The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Million Dollar Legs (Edward Cline)
  2. The Ring (Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Rebels on Pointe (Bobbi Jo Hart)
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
  5. The Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava)
  6. Mudbound (Dee Rees)
  7. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (Ernst Lubitsch)
  9. Giant (George Stevens)
  10. Johnny Belinda (Jean Negolescu)

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1- I LOVE movies and books that portray an insane world by presenting it as normal to its own inhabitants.  Alice In Wonderland and Through The Lookingglass are my favorite books. This is the reason that I adore The Palm Beach Storytoo.  For sheer insanity but not on the epic scale of Alice or the denizens of Palm Beach, I heartily recommend Million Dollar Legs. It is so nuts and it features W.C. Fields.  What else do you need.

2- Recently re-watched High and Low.  What a masterpiece this is.  The sustained tension is masterfully handled and the moral dilemmas that the characters are put through present real ethical quandaries for the audience. The first half is complete room-bound, almost as claustrophobic as the room in RopeWhat makes this part of the film so dazzling is that even though it is all played in a very restricted space, it is shot in widescreen which creates a dizzying feeling.   The Olympian home in the first section, gives way to the Hades of the Japanese underworld. Brueghel at his best.  Mifune is masterful and the final confrontation between him and the villain, showing Mifune’s fruitless attempts to understand why the villain did what he did, are dazzling.

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The King of the Monsters

I never really got the idea of ‘camp’. Watching something that you know is ‘bad’ in order to get pleasure out of reveling in its badness seems smug to me. The classic Japanese monster movies (Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, etc.), were obviously low-quality. Surely no one was watching them for any other reason than the camp pleasure. The special effects looked cheap, even by the standards of 1950s sci-fi. But when I was younger I loved watching these movies even though I thought I knew how bad they were supposed to be. But my nascent camp posture was always circumvented by pure enjoyment. So, when TCM showed Godzilla (Gojira or ゴジラ in the original Japanese) I thought I would give it fifteen minutes of my time to see if I could relive some of that pleasure I once got. I was surprised at what I found.

Knowing more about history now than I did then, the whole thing seemed like a complicated riff on WWII, the Bomb and both Japan’s and America’s roles in the conflict.

And this is not a stretch to make this thesis fit the film. When you see Godzilla trampling through Tokyo, it is impossible not to imagine the Allied destruction of the city. The black and white photography of destruction and chaos look like WWII newsreels.

Remember, this film came out less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the war in the Pacific. The traumas of that time were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of the Japanese. The economic rebound was still not in full swing. Many parts of the country were still devastated. The emotional impact of these scenes must have been profound.

Along with his expert trampling, Godzilla also destroys the city with his breath of fire. No doubt this was a traumatic memory for the original audience, most of whom had seen the city completely destroyed by fire bombing.

The attempts of the Japanese military to destroy the monster have clear echoes of the Kamikaze pilots.

The ‘oxygen destroy’ that is used to end the monster’s terrifying rampage sounds very much like splitting the atom. The process sounds like the Hail Mary pass that the Atom Bombs were in the effort to bring the war to an end.

The argument for ‘oxygen destroyer’ similar to is very similar to the rational for the Manhattan Project : pure science drives the research for and creation of the bomb, even though all the scientists must have been aware of its destructive potential. Serizawa is ultimately more noble than the Americans since he realizes that it must be used, but he destroys all the plans and himself to ensure that it will never be used again. Is this a casual (or not so casual) indictment of the U.S’s continued advancement of nuclear arms?

There are other more thoughtful Japanese films centered on the dropping of the Bombs and its aftermath. Akira Kurosawa’s I Live In Fear from 1955 depicts a businessman who slowly drives himself insane with his obsession of protecting his family from what he believes is an inevitable second nuclear attack. Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1989) is a harrowing depiction of the delayed effects of the bombs. Both of these films are richer and more nuanced than Gojira, but for pure visceral trauma, The King of the Monsters still has it, tacky rubber suit or no tacky rubber suit.


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Have You Tried Mikio Naruse?

Mikio Naruse

To celebrate the Akira Kurosawa centennial in 2010, TCM showed almost all of his films.  This appealed mightily to my completist personality, so I taped and watched them all.  I had previously seen some of his famous jidaigeki (historical) films such as Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, but I had never seen any of his gendaigeki (contemporary) films. Stray Dog, Ikiru and especially High and Low were revelations.

I loaded up my Netflix queue with the Kurosawas that TCM did not show, and in the process became a full-fledged Japanese film obsessive.  I was familiar with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi films, so I followed up my Kurosawa study with as many of their films as I could find.  Whenever I would add a film by one of these masters to my queue, Netflix would make its inevitable ‘If you liked {fill in film name}, why not try ……..’  The film that kept popping up as a suggestion was When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse, a director then unknown to me.  The title sounded ghastly so I kept putting it off until it arrived one day in a wonderful Criterion edition.  I watched it and was astounded.  In fact, I watched it twice in a row, the second time with Donald Richie commentary.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs tells the story of a ‘mama’ or manager of a nightclub in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The main character, Keiko is relatively young, but is beginning to realize that her days in this profession might be numbered.  We watch her work to find financial and emotional security, before the inevitable day that she is ‘too old’.   This film was my introduction to the luminous Hideko Takamine, who is Naruse’s muse the way Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka fill that role for Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, respectively.

hideko takamine

The film combined the restrained sense of Ozu and the feminist sensibility of Mizoguchi and the grittiness of Kurosawa’s gendaideki films, but it was something else again.  After watching it several more times, I was hungry to see as much Naruse as I could.  I was stymied because all that was available in Region 1 format besides When A Woman Ascends The Stairs were Silent Naruse, which I devoured immediately.

The trail for more Naruse went cold until, miraculously, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films had an 11-week series spotlighting the collaboration of Naruse and Takamine.  I was in heaven. Every week was a revelation.  I was amazed and frustrated that such wonderful films were unavailable to the  general public (at least, unavailable to the general public in Region 1!).

Please don’t be annoyed if I recommend a few of these hard-to-see films.  I do have copies of all of them, so you are more than welcome to stop by my place and watch them with me.

1- Lightning (Inazuma)  – 1952

Inazuma

Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, an author that Naruse often turned to, Lightning tells the story of how Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) subtly but definitively extricates herself from her highly dysfunctional family and finds an idyllic life on her own. The move from her crazy family’s home to an almost magical apartment of her own, next-door to an angelic brother and sister, is depicted so richly.  I love this film

2- Flowing (Nagareru) – 1956

flowing

Takamine plays the daughter of the owner of geisha house that is slowly going out of business.  The mother is played by legendary Isuzu Yamada, best known as the terrifying Lady Macbeth equivalent in Throne of Blood. Kinuyo Tanaka is also on hand to provide a Greek chorus for the action.

The unwillingness of the mother and her geisha to come to terms with the fact that the house’s days are numbered, makes for an experience as wrenching as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  A moving film.  Takamine has more of a secondary role here.  The film belongs to Yamada.

3- Daughters, Wives and a Mother (Musume, Tsuma, Haha) – 1960.

This film came out the same year as When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. It is similar in richness and it is in color. The film shows the slow dissolution of a once prosperous family through the negligence and selfishness of the children. The end is heartbreaking. Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara plays an atypically passive character and Takamine has a small role as a daughter-in-law.  There is one particularly funny scene that comes at the most emotional part of the film.  It involves eating crackers.  That’s all I’m going to say.

So,  please try Naruse.  Some of the other films might be hard to track down but you have no excuse not to see (and love) When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)
  2. Europe ’51 (Roberto Rossellini)
  3. Fear  (Roberto Rossellini)
  4. Charlotte et son Jules (Jean-Luc Godard)
  5. All The Boys Are Named Patrick (Jean-Luc Godard)
  6. A Woman Is A Woman (Jean-Luc Godard)
  7. Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
  8. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper)
  9. The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov)
  10. I Walked With A Zombie (Jacques Tourneur)

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1- It is a good thing to watch favorite classics again and again.  Many films are to be watched once, digested and then you move on to the next one.  But there is another type of film that seems to thrive on being watched over and over again. You know every centimeter of the film, yet there is a tremendous satisfaction in retreading the familiar turf. It might sound like a cliche but the film gets richer with each viewing, and your aesthetics deepen as well. Rashomon is a prime example of this kind of film.  I love it. It is a part of me.

2- I continue to have a maddening relationship with the films of Jean-Luc Godard. TCM recently had a daylong presentation of his features and shorts. It seems like the man made a million films. There always seems to be one I haven’t seen.  This time around I got to watch two shorts I had always heard about: All The Boys Are Called Patrick and Charlotte and her Boyfriend. Both were surprisingly delightful, not an adjective one associates with Godard, especially his later work.  It reminded me of the early, breezy comedies of other Nouvelle Vague directors.  I also had the same instant love for A Woman is a Woman that I had for Vivre Sa Vie. The playfulness, the delightful Anna Karina, the callow Jean-Paul Belmondo, the handsome Jean-Claude Brialy all make for great viewing fun. I still need a lot of help appreciating the later, more polemical Godard. I found Pierrot Le Fou torture to sit through. Advice, anyone?

3- I always thought that the films Rossellini made in the 5os with Ingrid Bergman were weird, poorly crafted and stiff.  But watching Fear and especially Europe ’51  made me realize that they are cinematic operas. The oversized emotion, the large scale acting, it’s all there. And viewed in that light, these films are magnificent.

4- Just a reminder to watch as much Parajanov as you can. There isn’t much out there and it is all kind of astounding.  Read my introduction first.

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Fanny (Marc Allegret)
  2. Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)
  3. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)
  4. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
  5. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  6. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
  7. Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Shame (Ingmar Bergman)
  9. Sword in the Desert (George Sherman)
  10. The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir)

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1- It was interesting to watch Lancelot du Lac and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne so close to each other. Lancelot du Lac is a prime example of what we expect from a Bresson film.  It is an austere (very austere) telling of the Arthurian legend of adultery. I found it extremely moving in its depiction of an ideal world devolving into nothingness.  Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, on the other hand, is very atypical Bresson.  His second feature, made from a script by Jean Cocteau, has more of the sensibility of that writer-filmmaker’s work than of the ‘Catholic Atheist’ Bresson we have come to know and perhaps love.  What is so interesting to me is that all the criticism and articles I found concerning Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne has the writers twisting themselves into pretzels trying to prove that this film has all the elements of his later, more ‘Bressonian’ films.  It doesn’t really.  What we have here is the theory of the auteur exercising its tyranny over any thinking about film.  I suppose I am guilty of it too, since I always list films followed by the name of the director.

Also, I am so taken with the performance of Maria Casares in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne .  Best known as Death in Cocteau’s Orpheus and the unloved wife in Les Enfants du Paradis, she has one of the most impressive faces in cinema and was a hell of an actress.

Maria Casares

Maria Casares

 

2-  By watching Yoyo, I completed watching all the films in the wonderful Criterion box set of the complete films of Pierre Etaix.  A genius, ladies and gentlemen, descended from the line of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati.  I hope to write a Have You Tried….  post about him soon.  But don’t wait for that! Untold delights await you from this comic master!

3- Some artists go from strength to strength as they age,  leaving us undeniable masterpieces at the end of their lives. Otello and Falstaff by Verdi, Parsifal by Wagner, The Dead by John Huston are examples of this.  But there are other genius who seem to fizzle out at the end of their creative life. It is hard to see how the director of Psycho and The Birds would have been content with Topaze. I was thinking about this watching Akira Kurosawa’s  Rhapsody in August.  This film comes shortly after his majestic epics Kagemusha and Ran, and compared to those mighty cinematic brothers, this film is little more that poorly executed cinematic claptrap. The platitudes about the affects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the Japanese and America survivors some 40 years after the fact, are cringe-worthy.  The whole thing is  inept and  annoyingly sentimental. I really wanted to strangle that gaggle of a kids.

All that I have left to watch of the Kurosawa oeuvre is Madadayo, which, from its description, sounds like a bad Japanese version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I am nervous.

4- In the introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain writes:

‘In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit:  the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Golden Coach by Jean Renoir. I have no idea why the decision was made to have everyone in the film speak English, but because of this, the film often devolves into an incomprehensible Babel.  Even Anna Magnani, the voracious star of the film, lapses into streams of Italian swearing from time to time and she seems much relieved.

 

 


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Japanese Film: How To Get Started

Nihon

I wanted to write this introduction for a long time, because very little has given me as much pleasure as getting to know Japanese film, and I want to share that pleasure.  I thought that I could approach this vast topic in one of two ways: chronologically or thematically.

Of course, I decide to do both.

A few caveats before we start:

1- This is by no means an exhaustive survey of Japanese Cinema. For something on that scale, let me once again recommend Donald Richie’s magisterial  study, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film.  It’s a great book to read through and a wonderful reference book, as well.

2- Since I have abandoned any attempt to make this a ‘completist’ blog, instead making it about what it is of interest to me, you will note that many important genres will be missing. I am not very interested in anime nor in Japanese Noir (no yakuza for me, thank you).  You’ll have to find better-informed people to introduce you to these genres.

3- What we’ll look at is Japanese film of the golden era, from approximately 1940 through 1965.  I’m not well-informed about what comes before or after.  Hopefully, this post will give you an incentive to explore on your own.  If you do, please come back and post about what you’ve found.

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Chronological Assessment

Sound came to Japanese film much later than it did to Western film.  Because of this, many of the great Japanese directors honed their craft making silents. They developed distinctive visual styles in ways that many of their Western counterparts did not. According to Donald Richie, Western silents, especially those of Ernst Lubitsch, had a great influence on Japan. Interestingly, Richie points out that while Hollywood was baffled by the Expressionism and experimental films coming out of Germany such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, the stylization of these films was completely consonant with the Japanese aesthetic. Because of this, you see what seem to be extraordinarily experimental early silent films coming out of Japan such as the extremely nutty A Page Of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) and Japanese Girls At The Harbor  (1933, Hiroshi Shimizu). Years later, Kinugasa directed one of the first Japanese films to win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award for Gates of Hell, a completely traditional historical drama. Shimizu would direct many traditional, lovely human dramas such as Mr. Thank You and Japanese Ornamental Hairpin.

The rise of militarism in the years before World War II manifests itself in many ways.  For example, the first films of Akira Kurosawa reflect an almost hysterical sense of loyalty to the emperor and the army. In The Most Beautiful, the manager at a periscope lens grinding factory has impressed upon the workers that in order to support Emperor and country, the men must increase their output by 100% and the women by 50%.  Our heroine, a distraught young team leader, prostrates herself in front of the manager begging him not to deny the women the chance to prove their loyalty by demanding less from them than from the men.  This, of course, makes her the most beautiful.

After the war, the self-criticism is swift and merciless. The cruelty of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria is unflinchingly depicted in Masaki Kobayashi’s 9-hour The Human Condition.  Kurosawa also explores the post-war self-recriminations in No Regrets For Our Youth. The Japanese self-analysis has absolutely no parallel in German film, especially so soon after the war.

I wonder if the immediate and intense examination of guilt and shame that Japanese film went through right after the war allowed the late 40s and the 50s to be decades that would witness art created at the highest level, art that was free of polemic and apology.

The quiet family masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, the historical epics as well as the contemporary dramas of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, the criminally unknown (at least in the West) films of Mikio Naruse, all appear in this period.

With the 60s, we see the rise of yakuza (gangster) films, disaffected youth films and giant-irradiated-monsters-destroying-Tokyo films.   Approach with caution.

Gozilla

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 Thematic Assessment

 Japanese films are classified as either gendai-geki (contemporary drama) or jidai-geki (historical drama). The first Japanese film to become an international sensation was the jidai-geki Rashomon of Akira Kurosawa. The stylization and the strangeness of the historical trappings came to define Japanese cinema in the West for decades. Even though Kurosawa made stunning gendai-geki such as High and Low and Ikiru, it seems that if there weren’t samurai, the West wasn’t interested.

This has changed over the years. Today, no Japanese film is held in higher regard than Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet and devastating 1953 meditation on the decay of the family, Tokyo Story. This film is emblematic of a sub-genre of the gendai-geki  called shomin-geki , or dramas of the ‘little people’, meaning the middle class.

Jidai-geki (historical drama)

 The most famous films of this genre take place in the times of civil unrest dating from about 1450 until 1600. Society was in upheaval and would not be tranquil again until the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in about 1600.  This period lasted until well into the 1860s with the rise of the Meiji emperor.

The films of this period present a world in chaos. The lives of poor simple people are tragically undone by the whirlwind of the times. Classic historical characters such as the ronin, the masterless samurai, are often the heroes of these story.  But just as often, the hero is the poor farmer who is trying to hold his life together in the middle of the turbulence. The women of these films run the gamut from the chaste princess to the good-hearted farmers wife to great seductresses who often wind up being ghosts with vengeance on their minds. No one plays the latter better than Machiko Kyo in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

Machiko Kyo working her stuff in Ugetsu Monogatari

The most famous (in the West at least) of the Japanese actors is Toshiro Mifune.  Though mostly known abroad for his roles in ‘samurai’ films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, he was brilliant in contemporary stories as well.

Mifune in Seven Samurai

Mifune in Seven Samurai

As an introduction to these historical films, I would suggest you start with the five following films:

A- Rashomon One of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and the film that brought Japanese film into the Western consciousness.  The title has entered our language as the exemplar of shifting narrative reliability. It is one of the great works which tackle the topic ‘How can we know what is true?’  The answer seems to be that we can’t, but we must derive comfort where we can. An endlessly fascinating movie.

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous....or are they?

Rashomon: Mifune and Kyo being duplicitous….or are they?

B- Ugetsu Monogatari  (Tales of Rain and the Moon) – Many would argue that with this film Kenji Mizoguchi reached the pinnacle not only of Japanese film-making but film-making in general. Everything is here – the world in upheaval due to constant war, an erotic ghost-love story, the wrenching story of women destroyed by the folly of men. It contains some of the most breathtaking camera movements in all of cinema.

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

The legendary Lake Biwa scene in Ugetsu Monogatari

C- Kwaidan (Ghost Stories) – Masaki Kobayashi’s great collection of four wonderful ghost stories based on the collection made in the early 1900s by Lafcadio Hearne. Hearne was an Englishman who completely assimilated into and absorbed Japanese culture.  A ravishing film with exquisite use of color.

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

Hoichi The Earless episode from Kwaidan

 D- Red Beard – Although Kurosawa sets this film in the late 19th Century, his fanatical obsession with historical accuracy makes this film one of the  great examples of jidai-geki. The story of an arrogant young medical student coming under the spell of the fascinating title hero, a seasoned country doctor played by Mifune, and thereby growing into an integrated human being, stands unashamedly next to any 19th Century Bildungsroman.  This huge film has one of the greatest hearts of any work of art I can think of.

Master and disciple in Red Beard

Master and disciple in Red Beard

E- Throne Of Blood – Like Verdi, Kurosawa loved Shakespeare. This is his Macbeth.  It would be followed by his take on Hamlet (The Bad Sleep Well) and his final masterpiece based on King Lear (Ran). This film contains the single scariest embodiment of Lady Macbeth that I know of.

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood

Gendai-geki (Contemporary drama)

The costume dramas of jidai-geki signal ‘Japan’ to us by the look and stylization of the films. It is interesting to observe that the contemporary works of gendai-geki also signal ‘Japan’ to us not from their surface but what is bubbling underneath. The greatest of these are films of the small but loaded gesture.  Inference is prized over explicit expression. The powerful climaxes are quiet.

Here are five films to watch to give you an idea of the breadth and depth of Gendai-geki:

A- Osaka Elegy – Kenji Mizoguchi is perhaps best know in the west for his period dramas, but his contemporary dramas, especially those depicting the plight of contemporary women before and after World War II are astonishing. This film tells the wrenching story of a young woman slaving to support her rapacious family, only to have them reject her when they discover the compromises she has made for their sake. Very often, families are depicted as mercenary in gendai-geki, but the family in this film goes beyond what is usually depicted. The final shot of the woman walking straight into the camera, embracing her downward spiral, is devastating

osaka elegy

B- Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You) – One of the loveliest films I have ever seen.  In a way it is a precursor to John Ford’s Stage Coach in that it represents a cross-section of society on a journey and the relationships that grow and die along the journey. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, it is so rare to have a thoroughly good central character who does not become cloying.  The bus driver, so nicknamed by his penchant to thank pedestrians who move out of his ways, is at once saintly and a thoroughly down-to-earth man. We all deserve a trip on Mr. Thank You’s bus

Arigato gozaimasu!

Arigato gozaimasu!

C- Tokyo Story – There is really nothing like the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The characters’ reticence, the static camera, the uneventful plots seem to float along like a lazy river until the climax hits you like a tidal wave. This film is hailed not only Ozu’s greatest, but one of the greatest of all time. The depiction of the unraveling of a family is magnificent in its restraint but overwhelming in its final impact.  The last 20 minutes or so are sublime.  As New York Times critic A. O. Scott says in his lovely tribute, ‘It’s merely perfect’

A.O. Scott’s video tribute to Tokyo Story

 D- High and Low – Although Akira Kurosawa is best known for his samurai films, one of his most accomplished films is based on an Ed McBain detective story (of all things!).  The title in Japanese is more literally translated as ‘Heaven and Hell’ and that title beautifully contrasts the world of privilege which is assaulted from below. This taut thriller is quite a ride.  The use of widescreen is stunning and the end is harrowing.

 

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

The Final Confrontation. Yikes!

 E- When a Woman Ascends The Stairs – In a time when one has access to every episode of The Brady Bunch, it is criminal that hardly any of the films of Mikio Naruse are available in the Region 1 (US) format. Once again, we are indebted to Criterion for giving us at least this one sound film of his, along with three of his silents.  His oeuvre rivals any of the other great directors.  Kurosawa said of his films were  “like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.”  How true that statement is. This  film depicts a once successful mama-san, or manager of a hostess bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, coming to terms with her diminished situation.   The central character, played by Naruse’s muse, the stunning Hideko Takamine, is as richly drawn and as memorable as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

Hideko Takamine

Hideko Takamine

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The more I write this article, the more I feel I want to introduce and discuss, but since this was meant as an introduction and not as a doctoral thesis, I will stop here, but not without promising to focus more on individual Japanese films, directors and actors in the near future.

Please let me know about your adventures in the Cinema of the Rising Sun


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Pride (Matthew Warchus)
  2. The Immigrant (James Gray)
  3. Time Regained (Raul Ruiz)
  4. Un Cuento Chino (Sebastián Borensztein)
  5. The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch)
  6. The Land of Milk and Honey (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
  8. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  9. The Quiet Duel (Akira Kurosawa)
  10. Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman)

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1- Having finally completed reading the entire À la recherche du temps perdu (shameless bragging freely admitted),  I have been on a quest to read and see everything that can help me relive that wonderful experience.  I wouldn’t let myself watch Raul Ruiz’ Time Regained until I finished reading the whole cycle. I  felt I would never get to see this movie because of this silly rule I imposed on myself.  I’m glad I did. This is a film only for people who have read, loved, obsessed over, shared, hated and lived in Proust’s great work. I can’t imagine who else would get it.  It is magnificent in its compression – the spirit of the work is so well captured in small and big strokes.  Even though the movie ostensibly concentrates on the last volume, there are flashes of earlier, important events and the juxtapositions between past and present would have made Proust proud.  The casting is wonderful. Although John Malkovich is not the right physical type for the wonderfully infuriating and repellant Baron du Charlus, he embodies the character’s quirky sense of self-righteousness and self-torture perfectly, especially in his final scene when he is bowing to the hitherto despised Madame de Sainte Euverte.  Marie-France Pisier is pitch-perfect as the awful Mme. Verdurin and no one else could have played the older Odette than Catherine Deneuve. When Edith Scob appears I said, ‘Yes, that is exactly what the Duchesse de Geurmantes is like’. I loved this film, but can’t really recommend it unless you’ve immersed yourself in the worlds of Swann’s and the Geurmantes’s ways.

2- Un Cuento Chino is a rare delight. A sweet film with just enough vinegar to keep it from cloying.  Endearing characters that are neurotic enough to be believable. Riccardo Darin is a huge star in Argentina who should be better known here. I loved this movie. A pure pleasure.

3- The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night were both up for Oscars and both starred Marion Cottillard. Both also embody certain aesthetics and moralities of contemporary cinema.  For the past twenty years or so, moral relativism seems to be the only lens through which certain filmmakers can address moral issues. There is a great reluctance to identify evil as evil, immorality as immorality, etc.  Clear-cut identification seems uncool.  The Immigrant seems particularly guilty of this. Two Days, One Night looks moral choices and consequences squarely in the eye and comes down on the side of doing ‘the right thing’, even though it might take a while to understand what ‘the right thing’ is. Moral relativism might seem sophisticated and adult to some, but I find it lazy and adolescent. I am not advocating that movies should be like illustrations of The Lives of the Saints, but I do think it does take a certain maturity to make a moral choice in a film and the Dardenne brothers do this admirably.  Plus, I think that The Immigrant was pretty sloppy, ugly and dull. But hey, that’s just me.  You might love it.

4- I first heard about Ernst Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle in one of Donald Richie’s marvelous books on Japanese films.  This silent classic was a sensation when it first played in Japan. The Japanese were dazzled by the economy of Lubitsch’s visual storytelling and you see this subtlety in the films of all the great masters, especially Yasujiro Ozu. The film is a magnificent comedy of manners that holds up beautifully.  I highly recommend it. The version I watched seemed to be taped in front of a live audience, which was a little weird. Any recommendations for a good commercial copy?

5- I have been working my way through the Criterion collection of the complete works of Pierre Étaix and my delight continues to grow. These films should be as well known as the works of Jacques Tati, with whom Etaix apprenticed. The Land Of Milk and Honey was his undoing in France.  This ‘documentary’ of the French bourgeoisie on vacation at a ghastly resort earned the rancor of everyone and effectively ended his career. It is a cruelly critical look at a crass society, but it is so much fun.  I think this film is his Peeping Tom, another unpleasantly wicked film that ended the career of the great Michael Powell I am still toying with the idea of a ‘Have You Tried Pierre Etaix….’ post in the near future.  He is delight.