"Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back.
They're moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track.
But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone;
I'll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the Tower of Song."
(Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016)
I wrote in this newsletter about songwriting poet Leonard Cohen's new album when it came out just three weeks ago. I thought he was finished with touring, but I hoped he'd continue to write and record in his particular smoky, inky flavor of beautiful melancholy. But it turns out You Want It Darker, his new assortment of contemplative and spiritual-fringed songs, was to be his final album.
Still, he left us a remarkable collection of over 100 songs written and shared with generosity over a career spanning almost 50 years. Songs of fragile hope, wistful romance, and humble wisdom. And his final act in these past eight years has been inspiring, touring the world a few times over and releasing three albums of strong material in rich arrangements.
I think I'll be listening to his entire studio output and a few of his live albums in chronological order over the coming weeks. Feel free to join me as much as you're able.
We also just lost Leon Russell. I wasn't as familiar with him, though I did see part of his opening act for Bob Dylan a few years back. And I enjoyed his playing on Dylan songs like "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece", and probably some of his mostly-uncredited work in The Wrecking Crew. I don't know much of his work, though. But there's a story about him I like...
In 1970, B.B. King's producer asked Russell to play with King on a new album. Naturally, Russell agreed. Playing together, King did what he usually did, soloing quick and loose, making fast changes on the fly. Russell followed right behind King, giving him a guitar-piano call-and-response. When King stopped playing, he had tears in his eyes. "I never had that," he said. Up to that point, he'd never played with anyone who could keep up with him.
They ended up recording Russell's song "Hummingbird" together, among other things.
"Movie directors, or should I say people who create things,
can never be satisfied.
That's why they can keep on working.
I've been able to work for so long because I think,
'Next time, I'll make something good.'"
Akira Kurosawa is one of the undisputed masters of cinema. During the United States' influx of foreign films in the 1950s, Kurosawa was one of three world filmmakers held in highest regard (the others rightly being Swedish Ingmar Bergman and Italian Federico Fellini). Kurosawa's 1954 epic Seven Samurai in particular was a huge international hit, and the most financially successful film ever in its native Japan. And many of his other films, like Rashomon, Ikiru, and his King Lear adaptation Ran, are now regarded as classics.
In Kurosawa's twin solo samurai films Yojimbo and Sanjuro, which I watched the other week, longtime Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays a cynical, tough character — an itchy, threadbare, nameless, masterless (and therefore jobless) samurai who relies on his sharp sword and sharper mind for survival as he wanders from place to place. In Yojimbo, he shakes up a town plagued by constant fighting between two rival gangs — the only person profiting is the coffin-maker. In Sanjuro, he gets involved in a plan to rescue a virtuous official who's being framed as a criminal by his actually-corrupt peers after a group of well-meaning young samurai have made a mess of things.
Mifune's more reserved here than in many of his most famous performances (witness his Cagney-like intensity in films like High and Low, or especially his maniacal turns in Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood). His more restrained, seen-it-all manner in Yojimbo and Sanjuro gives added effectiveness, by way of contrast, to his lightning-fast bursts of violent swordsmanship when they spring up. Some fights in these films last only a few seconds, with enemies efficiently dispatched with one stroke per man.
He's a character not unlike Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe — a guy tough enough that you don't immediately notice he has a good heart. Some of my favorite characters are like that. (Some of my favorite artists too, as I discussed in my newsletter about Warren Zevon.)
It'd been awhile since I'd seen Yojimbo. Something I'd forgotten about the movie was how badly our protagonist gets beaten up. (Strange that it'd slipped my mind, since it's a facet that stands out in my memory when remembering Sergio Leone's unofficial western remake, A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood in the Mifune role.) Having a character this cool, tough, and laissez-faire get brought so low is a bold narrative move — a good reminder to a writer that you sometimes need to be harsh to your characters, making their lows low so their highs can be higher.
Another aspect of the character that struck me this time was how much of a trickster hero he is, playing sides against each other and coming up with clever techniques of achieving his goals. That's more fun and interesting to watch than if he was merely an exceptional swordsman. He can solve problems with his sword, but his wit is equally up to the task and is put to use before his sword is drawn.
This was my first time watching Yojimbo's sequel, Sanjuro, and it was enjoyable to see the grouchy, experienced loner become reluctant leader of a group of unseasoned samurai. The film also boasts a 45 second bravura action sequence that particularly grabbed me — Kurosawa uses only four shots to show Mifune, in impressive choreography, swiftly fighting and killing about twenty men. (I was reminded in some ways of the ambitious hallway fight scene in Chan-wook Park's Oldboy.) There's no music in the sequence — the only sounds are the slashes of the samurai's sword and the unsettling shrieks of the dying.
Kurosawa's technical craft as a director and editor is staggering. I don't always respond to his scripts, but these two movies are particularly tight and lean and exciting — among my favorite films in his monumental body of work.
Flesh Machine, the free, weekly science fiction comic I write and draw, continues at michaelavolio.com — I'll be posting new pages after I get home from work tonight. On my website you can read the whole story thus far.
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