A note: This is the thirteenth in the Cinépathétic series, an interview-style back and forth between me and the interesting people in my life, jabbering about movies and why we love them so damned much. This week, I’m interviewing Jake Ames, a former roommate in a very formative era in my life, as well as an incredible cinephile in his own right, on top of being an employee of Homeland Security. We go on at length (serious length) of Akira Kurosawa’s magnum opus, Peter O’Toole by way of David Lean, and the continuing argument against Ridley Scott. As usual, be wary for spoilers throughout, and please, enjoy.
Jake: I think I tell people Jake, but I tend to write Jacob more. Since you know Ypsi me, you can always call me Jake.
DR: Right. Thanks again for agreeing to do this.
Jake: I leap at any moment to discuss film with “The” Jarrod Jones.
DR: I must warn you, young lady… I am highly susceptible to flattery. What do you have for me tonight? What’s first on your Top 5?
Jake: Well, I have to be honest, there’s one I’ve been thinking about all day. It’s in part because it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. The hope was to give it a more recent viewing to prep for this interview, but some personal stuff came up. The film is Andrei Rublev. I could have picked any of Tarkovsky’s films, and. . .
DR: … And here we are. Rublev. I’ve seen this with you.
Jake: Solaris, Stalker, Nostagia all come to mind.
DR: But you choose Rublev. One of Tarkovsky’s more dense works.
Jake: I kind of see it as the one that embodies his style the best, although Stalker may be my favorite to watch.
DR: No argument from me. I almost anticipated this. Why did you choose Andrei Rublev over all else, Jake?
Jake: Immediately there are two things that this film represents to me in the realm of cinema. Tarkovsky and Russia. Russian films tend to be either great or terrible with no in-between.
DR: We’ve experienced the gamut together.
Jake: Of course. In Film, with a capital “F”, you need to watch the bad with the good. But it always makes you appreciate the best ones a little more.
DR: When we were roomies back in the day, you were very much immersed in Russian culture. Its language, its films, its very way of life. When we would have our drunken film bouts, this was a film that you’d speak of with an immense amount of pride. You made me sit still long enough to watch it with you. Obviously this film spoke to you on more than a simple aesthetic level?
Jake: You’re absolutely correct. If you look at the greats in Russian cinema, it will always be between Tarkovsky and Eisenstein. These two, though very different, influence the standards I place on Russian film. Although I enjoy watching most of the stuff that has come this way from Russia, there have only been a couple I would consider to be worthy of the title “Film” and not just “movie.”
DR: This was one hell of a daunting way to introduce me to Russian cinema, by the way.
Jake: Absolutely, there’s no easy way to watch Tarkovsky. It’s part of his charm. . .
DR: But there’s always Solaris. A much easier film to watch. But more rewarding?
Jake: Agreed. And I love Solaris, but of all the films Tarkovsky did, Andrei Rublev is a religious oriented film at the height of religious oppression in the Soviet Union. . .
DR: Christianity’s dominance in Russian culture.
Jake: It has such a love of Russia, Orthodoxy, and human nature; but without making it a love story. If anything, he criticizes every aspect of all three.
DR: It’s that sort of antithapy that you love, isn’t it?
Jake: That’s exactly how to describe it. It’s the only movie where I think, “good point, I wish I was dead.”
Jake: There’s a part in the movie where Rublev has a kind of philosophical discussion of love with a pagan. . .
DR: The Feast, right?
Jake: Yes. One of my favorite scenes. Tarkovsky, I think, lets her win the argument. And she frees him. She is obviously a good person. Later, in the film, when the Mongols are killing the pagans, he has a chance to save her, but he ignores her. I know Tarkovsky was deeply religious, but he purposely makes you sympathetic to the pagan. At the very beginning of the segment, Rublev is eavesdropping a pagan couple getting busy behind a bush. He sneaks up on them listening the whole time. And before he knows it, he’s walked into a fire that send his robe up in smoke. As if Hell itself was pulling him in. The whole segment casts Rublev as an unlikable guy. But in the end, he is still the hero, kind of.
DR: I remember that scene. It’s depicted almost farcical, as if Rublev is some kind of hypocrite, but that’s always Tarkovsky’s point, isn’t it?
Jake: Absolutely, no one is free in any of his films. We are all mortally flawed. Especially the audience. I’ve described Andrei Rublev as torture that’s worth it. Kind of like Crime and Punishment. Once you finally get through it, you realize its one of the greatest works.
DR: Fair enough. What do you have next on the list?
DR: (tsks) Maaan! This is, like, OUR movie. You know that, right?
Jake: Absolutely! I think this is the first film we really, and I mean really, bonded over.
DR: How could we not? It was the perfect storm of cinematic audacity that our alcoholic asses couldn’t get enough of.
Jake: It wasn’t long ago you that you posted a bit about Kurosawa and Tarkovsky watching Solaris together. It would have been us, basically. Kurosawa is also a great filmmaker to transition to from Tarkovsky, because also, any number of either of their films could be their greatest. I could just as easily have said Ran, or Kagemusha, or Rashomon.
DR: That anecdote where Tarkovsky accidentally gets Kurosawa drunk after a screening of Solaris, right?
Jake: That’s the one.
DR: It’s one of those moments where you spot it and say, “KISMET!”
Jake: And it even gets funnier when you realize that Tarkovsky overspent his time in Japan when filming Solaris. It’s a funny scene in the movie. Long takes of riding through Japanese transit. He had to justify having spent so much time there. Little did I know he was probably hanging out with Kurosawa.
DR: Why did you add this to the list, besides the obvious?
Jake: It’s a movie that gets better every time I see it. The first time I watched it, I knew it was a great film. But every time I re-watch it, it gets better. The first time you appreciate the story, after every other time, you appreciate the meaning.
DR: I appreciate the very existence of this movie. With every fiber of my being. Lightning in a bottle. Right here.
Jake: I wouldn’t be able to tell you the runtime off-hand, but not one second of that film is wasted. Every shot is perfect. Every line.
DR: The film has a formula to it, but we’re only aware of that formula because so many neophytes came and borrowed from Kurosawa’s body of work – especially Seven Samurai – and yet in spite of this, the film remains fresh and intensely vital. Vagrant enters village. Discovers discord. Encounters samurai. Fights against fate. And so on. And it remains as potently entertaining as Star Wars, or anything else that borrows from similar archetypes.
Jake: Totally agree. It’s an example of when a film is better than the rest because it did it first and with reason. Even as simple a reason of using seven samurai – since samurai were completely corrupt at the time – finding seven of them with morals would have been a daunting task. And all of them had a different reason for participating. Mifune being the only character that changes his reason.
DR: And that’s the linchpin for the entire film, really, is Mifune’s character’s arc. Kikuchiyo.
Jake: Exactly. I can talk to the end of time that the main theme is team work, but it’s also about being an honorable person. Kikuchiyo is that person. His theme also speaks about society, in that he is constantly confronting social mobility.
Jake: Kurosawa has a great focus on the story, and the themes interact perfectly. If we look solely at Mifune’s character, the film would only be about escaping your caste. The film would be about the value of freedom and equal opportunity. At the beginning of the film, he is an obvious drunk and poser. The story makes obvious that he is not of the “samurai class.” The first half of the movie, he’s comic relief. When wears the combat garb of the samurai he doesn’t know how to wear it, and when he tries to tell them his samurai lineage, he takes the name Kikuchiyo – which is a girls name – and he walks around with the long sword, the tachi.
DR: Mifune establishing his range, and by extension of that, his prowess as the biggest asset Kurosawa ever knew.
Jake: You know it. No one else could have done the part. His performance is great, his character is great, and how he plays out in the story is perfect. Every aspect is great. The tachi part is my favorite. The tachi, which Mifune carries almost the entire film, was a sword used for horseback riding, and the sword is obviously compensating for his lack of class, no real samurai would ever walk around with it. As his story comes out, that he was a farmer, that his family was killed by corrupt samurai, once we know a little of his background, the tachi changes from being comical to being about his ambition to become a samurai. As his character becomes a greater utility to the team, he’s less comical and more misplaced. And then there’s a great scene during the final battle that brings in the sword.
DR: And my god, that scene.
Jake: The whole movie building up to this moment. Just before the battle rages, Kikuchiyo is walking around and stabbing swords into the ground. Chest out, grunting. Someone asks him what he’s doing. He says, “you don’t expect me to kill thirty samurai with one sword, do you?” The whole time he’s still walking around with the tachi. Once the first bandit rides in on horseback, Kikuchiyo takes a swing and the tachi breaks. Without flinching he grabs another sword. The transition is complete. At that moment, he becomes a samurai. no longer for show. and he doesn’t miss a beat. And when you watch it, Kurosawa doesn’t overly focus on this aspect, it’s one of the many ways that he tells the story.
DR: And the film displays that transition almost as an afterthought. It happens so obviously, but the real potency occurs subtly.
Jake: Exactly. The story is the most important aspect, and Kurosawa doesn’t get bogged down in his symbols and metaphors.
DR: When you mentioned earlier that you could have put Ran, or Rashoman, or Kagemusha, or any other works by Kurosawa here, I can’t help but think of the deliberate nature with which you chose this above everything else. Kurosawa would always be great, but would he always he Seven Samurai great?
Jake: He definitely set his own standards early. I was even half tempted to mention Stray Dogs, which is another of my favorites by him. But in the end, there’s no going back once you do a movie like Seven Samurai. Everything has to be on par after that.
DR: What’s next on the list?
DR: Another “us” movie. When Peter O’Toole died, I thought of you.
Jake: It was a terrible loss, and talk about setting the bar early, something Peter O’Toole did with this film.
DR: I seem to recall this being his first major motion picture.
Jake: That’s a little why I love it so much. Somewhere along the line, David Lean said, “go big, or go home.” Once he started doing the epics, he kept it up. Obviously Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, are the best examples.
DR: And also two of my favorite movies. Lean knew how to take the massive and make it intimately small. And he knew – KNEW – how to direct his actors. Peter O’Toole once said in an interview, and I’m totally paraphrasing here, I’m nowhere near as eloquent as the man: “He – Lean – told me to view my new Arabian garb as I would like a child. So I played with my shadows. I looked at my reflection through my blade. And I can remember David saying behind the camera, ‘clever boy.'” Most actors can’t remember the last thing they ate. O’Toole took most of what David Lean gave him and kept it his entire career.
Jake: “Intimate” may be the perfect word for this movie too. For a story that deals so much with pride and grandeur, it always seems intimately close to these larger than life characters. Whether they’re drawing maps and playing with matches, or dancing with shadows. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Omar Sharif also. A great dark and brooding character portrayed as someone you could possibly know in real life. Sharif, along with O’Toole, was also an unknown when they did the movie.
DR: If Peter O’Toole is the lifeblood of Arabia, then Omar Sharif is its heartbeat.
Jake: I’ll never forget the first time I saw this movie. I was during a Michigan winter, and during the intermission I went outside and had forgotten that I wasn’t actually in the middle of the desert.
Jake: One could argue that the locations are also characters in David Lean’s movies.
DR: Absolutely! Though characters with reason, with purpose. It was never enough for Lean to have a bridge in River Kwai, the whole impetus for each character to exist was around that bridge. The desert seems inconsequential in Lawrence to the casual observer, but it is O’Toole’s right of passage, his absolution. The winter of Russia in Zhivago illustrates the isolation of not only the landscape and the war, but of two lovers. Lean never skimped on the details.
Jake: I couldn’t have said it better myself. His films are so specific to time and place, but again, always about story. Also, aside from being simply great, the movie was one of the first films I remember really getting. The story, the themes, the moral, are all very simple and understandable. With all its multilayer themes and details, its still simply a Greek tragedy about Britain’s interest in the Middle East. Its a film that simply makes sense, needed to be made, and was made exactly how it should have been.
DR: Such grand ideas, beginning with the death of a purportedly great man.
Jake: And because it’s so raw, it makes his fall all the more intense. Even now, I can hear him screaming “No prisoners!”
DR: What’s next?
Jake: So that would complete the obvious classics, and move us into my personal favorites. Although, you’ll agree that they’re classics, the may not make everyone’s list. The first will be Blade Runner.
DR: Boy, I’m sick of Ridley Scott.
Jake: I would say I’m sick of Ridiculous Scott, but not young Scott. Alien and Blade Runner I could watch a million times over. It seems like he hasn’t challenged himself in years.
DR: He’s challenged my patience.
Jake: Amen. What makes it worse is that he has enough great films that it makes me sit through his crap hoping it gets good. Did you see Robin Hood?
DR: Yes. I fucking saw Robin Hood.
Jake: I’m lesser of a person for having watched it.
DR: Fuck that, did you see The Counselor?
Jake: Nope. I heard. And to think, with the source material and acting talent. And still, he hasn’t retired.
DR: Fingers crossed. Keeping on topic, why have you added Blade Runner to your list?
Jake: Right, before we turn this into a Scott bashing interview. Blade Runner is one of those movies I could watch over and over again. For being somewhat “unwatchable,” it’s the most watchable kind of film. Not just because it atmospheric and stylistic, or great actors and characters, but because through all of it, its ends so perfectly. It’s about everything it should be about.
DR: A simple movie, offered simplistically.
Jake: Right. And it owes its layers to detail, not to being too complicated.
DR: It is beautiful to behold. I feel that’s why so many hold onto the film, its art design. What frustrates me when I run Scott’s name in the ground – gleefully – some asshole always brings this movie up. As though adapting a Philip K. Dick novel was any way to achieve notoriety.
Jake: When we look at the class of great Science Fiction films, we’ve got Metropolis, 2001, Clockwork Orange… Blade Runner falls in with them because of that simplicity. It about life. Having it, taking it, and wanting more of it. And in the end appreciating it.
Jake: Fleetingly. But jumping back on set design, even now, wow. If the movie didn’t have a story, the set design alone would make it great
DR: I know. I get it. The movie is incredible to look at. I’ve been to parties where this is projected on walls like it was Pandora’s Box or some shit. And that’s precisely why I lament why Blade Runner is appreciated mostly for its art direction. This is all anyone ever talks about. Never mind Harrison Ford is completely lost in the material. Or that Sean Young is awful. Or that Rutger Hauer – the film’s true salvation – is given such brief time to truly live.
Jake: Part of it is also the editing. When a film has that measure of attentiveness to details, there’s the possibility to never have seen the forest from the trees. Some of it is, of course, accidental genius from Ridley Scott. It’s not so much that he himself had a vision – which he did – but that he hired the crew that put it together. But I don’t want to bash him on this film because of his more recent ventures. He took a chance that paid off, and on some level that was his genius. Harrison Ford has never kept a secret about how crappy it was to work on that film, but that adversity comes across in his character. And I agree, Rutger Hauer makes the movie better. I could probably enjoy it without him, but would it be worth mentioning? Probably not.
DR: That’s the real bitch of Blade Runner, or any of Scott’s films, isn’t it? The man is obviously not an actor’s director, he’s an art director. But he doesn’t make art films. He makes blockbusters. He wants his cake and blah blah blah, and almost all of his films suffer because of it. There are only so many apologies to make for an inferior director who has done well for himself. Zack Snyder comes to mind.
Jake: I think that’s a fair way to cast him. The three films that I’ll always remember him for; or I guess, why he deserves some note are: Alien, Blade Runner, and Legend. All of those films are art direction heavy, but maybe because he’s younger when he did them, they have some sort of content. One difference that you and I have always diverged on is the blockbuster. I think on some level, they have their place. I rarely hold them up to “real” film, but I think its okay to have guilty pleasures. For as bubblegum-y as Man of Steel was, I could say the same for The Avengers which was a far superior movie. And before we go off on a tangent, Ridley Scott is a perfect example. He likes getting his paycheck, but every once in a while he can put out a Gladiator. If that’s fair to say.
DR: But Gladiator has its own flaws that are not dissimilar to Blade Runner. Blade Runner has its own flaws that are not dissimilar to Legend. And so on. It’s perplexing.
Jake: I know. I seriously watched the entire film of Robin Hood thinking, “I’m sure this will get better.”
DR: And, realizing it was so short, you felt your entire world crumble.
Jake: For all the reasons we’re talking about. I don’t even understand how that movie got made.
DR: What’s the last entry on this list, Jake?
DR: One of my favorites. Do you remember? This movie is how we met.
Jake: I think so, years and years ago. Double digits. And I want to say a Coney Dog and coffee was involved. (laughs)
DR: Ugly Mug. I was working behind the counter, and we already had a vague rapport, especially when it came to cinema. We had already had a talk over the works of Orson Welles. As an obvious segueway, I brought up that I had just bought The Third Man on DVD, and you quickly, pointedly asked me, “the Criterion edition?” I said, “yes,” but it was a knockoff from the Kino print. I still have it.
Jake: If only we had known what was to come, the absurdity of me having to ask whether or not it would have been the Criterion edition.
DR: (laughs) Indeed. But why have you picked this particular film for your Top Five, Jake?
Jake: Literally a perfect film. Not one frame would I change. Every aspect, even the brief narrative at the beginning that gives away the twist. I would keep this film the same. But there’s also another reason. Mainly, if going into film production had actually been in the stars for me – not just appreciating them, but had it been something I pursued – I think I would always want to make a film like this. A good mystery and twist without but relevant to that time and place. The talent in the film, everything. I would want to do a story like that, with actors and locations like that. I got the same feeling from The Constant Gardener and The Quiet American, but of course, The Third Man comes first.
DR: I remember us having that argument, where I’m in one corner saying The Quiet American is of a lesser potency, and you in the other, saying otherwise. Carol Reed was more than a competent filmmaker, he was a storyteller, through and through. The man made Night Train To Munich and The Fallen Idol – never mind Oliver! – and The Third Man could have been a story too complicated for a less involved director. Had the studio that produced this picture chosen some mercenary director for The Third Man, it definitely wouldn’t have been as good. And you could bet Orson Welles wouldn’t have been in it.
Jake: Agreed. I don’t specifically remember the debate between The Third Man and The Quiet American, but it’s a little like comparing cake and ice cream. The Quiet American is without a doubt in the canon of my favorite books, and when the film was released I loved it. As time has passed, it’s obvious all political mysteries will fall in the shadow of The Third Man. The other advantage is that Graham Greene wrote it directly for Carol Reed as a film treatment. When it comes to Orson’s contributions, I don’t think he was struggling at that time, and he only would have done it with the talent that was behind it. The film also made me a fan of Joseph Cotten.
DR: Prior collaborator to Welles. Citizen Kane, for example.
Jake: Absolutely, but when people think Citizen Kane, they think of Orson, even though Cotten was great in it.
DR: Continue with your point, I’m sorry.
Jake: One thing that’s significant about The Third Man is that you don’t think about how great it is until after the movie is over. Similar to Seven Samurai in this context, everything is relevant to the story. And although it’s in part a mystery, in part a romance, and another part allegory, the story is making a greater point of dividing an exploited post war Europe. Its specifically singling out an issue at that time. It makes it a film greater that the sum of its parts.
DR: That’s one errant thing that’s wholly missing from contemporary cinema: the relevancy. It’s one thing to depict the goings-on of our flawed society, but it’s entirely another to create a world in the minutiae of news headlines. To fill in the spaces between the words. The Third Man not only creates that world, but makes it intriguing. Beguiling.
Jake: There’s really only a couple that I can think of off-hand. The Social Network is one. And, although Steven Spielberg’s Munich is about the Mossad, it’s very much about an immoral response to a terrorist attack and ends with a shot of the World Trade Center buildings.
DR: Trust me, I could make a whole interview about how Spielberg botched Munich. I’m surprised you brought it up.
Jake: I love Munich! And this is why we have the best conversations, we dont always agree, but we love the discussions.
DR: To wit. Thank you, Jake. I really miss this.
Jake: You’ll have to take a trip to D.C. once I move there, so that we can do this in person.
DR: You never know.
Jacob Ames currently lives in Essex Junction, Vermont where he works as an Immigration Officer for Homeland Security. Having grown up in Southwest Michigan, Jacob attended Eastern Michigan University where he graduated with a Bachelor degree in Criminology. After joining the US Navy, where he served in Japan for four years, he began an ambitious career as a low level government bureaucrat. Between wiretapping and taking bribes, he keeps his energy up on a steady diet of movies. Jacob grew up watching his father’s westerns and developed his own love for film.