Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All That Heaven Allows (1955) - #95

Drama, comedy, life's parade at your fingertips.

Now it's my turn to step to the plate and take a swing at one of the most feverishly scrutinized and creatively unpacked American films of its era, All That Heaven Allows. This classic specimen of prime 1950s melodrama, with its unique blend of mainstream commercial success, iconic performances and richly encoded  audio-visual compositions have made All That Heaven Allows a popular and accessible platform for all forms of cultural and aesthetic analysis, and deservedly so. It's a film ripe with symbolism, impeccably crafted and just plain fun to watch, capable of yielding many shades of meaning that its commentators can then apply to whatever particular philosophical axe they care to grind.

The various takes I've seen in reading up on All That Heaven Allows cover a full range, from straightforward appreciation of the romantic chemistry between stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, to in-depth explorations of the devastating hatchet job that director Douglas Sirk laid on upper middle class mores. Or supposedly laid, I should say, since my own take on the film isn't quite as harsh on my ancestors who inhabited mid-50s Suburbia USA. Like many great works of art, All That Heaven Allows is capable of bearing the weight of different, even contradictory, interpretations, though I think this particular artifact is even more culpable to producing that kind of result due to the scene and era it depicts. This all-white, affluent, sterile-surfaced, highly privileged, sexually repressed and postcard-perfect milieu carries an abundance of material likely to provoke the ire of those who identify in some way with the marginalized, misunderstood and unfairly judged Cary Scott. She's the recently widowed protagonist caught in the crossfire of negative opinions and conflicting emotions as she works her way through a unexpected and perilous midlife love affair. To get a quick glimpse of the emotional claustrophobia that Cary has to live with, check out this clip from early in the film, where we meet her and children Ned and Kay (who happens to look a lot like my mom did in her high school pictures from around this time.):



The hazards she faces are due to the object of her affection - a younger man who also happens to be a hired hand, her gardener Ron Kirby. He's tall, handsome and virile, a prize physical specimen who "ought" to be more interested in women his own age, not respected society matrons like Cary. She's already past the child-rearing stage, and her social status would normally dictate that she either remain a dignified widow or take up with a suitably old-enough gentleman who has the financial means and comfortable familiarity with the country club set to allow her peers to feel at ease with the new arrangement. Here's the scene where she unsuccessfully tries to integrate her new man-friend into the closely guarded inner sanctum of Stoningham's elite. As you'll see, it doesn't go too well:



On top of these external pressures, Cary has to manage the stress that this shocking romance has stirred up with her son and daughter, both highly susceptible to the negative impact that a scandalous mother has on their own reputations. Somehow in the process of balancing these demands for conformity and meeting her motherly obligations, Cary must reckon with the surge of emotions stirring inside her - feelings of love for a gorgeous man who clearly desires her and offers the promise of excitement, fulfillment and a life of adventure, offset by fears that the pursuit of this new relationship might ultimately require her to give up all that she's held dear over the course of her adult life.

Her attraction to Ron goes beyond the merely physical, though I'm sure he grabs her in ways that she never quite thought she'd be grabbed again. He's also a reflective, unconventional thinker, a disciple of Thoreau, at one with nature, bold and unambiguous in his rejection of the preening gossips and impotent lushes that surround Cary, to his own self true. Though he can't compete materially with the well-to-do single businessmen or retirees who'd gladly take Cary for a wife, he's not exactly poor, since he inherited his own piece of property, a picturesque tree farm complete with an old stone mill that he's decided to remodel as a lover's bungalow at Cary's offhand suggestion.

Cary's dilemma is one that I believe a lot of women felt at the time and continue to wrestle with today, though of course in All That Heaven Allows, the conflict has been refined, inflated and buffed up to a high glossy sheen. Over the course of two decades or so of raising a family, what mother hasn't been forced to concede her individual desires for the sake of her family and keeping up appearances? With her husband conveniently out of the way, her financial concerns apparently well-managed and planned for, and thirty years or more of existence still ahead, Cary has both the perfect opportunity and the vexing dilemma of deciding how to fill that empty space in her life. The prospect of putting ourselves in her position and having to decide what we would do, given her choices, raises wonderfully intriguing ethical questions:

... is the urgent impulse to delve into a forbidden love that could fade over time worth the long-term risk of losing my familiar (but stale) comforts and important relationships?

... is the attraction I feel to a raw, earthy alternative to my usual way of life really a genuine calling to march to the beat of a different drummer, or am I just curious to dabble in something a little different for awhile before returning to the safety of home base?

... must the terms of commitment laid out to me by this beckoning lover consist of yet another concession on my end for the sake of a strong-willed person unwilling to compromise his demands?

... and if I turn my back on all of that, for the sake of fitting in, being reasonable, not taking absurd risks and understanding the needs of my children and friends, will I be able to find a sense of genuine satisfaction when I return to conventionality?

And if those questions fail to engage us, All That Heaven Allows is at least an enjoyable exercise in soapy, Technicolor escapism! It makes for a fascinating companion piece to Magnificent Obsession, Sirk's previous film that made Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman such a bankable screen couple. In the earlier film, it was Wyman's character who suffered physical debilitation, while in All That Heaven Allows, Hudson is the one whose bedside is attended for the lovers' inevitable reunion. Both films feature meddlesome adult children who imperil their mother's lovelife (only to yield their approval when they see what a swell guy he really is) and wizened old mentors who come along late in the proceedings to shed a little light when confusion threatens to obscure the way forward. Thankfully, All That Heaven Allows is not so weighed down by the untenable "secret giving" mumbo-jumbo that dragged Magnificent Obsession toward absurdity, though its too-easy resolution casually disregards the formidable conflicts in favor of a crowd-pleasing finale.

Douglas Sirk demonstrates in scene after scene, frame after frame, a mastery of details and precise execution in the realization of his vision. The meticulous construction and decoration of sets, his use of mirrors, frames-within-frames, flowers, colors, lighting, positioning of actors, all that is routinely and justly celebrated in review after review of All That Heaven Allows. In writing about this film and his other classic melodramas, much is made of how skillfully he salvaged his second-rate material, imbuing deeper shades of meaning and insight than lesser directors would have even bothered to attempt, let alone pull off. Sirk himself seems to have been a willing proponent in advancing these arguments, as evidenced by the half-hour interview filmed late in his life that constitutes the main supplement on the DVD. It was a smart move on his part, ensuring that his reputation would rise above the level of a studio hack who just worked with the scripts that were given to him without much concern for art.

But as I said at the beginning, discussions of All That Heaven Allows have gone well beyond the basic elements of how well-constructed it is as a movie. Now, an adequate handling of its themes has to address its function as social critique and revelatory mirror of the culture of its times. Despite its satirical edge and pointed jabs, I don't regard All That Heaven Allows as the harsh evisceration of vapid white bread America that some of this film's proponents seem like they want it to be. As a European observer, Sirk may have had a mildly subversive agenda, but he wasn't hostile to his host culture. In my view, the "heaven" the title refers to is the near-paradise (or a Paradise Lost) that we see depicted on film - beautiful colors, idyllic settings (whether in the village or in the countryside), with most everyone living in ease, comfort, privilege. I don't think that Sirk despises the uptight, respectable citizens of Stoningham - how could he, really? These are not bad people, just a bit overstuffed and befuddled by the abundance of ease and semi-conscious hypocrisy in which they exist.

Sirk was chased out of Europe by the Nazis - he knows real evil from experience, and here he just captures people who are misguided and stuck. He cares for them, even the backbiters and drunkards among them, for he knows how close they really are to a state of contentment, if they'd only allow themselves to wake up and realize what is already within their grasp -even those characters who are just bit players in the larger drama. But of course, our focus in on the lead couple, especially Cary, the aging suburbanite mother who has to find her new purpose now that her husband is departed, her children are nearly independent, and true love beckons. The message I get from All That Heaven Allows, happy/sappy ending and all, is that the society that imposes such suffocating limitations on its occasional misfits needs not to be overthrown or subverted, but sensitively nudged to broaden and expand its capacity to include those who don't fit in so neatly.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Night and Fog (1955) - #197

Even a peaceful landscape, even a meadow in harvest, with crows circling overhead and grass fires, even a road where cars and peasants and couples pass, even a resort village, with a steeple and a country fair... can lead to a concentration camp.

Night and Fog - simple, elemental phenomena of nature - also possess a strange ability to conjure up dreadful anxieties within a human being. In unfamiliar settings, we don't know what the darkness hides; we fear what might emerge from the dense vapors of the low-hovering cloud. Instinctively we seek the comfort of shelter, the warmth and clarity brought to us by the light. We wait for the night to pass, for the fog to lift, so that we may go about the normal business of our lives once again.

To the extent such musings hold true, I can't think of any better title that could have been given to this short film, a collaborative effort by director Alain Resnais, writer Jean Cayrol and musical composer Hanns Eisler. Night and Fog pertains to a specific reference within the film, and also connects to a collection of poems published by Cayrol based on his experience in a Nazi concentration camp in the early 1940s. But more essentially, Night and Fog sums up in a pair of common words an image, an impression that helps us begin to grasp a reality that, if it weren't for the kind of evidence placed before us in the film, our minds would not begin to comprehend.

Ten years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Allied liberation of the death camps scattered across Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, Resnais and his colleagues created Night and Fog, among the earliest, and still among the most profound, ruminations on the significance of the horrors suffered by those condemned to live and die there. Mercifully short (a mere 31 minutes), what distinguishes Night and Fog from other, more in-depth documentaries and dramatizations of this subject filmed in subsequent decades, is the direct simplicity of its presentation. Though it's often grouped in the documentary genre, Night and Fog makes no effort to explain why the camps were created, supplies historical context only indirectly, through images most viewers of its era would find immediately recognizable and pinned to a certain moment in time, and refuses the easy, obvious opportunities to score political points or cast blame on any opponents or survivors of that grim era.

Instead, Night and Fog makes its impact on us by offering a simple sequence of images, juxtaposed between color tracking shots of the abandoned Auschwitz punctuating them with evocative music (mainly flutes, violins and percussion, not the mournful dirge of a cello that one expects to hear nowadays) and calm, somber narration. The text, read without dramatic inflection, occasionally ventures into mild irony in order to draw our attention to the ghastly efficiency and premeditation that went into the Nazi mechanization of mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

And it is in that particular emphasis that Night and Fog brings to the world's attention something deeper, and even more disturbing, than the simple yet crucial acknowledgement that a brutal tragedy has occurred. Such facts were already known, though likely seldom discussed in polite company. Filmed a decade after the conclusion of this appalling sequence, it captures for later generations a living awareness that the potential for such rampant, wide-spread cruelty exists not only in the twisted minds of sadistic ghouls like the Nazi leaders depicted from time to time in the film, but also in the compliant habits and customs that make up the routines of the rest of us law-abiding citizens. As appalling as they are, it wasn't the images of piled-up corpses or other human remains that landed the most devastating emotional blows. I knew to expect those sights, and in a sad way I recognized that those poor souls had found an end to their undeserved suffering.

Nor was it the revelation of atrocities - tortures, depraved experimentation, ruthless exploitation of slave labor - that took place in the camps that sickened me the most. Again, I had learned of this before, and though I instinctively recoiled to contemplate, ever so briefly, the miseries experienced by those victims, some self-protective rationalization shields me from the insanity that a full comprehension of those terrors would undoubtedly trigger.

Not even the mournful passivity, the helpless, sinking apprehension of inescapable doom etched in the eyes and faces and stooped postures of the collected victims, herded into barbed-wire holding pens, loaded into boxcars, sifted like refuse upon arrival at their camp, subject to degradations and sufferings that film can never fully capture - not even such pitiable sights can I admit to be the most unsettling part of watching Night and Fog - though I will never forget what I saw in those faces staring back at me across time and space.

Instead, it was the early scenes in Night and Fog, the "business as usual" footage, documenting the preparations that went into creating these camps, which shook me to the core. Scenes of architects and planners drawing up their blueprints, of wage-laborers grabbing shovels and applying themselves to assigned tasks, of bookkeepers maintaining scrupulous records and the calculated arrangements of barracks, gates, railway lines and multiple layers of fencing - all carefully laid out in advance so that the human cargo that the designers of this infernal system intended to gather could be properly managed for maximum benefit and minimal waste within the window of opportunity that history and politics had conspired to open for them.

This capacity to survey a problem, to debate possible solutions, to weigh alternatives, to take all matters into consideration and then, with a consensus of sorts being reached, to take action - this is what Night and Fog, those great obscurers to our everyday senses, ultimately reveals. This truth: that in certain circumstances, after making certain socially acceptable, legally allowed ethical concessions, any one of us might find ourselves aligned with forces of oppression, exploitation, industrialized destruction - and who is to say, unequivocally, that we already are not?

A recent thread on the MUBI.com user forum asks the question "Most Depressing Film You've Ever Seen?" I replied there the other day with a mention of Night and Fog, not to claim it as "the most depressing" but just to mention it as one worth including on that list of all-time downers. Though this film doesn't necessarily trivialize or devalue more traditional cinematic narratives, in comparison to the numerous works of existentialist drama, horror and other fictional depictions of human sorrow and depravity, Night and Fog has the "advantage" (such a grim word, used in this context) of being true. But to the extent that "depressing" implies stoking a sense of resignation and futility in a viewer, I don't think that Night and Fog really qualifies. I consider the film's creation an amazingly noble, courageous and inspiring achievement, even though the capacity for human evil it documents obviously must disturb us. To simply allow the Night and Fog to blind us, to remain asleep and lost in our dreams as if this film doesn't exist and thus to remain heedless of what it can teach us - to me, that's an infinitely more depressing reality to ponder.

*                                  *                               *

Night and Fog can be viewed in its entirety here. The DVD offers illuminating background information through an audio interview with Alain Resnais and an evocative music-only track that offers a subtly different viewing experience, once one has absorbed and internalized the narration.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Wind from the South (1955) - #495

A girl's got to dance maybe, before she can run.

I may be proven wrong in this eventually, but I think I'm about to review the most obscure feature title in the entire Criterion Collection. Or perhaps the least-discussed. A Wind from the South, the fourth of eight programs originally telecast live and now part of The Golden Age of Television box set, appears to have generated very little attention on the internet in terms of reviews, fond recollections, viewer recommendations or any other mention - good, favorable or indifferent. IMDb has nothing beyond a few votes. Amazon.com - one review for the old VHS, which also supplies the only graphic image of that title I could find (besides another VHS cover that it shared with Marty.) The Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer registers a score of N/A, because no one has bothered to comment on it - and to add insult to injury, they are off by five years on the release date. No YouTube clips either! That's really a shame, because A Wind from the South deserves better - it's a tastefully affecting slice of vintage melodrama that takes risks, captures the essence of poignant emotions and leaves a lasting impression on anyone sensitive and invested enough to step inside the lives of its lead characters for less than the hour it requires of us to watch.

Given the circumstances, I'm glad to have this opportunity to try and remedy the situation then! For whatever reason, A Wind from the South didn't make the kind of impact that earlier entries in The Golden Age of Television series have. Maybe it has to do with the lack of a big name star (no Rod Steiger or Andy Griffith, for example), at least of the sort who develop a cult of celebrity. Julie Harris, whose acting career has plenty of distinguishing characteristics on its own terms, isn't the type to jump off the screen and dazzle us with glamor, charisma or other obvious seductions. She's winsome, small of stature, self-effacing, rather sweet by nature - all qualities that come through clearly here and in the short interview she gives on the videotaped introduction some 25 years after A Wind from the South first aired. Probably the most famous "name" associated with the project is that of Merv Griffin, who I remember from my youth primarily as the afternoon TV talk show guy who interrupted my preferred after-school TV diet of reruns: Gilligan's Island, Flinstones, Speed Racer and so on. Griffin was more famous as a singer back then, and he warbled the genteel Irish ballad "A Soft Day" at various points before, during and at the conclusion of A Wind from the South in an off-stage sound booth as the actors went through their motions on the studio set. Griffin also introduced the program in the same segment that featured the interview with Julie Harris and her fellow lead actor, Donald Woods.

So for those of you unfamiliar with A Wind from the South (probably 95% of all who read this post), here's the rundown:


Shivawn and Liam are a sister and brother who turned their inherited home into a bed and breakfast in the rural Irish countryside. He is a hard-nosed pragmatist, frustrated with his lot in life, having to cater to the endless parade of shallow American tourists who come to the old country looking for a bit of the old magic. She is a dreamer, a mystic you could even say, a touch on the superstitious side, given over to intuitive impulses and emotionally swayed by the discovery of odd natural phenomena, who sees portents in warm breezes coming at her from unusual directions. Unlike her brother, who struggles to conceal his disgust with the clientele, Shivawn is not at all above exaggerating her brogue and tossing in bits of theatrical Irish slang for the amusement of her customers, who she admires simply on account of them having seen more of the world than she likely ever will. Despite her winsome, cheerful expressions, Shivawn pines away on the inside, conscious that life is passing her by, with no prospects for a lasting love as she's now on the wrong side of 30 and feeling very low about her ability to make a meaningful change. They are both dreadfully stuck in the routines of managing their small inn, unable to take much time off - though it's never directly alluded to, Liam and Shivawn are locked in by poverty and utter dependence on the inn for meeting the needs of their hand-to-mouth existence.


Among the guests at their inn are Robert and Jean, an East Coast couple clearly locked in a quarrelsome marriage, fed up with each other and unable to get beyond the mutual contempt they feel, unsure of what to do next, except move on to the next distraction. The Kelly's, Ned and his wife who he's nicknamed "Old Tubby," are a more garrulous older pair, from the Midwest, naive tourists through and through - he's just a good time guy out for laughs, and she's the typical busy-body caretaker, always blabbing awkward disclosures about their life that aren't anybody's business but keep the chatter going.


Circumstances lead to a series of chance encounters when Robert, the unhappy married man, and Shivawn, the unhappy single woman, "find each other" when they're left alone for a few minutes of unmonitored conversation. Robert, an intellectual and aspiring poet at heart who's compromised for the sake of practicality to become an advertising copywriter ("Ode to a Bar of Soap" or "Sonnets from the Processed Cheese!"), uses his suppressed, misunderstood verbal and imaginative gifts to draw Shivawn out - and in - as he senses her own aspirations for something grander, more intuitive, more expressive than the drudgery that Liam expects and assigns her. "Just be yourself," Robert tells her, "and I believe you'll find what you're looking for." These simple words break the tension and allow them to share their vulnerabilities with each other, developing a bond to which emotions quickly attach.


Into this burbling stew of loosening inhibitions strolls Jack Woodward, an American sailor on leave and just passing through. He's an energetic young fellow and eager for a chance to enjoy a fun and carefree night with a local lass. Shivawn fits the bill perfectly, and emboldened by Robert's exhortation to put her own desires first, she takes up Jack's invitation to go to a Saturday night dance. While there, Jack puts the move on Shivawn, alerting her to the fact that she's quickly gotten in over her head and unsure of how to handle the pressure of a hot-to-trot, handsome young man, so unprepared is she to follow through in reality on the romantic daydreams that have fueled her empty days until now.


There's also a short interlude (perhaps inserted where it is to give the actors a chance to change wardrobe - remember, this was all live TV!) of dancing children, doing that traditional Irish jig with their arms hanging straight at their side - ancestors of Riverdance I suppose, an amusing few minutes of diversion.

Needless to say, the dance doesn't go well for Shivawn or Jack, but it does provide a catalyst of sorts, as a pair of old gossips scurry back to The Willows to report to Liam their amazement that a fine decent girl like Shivawn would allow herself to go larking about with a US Navy man! When Robert overhears this, it provokes his dread, forcing him to a point of confession. He and Shivawn, recognizing what has been building between them over these few short days, even these past several hours, steal away into the garden, fall into each others arms, and then...


I'll leave you hanging there a bit, hoping that it nudges you just enough to go find a copy of the DVD and find out what happens for yourself! But without giving away too many details, I'll offer a few more thoughts on the impressions that A Wind from the South left upon me. It's a nicely written play, with lovely lyrical dialog and a gentle sincerity that prevents the soap bubbles from over-inflating. The frankness and subtlety with which it handles delicate topics like marital infidelity and the passionate release of pent-up emotions also surprised me, considering that this was a 1955 TV show, after all - much more daring and poetic than I would expect a program from that time and place. The four main characters - by "main," I guess I mean "most visibly flawed and hurting" - each have their moment of epiphany and the naturalism of how they discover truths about themselves is skillfully executed within the compressed format of a live, fifty-minute, single-take performance.

Writer James Costigan (of whom I know nothing, except for a few comments he makes about the making of A Wind from the South in the video introduction) does well to avoid making either Robert or Shivawn too noble to be believed or too long-suffering to be genuinely affected by. Robert in particular is a fascinating character, to me anyway. He's an ad-man, after all, demonstrably slick, glib, persuasive, inclined to believe his own hype. Has he muttered such protestations of love to other simple country girls in his travels over the years? Despite his best efforts, can he even distinguish between a sales pitch and sincerity any more?

In recovering and returning to her normal life, after grappling with the impossibility of chasing this particular dream any further, Shevawn sums up in simple words the coping skill that's brought her through and become a way of life, not just for her, but the people who surround her, and those far far away: "We've learned to make friends with the little lies that make life pleasanter." As we watch Liam and Shevawn walk one at a time back into The Willows, we're left wondering what lasting difference this intrusion will make on them going forward: they've both been challenged - will bitterness or hope prevail?


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955) - #15

Of course you won the fight... but you lost as a samurai.

For starters, before I get into my comments on Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, let me direct you back to my review of the first installment in this series where we become familiar with the origins of Musashi Miyamoto. As with the film, my blog entry here really isn't the right way to enter into the story line, though if you happen to be channel surfing and Samurai II is on, or web surfing and you just happen to land on this blog - don't turn away! Give it a chance, and if you dig what you see, find the time to return to square one and do things in the right order.

Assuming then that you're adequately familiar with the initial chapter of this great Japanese epic, let's pick up right where Samurai I left off. In the first film, Musashi was seen walking off into the sunset, and as Samurai II opens, he's still walking. More sunsets, more twisting mountain paths, more wide horizons telling the viewer that the hero's decisive manly strides are directing him to a bold, noble, yet still unclear destiny. Musashi has been tried, tested and found to be true of heart. Yet he is still a raw soul in need of further refinement. His trials are not over - indeed, the perils he will face have not yet hit their peak. Mushashi Miyamoto must weather storms of violent assault, humiliation, insult, betrayal, seduction, temptation and, most rigorously, he must learn to calm the tempest within, that surging violent power that has been the key to his survival through earlier dangers, but remains the riskiest trap of all, and one of his own making.

The classic themes and characterizations that made the first film so comfortable, entertaining and soul-stirring are played no less skillfully in Samurai II. Musashi, despite the setbacks he endures, makes the kind of steady progress toward maturity and greatness that we long to see in our heroes. Along the way, he encounters others who all play their own vital role in his development, showing just the kind of stuff of which they're made. We reconnect with all the main characters:

  • The wise sage Yakuan. His dialog with Musashi in the film's second scene, after he's defeated and killed a local chain-and-sickle fighter, serves as a template for the kind of lessons that Yoda would deliver to different generations of the Skywalker bloodline, piercing his emotional armor with words that challenge and provoke our protagonist in a way that no swords, light-sabers or magic incantations ever could.
  • Matahachi, Musashi's indecisive friend since their youth, but now his betrayer, after falling further into weak servility at the behest of...
  • The scheming Oko, jaded temptress whose cackling conspiratorial amusement at her successful manipulations blinds her to the ridicule heaped upon her for her failures as a mother to...
  • The lusty Akemi, barely able to conceal her desperate desire for Musashi, but whose love turns to mocking bitterness when she discovers an unexpected rival in...
  • The virtuous, delicate Otsu, who patiently continues her vigil at the Sanjuro Bridge in Kyoto, begun at the end of Samurai I, when Musashi abruptly walked away from their appointed meeting to walk his solitary path, destined to one day cross katanas with...
  • Seijuro, vain, over-confident master of a decrepit sword-fighting school; and...
  • Kojiro, Musashi's worthy counterpart, a master swordsman who keeps a wary eye on the developing skills of his eventual foe as he patiently awaits the day of the culminating duel that will determine (at the end of Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island) the identity of their era's ultimate samurai warrior (hint: it's the name that's still remembered and revered to this day!)
If my phrasing seems a little arch and stilted, that's only a reflection of the epic-style story telling that infuses every scene of the Samurai Trilogy. The marvel of this series is just how successfully director Hiroshi Inagaki balances the task of portraying characters who embody classic character traits in purer form (both good and bad) than we typically see in real life, without lapsing into caricature or hokiness. It's a welcome relief to watch films from an era where sly self-referential irony didn't have to be inserted into the script every so often to connect with contemporary sensibilities. 

Inagaki's telling of the Samurai story lets the hero be a hero, unambiguously, even though he goes through very believable transitions of reflection, self-doubt and re-evaluation. As the liner notes and numerous reviews indicate, Samurai II (and the whole series, really) is a narrative of personal, spiritual testing and growth, projecting onto the archetypal "solitary man" an amped-up version of the mundane trials, setbacks, frustrations and life-affecting decisions that we ordinary mortals have to make throughout the course of our days. Of course we rarely find ourselves facing duels to the death with a mob of eighty sword-wielding psychos determined to carve us up, with only a backwards midnight walk through a muddy rice paddy as our only realistic means of escape - but life can feel that way sometimes! Samurai II gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own struggles with virtue, betrayal, shame, opposition and the tendency to go too far in defending our honor and pursuing our short-term goals, even when a plausible alibi (not to mention a wickedly effective dual-sword fighting technique) is at our disposal.

Here's the theatrical trailer to Samurai II. As is the case with Samurai I (and presumably Samurai III), the trailer is the only special feature on this old-school Criterion DVD (other than the quaintly archaic Help menu) and it's delivered in a better resolution and color balance than the full-length feature. So I'll repeat my request for an eventual restoration and Bluray reissue of this wonderful series of films!




I used a clip without subtitles because it looks better than the same clip I found with subtitles that appears to be a camcorder shot of the trailer playing on someone's TV. You can see the subbed version on YouTube easily enough, but the pictures tell the story just fine, imo.

Link to my review of Samurai III: Duel at Gonryu Island


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summertime (1955) - #22



My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli!

When it comes to vacations, making plans and setting budgets have never been among my strong points. I'm more of a "get in the car and go, we'll figure out what to do when we get there" type. Which is probably one of the main reasons that I've never yet been on the kind of meticulously managed (and expensive) grand tour that we're allowed to eavesdrop on in Summertime. This sumptuous 1955 Technicolor spectacle offers plenty of popular appeal, with a big star (Katharine Hepburn) delivering a memorably romantic performance against one of the most gorgeous civilized backdrops ever captured on film: Venice, Italy.

Functioning as a travelogue-with-a-plot, Summertime seduced its middle-class American audience into confronting their own sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with whatever compromises and concessions had been made along the way to attain the privilege of being surrounded with bourgeois creature comforts. Through the safe escapism of a short European holiday by proxy, Summertime blends exotic scenery, instantly recognizable stock characters, winsome dialog and Hepburn's unique talent for projecting both emotional toughness and vulnerability, often simultaneously, as her character, the single career woman Jane Hudson find herself ever more perplexed about what she encounters in Venice, grappling with the underlying impulses that sent her on this epic journey in the first place.

Summertime opens with brightly painted title cards offering impressionistic highlights of her journey from the USA to Europe, crossing the sea in an ocean liner, stopping along the way in London, Paris and then, as the film starts, on a train bound for Venice. Miss Hudson has a small movie camera that she frequently uses to record the picturesque sights along the way. Her eagerness to capture all the highlights on film seems borne of an underlying insecurity - she can't be content to just enjoy the moment, she needs to gather and preserve as much as she can, for this is an important trip, for which she's been saving up a very long time.

Her early comments flesh out her motivations a bit more - she needs to enjoy this trip, she can't just amble her way through like a mere tourist - it's the thing that has provided focus and flavor to her mundane existence for as long as she's dreamed of visiting Europe. To her widowed hostess at the pensione where she's renting a room, Jane speaks of a "girl" she met on the boat coming over, and we wonder if she's really just projecting her own thoughts onto a figment of her imagination. Her traveling companion was looking for "a wonderful, mystical, magical miracle" that she'd discover on her trip to the Old World, as fine a motivation for a long distance voyage as I can imagine. And yet, it's also soon made clear that Jane has an internal battle going on, as part of her seeks the freedom of "loosening up" in a time and place that's supposedly safe to do so, and her more practical side recognizes that easing up the caution and strict self-denial that's kept her life on track to this point, even for a short while, creates more risks than she's accustomed to. I'm sure it's a predicament that struck home with her female contemporaries in mid-50s America, and it still has resonance today.

Nearly ten years earlier, director David Lean had already shown his adeptness at handling this kind of emotional territory in Brief Encounter, a film that makes for a nice "compare and contrast" companion piece to Summertime. Both movies feature attractive-but-aging middle-class women, each stifled in their own way by the bonds of respectability that they've been raised to adhere to. While going about their socially-approved routines (either as domestic housewife or solo tourist), each woman accidentally stumbles into a sudden whirlwind of romantic affection that threatens to disrupt all that they take for granted in life, and yet is too strong and exhilarating to ignore or extinguish altogether.

Both films are told almost exclusively through their female protagonist's experiences. Brief Encounter has one scene, often criticized for disrupting the narrative flow, where Laura is excluded after she flees a borrowed apartment and her lover Alec is confronted by the apartment's owner. Lean seems to have learned from that debatable miscalculation, because the camera never strays too far from Miss Hudson, putting quite a burden on Katharine Hepburn to carry this film on her own slim (but indomitable) shoulders. She proves her capability in scene after scene, significantly upgrading my assessment of her acting skills in the process. I've never felt particularly drawn to Hepburn as an actress, but watching her closely in Summertime has given me the chance to admire her craft and I think I get what she was up to a bit more clearly now in her many depictions of pensive, unconventional women who sought to carve out their own path in life, often cutting against the grain of social norms.

Summertime reaches its simmering point when Jane experiences a brief encounter of her own with Renato, the dashing owner of a Venetian curio shop. When she innocently strolls into his shop, attracted by a bright red goblet, every bit as enticing to her as her shapely legs were to him when he spotted her in a sidewalk cafe a few days earlier. Renato's easy warmth and obvious interest in Jane stir up emotions within her that have been  too long dormant and are now quite unsettling in their rekindled intensity. This short scene, in which Jane struggles to fend off the equally upsetting realization of her own intractable loneliness, is one of many exquisite little gems of self-discovery that Summertime portrays, and seeks to trigger in its viewers:



Jane's clumsy attempts at saving face and self-protection eventually get set aside, as you knew they would have to for the film to ever live up to its promise, but just enough for her moral predicament to grow even more complicated as she learns things about Renato that don't sit well with her. Is he just a smooth Latin lover out for a fresh conquest? Are his protests of sincerity and genuine appreciation for the qualities that make her a "surprising woman" trustworthy? Caught up in the spell of unanticipated love, Jane decks herself out in chic evening gown and an indulgent pair of fetching red shoes, allowing herself to go with Renato's flow long enough to experience what he seeks to offer her, long enough to inhale deeply the sweet perfume of a single ripe gardenia, and after wrestling with moral conflicts both internal and external, just long enough to allow the fireworks to reach their grand finale. Long enough to eat the ravioli, even though she would have preferred the beefsteak.

Summertime offers a highly enjoyable and fascinating example of adult-oriented melodrama of its era, a classic confrontation of Continental Catholic Man and Midwestern WASP-y Woman, a sensual delicacy to savor, sigh over and dream about for years to come. As a DVD, Criterion didn't invest all that much - it's another one of those early bare-bones releases that offers only a trailer, not even any subtitles, and fairly screams out for a Bluray reissue one of these days. That may not be such an unreasonable expectation, since a restoration print was made in 2004, about six years after this DVD was released. Summertime will be playing in Akron, OH (Jane Hudson's hometown!) next month, for anyone in the area who wants to see it on the big screen. The blue, gold and red palette of Summertime enchants from start to finish, and it's given a lot of credit for triggering a huge tourism boom that Venice benefited from for many years afterward. Given my budgetary and personal priorities, I don't expect I'll be making the trek there myself anytime soon - but even from the comfort of my own sofa, I enjoyed the little vacation that Summertime took me on -  I'll remember it always.

Here's a souvenir Summertime postcard - wish you were here!


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Death of a Cyclist (1955) - #427

There's something more important than you or me: fear.

Death of a Cyclist marks the belated entry of Spanish film into this chronological trek through the Criterion Collection. Among the larger nations of Europe, Spain turns out to be the last to gain entry into this particular canon, perhaps attributable to the verdict that Death of a Cyclist director Juan Antonio Bardem himself leveled against his native land's cinematic prowess at the time:
After sixty years of filmmaking, Spanish cinema is:  
  • Politically ineffective
  • Socially false
  • Intellectually worthless
  • Aesthetically nonexistent
  • Industrially crippled
Hey, I didn't say it, I'm just quoting the guy! Clearly, Bardem was a man with a mission as he sought to address these problems.

Death of a Cyclist makes for interesting comparison with the film immediately preceding it in this series, Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin, in which Spain and its traditional culture provided exotic backdrops, you might even say mere props, for location shooting, without significantly engaging with the "real" Spain of its time. In Death of a Cyclist, we see a deliberate effort on the part of Bardem to elevate his national cinema to the heights routinely attained by Spain's European neighbors, particularly the Neorealist movement in Italy.

The supplemental features - Bardem's manifesto, a rhetorically heavy essay and a short documentary on Bardem's career - on this relatively sparse DVD package (by latter day Criterion standards, anyway, though I do appreciate the cool Naked City postcard they tossed in) provide a nice introduction to viewers like me whose exposure to Spanish movies in general have been very limited. Luis Bunuel is the only director from Spain with whom I have much familiarity, and of course he did the great majority of his work in other countries over the course of his long career. I won't pretend to be an expert on either Bardem or his larger impact on film in Spain, since I'm still learning. If you want to dig deeper, some of the links I include here provide helpful insight on the socio-economic conditions imposed by the postwar Franco regime, and how Death of a Cyclist created important fissures in the cultural deadlock. Instead, my focus rests on the admirable job he did constructing this stimulating blend of atmospheric noir, psychological suspense, class-conscious ideology and skillful compositional techniques. If Death of a Cyclist is indicative of Bardem's proficiency, I welcome more of his work to be added to the Collection.

The story begins simply enough - a solitary bicyclist flashes across the screen, pedaling away from the camera into the gloom of an overcast early morning so that we never see anything more than his back, ever receding toward the horizon established by a gradual uphill incline. Just as he passes the crest and disappears, the music turns ominous. For a moment, all is still, then a automobile's silhouette pops into view and we see it veer and quickly skid to a stop. An accident has just taken place - the car struck the bike and its occupants must stop and decide what to do.

A well-to-do couple steps out, the man running up to the fallen bicycle, an attractive, stylish young woman trailing a few steps behind. The bicyclist is still alive. But the woman urgently calls his name - "Juan! Juan!" He understands perfectly the message she's unable to articulate in words. He returns to the car. She drives away. The road is deserted. There are no witnesses. This couple cannot let themselves get involved.

Sure enough, the pair are not supposed to be together, according to the dictates of society and the sanctity of a marriage vow. Helping the poor injured man would have risked more than they were willing to concede. We learn that, as adulterers go, they have a stronger rationale for their affair than most, perhaps. Rationalization of such entanglements is a highly subjective practice, after all. But the bachelor Juan and his married lover Maria Jose have a history as a couple that predates her marriage, that was interrupted by his service in the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that took its toll on them both in multiple ways. Maria Jose took the easy (or at least, convenient) route of parlaying her elegant bearing and regal beauty into a life of luxury and privilege (the "ease and plenty" dreamed of by Harry Fabian, in Night and The City.),She got married to the muy importante Miguel Castro, a respected member of the Spanish upper-class, while Juan was out of reach. Now Juan glumly goes about his business, the only son of the family left alive (one presumes the other sons died heroically in the war), toiling as a college instructor that fell his way due more to family connections (including the influence of his lover's husband Miguel, who also happens to be his brother-in-law) than through any initiative on his part. He lacks the motivation and self-confidence to pursue a full professorship. It seems that his illicit romance with Maria Jose is the only thing that keeps him going.

But now, the shadows of guilt, remorse and paranoia hang over them both. They are unable to find any solace with each other, especially after hints of their dangerous secrets are dropped by Rafa, a disgruntled art critic who lingers in these privileged circles, performing a functionary role that nauseates him as he ages and grows bored with the decadent routines that preoccupy his peers. Rafa lets on that he knows something, but he won't say what - and the uncertainty he generates, the peril he poses to Juan and Maria Jose, begin to gnaw away at not only them, but Miguel and even Rafa himself. The tensions relentlessly mount over the course of 90 minutes as each of the participants maneuver into positions of perceived advantage, exercising a fascinating array of moral prerogatives as they each take turns choosing what is the more valuable aspect of their existence to preserve - social respectability? access to wealth? a clear conscience? unblemished reputations? closeness to the one they love? Saying much more about the twists and turns of plot would give away more than this under-recognized film deserves.

I definitely felt my pulse increasing as the plot reached its culmination, even though I could figure out roughly where it was going well in advance. Death of a Cyclist may not reach the nerve-wracking tension achieved by Hitchcock in Notorious or Clouzot in Diabolique, but Bardem's film fits adequately enough in that company. A strong argument can be (and has been) made, questioning the integrity and necessity of the final scene. I think it's sufficient to point out that it was tacked on to earn a reprieve by moralistic censors - we accept it for what it is, and what necessitated its inclusion at the time. Bardem, working under some duress, came up with a satisfying parallelism that manages to encode some subversive digs at the status quo even while meting out some measure of justice, if one just knows where to look and how to read the symbolism. If you still don't like it, feel free to imagine your own postmodern, ethically ambiguous conclusion if you have a better one! Or just wait until the full emergence of the Nouvelle Vague and its contemporaries - there's plenty more of that sort of thing coming up in the decades of film ahead.

Besides the effective, tightly-wound and progressively engrossing narrative development, a few things stand out to me. One is Bardem's wonderful juxtaposition of shot sequences, joining scenes via jarringly witty splices of actions that begin in one location and unexpectedly transition to another. Blown smoke, hurled objects, warm embraces and more, vividly communicate each character's interrelationship (for better or worse) with those who are physically absent but emotionally dominant. 

Likewise, the black & white cinematography envelopes the viewer so nicely, a warm glow suffusing many scenes, both interior and exterior, at appropriate times, with a harder edged gaze interspersed at key moments when Bardem wants to deliver a more pointed sociological critique. A few occasions take Juan outside of the semi-aristocratic bubble he now lives in, bringing him into contact with poor peasants and the growing unrest of university students unwilling to passively yield to the corruption that's compromised their elders. These scenes deliver valuable insights into what was going on in Spain at the time, lending additional documentary value to a finely crafted film.

Finally, let me just admit the enjoyment I took in watching Lucia Bose each and every moment she graced the screen. Much prettier than the poster above would lead you to believe, she possessed classic beauty and mastery of expression that could have made her a major star if she had chosen to stay in show business longer than she did (retiring at age 24 to get married.) Recent pictures of her on the internet show her to be some kind of character, with bright blue hair and no apparent interest in Botox or plastic surgery. I trust that she's had a fun and interesting life! Her performance here is brilliant as she governs her emotions skillfully, moment by moment, rising to the challenge of every social and relational predicament that confronts her, but leaving us wondering when, if ever, is she sincere?

This clip gives just a brief sample of the exemplary qualities I've just described. Even if you don't know the details of the story, you can easily feel the complications thickening up as whispers are exchanged underneath the cacophony of rhythm, music and dance. It's a wonderful sequence, and a fitting introduction (or refresher) to Death of a Cyclist: