THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 078
Greetings, all. I hope you are doing as well as you can be today. I'm sitting at my kitchen table right now with both the current geopolitical situation in Asia and Europe weighing heavily on my mind while also being heartened by listening to Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson accept the nomination to be on the Supreme Court. Feels frivolous to be writing anything about the arts in the midst of all this, but hopefully this will provide you some small measure of relief in the chaos of modern life. (Also didn't plan on how prescient my choice of subject matter would be when I decided to write about the one film Frank Sinatra directed during his life.)
Before we get started... a small rant. I'm not sure how it is where you live, but for us Portlanders, news coverage of the local arts scene — and more specifically the music scene — has been dismal over the last few years. Our paper of record The Oregonian gave up on it years ago, with an editor there balking at the idea of reviewing concerts because, as he said, "why would I want to read about an event I didn't go to." As the pandemic ripped through the newsrooms of our two alt-weeklies, the situation grew even worse. The Mercury touches on bits here and there, but not nearly as deeply and widely as they once did. Willamette Week's coverage has been reduced to a weekly column from a writer in San Francisco about records you should listen to. Vortex has been reduced to an aggregation of live concert photos.
This gnawed at me a bit but it started to feel like a shark bite in the wake of the news that King Louie Bankston, a garage blues / punk artist who was a former member of the Exploding Hearts, and Sam Henry, the original drummer for the Wipers, had both passed away. So far as I can tell, not one news outlet in town has covered either death nor seems interested in doing so. Nor do they seem interested in digging into local rapper HANiF's distressing transphobic / homophobic Instagram posts. Or any one of the hundreds of artists that, even during lockdowns and the temporary shuttering of venues, were still making vital sounds worth celebrating.
I worry I'm the only person this matters to — and that it only matters to me because it's how I ply my trade. Most shows I go to have plenty of fans in attendance and these musicians are making great use of social media to keep their names and sounds out there. But, to me, critical thinking about art, shining a light on lesser known artists, and engaging thoroughly with the past are being ignored to the detriment of everyone involved in the arts community of my hometown.
Maybe the solution is to start a new venture that can fill those roles or to make a harder push at the existing institutions to wake up to these oversights. So, I ask you: do you have any ideas about how to fix this problem? Do you live in a part of the country / world where this similar issue was addressed in a meaningful way? What do you think about what I'm saying here? Let me know what you're thinking.
And now... on with the show...
Deeper Into Movies #2: Frank Sinatra
Deeper Into Movies is a regular series on The Voice of Energy taking a critical look at the films made by famous musicians. The first installment on Madonna can be found here.
By 1965, Frank Sinatra had climbed every mountain top in the entertainment business. A few dozen top 10 singles. Multiple gold and platinum albums. His own radio show and TV variety show. Guaranteed demand for tickets wherever he performed. A thriving film career that landed him an Academy Award in 1953 for his work in From Here To Eternity and a handful of other nominations for Oscars and Golden Globes along the way.
But by the mid-’60s, there was one peak he had yet to scale: directing a major motion picture. Not that he hadn’t thought about it. In a 1955 interview with columnist Joe Hyams, he expressed his desire to step behind the camera. As Tom Santopietro wrote in his book Sinatra In Hollywood, “Asked what made him think he could be a director, he simply replied, ‘The same thing that made me think I could be a singer and an actor.’”
His turn in the director’s chair was, then, not a surprise. The project he chose to make his bow, however, was. Rather than stick to his seeming comfort zone of a musical or a romp with his Vegas buddies, Sinatra opted for None But The Brave, an anti-war story set in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of World War II. Not only that, but he dared to highlight both sides of the conflict, co-producing the film with famed movie company Toho and splitting some of the major jobs in the production — script, acting, score — between Japanese and American talent.
A logical choice by Sinatra as the on screen action is also evenly divided. The film takes us first into an encampment of Japanese soldiers who have been stranded on an island in the Pacific with no means of communicating with their superior officers. Onto this enclave crashes a U.S. transport ship, shot down in a dogfight, carrying a small group of servicemen. Tensions rise and fall as each group tries, at first, to fulfill their duty while also seeking a way home.
Hope for the Americans comes by way of a boat that the Japanese troops have built for their eventual departure. The G.I.s undertake a mission to steal the transport, which results in multiple deaths, serious injuries, and the destruction of the vessel. In the wake of this disastrous exercise, the two sides agree to a truce and an exchange of labor: the Americans can have access to a freshwater source and some food if the medic agrees to treat a Japanese soldier’s wounded leg.
Peace and brotherhood prevails until the Americans finally repair their radio and arrange for their rescue. Once again, the realities of the conflict return to the shores and the two sides set about slaughtering one another in an extended shoot out. By the time the ship has arrived to collect the soldiers, they’ve killed off all of the Japanese. But in a small show of respect, they agree to let the Japanese flag continue to fly over the beach head.
None of the deaths portrayed in None But The Brave are laudatory. They are ugly and brutal killings, given as much fake blood and wounds as the MPAA would allow in 1965. In one bravura sequence early in the film, one lone Japanese soldier continues his attempted assault on the Americans even as his body is riddled with bullets. Sinatra drives his point home at the end of the film, letting the camera pan over the multiple lifeless bodies from either side of the conflict. All leading toward the onscreen message that was striking then, but feels even bolder now considering the Vietnam War was set to escalate in a matter of months: “Nobody Ever Wins.”
Those moments are proof that Sinatra did possess some raw talent as a director. As did the film’s other breathtaking scene when Francis, the medic played by Sinatra goes to fulfill the terms of the truce. Unfortunately, the Japanese soldier’s wound has become gangrenous and his only hope of survival is to have his leg amputated. Sinatra draws the tension of this moment to its breaking point as Francis slowly prepares for the operation — which he has to perform with a broken sword rather than a bone saw. Just at the moment Francis sets to work, the scene cuts to the faces of the American soldiers as they react to the horrifying shriek coming from the Japanese camp.
The rest of None But The Brave is a hash. Sinatra may have some ability as a visual stylist, but when it came to directing actors, he was lost. He handed out roles on the American side to friendly, familiar faces. Sinatra’s then-son-in-law Tommy Sands was cast as the bloodthirsty Lt. Blair. His Come Blow Your Horn co-star Tony Bill was on hand as the wide-eyed radio operator Keller. Each of them attack their parts with a ravenous spirit, with Sands especially going for broke with a strange cornpone Southern accent and a lower jaw jutting out at a cartoonish angle. Sinatra, himself, turns in a weirdly loose performance. Even as he’s getting down to the business of amputation, he maintains this ring-a-ding energy that doesn’t jibe with the mood of the moment.
There were no such issues with the troupe of Japanese actors in the film. Screenwriters John Twist and Katuya Susaki gave the characters far more depth than most American productions, and the men who took on these roles add further shading and emotion to even the most manic of scenes. Their gravitas is undercut somewhat by Sinatra’s decision to not subtitle any of the Japanese dialogue. The intent was surely to challenge the viewer and to let these characters be their authentic selves. But too often it seemed as though Sinatra didn’t think what they had to say really mattered. (And let’s not think too deeply about the fact that the one Black character in the film has about half a line of dialogue and is quickly killed off trying to steal the boat.)
None But The Brave wasn’t a commercial powerhouse nor did many critics appreciate Sinatra’s debut turn behind the camera. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was particularly vicious in his assessment of the picture. “Everything happens as hopelessly expected in this morbidly ordinary tale,” he wrote. “A minimum show of creative invention and a maximum use of cinema clichés.” Is it any wonder that Sinatra never directed another film?
I’m not quite so disappointed. None But The Brave doesn’t quite hold together as a whole, but there were flashes of directorial savvy from Sinatra that made me wish he had continued in his work as a filmmaker. I don’t delude myself into thinking Ol’ Blue Eyes would have eventually stumbled into making a masterpiece but I could see him maintaining a solid batting average or, at worst, coming away with an abject disaster to be met with schadenfreude by generations of cult cinephiles. Instead, his sole directorial turn joins the rest of the mid-level pictures that make up the majority of his filmography — only of interest to the superfans, the completists or curiosity seekers like me. That’s life.
[FILM] The Films of Shahram Mokri
“If your movie is liable to simple categorization or branding, it means it’s empty. When it’s crammed with a dense volume of conventions and references, it means it’s empty.”
Iranian filmmaker Shahram Mokri was speaking about his 2017 film Invasion and its twisting, interconnected narrative that combines elements of sci-fi, horror, and black humor when he said the above quote to the London-based publication Middle East Eye. But, in reality, it’s a maxim that could be applied to any of the four features that Mokri has made — all of which are screening over the next week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Though he was dubbed by that same publication as Iran’s “first genre director,” Mokri doesn’t seem particularly beholden to whatever category his work may be placed in. His debut film, 2008’s Ashkan, the Charmed Ring, and Other Stories, may have a heist at its center, but it falls into background as Mokri braids together a number of other narratives: a young couple try to elope against the wishes of the bride’s father, a hotel worker who keeps failing in his suicide attempts, a sculptor disillusioned at the lukewarm response to his pieces. Though stylistically wobbly, the director maintains a sure hand on the script, bringing each plot strand together in clever, unpredictable fashion.
His follow-up Fish & Cat, from 2013, is, at its heart, a slasher film in the mode of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as two restaurateurs who serve human meat in their dishes, begin picking off the members of a youth group camping and flying kites around a lake. Yet none of the bloodshed is ever shown. Instead, Mokri orchestrates the entire story in an unbroken 130 minute take where various key scenes are repeated only to spin off, dream-like, in new directions.
Mokri returns to that conceit of letting certain moments in his film take place multiple times, occasionally to be viewed from a new angle, to better effect in his two most recent features, Invasion and 2020’s Careless Crime. In one especially wondrous scene in the latter film, when a single tracking shot spins around to catch the same conversations between a trio of soldiers and a group of cinephiles happening over and over again. On its own, a dizzying few minutes, but as it appears within a similarly looping tale based on the politically-motivated burning of an Abadan movie theater in 1978, it becomes just another fragment within an Escher-like mosaic where past and present flow together seamlessly.
Careless Crime may be Mokri's masterpiece but the repetition and ouroboros-like structure of his work is best served by Invasion. The preamble speaks of an apocalyptic event that literally surrounds the arena where the action of the film takes place in a fog. A murder has taken place among the close-knit members of a sports team and detectives arrive to force their suspect to recreate the killing. Again, the action soon starts folding in on itself as brief interactions are returned to and become central to a story that slowly takes on horrific dimensions and hints at a malevolent force pulling the strings of this entire affair.
As I was watching all of Mokri's films, my mind kept returning to a filmed version of Philip Glass' opera Einstein on the Beach, a sprawling work where the action on stage by dancers and actors is often repeated hundreds of times over, and The Myth of Sisyphus, where Camus finds the enlightenment within the fate of man forced to push a boulder uphill for all of eternity. Mokri plays these scenes and stories out from multiple angles and, even if nothing changes, new details emerge and the main text becomes richer and more dynamic. And though it might be a difficult ask in a world that often prefers to keep plowing forward to the next thing, the full weight of his work is often only felt through multiple viewings.
Thanks as always for reading. As I posted on my Instagram, if you'd like to donate to legitimate causes to support the people of Ukraine during this awful time, click here. I'll be back on Monday for the premium subscribers and next Friday for all y'all. Do no harm. Take no shit.
RIP Mark Lanegan, Sam Henry, King Louie Bankston, Sandy Nelson
Artwork for thie edition is by Greg Graham whose exhibition Scenic Route is on display at Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis through February 26.