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.