How a movie might be memorable because of a single detail

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Takashi Miikes White-Collar Worker Kintaro (aka Salaryman Kintaro)
  • Takashi Miike's White-Collar Worker Kintaro (aka Salaryman Kintaro)
You never know what you're going to retain from a movie. It could be the story, a theme, or one of the characters. Or it might be something smaller—an image or a line of dialogue. Coming out of it you decided you were unimpressed by the film as a whole, but later on you find parts of it occupying your thoughts as you might crumbs in a pants pocket. Several times in the past month I've been visited by a fragment of narration from I Am Breathing, a documentary I reviewed at the beginning of the year. Neil Platt, the movie's subject, briskly recounts his adult life before getting diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease in his early 30s. In his late 20s he got married, he says, then he and his wife "spent a few years drinking" until the bad news came.

A few years drinking. How trivial, even stupid that sounds, considering what little time he now has left to live. On the other hand, how could he have known? To not have wasted your youth is to have wasted your youth, it's been said. Platt wasn't exceptionally heedless, just terribly unlucky, and his self-effacing, shorthand description conveys he's well aware of that. But it's not just self-awareness that comes through in his lovely phrase—it's the recognition of how flimsy happiness can seem in hindsight. Platt's words came instantly to mind when I heard "That Was a Year" in Stephen Sondheim's Road Show some weeks back, and since then they've resounded whenever I've watched the lighthearted entertainments that inevitably get released each spring.

I gave a negative review to I Am Breathing in January. I'm not sure that I'd be kinder to it now, even though I've reflected on it more often than numerous other recent movies. Like most movie critics, I typically file a review within a week of watching a film. For that reason, my reviews rarely get to take into account how movies endure in the memory, where they have the greatest impact. Reading J.R. Jones's valuable takedown of review-aggregating websites in this week's Reader, I realized that assigning numerical scores to movies would seem to discourage this way of thinking about them. Also, how can a single number reflect the range of responses one experiences while watching any film, especially those that contain oases of brilliance amid seas of mediocrity?

White-Collar Worker Kintaro (1999) may be one of Takashi Miike's worst directorial efforts, a by-the-numbers manga adaptation that feels like it was made for late-night cable. Yet I often grin at the memory of one of the film's minor characters, a kindly old man who inexplicably dresses like a cartoon pimp. Every time he appears onscreen he's wearing a different garish outfit, reminding us of how predictable and colorless the rest of the movie is. (Alas I couldn't find any stills of him to use for this post.) This motif speaks to why I adore Miike. The living filmmaker with the strongest claim to Luis Buñuel's legacy, Miike draws from his subconscious when you least expect him to, disrupting narrative order with infectious, playful energy. The Japanese director has said he's never walked out on a movie because he'll always find at least one detail he likes. Sometimes I wish he wrote film criticism.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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