Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Lone Star

Directed by John Sayles
The United States of America

Forty years ago, Rio County Sheriff Charlie Wade vanished. A cruel, sadistic man, he took a perverse pleasure in extorting and terrifying the townsfolk. He was last seen in a dark bar having an argument with his new deputy Buddy Deeds. Wade had attempted to use him as a pawn in a drug pick-up. But he didn’t count on Buddy’s integrity. He stormed out of the bar and was never seen again. Nobody seemed to care much when he (and $10,000 from Rio County’s public coffer) disappeared. Buddy would follow Wade as sheriff for the next thirty years, becoming a beacon of justice and integrity until his death. If anyone might have had any suspicions about Wade’s fate and Buddy’s sudden rise to power...well, small towns may have long memories, but they also know when to leave well enough alone.

The last confrontation between Wade (left) and Buddy (right).

But Rio County’s convenient case of selective amnesia is soon challenged when two off-duty soldiers accidentally discover a skeleton in the desert with Wade’s old sheriff’s badge rusting away in the nearby dirt. With the specter of a 40 year old murder hovering over the countryside, none other than Buddy’s son, Sheriff Sam Deeds, is called upon to investigate. So begins John Sayles’ Lone Star, a magnificent film that isn’t so much a murder mystery as an exploration into the very soul of a community plagued with centuries of racial tension, violence, and unpleasant memories that refuse to fade away.

It seems that everyone in Rio County has a story. There’s Otis Payne, the owner of the bar that serves as a backdrop to Wade’s last appearance. Though he seems kindly enough, he harbors a lingering sadness over abandoning his son, Delmore, when he was just a child. That child, now grown up, is the new commander of the local Army base. He has to deal with local recruits who see the Army not as a patriotic calling, but a chance to escape Rio County’s economic miasma. Bitter over his father’s absence, Delmore has reigned such a terrible influence over his own son that he has become a stuttering, nervous wreck. Just like the rest of Rio County, one generation of pain fosters the next.

Delmore's son.

Then there’s Pilar Cruz, Sam’s high school crush. After being forcibly separated by their families, Pilar would go on to get married, have two children, and become a teacher. Now the husband is dead, the children rebellious teenagers, and the teaching position mired in local politics over what should and should not be included in their textbooks. The necessity of the case forces Sam to come knocking on her door, seeing as Wade had chillingly murdered her mother’s husband during a routine traffic stop over 40 years ago. Are they glad to see each other after all of this time? As Pilar points out, “Nobody stays in love for twenty-three years.”

And then there are the local Seminole Indians, the young Chicanos, and the disenfranchised outsiders wasting away at bars and in immaculate living rooms complete with big screen TVs. Sayles glides from one group to the next, dissecting the monsters lurking behind the different ghettos and neighborhoods. In one scene Delmore interrogates a young, black soldier who tested positive during an unannounced drug test. The ensuing exchange comes as close as anything in the film to uncovering the true nature of Rio’s racial scars.

“I’m just trying to understand how someone like you thinks.”
“You really wanna know?”
“It’s their country. This is one of the best deals they offer.”

Make no mistake, Rio County is not a melting pot. The different races tolerate each other because they have to live there. After all, where else do they have to go? 

John Sayles, one of the true titans of American independent cinema, is at his very best here in Lone Star. Ever since his early days with films like Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Sayles has demonstrated masterful skill in creating authentic, believable characters that capture the essence of their environments. These are not characters that are trotted out to recite a few lines in order to move the plot along. Delmore’s relationship with his son, for example, adds almost nothing to the central narrative concerning Wade’s murder. And yet, I couldn’t imagine the film without it. And yes, the mystery is finally resolved. But Sayles doesn’t linger on it. Instead, he is much more interested with how this revelation effects Sam’s relationship with Pilar. This is a film about people. As Pilar wisely suggests, “All that other stuff, all that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

裸の島 (The Naked Island)

Kaneto Shindō

On a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, a long path winds from the shore to a large field of sweet potatoes. Every day, two tired figures can be seen lugging massive buckets of water up and down the path over and over and over again. Once at the top, they carefully water each individual sweet potato sprout. But their buckets only provide enough water for a few plants. So, once again, they must climb down the path, board a boat, travel to another island, refill their buckets with fresh water, and return. It is harsh, back-breaking work. But for this husband and wife, nothing less than the livelihood of their family depends on it. They have two young sons, both of which are not strong enough yet to help with the crops. So every day they are ferried to school while their parents continue their monotonous, thankless work. Such is life for the family in Kaneto Shindō’s The Naked Island, one of the great treasures of 60s Japanese cinema.

After the explosion of Japanese cinema into the international marketplace in the 50s, Shindō was largely overshadowed by such luminaries as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. But he still managed to score a number of critical hits overseas with such films as Children of Hiroshima (1952) and Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959). The former was the first Japanese film to confront the horrors of the atom bomb attacks during World War Two while the latter was based on the true story of a fishing boat that accidentally got hit by further atomic testing near Bikini Atoll in 1954. But the end of the 50s saw Shindō with almost no money left. So he scraped together what little money he could into one last project: The Naked Island. The film was a daring gamble. It didn’t focus on politics or hot-button issues. It focused on only a handful of characters. And, most importantly, it contained no spoken dialogue.

Don’t misunderstand what I mean when I say that The Naked Island doesn’t have any dialogue. The film has a soundtrack. But Shindō fills the film with “in-between” moments. We assume that the family talks to each other. But Shindō focuses on scenes of extreme toil and tedium. After decades of living on the same island and raising the same family, what is there to say while monotonously watering the same field of sweet potatoes? Take one scene where the husband and wife lug massive buckets of water up to their fields. The wife stumbles and spills her water. The husband is furious. They will have to make an extra trip to the mainland to make up for the loss. He knows it. She knows it. In anger, he smacks her in the face. But then, without a word, he helps her up and the two continue up the hill. Their silent communication is more powerful than anything they could have said.

But the absence of dialogue does more than force Shindō to present the film in purely visual terms. The silence and monotony forces the audience to re-evaluate the family’s relationship with their surroundings. Allow me to explain: early in the film Shindō cuts between the mother and father watering their crops and the waves washing things ashore their island. As we move back and forth between the two, we start to see them as equal and essential parts of the environment. Just as the waves must crash, the family must toil and suffer.

But that isn’t to suggest that The Naked Island is completely bleak. There are small moments of merciful joy. One of the sons catches a fish and eagerly presents it to his weary parents. Despite the day’s hardships, the father smiles and playfully throws him into the sea. The mother beams and breaks into laughter. The family takes the fish to the mainland where they sell it to a merchant. With the money, they treat themselves to a big meal at nice restaurant. Life may be hard, but it is not without its pleasures.

It’s tempting to describe The Naked Island as a quasi-documentary. But to do so would be to miss Shindō’s purpose. After all, there are inaccuracies in how the family lives. For instance, sweet potatoes do not need to be constantly watered every day. What’s important to Shindō isn’t the crop itself, but the demands that it places on the family. Without the crop, they die. They work so they can live. But can you call what they do living? I believe that the answer can be found in the tragic last quarter of the film where one of the sons gets sick. They rush to get a doctor. But the trip to the mainland is long, much too long. When they finally return the son is dead. After the funeral, we see the husband and wife continue their thankless task of watering their sweet potatoes. But suddenly, the wife freezes. She reaches down and begins to rip the precious plants out of the ground in a frenzy. Finally, she collapses and lets forth a piercing, haunting shriek of anguish. Watch the husband’s reaction. It may surprise you. It may infuriate you. It may make you laugh. But it is the key to understanding Shindō’s intentions. Living is a burden. But we survive because...well...we must.