Friday, December 3, 2010

From the archives: Have a Rankin/Bass Christmas!

Hey! Now that the holidays are here, it's time to dwell on the true purpose of Christmas -- watching the usual Xmas shows, especially the garish, stop-motion parade of Rankin/Bass holiday specials! Whether they haunted your childhood dreams or annoy your offspring today, they are a vital part of the season. Let's stroll down Memory Lane in this story from 2009 --

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Senior discount: life ends at 50

“I don't know who you are, I don't want to know. It's taken me my whole life to find out who I am, and I'm tired now, you hear what I'm saying?”
-- Ossie Davis as Marshall in “Joe Versus the Volcano”

I was walking past a window in my house last night and I yelled to my wife, “Hey! There’s a creepy old man out there! He’s staring at me! I’m scared!”

“Oh, crap. It’s a mirror.”

What happened? Where am I?

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.”

Dante, The Inferno, Canto I
 (I like it. It’s pretentious. And it stops the story cold. Ezra Pound might have quoted swatches of it without explanation. David Foster Wallace could have included it in footnotes at the bottom. Here’s the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who tackled the project in his 50’s and made more money from it than Dante ever did:

“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”)

I’m as old as Fred Flintstone, and a day older than “The Andy Griffith Show.” Ted Williams had his last at-bat the week I was born; Kennedy and Nixon were duking it out on live TV.

When you turn 50, it seems as though you should somehow be more dignified. Graced with a noble, far-seeing look, a craggy mien, a marble visage as imperturbable as Washington’s.

Nope.

You are done, though. Culturally extinct. Floating on the wrack and drift of your formative cultural memories, you cries for help are unheard by the big ships that carry the goods desired by those 18-34. You aren’t spending enough discretionary income anymore to matter; in fact, you don’t have any discretionary income. You have children.

But I’m not bitter.

In my health-obsessed town, people my age are running miles daily, or swimming for 100 hours straight, or sundering mountain chains with their bare hands. I am the old guy who sits in the park and creeps out the kids by staring at them. I am Aqualung!

I am starting to get spam about meeting 50+ singles. I don’t think they mean more than 50 singles. Not only am I very, very married, but if you think about it, 50-plus singles have either lost partners, perhaps under mysterious circumstances, or they have simply never settled down. In other words, they are rogue people.

And am I starting to drive more slowly? And is my seat getting lower? Is the steering wheel getting bigger? How long until Johnny Law makes Grandpa take the bus everywhere?

Hair is growing out of places it shouldn’t, and isn’t where it should. I say “jeepers cripes.” I say “dang.” I say “goldarn it.” I have morphed into Yosemite Sam.
 In other news, my American Association of Retired Persons membership solicitation came in the mail. On my birthday.

I click on their site. There’s an article – Olympia Dukakis is tackling “Elektra,” and diabetes.

The AARP offers plenty of senior discounts.

I flash-forwarded to me in the Jell-O line at the cafeteria; stuffing my pockets with condiments; not leaving a tip. Becoming that crazy old coot who sits in the booth all day, ordering little and ostensibly flirting with the teenage waitresses. Keeping overly polite phone solicitors on the line for hours. Smelling funny.

“Frettin’ ‘bout what you going through/Regrettin’ the things you didn’t do
Relying on compensations you’ve found
Groanin’ beneath the weight of it/Bemoanin’ the fickle fate of it
Complyin’ just to keep both feet on the ground
That won’t get you anyplace/It won’t excuse you from the race/When you meet your destiny face to face
They’ll be no more wrong or right/And no more wish I might . . .”

Mose Allison, “Let It Come Down”

Somehow, I must get in touch with my Inner Geezer, that cane-waving, porch-dwelling curmudgeon that blossoms within each of us eventually, if we make it that far.
 At 50, you are who you are, the sum total of what you have chosen and done. If you are lucky, you have wised up to yourself to a certain degree. There’s no going back.

There is nothing provisional about my life now. I don’t envy younger people their uncertainty, or longings, or fears, anger, sorrow. I wouldn’t tread that pitted road of experience again.

I’ve made a huge number of mistakes, burned a lot of bridges. I’ve done many people wrong. But the good wishes that came from so many places, that bombarded me this birthday, brought home to me the undeniable fact that I have done some good as well, and can continue to do so.

The adventures and surprises will continue. I’m not done yet.

And I’m in good company. 65 million people, one-fourth of the U.S. population, are between the ages of 45 and 65. The Boomer bulge is headed for the boneyard. Who knows? Maybe those are the people I need to be talking to: looking back with them, and looking forward and asking hard questions about what comes next. What comes last.

Two things for sure, though: I will not figure out how to monetize this, and I shall not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Damn you, T.S. Eliot.
“ . . .we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends who are important to us. Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves, and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost. . . . life is greater than what grows dim with us and steadily fades away.”

David Grossman, “The Legend of Bruno Schulz”

Friday, September 17, 2010

AARRRR!!! Best pirate films, in honor of International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Last year, I wrote a lengthy three-part survey of the pirate-film subgenre for Dscriber.com. I found that I had never posted it here, and since International Talk Like a Pirate Day arrives on Sunday . . . well, here you go!

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hilarious Heroes: 10 Top Comedic Influences

To quote Jack Benny: "There will now be a slight pause while you say 'Who cares?'"

It's a list that sprang unbidden into my petite cranium as I was doing research into vaudeville. Until I started plowing through that information, I hadn't realized how much comedy heritage (and stolen material) has been passed down from one medium to the next medium through the last 200 years of American history. From showboat to minstrel show to stage to radio to film to television to the Web, a long line of performers, most of them forgotten, have preserved a unique set of American approaches to comic performance.

Each generation has its favorites. Most of time, the preceding generation finds the new comic constellation offensive and tasteless, and the succeeding generation finds the stars of yesterday corny, lame and hopelessly unfunny. My own choices pin me decisively to that period when TV was still a novel enterprise, and comics were just starting to write their own material, instead of buying it off the street.

These choices don't reflect my top 10 in terms of critical estimation. Richard Pryor will always be, for me, the greatest comic who ever lived; but until the mid-'70s, I didn't know who he was. I was (and am) a SQUARE Midwestern kid -- Rickles, Dangerfield, Bishop, Hackett and the like were part of an East Coast/Vegas axis I never got. Sahl and Gregory were way out of my league. The innovations of Bruce and Carlin, Firesign Theatre and Cheech & Chong didn't hit me, oddly enough, until I went to college and got high. Still later, I "found" Jonathan Winters, Robert Klein, Nichols & May, W.C. Fields, Spike Jones, Redd Foxx and the rest.

These are the shadows and voices I watched and listened to as a kid, gapemouthed in front of the stereo or the black-and-white TV set. I was just a bit too young for Sid Caesar, unfortunately. Everybody drank and smoked; on the screen, men wore tuxes and ladies wore evening gowns. These are people who first made me laugh -- the ones who astonished me but also made me feel as though I do do that, too. They made me say, "I'm going to do that when I grow up." And I did!

In no particular order:

Bill Cosby

In the beginning was the Cos; and he was good -- long before "The Cosby Show," or "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids," or even "I Spy." The first album I ever heard was his first album, and it killed me. I knew he was making a crowd laugh, and it was heavenly. He knows just how to tell a story, and gets all the laughs that are there, and more.


Bob Newhart

The second album I ever heard? "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart." Some claim that he ripped his one-sided conversation routine concept from Shelley Berman -- but then, Berman stole it from George Jessel. And Bob is funnier -- somehow, he plays straight man to a world of imagined voices. A master of timing who also, like Jack Benny, was happy to be the butt of the humor. His TV shows cemented his reputation.

Danny Kaye
His childlike persona was perhaps disingenuous. His starring role as Hans Christian Andersen, and his rapport with kids, gave him an iconic place in our hearts. Later, we learned about his manic energy, his incredibly flexible voice and face, and his unsurpassed ability to rush pell-mell through the most dauntingly complex, hilarious songs. He wanted so much for us to love him, and we did.


Jackie Gleason
He was so relaxed. "The Great One" created a handful of brilliantly conceived personas, could tell jokes, sing, dance, you name it. His variety show was a constant in our lives (and who can forget the June Taylor Dancers?) As the excerpts from "The Honeymooners" below prove, he was a genius of gesture, grimace, groan and growl. He was Everyman.


Red Skelton
He did everything -- stage, radio, movies, TV. His pantomimic skills were incredible -- as was his nerve. Watching him work live and alone onstage, charming an audience -- quite a lesson. Another performer with a clutch of characters to pull from -- especially Klem Kaddidlehopper and the Mean Widdle Kid.


The Smothers Brothers
Their stage routines and records we sat down and memorized. Their first TV show was tremendously funny -- and had something to say, too. The interplay was breathtaking. Tommy got all the laughs, but Dick's relentless and intensely serious straight-man persona has been routinely undervalued.


Zero Mostel
Absolutely, gloriously out of his mind. "The Producers," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Fiddler on the Roof," Rhinoceros," "Waiting for Godot." That's all? That's all he ever needed to do. One of the few people who could send you into hysterics just by sitting -- perfectly -- still.


Carol Burnett

Alive! So damn alive. A great singer, a great heart. And she knows just how to push an expression a hair's breadth over the edge into comic insanity. What's more, her work contains an undercurrent of vulnerability that's deeply touching. She is smart enough to surround herself with writing and performing talent, and shares the spotlight generously. Absolutely nothing got between our family and her show.


Laurel and Hardy
Nobody can touch them. Their dynamic spanned silent and sound film -- the deliberate, measured pace of their inevitable demise in each adventure gave their predicaments, self-caused or not, a profundity that's unsurpassed. They are gentle spirits in an indifferent world. "If anything happened to me, who would explain you to people?" Hardy says to Laurel in one movie. Exactly.


The Marx Brothers

C'mon, if you don't get this one, you're dead. When all is dust, their efforts alone should survive. Don't you think?
 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Abbondanza! CSF's 'Taming of the Shrew'

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 Augustus Truhn and Karyn Casi in  the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Taming of the Shrew." [Photo by Casey A. Cass/Courtesy CU Communications]

Eeeeeeey! Se volere ridi spesso? You want some laughs, paisan? Whaddayou, pazzi? The Festival, she got “Taming of the Shrew” for you, di niente! With a heaping side of prosciutto!

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” dives into the shtick headfirst, unashamed to go for all the laughs they can in a rollicking, fast-paced outing that’s embroidered with improvisations and gags that routinely break the fourth wall. The result is a lot of fun.

Stephanie Shine’s direction resembles the work of an animal trainer in the circus – she prods the cavorting beasts about, and mainly lets them alone. This is not a bad choice to make with “Shrew” – it’s an old plot, and was even back in Shakespeare’s time. It begs to be riffed on and expanded by the inventions of the players.

The bare-bones design is well-suited to the commedia del arte approach – people whisk themselves off and on, pausing only to turn to the audience for comments, and occasionally hit them up for hugs, food, and money. The soundtrack is a mélange of hits from “Goodfellas”/Guido tradition – lots of Louis Prima, Rosemary Clooney, “Santa Lucia” and other such tunes familiar to habitués of restaurants lit by candles stuck in Chianti bottles.

The entire cast has a ball and communicates same to the audience. Augustus Truhn is a rough and ready Petruchio, and Karyn Casi makes a sufficiently bitchy Kate. The politically incorrect plot of the man who subdues rather than woos an upstart woman has been handled in myriad ways in production history. Some have indicted the misogynistic premise by showing Petruchio brutalizing his bride Kate; others have twisted the narrative around so that Kate pities her bullying swain.

Here all is excused under the spell of love at first sight, even if both parties deny it until the end. When Kate, driven by sleeplessness and hunger, finally agrees to gainsay whatever her husband says, it’s delivered as though she finally consents to pretend to be in on the joke of male dominance. It works.

Standouts in the ensemble include Geoffrey Kent’s cunning servant Grumio, who nearly steals the show. (Karen Slack’s performance of the Widow, written as a miniscule part, is parlayed by her performance into a large and integral part of the goings-on.) Jamie Ann Romero makes a madcap Curtis, Bob Buckley is perfectly pantaloonish as Baptista, and Beethovan Oden’s Tranio is rubber-faced and audacious.

Of special note is the work of CSF Producing Artistic Director Philip Sneed, who plays the sour suitor Gremio with whiny flair. It’s a pleasure to see the Festival boss add so much to a show! Plus, those white leather pants . . . oh my goodness. Truly, Sneed isn’t afraid to portray middle-aged crazy for the sake of the team.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Taming of the Shrew" continues through Aug. 6 in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theater on the CU-Boulder campus. For tickets and information, please call 303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Domestic disturbance: CSF’s ‘King Lear’

John Hutton as Lear and Jamie Ann Romero as Cordelia in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "King Lear." (Photo by Casey A. Cass/Courtesy CU Communications)

Oh, those crazy Lears. The cops have been out to their place five times this week. When are these people going to stop being reality-show fodder?

Evidently, not until they and their friends, in-laws, and employees have been locked out of the house, tied up like parcel post, blinded, driven insane, stabbed, hung, poisoned, prevented from attempted suicide and/or suffered hypothermia.

In “King Lear,” this onslaught of mayhem represents the end of a world – when the bonds between parents and children, siblings, husbands and wives, all dissolve and the brute drive for dominance takes over. Unfortunately, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s new production doesn’t take that big but necessary step of uniting macrocosm and microcosm. The result is not profoundly moving tragedy, but the mere spectacle of one family’s melodrama.

As such, it works just fine, and as is par for the CSF course, you can get a good solid introduction to the work by sitting there and watching it go by. You just can’t get moved by it, or gain insight from it.

You can’t lay this larger lack on the actors – they do their best. Technically, too, the lighting and sound design, scenic and costume elements all support a clear, cohesive concept. It’s not a matter of scale, either. You don’t need troops of extras to give “Lear” an epic sense – you just need an epic sensibility.

Setting it at the end of the period of America’s Old West seems arbitrary, though. It’s a nice change from the usual royal drag, but at times I had the uneasy feeling I was watching an old episode of “Bonanza.” (Lear as a Western has been tackled, to a degree, in Anthony Mann’s great 1955 movie “The Man from Laramie,” and more explicitly in the 2002 made-for-cable film “King of Texas,” and utilizes the same blinding-with-a-branding-iron for Gloucester.)

The actors, by and large, keep their heads above water. John Hutton, a brilliant actor and long-time company member at the Denver Center Theatre Company, tackles the central role with gusto and insight. His work just keeps getting better and better, and here he plays Lear as only he could play it – with intensity instead of bluster and vulnerability instead of pathos. Other familiar and welcome faces from past CSF productions include Karen Slack as Regan, Jamie Ann Romero as Cordelia and Bob Buckley as Gloucester.

CSF vet Stephen Weitz makes for an admirable Fool, even though he is put through some off-putting paces – including hanging himself in full view of the audience at some random point in the interminable second half of the show. I’m sure he’s just fine personally, but on stage at least he’s simply not well-hung.

Geoffrey Kent brings his genial affability to the role of the usurping Edmund: in fact, he’s so personable that I really didn’t mind that he outlawed his goody-two-shoes brother, betrayed his father, and boinked all the ladies. His incredibly good fight-direction skills help things considerably as well.

So, go to see Hutton and the rest fight to fill the empty space. Hutton is too honest an actor to play Lear as a scenery-chewing coot, and as the run continues perhaps he and his castmates can imbue the show with the sense of urgency and momentousness that it needs.

“King Lear” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 8 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theater on the CU-Boulder campus. For tickets and complete information, please call the box office at 303-492-0554 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Buntport’s ‘Rabbit’ musical a dream awake


 Magical Marla (Hannah Duggan), Alec the Amazing and All-Powerful (Evan Weissman) and Snowball (Erik Edborg) in Buntport's original musical, "Jugged Rabbit Stew."

We have moved into full-on hallucinatory territory.

Buntport’s final production of its 10th season is “Jugged Rabbit Stew,” an original musical that is fascinating, entertaining and thought-provoking in the Buntport tradition.

Except that there is no tradition. Every time it seems that the collaborative is about to lapse into a house style, the group subverts itself, turns its approach inside out, pies itself in the face. In a culture where art and entertainment is churned out with assembly-line predictability, Buntport keeps things fresh and alive.

Just as Buntport is a theater in the existential sense that it’s a group of people that explores the human condition live onstage, “Stew” is a musical in that it contains songs. Everything else is up for grabs. The plot is marginal, the characters are, literally, fragmented, tangential speculations abound, and in the end the whole contraption just kind of drives off the edge of a cliff.

It’s great!

The central figure is a giant magical rabbit, played by Erik Edborg, clad in ears, paws and anger, chugging booze from a hutch’s water dispenser. He is the deus ex machina – ruling the others on stage like a sociopathic Harvey, or the furry, fanged Frank from “Donnie Darko.”

His victims/cohabitants in his newspaper-lined rectangle of a room are his magician, Alec the Amazing and All-Powerful (Evan Weissman), magician’s assistant Mystical Marla (Hannah Duggan), Erin Rollman as a Woman suspended in space, along with a handful of props, above the stage for the length of the show, and Brian Colonna as Alec’s missing right arm.

Yep.

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Erin Rollman as Woman and Brian Colonna as Arm in Buntport's "Jugged Rabbit Stew."

The score is by Adam Stone, who previously collaborated with Buntport last year on another original musical, “Seal. Stamp. Send. Bang.” He’s a facile composer who’s conversant in the modern musical style – flowing, pop-catchy, swooping ballads – as well as genre pieces (for instance, a gentle country/Western ode, “Hand in Hand”).

More importantly, you can tell from his writing and arrangements that his skills are extremely broad and deep: his work simultaneously reinforces the form’s traditions and asks pointed questions of it – for instance, how do you make rhymed couplets out of the chaotic premise, and singable ones at that?

Yet, Stone and Buntport do so – like Cole Porter on acid. Buntport’s members can sing, too, which is a more complicated task than the layperson might think. Besides staying tuneful and in key, a musical performer has to sell the number, stay in character, move through choreography . . . and breathe. Daunting, but they do it. And numbers such as “When Love is There to Blind You,” “Take Me, Break Me, Make Me Something More,” and “That Special Hare” are stand-alone good.

(Um, confession – I have been playing the cast album in the car and singing along . . . loudly. That’s an endorsement – CDs are available for purchase in the lobby!)

There’s no plot to summarize. Every character suffers from incompleteness. Everyone wants to be something else -- as one lyric states, "To be the version of myself/That I want the world to see." Amazing Alec’s right arm states, “I don’t have a pocket – that’s my tragic flaw,” and most of the others mull over the tragic-hero state and the fate implied for such a figure during the show. Death, fate and love are the themes here, and they are covered from a multitude of angles as the show careens forward.

Mystical Marla sports the bottom half of a car mechanic, thanks to Snowball’s magical wrath. Ditto for Alec, who can’t do much prestidigitation without his missing limb. Meanwhile, Arm (Colonna somehow performs covered in black, save for his brightly clad appendage) falls in love with Woman; everyone is at odds with each other, and all clamor for love and resolution from Snowball, who can only perceive himself as prey.

The abrupt and brutal and artfully staged conclusion still has me wondering what the hell happened. In honor of it, I won’t offer the usual sweeping statement or grandiose deduction or satisfying summation that form the final-paragraph-ending "kicker" of a review; "Stew" is a good, thought-provoking show and you should go and experience it.

Excuse me, I need to go drive around and sing now.

“Jugged Rabbit Stew” is presented by Buntport Theater, 717.5 Lipan St., Denver, through June 19. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; a 3 p.m. matinee takes place on Sunday, June 13. For tickets and information, please call 720-946-1388 or visit buntport.com/reservations.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Heart, head and harmony: Lisa Bell’s new album delightful

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Lisa Bell
“Dancing on the Moon”
Hapi Skratch Records

Most popular music likes to get your attention with a punch in the face. In today’s exploded, panic-strewn soundscape, what fills auditoriums and sells downloads are variations and repackagings of the same-old, same-old – alienation, misanthropy, the drive for power, lust denied and satisfied. Turned up really loud. Ah, youth.

In this atmosphere, it takes guts and wisdom to follow your own inclinations. Boulder-born Lisa Bell began her solo career as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. In that capacity, her liquid voice and magnetic personality were top-notch.

But she wanted more. She began to write her own songs, and blur genre as well, trying unique arrangements and instrumentation to get the songs across. The results are there in her last two albums – 2005’s “It’s All About Love” and her current release, “Dancing on the Moon.”

These beautifully written and performed gems are not punches, but embraces – lyrical summonses to her thoughts on life, faith, love and hope. She’s not afraid to plumb complex emotional depths, and she brings a warm and shining burnish to her artfully conceived compositions.

“Dancing on the Moon” has a smooth, solid pop feel. Bell’s voice is more adept than ever at conveying meaning with grace and balance. Her lyrics deal with issues without preaching or self-pity, moving nimbly along as in “Change Is Free”:

“Can’t pay the mortgage and the bills are due/I just keep waiting for the other shoe/And I know, this too shall pass”

She’s aided in her efforts on this outing by co-writers Mark Oblinger and Bob Story, and Oblinger’s arrangements are pitch-perfect.

(Speaking of pitch, much is made of tunings in this work, from the arbitrary 440-cycles-per-second measure to the more “natural” 424. I have heard this alternate tuning before, in a concert involving Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – and indeed it does appear do deliver a deeper, more grounded sound. Go to www.lisabellmusic.com for a very cogent explanation of this approach, along with surprising and illuminative sound bites that show the difference.)

I can’t commend her musical collaborators enough, either: Oblinger, Story, percussionist Christian Teele, bassist Chris Engleman, keyboardist Eric Moon, singers Robert Johnson and Linda Lawson, and Steve Conn with the loveliest accordion fills on two cuts.

For me, the proof of the pudding is not in the tuning but in the listening. This album should bear the sticker “For mature listeners only” – not because of objectionable content, but because it’s heady stuff from a grown-up artist who’s not afraid to confront herself in her work, to grow and change, to be vulnerable and share the wisdom she’s accumulated along the way.

“Dancing on the Moon” gives pleasure, and rewards thoughtful fans, all at once.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Healthy, hearty, happy, high Boulder – help!


(Note: This commissioned humor piece was judged to be just a little too negative for publication. Let me know what you think.)

Q: How many Boulderites does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: None – all our citizens know that the true source of light comes from within!

Ah, Boulder. Latte-sipping, granola-munching, Lycra-clad, high-minded Boulder. A recent Gallup poll ranked Boulder No. 1 out of 162 large and medium-sized cities in America for overall well-being.

Bleah.

Our town’s status as a soy milk-slurping, solar-powered Shangri-La is undisputed. Whether you call it the People’s Republic of Boulder, “25 square miles surrounded by reality,” or other such names, our city’s reputation is the same. We are thought of as a bunch of insufferable kooks.

Well, we earned it. Since the 1960’s, our area has served as a magnet for the counterculture. It’s still a home for the counterculture. The institutionalized, affluent counterculture, that is. (Hey, I’m sorry, but if you own more than one car, you’re a Republican.)

Boulder is rife with contradictions. Our prairie-dog population has more legal protections than our homeless humans do. A vast array of regulations confounds anyone here seeking to develop a business or add on to their home. We can’t run around naked on Halloween or bicycle in the buff, but we can take our clothes off at a city council meeting. Our countless absurd resolutions mandating change in the outside world do little to affect change, but add much to our sense of sanctimonious self-satisfaction.

Our hazy, marijuana-scented macramé-and-hot-tub attitudes of yore have hardened into a narcissistic, gluten-free self-righteousness that grates on my contrarian soul. As a friend of mine once memorably said, “I’m sure we would tolerate diversity -- if there was any of it around here.”

With our high standard of living comes a high cost of living, which means that most of those who work here can’t afford to live here. It’s much easier to be happy, and have everyone on the same mental page, when your median family income is $85,807 per year.

Boulder is home for a stilted, studied informality. In few other municipalities is so much money spent on being natural. We go gaga for anything with the labels “green” and “organic” on it, justified or not. Every day, I see people riding bicycles that cost more than I have ever made in a year. And did you know that there are xeriscaping consultants here? That means people pay someone big bucks to tell them to stop watering their lawn.

And the health thing. Folks, not all of us are triathletes, or rock-climb, or mountain bike, or ski, or paraglide. We don’t all shop at the prohibitively expensive health-food supermarkets. We don’t all do tofu. Some of us even, instead of recycling or composting, throw things away -- in the dead of night, so we don’t end up forced to embroider a scarlet “T” on our fair-trade hemp yoga wear.

Are we out of touch with reality? Not if you think that pet acupuncture is a great idea. Not if you have a labyrinth in your basement, or fall for every new therapy that comes down the pike. With high-mindedness comes arrogance, and a loss of touch with common sense.

Even I have to admit an upside, though. For me, self-consciousness is better than no consciousness. Boulder’s aspirations to transcend the mundane, to implement positive change, and to treasure the natural world around it are admirable.

That the problems we have are mostly of our own making stand in sharp contrast to the very real and harrowing problems most of the rest of the world faces every day. We ARE sheltered; we are lucky.

And we are surrounded by beauty. Even after four decades here, I still utter daily gratitude for the nearby mountains I love so much. The winters are pleasant, the summers gorgeous.

There is still an essential undercurrent of kindliness and fair-mindedness at work here, too. I traveled the country in my youth. I saw every place I might be likely to live in – and I came back here. I am raising my children here. That’s an endorsement in itself.

And of course, there’s all the comic fodder a humorist could desire.

Now, the only thing I think we’re missing, really, is the ocean. And the city council’s crafting a resolution about that, I’m told. Namaste, dude.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the painful, highly problematic birth of American music

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 The Fisk Jubilee Singers, then and now.

1. THE HISTORICAL RECORD

On a sweltering June night in 1871, a handful of concertizing African American university students and their music director, George L. White, stood outside a small-town hotel in rural Tennessee, menaced by an angry, drunken crowd who called White a “Yankee nigger school teacher.”

“White and his troupe retreated to the train station to pray and sing. White interposed himself between the crowd and his frightened troupe and directed them in some hymns. Gradually, recalled (student) Ella Sheppard, the riotous crowd left of their jeering and swearing and slunk back, until only the leader stood near White, and he finally took off his hat. ‘Our hearts were fearful and tender and darkness was falling. We were softly finishing the last verse of “Beyond the smiling and the weeping I shall be soon—”

                        Beyond the farewell and the greeting
                        Beyond the pulse’s fever beating
                        I shall be soon.
                        Love, rest and home,
                        Lord, tarry not but come

‘—when we saw the bull’s eye of the coming engine and knew that we were saved. The leader begged us with tears falling to sing the hymn again, which we did.’”

This remarkable passage from Andrew Ward’s masterful account “Dark Midnight When I Rise” crystallizes the transformative impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who formed the secret songs of slavery into the spirituals that formed the bedrock of American music to come, and anchored the spiritual vocabulary of the culture as well.

Nearly every child growing up in America has either sung or heard songs such as “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Wade in the Water,” “Hold On,” “Rocking Jerusalem,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Go Down Moses” and “Balm in Gilead.” Even those who don’t share the brand of faith implicit in the words of these songs can feel their power. How did they wink into existence?

This remarkable body of music didn’t spring from any one identifiable mind, but from the consciousness of an enslaved race. Ward explains how the African slaves imported into America, cut off from their native cultures and forced into the acceptance of Christianity, shaped an amalgam of African song and Western hymn in services hidden away from the eyes and ears of their white overseers -- and put intense measures of agony and faith into it.



Ward quotes gospel scholar and singer Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer on spirituals:

“’ . . . after a while, it’s almost like therapy. It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders begin to come back to their natural position. What’s happening is, you’re going through a cleansing process. You’re coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are. And the more you sing it, the more you find relief, the more you believe that there is a way out of this.’”

These songs, passed down orally, were not shared with a larger public until George L. White, treasurer and music director for the newly founded Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee heard them in 1871.

The university, run by the American Missionary Association, was begun with the idea of educating African Americans. White, a missionary himself, had been searching for a way to stave off the institution’s bankruptcy.

Choral music had only recently come into vogue as a viable form of entertainment in America. Successful tours by Alpine folk-singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels in the late 1830s spawned homegrown concertizing by such traveling bands as the Hutchinson Family Singers and the Gibson family in the 1840s.

White hit on the idea of taking down these spiritual songs he heard from his black students, and formalizing and presenting them in concert. Surprisingly, his initial point of resistance was the students themselves, who felt that these folk compositions were relics of a slave past best left behind.

White found something profoundly musical and moving in them. He developed a cappella arrangements and drilled his students mercilessly; emphasizing not volume but intensity, until the Singers’ trademark sound was that of a pianissimo attack that filled any given venue with sound.

An 18-month tour across the Northeast began discouragingly. Writes Ward, “Nothing had prepared Northerners for White’s young choir. What little they knew of black culture was derived from the derisive ‘Darktown’ cartoons of Currier & Ives and the bug-eyed, burnt-cork minstrel troupes with their ‘Congo banjos,’ interlocutors, ersatz ‘plantation melodies,’ and ‘nigger’ jokes that cavorted across the stages of the day. For many Northerners, minstrel troupes were there only African American frame of reference, and even the pious Yankees who attended White’s first concerts took their seats expecting to laugh at the antics of a primitive people.”

Nothing could withstand the power and sincerity of their performances. What began as a predicted folly ended a triumph. The Singers raised tens of thousands of dollars for their university, and the troupe soon found themselves suffering from overwork rather than neglect. Subsequent tours that covered England and parts of Europe as well over the course of six and a half years were to prove lucrative, but also the group’s undoing.

2. PROBLEMS

In addition to the grueling schedule, the usual interpersonal frictions arose. More significantly, the singers began to demand better treatment – a less taxing schedule, higher pay, individual recognition. White and the others who led them in turn accused them of ingratitude, and invoked their sense of dedication to a higher cause (in this case, Fisk, Christianity, and racial equality, in ascending order of irony).

Another unfortunate long-term side effect of the Singers’ popularity was the unintended reinforcement of the Uncle Tom-ish stereotype of virtuous victimhood of African Americans. The myth of the passive, benighted, saintly Negro would persist even down to the well-intentioned metaphors connecting Tom Robinson and the title creature in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Was White’s well-meaning transmission of these songs simply another in an almost endless stream of white assimilation, exploitation and pollution of another culture’s handiwork? And then there is that nasty question: does art born of torment and torture redeem that experience, or simply use it as a means to an end?

Christianity’s central metaphor is suffering and redemption, and the Jubilee songs embody this theme. Art is redemptive only in the sense that it is cathartic – that in and of itself, whether lauded or even noticed by the outside world, it aids the soul in surviving and making sense of reality. Does that mean that art is therapeutic? Sure; but therapy is not art, something the self-indulgent will never understand. In other words – everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell a story.

The power of spirituals extends past the boundaries of the faith within which they were conceived. Any participant in vocal music can tell you how it feels to be swept up passionately in the act itself. To serve the tune is to relinquish self for a time, to become a vessel of a higher power.

Again, Ward:

“When White asked several Genevans through an interpreter how they could so enjoy the songs when they could not understand the words, ‘the answer was, “We cannot understand them, but we can feel them.”’”

European sacred and art music has its limitations. The majesty and beauty of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Schubert, Mahler, Verdi and all, despite their presumed dominance by educators and experts, still don’t touch much of the musical universe as practiced worldwide.

White codified the music, but did not tamper with its power. That power injected itself into the pale culture that dominated it. As Ward notes:

“An editorial in the A.M.A.’s (American Missionary Association) journal went so far as to suggest that a little exposure to black religion might do whites good. ‘One of the beautiful and blessed effects of a real Christian culture for the negro would be the reflex influence of his emotive religion upon the unimaginative and unemotional white people who are now benefiting him.’”

Painfully condescending, but spot on in terms of white religion. Anyone who has suffered through years in the sedate pews of non-evangelical Christianity knows that subdued obedience and unduly demonstrative participation is the order of the day. No wonder the Jubilee Singers’ listeners felt they were hearing, in many senses, revelation.

Ward quotes one of the group’s most enthusiastic and eloquent fans, Mark Twain:

“’Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary – to my surprise – has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning – to my mind – their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can.’”

3. RESOLUTION

After seven years and three tours, the Jubilee Singers raised enough money to build Fisk University’s first permanent structure, Jubilee Hall. Succeeding classes kept the tradition alive, and alumni, such as the brilliant Roland Hayes, spread the tradition.

Spirituals led to gospel music – the deliberate expressions of individual composers such as Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland. The harmonies and feeling filtered down through the culture, influencing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, bluegrass, pop songs, rock and others.

The Jubilee Singers continued, expanding their repertory and winning acclaim. Until recently, their efforts have gone largely unrecorded; however, the 2003 disc “In Bright Mansions” is a remarkable and moving recapitulation of the songs that cemented the group’s reputation nearly 150 years ago.



Meanwhile, the contradictions still chafe. It’s still evident that African Americans are still disenfranchised and culturally segregated in any number of ways – while their songs of suffering have been fully integrated into the American consciousness.

SOURCES

“In Bright Mansions”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Curb Records
2003

Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Andrew Ward
HarperCollins, New York, 2000

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/

FOR MORE INFORMATION:



Thursday, April 29, 2010

Winning the war: old, fat men vs. the Taliban

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I know all about combat -- I have seen "Stripes" at least 15 times.
I volunteer!

Me! Me! Me! Me! Me! I’ll go!

Look, this war on terror thing is not working, at least in central Asia. We beat up on the Taliban, leave -- and they come back. We bribe the inhabitants to be on our side, and they use the money to buy more weapons with which to kill us.

Meanwhile, this whole drone thing isn’t working. Remember how we killed Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud last year? Oops, it turns out we didn’t, probably because he wasn’t disguised as a wedding or a funeral. (In July of 2009, the Brookings Institution reported that the ratio of civilian to militant deaths via Predator drone-launched Hellfire missiles is 10 to one. Not a great public relations move.)

This is by no means a slam against our enlisted people. Hey, I’ve worked for big companies – whether or not your bosses know what they’re doing, you have to follow orders, right? However, poor executive planning in civilian life usually leads merely to bad phone service or the cable guy never showing up – not the killing or maiming of the staff.

The only answer is sending out soldiers with nothing to lose. I’m talking about middle-aged men. Get us off the couch and into the fray!

Why? Let’s look at the facts:

  1. Biologically speaking, we are expendable. By the time we hit 45, we’ve probably procreated all we’re going to – unless we get incredibly, stupendously (un)lucky one night. Let’s face it -- if we were bees, our sexual organs would already have been ripped out of our bodies during intercourse. Ouch. In terms of advertising demographics, we don’t even exist.
  2. We love action movies. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, Sly, Arnold . . . Snake Plissken . . . these are our role models! We are the most likely age/sex group to do some ridiculous things with ammunition and explosives, with little regard for consequences. We could blow ourselves and everyone around us up at any time. It would be like having a bunch of suicide bombers on your team – only we’re just dumb. It all worked out in “Stripes,” didn’t it?
  3. Now that I can get access to espn.go.com just about anywhere, I am flexible about my location, and I feel I can say the same for my sports-loving brethren. And sistren.
  4. We are always alert! Always! At least, I am. I think it’s because I always have to pee. Or I can’t pee. Or I pee a little bit, all the time. That makes me grumpy! And alert! All the time!
  5. My middle-aged fuddy-duddiness leads me to just OOZE counterintuitive attack concepts. For instance – young soldiers play gangsta rap and heavy metal when they go into combat to get pumped and intimidate opponents. I prefer to dash into action with the lilting voice of Mel Torme crooning “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in my ears. In fact, I would prefer to blow the enemy away -- with the sweet stylings of award-winning tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. (Actually, if I could find some terrorists who are into pre-electric Miles, we may have a peace process on our hands.)
  6. We don’t need basic training. Not because we are battle-ready; because we are incapable of being trained. Ask our wives. We do follow orders well, however, as we are leery of being bitched at.
  7. We are clean and sober, as our doctors have already told us to quit smoking and drinking. OK, maybe we need a little weed. OK, a lot of weed. And some acid. But none of the hard stuff.
  8. War is not for the young. The young should be home, having sex. Raising kids. At the very least, getting in over their heads with bad mortgages, as God intended. Ask, tell, gay, straight, I don’t care. (I draw the line at animals -- you cannot spoon with a cow. You cannot train a goat to get you a snack in the middle of the night. God knows I’ve tried.)

Ladies and gentlemen, follow my plan and the war will be over in weeks. Of course, we may all wind up speaking Pashto. Inshallah!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

From Senses of Cinema -- Kurosawa's "Scandal"

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For my friends at Australia's Senses of Cinema, my essay on Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film "Scandal":

Shubun/Scandal was the final film legendary director Akira Kurosawa made before catapulting to international fame with Rashomon (1950). As such, it is a waypost that points both to the past and to the future in the director’s work. This uneven yet vital offering chafes uncomfortably against its genre conventions while it offers moments that presage Kurosawa’s glorious output to come.

Scandal, his tenth film, neatly demarcates the first third of Kurosawa’s directorial career, an apprenticeship that began in 1936 (1). It had taken a few years after World War II’s end for Kurosawa to move out from under the shadow of the censorship imposed by both the Japanese authorities and those of the American Occupation. Scandal, ironically, would focus on the dark side of newfound freedoms, specifically the freedom of the press.

Kurosawa created a trio of gritty, hard-hitting, socially conscious dramas – Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel, 1948), Shizukanaru ketto (The Quiet Duel, 1949) and Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949) – just prior to Scandal. All three films featured the signature acting presences of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura (and Scandal would be the eighth Shimura/Kurosawa collaboration). These two remarkable performers would maintain positions at the centre of Kurosawa’s repertory company for years to come.

Critically, Scandal has frequently been dismissed as a “courtroom potboiler” (2), a “curiously unbalanced film” (3), and a “sentimental melodrama” (4). Yet a look with fresh eyes reveals a divided but still powerful cinematic document, a hybrid of pessimistic social critique and redemptive fable.

The impetus behind Kurosawa’s choice of subject was his anger over what he termed the “verbal gangsterism” of gossip magazines, which sprang up like weeds in post-war Japan. Suddenly free to print stories about celebrities, with little regard for the truth, these publications ran roughshod over reputations – a significant shock to a formerly closed and highly structured society. As Kurosawa states: “This was not freedom of expression, I felt, it was violence against a person on the part of those who possess the weapon of publicity. I felt that this new tendency had to be stamped out before it could spread.” (5)

The film begins in the countryside in winter. “You an artist, mister?” is the first line of dialogue, spoken by one of a comic trio of country bumpkins as they watch the protagonist, Ichiro Aoye (Mifune), paint the mountain landscape in front of them in a decidedly non-representational manner (he later refers to comparisons of his work to that of Maurice Vlaminck, the early-20th-century Fauvist painter). Aoye is the stereotype of the bold, noble, two-fisted avant-garde artist (reflecting, perhaps, Kurosawa’s own background in art), right down to his pipe and motorcycle.

Aoye is on his way to a mountain spa. A beautiful voice draws the men’s attention, and mounting the hill and emerging into the frame is Miyako Saijo (Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi), a prominent singer on her way to the same destination as Aoye, who offers her a lift on his bike. This innocent favour is spotted by two journalists for the gossip rag Amour, who then trail the duo to the resort and snap photographs of them that make them appear to be involved sexually with each other.

Yamaguchi seems a perverse pick for a role as a demure, publicity-averse artist. The actress and singer, referred to by some as the “Judy Garland of Japan”, was embroiled in controversy for much of her career. Manchurian-born, she was one of the era’s “seven great singing stars” and was featured in a number of pro-Japan Chinese propaganda films made during World War II. After the war, she was nearly executed for treason – until her Japanese birth certificate was made public (6). (After a few more years in film, Yamaguchi became a successful journalist and politician, and her life story became a hit Japanese stage musical.)

Once the unscrupulous paparazzi have gotten their “scoop”, the scene shifts permanently from open-air pleasures and simple artistry to the gritty city streets and entanglement with the law. The plot cranks along predictably. Amour goes to press with its faux-expose, “Love on a Motorcycle”. Aoye sees a wall plastered with his and Saijo’s image, putters over to the magazine’s shabby offices (the chicken-wire interior walls reinforce the viewer’s sense of entrapment), and punches out the publisher. Soon we are exposed to a wry Capraesque back-and-forth, as publisher and artist issue salvoes at each other to an ever-growing crowd of reporters and cameras.

Still, bits of Kurosawa magic leap out at us. Aoye decides to sue, but can’t convince Saijo to join him. In two beautiful shots, Aoye’s hand snatches up his goggles and gloves, and then he powers away from our point-of-view, sailing in a serene downhill curve parallel to a set of streetcar tracks.

25 minutes into Scandal we meet the character that, according to many critics, derails the film (7). Takashi Shimura plays Hiruta, a weak and self-loathing shyster who looks up Aoye in his drafty, Bohemian studio in the hope of taking up his case against the magazine. “Even scoundrels know the law”, he says, foreshadowing his betrayal to come.

Hiruta leaps out at the viewer for two reasons – one, the magnificent and nuanced performance by Shimura, and two, the relatively flat characterisations that surround him. Kurosawa has dropped a real human being into a forest of cutouts, and Hiruta begins to run away with the picture. Kurosawa cites his inspiration for Hiruta in a man he met in a bar years before – a figure with a bedridden, tubercular daughter who went on and on about his unworthiness compared to her (8). Hiruta, too, has a sickly, saintly child, who Aoye meets inadvertently. Her state convinces him to hire Hiruta.

Meanwhile, a revealing scene with Saijo takes place. Her manager encourages her to embrace the ramifications of the scandal, citing increased ticket sales for her upcoming concerts. Saijo snaps out of her demure state long enough to baldly exclaim the film’s credo: “I don’t want popularity without respect. I won’t be a freak on display!”

But Hiruta is soon seduced by Amour’s publisher into taking money to throw the case. In a shot that neatly parallels that of Aoye’s earlier departure on his motorcycle, a drunken Hiruta, loaded with ill-gotten gifts, is returned to his ramshackle house in an Amour distribution truck. In a lengthy scene, Hiruta attempts to hide this latest moral slide from his daughter, but her tuberculosis seems to have given her psychic powers. Soon Hiruta is babbling his confession to her – “In order to stay undeceived, I had to start deceiving others” – until he passes out at her bedside.

Through to the end of the film, the battle between the by-the-numbers suspense plot and the story of Hiruta’s suffering continues. Clichés such as Hiruta guiltily turning his daughter’s picture to the wall in his office, or a tearjerking scene in which Aoye and Saijo give Hiruta’s daughter a splendid Christmas concert, are interspersed with inspired moments. The sprightly sequence of Aoye’s delivery of a fully decorated Christmas tree to Hiruta’s home on his motorcycle, and the despairing face of Hiruta peering through his own window, his dying daughter’s smiling face reflected in the pane, are marvellous.

Later, Hiruta and Aoye make a drunken expedition to a local dive. (A jab at the influx of American influence is made when the scene opens, with patrons singing “Buttons and Bows”, a top American pop song of the day.) There, stalwart Kurosawa regular Bokuzen Hidari (best known as sad-sack villager Yohei in Shichinin no samurai [The Seven Samurai, 1954]) plays a drunk who speaks of the New Year with a slurred resolve to change his ways. Soon, he and Hiruta and the rest of the bar’s inhabitants break into “Auld Lang Syne” as the camera gracefully swoops round them. Critics such as Donald Richie see this and other aspects of the film as dry runs for Kurosawa’s subsequent masterpiece, Ikiru (Living, 1952) (9).

The soused duo then stumble back past a pond near Hiruta’s home (a call back to the polluted urban fen that plays a central symbolic role in Drunken Angel). The water reflects the starry sky – a quietly miraculous shot that foreshadows Hiruta’s redemption, at least until he yells “Merry Christmas!” for the eighth time and passes out at its verge. The movie then returns to a tone of business as usual. The trial progresses. It turns out that Aoye, at least, knows that Hiruta is cheating him, but hangs on to give him a chance to prove himself. The sudden off-camera death of Hiruta’s daughter pushes him to reveal his complicity with the defendant, saving the day for his slandered clients at the cost of his career and reputation. One scandal drives out another.
Indeed, the upbeat Hollywood-style conclusion – Aoye states to yet another gaggle of pressmen after the trial that Hiruta’s redemption means that “a star came into existence” – is undercut by the final sequence. Hiruta plods forlornly past the pasted-up handbill images of Aoye and Saijo, now torn and tattered. He is as forgotten as all the fuss that blew over him.

Kurosawa’s crusading effort ultimately came largely to naught (he states that “Scandal proved to be as ineffectual a weapon against slander as a praying mantis against a hatchet”) (10). However, Shimura’s agonised, over-the-top portrayal of Hiruta sets the stage for his more restrained and more affecting performance as the similarly meek bureaucrat Watanabe in Ikiru two years later.

Scandal combines several key aspects of Kurosawa’s cinema: his social conscience, his magnificent eye, and his feel for character. All the elements, unblended, are there. That it does not hang together seamlessly makes the quantum leap he made with Rashomon all the more astonishing.

Endnotes

  1. Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Faber and Faber, New York and London, 2001, p. 29.
  2. Michael Koresky, “Eclipse Series 7: Postwar Kurosawa”, The Criterion Collection: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/627.
  3. Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, 3rd ed., University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1996, p. 69.
  4. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2000, p. 180.
  5. Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, trans. Audie E. Bock, Vintage Books, New York, 1982, p. 177.
  6. Galbraith, pp. 123-125.
  7. Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1991, p. 75.
  8. Kurosawa, pp. 178-180.
  9. Richie, p. 66.
  10. Kurosawa, p. 178.
Shubun/Sukyandaru/Scandal (1950 Japan 105 mins)
Prod Co: Shochiku Prod: Takashi Koide Dir: Akira Kurosawa Scr: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima Phot: Toshio Ubukata Ed: Yoshi Sugihara Art Dir: Tatsuo Hamada Mus: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko (Shirley) Yamaguchi, Takashi Shimura, Sinichi Himori, Yoko Katsuragi, Noriko Sengoku