Thursday, February 17, 2011


(What you are about to read is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, the details of which can be found at post's end. I have made a donation to the Film Noir Foundation, and hope you will do the same - link's at the end.)

When the brothers Wachowski commissioned some of Japan's finest animators to add short films to their ever-expanding Matrix franchise, director Shinichiro Watanabe was an ideal collaborator. Watanabe's landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop quickly found a devout cult audience for its story of planet-hopping bounty hunters, leavening its stylized anime action with a strident musical score and a generous dose of film noir style and fatalism. Watanabe's noir influences move front and center for his tight, nine-minute Matrix prequel, A Detective Story...

A Detective Story's protagonist is Ash, a put-upon private eye to whom we are introduced near the end of "the case to end all cases..."

But first things first: we go to the beginning of the case as Ash fields a client's call in a P.I.'s office straight out of Noir City:

Though fearing another domestic case, Ash finds that his generous client wants him to track down a mysterious computer hacker known as Trinity. Familiar as we are with Matrix lore, we know immediately that Ash is being set up as a pawn to pursue an agent of freedom by a conspiracy larger than he could possibly imagine. But like so many noir heroes before him, Ash takes the money and goes to work, unaware of the bad, bad hand fate has dealt him.

Ash's tools of the trade are both classic...

...and downright avant-garde, including a weirdly high-tech rig with multiple flatscreens and phone tech from some alternate universe's 1930s...

Ash soon finds out that other investigators seeking Trinity have wound up either dead or, in the case of one poor bastard, insane. A visit to the latter man's home does yield a disturbing, if visually striking, clue:

Several online, Lewis Carroll-coded communications later, Ash finds himself on a train to nowhere and, finally, face to face with Trinity:

Ash quickly realizes that there's much, much more to Trinity than he could have imagined. Just as, in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves' Neo was awakened to the world underneath his perceived reality, Ash finds the world he knew slipping from his grasp, and having made the trip through the looking glass finds himself in the grip of a reality that is simply beyond his comprehension. Ash is forced to make a crucial decision when several of their fellow passengers turn into Agents that move to eliminate them both.

As the agents draw nearer, Ash feels himself being physically transformed into one of them. Trinity must defend herself, and thus executes the function of femmes fatale from across the years.

Like other noir heroes before him, Ash seems to find a kind of comfort in the shadow of death's oncoming embrace, though he remains bewildered by his too-short life beyond the looking glass.

And Watanabe again engages our familiarity with the Matrix's overall story to give Ash what many noir creators refused their heroes, a simple moment of grace as Trinity confides in him her highest compliment: "For what it's worth, I think you could have handled the truth."

And so Trinity leaves, and even as the agents encroach on Ash, Watanabe's streak of generosity leaves him a final burst of energy to buy Trinity some time, to look death in the eye, and to enjoy one last cigarette.

Lights out.

Watanabe's most distinctive gift is his talent for combining disparate genres and cultures into bizarre but effective hybrids. That he would reach across decades to bring the high-tech, colorful, and action packed world of The Matrix into the lower tech, black-and-white, and somber world of film noir in A Detective Story only seems perverse in retrospect. In fully embracing the noir aesthetic Watanabe has crafted a lovely Matrix miniature, both a fine self-contained prelude to that sprawling (some would argue over-extended) franchise and a dark little gem in its own right. Pleasingly mind-bending, and simply noir as hell.

For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon is hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. You can go here to read more about the Film Noir Foundation, here to read a cogent interview with FNF head Eddie Muller about its preservation projects and why they matter, and you can go here to make a donation.)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

on Buzz

The formula seems pretty steady: there's going to be a big show. A horde of hopeful performers line up to audition, sometimes cruelly judged, each one holding out hope for a big break. Pressures mount backstage, with creators trying to stay focused and producers scrambling frantically for cash. The conflict escalates right into opening night. The show everyone's been waiting for finally starts, and, fueled by the frantic energies of the hour that preceded it, takes on a life of its own, exploding into an organism that grows beyond the boundaries of the stage, of the screen, of reality itself.

Choreographer/director Busby Berkeley is best known for the spectacular dance numbers conceived for several Depression-era Hollywood musicals. Though he was quick to deny any high art intentions, Berkeley's numbers remain some of the most mind-bending and surreal sequences ever created for Hollywood's blockbuster entertainments. His kaleidoscopic choreographies of an impossible number of dancers are so intricate and expansive that one almost expects to come to the end of a tunnel of chorus girls' legs to see the Starchild staring back.

Toward the beginning of Dames, recently screened at the Castro Theatre (the final in a four film BB series), noticing themes of choreographed group labor, mechanized sexuality, and class tension, I mused to my companion that Berkeley and cohorts seemed to be remaking/sequelizing Fritz Lang's Metropolis with each film. (Five seconds after I said this a bodyguard played by Arthur Vinton, a dead ringer for The Tall Man from Lang's film, appeared on screen.) But Berkeley's the only creator involved in these films that works to match Lang in scope and vision. One can't discount the work of the directors and creative teams on these films, but they're all best known for Berkeley's sequences, which absorb even a powerhouse, name talent like James Cagney into their design. In Footlight Parade, Cagney moves heaven and earth to stage his latest spectacle, but in the end he falls down a staircase and winds up accidentally cast in his own number. Just like the audience he's carried headlong into the mind and worlds of Busby Berkeley. And just like us, he gives in completely.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Way back during the dawn of cable, HBO ran short films between features to fill the hour. One of my favorites was this, which I'm pleasantly surprised to find was a student film made by TREMORS scenarist S.S. Wilson.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Spun from a visual novel by Kinoko Nasu, this gorgeously atmospheric anime series chronicles the efforts of a closely-knit group of individuals to take on an array of disturbing crimes. The story skips back and forth over a five year period, and hinges mainly on the relationship between the mildly schizophrenic and mystically powered Shiki Ryōgi and the physically average but perceptive young man Mikiya Kokutou. Though Shiki is the strongest member of the group, evidence points to her as the most likely suspect in a spree of killings early on, and Mikiya sets out at extreme personal risk to prove her innocence. To Shiki herself as much as anyone else.

Blood runs red, and deep, in these films, and yet the overall mood is one of quiet alienation, melancholy. There's a pleasant lack of distracting fanservice, and a powerful attention to the quiet moments and character details. During a presentation of three chapters of this saga at San Francisco's Viz Cinema, key creative team members confirmed that it is the quieter moments, rather than the intricate and supercharged action scenes, that often pose the most creative challenges to the makers of anime. Given their devotion to the original vision of Kinoko Nasu, the Garden of Sinners team have realized an abundance of such moments, crafting a dark but precious jewel in the anime corpus.