“Actually our work depends on how much we can appropriate from other people’s work! Painting, music, films, literature … it’s all grist for the mill. We think of our work not as individual creativity but like a lifelong baton relay. Your work passes through your body and your life; you transform it into something, and then you pass it on to the next generation.” Hiyao Miyazaki interviewed by Roger Ebert for The Chicago Sun Times, October 1999
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toru Hara
Picking a film produced by Studio Ghibli is like tasting sushi when you’ve been raised on a diet of meat and potatoes animation from Walt Disney or Hanna-Barbera your whole life. The world of Hayao Miyazaki is one without heroes to cheer, villains to hiss at or talking animals to cue laughter. There are families and houses. Children learn to deal with change and to assume greater responsibility. In addition, the unseen surrounds them. As the story begins, there’s a slight feeling of unease, as well as fascination as the invisible world reveals itself. No film from Miyazaki exemplifies these sublime characteristics like the first to bring him an international audience, My Neighbor Totoro. 10-year-old Satsuki Kusakabe and her bratty 4-year-old sister Mei settle into life in the countryside, where their professor father has moved them to be closer to their mother, who recuperates from a long illness at a local hospital.
The Kusakabes are both excited and disquieted to discover their new house is inhabited by soot sprites, harmless creatures which scatter from light and whisper in the rafters. While Satsuki attends school, Mei explores the yard. There, Mei encounters two forest spirits, overstuffed rabbits which lead her into a magnificent camphor tree where the girl finds an even bigger forest spirit snoozing. Offering the name “Totoro”, the spirit vanishes before Satsuzki can meet him. She gets her chance while waiting for her father’s bus in a downpour and makes an impression on Totoro by introducing him to an umbrella. The spirits return the generosity of the Kusakabes by sprouting their garden to enormous heights. The spirits are unable to heal the girls’ mother and after losing her temper with her sister, Satsuki blames herself when Mei disappears. When search efforts by the townspeople falter, Totoro and his friends step in.
For his fourth feature film, animator Hayao Miyazaki sought a return to his childhood in Sayama Hills, which was farmland in the 1950s before it became suburban Tokyo. Miyazaki’s mother spent many years under bed rest with spinal tuberculosis, a detail that worked its way into the story. Executives at Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co. didn’t feel that sketches of Miyazaki’s nature spirits looked promising, so producer Toshio Suzuki proposed that Totoro be made in tandem with an adaptation of the novel Grave of the Fireflies and released as a double feature. A modest box office success in Japan, Miyazaki’s output began attracting comparisons to Walt Disney. Reaching an agreement with Tokuma for worldwide video distribution of Miyazaki’s films, The Walt Disney Company produced an English language dub of My Neighbor Totoro in 2005 featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning and Tim Daly as the Kusakabes.
Miyazaki’s compositions have fantastic depth of field, basking light on the old farmhouses, lush forests and rice fields the characters move past. To those who grew up on Josie and the Pussycats, the novelty of My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just the animation, but its spiritual depth. Respect for the natural world and an open mind toward the unseen course through the story, not as teaching points, but as an alternative to the lifestyle the Kusakabes are retreating from. My Neighbor Totoro is a bounty of both joy and imagination, as if Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are had been adapted for an Eastern audience. The girls are stricken early on with a giddiness that doesn’t cross over very well, something Miyazaki would change with his Oscar winning Spirited Away in 2001, but the pure enjoyment of the film is how different it is. Instead of catering to what the we expect, this magic carpet takes us somewhere different.
“George Lucas said the most useful thing to me as I was about to do Body Heat. I said ‘George, I don’t know that much about the technical stuff.’ And keep in mind that George is Mr. Technology, right? He said ‘Making movies has nothing to do with the technical stuff. It has everything to do with what kind of person you are.’ It was the most important thing anyone ever said to me about directing. I had a lot of confidence in the sort of person I was. I knew the kind of stories I wanted to tell. I knew the kind of atmosphere I wanted to create on my set. I knew the kind of life I wanted to live and how I wanted my work to embody that life, so the fact that I didn’t know anything technically didn’t really matter.” Lawrence Kasdan interviewed by Alex Simon for Venice Magazine, September 2001
Body Heat (1981)
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Written by Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by Fred T. Gallo
To call Body Heat the greatest dirty movie ever mounted by Hollywood wouldn’t be giving Lawrence Kasdan enough credit for the agility in which story, character, dialogue, mood and mystery come together in his directorial debut, along with some of the most combustive sex ever thrown down on film. Instead of feeling like a relic of what filmmakers were getting past the MPAA at the time, this is one movie whose temperature rises with each viewing. As the Florida town of Miranda Beach melts under a heatwave, attorney Ned Racine (William Hurt) divides his time between bedding nurses or meter maids and defending penny ante crooks in Okeelanta County Court. Entertained by Racine’s tales of wanton sexual lust, Assistant County Prosecutor Peter Lowenstein (Ted Danson) and Detective Oscar Grace (J.A. Preston) are also aware of Racine’s desire for a score that will satisfy his financial needs.
Cooling off on the Miranda Beach boardwalk, Racine’s dick leads him after a stunning blonde in a white blouse named Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner). Matty maintains that she’s married, but rather than discourage Ned’s come-ons, hints that she’s game for more than talk. Ned tracks Matty down to a bar in the waterfront town of Pinehaven and his scruffy charms win him an invitation back to Matty’s home to “see” her wind chimes. Needing more than just garden decor, Ned smashes into Matty’s home and the couple plunge into an explosive affair. Seeing how miserable Matty is married to real estate investor Edmund Walker (Richard Crenna), Ned works out a scheme to make Edmund’s murder look like a botched arson, ignoring the advice of a grateful client, rock ‘n roll arsonist Teddy Lewis (Mickey Rourke). Sure enough, the more Ned learns about Matty Walker, the more it seems she’s setting him up.
With his original screenplays The Bodyguard and Continental Divide finding buyers and George Lucas hiring him to write Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Lawrence Kasdan was red hot when he began turning down work in 1979. Alan Ladd Jr., president of Twentieth Century Fox, inquired why and Kasdan answered that he wanted to write and direct his own films, specifically, a film noir of his generation. When Ladd left the studio to form his own company and Fox’s new regime put Body Heat into turnaround, the mogul invited Kasdan to make his directorial debut for The Ladd Company if he found a “sponsor” who could give the project some leverage. The first time director approached Lucas, who balked at putting the Lucasfilm label on a movie titled Body Heat, but as de facto executive producer, promised Ladd he would cover any budget overruns out of his own pocket.
What makes Body Heat so hot and bothered isn’t sex, but foreplay. Kasdan puts us in a novel location, builds mood and reveals the desires of his characters with dashes of wit and kinkiness before we get to watch anyone fuck. Instead of using sex to intensify the story, the story intensifies the sex. Plucked off the soap opera The Doctors by casting director Wally Nicita for her film debut, Kathleen Turner embodies a woman any man might contemplate committing murder to possess. Turner handles the vulnerability and the gentle cunning of Matty Walker with as much gusto as she does the sexuality. Kasdan’s flawless script builds mystique by leaving Matty’s true nature ambiguous until the final shot. While we can see the end coming, Ned never does, which makes it feel surprising. Equally mesmerizing are the amiable sleaze summoned by William Hurt, the electricity of Mickey Rourke (in his breakout role) and an elegant noir musical score by John Barry.
Q: “You were working in a special niche of your own in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Hard Times, The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort — lean, elegiac films which, I’m guessing, benefited from modest budgets and expectations, as well as low producer interference.”
A: “Yes, that niche no longer exists. The middle ground has largely fallen out of the studio system.”
The Long Riders (1980)
Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Bill Bryden and Steven Phillip Smith and Stacy Keach & James Keach
Produced by Tim Zinneman
If crowd pleasers like Tombstone are pop music renditions of the Old West, The Long Riders is like vintage bluegrass. With the well earned authenticity of a musician jamming for the pure love of his craft, the first western directed by Walter Hill is a master class in how atmosphere, pacing and performance can elevate a B-movie programmer into something greater than a plot synopsis might indicate. In Missouri after the Civil War, hard put and desperate men looking to make a living under the heel of Reconstruction rob a bank. Led by the steely Jesse James (James Keach) and his brother Frank James (Stacy Keach), the gang includes the deadly Cole Younger (David Carradine), dapper Jim Younger (Keith Carradine) and dorky Bob Younger (Robert Carradine). Along for the job is Clell Miller (Randy Quaid) who’s as dependable as his brother Ed (Dennis Quaid) is unreliable.
The bandits return home to contemplate settling down. Jesse marries his sweetheart (Savannah Smith) while Jim courts a redhead (Amy Stryker) engaged to the no count Ed Miller. Cole Younger hesitates to make an honest woman out of Belle Shirley (Pamela Reed) and the vivacious whore settles in Texas, where she marries hotheaded Sam Starr (James Remar) and takes the name Belle Starr. The success of the James-Younger gang against trains of the Union Pacific Railroad puts them in the crosshairs of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose agents draw the wrath of the entire region when they gun down a 15-year-old Younger and firebomb the home of Jesse James’ mother (Fran Ryan). The gang meet their Waterloo in Northfield, Minnesota, forcing Jesse to recruit the oily Ford brothers Bob (Nicholas Guest) and Charlie (Christopher Guest). Their betrayal earns the Fords a spot in history alongside Jesse James.
Stacy Keach and his brother James Keach were cast as Wilbur and Orville Wright for a public television drama that aired in 1971. They kidded that after playing the Wright brothers, their next project together should focus on “the wrong brothers”. Taking their joke seriously, the Keaches arrived on outlaws Frank & Jesse James and spent nine years struggling to get The Long Riders into production, with playwright Bill Bryden, screenwriter Steven Phillip Smith and the Keaches writing scripts. The actor brothers had David, Keith & Robert Carradine set to join them as the Youngers, Randy & Dennis Quaid as the Millers and Beau & Jeff Bridges as the treacherous Fords. Cast in Hurricane, James Keach met producer Tim Zinneman, who saw a movie there and helped attach Walter Hill as director. Guitarist Ry Cooder would be entrusted by Hill to compose and arrange the music, beginning a collaboration that would span two decades.
In spite of its casting scheme, the real star of The Long Riders is Ry Cooder, who utilizes Civil War ballads and rapturous bluegrass to provide texture to the tough, contentious world of Jesse James. It’s a place where strangers become friends by sharing that they served under the Stars and Bars and conversely, playing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” can get a guitar player shot. The Long Riders makes little effort to document who James was and the film is so much better off for it. The loosely sewn narrative tested audiences at the time, yet the approach fits the material seamlessly: defeated but dangerous men drifting through the postwar South. Highlights include David Carradine and James Remar locked in an epic knife duel, while the scenes between Carradine and Pamela Reed crackle with wit and sexual energy. As action films go, this is one that genuinely loves women.