Hello friendly people. I am going off estrogen today in preparation for gender-affirming facial surgery next week, so I’m going to try to take it easy and not be a monster. Three months ago I was off estrogen for a day and I vomited in the street. A few weeks ago I was off for a day, and I just got terribly angry about everything. But now I am prepared. I’m gonna keep control.
Lately I’ve gotten very into classic movies. It’s because I switched to a Galaxy Fold 4 phone, which unfolds into a rather square tablet, which is perfect for watching movies and shows that have a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I was like…let’s find some of those.
This is not the first time I’ve tried to get into old movies. I’ve had at least three goes at it in the past. And they inevitably went the same way: join the Criterion channel, watch several old French movies, be like, "I enjoy this a little bit I guess" and then stop and cancel my membership. The truth was that while I liked the movies (the only ones I remember were a few Godard films), I didn’t enjoy them more than I was bored by them.
Something changed recently though, and I found myself much more engaged! I started by watching Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s story of an investigation into an unexplained death. All of the witnesses, including the spirit of the dead man (consulted through a medium) have a different story about what happened. You know the conceit, it’s a classic.
The movie is really anchored by Toshio Mifune’s incredible performance as the bearded, loincloth-wearing bandit Tajomaru. He’s just electrifying on-screen. He’s like an animal. Very unsophisticated, rough, constantly scratching himself, laughing in peoples’ faces and mocking them. His face is just unbelievable, especially when he opens his eyes wide, cackles, and then grimaces, pulls a momentary contortion and then lets it go slack. It feels melodramatic at first, and I suppose it is–especially since nobody else is on the same register–but as the movie progresses you see there’s an act there. He is uncomfortable around more sophisticated people. He’s emotionally quite simple and doesn’t understand the psychodrama in which he’s found himself.
I will say that I didn’t really understand why the Buddhist monk came away so deeply believing that everyone was polluted and evil. In the story I saw, everyone seemed very flawed and afraid and almost like they’d been trapped into (some of) the crimes they’d done. And their lies came out of some vestigial sense of honor and integrity. It showed the opposite–everyone still has morality operating in them, even if it doesn’t win out.
Anyway, that wasn’t the only movie I watched. I also saw two version of The Lower Depths (one by Kurosowa and one by Renoir), and I watched Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I was a bit astonished by how good all the movies were. I mean they’re obviously the best movies of all time, but they’re also very old–the best old movies are as good as the best modern movies. Kind of makes you wonder why we even bother! To make a Citizen Kane so many things had to come together perfectly: script, acting, funding. Even the aging makeup was so flawless that I genuinely had no idea how old anyone was. Something, to me, seems very flawed with the auteur theory, because no one person could ever control all the variables in place. Whether you’re allowed to make a movie freely or not is almost entirely luck (and sometimes your constraints work to your benefit!) But who knows, maybe I’ll develop more opinions as I watch more.
I also rapidly grew dissatisfied with the tiny square screen of my phone and switched to the ipad (which has a similar aspect ratio). Oh, some of these old movies look so good remastered. Vertigo looked incredible. The colors were so vivid, and they’d managed to make it high-resolution without making everything look stagey and fake. It was a joy to watch, even though it was my least favorite of these movies. I mean it was a very charming film, and the performances were delightful, but I maybe just didn’t get the broader picture. It sounds like I’m saying the movie had no social angle, but it’s not that–Rashomon didn’t have a social angle either–it’s just that ultimately I felt like I didn’t have that sense of theme. In particular, I didn’t understand how Scottie’s fear and vertigo and sense of failure all came together with the specific story being told. But who knows, maybe I’ll get it someday.