BLASTS FROM THE PAST
world, or at least the internet, seems to be packed with film buffs these
days. How many of them know squat about film history? How many care about
films that were made before they were born? How many ever watch black-and-white
movies, or non-English language films, not to mention films from the silent
era? In this age of amnesia, many so-called movie lovers couldn't care
less about the history of the art, or the great directors, writers, performers,
and other artists that developed its style. Well, this Film Snob says
you're not a film buff if you don't watch older movies. And apparently
there are quite a few CineScene readers who agree with me, because a lot
of the letters we receive, and many of the pieces that are submitted,
concern older films. That's why I put together this feature called Blasts
from the Past, in which I've collected various reviews and other film
writings by our staff and readers, all about movies that were made 25
or more years ago. Plus a Kurosawa piece by reader Alex Kidd for all you
slackers. Well, I hope we can make this an annual event. I have to hope
Bay of Angels
(Jacques Demy, 1963).
Pretty boy Frenchman (Claude Mann) is led by his older wiser office mate to a gambling spree, where they encounter vivacious Jeanne Moreau. Gambling as flirtation - pretty boy sidles over to a roulette table where he sees Jeanne Moreau, and as he calls out his numbers, she, looking for a lucky charm, calls out pretty boy's numbers. They meet, consummate, and on the downbeat of their relationship when pretty boy's luck goes bad, he finds Jeanne at the roulette table calling some other guy's numbers. SLAP! Imagine a world where people wear suits on vacation, and change into white tuxedos when they go into the Monte Carlo casinos. Hey, baby: five, red, odd.
-- Pat Padua
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1932).
A magnificent specimen of pure cinema in which nearly everyone (including a dead body) turns out to be something quite different from what we thought. Appropriately, what starts as a claustrophobic, single-set, door-slamming affair suddenly transforms into a full-blooded chase with (excellent miniatures of) buses, trains, and boats. If the pacing were any slower, one could find time to complain about the disappearance of the very appealing ingenue halfway through, but it's all too much fun, and what detail there is receives careful, subtle attention -- witness the carefully choreographed lighting changes that accompany a man carrying a lit candle up a staircase. A wonderful surprise.
-- Thor Klippert
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu, 1949).
The concept of mono no aware is said to define the essence of Japanese culture. The phrase means "a sensitivity to things," the ability to experience a direct connection with the world without the necessity of language. Ozu sums up this philosophy in this serene depiction of the acceptance of life's inevitabilities and the sadness that follows it. The film shows the pressure in Japanese families for children to be married as the "natural order" of things, regardless of their wishes. A widowed Professor, Somiya (Chishu Ryu), must face the inevitability of giving up his daughter, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) to marriage. Noriko, however, wants only to continue to live at home and care for her father, and insists that marriage is not for her. Yet the social pressure to marry continues to build, coming not only from her father but also from Somiya's sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) whom she calls "Auntie," and from a friend, the widower Onodera (Masao Mishima) who has recently remarried. Masa, unrelenting, presents Noriko with a prospect named Satake who reminds her of actor Gary Cooper, but she is still reluctant. To make it easier for Noriko to decide, Somiya tells her that he is planning to remarry and she will no longer need to take care of him. Noriko's agonizes over her decision and her once beaming face increasingly carries hints of resignation. At the end, the old man sits alone peeling a piece of fruit as the ocean waves signal the inexorable flow of timeless things.
-- Howard Schumann
Goes to Town
One of Capra's populist comedies about the social and political situation of his day. Gary Cooper plays Longfellow Deeds, an unassuming young man who inherits a huge amount of money from an uncle he barely knows. He hits the big city and is set upon by many members of the monied society. Although he never acts the fool, he is made out to be one by Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), a journalist who wants the big story and pretends to be a damsel in distress to get close to Deeds. Eventually, Longfellow realizes his best course of action is to give away the money to those who need it. The greedy vultures around him try to have him committed so they can take away his money. With its theme of wealthy vs. poor (and this is deep into the Depression, so we're talking breadlines poor), the picture contrasts the big city (bad, greedy, morally corrupt) with the small town (good, upstanding, moral). It makes its point well and doesn't bang you over the head with it. It is heartfelt - amusing and sweet - bitter and angry - sad and depressed - but ultimately hopeful. During the final courtroom drama, I was on pins and needles. A wonderful film.
-- Lovell Mahan-Moutaw
Heiress (William Wyler, 1949).
Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote the screenplay, adapted from their stage play, which is a not unfaithful version of Henry James's novel Washington Square. The film is "opened up" intelligently and successfully, the period details are convincing; and Edith Head, as usual, gives good costume. I have always admired Olivia deHavilland; this film convinces me that she's truly a great actress. An actress who plays Catherine Sloper has to swing quickly and credibly from self-possession to timidity; she also has to register several different kinds of humiliation in succession, and then a hardening and deviousness. It's a wonderful role for a first-rate actress. DeHavilland exceeded my expectations. In fact, I can't think of a better film performance by an American actress in the thirties and forties, and that includes the lion's share of Bette Davis's career. Ralph Richardson, on the other hand, is a disappointment -- too stiff, I thought, even for the role of Dr. Sloper. Montgomery Clift, as Catherine's fortune-hunting suitor, is wonderfully seductive and callow. Aaron Copland wrote the score -- not too hot, not too cold, just about right. The film is completely absorbing and highly recommended.
-- Les Phillips
(Hiroshi Inagaki, 1962).
a reverence and an appreciation for the drama inherent in stillness and
silence, Inagaki takes his time drawing us into the daily rituals of these
homeless samurai, lacking a purpose and a direction. He also lets the
mundane relationships between the ronin and their wives and lovers play
out, instead of cutting right away to the cutting and the hacking and
the blood-letting that you would expect in a samurai piece. The tender
love and sacrifice shared between the lead ronin, Chamberlain Kuranosuke
Oishi (Koshiro Matsumoto) and his wife, Riku Oichi (Setsuko Hara), is
geniune and moving. Chushingura is essentially a genre film, a
part of the jidai-geki or period film set before the Meiji Restoration
in 1868. It's also a part of the "chanbara" or swordfight film tradition.
Working within the parameters of this well-known chapter of Japanese folklore,
told over and over again in kabuki theater, poetry, literature, song,
and film, Inagaki illuminats the genre superbly. The cast is immense -
sizable enough to dwarf even the participation of several icons of the
Japanese cinema, including Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune. Shimura's
role of a bodyguard to the corrupt Lord Kira isn't much more than a cameo,
while Mifune is essentially playing a pumped-up supporting role, a mercenary
of negotiable loyalty, similiar to his character in Kurosawa's Yojimbo
(1961). But the rest of the cast is so good, you don't really miss seeing
more of Mifune or Shimura. Chushingura is not a star piece; it's
genre retelling folklore. However, it could stand some fresh air. Too
much of the story takes place under a roof. Inagaki seems to have recognized
this -- at one point the walls of a house are knocked away, panel by panel,
during a ferocious samurai battle. Chushingura is a challenging,
purposeful epic told by a Japanese master, largely unheralded by Western
I Am Cuba
(Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964).
Filmed in Spanish and dubbed in Russian, this unique collaboration between Russian director Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying), the poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko, and writer Enrique Pineda Barnet, dramatizes the conditions that led to the 1959 Cuban revolution. Set in the late 1950s, when a ragtag bunch of students, workers, and peasants organized to overthrow the corrupt regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the film is divided into four sections. The first depicts the American-run gambling casinos and prostitution in Havana. The next shows a farmer burning his sugar cane when he learns he is going to lose his land to United Fruit. Another describes the suppression of students and dissenters at Havana University, and the final sequence shows how government bombing of mountain fields induced farmers to join with the rebels in the Sierra Maestre mountains. The final scene is a triumphal march into Havana to proclaim the revolution. Marvelously photographed by Sergei Urusevsky and using acrobatic camerawork by Alexandr Kalzaty, some of the shots and distorted camera angles are so staggering as to be practically unbelievable. In one sequence, the camera lifts off from a hotel rooftop, takes in the Havana skyline, descends several floors, winds its way through the poolside party-goers, and then takes you for a swim in the pool in one continuous shot. The caricatures are broad (reminiscent of Eisenstein) but are presented with such exuberance that it hardly seems to matter. Audacious and imaginative, I Am Cuba is a revelation, a film of true visionary poetry, transcending the genre of advocacy filmmaking to reach a pinnacle of cinematic art.
-- Howard Schumann
(Sidney Lumet, 1976).
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927).
Directed with exquisite style by the great German director Murnau,
Sunrise is a cinematic triumph that transcends the era of its making,
rising above melodrama in its beautiful interpretation of the strength
of love in the most dire of situations. It is the story of a tested love
that overcame the biggest test of them all, showing that love can lead
people to extraordinary feats. Sunrise is a touching film that
resounds deeply for those who have ever been in love.
I'm All Right Jack
The Man With a Movie Camera
son, Raju, played by the director as an adult and by his brother Sashi
Kapoor as a child, is born on the streets and grows up in the slums. Under
the guidance of a ruthless bandit named Jagga (K. N. Singh), he turns
to stealing to help support his mother. Raj has little to comfort him
except for a picture hanging on the bare walls of his house of Rita, his
childhood sweetheart played by the stunning Nargis, a real life lover
of Kapoor. The romance between Raj and Rita is one of the central motifs
of the film, and the chemistry between the two is electric. Raju, the
tramp, is forced to live on his wits, but does so with humor and a Chaplinesque
charm. Awaara is reminiscent of both 40s film-noir with its dark
cobblestone streets and menacing shadows, and, in its social conscience,
of the great Italian neo-realists like de Sica. But basically, Awaara
is still in the Bollywood tradition; that means drama, romance, music,
comedy, and action -- all put together in a total package to appeal to
a wide audience. With great songs and dances, amazing dream sequences,
style and panache, strong drama, and an inspiring message, it is not surprising
that Awaara became one of the most popular films in Indian cinematic
history. It is one of my favorites as well.
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin,
did it feel to see this film in 1940? I guess it depends on your political
view, what you knew, whether you were Jewish. The more interesting question:
what was it like to see the film in 1945, or 1947, as the revelations
were coming forth from Nuremberg. Jack Oakie plays Napolini, an even more
childish rival dictator. In some ways he steals the scenes he has with
Chaplin. I'd certainly forgotten how good he was. Chaplin's monologue
at the end once seemed too Popular Front, too liberal-sentimental. Maybe
it's current events, maybe it's that I was having such a good time at
the movies, but on Saturday night, it went down just fine. Someone at
the MFA decided it would be a good idea to have a Chaplin granddaughter
around after the film for Q and A. Some of Chaplin's grandchildren are
very young. This one, I think, was certainly born after he died, a sort
of twentysomething actress-model-whatever. She listened to Q but provided
no A, or anything else of interest. But boy, does the film endure.
Let me start out my take on Kurosawa with a little story from my youth. In 1994 I had my first taste of bitter poverty living with my aunt for the summer in a Missouri backwoods, one-cow town. Just 14 years of age, my entertainment at that time consists mainly of two separate but equal camps: Nintendo and film. Sex, skateboarding, drugs and guitar were still a few years off on the horizon, so Nintendo or movies it was. My aunt, too poor to cough up the scant few bucks it cost to rent a movie, opted to instead drop us off at the local library where the movies and books were free, dusty, and out of date. Little did I know what a great gift this lack of modern cinema had brought upon me. Instead of watching shitfest like Super Mario Bros. or It's Pat, I was exposed to the likes of Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, and The African Queen. Did I know that these were all cinema classics that I should worship and drool over? Hell no, all I knew was that watching an old black-and-white film was better than having to sit through another one of my aunt's long-winded stories, any day of the week. Sure, there were some woofers in there as well, like Ernest Goes to Camp and the collective works of Benji, but for the most part it was all Hollywood gold. After watching every single Hollywood movie (sometimes I would sit through 2 or 3 a day) that the horrible malnourished library had to offer, I was left with two choices: Dorf Goes Auto Racing or an odd-looking Japanese flick called The Seven Samurai.. Well, I picked the Dorf movie, but then again I was only 14, and as every kid knows: Midgets + Cars = Hilarity. Besides, the Japanese movie was a whopping three hours long and subtitled. Subtitles are like the kiss of death for movies when it comes to young teenagers. Hell, if I wanted to read, I would have checked out one of those books long ago. But now I had no choice, I had to check out the Samauri movie. Time to bite the bullet.
The big surprise was that within fifteen minutes of pressing play I was riveted to the screen. Being 14, I didn't quite understand why I enjoyed this movie so much; all I knew was that it kicked some serious ass. I didn't comprehend Kurosawa's masterful use of space, his complex, conflicted characters, his wonderfully choreographed action sequences. I just wanted the samuari to win, the bandits to lose, and the villagers to live happily ever after. When the movie was over it seemed like three hours had passed in half an hour. And that, my friend, is the genius behind Kurosawa. Unlike some directors who feel like they need to hit you over the head with a titanium sledgehammer to show how great they are behind the camera, Kurosawa's cinematic brilliance is transparent. He doesn't have to make grand statements to prove himself. Rather, he lets his workmanship speak for itself in the nuances of his films, like the skillful use of his favorite transition, the wipe, or the how he used camera angles to balance out the scenes. His ingenuity is so unobtrusive you hardly know it's there, yet in the end you always feel like you've just watched another great Kurosawa film.
So who exactly was this Kurosawa cat anyway? First of all, he's probably the most well known Japanese director of all time, at least in the West. He's been the architect behind a quintessential collection of materworks that every movie buff worth his weight in DVDs know, including but not confined to Red Beard, High and Low, Ikiru, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon, and of course, his magnum opus, The Seven Samurai. Even his less acclaimed films, such as Drunken Angel or Sanjuro, are worth checking out, if only to catch a glimpse of a mastermind on his off day. Rashomon, his meditation on the subjectivity of reality, was the flick that broke him through to the West and made him into the really, really big figure that he is today, yet in his home country the movie went widely unnoticed. Like many Japanese directors that are worshipped outside of their home country, Kurosawa is seen as just another director by his own people. Why is this? Probably because, unlike his contemporaries, his style is seen as distinctly "Western" and therefore inaccessible to most Japanese audiences.
During the golden age of Japanese cinema, when Ozu was directing minimalist films with static camera angles, and Mizoguchi was making thirty different variations of the same story (the Japanese woman in peril), Kurosawa was forging new ground and making kickass flicks that dealt with contemporary Japanese predicaments (the everlasting conflict between traditional and modern, the fatalist preoccupation of the Japanese populace, etc.), filtered through a "Westernized" window that let the rest of the world peer onto Japanese stories and aesthetics. He was definitely a free thinker in what was at the time a very conformist Japanese society. I guess I could go into all the theory behind his style, the way he took the Japanese method, turned it on its head and filtered it through Western influences like John Ford's classic Hollywood westerns, American pulp crime stories, and even Shakespeare's plays, but in the end these points are pretty boring to read. In the end, all you need to realize is that his movies rocked, pure and simple.
But before you run out to the video store and whip out your rental card, a word to the wise. If you've never seen a Kurosawa masterpiece, check out the films with Toshirô Mifune in them first. Not that the others aren't worth watching, it's just that the ones with Mifune are better. Mifune was the most famous of Kurosawa's stock actors, a rabid alcoholic, and a superb performer. He was the real McCoy. Next time you find yourself cornered in an alley, surrounded by muggers with switchblades, just ask yourself, "What would Toshirô Mifune do?" and start smashing some heads in. There's just something about seeing Mifune act in Kurosawa's films; it's like you're watching reality itself. The relationship between the two was definitely mutual, because without Kurosawa, Mifune's career never really went anywhere ("I am proud of nothing I have done other than with him" were his exact words) and without Mifune, Kurosawa's films definitely took a dive in quality. Sure, he managed to pull a few more classics out of his ass (like Kagemusha and Ran), but in general his films seemed to lack that certain intangible quality without Mifune.
Not that the declining in his film's quality had any effect
on his status as a legend in the film industry. The classics from his
salad days were enough to influence just about every prominent director
in today's craptacular Hollywood landscape. Says George Lucas: "Kurosawa
was one of film's true greats. His ability to transform a vision into
a powerful work of art is unparalleled." I don't think anyone's going
be saying that about Lucas' weak directing in Attack of the Clones,
but it's the thought that counts. Says Steven Spielberg: "He was the pictorial
Shakespeare of our time. What encourages me is that he is the only director
who, right up until the end of his life, continued to make films that
were recognised as classics." Hell, that thick browed Martin Scorsese
even made a cameo in one of Kurosawa's final films, Dreams, and
dude can't even act! This,
along with the plethora of Hollywood remake (A Fistful of Dollars
was a nod to Yojimbo, The Magnificent Seven was the wild
west version of The Seven Samurai) only goes to show the lasting
effect his genius had on directors for generations to come. In my mind,
the true test of his universal appeal comes from the fact that his three-hour-long
Seven Samurai was able to keep my full attention when I was a snot-nosed
teenager with the attention span of a gnat, for every second of its duration.
This is no easy feat. Don't believe me? Try taking your 14-year-old cousin
to an Ingmar Berman film and see how fast he wants to get back to capping
cops on Grand Theft Auto 3.