Old Favorites: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

A while back I made a vow to ignore the pulsating mediocrity of our degenerate film industry and embrace film classicism. This hasn’t exactly panned out how I envisioned it, as there’s only so much scratch you can throw around for Criterion Blu-Rays when you have mouths to feed. However, a flash sale enabled me to get my hands on an old favorite: Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth. It goes under the title “Throne of Blood”, and I was first introduced to it in my younger days.

Its plot recreates Macbeth entirely, making only changes in naming and dialogue (Washizu, the Macbeth of this story, copies MacBeth’s first line “So fair and foul a day I have not seen,” pretty fully, though). In the place of Medieval Scotland, we have Spider’s Web Castle, seat of a powerful daimyo (the petty kings of Medieval Japan), which appears at the opening and closing of the film as an ruin with a monument, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. There’s an idea that while the past may be dead and buried, and the things that animated ancient struggles nothing more than vanity and chasing after wind, nevertheless their ghosts still haunt us. The past is past, but it is also prologue, even if we don’t fully understand the story.

Re-setting the Macbeth tale of ambition, regicide, tyranny, and comeuppance in Japan allows the cruel nihilism of the story to find a spiritual home in that country’s Zen and Shinto worldview. Shakespeare’s play ignores Catholicism, letting the Heathen witches dominate the tale, giving Macbeth an oracular doom he is no more able to counteract than Oedipus was. In Throne of Blood, the Three Wierd Sisters become a Single Spirt, a kami that laughs at man in a cosmic sense, a being unto-death. He is not here to corrupt Washizu, to accomplish some chaotic goal. He simply does not care, because there is nothing to care about. Life is to be glorious and short, like the cherry blossom. What else would it be?

Another element of the story is it’s staging. Elements of traditional Noh acting and costuming were brought in. This lends the film a genuinely wierd and primal tone, in keeping with a tale of blood and thunder. Everyone looks like they’re about ready to burst under the strain of struggling. This is especially true of the Lady Macbeth composite, Asaji, who’s makeup renders her visage nearly demonic. She has an expanded role in this production, the constant needle in Washizu’s heart, twisting him to further his ambition. Kill or Be Killed, she wheedles, stoking dead coals of fear into bright bloody deeds. I’ve always considered Lady MacBeth to be all talk, as incapable of using a dagger as she is of conceiving a child. Throne of Blood doesn’t upend that conception as much as illustrate the power of talk, the devilish way rhetoric can get inside our heads. Gorgias would be proud.

The critical hot take is that this is the best film of MacBeth there is. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom said it was the only successful version. I would disagree, as the most recent version with Michael Fassbender has a bold and striking production value, and Fassbender breathes life into the title character better than any version I’ve seen. But Throne of Blood, in cutting the story loose from its usual setting, lets us see the character and drama apart from the obligatory Bardolatrous reverence. That is a great service, worthy of renown.

Finally, Some Good News: A Brutal Destruction of the Modern Age by Delicious Tacos

It’s the ending, really. I did not see that ending coming. I should have: it’s on theme. This wasn’t going to be an upbeat ending. That’s not what DT does. Still, though. It was a bit like a mallet to the face. I cannot recommend this book to anyone who has a sunny, cheerful worldview. You will not like it. Also anyone who enjoys daytime television or has a long career of corporate success. You will feel seen.

One does not write a book like this, in which nuclear devestation snaps civilization in two, and celebrates the freedom of it, without having some very real things to say about the post-human tsunami currently riding over us. In the end, Los Angeles suffers nuclear attack not because terrorists want to hurt us (such is always the case), but because our world is too compromised, too absorbed in nonsense, to defend itself. We have branded ourselves to death. Those that pushed us to this precipice: who have rendered every thought, creation, or need into “branded content”, cannot be allowed to have a place in the restoration, such as it is. Civilization must be less civilized if it is to have the animus to survive.

This novel goes forward in a Bukowskian mode, dry and unromantic, finding poetry in the cruelty of life. It is also told in a somewhat non-linear fashion, although things settle down for the third act. Much of its beginning reads very like the slice-of-life tales/lamentations that inhabit The Savage Spear of the Unicorn (which is also worth reading, as its humor is blacker than the bottom of a sewer):

He was eligible for a 401(k). He read up. You can retire comfortably at 65 if you start saving at 23, said Forbes.com. Even with a relatively low yield of 6%. Every 401(k) he’d had earned 1%, lost 2.5% in fees. As for saving at 23: median household pre-tax income is $51,989 per year. Who saves on 40 grand net with a kid. It costs twice that for a school where gas huffing sasquatches don’t commit Rwandan machete genocide. Nobody has money. Nobody gets returns. We’ll all work till we’re dead. Eating shit, having to smile about it.

If I was married– if my wife could work part time. Cover rent. That’d be something. But there aren’t wives now.

Delicious Tacos “Finally Some Good News, Chapter 2

And at first I thought it was going to continue in that vein, more of the “corporate wage slave experiences tfw no gf* in Los Angeles”. A literary Office Space, updated for the new century. But then the bombs drop, and everything stupid and false is wiped away. It’s not a lamentation, it’s a consummation, devoutly to be wished, on the order of Tom Waits’ “Make it Rain.” Society can only get so absurd before it becomes dysgenic, whereupon the Gods of the Copybook Headings get mightily insistent.

The great question I have when reading Taco’s work is why he picked so glaringly obvious a Pseudonym. On the one hand, the ridiculousness of it is a joke itself, an obvious late-night idea thrown off the wall of the mind that somehow stuck. A more believable, more standard nom de plume wouldn’t frame the oevre in the same way. On the other hand, shoving your nose in the realitythat a significant writer, whose work sells well on Amazon, has to hide his identity in order to keep the wolf from the door speaks loud volumes about the world we live in, and who benefits from it.

That ending though. It’s almost too rough to be funny.

*The Feels When no GirlFriend

Balzac Was Funny

More Properly, he was Droll, i.e. curious or unusual in a way that provokes dry amusement. I think ol ‘Honore invented the style of feigned ironic detachment in order to draw a laugh.

In the years that followed, he delivered up countless towns in Asia and in Africa to sack, fell upon the miscreants without warning, ripped up Saracens, Greeks, Englishmen and sundry other nationals, heedless of whether they were allies or whence they came. Among his sterling merits was a lack of curiosity: he never questioned his victims until after he had slain them.

Honore de Balzac, ” The Venial Sin”

Dryer than a Baptist wake, that is. And possessed of that circuitous truth-telling, with slyness to make the medicine go down.

He it was who, when in rare form one day, avvered that four things in life are excellent and opportune: to void hot, to drink cold, to rise hard, and to swallow soft. Certain persons have vituperated against him for consorting with filthy sluts. This is utter nonsense: his sweethearts, one of whom was legitimatized, all came from great houses and all presided over sizy establishments.

Honore de Balzac, “The Merry Jests of King Louis the Eleventh”

The question becomes, what purpose has this besides drollery? Given the years of his life, (1799-1850), one must expect the rustle of the full and gaudy robes of 18th-century prejudice, a post-Revolutionary figure sending up the pre-Revolutionary establishment. One picks up Voltairean echoes here. But where Voltaire smirks, Balzac merely chuckles, giving hypocrites the grace of humor. Having seen in his youth the idealism of Revolution drowned in terror and war, he went above damning the Middle Ages for a lack of saintliness.

He has been called a “realist”, which I take to mean his characters act as humans do. But Realism always betrays a narrowness; one sees what one sees, and nothing more. The jump from “I observe men acting like this,” to “men are this,” passes the smell test but not a rigorous logical assessment; generalizations by nature do not account for individuation. I think his characters contain complexities, like Shakespeare’s, which reminds us of the dizzying and contrary impulses contained within our own souls. Perhaps that is less “realism” than “humanism”, minus the pseudo-ideological, actually-rhetorical weight of that term.

Anyhow, a charming fellow. Enjoy him with some cognac.

Shallow & Pedantic 7: A Fistful of Samurai Pies

The best part of doing this podcast is the way the scrum of conversation keeps bringing up new ideas. Episode 5 gave us the General Theory of Creative Bloat (successful franchise = abandonment of editorial control), which gets mentioned again here. But this time we came up with what I call the Pie Theory of Popular Entertainment. It comes at the tail end of the episode, but it does kind of tie everything we jabber about together nicely.

These things keep getting longer, but we’ve sorted out all the audio issues, and are able to do this all from the comfort of our respective homes using CleanFeed.

Storming Mottes & Baileys

A very long essay on Medium.com by Gerald Crayon, describing how the pretentious rhetoric of the Academy, their overheated logorrhea (which differs from Corpo-Babble only that it is more polysyllabic), serves to empty the culture of its meaning. The logic goes like this:

  1. Academic Jargon is deliberately obfuscatory, in order to gatekeep the positions. Crayon refers to this as a “pseudodiglossia” (Diglossia being a culture using two languages, as in medieval Europe, where the 1st Estate spoke Latin and the 2nd and 3rd spoke the vernacular). Learning to parse the gibberish makes people feel invested in the psuedodiglossia (for the same reason that people feel loyal to hazing fraternities and the Marine Corps; you suffered to get there) and the mindset that produced it.
  2. The glut of college degrees has sent forth intellectually-hazed postmodernists, each of whom understand the central texts less well than the person who taught it to them (just as each bebop hipster was less hip by the number of degrees of seperation he was from Dizzy, Monk, and Bird – See Hip, the History for further details). This, plus the Internet, enables nonsense postmodernism to be embraced by digital tribes. Everybody’s knows that nobody knows nothin’.
  3. Consequently, gibberish enables equivocation, as Successor Ideologies (The semi-Marxist post-liberal Revolutionism of the Rising Intersectional Oppressed), use “harm”, “privelege”, “racism”, etc., have both their common definitions, and a highly technical definition derived from the Pseudodiglossia. And like MiniTruthers, the Successor Ideologues know exactly when to shift from one definition to the other. This is known as the Motte & Bailey technique.
  4. Eventually, the slippier slope gets slippier. We move from pseudodiglossia to paradiglossia. The new rules of how to speak have not descended from the Ivory Tower, but are being slashed about in Real Time by every Twitter BlueCheck. Also, the players of the game have gotten hackier, relying less on creative orthography than basic rhetorical schemes, such as alliteration. It’s whatever you can get to go viral, for however long, before someone else moves the goal-posts again. Hence, we move during the Trump years from endless gibbering about “racism” to eternal jabbering about “White Supremacy”, without anything changing. Who decided this? No one. The Internet. What does it mean? Nothing. It’s word games all the way down.

The conclusion is that the system is going to keep going for a while for no better reason than it’s stormed its way through the institutions and is imposing its will. Dissidents and critics of this are on the outside, and don’t even know what they’re looking at, let alone how to stop it. The only thing we can do, at this point, is to simply point out how deep the Sophistic Rot has gone, to point out that the nonsense is nonsense, to refuse to call a deer a horse, and above all, to cease pretending that those who call a deer a horse are simply mistaken. This isn’t a difference of opinion; it is the Game of Thrones. Win or Die.

Ovid, Virgil, and Lucretius Walk Into a Palace…

Back when I first conceived The Meditations of Caius Caligulia, I had a list of books I wanted to read to give me inspiration and background. Writers have to be readers, and I had the broad strokes of what I wanted to do, without the details. Details are key.

So I needed to read, at the very least, Suetonius’ chapter on Caligulia, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (I was familiar with the BBC miniseries). I wanted to have a go at Camus’ play of Caligulia, because I’d been reading some Camus anyway, and because the “ennui-into-tyranny” line intrigued me.

These were the books that gave me the narrative structure of the project: Who Caligulia was, and why he acted that way. The novella is now finished, or at least, drafted. What does it need now?

I greatly enjoy the voice of the character: how he dances between flights of theophanic fancy and rigorous political meditations. However, I need a certain level of climax for the ending, and to do that, I will have to deep dive into some of the literature current in Little Boots’ time. These are:

  • Ovid’s Love Books. Ovid was a poet of the creeping epicureanism of Rome’s upper class. A kind of window on the Satyricon (which I also might read).
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A Hellenized Roman, a philospher of the capital-E Epicurean school. He’s already mentioned in the existing first Chapter, when Caligulia refers to him as “that atomist”
  • The aforementioned Aeneid

I pick all of these because they were current to the time, i.e., the late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD. Caligulia might have actually read them. And they speak to the culture of that time: the dawn of Rome’s Imperial Age and the concomitant cultural syncretism. I need to feed a blend of them into my not-quite-mad emperor, so that he can rise to his fullest. I do not know when I’ll have finished this process, but I’ve already had fun doing it.

Enough Was Said T’inspire a Better Mind – On Reading The Aeneid

I have a nicely-bound, Heritage Library edition of John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid by Virgil. I’m working my way through it, or at least the first 4 books of it, as research for the deep edit that’s going into The Meditations of Caius Caligulia before I publish it. It also makes for a fun refresh of the rhetorical schemes and tropes I studied in grad school: my notes are filled with Greek terms codified by Roman scholars.

But more than that, Dryden’s lively pentameter lifts the story. As my Latin is poor, I could not dare read the original, but this Early-Modern translation has the right archaic feel for something that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, is at least partly a funeral oration for the collapse of the Bronze Age, an event that left its echoes in Scripture as well. Virgil, long-winded as he could be, also had a marvelous sense for imagery:

And here and there above the waves were seen,
Arms, pictures, precious goods, and floating men.

Aeneid, Book I

I like that Dryden satisfies himself with the half-rhyme in order to give the second line it’s full weight: our mind can form the picture quite easily, and it gives an immediacy to what amounts to the opening scene of our story. Note something else: Virgil chooses to begin the story in media res, with Aeneas, son of Troy, already driving his fleet halfway across the Mediterranean, already on his way to become the distant founder of Rome. We then flashback to the sack of Troy by the Greeks, as Aeneas, blown ashore on Carthage, tells his tale to Queen Dido.

And had not Heav’n the Fall of Troy design’d,
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.

Aeneid, Book II

This is a triplet, i.e. three lines rhyming, of which I have found several scattered throughout. Most of the poem is couplets, so these stand out. Given that Virgil wrote in a dactylic hexameter, this is no doubt Dryden’s interpolation, as he was well-known for throwing triplets around. Dryden has been criticized for too loosely translating Virgil, a criticism he embraced, decreeing that the poem would read too dull in English if translated to plainly. I have to say I’m with Dryden on this. Here’s another example:

We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dare
Th’unequal combat in the public square:
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.

Aeneid, Book II

The closing chiasmus is so tasty that I want to find excuses to quote it. Book II is filled with grand phrases that capture the horror that Homer finishes the Iliad before relating:

On the bleak shore now lies th’abandoned king,
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.

Aeneid, Book II

The strenght of this couplet fills me with admiration, especially the “nameless thing”, the translation of a great and powerful man into nothing makes clear that this story is playing for keeps, and to hear the hero speak it gives him a genuine pathos. I had heard this poem sneered at in my youth, as a dull gong banging in blood. I am glad to know that, as always, “they” are wrong.

“Tenet” is Bad, “Sound & Fury” is Good

Twitter impresario Mencius Moldbugman stomps on the Last Film in Theaters with both feet.

Apparently Nolan has been utterly corrupted by his early Hollywood success and is now incapable of directing something better than mediocre (which is kind of the vibe I got from Dunkirk). Apparently Tenet is two hours of rampaging nonsense. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’m even less inclined to see it now.

This is part of a longer Thread of Worse 5 Movies of All Time, which are also somewhat interesting, and relatively obscure, so it’s worth reading, if only to absorb another human’s thoughts about Art. 50 First Dates, is on there, and who can resist Adam Sandler films getting savaged as they deserve?

But why lament Bad Art, when we can discuss Good Art? In the next Shallow & Pedantic podcast, we’re going to be chatting about the nexus of Samurai films and Westerns, and part of that is going to be spent on Sturgill Simpson’s 2019 film Sound and Fury, which is not really a “film” so much as it is, well, honestly, this YouTube commenter summed it up best:

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a respected alt-country star went into surgery and, in its aftermath, refused pain killing narcotics and instead just took a bunch of weed?

Imagine then, in his fugue state, he decides to take a departure from country and produce a crazy good synth rock album. Now imagine he decides to have the entire album animated, writes a vague anime screenplay, goes to Japan, and has some of the top anime artists compete to see who could be the nuttiest in producing his vision. He then puts it all together in a 45 min montage that can only be described the three way love child of Heavy Metal the movie, Akira, and The Wall.

I actually thought this level of unrestrained creative expression from a popular artists had died sometime in the 1980s. Maybe it did but, if so, Sturgill Simpson resurrected it here.

Jeffrey wyshynski 2 months ago

It’s my favorite thing I’ve seen all year, and it’s on Netflix. And I don’t even really like Anime. You should check it out.

Literature in the Age of Zero HP Lovecraft

The self-described “horrorist” Zero HP Lovecraft, aka The Only Man On Twitter Worth Reading, submits to a blog interview. He has much to say on many topics, including “wokenes” and the “school of resentment”, post-modernism, “desire machines” and his own work, and a hose of others. I invite you to read it in full, but I include some choice quotations.

As I have said elsewhere, in order for storytelling to succeed, it must contain a true theory of human nature. Wokeness is a false theory of human nature.

If you read Harold Bloom, I think he makes a kind of personal religion out of the canon. He views reading it and interacting with it as the path to salvation. Criticism for Bloom is soteriology, and that is also why he is a good critic: he likes and reveres the authors he is criticizing. He is correct when he identifies resentment as the driving force behind most other critics. They tend to be people who cannot create things themselves, so they just try to destroy what others have built.

What we need is a right-wing postmodernism, one which can acknowledge the absurdities and contradictions in our epistemology and learn to flow with them, rather than against them. Postmodernists, for all their excesses, stumbled into a vein of truth concerning narratives, knowledge, subjectivity, and technology, and they used that knowledge to construct a painful but effective abstract machine of ideology, which is currently so culturally ascendant that the right is curled up in the fetal position, rocking back and forth saying “no no no, not postmodernism, no no no.”

The school of resentment is just a fancy name for women in academia. They hate Infinite Jest because loser men who haven’t figured out how women feel about their personal philosophy try to tell them about Infinite Jest in order to sleep with them, so IJ becomes a cheap litmus test for “is the man talking to me a loser?” Women hate it when losers talk to them, because it implies that a loser man thinks he’s good enough to get with them, which implies that they aren’t very hot.

I can see how someone might characterize my work as satirical. I sort of cleave to my friend @quaslacrimas definition of satire here, that in order for a work to be satire, someone has to not be in on the joke. A classic satire like A Modest Proposal is a satire precisely because it never slips the mask, and some people will take it seriously, and get angry, and a lot of the humor lies in the reaction of the people who aren’t in on the joke. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m quite sincere in what I write, though I do try to use humor to spotlight some of the absurdities that I see around me in modern, technological life. If there is anyone who is not in on the joke, it’s me.

Whether or not one agrees with his takes, they are more interesting than most of what passes for commentary, on Twitter or elsewhere. He’s a fully online writer, who mostly appears at Substack and his own WordPress site. Writing is for him not a means of making a living but an expression of his life. He’s like Delicious Tacos that way: guys who write weird tales under a pseudonym so they can keep their day job. It’s a purely artistic expression, or at most a side hustle.

Confronting the reality of writing in this century is a serious one. The Old Publishing model is dead or dying, but the New Publishing model has new problems. The Freedom to Publish has become universalized, and therefore you must yourself do market analysis and learn SEO coding. Writing is not enough anymore.

On the plus side, that means there’s an opening for originality. And by originality I mean telling the truth of the moment in a way that immediately connects to whoever happens across it. The Truth does not vary but the Moment does.

The End is Never The End: Nietzsche and the Temptation to Prophesy

Running through The Birth of Tragedy is rewarding so long as you recognize that Friedrich Wilhelm was not primarly speaking to you. Rather, like a Cassandra howling at the walls, he was denouncing the folly of his own age, which we, not living in or even properly remembering Wilhelmine Germany, have no reference point to properly understand. Hence, if one reads a passage such as this:

In no other artistic age have so-called “culture” and art itself been so mutually hostle as we see them today. We can understand why such a feeble culture hates true art: it fears that it will bring about its downfall. But might an entire cultural epoch, the Socratic-Alexandrian, have come to an end after tapering to the fine culminate point of contemporary culture? If such heroes as Schiller and Goethe were unable to penetrate the enchanted portal leading to the Hellenic magic mountain, if their braves tstrivings brought them no further than the yearning gaze with which Goethe’s Iphigenie looked from barbaric Taurus to her home across the sea, what hop remains t their successors unless that portal should open of its own accord, in a quite different place quite untouched by all previous cultural endavours – amidst the mystic trains of reawakened tragic music?

Nietzsche, THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, pg. 97

One comes away with laughter. Because an honest man will admit that he hasn’t the first notion what the old wierdo is agitated about. Sure, I grasp the meaning of “Socratic-Alexandrian culture”, which is Apollonian and science-bound, rational and bereft of true artistic insight, because I’ve gotten far enough that he’s explained it to me. But I’ve only red bits of Goethe and Schilling. I’m lost here. And the line about the “Hellenic magic mountain” is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read, and I’m old enough to remember Usenet.

Nietzsche writes with wonderful agitation, and sometimes good ideas float through. This is of a piece with his desire for “Dionysiac” art and everything else. You always get the idea that he’s reaching to express something he cannot quite grasp. That makes him more interesting than the turgid logorrheacs he’s reacting to.

I will say that the line about culture and art being hostile to each other puts me in mind of some of my post about Modern Art via Ruskin. I wonder, though, what the old grump would say if he was granted access to a portal, a magic time mirror, and could look at what art and culture have become, in Germany and elsewhere, in the hundred years since his death. Would he approve of the “Dionysiac” artists, consider the sledghammer properly applied? Or would he recoil in confusion? Perhaps both?

He who writes about the wide range of art and “culture” finds it hard to escape the temptation to extrapolate his present observations into world-historical trends. But I have learned that whatever I expect to come in the near-future rarely comes to pass. No doubt I am guilty of wish-casting. The thing unseen warps our clean linear expectations. We did not get hoverboards and Jaws 19 in 2015. We got handheld magic mirrors into our own yearning and the beginning of the end of the film industry.

Or maybe not. Maybe cinema changes, merges with television, becomes a combined filmic art. Maybe both decline as we lose our ability to watch anything longer than a ten-minute YouTube video. Maybe the Matrix becomes real. Or maybe a thousand other different and contradictory things happen.

The one thing the present will do is flow into the future. And whatever we see down the river is like as not to be a mirage.