BLASTS FROM THE PAST

The 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 for something.....
-- Chris Dashiell, Editor

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
Number Seventeen
(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
Mr. Deeds
Goes to Town

(Frank Capra,1936).
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
The 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

Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1962).
Based on the 1748 kabuki play Kanadehon Chushingura, this is one of the most lavish interpretations of a true event that is supposed to have occurred in 1703. Thus far, there are more than 200 film versions of the tale of 47 ronin (masterless samurai) who, after the unjust and fatal punishment of their lord, set in motion a move towards revenge that takes years to draw retributive blood. Chushingura presents a thorny ethical dilemma for the 47 ronin. After their master is unjustly forced to commit hari-kari, the now masterless samurai vow to behead the corrupt and carnal Lord Kira (Chûsha Ichikawa) in order to restore their clan's honor. But to take down Kira, the ronin are disrespecting the order of the Shogunate, of which Kira is a member. Much of the drama is comprised of honorable and courageous men wondering whether or not they should take down The Man. They weigh the pros and cons. They debate. They plan. They revise. They ponder. They debate again. But they eventually come to the inexorable conclusion that knowing what is right and doing something about it are two different things that not every man knows how to do. Just ask Hamlet. Or the United Nations Security Council.

With 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 critics.
-- Scott McGee

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

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976).
Many who have never seen this film know its infamous tagline ("I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"), but they may not know what a singular social satire they've missed. What was at the time of its production a scathing cautionary tale on where television was headed, today appears as an embarrassingly prophetic exposé on just how far it has sunk. In this world, nothing is sacred in the pursuit of ratings. Everything from interpersonal relationships to political movements are corrupted by the drive for market share. This theme has been done elsewhere, and it's an easy target. It has seldom, if ever, been so savagely attacked with the pitch perfect balance between pointedly over-the-top humor and painful honesty. Terrific performances abound, as three of the film's four Oscar wins (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight) came in the acting categories. Even the drab, flat photography and colorless art direction typical of this era doesn't detract much from the film's vigor.
-- Michael Buck

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927).
The movies are now buried under digital animation and up-to-the-minute computer graphics. The classic silver screen sems to have been lost to newer generations, but this is one classic that shouldn't stay covered in the gray dust of yesteryear. Sunrise is a story of redemption, forgiveness, and the restoration of sanity through the healing powers of love. After falling for the seductive and sinister city woman (Margaret Livingstone), the farmer husband (George O'Brien) hatches a plan to drown his wholesome country wife (Janet Gaynor). Tormented by his task, the husband pushes his anguish aside at the thought of being free to live in the city with his mistress. He puts his plan in motion by taking the wife boating for the afternoon, and like a man possessed starts to come towards her. But when she folds her hands in prayer to plead for her life, he snaps out of his lust-induced trance and rows to shore, only to have his wife run from him in horror. The husband runs after his true love to win her trust and beg her forgiveness. They then find themselves in the fast-paced city, which becomes a symbol of the couple's emotional separation and eventual unity. One of the most poignant scenes shows them entering a church, walking in on a wedding ceremony still in progress. Realizing that he nearly destroyed his own vows, the husband reestablishes his marriage with his wife outside the church.

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.
-- Erika Lake

I'm All Right Jack
(John Boulting, 1959).
Set just after the war, this classic comedy focuses on the struggle between management and workers. Ian Carmichael plays a bumbling upper-class innocent named Stanley Windrush, recently discharged from the army and out of work. Despite being from a rich family, he is penniless and hoping for a place in industry. He soon finds that his innocent honesty makes him unemployable in management, so, when offered a job on the shop floor in his rich uncle's factory. he reluctantly agrees. The factory union representative is Fred Kite, played perfectly by Peter Sellers. Kite is suspicious of Windrush from the start, and assumes he is an undercover man trying to make the workers do more work for less pay. However, when the personnel manager decides to sack Windrush, Kite suddenly comes down on the other side and threatens a strike if he is not reinstated. We soon find that Windrush's uncle Bertram (Dennis Price) and the slimy con man Sid Cox (Richard Attenborough) have put Windrush in place as part of a massive con, but what they don't bargain for is his idiotic honesty, and the plan soon falls into disarray. With heavy emphasis on the class struggle, I'm All Right Jack is often more bitter than it is humerous, but the film is a must for Peter Sellers fans, as it features one of his more interesting characters.
-- Mark Ashley

The Man With a Movie Camera
(Dziga Vertov, 1929).
This piece of eye candy from the late silent era has a lot more going on than is possible to grasp in one viewing. Every camera trick in the toolbag is employed to make a fascinating visual trip through a day in the life of a Russian city. More than that, though, it seems to take a position on, or at least describe, work and play in a communist society. My first time through, I was merely dazzled by the visuals. Since the film is presented with no intertitles, the intent of the film may not be immediately evident to those of us used to the narrative conventions of sound films. On the second pass, with the aid of the DVD commentary track provided by art professor Yuri Tsivian, I began to see more than just a fun experiment in "pure cinema". I expect further viewings to reveal even more.
-- Michael Buck

Awaara
(Raj Kapoor, 1951).
American musicals in their heyday were mostly about the lives of prominent show business personalities or small town middle class Americana, never about the outcast or the urban slum dweller. This is not the case with the films of Indian director Raj Kapoor, whose films call attention to the less fortunate and, in the case of Awaara, the vagabond whose life of crime is the inevitable outcome of growing up in the slums. Here, Kapoor's real father (Prithviraj Kapoor) plays a heartless judge who accuses his pregnant wife (Leela Chitnis) of infidelity after she is kidnapped by bandits. The stern judge staunchly believes that a thief's son will always be a thief and a good man's son will always turn out good. In a series of flashbacks, the film dramatizes the unfortunate consequences of this belief system.

The 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.
-- Howard Schumann

The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940).
The Museum of Fine Arts, here in Boston, showed a new print of The Great Dictator last Saturday night. I hadn't realized that it was Chaplin's first talking film. I'd also forgotten how funny it is. I saw films like City Lights and Modern Times in college. At that time, I had a sort of intellectual appreciation of his movement -- his walking/dancing, his slapstick -- but it didn't move me or make me laugh that much. I get it now. It took guts and skill to make a film about Hitler in 1940 that is earnest and angry, but can also represent Hitler as a bit of a funny, laughable child. Chaplin's Hitler ("Adenoid Hynkel") does a famous little ballet with a globe that turns out to be a balloon -- the scene is somehow silly, light as a feather, and profound, all at once. And nothing can match Chaplin's parody of Hitler's crazed stadium-oratory -- pidgin German, various barking fits of guttural, all descending into abject gibberish, screaming, flailing, provoking the applause of what seem like millions of auditors . . . I laughed and laughed.

How 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.
-- Les Phillips

Me and Kurosawa: Why I Love the Master
by Alex Kidd

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.
-- Alex Kidd


©2003 CineScene