The Cats of Mirikitani: Of Art and Scorn

“Jimmy” Mirikitani is a New York homeless artist, a victim of Japanese Internment in the 1940’s.  When the tragedy of 9/11 forces him out of his neighborhood, documentary editor Linda Hattendorf decided to take him into her own home. As she films him creating his artwork, she seeks to find Jimmy a suitable home. While investigating the options and asking Jimmy for details such as his Social Security information, she finds a man still deeply affected by the betrayal he endured even decades later.

The Cats of Mirikitani, which released in 2006, is an intriguing look not only in an eccentric old man but a reflection of America’s past and how it echoed in recent times. This is the kind of documentary that only one person in the world could have made, had it not been for Linda deciding to point a camera at Jimmy the world would have never known his tale.  The short version is that Jimmy, born in Sacramento, was an aspiring artist who blended eastern and western art styles into one unique form. As he aged his artwork began to reflect himself: it was rough, overly simplistic, using only the most simple and mundane supplies, and became obsessed with the Internment camp at Tule Lake (where Jimmy spent almost four years of his life) and the bombing of Hiroshima where he once visited as a child. Strangely enough, the title of the film is a bit off as it doesn’t focus on his artwork about cats. Yes, Miritikani makes a lot of artwork of cats, but even that is the scar of his experience in Internment as he tells the story of a boy who constantly asked for pictures of cats from Jimmy before he died in the camp. I think Linda was trying to make the connection that Jimmy had grown to be like an old cat who constantly mews for attention.

Mirikitani is charming, if not sometimes blunt. His quirks often bring a smile to your face as you watch him uprooting a plant from the Japanese Botanical Garden and telling Linda she could put it in a pot,  how at the movie rental shop he flips through movie after movie asking “Samurai?” until he finds such film, or how he sings to himself when no one else is around. As the film goes on though you learn more about Jimmy as he explains his history. You can feel a seething hatred for what the American government did to him and many other Japanese people, and it comes out in a very unusual fashion. Instead of some other people who, in the same position, might have tried to take as much as they felt entitled to, Jimmy constantly refuses to accept aid from Social Security or other government programs. He’s proud of his work and that his art earns him mostly what he needs to survive, but you can sense his strong pride coming through in his flat out denial of the government’s apology. He gets easily worked up and goes into diatribes about how white men assembled in a room and decided “Cut their citizenship” and “You want workers? Take these people.”, remarking about the renunciation of citizenship and forced labor. When most of the nation had forgotten about this stain in our history, it was all Mirikitani could think about.

There’s another element that made this documentary hit as hard as it did. I don’t think it’s fair to call it serendipitous, but the coincidence of the events is staggering. The film opens in early 2001, and very early on you know the documentary is going to have to tackle the subject of the 9/11 attacks. It becomes a ticking time bomb, title cards indicated the months getting closer and closer to the tragedy, the final one being in August when Jimmy is preparing to honor the anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.  Linda tastefully discusses 9/11 in brief, narrowing it down to a simple montage of the events and not dwelling upon it more. The tragedy accomplished two things for the film, it propelled Jimmy into the story that fills most of the film when Linda offers him into her home, and the ensuing hatred that flamed up towards Middle-Eastern citizens by the American populace became a horrific reminder of the same hatred felt by those in 1941 after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Jimmy doesn’t draw comparisons, however, he just sits quietly watching the news as it talks about how most Americans felt those of Middle-Eastern decent should carry special identification cards, regardless if they were a US Citizen, or the many acts of violence that unfolded in the wake towards people not even remotely connected. The most important comment I can make on this is that Linda’s restraint to turn the film into a more social documentary than a personal one took some gusto and I think the film became stronger for it. Here the comparison acts as a simple reminder, something for the audience to mull over in their head and while hearing Jimmy’s story try and put themselves into the shoes of someone Middle-Eastern.

As far as the technical details go the documentary is a bit rough. The camera is of fairly low quality, something my own camera could produce, and the audio is roughly mixed to the point that, paired with Mirikitani’s strong accent, requires the use of constant subtitles. But the beauty of a documentary is that if the subject is as compelling as this then the flaws don’t matter. Not once while watching did I actually think “Ugh, I wish this was in HD” because it didn’t matter. This was likely filmed on Linda’s personal camcorder for home movies and she exercised the best use of it that she could muster given the resources. You’re not watching this for eye-gouging visuals, you’re watching to hear a story.

I’d highly reccomend this film to anyone interestd in documentaries. If you’re like me and you love to hear true-life stories and witness real human emotion than this is right up your alley. I was reminded a lot of 2010 film Marwencol. While the details were all different at its core we had someone who had an extreme passion for art because after a terrible tragedy it was all they had left in life to hold onto. At the time of this posting it is available through major retailers as well as through streaming services such as Netflix.

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Capote: A Slow Sip of Fine Liquor

Capote, directed by Bennett Miller (of recent Moneyball fame) is one of those films that’s heavily geared for people interested in film. The acting and the visuals are things that might be taught in a film study course, but how does it hold up as an actual film itself?

I have been meaning to see Capote for quite some time. I remember spotting the trailer for it on a DVD back in 2005 and thought it seemed interesting as I was always intrigued by the whole story surrounding In Cold Blood and the author behind it (who had also penned Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Beyond that though I came into the film pretty much fresh off the street: I hadn’t heard anything about it good or bad, I hadn’t seen a single frame of the film beyond what was shown in the trailer years ago, and I hadn’t seen the film Infamousstarring Toby Jones, that hit the same exact subject the very next year. So I jumped right in.

The first thing I should mention off the bat is likely the biggest criticism you’re going to hear about the film: it’s slow. I have no problem with films that take their time and those who know me know how much I love The Assassination of Jesse James  which most people agree could be an hour shorter, but I could see very early on that the pacing of the film would be a problem to most. You could say it’s the hardest in the beginning, because we as the audience don’t have enough to actually care and pay attention to Capote. As the film continues on the pacing also picks up but not by much, but I’m going to argue that because of the style of the film the gentle pacing is appropriate. This is a movie that’s filled with a lot of questions that never receive an answer upfront, it uses the rule of “always end a scene on a question” to the fullest and really builds a mystery not only in the plot but in the characters.

Now since that’s out of the way I can address the blonde elephant in the room. Truman Capote, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is depicted in the film as an alcoholic with good intentions. Don’t be thrown off by my use of “alcoholic”, we very rarely see Capote completely shitfaced where he’s screaming at people and falling over. It’s no secret Capote was a drunk, it killed him in 1984, but the way the film shows this is subtle. Truman is charming, but at the same time a liar and extremely manipulative, which is a hallmark of many alcoholics. I found it refreshing (no pun intended) to see this as a strong element of his character, but not the entire build of it. Hoffman’s performance is certainly the main reason for seeing this film. He is transformed in his role as this effeminate, playful, and as I discussed moments ago, drunk. But at the same token Hoffman is able to demonstrate other sides of Capote such as his manipulation, his self-centered attitude to turn conversations towards himself, or his unique brand of affection. He really does become the character, not once throughout the film did I think of Hoffman as Hoffman. Never did I imagine him in other roles he’s done, not the least of which has been the phone-pervert from one of my favorite films Happiness.

Hoffman isn’t the only powerhouse to this film either. The role of murderer Perry Smith, played by Cliffton Collins Jr., was an excellent counter to Capote. In many ways the two characters are similar, both are very manipulative and know how to get what they want even if they aren’t aware they’re being manipulative. As Captoe says to friend Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird), it’s as if he and Smith grew up in the same house and then one day Smith went out the back door while he went out the front. This line drives a point home that both characters are very similar, but their methods and motivations are very different. Collins adds to the film the same powerhouse acting Hoffman does, both delivering great performances that I could easily see being studied and practiced by young aspiring actors.  I have heard that somare disappointed in Hoffman’s restraint to show a certain seduction towards Smith as has been done, apparently, in Infamous. I didn’t feel the same way, and while it’s not overt that Capote had love or affection towards Smith more than just a good friend, there are moments when the subtext comes out (such as when Lee flat out asks Capote if he has fallen for Smith, half in jest, and Capote dismisses it). Frankly, I didn’t need that layer to make this film any more compelling than it was, I was satisfied with this direction. What I wasn’t quite satisfied with was the one-dimensional roles for both Lee (played by Catherine Keener) or Capote’s partner Jack Dunphy (played by Bruce Greenwood), but I feel that might have had to do with the scope of the story which was primarily focused on Capote’s connection with Smith. Despite such a small role, Chris Cooper did very well as Alvin Dewey, the local Sheriff.

Capotehas the picture perfect style for a period piece. Not a single piece of dress or prop felt out of place, which much attention to make sure some props got special attention. Colors were muted but featured rich earth tones punctuated by deep blacks and washed out pastels, with only a short scene in Spain featuring any saturation of colors whatsoever. The cinematography, by Adam Kimmel who recently did Never Let Me Go, was again something that would be analyzed frame by frame by film students. His composition, lighting, framing, all painted a visually pleasing film. In addition to the color there was something I couldn’t place my finger on that helped recreate the feel of the time, the film wasn’t super crisp or extra sharp as cameras of the day were capable of doing, and part of me felt that was a conscious decision. I’m also a fan, in particular, of Kimmel’s use of insert shots to show parts of the environment. Small things like pictures on a mantle, the post of a bed, or a door frame with pen marks showing the height of children added that extra bit of eye candy. That all said, however, there’s an often strange and inconsistent use of hand-held camera work that’s jarring and doesn’t serve any purpose than to shake up an otherwise static scene I suppose, but that’s just nit picking. One last interesting detail was that, with the exception of Smith’s execution, there is no musical score for the film that isn’t diegetic. The film is unusually quiet which was strange given the amount of dead air in the slow paced scenes. I didn’t mind this silence but I could imagine for most viewers it would be difficult to keep your attention on the scene and not taking a chance to check your phone.

So in conclusion I felt Capote was an excellent film. It may not be in my Top 10 but I certainly admire a lot of aspects of it. I enjoyed the true life tale, Hoffman and Collin’s performances, and the careful attention to detail in creating a believable period piece. Now would I recommend it to other people? Well if you p
refer at least one explosion, sex scene, or car chase in your movies I’d say pass. Even those who have the patience to watch long and dragged out films (looking at you, Bergman) might find it difficult to get through the whole film. But if you appreciate the artform itself I think you’ll find a lot to like about this piece. Hell if you like Mad Men at all this might be right up your alley due to the elaborate talent that went behind the look of the film, but again no sex scenes as it’s a different kind of drama.

Or go read In Cold Blood, whatever.