Thursday, July 26, 2007
To update you on my continuing Dish Network saga: Yesterday we had a Dish technician and his apprentice come to the house for a look at the set-up. To make a long story short, it seems the most likely cure for our recording ailment would be to swap out the VIP 211 with their DVR 622. Not only does this unit offer 160 hours of hard drive storage for HD content (not quite recording for posterity, but close), but the rear panel offers video outputs in both MPEG-4 and MPEG-2. We can run the MPEG-4 to our monitor and the MPEG-2 to our recorder, which would be giving it the same input that we had when there were no problems. In theory, it should work and my fingers are crossed.
The more MPEG-4 programming I see, the more impressed I am. I was checking out the Family Room HD shows two nights ago, before turning in, and was knocked out by the sumptuous video quality of... of all things, FLIPPER. Not the Universal theatrical remake of some years ago, but the original 1964 teleseries; it was like looking through a well-cleaned window at 1964. I never cared for the show particularly, but I was so impressed with the presentation that I stuck with it through the remainder of the episode in progress and an entire second episode. It was reformatted to 16:9 of course, but the show was filmed in such a way that the cropping was never very apparent. It was followed by THUNDERBIRDS, which I've always enjoyed, and it looked beautiful too, though the cropping here was more obvious. Even programming I'm more familiar with, like Rudy Maxa's SMART TRAVELS, looks significantly improved in MPEG-4, with purer, deeper blacks and heightened textures. And a World Cinema HD promo for Kieslowski's BLUE was astonishing in its clarity.
It seems to me, after having made the leap to HD DVD and Blu-ray now for some months, that the companies responsible for cherry-picking titles for release haven't made much of a leap with me. I'm not losing interest in HD per se, but I do find my interest in the HD disc formats slowly eroding. With the exception of CASINO ROYALE and CORPSE BRIDE, easily my two favorite HD/Blu-ray experiences, it's all been about upgrading so far, as far as my own viewing is concerned. The difference is usually appreciable, but very often it isn't exciting -- and, by "exciting," I mean the feeling I got when I first saw STARSHIP TROOPERS in SuperBit.
As I say, it's a matter of poor selection; I'd rather have DRAGONSLAYER than REIGN OF FIRE. Right now, there are only 10-20 titles on the market that I would care to watch more than once -- everything else is the 21st century equivalent of that early videocassette eyesore, FLASHDANCE. Broadcast HD, on the other hand, is infinitely more far-ranging and adventurous than the current selection on HD and Blu-ray discs. I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in HD on HDNET one year ago, and wrote about it here; we're still waiting for the HD disc. That's why I tend to suspect, at this stage anyway, that broadcast HD may well become the surprise victor in this latest "format war," rather than either of its high profile combatants. Of the three options, it's the one with the most obvious imagination, and therefore the one with the most probable future.
HD is also at its best when it can take you by surprise. When you buy a film on HD or Blu-Ray disc, especially with the current crop of pickings, you sort of know in advance what you'll be getting. Broadcast HD offers you the opportunity to browse/surf through unexpected possibilities and have your breath unexpectedly taken away. Maybe even by FLIPPER.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
KYONETSU NO KISETSU (1960), originally released in America under the exploitative title THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, was the directorial debut of the Malaysia-born Koreyoshi Kurahara (1927-2002). I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting; this Nikkatsu production was distributed here in the States by Radley Metzger's Audubon Productions, usually an avatar of good taste though their ad campaigns could be sensationalistically exploitative, but it's certainly more than I was expecting.
Shown on the Dish Network/VOOM channel World Cinema HD with its Japanese title subtitled as THE WARPED ONES (which, to my senses, suggests a comedy), the film turns out to be an important rediscovery on many fronts. It is directed by Kurahara with a freewheeling, gleefully hedonistic verve that reminded me of nothing less than Joseph H. Lewis' GUN CRAZY, with Yoshio Mamiya's B&W scope cinematography alternating between the carefully composed and the recklessly hand-held. It's also a story of young adult delinquency that has some conscious ties to earlier Western works like GUN CRAZY, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Godard's BREATHLESS but these pale in contrast to how much the film anticipates Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Scored by Toshiro Mayuzumi (STREET OF SHAME, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, THE INSECT WOMAN), it is also -- perhaps above all -- one of the great jazz films, and possibly the best illustration the cinema has ever given us of the jazz buff. It's the only film I've ever seen that makes jazz seem scarier than the darkest heavy metal, that makes jazz seem dangerous.
It's the story of two petty thieves, jazz-loving Akira (Tamio Kawaji) and Masaru (Eiji Go), who use their hooker friend Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto) to separate various horny tourists from their wallets. Caught in the act and arrested at a Tokyo jazz bar, Akira and Masuru find an opportunity for revenge soon after their release from jail, assaulting the arresting officer and abducting his girlfriend Yuki (Yuko Chishiro). They take her to a secluded nearby beach, where Akira rapes Yuki within an inch of her life while Masuru and Fumiko become better acquainted in the surf. As the episodic story continues, the three principals are shown living together, with Masaru determining to join a local yakuza gang, against Akira's leering advice. Akira is also tracked down by Yuki, who informs him that she is pregnant with his child.
Akira disrupts a contemporary art exhibition.
Akira, played by Kawaji with the face-rubbing mannerisms of Brando and the tortured swagger of James Dean, is a more extreme character than was seen in most Western cinema up to this time. He steals cars and motorbikes without shame, eats like a pig, drinks incessantly, and greets every woman he meets with "Wanna get laid?" He's not at all likeable, but he is fascinating -- especially when he's in the grip of something he understands, like a cathartic jazz solo. The film seems to acknowledge and ponder this dichotomy with a pair of complementary scenes; in one, a drunken Akira disrupts an art gallery exhibition, smearing his hands over valuable paintings, turning displayed abstract works upside down, and replacing the phony, lite jazz being played on a jukebox with the Real Thing.
In a later scene, Akira goes to taunt Yuki at her cottage, where he finds her entertaining a group of local artists. Akira does everything he can to alienate these people, whom he regards as the flesh-and-blood equivalent of contemptible lite jazz, but they turn the tables on him and treat him as a remarkable art object in his own right, analyzing and approving his contempt for society to his face, and bidding against one another to obtain him as a model. Much as the exhibit sequence looks forward to Alex's (Malcolm McDowell's) invasive assaults on various Pop and Op Art domiciles in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, this sequence of artists deconstructing Akira seems to anticipate Alex's deconstruction by his admiring, cynical government. It should be noted that Akira sleeps next to... no, not an engaving of Beethoven's stony face... a framed copy of Ornette Coleman's THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME. Even the jazz club where Akira broods between petty crimes foreshadows the Korova Milk Bar: the walls painted black and festishized with portraits of the great jazz masters, their names painted in delirious white strokes like the Milk Bar's adverts of Vellocet and Drencrom. Kubrick simply had to have seen it.
In an unexpected turn of events, the pregnant Yuki prevails upon Fumiko for her help. Since her pregnancy became known to her boyfriend, their relationship has not been the same; he acts superior to her and treats her as someone tainted. So she pleads with Fumiko to seduce him, to destroy his pride as hers has been destroyed, so that they might rediscover their love for one another on levelled ground.
I won't go into the ironic finale, but the 75m film certainly builds to an evil boil and sustains its mood extremely well. I don't know if Quentin Tarantino is familiar with this movie -- which is apparently available in some form from Something Weird Video, probably the dubbed Audubon version (World Cinema HD showed the film in Japanese with subtitles that pulled no punches in the strong language department) -- but these characters seemed to me very much like antecedents of his most hellbent characters, and the whole feel of the film a convincing annex of his universe.
Under whatever title, Kurahara's film is much too important to be so obscure. The same goes for another Audubon import, Tinto Brass's NEROSUBIANCO, which Radley Metzger retitled THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA. (Yes, Virginia -- theaters actually used to show movies with titles like THE ARTFUL PENETRATION OF BARBARA and THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS, though they won't admit to this in your History class.)
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Follow-up to my Dish Network woes: I was able to record an acceptable (1.78:1) copy of THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS this evening because it was shown in 2.35:1. It's still cropped, but a fast zoom-through didn't show any cropped subtitles or horribly damaged compositions. But most of what is being shown on Dish's HD channels is 1.78 or 1.85:1 to begin with, which my DVD-Recorder is receiving as a cropped 1.33:1 picture.
Donna and I have been troubleshooting today, and it seems that the real problem is inherent in my Panasonic DVD-Recorder, which -- like any other DVD-R currently on the market, that I know of -- is equipped to record MPEG-2 signals, not MPEG-4. It records MPEG-4, but it can't receive a full-blown widescreen signal; it crops the picture. If I use my TV controls to widen the picture, it only widens the cropped portion of the picture. My recorder also can't differentiate between an MPEG-4 picture that is squeezed or letterboxed or zoomed-in; it reads all of this incoming source as the same thing.
This means that -- if you have the same DVD-Recorder as me (a Panasonic DMR-E85H) -- this could well become your problem too, should you upgrade to MPEG-4. These MPEG-4 receivers are the new kid on the block, HD-wise, but it seems they're incompatible with current DVD-R technology, at least as I know it. Now I'm wondering if Radio Shack carries some kind of conduit that can dumb-down MPEG-4 to MPEG-2 purely for recording purposes. What are the chances that such a thing exists?
Today, another Dish guy arrives... well before the 12-5:00 agreed-upon time. "You're early," I tell him, sleepily. "Yes, I am early," he replies sullenly, obviously refusing to take any guff from the customer. He's got a ladder on the truck but he says he has no intention of using it; I have everything I need for the upgrade already up there, and there's nothing to add on or take down. He doesn't know what the previous installer was thinking. He also can't figure out how he was able to arrange a follow-up visit with a phone call. After replacing my old Dish receiver (an MPEG-2 receiver installed in 2005) with a VIP 211 receiver (MPEG-4), he checks out the picture, tunes to an SD channel and tells me that I should never watch my TV with the gray bars displayed -- I should always watch the picture on these standard channels stretched like Silly Putty. When I begin to object, he cuts me off and says, "You can watch it any way you want, I'm just tellin' ya." Fine. Fine.
After the installer drives away to his next early appearance, Donna and I begin checking all the connections. To make a long and unhappy story short: The MPEG-4 receiver gives us a noticeably more beautiful HD picture... but.
I have always been able to record from my Dish Network receiver to my Panasonic DVD-Recorder. It didn't give me HD recordings, of course, but it recorded the programming shown on HD channels in a handsomely letterboxed format that I could then zoom-up to a most acceptable simulacra of HD. With my hours, time-shifting is often essential, and we use the DVD-Recorder a lot for that reason in particular. However... when hooked up identically to the MPEG-4 receiver, I don't get letterboxing. Even when I dumb the picture down to 480 or 720 and reconfigure the framing to 4:3x2 and get a letterboxed image on my monitor, the signal that the receiver is sending into my recorder is fully uncompressed with the left and side of the frame blocked by my gray bars. I can sit there pumping the Format button on my Dish remote, changing the screen configuration from Zoom to Partial Zoom to Gray Bars to Normal, and the onscreen image being sent into my DVD-Recorder is as unchanging as the expression on the Lincoln Memorial.
We've tried everything and don't know what to do. To make matters worse, Dish's World Cinema HD channel is showing THE WEIRD LOVEMAKERS tomorrow evening, something I would dearly love to record. (I've been fascinated by this 1960s Japanese import since I first saw its trailer as part of Something Weird's first TWISTED SEX compilation.) If we keep the MPEG-4 connected, we'll get a recording, but it will be cropped. If we hook-up our MPEG-2 receiver, which we haven't sent back yet, we won't get the World Cinema channel at all, because it's accessible only to subscribers of what they call "the HD3 package."
So now we have to figure out what we're going to do. We still have an MPEG-2 HD hook-up in our basement, but I really don't want to turn the basement into the headquarters of my DVD-R recording. Part of me suspects that the MPEG-4 was created to be used solely with Dish Network's DVR, which can store quite a bit of HD broadcast information on its hard drive but, if you ask me, isn't quite the same as burning that information to a disc. I don't need to record in HD at the moment, but I do need to continue recording my HD programming in SD. Dish Network is sending someone to the house on Wednesday, supposedly between 12:00 and 5:00, to assess the situation. I fully expect the visit to be for nothing, though I would like very much to be able to report otherwise here on Thursday.
I know that this blog is read by many different kinds of film buffs. If there's anyone out there with insight into this particular problem, and perhaps a solution, I'd love to hear from you.