Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film #43: Sommarnattens leende (1955)

Title for We English-speaking Types: Smiles of a Summer Night

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Initial Release Country: Sweden

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Coy lawyer caught in a love hexagon with young wife, maudlin son, sultry actress, alpha male soldier and his frustrated wife.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In turn-of-the-century Sweden, the well established, 50-something lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gunnar Bjornstrand) seems to possess several greatly desirable things: a prosperous law firm, a beautiful eighteen-year old wife, Anne (Ulla Jacobson), and an intelligent son, Henrik (Bjorn Bjelfvenstam) who is doing well at university.

Despite these ostensible blessings, some troubles are afoot. Anne, while quite vivacious and loving towards Fredrik, she seems to show at least a mild interest in her step-son, who is actually a few years older than her. Henrik himself is a tormented idealist who cannot find the balance between the lofty tenets of his chosen field of theology and his own earthly, carnal desires. He vacillates between quoting Martin Luther and fondling the pretty young house maid. Added to this is that Fredrik's former mistress, the stunning actress Desiree Armfeldt (Eva Dahlbeck) has returned to town to perform.

A very calm and collected Fredrik brings Anne to see Desiree's performance, not knowing that he had previously been muttering Desiree's name in his sleep. Having heard this and understood what it implies, Anne cannot bear to be at the play for more than five minutes before she begs to leave. Fredrik escorts her home, but returns to the theater to see Desiree.

At the theater, Fredrik confesses to Desiree that, though he has been married to Anne for two years, they have not consummated the marriage out of his sense of propriety. His love for her seems more paternal than matrimonial. Amidst some playful flirting, Desiree offers some comfort to her former lover in the form of advice. She then invites him back to her apartment.

At Desiree's apartment, the two continue their discussion of sex and love. Interrupting the talk is the arrival of Desiree's current lover, Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, who is the very picture of Victorian era masculine achievement. He is highly trained, deadly, aggressive, and unapologetically jealous. He and Fredrik have a stare-down in which Fredrik counters Malcolm's full frontal verbal assault with a more coy, passive-aggressive style. Fredrik leaves of his own accord, returning to his home.

The initial confrontation between Egerman (left) and the Count, with Desiree as part of the referee.

The next day, at Count Malcolm's estate, we see that his relationship with his own quite young and exceptionally beautiful wife, Charlotte, is far from ideal. She knows of his infidelity, is powerless to stop it, but is still in love with him, overbearing as he is. She decides to attempt a sabotage by visiting Anne Egerman and revealing Fredrik's late-night visit. All she accomplishes, however, is an affirmation that both of their husbands are being unfaithful to them with the same woman.

An interesting twist occurs when Desiree herself orchestrates a dinner for everyone at her mother's palatial estate. She invites the three Egermans and the two Malcolms, in the hopes of using her wiles to untangle everyone's knotted emotions. Through a plan executed in concert with Anne and Charlotte, Desiree accomplishes a few of her goals, if not exactly in the manner devised.

Most of the key players at the fateful dinner hosted by Desiree's aged but wizened mother.

After a bit of wine during dinner, the tormented young Henrik erupts in a passion and storms off to his room. The concerned Anne faints in his wake and is taken to her room, which neighbors Henrik's. As Henrik laments his fissured mind, he decides on suicide. After tying the rope around his neck and leaping from the high fireplace, however, he accidentally trips a trap mechanism which open a secret side door and sends the bed from the next room into it, and who should be in it but the slumbering Anne? Henrik sees it as fate and the two profess their love for one another. Early the next morning, the two elope while a devastated Fredrik watches from the shadows.

That evening, Charlotte looks to enact her part of Desiree's scheme. She lures Fredrik into a gazebo with the ostensible intention of seducing him. Desiree informs the Count of this, inevitably spurring the headstrong firebrand to charge into the gazebo. He banishes his wife from the gazebo and forces Fredrik to engage with him in a game of Russian roulette. Each man takes his shot, with Fredrik's second shot ringing out, apparently killing him. The shot was, however, merely a load of soot that the Count had used to replace an actual bullet. The Count claims that he would never put himself or his honor at risk for the sake of a “shyster”. Charlotte elicits a comforting promise of fidelity from her husband, and Desiree tends to Fredrik's mild injuries, the two seeming to accept their place with each other.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after one viewing, before any further research)

No mere plot synopsis can do this movie justice. It's truly comical and its value comes from far more than the storyline.

I've seen around ten of Bergman's 50-plus films, and some of them are a struggle, to say the least. While I enjoyed the more thoughtful, meditative fare like Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal, others like the gut-wrenching Cries and Whispers were like being forced to watch a gang of wolverines on cocaine tear each others' throats out. Not fun. With such a wide spectrum of moods and tones, I wasn't sure what to expect from a “comical farce” by the Swedish director. I needn't have worried so much.

With a style that blends the dry wit of Oscar Wilde with a refreshingly modern, earthy sense of humor, Ingmar Bergman constructed quite a film. I can only imagine how bold it seemed upon its release in 1955, but the mature approach to sex and love easily holds its own today. It takes a truly great storyteller to drive a plot using dialogue, and Bergman does it with seeming ease. By shifting the conversations between the various characters, we get a great number of thoughtful perspectives on love, lust and where the two overlap, if anywhere. The feelings conveyed are exceptionally meaty in terms of gravity and circumspection of the human condition.

“I hate him. I hate him. I hate him. Men are horrid, vain and conceited. And
they have hair all over their bodies.”

Lest you think that the whole film is a pack of aristocrats prattling on about love, I need to emphasize the humor, which I think the above quote from Charlotte exemplifies nicely. It takes a little while to really warm up, but once it settles in, it's outstanding. I've already cited Wilde, and I can't help but think specifically of The Importance of Being Earnest; however, Smiles of a Summer Night is much more to my liking. This is because I find Wilde's wit, though razor sharp, to be so rooted in parodying British aristocratic mores that I usually lose interest. In Smiles of a Summer Night, Bergman makes far greater use of wry cynicism and sarcasm. The best examples among the many standouts are the brief tete-a-tetes between Fredrik and Count Malcolm. My only regret is that I don't speak Swedish, and therefore certainly lose some of the effect derived from tones and inflections that are lost in translation. Despite this, the writing more than effectively conveys the humor through the captions.

Here's a clip with the scene between Egerman and the Count. Jump to time 5:00 and give it 3 or 4 minutes of your time:

The characters are brilliantly conceived and translated into the tale. They all are very fully formed and feel thoroughly authentic. Probably the most interesting is Desiree, who seems to me to have a role very similar to the character of Garance in Children of Paradise – the rare female who is completely independent, and in being so, makes herself the object of nearly all men's desires. A key difference is that, while that latter French character is more of a two-dimensional representation of a greater, unattainable ideal of love, Desiree invites much more empathy and respect.

As with all other Bergman films, the technical merits are flawless. Whether you like or dislike a film of his, one cannot dispute that the man knew exactly how to frame his shots, cast his parts, and direct his actors. Smiles is merely a relatively early example of this. It may be in black and white, but the compositions of the settings and costumes is truly effective. While these things are far from the most important elements of the movie, they certainly enhance it for viewers who dig aesthetics.

I imagine that some would probably dub this movie a “chick flick”, and this moniker is probably not unwarranted. However, there is, amid the philosophical musings, plenty here for the thoughtful dude to sink his teeth into: lust, stare-downs, and even a game of Russian roulette. It all adds up to a movie that anyone who doesn't mind foreign films should enjoy. I would also give it a definite go-ahead to any fans of Jane Austen out there.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

It's late 1955. Ingmar Bergman is sitting on the toilet, newspaper unfurled on his naked knees. He sees a headline reading, “Swedish film nominated for Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival.” He thinks to himself, “That's good. A Swedish film will finally get recognition. Good for those peers of mine, whoever they are.” It turned out that “they” was actually him. After making about seven films well-received in his native country, but not outside of it, his break had come, much to his surprise and delight.

Smiles was apparently Bergman's coming out to the international film viewing public. While this 1958 TIME magazine review didn't seem all too impressed, this was apparently a minority opinion. It was regarded as the first time the Swedish film master had blended all of his skills and used them to construct a “nearly perfect work”, as Pauline Kiel puts it in this 1961 essay. It was such a commercial and critical success that Bergman was henceforth given free rein to explore every dark and heady theme that he desired. And explore he did, via such films as The Seventh Seal and Persona.

In reading more on Ingmar Bergman in general, one realizes that, while his many films covered a variety of themes, one of his favorites was calling out pretension. In Smiles of a Summer Night, this is most easily seen through two characters whom I really did not cover in the summary or Take 1: the maid Petra and the coachman Frid. Especially at the end of the movie, after we've watched the ballet of emotions, ideal and carnal, amongst the bourgeoisie main characters, Petra and Frid's lustful frolicking seem far more honest, joyful, and pleasurable. Here it is:

Some critics point to the overwhelming number of epigrams throughout the movie, which is quite clear. The dialogue is ripe with one statement after another about what constitutes masculinity, femininity, love, lust, and so on. Still, I found them though-provoking and woven well into the overall story. With the fantastic balance provided by all of the other aspects of the movie, Smiles of a Summer Night is certainly one that I would watch again.

That's a wrap. 43 shows watched, 62 to go.

Coming Soon: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

In one of the more radical left turns to be made yet, I go from a turn-of-the-century Swedish farce about love to a McCarthy-era science fiction cult classic. Bring on the pod people!

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Film #42: Pather Panchali (1955)

* Pather Panchali is the 1st of a trilogy known as “The Apu Trilogy”. The 2nd and 3rd films, Aparajito & The World of Apu will be reviewed later in the list, but are considered a part of the same “film” by the reviewers at TIME who compiled the list that I'm working from.

Title for We English-Speaking Types: “Song of the Little Road”

Director: Satyajit Ray

Initial Release Country: India

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary (Plot synopsis in 20 words or fewer. No spoilers)

Young Indian boy is born into poverty, lives with his sister, mother and oft-absent father.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In the 1940s (?) Bengal, India, the child Apu is born into a poor family. His father is a priest and poet who often struggles greatly to find work and pay for his family's needs. Apu's mother is a woman anguished by her own poverty, but is steadfast is trying to do right by her husband and children. Apu's sister, Durga, is roughly five years his senior, and is kindhearted, though she is mischievous enough to occasionally steal fruits from her wealthier aunt and cousins' nearby orchards. Also living with the family is their extremely elderly great aunt, who does little more than sit and make the occasional observation.

When Apu reaches the age of six, he is sent to school, a place where he finds the teacher rather frightening. By now, he has developed a very typical brother-sister relationship with Durga – the two annoy each other plenty, but genuinely love and protect each other from any possible harm, whether it be their scowling aunt, the absence of their wandering father, their sometimes angered mother, or the more abstract shame of being obviously poor.

Apu and Durga share a typical sibling moment.

One afternoon, with their father off in a large city to find work in either a religious or artistic capacity, a monsoon tears into the forest where Apu and his family live. Apu and Durga are stuck outside of their home, and Durga huddles close to her little brother to protect him from the relentless rains. After the storm passes, Durga takes horribly ill and dies within a few days. Apu's father returns the next day to discover the tragedy and collapses with his wife in grief.

In the wake of their daughter's death, Apu's parents decide to move the family away from their ancestral home and to the massive city of Benares, where they home to find more work, a better life, and leave their tragedies behind them. As a wagon takes the family away, Apu looks back on the only place he has known for his six years on earth.

Apu dons a hand-made prince's crown, perhaps suggesting a desire for greater things.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research on the film)

Entrancing movie, if you're in just the right mood for it. If you're not, you're bound to find it slow, boring and may have trouble finding the point of it. I was in the mood, so count me in the former group.

Of the 42 films I've watched for this blog, Pather Panchali is easily the most humanist and naturalistic of the lot, and I suspect it may end up holding that title throughout the list. The story is the furthest thing possible from high drama that you can get. It's all about communicating all of the most basic, shared human emotions. The vehicle for this is the six year old boy Apu, a cute-as-can-be kid whose happiness, fear, love, disappointment, and shame shine as clear as day in his massive eyes.

This is the link to a great youtube clip that shows the great relationship between Apu and Durga. It's actually enhanced by the lack of English subtitles, as the dynamics, facial expressions, gestures and music tell the tale as well as any dialogue could.

The trick is that, on the surface, this story may seem as foreign as humanly possible. Not many of us in the Western Hemisphere would have an inkling of how a family in India lives, let alone a dirt-poor family in a small village in 1940s India. Yet, it only takes about 10 minutes of film to completely see so much of the universally human qualities being displayed in the tale Apu and his family. Even more than the stylistically similar Tokyo Story, Pather Panchali gives the feeling of watching a documentary rather than a piece of fiction.

This is not to say that the movie is solely a grim or depressing affair. Generously sprinkled throughout the tale of Apu's boyhood are many moments of good humor and pleasantness, those essential assets of survival for anyone in arduous conditions. His ancient great aunt makes a few good cracks and her constant threats to leave become rather amusing. The little looks of mocking and impish glee that Apu and Durga share between each other are bound to make anyone with a soul smile despite themselves. These lighthearted elements make it all the more tragic when Durga dies suddenly later in the film. These are no longer carefully crafted characters, but very real people whose pain is evident and evokes real emotion.

When I think about the acting, my educational background in anthropology kicks in a bit, and I try to think in term of cultural relativity. While I don't know what the standards are for Indian actors, the acting in Pather Panchali seems very solid to me. However, it's impossible to compare them to performances like Marlon Brando or Humphrey Bogart. Playing Terry Malloy or Rick Blaine is a different animal altogether, but the actors in Satyajit Ray's humanist drama do exactly what they are supposed to – act like completely real people. It's more subtle and perhaps not quite as demanding as the western tradition of drama, but it works marvelously for this movie.

The technical merits of the movie are fantastic. From the very beginning, as we follow a 7-year old Durga running through the forest, the soundtrack sitar playfully accompanies her traipsing along. This same instrument appropriately picks in during several other moments of joy and happiness in the film, and it's just one of several sound and camera elements that enhance the various moods experienced by the characters. The filming is done so that I felt very much like I had a excellent sense of Apu's little part of the Bengali forest and everything in it. It's very much the same feeling I get when watching Kurosawa's Seven Samurai – by the end of that movie, I feel like I know that little Japanese village, front to back. Pather Panchali has the same absorbing effect.

This isn't a movie for all comers. Like films that I've reviewed recently (Tokyo Story, Ikiru, Umberto D.), it's one that everyone should probably watch at least once, though one that I can hardly guarantee will be “enjoyed”. It is now clear that the 1950s was the beginning of the very real transition of films from mere fantastic, melodramatic storytelling medium to one of very somber, humanist tales. Up until this point, such things had been the purview of literature. No longer. Films like those aforementioned were clearly changing films as people knew them.

Entertaining? Perhaps not. Revolutionary? Definitely.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Being the first of a coherent trilogy, isolated research on Pather Panchali is a bit tricky. As such, I'll keep this section brief and do a more thorough look at all three films after watching them all.

One of the most remarkable things about Pather Panchali is that it was Satyajit Ray's first film, was done on a budget of approximately $3000 U.S., and that very few of the actors or production crew had any kind of experience in cinema. This undoubtedly lent the air of needed verisimilitude. For such a crew to create such a landmark film is indeed a rarity that speaks to Ray's unique vision.

However, the vision was not without its powerful influences. Probably the two most notable are the French director Jean Renoir and the then-blooming style of Italian neorealism. Apparently, Jean Renoir went to India to film The River, and was put into contact with Ray, who was then working as an illustrator and general film enthusiast. When Ray discussed his ideas for adapting the novel Pather Panchali, Renoir offered plenty of encouragement. After spending several months in London, absorbing every movie he could get his hands on, Ray returned to India with the mission of making his movie.

After watching such films as The Bicycle Thieves, the neorealist film by Vittorio de Sica and forerunner of other movies like Umberto D., Ray knew that this was the style that would best suit the tale of the young Apu in his impoverished Bengali village. When one sees both films, the similarities are as clear as day.

Critical reception of Pather Panchali was mostly glowing, though this was not universal. While many saw the movie as an incredibly powerful document of human life in a previously little-known segment of the world, others found it difficult to stomach. French film titan Francois Truffaut claimed to never want to watch “peasants eating with their hands,” and some in the Indian government thought the film was “exporting poverty”. Still, the detractors were outnumbered by those who found endless lyricism and merit in the movie.

A final, less important note is that the snappy sitar soundtrack was provided by none other than the now internationally famous Ravi Shankar (just how many sitar players can you name?), a then little-known musician who was just starting to carve out his career. This was just one of the many little things that fell into just the right place to make this singular movie.

Here's another link to the final moments of the movie. Be warned that it contains serious spoilers for anyone interested in watching the film and maintaining the power of the unknown. Otherwise, it's a good representation of the things that the movie conveyed.

Again, there is obviously more to the tale of Apu that is told in the second and third installments of the series, and a more complete run-down of the analysis will accompany my reviews of those movies. For now, though...

That's a wrap. 42 shows down, 63 to go.

Coming Soon: Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

A relatively early film by the insanely prolific Swedish film icon, Ingmar Bergman. I've seen quite a few of Bergman's other film, which can be challenging, to say the least. This one, by the looks of the poster however, may be of lighter fair. We shall see.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Film #41: On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: twice (last time = about 3 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Slightly dense young dock worker takes on union-controlling mob on the Jersey shore; raises pigeons while being one.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, spoilers included. Fair warning)

On the shores of northern New Jersey, young former prizefighter and current longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) wants to keep his life simple. He just wants to keep his head down, not cause trouble, and continue getting cushy jobs at the dock through his brother's connections to dirty union boss, John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). This is all upended when Terry semi-unwittingly takes part in the murder of Joey Doyle, a beloved young local who was about to turn state's evidence against the rampant corruption surrounding the docks.

Terry (middle) meets with the crooked & powerful John "Friendly" (left), while his brother listens in.

The local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden) implores the workers to muster their courage and testify against the rotten dealings that they all know are wrong, but are too afraid to stand up against. Terry is among those who will not only refuse to testify, but feels obliged to back his crooked brother, Charlie “The Gent” (Rod Steiger), who is one of Friendly's lieutenants. Terry's method is the same as the other longshoremen – to be steadfastly “D and D” - “Deaf and Dumb”.

Terry sticks to these guns until he reunites with Joey Doyle's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), who is home on a break from school and is now desperately trying to find someone who can uncover her brother's killers and put a stop to their brutality. Though rather callous at first, Terry's guilt mounts at seeing the anguish that Edie suffers. Urged by his conscience and Father Barry, Terry eventually confesses to Edie his part in her brother's murder. He then swears to a devastated Edie that he will testify against John Friendly and his crew of thugs.

Word of Terry's relationship with Edie reaches John Friendly, who gives Charlie “The Gent” an ultimatum: convince his brother not to testify or force him into permanent silence by killing him. Charlie meets Terry and tries to sell him on remaining quiet, but Terry refuses. Charlie comes within a trigger pull of killing his brother, but relents. The younger Terry then lets loose all of his pain and disappointment at how his older brother never looked out for him, chasing instead the short-term gains offered by mobsters like Johnny Friendly. A repentant Charlie allows Terry to escape, thus putting himself directly in the line of fire.

Later that same night, Terry meets with Edie, but is lured outside and nearly killed by some of Friendly's goons. They fail to kill Terry, but they leave him a clear message – Charlie's dead body hung up on a fence. Terry becomes enraged, finds a gun, and goes hunting for John Friendly at the local bar. Fortunately, Friendly is not there, forcing Terry to wait for him and giving Father Barry and Edie enough time to come and convince Terry not to try and kill Friendly. Instead, he agrees to bury Friendly in court, which is exactly what he does the following day. An enraged John Friendly erupts and swears that Terry will never work a shore on the eastern seaboard as long as he lives.

After testifying against Friendly, Terry's life becomes far from easy. Quite the contrary, he has now been labeled a rat and stool pigeon by most of the longshoremen who have for decades adhered to the gospel of “D and D”. With Terry's name being sullied seemingly beyond repair, Edie urges him to leave with her to some other part of the country. Terry refuses and heads down to the dock to receive his “rights” - a regular job.

At the shore, Terry stands in a crowd, though is clearly a pariah. While John Friendly may be under indictment and unable to openly muscle anybody at the dock, he still holds sway. Jobs are offered to every longshoreman but him. Terry stalks towards Friendly's headquarters just off of the main pier, in order to confront him. Terry pummels Friendly in a fistfight, only to be beaten unmercifully by Friendly's entourage of goons.

Father Barry & Edie try to get the battered Terry back on his feet.

All of the dockworkers are called back to their jobs. Now, however, they are greatly heartened by Terry's willingness to go toe to toe with John Friendly. They all refuse to work unless Terry is given a job first. Terry must overcome his physical pain and get on his feet. With extreme effort, he does so, and leads the dock workers to their day's work, now seemingly out from underneath the crushing thumb of John Friendly and his gang.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Great movie, though one that had a few blemishes that only five-plus decades reveal and that I didn't recall from past viewings. Basically, though, the things that irked me were either in the first half of the movie, or were easily overlooked. By the end, they were nearly forgotten.

Right away, the music bothers me. It's a score by the famous Leonard Bernstein, and I found it way too bombastic and intrusive. I realize that this is simply the way dramatic effect was achieved in a lot of films of the day, but I found it jarring at times. No sooner are the opening credits finished than an assault of typanies, cymbals, and strings are shattering any attempt at gradual tone-building. It's about as subtle as getting smacked with a mallet.

There is also a lingering silliness to some of the melodrama in the film, something that ties to the music and is, of course, par for the course in a 1950s movie. Really, though, the semi-hokey emotional outbursts and humor are relegated to the already two-dimensional supporting characters. The primary characters are blessedly free of the cliched.

Aside from these, On the Waterfront is outstanding to me. The tale itself is something that has been redone in lesser forms many times over (think The Insider and others), but stands out as being one of the best character development stories I can think of. Terry Malloy is such a well-conceived, plausible and fully formed character that I completely buy the stunning metamorphosis from self-interested layabout to righteously indignant revolutionary. The four characters that lead him on this journey are equally well-constructed: Friendly, Father Barry, Edie and Charlie. Each one, sympathetic or otherwise, is part of the stuff that transformations are made of, and each one awakens a different part of Terry that he didn't seem to know he had in him. Edie inspires compassion, Father Barry courage, Charlie disappointment, and Friendly wrath. It's a wonderfully composed positioning of characters that culminates in a truly satisfying story arc.

Here's the single most famous scene in the film. If you've seen the movie before, it's well worth another watch. If not, you may not want to spoil the impact by watching it by itself. Either way, you're witnessing film acting evolve right before your eyes:

Of course, even the most carefully crafted characters on paper can fall flat if not performed well. No such problem here. Marlon Brando is so incredible as Terry that it's hard to imagine anyone else doing the part. For an actor to be convincingly brutish, callow, remorseful, playful, charming, forlorn, and enraged in turns is an amazing feat. It's even more amazing when you compare this role to others that he played, notably A Streetcar Named Desire, in which his Kowalski was far less charming and much more of a true lout.

As mentioned, the supporting cast is equally strong, especially Karl Malden. Here again it helps to compare his role as the smoldering Father Barry with his role in Steetcar, in which he played a sad, lonely bachelor who invited little more than sympathy. The contrast is marked and impressive.

As he did with Streetcar, director Elia Kazan displays incredible skill in choice of cinematographers. The play of light and shadows throughout the movie give On the Waterfront just the right feel. The night scenes convey such a palpable sense of darkness and danger that a viewer understand that these Jersey docks are no place for outsiders, and it is not in one's best interest to go poking into its darkest corners. On the opposite side, the daylight scenes on the shores, either on the docks or especially when Terry is with Edie, offer those moments of hope and freedom that Terry aspires to, perhaps unconsciously at first, but with growing awareness as the story progresses.

Worth mentioning is something that might not seem as obvious but my girlfriend pointed out – the extras in the movie, even all those without a single line of dialogue, add a great aesthetic element to the whole film. In her words, she had, “never seen so many faces with so much character in one movie.” Too true. I have to think that most of those guys were the real deal: honest-to-God dockworkers whose back-breaking work and arduous lives were obvious in the lines and scars running across their weathered faces.

On the Waterfront has now spent over five decades among the pantheon of “greatest American movies” with good reason. This recent viewing of mine tells me that there's no reason that it shouldn't spend many more decades in exactly the same place.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research)

Plenty of storylines emerge as one digs into the film just a bit further.

One is the political context. On the Waterfront was, as director Kazan openly admitted, his response to those who criticized his testimony to the House Un-American Committee two years before the release of Waterfront, in which he “named names” of associates with ties to the Communist Party. Many would never forgive Kazan for this, but he used the story of Terry Malloy to present his position in a sympathetic light. Whether one wants to see Kazan and Malloy's stories as analogous is up to the viewer.

The story of the movie was taken from very real occurrences on the Hoboken docks in the 1940s, particularly the latter part of the decade. It all came to a head when a whistle-blower named Anthony DiVincenzo dropped dime on the rampant corruption and was somewhat ostracized, the condition dramatized at the end of On the Waterfront.

I found it interesting that, despite being roundly lauded by nearly all critics and raking in 11 Oscar nomination and winning 8, the original TIME review is a bit lukewarm. However, even the harshest critiques I came across could not ignore the power of the acting and the masterful cinematography by Boris Kaufman. I find it also of note that more than a few critics, both past and present, point to Marlon Brando as ringing in the modern style of “realistic” acting. This is rather clear when you compare his performance to nearly any other actors' in his 1950s movies. Current day film critic royalty Roger Ebert covers a lot of ground on this and nearly everything else in the film in this essay.

Less important but equally curious trivia about the film: the extras in the movie were, as a viewer would expect, authentic dock workers; the men who played John Friendly's tough-guy bodyguards and goons were, in fact, former heavyweight boxers. The stunner piece of trivia to me was the original choice for the role of Terry Malloy: Frank Sinatra. That's right. The Jersey native Ol' Blue Eyes had been given the thumbs up, and the ball was rolling on getting him outfitted when Kazan and the studios decided to go for Brando, whose prestige and higher price tag would allow them to ask for a larger budget. The studio agreed and Sinatra was out. Imagine that – Mr. “New York, New York” himself in that same role. I guess it could have worked, but it's tough to picture.

Here's the grande finale, in which Terry delivers a beat-down, receives an even bigger beat-down, and then heroically recovers from said latter beat-down. As with the previous clip, you may not want to watch if you've never seen, and have intentions of watching, the movie:

So there it is. Just a few of the interesting footnotes on a film that any cinema fan needs to see. One can certainly debate the relevance of the political themes and the artistic credibility of using a movie to defend one's real-life political actions, but I don't see that one can question the clear merits of this movie. If you haven't seen it, it's more than just worth your time – it's all but required viewing.

That's a wrap. 41 shows down. 64 to go.

Coming Soon: Pather Panchali (1955)

And our first entry from India! I have seen this once, and it's widely considered one of, if not the, titan of Indian film. We'll see how it comes off.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Film #40: Tokyo Story (1953)

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: once (about 10 years ago)

Teaser Summary in Haiku:

Fogies visit kids
The children are too busy
Mama keels over

Uncut Summary (a full plot synopsis)

In 1950s Japan, retired Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama leave their home village in the south of Japan to visit their children in Tokyo. The elder Hirayamas are nearing their 70s and haven't seen their busy children in some time.

When they arrive in Tokyo, however, they are not afforded the pleasure of truly spending any quality time with any of their natural children. Their sons and daughters are all too busy with their work lives to make time or space for their parents. The Hirayama children even send their parents off to a nearby pricey spa, ostensibly for them to “relax,” but in truth merely to alleviate the nuisance of having to accommodate them.

Shukishi and Tomi Hirayama's pleasant demeanors mask deep disappointment.

The only one who shows any form of true welcome is their widowed daughter-in-law, Noriko. Through the Hirayama's interactions with her and a few of their older friends, we see that the old couple is coming to grips with the reality that they are no longer a part of their children's lives. After several days of being shuffled between houses, the parents decide to cut their trip a bit short and head back to their hometown.

On the train back, however, Tomi takes ill. By the time she and her husband reach home, she is in a coma. The children finally break away from their daily hustles to be with their mother on her death bed. After she passes away, three of the five callously rush to get back to their lives in Tokyo. The two who remain with their father, the widow Noriko and the bachelorette Kyoko, share a sad moment realizing that they both may likely become just as detached from their father as their siblings have, should they start their own families some day.

The surviving Hirayamas make their final farewells & realizations

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

Oof. Good thing I watched this on a grey, rainy day.

Tokyo Story is about as melancholy as they come, made all the more sad by the sheer reality and fatalism of it, as well as the skill with which the story themes are conveyed.

In the same vein as Umberto D., director Yasujiro Ozu turns his gaze toward a younger generation's attitude towards its forebears. It certainly seems that the Hirayama family is meant to represent the larger Japanese society, one in which the modernizing world has no place for maintaining deep, steady ties with anything or anyone, including one's parents.

The thing is, whereas Umberto D. had a quicker pace, a few lively characters, and a cute dog as some comic relief, Tokyo Story gives it to you raw and is much further-reaching. The former Italian film was really about an isolated loner, but Tokyo Story is about a very average family, making it far easier to feel empathy towards the characters. The dialogue and acting is so naturalistic that it almost feels like a film ethnography. In fact, of all the 40 films I've seen so far, this one has the most naturalistic acting. This is what gives it its power, especially to one as myself – a person whose parents are still alive and nearing the age of the Hirayamas. It was impossible for me to not get reflective about so many of the things the elder couple brings to light: their mild disappointment in their children, their sense of loss at their detachment from them, and their sad acceptance that nothing is to be done about it.

Here's a great moment in which Shukishi is at his most unguarded about his children. This is also a scene that reminds me an awful lot of my own time in Japan. A little too much sake in the system, coming down over a steaming bowl of ramen. Start it at time 4:40:

The pace of this movie is something quite novel, relative to the other films from the list that I've watched thus far. I'm sure some people would have a hard time sitting through the measured, quiet moments depicting everyday life. As far as I was concerned, it did get a bit tedious, but I completely understand that this is necessary and intentional. Actually, by the end I found Shukishi and Tomi's slow, almost catatonic speech soothing and very much in keeping with what they were meant to represent: a more carefully, cautiously paced generation that was being left behind in the rapidly booming 1950s.

Part of my interest in this film certainly comes from the fact that I lived and worked in Japan for two years. Very much in evidence is the famed Japanese formality and ostensible kindness, which is a theme that Ozu later explored with his film Good Morning. Most Westerners may find alien the almost mannequin-like smiles that Shukishi and Tomi wear throughout nearly the entire film, despite their growing sadness. This is what makes the few moments that they break the formality all the more potent, if not very dramatic. Were anyone I know to ask what Japanese culture is like, I could show nearly any 10-minute clip from this 57-year old movie and feel confident that it stands as a solid representative of Japanese behavior and culture. One of the several very “Japanese” moments that stood out was an exchange between Noriko and Kyoko, when the latter says, “Isn't life disappointing?” to which a calmly smiling Noriko replies, “Yes.”

As alluded to, the technical merits of the film are beyond reproach, in my opinion. It may not have been the most challenging movie to film, or the most taxing on its actors, but everything is done to perfection. Long shots convey isolation, interior shots give the sense of relative claustrophobia inside the family houses, and it's not hard to buy into the Hirayama family as thoroughly authentic.

All of these accolades aside, this is another movie that I very likely will not see again, and would only recommend with several caveats. A person must be ready for a 2-hour, 15-minute gaze into the very real but very subtle generational tensions of a Japanese family. If this doesn't sound overly entertaining, it's because it isn't. Watching this movie is an exercise of a different sort. It's one that is probably worth making at least once, but not one that's guaranteed to touch everyone.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after further research)

One doesn't have to do much research to confirm just why Tokyo Story has a place in film history: it's that rare and classic thing that does so much in reality while seemingly doing very little. All that's needed is the viewer's careful attention and patience.

In more detail and with more erudition than I could muster, David Bordwell's analysis carefully points out just how subtle Ozu is with his lack of camera motion and his refusal to cut away from a character while they speak. Roger Ebert covers the same ground, perhaps more thoroughly in this review. What both men point to is both just how Japanese the story is, while being equally accessible to any viewer with a marginally open mind.

In reading the essays echoing the theme of a slower, older generation (aren't all younger generations “faster” these days?), I almost can't help but wonder if Tokyo Story is the very thing that it speaks of. In an age when generation gaps and attention spans seem to be shrinking astronomically, will a slow and careful look at such gaps, which is what Tokyo Story truly is, eventually be dismissed and pushed to the side?

Here's a thoughtful clip of the very end of the movie, with the new widower, Shukishi, slowly absorbing his isolation with the same measured calm as everything else. Being at time 8:20:

That's a wrap. 40 shows down. 65 to go.

Coming Soon: On the Waterfront (1954)

“I could'a been somebody! I could'a been a contendah!!” One of the few films on the list that I've already seen and absolutely love. I can't wait to watch old Terry Malloy do his thing on the docks again. Come on back and see how I feel about my latest viewing of an irrefutable classic.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Film #39: Ugetsu (1953)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Pair of overly ambitious, 16th century farmers run into seriously nasty business while chasing money and glory.

Uncut Summary (The full plot, including spoilers. Fair Warning)

In 16th century Japan, the land is torn by civil war. In a tiny village, two neighboring farmers, Genjuro and Tobei seem to have the necessities – land to tend and loving wives. Genjuro even makes pottery in his spare moments, which he sells for extra money. Despite having their basic requirements satisfied, both Genjuro and Tobei seek more.

With a far-reaching civil war nearing their village, the two men see a chance to chase their ambitions. Though the village head cautions them to stay with their lands and families, Genjuro and Tobei make for a nearby city. Genjuro hopes to sell his wares for a hefty profit, and Tobei dreams of finding a lord under whom he can become a great samurai. Genjuro does make a tidy sum selling his pottery, but Tobei finds only bitter disappointment. He finds a general and throws himself at his feet, only to be mocked and pushed away. He is taunted due to being a peasant and not even having a spear or armor to fight with.

On returning to their wives in the village, the men undergo a change. Having tasted some financial success, Genjuro begins work on a massive amount of new pottery, with a plan to sell it for a greater profit in a much larger city. Tobei, still tasting his humiliation, is far from discouraged and assists Genjuro with his pottery. His hope is to be able to afford the armor and spear he needs to join an army and find martial glory.

Gejuro and Tobei take their families with them to chase their dreams.

On the day that the two men finish their batch of plates, cups, and other earthen wares, the village is attacked in a nighttime raid by one of the nearby armies. Genjuro and Tobei, with their families, manage to escape capture and to save the pottery. In a difficult moonlight sojourn, they run across various victims of the armies, but eventually make it to the largest city.

In the city, things finally start to look up. The men's pottery is selling very well in the hustle of the market. Then, Tobei sees the object of his desire – a stately general whom he wishes to follow. He grabs a fistful of his and Genjuro's coins and runs madly after the general, despite his wife Ohama's pleading that he stay with her. Tobei evades her, buys the required spear and armor and abandons his wife.

Back at his stall, Genjuro continues to sell his pottery when a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa, appears with her elder handmaiden. Genjuro, who is stunned by the Lady Wakasa's looks and bearing, sells them several items and is told to deliver them to the Wakasa estate just outside of town.

Without his wife, Miyagi, or child, Genjuro delivers the pottery to Lady Wakasa, who invites the humble craftsman inside her home. She showers Genjuro with praise for his goods, and Genjuro expresses the honor he feels at such accolades. Lady Wakasa then makes the bold proposition that Genjuro remain with her and marry her. She courts him with a traditional love song, after which she and her servant hear the voice of her long-dead father, the daimyo Kawasa. The deceased patriarch apparently approves of his daughter's proposed marriage to this simple farmer. Genjuro, now hypnotized by the phantasmic atmosphere and the Lady's strange beauty and sorrow, accepts and stays.

Their husbands now in the throes of military and marital glory-seeking, Ohama and Miyagi are left to fend for themselves. Tobei's wife Ohama is soon beset by a gang of thugs who rape and humiliate her. Miyagi and her son try to make their way back home, but have to fend off starving transients and other peasants. The women are surviving, but only with the greatest of perseverance.

Tobei eventually gets his chance. He happens across an injured general who has just been willfully beheaded by his lieutenant. Tobei rushes in, steals the general's head, and presents it as a trophy to a rival general. He is then showered with a title, a horse, and vassals. With his new platoon, he goes to celebrate in a local brothel, where he finds none other than his disgraced wife Ohama, who is now a prostitute. After Ohama heaps scorn upon him, Tobei realizes the errors of his ways; the two reconcile, to a degree, and agree to head back to their village and continue to make amends.

At the Wakasa Estate, Genjuro is experiencing otherworldly delights. The grounds of the estate are heavenly, and his new wife seems utterly, obsessively devoted to him. However, he does sense that something is amiss. On his first return trip to the city by himself, a traveling monk sees Genjuro and detects what he calls “a hint of death” on him. It is revealed that the entire Wakasa family has been dead for years, and that Genjuro must be in the thrall of the demonic spirit of the Lady. The monk paints wards of protection on Genjuro's body. Upon returning to the estate, Lady Wakasa and her servant sense Genjuro's betrayal and try to tempt him to remove the wards, so the he can remain Wakasa's wife for eternity. Genjuro resists the temptation and escapes their grasp for good.

Genjuro enjoys a heavenly picnic with his spirit bride.

Back in the village, Tobei and his wife are finding a new kind of happiness. Tobei has rededicated himself to his work on his land and has abandoned any hopes of becoming a great soldier. He and his wife have found some form of peace.

Genjuro finally makes it back to his village in the deep of night, where he finds Ohama oddly awake and calmly tending the home fire while their son sleeps. Seemingly, they made it back home safely while Genjuro was in the clutches of the demon Wakasa. Genjuro expresses his relief at seeing Ohama and their son, apologizes for his foolishness, and lays down in exhaustion.

In the morning, the village head wakes Genjuro and his son. When Genjuro calls for Ohama, the confused village head tells him that Ohama has died a month prior, and that his son had been at the village head's house being taken care of. Genjuro makes the slow realization that he had been welcomed home not by his wife, by by her spirit.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research)

Pretty cool movie. I was genuinely unnerved at a few moments, too.

Really, the whole thing amounts to a supernatural cautionary tale/parable. In this sense, it wasn't too hard to see where it was going from the start. The method of getting to that ending point, though, is the strength of this movie and why I really enjoyed it.

For the first portions of the film, it just seems like two average Joe's (or Ichiro's, I guess) who overreach themselves. Any viewer who's read an Aesop's fable or Grimm's Faerie Tale or two can see where it's heading for these two fellows – a painful lesson in knowing one's limitations and enjoying the good things that life has given you. In this sense, it's a very Japanese tale in that the men's ambition's are punished rather than rewarded, and this is the interesting part of the story to me.

The tale of the foolish Tobei is pretty obvious; the man is an obvious buffoon from the start, so it's no surprise that he makes bad decisions and that he and his wife suffer greatly for it. The unusual tale is the relatively upstanding Genjuro's. The man isn't necessarily avaricious. He seems to simply want to make enough money to buy his wife, whom he loves, the occasional kimono. While in a capitalistic society, such an attempt to modestly improve one's material lot in life is lauded, in the story of Ugetsu it invites demonic predation. This is actually the frightening part of the tale and what sets it apart from a more juvenile cautionary tale – Genjuro really isn't that bad a guy, but he's put through emotional hell for showing a tad of initiative.

On the horror aspect of the movie, it's incredibly effective. This is certainly not a “horror” movie, but the supernatural elements are so well-played that they are brilliant. For most of the movie, things are very straightforward, from the characters, the plot, and even the camerawork and visuals. For nearly 45 minutes, the acting and story are very naturalistic and commonplace. This is why, when Genjuro first goes to the Wakasa estate and I heard the deep, echoing murmurings of the dead general, it cut right to my gut. Following on the footsteps of a chilling song by the Lady, this whole scene is like cold, sharp razor blades tickling the back of your neck.

Here's the geisha dance that Lady Wakasa uses to lure Genjuro into her clutches. We Westerners may not find it appealing, but it has a very haunting quality due to Noh techniques of power acheived through minimalist movements and sounds:

Enhancing the effect of the supernatural portions of the movie is the cinematography. As mentioned, most of the movie is very traditional in its filming - it's solid, but nothing creative. Then, when the Lady appears, things shift. We start seeing some parts of the story from unusual angles. The costumes and set designs take on a polished, dreamlike quality. Even before Wakasa's true nature is revealed, we can sense that there is something artificial an untrustworthy about her and her home. This technique is not hard to pull off in a color film, and with modern technology, but in Ugetsu it was done in black and white. In an intellectual way, this is more impressive to me.

Ugetsu is, in my mind, a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, as impressive as some of those parts are. The story is certainly interesting, but far from novel. The dialogue is engaging, but not exactly fresh. The acting is refreshingly naturalistic, but not amazing. However, with the filming and themes providing cohesion, and the fact that the movie is a very efficient 95 minutes, I find that I'd certainly watch it again.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

Lots of interesting analyses written about this movie, all of which add several layers of appreciation for me.

Unlike several other films on the TIME list, Ugetsu was recognized internationally as a masterpiece right away. It's clear from this original TIME review that not only was its international release not delayed (as opposed to the years-long wait for Ikiru), but it was showered with critical acclaim.

In reading essays on the movie, a few things stand out. One is the use of camera and sound, and the way that director Mizoguchi made such effective use of distinctively Japanese artistic elements. This essay by Keiko McDonald describes how Mizoguchi drew from canvas painting, noh and kabuki elements to evoke myriad feelings, such as the connection between farmers and land, and the supernatural aspects of Genjuro's interactions with Lady Wakasa.

Another is Kenji Mizoguchi's storytelling. Ugetsu, taken from an 18th century collection of short stories, is meant to describe the overall effects of war on the common person. As with many of his scores of earlier films, he uses the plight of common women to illustrate it. In this essay, critic Philip Lopate points out something that alters my previous opinion. While I had suggested that Ugetsu is really a cautionary tale, Lopate suggests that it is, rather, a realistic look at the effects of war. It is not meant to moralize, but rather to simply focus one's gaze upon the way humans behave. In Mizoguchi's visions, men often seek aggressive change, causing pain and sorrow, even if unintentionally, to themselves and those whom they truly love.

I guess it's this last idea that makes Ugetsu both a uniquely Japanese film and one that connects with any group: it's a beautifully artistic look at a rather sorrowful truth about humanness. It's certainly not an overwhelmingly cheery message, but there is some hope for contentedness, if not joy.

Here's the final scene, in which Genjuro recalls his loving wife, while her benvolent spirit comforts him with the wisdom of acceptance:

That's a wrap. 39 down, 66 to go.

Coming Soon: Tokyo Story (1953)

The final of the Japanese ichi-ni-san panchi (1-2-3 punch, English speakers). I've this sad little number about geriatrics before, and am not overly relishing a second viewing. Maybe an older, wiser me will appreciate it more. Or I'll just get tired of looking at mama- and papa-sans.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Film #38: Ikiru (1952)

Title for Us English Types: “To Live”

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Initial Release Country: Japan

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Crusty old bureaucrat is diagnosed with stomach cancer, seeks for ways to squeeze some life out of his remaining months.

Uncut Summary (the full plot, including spoilers; fair warning)

In a stuffy Japanese city hall building, the aging Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) sits at his desk for the section chief within the massive bureaucracy. He does nothing more than robotically stamp forms, a task that he has done for over thirty years.

And then, a change. He learns that he has stomach cancer. This shakes him to his very fiber, as he begins to realize that he has done nothing of substance with his life. He begins to dwell on his relationship with his son, whom he lives with, and realizes that they are totally detached emotionally. This is clear through his son and daughter-in-laws' plans to edge Watanabe out of his own house and pension. This becomes known to the now-terminal man, but he is lost in his search for his soul. He decides to try and spend his remaining months living. The problem, however, is that after 30 years of being an automaton he doesn't know how.

Kanji Watanabe (left) beginning to realize his mortality & wasted life.

He begins by trying the hedonistic route. While drinking heavily at a local bar, he confesses his condition to a young pulp writer. The writer takes Watanabe out for a wild night of drinking, dancing, singing, and women. Watanabe begins by having some fun, but in the end is left with a hollow feeling of being unsatisfied with this definition of “living”.

The next morning, Watanabe runs into his co-worker, Sakai, a lively and friendly woman young enough to be his daughter. Watanabe becomes taken with her vitality and general happiness, and begins to spend time with her. Sakai is happy to oblige at first, and the two enjoy each others' innocent company, but Sakai eventually becomes nervous about Watanabe's obsessive fascination with her. In the end, she leaves her job at the city office to work in a toy factory. When Watanabe finally grills her on how she can always be so cheerful, she responds that making toys for children simply makes her happy. This is the small spark Watanabe needs.

After his two mysterious and unprecedented weeks away from work, Watanabe returns with a new mission: to make some kind of difference in the world before he dies. He reviews old cases in his stacks of papers and finds a past request to have a children's park built in a small, squalid neighborhood. He decides to finally stop the “pass the buck” system of his offices and take charge. He gathers his staff and heads out to the potential park site.

Flash forward five months. Kanji Watanabe has just died and the mourners are all at the wake in the family home. In attendance are several of the more prominent politicians from city hall. It soon becomes clear that the park of Watanabe's quest has not only been built to phenomenal success, but the credit for it is being taken by the mayor. This claim of responsibility, however, is up for serious debate.

As Watanabe's co-workers, family, and acquaintances pay their respects and recall the final months of the deceased's life, it becomes clear that Watanabe was, indeed, the singular force that led to the park's construction. Through sheer force of will and a quiet, unwavering refusal to take “no” for an answer, he got the plan passed through every stodgy section in city hall, even openly defying local gangsters and the mayor himself. After overseeing the park's construction, it was here that Watanabe chose to die on a snowy winter night, finally succumbing to the cold while singing the forlorn old tune “Song of the Gondola”.

In recounting their co-worker's tale of dedication, the still-living bureaucracts make drunken pledges to reform their ways and begin to perform their tasks with more active compassion. Of course, their talk is only so much hot air. In the end, nothing changes at the city offices. However, we are left with the joy of young children playing in the glittering new park that was left by Watanabe's iron will. It was here that he decided to pour all of his remaining life energy, and we are left with children's joyous laughter to echo the final acts of a man who, in the end, figured out some way to imbue his otherwise forgettable life with some meaning.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing, before any research)

Ikiru is another great movie that I'll likely never watch again.

I came into this one expecting an outright depressing tale, based on the synopsis on the DVD cover, and that's what I got for a while. In the last 45 minutes, though, an interesting transformation took place within the film itself and in my connection to it.

For the first 90 minutes or so, things played out not unlike I expected. A man learns that he has 6 to 12 months to live, begins to seriously examine his life and try to find the vitality that he's let drain out of himself for the previous three decades. In going to the likely areas of first vice, then young love, there are no great surprises. Still, there is something there that sets Ikiru apart from other end-of-life, soul-searching movies. It has the gumption to stare the abyss right in its terrifying face.

Throughout the various episodes Watanabe experiences, he perpetually wears a haunting death mask. His distant, eerie gaze belies the fact that he has turned his sight inward to the extent that he becomes downright creepy. During most of these moments in the film, there is absolutely no music or sound. If you allow yourself to become lost in Watanabe's stare and try to ponder the existential questions that consume him, you may find yourself in the same very real place as this loosely fictional man. We all may end up right where he is, and what, exactly will you think of your own life when you can see the end of the road coming? I found myself getting quite pensive at times during the watching.

Here's a haunting scene from Kanji's night on the town, when he breaks into a forlorn love song from his youth:

Back to the narrative. The last portion of the movie took me by surprise, as there is a severely abrupt jump from a Watanabe newly rejuvenated by the new park project, to his funeral five months later (the narrator dedicates about 3 seconds to explaining this to us, the addled viewers). From there, the movie becomes a series of flashbacks that tell the rest of the tale. In that final 45 minutes, the movie says so much about the value of living personal dedication while condemning the ineffectiveness of stale, bloated bureaucracy. In watching all of Watanabe's coworkers lament Watanabe's death, we see nearly every possible facet of humanity. They all go through periods of reverie, nostalgia, sycophancy, guilt, defensiveness, and in the end, dedication that they will become true difference-makers in their offices. These final booze-drenched promises, of course, come nowhere close to getting fulfilled. This leaves us with perhaps the ultimate message of the film: why is it that only a person who has nothing to lose is the only one who helps others in need?

In this, you can see that the themes and narrative are the true strengths of the movie. Some other aspects of the film are not exactly world-beating to me. The acting is old-school. It's solid, especially for its era, but there were still some conventions that were prevalent in a lot of acting of the day that stand out to me in a negative way. Mainly is the very slight overacting at certain moments of higher emotion, especially laughter or sorrow. It's not enough for the actors to chuckle naturally – they have to erupt with ear-piercing cackles. They can't just cry – they have to collapse into a heap on the floor. It's not as bad I may make it seem, but a few moments stood out to me.

One thing I can't knock is, as you may imagine, the directing and cinematography. Akira Kurosawa was an absolute master. Before this film, I had seen many of his dozens of films, including epic action masterpieces like The Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, more humorous adventure tales like Yojimbo, and the more measured psychological crime dramas like High and Low. Even though I already thought it before, the humane Ikiru confirmed my notion that Kurosawa was incredible at any cinematic story he decided to tell. Between the camera work and use of sound, the meditative, somber mood is set beautifully.

The movie is pretty long, clocking in at 2 hours, 20 minutes, and to be honest, it sometimes feels like it. However, it's clear that there is no wasted time. By the time you get the end, with the near-death but redeemed Watanabe gently swaying back and forth on the park swing, contentedly singing the lonely lyric, “life is brief”, you can't help but feel that you've joined him on a spiritual journey every bit as epic as Ulysses or Beowulf.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after further research)

Wow. Researching this movie is almost akin to a religious or epiphanal experience, not unlike the film itself.

While not exactly opening my eyes to anything in the film that I didn't notice upon first watching it, the thematic depth is confirmed and expanded upon. In reading several different essays and reviews, it becomes clear that, among Akira Kurosawa's brilliant films, Ikiru is often cited as his true masterpiece. This undoubtedly is for doing something that writer Alexander Sesonske points out as being exceptionally difficult: create a film about death that carries very real emotional power from start to finish. In this essay, Sesonske agrees that Ikiru is a masterwork, but he feels that Kurosawa's sexier tales of the samurai still have an equal place among the great films of the world. I agree.

Writer Donald Richie goes deep into analyzing the film's place among great existentialist tales in history with this piece. He reminds that Kurosawa's favorite writer was Dostoyevsky, whose stories sometimes featured protagonists very much like Kanji Watanabe – those who need their death to become tangible in order for them to enact a meaningful life. One can endlessly debate what “meaningful” is, and Richie points out that this is a hallmark of great tales – that they can be interpreted differently throughout time and among different peoples.

I think that, of all of the different summations of the ultimate message of Ikiru, my favorite comes from the original TIME magazine review, written upon Ikiru's delayed release in the U.S. in 1960:

“To live is to love; the rest is cancer.”

Watching it in isolation robs it of its emotional punch, but here's the extremely touching and iconic ending:

That's a wrap. 38 films down. 67 to go.

Coming Soon: Ugetsu (1953):

The second of a cluster of three movies done in the Land of the Rising Sun in the 1950s. I'll see how this one does in the wake of such a weighty film like Ikiru.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on your way out.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Film #37: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about ten years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Cheeseball silent film star stumbles through transition to talkies while finding love and dancing, wearing a shit-eating grin.

Uncut Summary (The full story, including spoilers. Fair warning)

It's 1927 and silent film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina LaMont (Jean Hagen) are the toast of Hollywood. They are in the middle of a string of commercially successful, if formulaic romance/adventure movies. Despite their obvious film success, however, the two could not be more different in real life. Don is a happy-go-lucky man who, with his closest friend Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) has worked his way up through the entertainment world by building his singing and dancing chops in all manner of low-brow acts. Lina is a no-talent, dim-witted, high maintenance egomaniac who seems to believe herself a princess simply because she plays them in the movies.

Along comes the landmark film The Jazz Singer – the first talking picture. While most of Hollywood dismisses it as a novelty gimmick, the film's smash success sends all other studios scrambling to follow suit, including Don and Lina's. The transition could not be rougher. Though Don has some trouble, the biggest problem is Lina, whose pretty face is no longer enough. Her high, shrieking New York “city goil” accent cannot be tamed into anything listenable. Not even costly enunciation lessons can can break through her thick skull or provincial, nasal voice.

To the rescue comes Don's new love, Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), an adorable, spunky little entertainer whose remarkable dancing ability is only outdone by her incredible singing. Cosmo hatches the idea of using Kathy's voice as an unseen proxy for Lina. Since Lina's is the beautiful face that viewers know and love, they'll have her lip synch the dialogue and songs as Kathy sings them.

Cosmo, Kathy and Don rip through one of their many happy little tunes.

The plan works, and the latest Don Lockwood/Lina LaMont film is made. Once the movie is in the can and awaiting its premier, however, Lina starts to do the one thing that she probably shouldn't: think. Jealous of Don and Kathy's love and Kathy's genuine talent, Lina attempts to legally blackmail the movie studio into making Kathy her permanent voice. The studio head is furious, as he has plans to groom Kathy into their next big star. Flustered, all are left to stew on Lina's selfish machinations.

Everything comes to a head at the movie premier, where the film is shown to an audience who loves it. To roaring applause, Lina decides to really drive her plan home. She attempts to give a speech, but her true voice and condescending comments baffle the crowd. The uncertain viewers demand that she sing, “like in the picture.” Knowing that she has no hope of singing as well as Kathy, Don and Cosmo create the perfect set-up: they tell Lina to lip sync the words as Kathy sings the song just behind Lina and a dividing curtain. In the middle of the song, the curtain is raised, Lina is exposed as a fraud, Kathy's true talent is revealed, and all of the good guys live happily ever after.

Exit, stage right.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

This musical very often flirted with sliding into the same category as Meet Me In St. Louis, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music: musical films that I simply can't stand. It did, however, manage to fall just on the right side of the line separating amusing viewing from insufferable fluff.
I guess the key ingredient for me was the intentional cheese factor. There is a self-awareness that, while not perfect, was present enough to provide some timeless laughs. From the jump, you get Don Lockwood's shit-eating grin as he shows up at he and Lina's latest premier. While on the red carpet for the pre-show interview, he claims to have always used the word “dignity” as his motto. During this pompous speech, we're treated to a montage of ridiculous and demeaning jobs that he's taken in the past. The scenes are actually pretty funny, and the sarcasm underlying it works well.

This self-effacing tone keeps surfacing occasionally throughout the film, though in fits and starts at times. When its not there, Singin' In the Rain does become rather tiresome. The most obvious moment of this is a bizarre “advertising” sequence during the “Beautiful Girls” number, which seems to be nothing more than an excuse to show off an array of fashion models posing in various costumes. It was a rather bizarre waste of screen time.

It's really the great irony of the film to me: most of the humor is based on ridiculing the superficiality of popular silent films and its stars. And while it's funny to see how talkies exposed this superficiality in the film, the film Singin' In the Rain is, itself, a showcase of superficiality in many ways. You have to acknowledge that Kelly, O'Connor and Reynolds were phenomenally talented singers and dancers. Still, the movie is almost all about flash and show. Sure, it's not as shallow as bad silent films, in which you just needed a few few pretty faces and melodramatic physical acting, but it is still a pretty shallow exercise all the same. If not for the novelty and flash of technicolor cinematography to show off the hyper-colored costumes and sets, I have to wonder if this film would have been such a marvel in its day.

Here's a perfect example of the useless, harmless tone of the film, as seen in the well-known bit, "Good Mornin'":

Despite my skepticism at the depth of the movie, I have to admit to how incredible Kelly, O'Connor and Reynolds were. Even if several of the musical numbers were contrived and hokey, some of them were masterpieces of choreography. Granted, by the end I had pretty much had it with the songs and dances (the 15-minute long 20s number was a test) and just wanted the story, such as it was, resolved, but when I was still engaged in entertainment bits, they were a lot of fun to watch.

The real gem of the movie is the second-billed Donald O'Connor, who may not have had the tanned good looks or raw dancing power of Gene Kelly, but seemed to have more pure athleticism and better comedic timing that his better-known co-star. His “Make 'Em Laugh” routine may be one of the best I've ever seen, being heavily rooted in the physical comedy of Keaton, Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and everything in between.

Here's a link to the astoundingly energetic "Make 'Em Laugh" number.

Singin' In the Rain didn't hold up on this second viewing as well as I had hoped, but it wasn't nearly the exercise in patience that watching other musicals has been. It's a light, fun little movie that I'd recommend to someone who likes musicals in general, and doesn't need an enormous amount of plot depth.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research)

No shockers here, though a few interesting little tidbits after doing some digging.

Like other films that are on TIME's list (It's a Wonderful Life, Detour, and others), this “classic” was not hailed as such immediately. The critics in 1952 seemed to like it, but considered it a touch inferior to the previous year's Kelly dance offering, An American In Paris. Like the other films mentioned, it was only after several years on the shelf and a re-release in 1958 that the masses and critics gave the movie a more special place in their hearts and minds. At this point, it's often praised as the hands-down greatest American musical of all time. I personally don't see it as such, preferring Swing Time or even Cabaret, but I can't knock anyone for the more popular opinion.

Something I didn't realize is that not one of the songs was composed solely for this movie. They were all written years prior, for a number of other shows. This may account for the seeming disconnectedness as far as lyrics and tone go. Not that it mattered much. It's clear that musicals certainly don't need inter-song cohesion to be effective. Each song in Singin' In the Rain, if not my cup of tea, is certainly snappy or catchy.

One better-known tidbit is that during the iconic title song and dance routine, Gene Kelly was operating with a 103 degree fever. I know that when I'm in such a state, I can barely lift my arm to change the channel on my TV, let alone bound and vault around with the reckless abandon that Kelly did during that routine. Incredible. Click this link to see what he did while sick as a dog.

Another curious anecdote is about Debbie Reynolds. At the time of the film, she apparently was a gymnast rather than a trained dancer. Her lack of skills in the latter area enraged Gene Kelly into yelling at her at one point, after which she left the set to have a good cry under a piano on another set. Who should find her there but one Mr. Fred Astaire. Taking pity, Astaire decided to work with Reynolds to get her dancing up to snuff. After reading this story, I can't help but move ol' Fred a few notches further up the “hulluva guy” ladder.

So the research really does nothing to change my opinion of this movie. A good, solid musical that provided me with enough entertainment so that it wasn't a struggle to get through, which his saying something considering my general opinion of the genre.

That's a wrap. 37 down, 68 to go.

Coming Soon: Ikiru (1952):

Another film about a sad old man, this one in Japan. We'll see if this poor old bugger makes out better than Umberto D.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film #36: Umberto D. (1952)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Financially strapped geezer getting elbowed out of apartment ponders suicide. Has a cute dog.

Uncut Version (Full plot synopsis, spoilers and all. Fair warning)

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government pensioner in 1950 Rome. We see him with other retirees picketing for better pensions and learn that he is in some debt. This is only part of a larger problem, however.

Umberto owes most of his debt to his landlady, a self-absorbed social climber who has been raising Umberto's rent in order to force him out of her building. Umberto's only real friends seem to be his spunky little dog, Flike (pronounced like...well, “like”) and the pretty, guileless young maid (Maria-Pia Casilio) in his building. It doesn't take long to see that he is a rather lonely man who has no prospects to speak of. The only things that seem to keep him going are Flike and a mild sense of spite for the world around him, most notably his landlady.

Umberto and Flike in their dank, lonely apartment.

After becoming sick with a fever and spending some time in a public hospital, Umberto attempts to track down past friends and co-workers to borrow some of the money he needs to stay in his apartment. All of his efforts are, however, rebuffed. In the middle of hustling around, he loses Flike. After a nerve-wracking trip to the local pound, where he witnesses dozens of dogs put down, Umberto finds his trusty canine companion.

Following another bout of loan refusals from friends, Umberto comes a hair's breadth from panhandling on the street. His dignity, alas, does not allow him to stoop, though he tries to let Flike hold his hat out for a brief moment. At this point, he returns to his room, which is being stripped of his goods and remodeled around him. Despondent, he plans to end his own life by jumping in front of a train. Only one obstacle exists: Flike.

Umberto tries to find a boarding home for his dog, but cannot. He tries to give him to a young girl whom he knows, but her guardians will not allow it. He tries to fool Flike into running off with a group of young children in a park, but Flike will not part with his master. Resigned, Umberto decides that the only thing left for him is to take Flike in his arms and end both of their lives together.

Grabbing Flike and cradling him, Umberto slowly and slyly crosses the guard rails as a train comes. Just as the train roars close and he prepares to step in front, though, Flike resists and fights his way out of Umberto's arms, running from the tracks. Umberto runs after Flike, who is now too scared to come near his master. Rather than abandon Flike and turn his back on his own life, Umberto decides to coax Flike's trust back out of him and play catch. Our old pensioner has decided to live, as sparse as that life might be.

Man's best friend, indeed.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done before any research on the film)

This was an effort to get through.

I chalk this one up as another that fits in the category of “Great Films that I'll Never Watch Again”. I can't say that there's anything wrong with the movie. Judged on its own merit, it's brilliant. It does something that, at the time, was probably very new, and it has a genuine emotional impact in the end.

But God, did it take a long time to get there. And the movie is only 90 minutes long. It felt like 180 at times. Watching Umberto schlep around Rome from one miserable failure to the next was just plain depressing. It reminded me a lot of the only other De Sica movie I've seen: The Bicycle Thief. One unfortunate fellow with little to live for getting dumped on repeatedly by the people around him and life in general.

Doesn't sound like a fun viewing experience? It isn't.

As I said, though, I can't complain about any technical merits at all. The story is constructed well, the script seems decent (though what do I know – I don't speak Italian), the cast was solid, and the cinematography is incredible (probably the greatest strength, in fact). It's just that, in the end, I was left with a hollow feeling.

I must admit to how effective the sentimental aspects of the film are; namely, the relationship between Umberto and Flike. The three most striking scenes involve both characters: the rescue of Flike from the pound, Umberto having Flike hold out his hat to beg for money (for he's still too proud), and the grande finale of near-suicide/canicide. Still, I couldn't help but feel that this sentimentality was a bit cheap, as strong as it was.

This is a good example of one of the few Flike-less touching moments, when Umberto's desperation is high enough for him to consider begging:

Without knowing the exact history of cinema (though I'll be looking it up), this movie seems a forerunner of the French verite films of the 50s and 60s – that “realistic” approach that was rife with world-weariness and “everyday” problems, and the social ills that were the cause and/or effect. Those movies were hailed as edgy for their “realism” and their unflinching gaze at the uncomfortable truths of life. I hate them. They always seemed to have some sly tone of melancholy and apathy that was dressed up in a chic aesthetic, seeming to say “We're fashionable and hip, but we can be depressed, too.” Umberto D. has none of the fashion sense, but all of the sadness.

Of course, some movies are sad as hell and I still love them. For instance, Aronofsky's The Fountain or Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love. Umberto D. is a whole other kind of sad, even if there is redemption in the end. There's a worn-in, all-too-familiar feel to the situations in De Sica's movie. Perhaps this was his point; he wanted to make people squirm as they looked at the fallout of a society that turns its back on the elderly. For Umberto, the only thing that saves him is his faithful mutt, though even that's unintentional on said mutt's part.

A movie like this just leaves me feeling that humanity is scum, and I don't really need cinema to feel that way. Just watching the evening news is enough.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

After dwelling upon this movie for several days, and reading several essays on it, I've softened my stance a little bit. I am still quite positive, though, that I'll never watch it again.

It seems that this movie, according to people who know a ton more than I, that Umberto D. marked a bit of a transitional era in film making. Prior to its release, Vittorio De Sica could seemingly do no wrong. He had been a shining acting star in the 20s and 30s, and his first several films has met with popular and critical acclaim in the mid-40s. Umberto D., however, bombed horribly within Italy. Why? The explanation offers some interesting insights.

De Sica's earlier films were what is known as “neorealist”, meaning that they eschewed formal actors, formal stories, and elaborate production for much more naturalistic tales told by non-professional actors. The idea was to present fictional tales that told tragic tales in a near-documentary style. This approach apparently struck a chord with people, as they saw it as revelatory and cathartic. They made a clear statement about the ills of society and their effect on the individual.

Umberto D., while still in a neorealist style, removed some of the core elements, namely the overt condemnation of social malfunctioning. When I think back on it, this is true. One is not really meant to see Umberto as the victim of some soulless government machine. He's simply a lonely man whose seclusion is as much his own doing as his environment's. This seems like a small change of pace, so why such a dramatic shift in reception within its home country?

According to this essay by Peter Becker, it was basically timing. In the 50s, as opposed to the 40s, there was an optimism washing through Italy that precluded the “airing of dirty laundry” to other countries through film. The government of this time, which had considerable influence on media, saw Umberto D. as a pointless look at a tiny pocket of quiet sadness that still dwelt within its own borders. Feeling that it cast a poor light on their country, they panned it and stifled any chance it had at commercial success in Italy. Such was not to be the case in other countries, however, as places like the U.S., France and England hailed it as a masterpiece.

Umberto as he awaits the oncoming train that he hopes will end his life.

On revisiting the sentimentality of the movie, which I initially felt was a bit base, I think that my opinion has been swayed by Stuart Klawans in this essay of his. He analyzes the purpose of Flike in the movie and makes a great case that sentimentality need not necessarily cheapen a film's emotional impact. He sums it up with the line, “ If the main character feels that his humanity itself is slipping away, his sense of being a proper man, then why shouldn’t he have a sentimental relationship with a dog?” Well put, and this point actually makes me feel much better about being choked up at the end of the film.

Here's the final scene, which can certainly be appreciated without having seen the rest of the film. Be warned - it's a spoiler if you're into the mystery of the tale:

Umberto D. - certainly an excellent movie, though one that you need to be in a somber mood for.
That's a wrap. 36 down. 69 to go.

Coming Soon: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

If this blog has taught you anything about me, it's that I hate musicals. This movie, surprisingly, is one that I've seen and remember liking. I'll see if my opinion holds after another viewing.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.