR-casino complexes. 

Wakayama’s move has refocused the media’s attention on the stalled introduction of casino gambling to Japan, and most of that attention is now directed at Osaka, whose own plans are being boosted by local leadership as represented by opposition party Ishin no Kai, which effectively controls the local government. The plan is to build an IR with casino on the artificial island of Yumeshima in Osaka Bay under the management of a consortium that includes U.S. casino heavyweight MGM Resorts International and local financial firm Orix. Yumeshima will also be the site of the 2025 Osaka Kansai Expo. In fact, the two projects are inextricably linked to Ishin’s plans for growth in the region. 

However, as the opening of any casinos in Japan gets pushed farther into the future their viability looks increasingly precarious. On May 8, Asahi Shimbun ran an article in its Sunday World Economy section about Singapore’s IR casino business as a means of trying to figure out whether Japan could possibly compete. Initially the pitch to the public regarding the legalization of casino gambling in Japan, which most Japanese people have opposed according to surveys, is that it was meant to bolster local economies by taking advantage of foreign visitors, meaning casinos weren’t being targeted at domestic users. However, in the years since the idea was first proposed matters have changed significantly, especially after the COVID pandemic wiped out the inbound tourist industry. Rebuilding that revenue base after the lifting of border restrictions will be a chore, but, more importantly, attracting the kind of high-rollers, mainly from China, who could sustain a fledgling gaming industry in Japan is going to be doubly difficult. 

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Review: Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time

There will be two documentaries released in Tokyo theaters this month about Laurel Canyon, the leafy residential adjunct to Los Angeles that acted as an incubator for the storied Southern California Sound of the late 60s and early 70s. This particular film, a distillation of a two-part cable TV program, is a more traditional music doc in that it straightforwardly explicates the development of the scene in a chronological fashion, and in that regard it’s the better choice if you are inclined to take in only one. The other movie, Echo in the Canyon, which opens at the end of May, is more like an excuse for rocker and narrator Jakob Dylan to pay tribute to his musical forebears without having to mention that his father was pretty much responsible for those forebears in the first place, though to me his main sin was not mentioning Joni Mitchell, one of the canyon’s most famous denizens. She even titled an album after the place. 

Though Alison Ellwood does a good job of delineating the source of the SoCal sound, she leaves out a seminal aspect of the scene, which is incumbent in the very title of her movie: real estate. The reason Laurel Canyon attracted so many musicians is that, at the time, it was cozy and cheap; certainly cozier and cheaper than Los Angeles proper. More importantly, its relative seclusion owing to its precipitous hills, winding roads, and prodigious vegetation offered would-be stars a sense of isolation that was not only vital to their art-making endeavors, but allowed them to mingle with one another in a relaxed manner that would have been near impossible in the city. Most of the visuals are supplied not so much by moving picture footage or video but by Henry Diltz’s still photography, which captures the communal sense of the place. Diltz, in fact, came to Los Angeles as a musician himself with the Modern Folk Quartet, a group whose rootsy sincerity provided an aesthetic foundation for most of the artists who would eventually represent the SoCal sound, in particular the Byrds, which were the Beatles of that scene if not of American pop music in general at the time. Of course, the gigs were in L.A., most prominently Sunset Strip clubs like the Troubadour and the Whiskey A Go Go. For a while, there was not a whole lot of stylistic distinction being made between folk, pop, and rock and roll until certain groups emerged to popular acclaim. Though Crosby, Stills and Nash (and, later, Young) are presented at the quintessential Laurel Canyon act, they wouldn’t have developed their own sound without the precedent of Buffalo Springfield, Love, the Mamas and the Papas, and even the Monkees, all of whose members lived in Laurel Canyon. Even Frank Zappa and the Doors, whose own unique styles sprung from that early scene, can be considered part of the mix, and while Ellwood gives Zappa short shrift, she makes a very good case for the Doors being not only the outlier of the scene, but its most influential and exciting act. 

The movie starts getting wobbly, however, when it moves into what the various narrators term “the 2nd wave,” which centers on artists like Jackson Browne, Gram Parsons, the various singer-songwriters revolving around Linda Ronstadt, and, most significantly, the Eagles, who started out as Ronstadt’s backing band. Though no one can deny the Eagles’ place in rock history, their effect, at least for me, is mostly contingent on the intensifying nexus at the time between rock music and capitalism. The movie makes the case that the explosive popularity of the Eagles essentially ended the Laurel Canyon scene, though their ascendance merely coincided with its demise. The money was already pouring in before “Take It Easy” changed things for the worse. Real estate, right? 

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Cine Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).

Laurel Canyon home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Canyon Films LLC

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