Monthly Archives: October 2015

I have fond memories of so many great films from years past, movies that I saw on Sunday mornings, aired by cable stations unwilling to pay more than the most nominal fee for their air time. I watched those movies and discovered Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and a slew of other greats. I also watched those and discovered Crocodile Dundee, Beverly Hills Cop, and a load of '80s fun. But, one morning in particular, on a rarely watched artsy channel, I found a film by one of the great Japanese directors of all time, and was enthralled.

That particular Sunday morning was interesting for a few reasons. First off, my brother was staying over at a friend's house, meaning I had the full reign of the television. Second, it was raining very hard, so my parents couldn't send me outside to 'enjoy' the sun by myself. Third, I was a little under the weather, so my normally short attention span stayed glued to the television, partially under the influence of cough syrup, and partially in pure lethargy.

All of these things were necessary as the film in question was Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a three-hour opus. At the tender age of 11, it had not yet been restored to its original luster of 202 minutes, cut down by the unfortunate few who find foreign films too convoluted for American audiences. Regardless, I was enamored by this epic tale of right triumphing over wrong, and ever since then I've been in love with Akira Kurosawa's work, constantly pointing out to my friends all the hundreds of different influences he's had over Western cinema. It's impressive really, the volume of work he produced and the volume of work that came to exist in America as a direct response to that work.

Many people are quick to forget just how much one man can influence the course of an entire art form. When that one man is a Japanese director who passed away more a decade ago, it's almost impossible to educate the many who have never heard his name. But, film directors are not nearly so cloistered to world cinema as movie goers are. They watch everything they can get their hands on, and for that reason, an auteur like Kurosawa was high on many great directors' lists, including Sergio Leon, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and dozens more.

So who was this man, Akira Kurosawa, who had a massive impact on the movies we grew up loving. He was a descendent of a former Samurai family, and as a child, had the kind of imaginative interest in stories and the new medium that was film, as any future director should. He attended film schools, worked with the first directors in Japanese film, and in the 1940s began directing his own films.

What made Kurosawa's work so much different was that he had a mass appeal, a flare for seeking out the root of storytelling, that seed of a good yarn, and exploiting it with all the compassionate visual stimulation, that only Japanese films could offer. He invented numerous popular story telling techniques still used today in films like Rashomon (with multiple view points on the same story) and Seven Samurai (the powerful strangers hired to save a village). When he wasn't busy creating archetypes for what Western films would become, he was taking Western archetypes and applying Japanese style to them. He wrote and directed two Samurai Shakespeare adaptations, with Throne of Blood adapted from Macbeth and Ran adapted from King Lear.

He adapted Dostoevsky in Hakuchi (The Idiot) and crafted stylish noir thrillers in Stray Dog and Drunken Angel. As original and inventive as he could be, Kurosawa was in love with the Western forms that informed cinema as well. For me, this is what true cinema is all about. Instead of constantly whipping out mindless sequel after mindless sequel, based on nothing more than the whimsy of a previous film, directors were seeking out new ideas from across the globe and integrating them into their own culture, exploiting universal themes in such ways that their viewers could understand.

When Sergio Leone crafted his Man with No Name trilogy, it was a rewritten script from Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro. When George Lucas began piecing together his characters in Star Wars, he used many sources but none so openly as Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. You've likely seen some form or another of Rashomon hundreds of times throughout your lifetime, retold constantly with different characters. Unlike what many of today's directors would deride as open infringement of ideas, this is how art actually works, assimilating and building. The cross-pollination of culture and story is what made Shakespeare's work so epic, and in the 20th century made films so universally accepted.

Today's film-going audience is not only woefully ignorant of the films of the past, but of the effects of those films and of ingesting the work of other cultures. While attending films at Seattle's International Film Festival, I can't help but think what would have happened to cinema if each nation had developed their own cinema solely independent of the others, how boring and repetitive it might have become.

In a world where we find ourselves evermore overwhelmed by-and drawn to-bright images and flashing screens, it is worth asking a few questions about that most important of consumer goods: entertainment. What makes entertainment entertaining? Why do we need it, or do we? What is entertainment, anyway?

These are a few of the questions I set out to answer in a class I taught a year or so ago: Entertainment in America. And while we couldn't quite come up with satisfactory answers, even after a semester of reading and discussion, I'd like to try to set down a few of the thoughts that came out of that course here. But I don't want to shove the partial answers I've come to down your throat-that's no fun for anybody. Rather, what I'll do in the following is offer a list of questions that you might ask yourself, along with a few resources that might be worth looking at as you search for your own answers to these increasingly crucial questions. I'll also note, from time to time, the conclusions I have tentatively reached regarding these questions.

Are you ready? Here goes...

What is entertainment? (Too obvious, but we'll come back to it. If you keep this question in mind as you go down the list, you may find a definition beginning to come together. Try it out.) Even if you know it when you see it, does it bother you if you can't come up with a good definition of what it actually is?

Is there such a thing as "only entertainment"?
Only Entertainment-Bad Religion
That's Entertainment-The Jam
That's Entertainment-Judy Garland
When you read the lyrics of The Jam's and Bad Religion's songs, and read about the history of the Judy Garland highlights film, what is your sense of the kind of material that makes for entertainment?

Who needs entertainment? What for? When you are entertained, what are you feeling? Read a Dilbert or Doonesbury comic strip, and try to record what happened inside of you while you were looking at the comic. Did you feel happier? A sense of release? The resolving of tension? Was that entertainment? Would you say that reading the comic strip was the same kind of experience as watching a television show? How? How not?

Are some kinds of entertainment better for you than others? Which kinds? Is it better to play internet poker or to watch a video? Try doing each for a little while and record your feelings. Was one more entertaining than the other? How? Why? Did one make you more aggressive? Less likely to do something productive in the world around you? Did either change the way you felt about yourself? How?

One of the things I was struck by while teaching this course was the way entertainment can work as a substitute for action. If I can identify with a character on TV-on a soap opera, for instance-then I get to feel all the feelings that character feels, without having to do the actions that result in those feelings. I get to feel jealous without having a cheating spouse, excited by the intrigue of adultery without being an adulterer, and intimate without ever actually talking to a living human being. In short, I get to feel. Some researchers believe that feelings are the way we human beings experience our world most fully, but is there a price to pay when we feel our emotions in a way that's disconnected from the physical world around us?

That is, if we get to feel feelings without taking risks, do we start to lose our ability to risk emotion in the "real world"? I don't have a definite answer to that for you, but I do have one for me. I've come to the conclusion that entertainment is-while maybe necessary for emotional and psychological health-definitely a dangerous substance. Like fire. So, for my part, I'll still watch a film now and then. But I'll also think afterwards about how watching that film, getting that emotional satisfaction, affects my ability to act in the real world. You might consider doing the same; it actually turns out to be pretty entertaining.