February 09, 2017

Quotes from Absolutely On Music

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Haruki Murakami's recent non-fiction book Absolutely On Music, which is made up of interviews with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. In reading the book I hoped to find some discussions of art that could also be applied to my own interests. Not necessarily tricks that could be directly translated from conducting an orchestra to animated filmmaking, but just generally inspiring artistic ideas and philosophy. Here are some of the sections I noted:

"Perhaps one reason we never talked seriously about music until recently is that the maestro's work kept him so fully involved. As a result, whenever we got together to have a drink, we'd talk about anything other than music. At most, we might have shared a few fragmentary remarks on some musical topics that never led anywhere. Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather. Knowing this, I avoided bringing up musical topics when I was in his company."
(from the introduction, vii)

"Whatever differences there might be between making music and writing fiction, both of us are happiest when absorbed in our work. And the very fact that were are able to become so totally engrossed in it gives us the deepest satisfaction. What we end up producing as a result of that work may well be important, but aside from that, our ability to work with utter concentration and to devote ourselves to it so completely that we forget the passage of time is its own irreplaceable reward."
(from the introduction, xi)
I really relate to this. Nothing is as exciting or fun as when I'm really engrossed in making a cartoon, either writing, storyboarding or animating.

"M: In Japan we talk about ma in Asian music - the importance of those pauses or empty spaces - but it's there in Western music, too. You get a musician like Glenn Gould, and he's doing exactly the same thing. Not everybody can do it -- certainly no ordinary musician. But somebody like him does it all the time.
M: Ordinary musicians don't do it?

O: No, never. Or if they do, the spaces don't fit in as naturally as this. It doesn't grab you -- you don't get drawn in as you do here. That's what putting in these empty spaces, or ma, is all about, isn't it? You grab your audience and pull them in. East or West, it's all the same when a virtuoso does it."
This is something very applicable to animation (at its most basic level, a held pose so that the audience can process something), or film storytelling (a pause to provide tension, or the opposite, such as an Ozu 'pillow shot').

"M: He's like an old master of classical rakugo storytelling, just going along with his instincts.
O: Yes, he's completely at ease, not the least bit concerned if his fingers stumble a little. That part where you said he was flirting with danger -- he really was. But that just adds to the overall flavor when you're that good.
M: When I first heard this recording, I was worried that his action or touch or whatever you call it was just a bit slower than it used to be -- but, strangely enough, the more I listened to it, the less it bothered me.
O: That's because a musician's special flavor comes out with age. His playing at that stage may have more interesting qualities than at the height of his career."

This is a much more appealing view of aging as an artist than what you usually hear in western pop culture, which is generally that people lose the vitality and energy of their early work, becoming repetitive or irrelevant.

"O: Look, Beethoven himself changes a lot in the Ninth. His orchestrations were quite limited until he got to his Ninth Symphony."
I just found this an encouraging thought, that one of classical music's most famous composers had a creative breakthrough that late in his work.

"M: The sound is unified, and the quality of the playing is high.
O: Yes, but it could use a little more flavor.
M: I think it's expressive, and it really sings.
O: But it's missing a certain heaviness - a feeling from the countryside.
M: You mean it's too clean and neat?
O: The Boston Symphony may have a tendency to make sounds that are too nice."
"M: Listening to their sound, I can see exactly what you mean. This is very good-quality, high-level teamwork.
O: No one does anything to depart from the orchestra's overall sound. But that's not necessarily the right way to play Mahler. Getting the proper balance between the two is extremely hard."

I feel this way about nearly all modern commercial animation. Everything has a tendency to be too clean, too stiff, too restrained and neat for fear of creating a moment of genuine surprise or showing the audience the dreaded 'artist's hand.' But I think getting to see some of the individual artist seeping into the work is one of the most exciting things about animation. That's why my favorites tend to be the ones whose personal stamp is strong - Rod Scribner, Jim Tyer, Yuzo Aoki, Masaaki Yuasa, Shinya Ohira, etc.

[Ozawa talking about seeing Louie Armstrong live in the 60s]
"O: That special style of Satchmo's was indescribable. You know how we talk about artistic shibumi in Japan, when a mature artist attains a level of austere simplicity and mastery? Satchmo was like that. He was already getting along in years, but his singing and trumpet playing were at their peak."
Again, this is a nicer view of aging than the typical line of thinking in rock music, which is that everybody made their best stuff when they were in their early 20s and it's all downhill from there.

I found a lot of inspiration in the book, and I recommend checking it out if you like these quoted passages.

February 02, 2017

Movies I Watched Recently

A quick round-up of movies I've seen in the last couple of months (at least, the ones I can remember). Probably spoilers ahead, but most of these aren't new movies anyway.

I caught the newly restored version of Tampopo during my Christmas trip home to Toronto at my favorite theater, the TIFF Lightbox. I had such a delightful experience watching it that I'm now seeking out more of Juzo Itami's work. I liked the way it alternated between a main story and mostly unconnected vignettes on the overall topic of food. There were also a lot of entertaining filmmaking ideas in it. I really need to get the upcoming Criterion release and watch this one again.

Under the Skin
I saw this at the Lightbox too. I don't know if I would've quite had the patience to sit through it at home, but seeing it late at night in a big theater allowed it to wash over me and command my attention as it deserves to. I was expecting more of a traditional narrative, but it's really more of a surreal mood piece. There are haunting images in the film, and beautiful scenery. I appreciated the way it combined a horror/sci-fi element with weird Scottish slice-of-life scenes.

My mother introduced me to this a long time ago. It was one of her favorite movies. The Beatles' second movie gets a bit of flack for having such a loose narrative and generally being overindulgent, but I still have a soft spot for it. There are a couple of moments in it that make me laugh harder than just about anything, and I think it probably had a big hand in shaping my sense of humor. I can't honestly say that it's a great movie though. Having also watched The Knack for the first time recently (which I also liked but felt conflicted over), I noticed that about 15% of the 'humor' in Dick Lester's movies is just two conversations happening simultaneously, which isn't really ever that funny to me.

Planet of the Apes original film series (1968-1973)
Man these are depressing, and mostly awful. The original isn't amazing but at least it works on its own terms. My main beef with it was that in every situation, Charlton Heston's character does the stupidest thing possible. But that bothered me less as it became more clear that he's doomed no matter what he does... which is the general message of every film in the series except maybe the final one, and probably why I had such a hard time liking any of them. I can handle stories where individuals go through sad experiences, but larger stories about humanity's bleak future just hit too close to home for me. I have very little hope for the future, and honestly the only way I can function is to try not to think about it.
The Apes series are relentlessly miserable, unpleasant films, with the second one being the worst in that and many other respects. It suffers from a drastically lowered budget, missing key players from the first film both on- and off-camera and a mishmash of terrible ideas at every level. The third one is the least miserable but feels like an average TV movie at best. The fourth and fifth filmls are devoid of much personality, feeling like vague plot synopses blown up into movies. Oh, and apart from the first film, they all have ridiculously ill-conceived endings.

Ocean Waves
I caught this at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood. It's definitely a B-tier Ghibli production, conceived to give the younger staff something to do, but I like it a lot. In fact it's probably one of my favorite Ghiblis. The low-key story is charming and refreshingly doesn't follow much of an arc. Possibly because of that, the ending was somewhat underwhelming to me, but it's worth it. The weird turns the story takes make it feel like real life, for example a trip to Tokyo where they just stay at the hotel rather than going on some wild adventure like you'd expect in a movie. I want to watch this again, now with a better understanding of what the movie is, and maybe adjusting my expectations. I might like it even more. Definitely picking up the GKids release when it comes out.

The non-Miyazaki movies from the 90s are some of my favorite Ghibli films. Miyazaki is obviously a great filmmaker and I love his stuff too, but his movies all feel pretty similar in tone and characters. I'm drawn more towards Takahata's unpredictability and variety, which was probably helped by the fact that he was a non-animator -- an outsider in the medium unbound by conventions. And although Miyazaki wrote and storyboarded Whisper of the Heart, the fact that it's largely grounded in the real world makes it feel different from most of his films, which is maybe why he chose not to direct it.

Tokyo Story
My first Ozu movie. I bought it at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Little Tokyo. It's awe-inspiring in its simplicity. Very moving storyline, and relatable universal characters. I'm looking forward to seeing more Ozu. It's obvious why he was such an inspiration to so many other filmmakers including notably Isao Takahata (whose brilliant Only Yesterday I saw earlier this year). I think reading on the Ghibli Blog that Ozu was a major influence on that film is what finally made me want to seek out his work.

The Red Turtle
Very interesting film. The turn from survivalist realism to fantasy/fable was a bit hard to swallow for me, since I was so on board with the storyline so much up to that point. I continued to enjoy it, but in a different way. I'm not sure I totally understand the film, or if I'm even supposed to. But it's good.

Letter to Momo
A very direct hybrid of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away that doesn't reach the levels of either. Letter to Momo is cute but also quickly forgotten. I didn't find the goblin characters as funny as I was clearly supposed to, but there were some nice set-pieces with them. My favorite element was the Japanese island village setting, which thankfully the film puts to good use.

Ah, it's fine I guess. It's for kids and kids like it. I used to care more about the formulaic nature of mainstream American animated films, as if I might enjoy them if they just did one or two things differently, but now I've pretty much given up on them. This one was okay, especially compared to the shit Illumination puts out. I'm not big on musicals, or fake musicals that needle drop the first few seconds of a pop song to get a laugh from recognition alone rather than actually making a joke. "Check out our music licensing budget! Isn't that funny?" Sometimes cheap laughs really annoy me.
But this is still probably better than Sing.

Supermarket Woman
Another Juzo Itami film, from 1996. This one has a very similar basic plot to Tampopo - someone steps in to advise a potential romantic partner on how to improve their food business to serve the customers better. I think this one was missing some of the creative spark that filled Tampopo, but there are some very fun performances in it. It's about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be though.