Saturday, January 19, 2013

Film #94: Schindler's List (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Initial Release Country: United States

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

Rapid-Fire Summary

For a complete plot synopsis, check here at imdb’s website.

In 1940, the Nazi machine is taking hold in Poland. They are starting to herd all Jews together and force them into ghettos. Amidst these massive and horrific changes, the Czech-German businessman Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in Krakow with dollar signs in his eyes. Through clever business machinations and a flare for panache, Schindler quickly ingratiates himself to Nazi high commanders, secures a factory and a Jewish prisoner labor force for himself.

Over the next few years, business is good for Oskar Schindler. His factory produces quality pots and other metal goods, and his chief accountant, the Jewish Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsly) sees that the factory runs smoothly and profitably. IN the early going, the only seeming bump in the road is the assignment of Nazi officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) as the commander of the labor camp in Krakow. Goeth is an unpredictable and homicidal maniac who kills Jews without rhyme or reason. Schindler, however, manages to become civil, if not friendly, with the treacherous killer, in the name of keeping the money flowing in.

Oskar Schindler - in the middle of one of his many negotiations. These eventually evolve from purely self interested to completely altruistic.

Gradually, Schindler begins to have a change of heart, though a somewhat quiet and slow-building one. Upon seeing the murderous brutality of the Nazis against the Jews, Schindler, on the gentle but unwavering urging of Stern, begins to bring more Jewish laborers into his factory. He tells everyone that it is simply to maintain efficiency, but those who are closest to him can see that his sympathies for the Jews are growing. Schindler even tries, unsuccessfully, to change the brutal nature of Goeth. This failure aside, he continues to take Jewish prisoners into his factory to save them from the horrors of working in the labor camp every day.

As the War enters its final year, things become more desperate. Word comes down that Hitler has ordered the complete extermination of Jews – the so-called “Solution.” In the face of this, Oskar Schindler takes all of his massive profits, and even convinces a few other businessmen to do the same, and purchases over a thousand Jewish laborers. He assures Goeth that it is merely for convenience, as these laborers and their children are known commodities. The deal is made, and Schindler even ensures their safe transport to Czechoslovakia after his Jewish workers are mistakenly sent to Auschwitz and nearly killed, along with thousands of their fellow Jews.

At the official surrender of the Nazis to the Allied forces, Schindler addresses the hundreds of people that he has saved. The following day, as an ultimate irony and sacrifice, he must flee punishment for the crime of war profiteering.

When the war ends with the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, the Jews are free, but Oskar Schindler is now, officially, a war criminal for profiteering. With the blessing of the thousand that he helped save, Schindler and his wife flee into the night.

My Take on the Film (done after this most recent viewing)

This was the third time that I’ve seen this movie, and my feelings haven’t changed – it’s a very good film in many ways, but there are a few things that irk me.

Schindler’s List is definitely one of the boldest of Spielberg’s films. The movie portrays the stark and horrific actions of the Nazi regime against the Jews in a way that I had never seen before. It goes far beyond mere sensational, almost action/suspense route that could have been taken. Seeing silent, morose masses of Krakow’s Jewish citizens, lined up to be classified and segregated by the conquering Germans has much more authentic emotional power. This is one of many subtle details that the movie exhibits in order to convey the crushing reality of the Holocaust.

As always, Spielberg is a master of the technical aspects of film. The man has always known how to tell stories through the moving picture, and Schindler’s List is no exception. From the opening scenes of Oskar Schindler schmoozing his way into the good graces of the Nazi commanders, to and through Goeth’s failed attempt at becoming a forgiving overlord, the movie balances dialogue and visuals to tell the tale as well as anything Spielberg has ever done.

The maniacal Goeth and the savior Schindler, during one of their many talks. The two are dark-and-light reflections of one another. This scene displays how effectively Spielberg used the black and white medium. No one can say that the man doesn't know what he's doing with a camera.

Unfortunately, as important as these things are, and as well as the movie does them, there are several gripes that I have. One is that I have always found a certain flatness to the main characters. Oskar Schindler’s soul goes through a massive transformation, and yet we are left with virtually nothing to explain why this might have occurred. Aside from a few ponderous gazers at the horrors around him, we are left in the dark as to why, exactly, this self-absorbed capitalist would abandon his fortune to save a group of people whom he has only seen as a means to his financial ends. There are moments when we get hints, but I’ve always felt a little cheated when it comes to this aspect of the film. There is also an enigmatic quality to Goeth. The character never feels completely real to me – almost more of a monster construct than a person who actually could have existed.

The idea of constructs is another problem I have with the film. Far too many times, I felt as if I could see Steven Spielberg’s hand prints on the movie, and not in a good way. He was clearly trying to present a “realistic” look at the terrors of the Holocaust, and in some notable ways, he succeeded. However, there are a few too many scenes and moments that feel very contrived to me. One is the “secretary” scene, when the libidinous Schindler is “interviewing” potential secretaries by watching them type. This sequence, with no dialogue, is a very wink-wink, nudge-nudge, humorous moment in the movie. In other words, it seems way out of place. There are several others, but none so egregious as the final scene in which Schindler is walking towards his car, about to leave behind all of the people he has saved. In a scene that seemed straight out of a hackneyed melodrama from the 1940s, the hundreds of Jews quietly stand around him as he slowly starts to cry and despair over how many more lives he could have saved, had he not been so selfish. On paper, it seems to make for a great scene. On film though, to me, it seems rather artificial.

The final scene, in which Spielberg and Neeson overplay their emotional hands (in my opinion). The melodrama becomes thick to the point that it does a disservice to the reality upon which the film is based.

Related to this is something that has been a bugaboo in virtually every Spielberg film – shying away from truly, completely shocking the audience, even when it may be appropriate. The particular scene I have in mind is towards the end of the movie, when Schindler’s Jews have all been mistakenly taken to Auschwitz. The women are all stripped naked and forced into a large warehouse, which they and we the audience all presume to be a gas chamber in which they will all be killed. Just at the height of our fears, water rather than gas rains down from the shower heads, merely cleaning the terrorized women. I don’t know whether this event actually occurred, but it struck me as strange that the director, who has already shown us multiple brutal murders in the movie, would shy away from presenting perhaps the most disturbing crimes perpetrated during those years – the mass executions of helpless innocents. I’m not saying that I would have enjoyed seeing such a thing, but this film is clearly not about enjoying what you are seeing. It is about witnessing the atrocities committed against the Jews, and it only seems right to witness the greatest of those atrocities.

Schindler’s List is one of those films on historical tragedy that merely makes me want to learn more about the actual story, not unlike The Last King of Scotland or Hotel Rwanda. In fact, the scene that has by far the most impact on me, and the only one during which I cry, is at the very end, when the credits start to roll. We shift to 1993, when the film was released, and we watch the surviving “Schindler’s Jews” and some of their descendants process towards the real Schindler’s grave and place flowers along it. This is when the reality of the story hits me, and this is when I feel a real sense of loss.

I ultimately think of Schindler’s List as a “near miss.” It tells an important story, and it does many things well. However, I feel that, had the few “Hollywood” moments been eliminated and had Spielberg gone more minimalist in a few of his techniques, the movie would have had even more power.

In other words, three times in more than enough for me. I don’t need to watch this movie ever again.

That’s a wrap. 94 shows down; 11 to go.

Coming Soon: The Legend of Drunken Master (1994)

Ahhhh. A nice breath of fresh air, after emotional weightiness of the prior three movies. Kung-fu action up the wah-zoo. As of writing this, apparently Jackie Chan is in some hot water for an anti-American rant. Whatever. I just want to see one guy jumping around, kicking the stuffing out of a bunch of other guys. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Film # 93: Farewell, My Concubine (1993)

Original Chinese Title: Ba wang bie ji

Director: Kaige Chen

Initial Release Country: China

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary

For a more complete synopsis, you can check out this one at wikipedia. Here is my simplified version:

In China in 1924, the young boy Douzi is given by his prostitute mother to an academy for opera performers. His mother even goes to the extreme length of chopping off little Douzi’s unusual sixth finger, to make him appealing enough to the school’s exacting headmaster, Guan. This is just the first of many forms of suffering that Douzi will face in the course of his next decade of training. For another decade, Douzi and his peers are put through a brutal regimen – one which even results in the suicide of one of his closest friends. Douzi does, however, become very close with Shitou, who becomes his “stage brother” in operatic performances.

Douzi and Shitou graduate from the academy and become opera sensations, taking on the stage names of Cheng Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Duan Xiaolou (Fengyi Zhang). The two are most noted for their performances of the classic Chinese opera, Farewell, My Concubine, with Cheng playing the role of the royal concubine and Duan playing the role of the king. Cheng clearly has deeper feelings for Duan and wishes for them to be together in all ways, not merely as operatic partners. Duan, however, refuses Cheng’s advances and eventually marries Juxian, a courtesan who manipulates Duan into the union.

Cheng (right) prepares Duan's makeup before another of their famous performances. The care shown here echoes the tenderness that Cheng harbors for his stage brother.

Over the succeeding four decades, Cheng and Duan’s relationship undergoes several changes, due in no small part to the massive political upheavals of the times. From the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s to the return of nationalism in the late 40s, and all through Mao’s forms of revolution, the two actors experience equally tumultuous emotional shifts. Though they continue to perform their most famous opera intermittently, they must fight through Cheng’s opium addiction, accusations of being counter-revolutionaries, and the ever-present resentment of Cheng towards Juxian. In 1966, after the Cultural Revolution, the two men are forced by a raving communist mob to turn on each other and abandon their passion for the opera and each other.

In 1977, eleven years after their public renunciation of each other and their craft, the two men join up one more time. As they are practicing for a return performance of Farewell, My Concubine, they share a tender moment of recollection at how their close friendship began several decades earlier. Then, in imitation of the forlorn character that he has played so famously, Cheng commits suicide.

My Gut Reaction to the Film:

For as long and ultimately tragic as the story is, I found this movie quite compelling. Though it may be a case of trying to do more than can be done in 180 minutes, there’s still a lot to be said for how strong a film this is.

The most immediately striking feature to anyone who watches even a few brief moments of the movie is the visual aesthetic. The vibrancy and majesty of the emotional, political, and artistic themes explored in the movie come through the stunning sets and costumes. Put simply, the movie is a joy to look at. It calls to my mind another fantastic Chinese epic film – The Last Emperor, which made similar use of color, shading, and lighting to build atmosphere so effectively.

This still shot of Duan and Cheng in costume only gives the slightest hint of just how lavish the film's visuals are. Virtually every scene, including those away from the opera stage, is brilliantly composed and drawn the eye.

The visuals, though, are the window dressing for the real heart of the movie – the tortured existences of Cheng and Duan. The story of these two men could easily be seen as the struggle of artistry and human emotions against overwhelming social pressures towards conformity. Even before the political upheavals begin, it is clear that the Chinese cultural concepts of fate and hard work leave the young Douzi and Shitou no option but to be beaten into what society tells them – actors. There is beauty in the tragedy, as seen by the successes that the two men find on the stage, but it is ultimately doomed to be crushed by blind ideologies that do not seem to allow for individual feelings. Normally, I would not be so interested in the emotional turmoil of a depressive dramatist such as Douzi/Cheng. Yet with this film, I found the tale extremely engaging.

One of the amazing feats of this movie is its dealing with desire and sexuality. I honestly don’t know what the popular Chinese conception is of homosexuality, but it is presented in Farewell, My Concubine as a simple matter of course. Yes, Cheng is gay and seeks to be the lover of his stage partner, but Cheng’s homosexuality is not really the focal point of the issue. The movie makes clear that the driving force is his fierce desire for something that cannot be.

In similar fashion, the tale’s portrayal of political machinery is pleasantly unpatriotic. China is, without a doubt, one of the more fiercely nationalistic countries in the world. I can only assume that a fair amount of “art” produced there in the last century can well be classified as mere propaganda. A film like Farewell, My Concubine not only avoids that label, but even castigates such hive-mindedness by showing how damaging it is to individual liberty. The psychological toll on Cheng and Duan both transcends and is dwarfed by the onward march of Chinese history, making their story both intriguingly regional and surprisingly universal.

As the communist revolution sweep the country, a frightening zeal for conformity and blandness overtakes the populace. Independent thinkers and artists are just some of the many who suffer the rise of this humorless movement. 

There are some aspects of the film that would most likely prevent me from watching it again, however. In a general sense, there is a certain cultural gap that I, as an American, couldn’t completely traverse. Though I consider myself more culturally aware and sensitive that most people, some of the behaviors and attitudes in the film seem to require an understanding of the subtler aspects of Chinese codes and mores. There is a reverence for the Confucian master/student relationships that is puzzling, if not outright perplexing, to someone of my Western upbringing. It can be fascinating at times, but frustratingly enigmatic at others.

On a technical level, the pacing of the film is occasionally herky-jerky. I suppose that it is inevitable when trying to tell a tale that spans 50 years while maintaining emotional depth, and the film probably does it as well as possible. Still, there are some tremendous time jumps that are a tad disorienting. This is exactly the kind of story that would benefit from being told as a television series over the course of six or eight hours, rather than crushed into three.

My most subjective, and probably most lasting, gripe is my feeling towards classic Chinese opera, something that understandably and necessarily is featured throughout the picture. I find the singing style absolutely intolerable. I know, I know. This is my “ethnocentric, Western ear,” but I can’t help it. Try and I might (and I tried the same thing with Japanese noh theater when I lived in that country for two years), I can’t find any pleasure in listening to the high, whining vocalizations that are the hallmark of the art. I’m sure someone with an ear for it would find Cheng’s performances breathtaking. Alas, I found myself simply wishing them to be over so that the story could continue.

The actual opera performance scenes are visual spectacles, but I simply do not have the ear to appreciate the style of the art. 

Farewell, My Concubine is a great film, and I one that enjoyed. It features all that any fan of epic tales of touching, personal tragedy would surely enjoy. I don’t see myself watching it again, but it’s an easy one to recommend.

That’s a wrap. 93 shows down, 12 to go.

Coming Soon: Schindler’s List (1993):

And rounding out the current trilogy of tragedy is Spielberg’s holocaust offering. I’ve seen it a few times, and I found it flawed. I’ll see if my opinion holds after this next (and probably final) viewing.

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