Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954) - #14

Life is like a real battle. There is no return match.

Though it's a story drawn from medieval Japanese history that I had little familiarity with going in, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto still felt pretty familiar to me. This first installment (which I'll refer to as Samurai I from here on out) of a film trilogy makes for an excellent primer on classic samurai cinema, even better for a general interest moviegoer than the more famous and celebrated release from that same year, Seven Samurai. I say that not because Seven Samurai is lacking in any respect, nor because of any perceived obscurity in Kurosawa's presentation of a powerful, riveting drama. It's just that the story of Samurai I follows the comfortably familiar "heroic journey" arc that supplied the foundation of so many popular and beloved epics over the past thirty-odd years - and will presumably continue to for decades to come. It's the kind of film that can help novices forget that they're reading subtitles and watching a movie that's over 50 years old, once they get swept up in the spectacle and settle in with archetypal characters who fit right in with the heroes and villains we instinctively recognize and react to within moments of their screen entrance.

To test this hypothesis, I invite you to watch this trailer, with untranslated Japanese subtitles. There may be a few of you who can read them (my daughter could probably do a passable job of translation, generally speaking) but even if you can't, my hunch is that you'll get the gist of the story a mere 2 minutes and 48 seconds.

For the benefit of easy reference, I offer the following recap of familiar tropes (that were, I'll remind you, still fairly fresh when this film debuted):
  • The stoic hero brushing off the pleas of his true (but unconsummated) lover to accompany him on a journey he knows he must make alone
  • The pulse-pounding charge of tumultuous battle that gives our naive protagonist his first chance to demonstrate the lion-hearted courage that separates him from the rank and file
  • A quick recap and intro of the main characters - aforementioned charismatic, virile hero and delicately attractive female love interest; the hero's bumbling, cowardly and troublesome sidekick; the sexy young tart who supplies a little music and a lot of eye candy; the wise, benevolent elder who helps the hero transform his raw talent into focused discipline; the shrewd temptress whose schemes and betrayals set the plot in motion
  • Back to our female lead, virtuously pleading once again and demonstrating her willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of the man she loves
  • A vivid highlight reel of lusty embraces intercut with sword-wielding hand-to-hand combat
  • Tense chase scenes and white-knuckle, barely plausible last minute escapes
  • Nice scenery, both natural and period-architectural
  • And did I mention it's all filmed in glorious Eastmancolor? (For 1954, that was still a pretty big deal, especially in Japan)
Of course, Samurai I has more going for it than just run-of-the-mill action/adventure cliches. Its exotic setting, the powerful screen presence of Toshiro Mifune and a narrative drive that engages with spiritual and philosophical aspects of its protagonist's interior development make Samurai I a distinctly enjoyable variation on themes that have proven to be so bankable ever since the trilogy formula became something of a standard in the early 1980s.

A lot of the most popular blockbusters in recent memory came to us in this easily digestible, tripartite format: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Back to the Future and many other, usually lesser, imitators. The particular stylistic method employed in the Samurai series, composed of clearly defined opening, middle and concluding sections that tell one long, complex story, also sets this apart from earlier trilogies released by the Criterion Collection that at least partially predate the Samurai films. I'm thinking of Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, Rossellini's War Trilogy and the Renoir Stage and Spectacle box in particular, which all fit together thematically but don't link together a continuous narrative like the Samurai films do. The closest threesome of films resembling the Samurai Trilogy that comes to mind is Eisenstein's never-completed Ivan the Terrible (only Parts I and II survive), which succumbed first to the pressures of Stalinist censorship and ultimately to its director's failing health and death. But even that story of a traumatized youth who rose to the imperial Russian throne, as powerful as it is, seems more like the extravagant creation of a visionary genius than the kind of broadly accessible, timeless myth that easily packs the theaters when presented with style and confidence.

Since I'm only reviewing Samurai I here (the other two films will have to wait until I reach their turn in my chronology of Criterion releases), I can't comment on where the story will go, but the basic contours shouldn't be so hard to figure out for anyone who recognizes the pattern. I'll start with a summary of what happens in Episode I. Takezo, a wild young man without family or personal connections, decides to put in with an army passing through his village. He's convinced of his ability to fight his way to samurai status based on his brawn and fearless determination alone. His pal Matahachi would also like to answer the war cry, but he's obviously conflicted between his family obligations, including his engagement to Otsu. Despite his promise to Otsu that he won't leave her, he immediately breaks that commitment in the next scene and happily joins Takezo as they walk off to do battle.

They quickly learn that the army has a special place for volunteers like them - digging ditches! But in the pivotal (and famous) Battle of Sekigahara, Takezo and Matahachi manage to survive the slaughter of their comrades and make a hasty escape, far from home. They stumble through the darkness into the isolated homestead of two women, mother and daughter, who ultimately turn out to be seductresses. The weak and foolish Matahachi gets lured into their trap, but Takezo recognizes the hazard and leaves, but only after valiantly rescuing them from danger. Having offended the local authorities in doing so, Takezo becomes a reluctant outlaw, though his only intention was to make a name for himself and return home to enjoy the respect he thinks he deserves. Now a hunted man, he does what he must do to ensure his own safety despite the bounty placed on his head and the cruel abuses heaped on any who would assist him along the way. His wild fury exacts a dreadful cost on many of those who pursue him, until one day he is finally captured by Takuan, a wise priest who sees in him the potential for greatness, but only after he's been brought low - figuratively speaking, that is. In actuality, his humiliation and ultimate transformation come partly as a result of being lifted up high: Takezo spends a fair amount of screen time bound in ropes, hanging from a tree!

Through this ordeal, Takezo takes on a new identity, becoming Musashi Miyamoto (based on a historic personage, Musashi seems to have the same perennially adaptable screen appeal as figures like Robin Hood and King Arthur, at least to Japanese filmmakers.) The audience knows that beneath the surface of this wiser, disciplined warrior there resides a savage fury that could yet be unleashed at any moment. We don't get to see much of the valiant Musashi in action quite yet - that will be saved for future installments. Samurai I is the story of how the hero got that way. The last we see of him is a proverbial stride into the sunset as Musashi manfully departs the comforts of love and leisure that surely could be his, if he so chose, in pursuit of the undefined destiny that awaits.

The Samurai I DVD itself is a relic of Criterion's early years, a bare bones edition that lists only the theatrical trailer (posted above) as a Special Feature. Even the cover art indicates a lack of attention to detail in that it features a scene that doesn't appear in this film (the famous sword duel on the beach that actually occurs in the series finale.) Quite a contrast to the lush graphic design and abundant extras of contemporary Criterion releases. In this case, a commentary track isn't all that necessary; as in the case of Twenty-Four Eyes released that same year, the emotional vocabulary, cinematic techniques and broad themes communicate themselves adequately without much need for expert illumination. And I'm not really too concerned with the film's historical veracity either - the legend of Musashi is sufficient for me. Especially on hi-def TVs, we see the flaws of a fairly primitive transfer, with numerous scenes turning out very dark and difficult to distinguish, but as DVD Beaver makes clear, it's still the best one on the market. Oddly enough, the trailer looks a lot better on my screen (less pixelated, warmer colors, more film-like) than the main feature - usually, it's the other way around. I also get the sense that we're seeing a cut version of the original. Not necessarily censored (I doubt there was anything much more explicit than the few glimpses of blood we see when wounded villains fall back grimacing into tight close-ups) but maybe just shortened or irreparably damaged. There are a fair number of dark jump cuts where the screen goes black for an instant, giving the sense that something got deleted. But despite these complaints, I still enjoyed a number of gorgeous color sequences that offer enough promise to make me wonder if a restored, upgraded version of Samurai I and its follow-ups will ever be released by Criterion or anyone else. I'm not sure how big a market there really is for a new edition of the Samurai Trilogy, but in any case, it's worth checking out for anyone who wants to get in on the ground floor of what turned out to be a flourishing, vibrant and influential movement in Japanese and ultimately global cinema.

Link to my review of Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Next: Ordet

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) - #442

If you ever feel like crying, come to my house. We'll have a good cry together.

In the annals of Japanese film history, 1954 represents a pinnacle of achievement. I won't say that it was the greatest year in that nation's cinema (because I just haven't seen enough to have a strong opinion) but it sure looks ready to take on all challengers. In this series, we've already seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, still wielding massive influence over 50 years later, a timeless epic. Then there's Sansho the Bailiff, a superior, virtually revered masterpiece from Kenji Mizoguchi. Rounding out Japan's "Big Three" classic directors, we could include Ozu's Tokyo Story. Although that film was released in November of 1953, it probably made a large and lasting cultural impact the following year since people didn't all flock to the theater on Opening Weekend and promptly forget about the movie a week later like they do nowadays. Those are three career-defining films from the three most widely-admired auteurs of Japanese cinema! Add to that another, regrettably non-Criterion film, Gojira (better known in the USA as Godzilla) and you have a rather imposing foursome. But when it came around to handing out the awards for Japanese movies in 1954, there's one title that even though it's not well-known nowadays, and would be even more obscure if it hadn't been released by Criterion, still cleaned up on all the competition: Twenty-Four Eyes.

No, Twenty-Four Eyes is not the translated name of some grotesque monster rising up to challenge Godzilla, nor is Twenty-Four Eyes the horrific bounty pursued by a roving band of savage samurai warriors gone berserk. Rather, they are the collective gaze of twelve innocent, adorable schoolchildren who look plaintively to their beloved school teacher, Miss Oishi (which means "big stone"), whom they nickname Miss Pebble because her diminutive stature fails to match up with her family name. This sweet, sentimental melodrama serves us a local-scale, domesticated epic telling the story of what happened to these characters over the course of twenty pivotal years of then-recent history, from 1928 to 1948. It doesn't require an intimate knowledge of the cultural context to realize that, for Japan, those two decades were as tumultuously tragic as any similar stretch of time in their history. Twenty-Four Eyes played an important part, nearly a decade after the conclusion of World War II, in leading the nation through the cathartic reckoning process it needed in order to come to grips with its recent past and become the modern Japan that we know and love today.

The story of Twenty-Four Eyes takes place on Shodoshima, a picturesque, rural island in Japan's Inland Sea. The lack of urban development and the island's rustic way of life are presented in an opening montage, tranquil scenes of people at work using basic tools, wearing traditional garb. We're quickly introduced to a column of children marching down an unpaved road, singing a song, the first of many, many such sequences! If the sight, and more importantly the sound of these young "children's choirs" chirping away melodiously tends to get on your nerves, consider this your forewarning: Twenty-Four Eyes is not the film for you. The occasional use of this device that we see in Kurosawa and Ozu films becomes a huge component of Twenty-Four Eyes - I don't think I'm exaggerating if I estimate that probably about one-third of the film's audio track involves kids singing. Add to that the frequent inclusion of familiar Western instrumental tunes like "Auld Lang Syne" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and I think you get a sense of how director Keisuke Kinoshita intends to work his audience's emotions. He wants to bring out the tears - he practically insists on it, and relentlessly pursues his goal to the point of risking overkill (and I'm sure that many will conclude he crosses that line somewhere in the last 30-40 minutes of the film, as one grief-inflicting crisis after another piles on to afflict our long-suffering protagonist.) Let me put it this way: if the weepy trajectory of a film like Magnificent Obsession takes you on a journey you'd just as soon avoid, then steer yourself clear of Twenty-Four Eyes.

All that emotion is stirred up for a commendable, laudable purpose. We are, after all, addressing the theme of healing on both the personal and collective level after enduring excruciating trauma of almost unimaginable proportions. We follow Miss Oishi through her career, first winning the affections of her students while humbly enduring the scornful suspicions of their parents, who view her as "tough" and "modern" because she rides a bicycle from her home to their village (about an hour's ride away) and dresses in a Western style. She's an intelligent, perceptive woman who takes sincere interest in her students as individuals, teaching them in accordance with her informed, progressive (but not politicized) principles. Other than a few very brief introductory scenes, we rarely see her and the kids cooped up in a classroom. Instead, her approach to education is to lead them on long walks across the gloriously unspoiled landscape, along winding trails through cherry orchards and along the seashore, singing merry songs of Old Mother Crow and her precious babies, and the haircut that Mister Crab gives to Mister Rabbit. This first third of the film is definitely the most magical portion, probably the segment I would pop into the DVD player whenever I'm in the mood for a kawaii overload. Hideko Takamine, the actress playing Miss Oishi, is fetchingly beautiful in these scenes and it's easy to see why the children would bond with such a delightful teacher.

However, her willingness to inject so much fun and merriment into the educational process only raises suspicions with the parents, who fret about their kids getting the wrong kind of ideas, not enough discipline, not accustomed to the toil and drudgery that awaits them.

One afternoon, an innocent schoolboys' prank results in an injury that forces Miss Oishi to ultimately give up her teaching assignment in the village, since she can no longer ride her bike into town. While she recovers at home, the children realize how much they miss her, especially as they adjust to the tutelage of an older male teacher, played by familiar Ozu lead Chishu Ryu. He's not very musical, easily frustrated and uninspiring. In a charming demonstration of youthful naivete, the kids concoct a scheme to sneak away and visit their dear Miss Pebble even though they lack a clear idea of where they're going or how long it will take to walk to her home. The group makes its way along the road, wandering for quite some time, with their parents only gradually realizing that their little ones have gone missing, until a chance encounter leads to a tearful reunion between teacher and pupils. What could have been a ridiculously maudlin scene in the hands of a less skilled director actually turned out quite effective, in my opinion at least. The tenderness of feeling felt very genuine and I have to credit the child actors for their ability to convince me.

This first soulful outburst sets the stage for numerous similar separations and reunions, and I could go on at length outlining the emotive ups & downs that follow as the years pass on screen. The children grow up a bit, rejoining Miss Pebble when they graduate from their village school and start taking the bus to the larger middle school where she transferred to after recovering from her injury. Tensions develop as Japan moves further into its militaristic, aggressive mindset with the expectation that teachers will focus on developing loyal, patriotic children willing to follow orders without question. The pressure to replace lighthearted folk songs with stern nationalistic anthems begins to sap the energy out of Miss Oishi's style of teaching, and things only get worse as government censorship and oppression lead to arrests and book-burnings. She recognizes the futility of protesting these developments - her reservations about the direction her country is moving would hardly influence the opinions of the men in charge, and besides that, her temperament is resolutely humble and self-effacing as befits her role in that culture, so open confrontation of authority is out of the question.

Besides the lovely cinematography and fascinating (though probably idealized) look back at pre-war Japan, I think Twenty-Four Eyes achieves its most remarkable insights in skillfully portraying the dilemma of conscience that many Japanese citizens, particularly women, must have felt throughout the 1930s as they saw the harshness, cruelty and waste incurred by the government's imperialistic ambitions but were powerless to change. The undeniable tragedies of young people killed in battle, thwarted in ambitions or irreversibly harmed due to the other deprivations suffered through times of economic depression and war are presented in memorable, evocative ways as Miss Oishi does her best to bring small measures of solace to her students as they each cope with their respective setbacks. And of course, she had to endure her own share of familial and relational crisis as things really come to a head in the last half hour. But if there is a basic flaw in the film, it may be that the catalog of adversity is explored too thoroughly, as if every last tear has to be squeezed out of the hankie before we can finally draw the story to its close. (And even though this is a long film - 2 1/2 hours - I think the payoff at its conclusion is poignant and memorable enough to reward a viewer's patience.)

Of course, I offer this tentative criticism from the perspective of a man who's lived in relative affluence, comfort and ease for most of my adult life - certainly nothing I've been through can compare with the kind of mind-blowing losses that so many Japanese citizens suffered during the decades portrayed on film. It would be cruel of me to dismiss Twenty-Four Eyes for any perceived excesses of sentimentality, because that kind of stance trivializes the experiences that made this film so necessary and valuable to its Japanese audience at the time. Though it never portrayed the immediate horrors of destroyed cities or shell-shocked soldiers, Twenty-Four Eyes opened the door for even more direct engagement with the events and aftermath of the war than had occurred previously in Japanese cinema. In the next few years, films like The Burmese HarpFires on the Plain and The Human Condition would raise the graphic intensity in showing what that generation of young men experienced. I'm not sure those films would have been made, or would have found a receptive audience, if Twenty-Four Eyes hadn't cleared a path for them in the cultural consciousness.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

La Strada (1954) - #219

If that pebble is useless, then so are the stars.

Just as I was getting used to the pleasures of the wide-screen modernistic Technicolor tones of Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession, my multi-year journey through the Criterion Collection now thrusts me back into the gritty 4:3 black & white Neorealist milieu of Federico Fellini's La Strada. This is the film that pushed Fellini to prominence among the celebrated directors of the 1950s and launched him on a path that would ultimately honor his style of film-making with as high a tribute as language can bestow, an adjective based on his name: Felliniesque. 

Since I'm really just getting my first sustained exposure to Fellini's career arc in this series of films I watch and then blog about, I'll leave it to experts more informed than me to comment on the significance of La Strada in cinematic history. You can read their reviews by clicking on the links embedded in this post. I'll approach it more on the basis of what I saw and felt while watching it. A number of elements in its story seem fantastic or simply implausible, for today's world at least, which leads me to see La Strada as a kind of fable, a contemporary myth set in the gruffly photogenic land- and cityscapes of still-rebuilding (or simply unbuilt) postwar Italy.

As the credits close, Gelsomina, a young adult woman I'd call cognitively impaired but could also be described as simple-minded, addled, slow, retarded, etc., is seen walking somewhat aimlessly in the sun along an empty, undeveloped beach. She's the oldest daughter still living in a decrepit single-parent home. Before we learn much else about her or her family, she's sold into the service of Zampano, an itinerant entertainer (of sorts), who pays the mother 10,000 lira (worth about $20 at the time) and a few groceries tossed in for good measure. A woman named Rosa, Zampano's female companion and Gelsomina's older sister, has just died under unexplained circumstances. Zampano needs someone to take Rosa's place and has reason to believe that this destitute woman, with four younger children still under her care, is ready to strike a bargain. I don't know if this crass kind of transaction was at all common in Italy either before or after the war, but Fellini thrusts before us an outrageous and pitiful scene of exploitation. We quickly recognize that Zampano is a crude, self-centered brute who's undoubtedly experienced more than his share of rough treatment in life. The emotional scars inflicted by his undisclosed past have snuffed out the last flicker of empathy within him. He's a man of simple appetites and diminished self-awareness, and he's willing to inflict whatever hardships are necessary on those around him to satisfy his cravings and avoid the burdens of reflective thinking or concern for others. Presumably Fellini saw a fair number of people living in both of these conditions (traumatized dissociation and sociopathic cruelty, to apply a quick armchair diagnosis to their behaviors) in the decade since the end of World War II - but he never makes a clear connection or even mentions the war in the course of the story. La Strada takes place in a nearly ahistorical situation - the technology of Zampano's "American" motorcycle and a few appearances of large-scale housing projects on the outskirts of Rome are the only indicators that I can think of offhand to give La Strada anything resembling a date.

Zampano's livelihood is based on a strongman act he stages in town squares, where he wraps a chain around his chest, hooks the ends together, then pops the hook by filling his lungs like a tire and expanding his pectoral muscles, collecting tossed coins from the gawkers afterward. He'll then likely as not spend some of the proceeds in a local saloon that evening, find a whore to spend the night with, and move on to the next village down La Strada (the road) the following day. We see him perform the stunt several times throughout the film, offering a rote monologue each time to warn the squeamish and build suspense. Though it's an impressive enough feat in terms of sheer strength, Fellini's decision to show it over and over again impresses upon us what a pathetic dead-end Zampano has fallen into, and his ultimate powerlessness, despite his animalistic strength, to forge a better way to make it in this world.

Gelsomina fits into this rather futile scheme by serving more or less as Zampano's slave. That's a strong term to describe it but I don't think I'm exaggerating. He uses physical and emotional violence to keep her under his control, and there's clear hints that he takes sexual advantage of her as well, though public mores of the times prevented Fellini from saying so explicitly. Gelsomina's response to his rough treatment is complex and multi-layered as she goes through moods covering the range from fear of abuse, dejection over her inadequacy, confusion over what to expect next and frustration when her hopes for reciprocal feelings in the relationship are thwarted by Zampano's inability to see anyone else's needs. Gelsomina's complicity with Zampano, and her ultimate allegiance to him, can be seen nowadays as somewhat troubling to the extent that her "cuteness" (when she employs her intuitive gifts for clowning and whimsy into Zampano's traveling act) and steadfastly dependent loyalty seem to be held up as redeeming virtues when they also fit so indisputably into the "battered spouse" syndrome. I'm not sure that Fellini the filmmaker is someone we should turn to as a reliable authority on issues relating to gender equity and healthy interpersonal relationships in any case, but I guess I just feel the need at the moment to declare that I wish in any kind of real-life situation resembling Gelsomina's and Zampano's, that she would get out and get help!

But rather than subject La Strada much further to my egalitarian critique, I'll stay in the realm of seeing it as a mythic "fall and (potential) redemption" story that Fellini apparently intended. Zampano and Gelsomina continue their travels as they and we learn little bits about each other in a series of episodic encounters, each one richly imaged and evocative enough to generate insightful mini-essays of their own. A solitary horse clomping mysteriously down a darkened street. Gelsomina's sudden fall into a hidden hay bin, where she spends the night in a stubborn fit of pique to prove her point to the recalcitrant Zampano. Gelsomina's encounter with three enigmatic strolling military musicians, and another one later with a "special needs" child held captive by nuns in a secretive upstairs chamber. Various parades and processionals. Abandoned town squares in the wee hours of the night. The kind of stuff that future writers would call Felliniesque.

One night, into the dysfunctional situation stumbles a character known as The Fool, a high wire walker who Gelsomina first sees as she stands in the midst of a crowded piazza. As Fools are known to do, he taunts and teases his audience, even extending an invitation for anyone to come up and share a plate of pasta with him should they so desire. Gelsomina looks for an instant as if she's just about to make a move to go up there with him, she's so drawn to this charmingly reckless character. They make eye contact after his performance and then their paths cross the next day as Zampano approaches the circus that The Fool travels with to weigh his options about joining up with them himself.

Gelsomina hears music, the evocative theme that wafts all through the film, and discovers that it's The Fool displaying another of his many talents, playing the world's tiniest violin. (This observation prompts a brief side comment from me to forewarn viewers: no matter if you're watching with the Italian or the English soundtrack, be ready for some poorly synced dubbing! The dialog in both languages was dropped in after the filming took place, with little regard for how well it matched up with the visuals.)

The Fool and Zampano have a previous history that may have involved some sort of entanglement with Rosa and in any case renders them both implacably antagonistic toward each other. The Fool is obviously the more intelligent of the two and admits that he gives in to irresistible urges to provoke and ridicule his adversary. Zampano simply wants to punish The Fool for all the slights he's had to endure. Their conflict comes to a head   when Zampano goes after him with a knife, leading to his arrest and presenting Gelsomina with her best chance to leave her captor behind for good when the circus master invites her to leave with them while Zampano sits in jail.

Her fateful decision is made that night, under The Fool's tutelage, as he imparts to her his unsophisticated philosophy, quoted at the beginning of this article, that all things, even the most seemingly insignificant, have their value and purpose. Of course The Fool, lacking God's omniscience, can't articulate what those purposes and values are, but his declaration is enough to clarify Gelsomina's options. She picks up the pebble that The Fool used for his object lesson and, taking it as a totem, rejects the invitation of both the circus and The Fool to accompany them, deciding that her purpose is to stick with Zampano to whatever destination his particular journey on La Strada will take him.

Gelsomina's resolve is soon tested by both Zampano's indifference to her dedicated sacrifice on his behalf and further opportunities to leave him for more favorable circumstances. A return to the seashore reminds her of her childhood home. A chance meeting with a stranded nun on La Strada presents Gelsomina the option of taking up residence in a convent, a safe and pious choice if there ever was one, but still not persuasive to Gelsomina's sense of her calling, despite the obviously sentimental play on audience sympathies both then and now. Gelsomina's destiny isn't necessarily martyrdom, but it's still sufficiently difficult to make even the chaste, austere comforts of a thousand-year-old nunnery too lavish for her to accept.

La Strada is a film filled with departures, each one gaining in pathos and poignancy as the disappointments and setbacks mount for both Zampano and Gelsomina. The road before them seems to lead further and further out into the wilderness, as if they'd exhausted the potentials of civilization, or simply discovered that ordinary society has no place for the two of them. One afternoon as they travel a sparsely populated stretch of the countryside, they unexpectedly meet up with The Fool as he's trying to repair or re-inflate a flat tire. In this abandoned setting, the Strong Man finally has the upper hand and carries out a revenge that leads only to further trouble, a final crisis that drains Gelsomina of her last spark of functional lucidity and diminishes the value she holds for the man to whom she's stood by so faithfully. Zampano's abandonment of Gelsomina once again shows his capacity for cruelty, but a few key gestures in his departure also indicate the sign of an embryonic conscience, though one that never develops fully on screen. The film's riveting conclusion, by now shifted solely upon the haggard forlorn drifter that Zampano has become, offers at least a sense of possibility that as he nears the conclusion of his days, some kind of clarifying breakthrough experience may yet have taken place. La Strada ends where it began, on a beach, but late at night, and not with the sobs of a mother selling her daughter into captivity but with the mournful cry of a broken man, perhaps realizing that he's been his own prison guard, always fumbling for the key that might allow his release from bondage. Or maybe just grappling with his status as a pebble in a universe filled with stars.

*       *       *

Rather than post a particular scene from La Strada (most of those I found on YouTube lack subtitles anyway), I'll share this "photovideo" made by a fan of the film. It uses a lot of stills and a few short clips from what is probably a familiar film to most readers of this blog anyway. Yeah, the images are low res and the aspect ratio is messed up and the music unfortunately fails to evoke the Nino Rota original score, but it's still a labor of love and stands less chance of being pulled down due to TOS violations (as has happened to some of the vids I posted on this blog last year.) I think it serves as a nice refresher to some of the iconic scenes from a justly famous and beloved entry into the canon of world cinema.

Just a quick word about the DVD itself - nice transfer, a typically solid commentary in addition to the two authorized language tracks. Minimal extras despite the two-disc set - Disc 2 holds only the hour-long "Autobiography of Federico Fellini," a collection of short interviews the director gave over the course of his career, often on the set of his films or in the context of award ceremonies and press conferences. The clips are assembled in chronological order, so we see Fellini growing more famous as it progresses. The film actually sheds a lot more light on Fellini's later career, hardly referencing earlier films like Variety Lights or The White Sheik, and mainly mentioning I Vitelloni in hindsight, since newsreels and TV shows had little reason to interview Fellini until after La Strada had made him an international sensation. Still, it's a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes at the making of his films, and a useful reference that I'll be returning to in the future, as we have a lot more Fellini yet to come!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - #457

I always danced with my eyes closed anyway.

For the purposes of this blog, I've been watching films from the 1950s since last October. But it's only now, with Magnificent Obsession, that I feel like I'm really watching a movie from The Fifties, the time when respectable ladies over the age of 20 wore gloves, hats and jewelry on everyday social outings while men in sport jackets drove massive gleaming convertibles and kept a pipe handy for them to puff at knowingly whenever the occasion called for them to show gravitas. The Fifties, that mythic, quasi-legendary era immediately preceding my personal entrance into this world which through a variety of media inlets has haunted my imagination in much the same way that the late Dr. Wayne Phillips haunted our wayward (but steadily rehabilitating) protagonist Bobby Merrick. Born as I was in 1961, heir to my young parents' cultural attitudes and teeny-bopper record collections (now sadly dispersed over the course of many rummage sales and Goodwill donations), The Fifties are defined in my mind by many of the symbolic and emotional cues that won Magnificent Obsession a big popular audience when it was originally released. As we see in the revival of interest in and critical reappraisal of director Douglas Sirk over the past couple decades, his fascinating application of disciplined technique to ostensibly schmaltzy material continues to stimulate curiosity as to just how such a remarkable cinematic artifact like the movie we're about to ponder ever came to exist.

For starters, just look for a moment at that poster. Demurely sophisticated Jane Wyman, clad in formal evening gown and pearl necklace, clutches a wincing, emotionally bereft Rock Hudson to her bosom, eyes cast heavenward against an idyllic azure sky. Though she takes comfort in the strong masculine grip of his hands on her back, she's clearly the one in control, cradling his head, fingers entwined in hair, tenderly yet insistently holding him close, letting go only when she is ready. Is it apparent to those who haven't seen the movie that she is blind, and that her blindness is indirectly attributable to his overbearing invasion of her privacy, an ill-timed attempt on his part to woo her when she was not yet ready to make herself available to his charms? No, knowledge of her blindness is not essential to our perception of this image or its significance, but the added information does impart a new level of poignancy to its message. The purity of this embrace, though it's a pose we never see in the film itself, serves as an iconic marker of the realm we are entering. Magnificent Obsession is a picture made for women, according to the gender role expectations of its day, and for the appreciation of anyone who puts a primary value on concerns of the heart, the frailty of relationships and the exquisite anguish and self-sacrifice we all too often must endure in order to give proper service to those we love.

And because I'm a man who grew up taught to scorn or lampoon "sob stories" like this, I've had to do a fair amount of deconstructing as I work out a level-headed approach and response to Magnificent Obsession. My first impulse was to let the film simply reinforce some of the caricatured notions about the Fifties I alluded to above, to see it through a lens partly ironic and partly disdainful of the overtly weepy and manipulative machinations of its plot, and the seemingly naive, simplistic characters it puts up on the screen. Viewing a production like this as amusing camp or brushing it off as a corny tear-jerker is an easy thing to do in 2010, and has the effect of keeping a viewer situated "above" and thereby detached from material that is otherwise a little more difficult to process in comfortable terms. I was helped in this regard by the supplemental materials on this Criterion DVD, which put me in touch with Magnificent Obsession's source material: a phenomenal quasi-religious best-selling book from 1929 and a fairly popular film adaptation from 1935 that I reviewed over a year ago. It may be helpful to click that link if you want to follow my thoughts about the background story. But now that I've watched the main feature in this set, I can see Criterion's stroke of genius in providing the earlier version for comparison, because Douglas Sirk's adaptation shines ever so brightly in contrast - and I'm not just talking about the gorgeous Technicolor, though that certainly helps.

The effect of watching both interpretations of Magnificent Obsession is to realize how important directorial discretion is when communicating the essence of a story. The main elements from 1935 are carried over into the version from two decades later: Bobby Merrick, a spoiled, impetuous, rich young man suffers a boating accident that requires the use of a ventilator machine to save his life. The machine's lack of availability at that moment leads to the death of a noted surgeon who had a heart attack shortly after Merrick's accident. Helen, the doctor's widow, to whom he'd only been married a few months, and his adult daughter Joyce (probably no more than ten years younger than her step-mother) are devastated by his loss, and their grief is only compounded when they discover that the presumably wealthy doctor has been rendered nearly bankrupt due to a mysterious and secretive habit he's practiced of giving money away with no expectation of repayment. A third woman, the loyal nurse Nancy, accompanies these two, each serving as feminine archetypes for the largely female audience to identify with. Reduced to a state of unexpected dependency, and harboring resentment that the reckless playboy Merrick walked away unscathed from the calamity, the women face an uncertain future. For his part, Merrick is beginning to grow weary of the party life, and something within his conscience is stricken when he comes to grips with the circumstances that led to his resuscitation and the good doctor's demise. A chance encounter with Helen stirs his interest, but her dignity and genuine offense at his brash intrusions into her life as he seeks to both make amends and win her heart using his usual methods thwarts his intentions. In the midst of all this, Bobby has yet another chance encounter with a disciple of the late doctor, who explains to Bobby the secret of "coming into contact with the source of infinite power," that is, the Magnificent Obsession that the title of all these works refers to: the practice of undisclosed philanthropy, altruism in its purest form and for its own sake - supposedly, the same discipline practiced by Jesus Christ, lo those many centuries ago.

I will call a brief time-out here to blow the "hokum" whistle on this last metaphysical bit,what basically amounts to an obligatory but minor sidebar, retained just to have an honest degree of continuity with a narrative device that was probably very well known to most of Magnificent Obsession's original viewers. I think it's very fair to say that few if any of the key players involved with the film's production actually believed or practiced that principle. And tracing its lineage back to Jesus is rather dubious, highly disputable at the very least. But it couldn't be abandoned altogether. Instead, the secret giving was employed to serve as a rationale for a series of kind deeds that the penitent Bobby performed as a way of demonstrating his true love for Helen. His overly impetuous pursuit of her, while she was still in mourning no less, leads to another tragic accident in which she's struck blind, with only the slightest hope of ever regaining her sight through a risky surgical procedure. These horrible coincidences are enough to strain the credulity of many viewers, but that's just the beginning, as we are asked to believe that Bobby could re-enter her life under an assumed name and once again make romantic advances toward her, this time with remarkable success. And furthermore, that he could make arrangements behind the scenes to provide for the financial well-being of Helen and her companions and arrange for a trio of world-renowned eye specialists to meet with her for private consultation in Switzerland, all without his involvement ever being suspected. And the pile-up of incredibly fortuitous encounters doesn't stop there, but I'll spare you any further recap.

My long-winded argument is to establish that both movies follow this same implausible trajectory, but whereas the 1935 version is awkward, mawkish, emotionally confused, preposterous and eminently mockable (which makes it, in its own way, rather entertaining), anyone trying a similar teardown of Douglas Sirk's achievements here risks looking like an uninformed clod who's simply missed the point. I'm not saying anyone who appreciates cinema is obligated to enjoy Magnificent Obsession (it's clearly not going to appeal to many tastes) or that the film is somehow beyond criticism. Just don't make the mistake of dismissing it as drivel or taking it as a joke. At its heart, Magnificent Obsession, for all of its violations of the terms of real life as we know it, is a confidently constructed, aesthetically pleasing and genuinely emotive work of art. Elegant compositions, numerous glimpses into the burgeoning consumerist heyday of the USA's Eisenhower Era and a insightful glimpse into the aspirations of women and men who suffer and sacrifice for the sake of love, all this and more makes for a fascinating two hour visit to a world not quite our own, but close enough to tell us something about the one in which we live.

I want to wrap up this post with a few words of tribute to Jane Wyman. Over on the IMDb chat board, and elsewhere I think it's safe to assume, she takes some knocks for not being sufficiently attractive to warrant the attention of a dashing hunk like Rock Hudson (in the role that set him on the path to major stardom.) She's clearly older than him, of course, and the next time they'd be paired together on screen, in Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, their age difference and the scandalized reactions it triggered from others, would supply most of the dramatic tension. But I have to say here that I found her perfectly cast in this role and grew to admire her performance with each of the three viewings I gave to Magnificent Obsession. She carries herself with such graceful dignity, channeling deep emotions with subtle facial gestures, always remaining in perfectly composed control, even when angrily rebuking Bobby or weeping joyfully in his embrace. I think she must have served as an effective iconic presence for many women in the audience who shared the anxiety of getting older, past their prime, dreading the possibility of finding themselves early widows, wondering if they could ever find love again in such circumstances. The psychological and ethical complexities that spring from Helen's status as a seemingly independent woman oblivious to the anonymous financial support of a once-spurned suitor remain to be sifted through for those who want to spend more time figuring out what Magnificent Obsession really means. The basic motions of pursuit, rejection, courtships both elliptical and forthright, and the final consummation and redemption of two pain-scarred souls coming together though - that's pretty simple, direct and timeless. I'm content just watching Magnificent Obsession on that level, for now anyway.

But if you want to dig a bit further into the deeper levels of Magnificent Obsession's critical analysis, try some of the links above, or just sit back and watch Quentin Tarantino and Elvis Mitchell discuss it in this clip (h/t @snobbyfilmguy on Twitter for bringing it to my attention!)

Magnificent Obsession - Criterion Collection
Next: La Strada

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Seven Samurai (1954) - #2

This is the nature of war: by protecting others, you save yourself.

Calling a work of art a "masterpiece" is usually an exercise in subjectivity, an expression of personal appreciation, an easy way to get the attention of someone whose opinion you'd like to influence in favor of the piece you admire. Or perhaps it's used to impress others as someone confident in your opinion, who knows what you're talking about on a topic you claim some expertise. But it's a word known to just as easily provoke debates and even arguments - there's one going on over at The Auteurs forum right now, if you want to see an example.

Just what is required in a particular medium to deserve such high praise? Is vastness of scale more worthy of acclaim than smaller, more intimate portrayals of personal struggle? Does majesty trump subtlety? Is it better to rouse and even exploit the emotions of the audience, or impress upon them the broad, impassive forces of history and society upon which we cannot expect to exert much influence as individuals in our lives? Does proficient mastery of technique merit higher praise than the ability to communicate effectively with a mass audience, most of whom aren't interested in the details of its construction? These questions and others like them provide plenty of grist for conversation, and to a certain extent remain unresolvable, regardless of how authoritative a verdict any analysts would  like to lay down. But I'll go on record here as saying that however one defines the word masterpiece as it applies to films, it undoubtedly must apply to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. It has all of the qualities described above, transcending the dialectical opposition in which I've placed them.

I've spent the last week with this film in front of me, both in my DVD player and my consciousness, watching it several times with and without commentary, along with the abundant supplemental features crammed into a three-disc, deluxe slip-cased box set that has to be a finalist in the competition for most lavish "Criterion treatment" of a single movie - and justifiably so. As I see it, there is no other entry into the Criterion Collection more essential than this one, either in terms of cinematic reputation or as a superior example of the difference they make in presenting a film to the general public. This is the complete package:

  • a pristine restoration of the film (notably improving the image quality of their 1998 original release; while a Bluray at some point would be nice, I think this DVD serves quite capably for now)
  • two complete commentary tracks, one of which is a "roundtable" panel of five contemporary critics (presumably Criterion wanted to share the wealth with a bunch of friends who all wanted to get in on this project)
  • a full range of behind-the-scenes featurettes, including trailers, production stills, posters, a making-of documentary, a 2-hour videotaped conversation between Kurosawa and fellow director Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses) from 1993 and very helpful background information on the samurai tradition and film genre that Kurosawa transformed when he made Seven Samurai
  • a beautifully illustrated booklet comprised of eight brief articles each extolling some particular facet of Seven Samurai and some personal reflections from Toshiro Mifune on his experience of making the film

I've enjoyed learning a lot more about Seven Samurai, a film I'd watched several times previously, over the course of this past week, but it was the book itself that taught me the most as far as this blog is concerned - namely that unless I want to write a post on Seven Samurai much longer than most anyone is willing to read all the way through, I'd do better to just pick one aspect of the film and focus on that. There are too many outstanding qualities to point out in Seven Samurai, if one wants to be succinct; the superlatives become redundant very quickly. You name whatever you like about the movies, you can find excellent examples of it here: acting, cinematography, screenwriting, music, narrative pacing, archetypal characters and a massive, worldwide influence on generations of filmmakers ever since, spawning imitators that cover the full spectrum of quality yet never rendered Seven Samurai primitive, outdated or irrelevant. To just plug the DVD one more time, let me add its utility as a textbook for how to watch and analyze a film - the full grab bag of directorial techniques employed by Kurosawa and his crew are noted, dissected and explained to the viewer in such a way as to enhance one's appreciation and understanding of just about any other movies you'll watch from this point forward.

The basic story of Seven Samurai will probably be familiar even to those who've never seen it: a hard-pressed farming village, fearing another attack from marauding bandits who show up at harvest time to loot their crops and wreak havoc, make a desperate bid to enlist "hungry samurai" to defend them, even though the social codes of the time (medieval Japan) practically forbade proud warriors to take on such employment. Such was the chaotic unrest of the times though that such a violation of taboos actually did take place - Kurosawa's discovery of such an anecdote as he was studying samurai history gave him the idea for the plot. And of course, the idea of a ragtag assemblage coming together against all odds to stand up strong for the humble and powerless has become a staple at the movies, to the point where it's now hard to pull off without some ironic nod to what a cliche the device has become. But Seven Samurai is where it began.

This long film (nearly 3 1/2 hours) gives itself all the time it needs to draw its cast of characters together gradually, giving us a chance to get to know each of the samurai as individuals, as well as several key members of the farming community. The class divisions between these two groups provide much of the narrative tension, so it's helpful to know a bit more about what made this arrangement so unusual and provocative in Japanese culture at that time. But even within the two distinctive groups there are differences in temperament that complicate matters, with leaders in both camps having to deal with hotheads in their ranks and quell the mistrust and suspicions that create friction when interacting across the social strata. Most memorable among the performances are Takashi Shimura's Kambei (amazing to see the frail, staggering cancer victim of Ikiru transformed into this powerful sage!), Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyuzo, the solemn, stone-faced swordsman and of course, Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo who pretty much defines "larger than life" in this role. This trailer serves to effectively fill you in on the storyline, characters and atmosphere of Seven Samurai, if you need that introduction or a brief refresher:

Of course, the image quality is pretty rough there in a few spots, but hey - go get the DVD! 

The only real dispute I have with the trailer (and it's a minor one, I realize) is that I think it overstates the valiant nobility of the samurai's efforts. I understand why the studio would do that - it's an appealing way to connect with popular tastes. After all, everyone enjoys stories of gallant self-sacrifice on behalf of the powerless, courage under pressure and stalwart resolve in the face of danger. Extended offerings of gritty, barbaric action sequences only seal the deal. Throw in some gorgeously choreographed scenes of young, passionate, forbidden romance that culminates on the eve of the final battle and you've got yourself a winner! But these samurai are not simply idealistic heroes rallying together in response to some sense of a higher call. That may be the rationale that some of them use to convince themselves to come to the farmers' rescue, but the truth is, they are only in the position of even considering such an offer because of the sheer desperation of their own circumstances. The collapse of social order has become so thorough that they simply have no prospects of a better offer anywhere farther up the road.

With just one exception, the renegade  would-be samurai Kikuchyo, each of the seven are ronin, masterless samurai whose feudal employers have either been slain or otherwise disempowered, and now compete with a surplus of these once-elite, highly trained warriors, more than the market can bear. Skilled, capable men, driven to wandering by a society in turmoil, on the brink of collapse, unable to offer them gainful employment. Now they are left to their own devices to steer their fates as best they can. The prospect of battling it out with a gang of thieves, men not too different from themselves in regard to training and life experience, has perhaps its own appeal - a chance to repudiate those who choose, unlike the Seven Samurai, to prey upon the weak, utilizing their skills for destruction rather than for defense.

Kurosawa never really explores that particular theme though. We don't get much insight into what drives the bandits other than a few scenes indicating their brutality: a pair of attempted runaways are shot down before they can escape the thieves camp, and we see them sprawled out asleep in their squalid lair, accompanied by captive women, just before a quartet of the "good guys" sneak into their camp and lay a bunch of them to waste. Their depiction as reprehensible villains serves its purpose, avoiding any inconvenient sense of pity or empathy we may have for the robbers, at least up until the moment we see them knocked down into the mud,  stuck like pigs on bamboo spears by hordes of crazed farmers bent on revenge. It's at that point that, no matter how much we may have been cheering on the defenders of the village against the corrupt, greedy  and detestable invaders, we realize that nobody is coming out ahead at this particular place and time in world history. The samurai, the farmers and the bandits all got a raw deal here; life is simply brutal, nasty and short for the vast majority of people. Whoever is actually prospering and reaping the rewards never manages to make it on screen.

In telling his story this way, Kurosawa is, I believe, breaking away from the "let's all pull together" collectivism that marked his earlier postwar films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and the film that preceded Seven Samurai, Ikiru. I got this basic insight from one of the commentators on this disc, so I can't claim originality here, but it strikes me as important and accurate. Seven Samurai is misunderstood if interpreted as a rallying cry for social unity and mutual acceptance across class barriers. At the end of the film,  the samurai leader Kambei observes the relieved, now triumphant farmers replanting their rice fields, then turns to his fellow survivors and says, "the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us." Despite their bravery and boldness in turning back and defeating the outlaw raiders, they remain temporary hired hands, having served their brief purpose, now left just wondering when and where they will wind up in a burial mound similar to that of their fallen comrades. Regardless of their elite standing in the social hierarchy, even the best among the samurai can claim little more than the same kind of functionary role performed in their own way by the humble cultivators of rice, going through the same ritualistic routines year after year. We all have our part to play, so keep it up for as long as you can, and do your best to steer it toward a satisfying conclusion, the kind we could live - or die - with as our lasting message to the world.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hobson's Choice (1954) - #461

There's been a gradual increase of uppishness towards me.

Despite the implications of it's name (i.e., a take-it-or-leave-it offer), Hobson's Choice comes along at just the right time in my systematic time-ordered journey through the Criterion Collection. After the weighty solemnity of Sansho the Bailiff, the grim melancholy slide of washed-up gangsters of Touchez pas au grisbi and the sinister paranoia induced by Diabolique, I was definitely in the mood for some lighter amusements. So it was nice to pop in the DVD and be greeted by a rollicking music-hall soundtrack that sounds like it could have fit the bill for a vintage release from Abbott and Costello. True, Hobson's Choice shares with Touchez pas au grisbi some of that "coming to grips with being over the hill," but delivers its message with such a robustly comic touch that one almost becomes seduced by the charming thought of becoming a feeble, dependent has-been after the better part of life has run its course. Charles Laughton, a legendarily over-the-top screen presence in roles dating back to the early 1930s, has one of his last flourishes here as Henry Hobson, blustery old proprietor of a Victorian shoe shop in Lancashire, England. Widowed some years back, he now presides over a household of three young adult daughters, each waiting their turn to get married, wrestling in their respective ways with the patriarchal suppositions of a society that threatens to thwart their own desires, if they can't get the men in charge to agree with their intentions and desires. 

Hobson considers himself a respectable and important man, and given the apparent success of his shop, he's not completely off-base for thinking so. But he's become a bit of an old fool over the years, drinking himself into a stupor with increasing regularity, tricking himself into thinking that his fibs about attending business or fraternal meetings actually convince people that he's really not just hanging out with his cronies at the Moonraker's pub just down the street from his place of business. Social customs shield him, for the most part, from open confrontation and mockery, at least to his face. But attitudes are changing - the Temperance movement divides citizens along lines of moral respectability, and with women largely leading that drive, an early forerunner of contemporary feminism is emerging to upend some of the built-in advantages that men enjoyed in those times. With his three daughters feeling increased confidence to not only express their own thoughts but also defy Hobson's paternal edicts, the old merchant realizes that his status quo needs to change. He decides that it's time to marry off the two youngest daughters, bypassing Maggie, his first-born, lacking any suitors and seemingly destined for spinsterhood. Her value to his enterprise as a stern, persuasive shopmistress is too essential for his on-going commercial livelihood to hand her over to another man, and Hobson has a hard time imagining anyone who'd be willing to take on a bride so far past her prime in any case. When Maggie asks him directly about his plans for her eventual marriage, he brushes off her concern with a concise expression of "brutal truth": she's 30 and only fit to be shelved; all the women can't have husbands!

As I'm writing this plot summary, I can't help but note the resemblance to Ozu films I've reviewed over the past few months which ponder the question, what to do with an "older" unmarried daughter? (You can add Sjoberg's Miss Julie in here too.) In Hobson's Choice, the condescending male chauvinism is brought up more directly and played for broader laughs, but these mid-20th century films, coming from two distinct cultures, each demonstrate a then-contemporary preoccupation with an growing sense of independence that many women were feeling and working toward at the time. Though Late Spring, Early Summer and Hobson's Choice all end up with the female protagonist getting married as their various resolutions to the dilemma, space was clearly being created in the popular psyche for women who for various reasons chose to postpone or opt out of marriage without the need to see such decisions as indicative of failure or tragedy.

Even though the clear and deserving star of the Hobson's Choice is the inimitable Charles Laughton, it's Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) who provides its propelling force. Her authoritative temperament and inherent confidence in her own self-reliance have to this point served her well but now conspire against her as she realizes that her worth as a commodity threatens to keep her in a perpetually subservient role to a father whose increasingly buffoonish behavior could jeopardize the family's reputation and livelihood. Maggie sense that it's time for her to take matters in her own hands, so she sets out to win herself a husband, Father's contrary opinions notwithstanding. Her choice of a life-partner is settled on pragmatic, not romantic grounds - she'll be the wife of Willy Mossop, the simple-minded laborer who works in Hobson's basement, crafting footwear of high quality that's begun to attract an affluent and (yes, I'll say it) well-heeled clientele. Maggie's plan would merge his skills as a shoemaker with her business acumen to provide her a measure of financial independence within a socially acceptable framework. It's a brilliant strategy, hampered only by the fact that Willy doesn't love her and the rest of her family is scandalized to consider such a match between the daughter of a prosperous family and an illiterate shop hand.

Rather than let such obstacles stand in her way, Maggie sets to work dismantling them, wearing down the resistance of anyone who think differently, laying out a series of Hobson's Choice offers to her would-be husband and her father, each cunningly conceived to box in their recipients, starting of course with Willy, the object of her pursuit. Their courtship puts her in the driver's seat and reduces Willy, at least temporarily, to a stammering, bewildered but ultimately compliant partner as the boundaries of his world go through radical expansion and readjustment. We get to follow the not-so-young couple on a Sunday afternoon's walk through the park and riverside of Lancaster where they finally settle on a lovely, private bench on the bank of a filthy river, receptacle to the sludge and waste of England's Industrial Revolution - a perfectly unsentimental setting for this peculiarly developing romance.

These and many other gorgeous outdoor street scenes and richly textured interiors add to the pleasures of watching Hobson's Choice. Besides the solid acting performances, the artistry that director David Lean brought to this project elevated what could have been a simply pleasant, comical diversion into something that carries deeper resonance, allowing the characters, even the supporting cast, to live a bit longer in the viewer's imagination. Lean's career at this point was on the verge of monumental change - Hobson's Choice was his last black & white film and his last to be shot as a primarily English film as he achieved a new status as the creator of massive international blockbusters like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The commentary track on this DVD provides a lot of insight into Lean's career, filling in on details of what he'd been doing since his previous Criterion entry, Oliver Twist and touching on this film's relationship with earlier works like Great Expectations and Brief Encounter

This clip features what's probably the most famous scene in Hobson's Choice, evocative run-ins between an enraged Hobson, upset over the announcement that his daughter and former hired-hand have now become business competitors, and a drunken, loose-lipped, venting Hobson telling off his regulars down at the pub. The sordid business ends with Hobson's pie-eyed encounter with a lamppost, the moon, rain puddles and  finally, numerous large sacks of grain:

Because it's a comedy, Hobson's Choice inevitably winds up on a happy note, though poor Hobson has other indignities to suffer, not only at the hands of daughter Maggie but also at the behest of her increasingly emboldened mate Willy as he transforms from timid rabbit to a more-than-capable self-made man. Willy is played by John Mills, who also took Lean's direction as the adult Pip in Great Expectations. I liked Mills a lot better here.

Besides a thoroughly enjoyable film that provided plenty of wryly provocative food for thought on topics like marriage, aging, parenting and the role that financial considerations play in our family and social relationships, Hobson's Choice also raised my awareness of Charles Laughton as both an actor and a human being. The primary supplemental feature on the disc is a 45 minute documentary about his career, and he turns out to have been a more troubled, conflicted man than I would have thought or wished, as if that had any bearing on the matter. Clearly in possession of wonderful talents and perceptive abilities, it's also clear that Laughton suffered quite a bit from his insecurities and unresolved internal conflicts, all compounded by pressure to stay in the closet. Even people close to him, including his wife of over thirty years, Elsa Lanchester, had to acknowledge the cruel deeds and other difficulties that Laughton created for others and himself. It's a shame that he had to endure these torments, but I'm still intrigued to see more from his body of work, and grateful for the many laughs and insights provided by his occasionally unsympathetic portrayal of the flabby old drunkard. Hobson's Choice is a deal I can happily accept.