The Cramps 1998

In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Lux Interior, here is a review I wrote for the Japan Times of a Cramps concert that took place some time in 1998 at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Japan. 

The decision to have Japan’s most famous amateur rock guitarist, Guitar Wolf, open for the Cramps at their Tokyo area shows is understandable, since both artists channel early American rock and stake their professional reputations on outrageous stage antics.

Stage antics can’t always hide musical incompetence, and in Guitar Wolf’s case they aren’t meant to. I have his album. I’ve even listened to it twice. But I didn’t recognize a thing he played at the June 13 show at Kawasaki Club Citta. What I heard was thirty minutes of the same three chords augmented by the standard vocabulary of rock epithets and the kind of stage moves perfected by everyone who was ever a Ramone. 

But the clincher, the move that sealed Guitar Wolf’s fate as last year’s weird Japanese rock act, was when he pulled a guy out of the audience, strapped his guitar on him, and prompted him to continue the song already in progress. The kid didn’t know how to play and since the song didn’t suffer for it we in the audience are supposed to realize that it isn’t the music but the spirit that matters, which is, of course, a load of crap. I’ve seen him do this before and I know he does it at every concert. Spirit has nothing to do with it.

So Guitar Wolf was a poor choice for an opening act, since his example served as a reminder that the Cramps, in addition to plugging the same glam-trash rockabilly and Nuggets-era psychedelia for more than two decades, have done the depraved sex thing on stage thousands of times. On the back of their latest album, “Big Beat From Badsville,” there is a warning to “proceed with caution” because the band “that dares to be different” has come up with “more music of anti-social significance designed with the fiendish in mind.” No matter how ironically you put it, insisting that you’re still shocking after all these years will strike some as a bit desperate-sounding.

After all, lead singer Lux Interior and guitarist Poison Ivy Rorschach, who formed the band during New York’s peak punk period in the mid-seventies, have reached that age when physical decadence goes beyond being an aesthetic statement and becomes an everyday fact of life. 

Ivy, dressed in a striped one-piece bathing suit, large-mesh black stockings, and vinyl stiletto boots, still looked pretty good, but Lux exuded every one of his forty-odd years and then some. Set below dyed black hair, his pale complexion and deep set eyes gave him the appearance of the ghouls he often sings about. On top of that there’s the lean, abused body and the grossed-out sissy convulsions that come in waves as he sings. If he ever quits the Cramps he can probably make a career as the Emcee in touring productions of “Cabaret.”

The rhythm section of fey blonde bassist Slim Chance and notably normal-looking drummer Harry Drumdini maintained a reliable throb throughout the ninety-minute performance, while Ivy set the tone with her standard battery of I-IV-V chord progressions and familiar 50s & 60s riffs (Duane Eddy twang, Link Wray rumble, Standells freak-out).

Lux took the stage in a long, black coat, gag sunglasses (the ones with eyes painted on the lenses), and sheer black gloves. The band moved swiftly from “Cramp Stomp” to “Love Me” to “Garbageman” before Lux finally threw off the coat to reveal a shiny skin-tight black ensemble. It looked pretty hot, and I don’t mean style-wise.

Once the coat was gone, the music picked up. “Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon” and “God Monster” provided a one-two punch of Lux’s favorite reference — B-grade monster movies (the new album is dedicated to the late Cleveland TV schlockmeister Ghouldini). This was followed by “It Thing Hard-On,” one of the better songs from “Badsville,” which describes perfectly the singer’s ideal badass rocker. “Well, the doctor pulled me out and smacked me in the can/Wiped me off, took a look and said ‘It’s a man’.”

On the raunchy and slippery “Goo Goo Muck,” and the even less inhibited “Hot Pearl Snatch,” Lux prostrated himself before the temple of Poison Ivy, while the guitarist rewarded his attentions with icy indifference, an attitude that never changed the whole evening. “The city is a jungle and I’m a beast,” he screamed, but rather than sounding like a statement of purpose the humiliating posture revealed it as an admission of unbearable sexual frustration.

Even when effecting youthful cool on “Teenage Werewolf” (which Drumdini played with oversized femurs) and “Sunglasses After Dark,” Lux came off as an adolescent in a state of denial about his miserable sexual prospects. The low-down style that the band values has less to do with the demimonde chic of the New York Dolls — the band that first inspired them to form a group — than it does with the juvenile garbage culture of Mad Magazine and “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. 

For those who had come to rock out, however, the Cramps’ thematic carryings-on didn’t make up for what was in the end a monotonous musical attack. There was a knot of fans in front of the stage who boogied the whole show, but everyone else held back and looked merely curious. During the 10-minute destructo encore of the Trashmen classic “Surfin’ Bird,” the crowd perked up, but it had nothing to do with the song. 

Like Guitar Wolf’s audience participation gambit, Lux’s violent post-set behavior has become an obligatory signature flourish. After swallowing the microphone whole, climbing the speaker stacks and jumping off, rolling around in agony, and then pulverizing the mike stand, Lux peeled off his costume and exposed the sad source of his creative inspiration. Most people had to strain to see above the heads in front of them, a few laughed, and everyone forgot about the music.

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Review: Hannah

Thematically and structurally similar to 45 Years, which also starred Charlotte Rampling as the wife of a man who undergoes a startling change in situation, Andrea Pallaoro’s heavily circumscribed character study is less emotionally involving but more evocative. Set in France, the movie keeps its focus on the title character, an unassuming and undemonstrative housewife whose husband (Andre Wilms), we gradually learn, is about to embark on a lengthy prison stay. The opening sequence, which finds Hannah dutifully packing a back for her spouse, is so devoid of dramatic signifiers that as the truth reveals itself the viewer may find himself questioning his eyes…though not his ears. There is virtually no dialogue for the first ten minutes or so.

The unnamed husband’s crimes are never explained, though in Hannah’s subsequent encounters with friends and family it’s easy to get an idea of the nature of his trasngressions. These encounters are situated in daily routines that include acting classes whose purport is purely expository. Indeed, Hannah seems as incapable of empathizing with fictional characters as she is with her husband’s alleged victims, though her son (Simon Bisschop) is explicit in his determination to have no more contact with his parents. Whatever sins the father committeed, the son sees the mother as complicit. To us she seems oblivious.

The difficulty of the movie is in Pallaoro’s decision to divorce these brief spurts of melodrama from the overall tone of the film, which is so evenhanded as to be almost hypnotic. At one point, while visiting her husband in prison, her stone face fads, but only for a second, when the husband hints that, of course, he isn’t guilty of the crimes he’s been accused of. If anything, Hannah’s steely demeanor may not just be a front to avoid thinking of her responsibility in the matter, but also a means of denying the obvious; and as the movie wears on her self-contained quietude takes on a desperate cast, a form of acting in and of itself, even if the only audience is herself. Her suffering is indirect; not a function of pain but rather one of avoiding pain. Pallaoro keeps the tension taut through intractable closeups and a sound design that reminds us that Hannah exists in the real world, even if she seems trapped in her own self-created hell. You wait for her to unravel. And wait some more…

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Cine Switch Ginza (03-3561-0707).

Hannah home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2017 Parner Media Investment-Left Field Ventures-Good Fortune Films

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Review: Burning

Before he became the most vital director of the Korean film renaissance, Lee Chang-dong was a successful novelist, and the most penetrating aspect of his movies is their unpredictable but nevertheless natural plot developments. In his two best films, Oasis (2002) and Poetry (2010), he sets up simple storylines that stress character interactions and then tests those interactions by setting off catastrophes that are both shocking and seemingly inevitable. Consequently, the melodrama that is so intrinsic to the Korean cinema sensibility feels neither sentimental nor contrived, making for the purest catharsis.

Burning is Lee’s first film as a director in 8 years, and this time he adapts someone else’s work, a short story by Haruki Murakami, which I haven’t read. Reportedly, Lee took the basic idea of the story, written in the early 90s, and made it relevant to South Korea right now. If the movie differs appreciably from his earlier work, it’s in the way he plays with thriller elements that may have been inherent in Murakami’s story. The most common complaint about Burning the film is the way the “mystery” propelling the plot is or isn’t resolved, and thus the motivations of the protagonist, a young, ineffectual would-be novelist named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), remain unknown, though it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to guess what those motivations are.

As with most Lee protagonists, Jong-su’s inner life is initially characterized as being inert. His annoying countenance usually presents an open mouth and eyes that rove as if trying desperately to make sense of his surroundings. He rarely responds to stimuli, spoken or otherwise, giving the impression he’s slow on the uptake. And yet, as he explains to Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), an old classmate he runs into while delivering merchandise to a department store where Hae-mi is doing promotional work in leather miniskirt and boots, he attended college where he studied creative writing. If no one seems surprised at this calling, it’s probably because no one seems to believe it. How could this guy, so incurious, make fictional worlds?

Jong-su could simply be an empty vessel, and one night of sex with Hae-mi gives him at least some sort of goal, which is to make her fall in love with him. She goes to Africa in an ambitious bid to learn about a certain tribe she’s read about, and while she’s gone he takes care of her cat, an animal he never sees, and masturbates in her empty apartment while thinking about her. However, when she returns, she’s with Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, handsome, internationally savvy dude who befriended her overseas. Jong-su can’t quite get a handle on their relationship—are they lovers, just friends, or something in between? Jong-su obviously sees Ben as a rival, and not just for Hae-mi’s affections.

Plotwise, there isn’t much beyond this threeway dance of meaning, but when Hae-mi disappears without a trace, Jong-su falls into an obsessive pattern of stalking Ben and sinking deeper into his own fancies, which are opaque to the viewer even if Lee attempts to visualize them to a certain extent. The director’s game is to widen the socioeconomic gap between Jong-su and Ben without ever having either character comment on it, unless you consider Jong-su’s description of his rival as a “Gatsby” to be criticism. Actually, what he says is that there are a lot of Gatsbys in Korea these days, a situation that seems to perplex him, a lower middle class, marginally employed individual living for free on his family’s farm while his volatile father is tried for assault. Like his stalled literary career (we never see Jong-su write anything except a petition for leniency for his father), the social milieu of Burning feels stuck in neutral. No one and nothing seems to be going anywhere, including Ben, who doesn’t work and spends most of his days lounging around his high-rent Seoul pad, tooling aimlessly in his Porsche, and entertaining friends, many of whom are similar in demeanor to Hae-mi—or maybe that’s just us looking at them through Jong-su’s eyes.

This, to me, is Lee’s comfort zone, an ambiguous moral environment where one’s sense of right and wrong is a matter of improvisation, but if the characters in Lee’s past films eventually reached a state of grace without necessarily achieving happiness, Jong-su falls on the other side of the divide, and this would seem to be the Murakami effect. Certainly, the seminal scene where Ben, after smoking some weed, confesses to Jong-su that his hobby is burning down derelict greenhouses, feels straight out of Murakami, and Lee seems to accept that non sequitur as a challenge; not just in terms of fitting it into the plot, but in making it the central motif in a movie that smolders rather than burns—until the end, that is, when all bets are off.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001).

Burning home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Pinehouse Film Co., Ltd.

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Review: The Front Runner

Pardon me if I initially confused Gary Hart with John Edwards. Though the two presidential candidates’ respective career-destroying sex scandals happened almost two decades apart, they tend to blur together in my mind. All those WASPy Democrats look alike, I guess.

However, the distinction is importnat, or, at least it is from director Jason Reitman’s point of view. Reitman and his co-scenarists, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, clearly believe Hart was railroaded by an overzealous press for an indiscretion that didn’t amount to much even in terms of the sex. The promotional campaign for The Front Runner wants you to see the “timeliness” of the film in the age of Trump, when sex scandals count for nothing any more. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), as the film’s trailer puts it, “changed American politics forever” by essentially martyring himself on the altar of principled adulthood. After that, Bill Clinton could get away with a lot, and though John Edwards didn’t, it’s mainly because he knocked someone up and didn’t have the moxie to hire a team that could play it down effectively enough. And forget about Trump.

Too cynical? The scenario is only convincing up to a point, and given how determinedly Reitman tries to ram it home, it feels forced and a bit tired. Much footage and production values are expended to prove the titular label: Hart barely lost to Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and definitely, according to the film, had a more progressive and rational platform. He was thus perfectly positioned to win the nomination in 1988 after eight years of Reaganomics and right wing shrillness. The Colorado senator has it all, the smart stand on issues, the charisma, and, most importantly, the looks.

How this freight train of political inevitability gets derailed is told in a sketchy and not altogether convincing manner, but it is told with passion, which should count for something. As it happens, Hart separated from his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), for part of the campaign due mainly to her exhaustion. After all, she’d essentially been doing it for more than four years. Then two reporters for the Miami Herald, portrayed as dogs on the trail of a raccoon, reveal that a campaign worker, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), had spent an evening and maybe the night at his single-guy apartment on the road. From there, the rest of the press, including the Washington Post, whose respected editor, Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), at one point fondly remembers the days when reporters respected Jack Kennedy’s indiscretions, piles on with lots of innuendo that snowballs in the face of Hart’s intransigence. The problem for the viewer is that, despite Reitman’s demonization of the Fourth Estate, it’s difficult to get a bead on Hart. He’s definitely irresponsible for getting himself in this mess, but is he actually guilty? The fact that Reitman confuses the matter by insisting it’s nobody’s business doesn’t get to the heart of the movie’s point—Was Hart actually unfaithful and were he and his wife on the outs anyway? Of course, life is messy, but the movie is so adamant about taking Hart’s side that it gives the impression it’s playing fast and loose with history. It’s exciting and utterly frustrating at the same time.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

The Front Runner home page in Japanese.

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Review: The Wife

Glenn Close’s surprise Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Drama already pegs Bjorn Runge’s film as a must-see mediocre movie, and, in truth, Close makes it worth your money. As the wife of blowhard writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who is being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Close conveys her character’s mixture of horror and self-satisfaction with unusual delicacy. Why the wife of a man who is being feted for such an achievement has such polarized feelings is the question at the heart of the story’s conflict, and as high concept it’s a doozy, which is why the movie doesn’t live up to its star’s portrayal of the title character—Runge won’t leave well enough alone.

The first assumption the viewer makes about Joan Castleman’s ambiguous response to the announcement is that she’s finally forced to confront the fact that she has never loved her husband, despite the deceptively tender opening scene. As the directness of the title would seem to indicate, Joan’s position in this marriage is decidedly secondary, but the truth turns out to be even worse. Joan has not so much wasted her love on this man, but wasted her life and her native talents. The plot occasionally shifts into the past, when Joan was Joe’s student. He acknowledged her gifts as a fiction writer and eventually left his wife for her. But that act of adultery is not the source of Joan’s towering resentment, and as the scenes in Stockholm, where the couple repair to wait out Joe’s ascension into the Valhalla of world letters, play out in bars and hotel rooms, Joan’s feelings can no longer be denied, and Joe’s own guilt comes to the fore in very ugly ways. Based on a novel, the story didn’t really need to go any further than these sequences where husband and wife go at each other as if in an Edward Albee play, stabbing each other in the psyche with their pointed accusations of exploitation and self-serving monomania. The thing is, Joan’s hurt is real and justifiable. What Joe has done to her in his own passive-aggressive way is monstrous.

So why does Runge add a son (Max Irons) who tags along to present his own resentments about his stalled literary career? To further make the point that Joe is too full of himself to care about even his own flesh and blood? And why the unauthorized biographer (Christian Slater) who corners Joan in a restaurant to torment her with his theory of Joe’s fraudulent front and knowledge of his sexual indiscretions, both of which she is very familiar with and hardly needs to be reminded of? Is it a device to reveal Joe’s execrable personality, which is hardly necessary since we can see from the start that he’s a priggish asshole? It’s obvious that the core issue of the film is why Joan has put up with him all these years, and the movie gets to the solution mainly through Close’s performance. You can see her panic at the realization she’s wasted it all, and when a reckoning does come it’s appropriately apocalyptic, if not necessarily convincing when scrutinized thoroughly. (It helps that the movie is set in 1992, meaning that Joan is the product of an earlier era when women weren’t taken as seriously as they were later as writers, but it doesn’t help that much.) The Wife needs to be seen if only for proof that Glenn Close is one of the most accomplished actresses of her generation. But like Joe in relation to Joan, it’s not a fitting monument to her talents.

Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Yebisu Garden Cinema (0570-783-715).

The Wife home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Meta Film London Ltd. 2017

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Media Mix, Jan. 27, 2019

Futenma air base

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the protocol relationship between Japan-Russia negotiations over the Northern Territories and the U.S. base issue in Okinawa. According to writer Koji Yabe, Japan is totally in thrall to the U.S. military and thus cannot make any assurances to third parties with regard to its own strategic interests if the U.S. doesn’t sign off on those assurances. The media, for the most part, buys into the government’s narrative of “hope”—that there is still a possibility that the Northern Territories will someday revert to Japanese sovereignty, and that the contested Henoko air base will mean the shutdown of the even more contentious Futenma air base—but that there is little chance that what they suggest is happening will actually come to pass.

What’s particularly galling about Yabe’s point is that his findings are not exactly secret. They are there for any journalist to see. During his Golden Radio conversation cited in the column, he talks at length about the so-called secret agreement behind the revised Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in 1960, the one that essentially allowed the U.S. to carry nuclear weapons on its vessels when they came to Japan. Though at one time this agreement was classified, it has been common knowledge for a few decades now, and available for anyone to read and study. To Yabe, the dynamic outlined by the agreement informs the relationship between Japan and the U.S. military to this day. Nobusuke Kishi, Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, was prime minister when the secret agreement was signed two weeks before SOFA was concluded, but his successor, Hayato Ikeda, apparently was not informed about the agreement, so several years later when opposition lawmakers heard that nukes were being brought into Japanese harbors, they questioned the ruling party in the Diet, because it wasn’t allowed, and Ikeda firmly denied the rumors, thinking they weren’t true. The Americans became nervous, and then-ambassador Edwin Reischauer sat Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira down and explained the secret agreement to him and the use of the vague term “introduce”—as in “the U.S. will not introduce nuclear weapons on Japanese territory”—which was used in the public documents. The thing is, the U.S. thought the current Japanese administration knew about this, but apparently Kishi and his people didn’t tell anyone. From then on, the Liberal Democratic Party stuck to the secret agreement and pretended that nukes were not being carried by American submarines into Japanese harbors (as well as other nukes that didn’t become known until later). As a result, Japan was able to maintain its image as a nuke-free country and Eisaku Sato could win the Nobel Peace Prize for something—the storied three non-nuclear principles—that was basically a lie.

Yabe tells this story to reinforce his theory that Japan’s foreign ministry has absolutely no authority when it comes to negotiating with the U.S. on almost anything. Moreover, this idea is so deeply ingrained in the bureaucratic and political sensibility that the government has used it for its own ends. When Yukio Hatoyama became in 2009 the first non-LDP prime minister in more than a decade, he proceeded to realize his campaign promise to move the Futenma air base out of Okinawa, something the U.S. didn’t want. He was then visited by bureaucrats from the foreign and defense ministries who showed him something they called the U.S. military operations manual, which said that helicopter bases could not be situated more than 120 kilometers from a land forces base. Hatoyama was planning on shifting Futenma to Tokunoshima, which is more than 120 kilometers away. That’s why Hatoyama eventually dropped the idea for the move. As a result, his government collapsed and he resigned.

But, according to Yabe, there is no such manual. It was a story made up by bureaucrats who knew the U.S. would never go for Hatoyama’s plan to move the Futenma base off Okinawa. Yabe says the mass media knows about the bureaucrats’ lies, but never discuss it. Even Hatoyama seems to have accepted his fate. It’s no use trying to resist the Americans.

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Review: Suspiria

Few genres have become as formulaic as horror movies, and one of the better things you can say about Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Dario Argento’s 1977 slasher classic is that it avoids the cliches you expect. Unfortunately, it replaces them with other cliches, mostly from opera and political thrillers. In fact, it’s probably best not to categorize this new version of Suspiria as a horror film, since it will mislead fans of the genre—there’s not a whole lot of suspense, and rather than gore the film charges its shocks with unsettlingly bizarre visuals—and repel those who usually eschew horror movies, though even this latter group might find it difficult to swallow.

Having never seen the original, I approached it with an open mind and, since I don’t really like conventional horror, the movie exerted a certain peculiar fascination, though, to tell the truth, I really had no idea what was going on from scene to scene and would have a very hard time trying to explain the plot in detail. The story takes place in Berlin in the autumn of 1977, when West Germany was going through political upheaval due to antics by the likes of the Red Army Faction. A member of a local avant garde dance troupe, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), consults with an elderly psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton with tons of makeup) about a coven of witches who use the dance company as a kind of front. When Patricia disappears, the doctor tries to investigate the dance troupe to find out what happened to her, and in the process we learn that he lost his wife in the Holocaust, though it’s not clear if she was killed or just disappeared, like Patricia. Eventually, this through-story becomes annoyingly complex and muddied as Guadagnino intercuts it with scenes from inside the dance troupe that suggest the leader, Madame Blanc (also Swinton), is, in fact, a witch who recruits young women as dancers to fulfill some sort of Satanic inevitability that I could never really figure out. The film shifts its focus on a new American recruit, Susie (Dakota Johnson), who has escaped a rigidly religious upbringing in the Midwest to feed her art jones in Europe’s most celebrated divided city.

To say the dance sequences, which are set to Thom Yorke’s hyperventilating score, are ridiculous is to question the film’s priorities. Good horror revels in ludicrous brainstorms, but one thing that Suspiria truly lacks is a relatable sense of humor. The scary scenes are usually built around body horror meant to mimic the unnatural choreography that Madame Blanc favors, and which Susie seems to understand preternaturally. There is a kind of genius to these scenes, though they aren’t really scary, just discomfiting, and, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, they sit in the movie like a battleship in a bathtub, overcompensating for the meandering plot and the confused themes. And it just goes on forever. One thing you have to say about Suspiria is that its original, but I’m not sure if that’s what horror fans are really into.

In English, German and French. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Suspiria home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Amazon Content Services LLC

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