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!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nil by Mouth

Directed by Gary Oldman
United Kingdom

Valerie: [to Ray] When you go out, you go out with your mates, and when you are in, you're pissed out and your brain's asleep in front of the fucking television. I turn the television off, go up to bed, you follow me up at three o'clock in the morning stinking of booze. That's what I get. Either that or you're knocking me about. I'm 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old. You know, I'm tired, you know, I wanna be able to look back and say, "Yeah, I had a bit of fun," you know, when I'm old, instead of saying "Everyone fucking felt sorry for me!" I mean, that's the life I've got. Do you hear what I'm saying? I just don't want it. I'll, I'll find somebody else. You know, someone who can love me. Someone kind.

Editor's Note: The following review has very strong language.

The 1997 film Nil by Mouth contains 428 uses of the word “fuck.” It is currently ranked number three on the list of the most uses of the word “fuck” in a non-pornographic film. It quickly becomes apparent very early on during a long scene that takes place inside one of the main character's homes. The men lounge on couches and tell raunchy jokes and stories. The language hits the audience like a brick wall. “Fuck” is used as everything, a noun, a verb, an adjective, and I think there may have even been an adverb thrown in there. The women hide in the kitchen, looking exhausted and fed up with the proceedings. But it is obvious that they have passed the point of caring. As the story gets worse and worse, the camera slowly reveals something that shocks the audience: a little girl, no more than seven, sitting on the floor and coloring a coloring book. She is completely catatonic. Another man, a junkie named Bill, approaches her and tries to speak affectionately to her. She doesn't respond. Unfortunately, he is the only person who even notices that she is there during the onslaught of profanity.

But such events are business as usual in the home of Ray and Valerie. They live in a small home in South East London where the days mix together, only to be broken by nightly excursions by Ray and his friends Mark and Bill. They have a ritual of descending into the city where they indulge in drink, gambling, drugs, and questionable company. The women in their lives are far from caring. When Ray's mother, Janet, asks Valerie where they are going, she replies that she doesn't know and she doesn't care. She knows what they are up to, but it doesn't matter anymore. Like her daughter, coloring away on the floor, she has long since been desensitized by the everyday realities of what Ray and his friends do.

But this isn't unusual. Nil by Mouth is a film about tired people living tired lives. Maverick actor Gary Oldman made his directorial debut with this film where he channels the experiences of his own childhood growing up in South East London. The film contains a powerful intensity that has haunted me ever since I have seen it. He directs with a piercing eye that takes us into the depths of depravity and deep into the soul of a family set to implode. Armed with his cinematographer, Ray Fortunato, Oldman commands the streets of London and the shabby neighborhoods that his characters inhabit. To watch is to witness, and it is a miracle that Oldman was able to show so much with so little.

Oldman's incredible directing is matched, if not surpassed, by the performances that this film contains. How do I describe the acting? Well, it would help to look back on some of the best performances that I have ever seen. But not just the best, the most terrifying. The performances that stay with you long after you have left the movie theater. Let's see. There's Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Then there's Joe Pesci from Goodfellas (1990). Oh! And Tatsuya Nakadai in Ran (1985). Probably more than any other performances that I have witnessed, these three haunt my memory. That's not to say that they are necessarily the best ever captured on film, but they certainly are some of the most memorable. The mere thought of Rowland's screams, Pesci's wiseguy routine, and Nakadai's staring face send chills up my spine.

And yet, the actors in Nil by Mouth seem to emulate, if not surpass, all that made these performances great. Is it really surprising that Kathy Burke (Valerie) won the Cannes Film Festival's Best Actress Award or that Ray Winstone (Ray) won the British Independent Film Award's Best Performance by a British Actor in an Independent Film Award? These two performances alone could solidify Nil by Mouth as a classic. But they are complemented by incredible performances from a magnificent supporting cast. There's Charlie Creed-Miles as Billy, a young drug addict who gets the money for his habit from his mother. There's Laila Morse (Oldman's sister) as Janet, who's complacency is matched by an unspoken vengeance by the film's end. And there are all the other people who surround themselves with the small family of Ray and Valerie. They form a microcosm of comfort and misery against the poisonous environment where they are forced to reside.

And comfort is what all of them seek. Billy seeks comfort at the end of a needle, sometimes going so far as to shoot up inside his mother's van while she keeps watch. Ray and his pals seek comfort at the bottom of a bottle. It's clear that they were once big and important. Most of their stories are about the old days. Maybe their constant trips to strip clubs and bars is a way for them to imagine that life is good again. But no matter, it doesn't stop them from getting jealous and beating their wives.

And now we arrive to the event upon which the entire story hinges. Valerie goes out with her mother and her friends. At a bar, she starts to play pool with another man. It is completely innocent, but when Ray walks in an sees it, he immediately assumes that she is having an affair. Of course, he ignores that she is currently carrying his child. But with all the alcohol in his system, all he sees is his wife and another man. So when they arrive home, in one of the movie's most horrifying scenes, he savagely beats her. Later, we see Valerie with her face reduced to meatloaf. It is badly bruised, swollen, and misshapen. Something that always bothers me in films is when the hero gets in a fistfight and then looks fine the next day. That isn't what happens in real life. When a person gets punched in the eye, it doesn't matter how tough they are, they will get a black eye. If somebody is punched, thrown to the floor, kicked, and stomped on, then they will look like shit. Needless to say, in a following scene we see Valerie limping up some stairs. She pauses, groans, grips her stomach, and falls down. Cut to her in the hospital, and we know the child is gone.

The rest of the film concerns Ray trying to set things right with Valerie. He tries to confront her, but her friends and family forces him away from her. He is forced to break into his own house where he angrily destroys everything. His rage is one mixed with the sorrow of a husband who has realized that he has committed a great sin against his beloved. It reminds me of Stanley Kowalski beating his fist against his own front door and howling, “Stella!” Ray's own reconciliation is not as poetic as Stanley's. He mumbles over lines, looks down at the ground, and even manages to say the one thing that should never be said in such a situation, “I only did it cos I love ya.” Obviously he doesn't understand how to express his feelings. Whether or not they are genuine is up to the audience. But personally, I think they are sincere.

I see Ray, and all of the character's in Nil by Mouth, as victims of their environment. During a particularly poignant scene after Ray has assaulted Valerie, he makes a long confession to his mates. He explains how his own parents constantly fought. His father virtually lived at the pub and always smelled of drink. He was never there for him or his mother. We sense that all of his violent impulses are rooted in his father's behavior. But then he says something that may, or may not, truly absolve him from blame. He explains how one time when his father was in the hospital they visited him to find a strange sign above his bed that read “Nil by Mouth”. The conversation continues:

I said, "Well, what's it mean?" She said, "It means... ”

Mark: It means nothing to eat.

Ray: Yeah, nothing down the...
[points into his mouth]

Mark: Nothing down the... Yeah.

Ray: Yeah, all right. I remembered that day, because I could've put that on his fucking tombstone, you know? Because I don't remember one kiss, you know, one cuddle. Nothing. I mean, plenty went down, not a lot came out, you know, nothing that was any fucking good. And I'd look at this man that I call Dad, you know? My father, I knew him as Dad. He was my fucking dad but he weren't like other kids' dads, you know? It was as if the word itself were enough, and it ain't...He died one afternoon in that fucking armchair...And I just touched him, you know? He was fucking freezing cold. It frightened the life out of me. I was looking at him, you know? For the first time in my life, I talked to him. I said, "Why didn't you ever love me?"

Now, just because his father mistreated him doesn't mean that he isn't responsible for his own actions and the death of his own unborn child. But they do make us think. If his father had been there, would Ray have been the man that he had become? Would it all have come to this? Of course, to many this is an unforgivable sin. And many may be repulsed by the ending where the entire family has reconciled and Ray sits in a chair kissing his neglected daughter. But I don't know. At least she isn't getting nil by mouth...

Editor's Note: That's it for this year, folks. I'll see you on January 1st with a movie that I have been dying to review for months. Happy New Year!


Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Inn

Directed by Mark Sandrich
The United States of America

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten,
and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

Ah! The musical! The mere word conjures up myriad memories of a happier time. The delightful choreography of Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse! The melodies of Gershwin! The music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein! And then there are the films! From the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), it was only a matter of time until this great art form began to grace the celluloid landscape. When The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was obvious that the musical was here to stay! Soon, Technicolor playgrounds ruled the movie houses. This was back in the day when movie stars needed to be able to sing, dance, and act in order to make it. Even Hollywood tough guys like James Cagney found an audience in the musical. But whenever the word musical is mentioned, those who know Hollywood instantly think of two people: Fred Astaire (the feet) and Bing Crosby (the voice).

Oh yes, that's not to say that I have forgotten about Ginger Rogers. She was a phenomenal dancer and even a phenomenal actress (she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1940 for her performance in Kitty Foyle). But when it comes to dancing, Astaire always seemed to be the most resilient. I'm not talking about his dancing skills. I am quite aware of the old adage Rogers did everything Astaire did but backwards and in heels. What I mean is that while nobody really remembers what Rogers did after she split up with Astaire, Astaire was different. His dancing career soared on to new partners and new movies. He was the living embodiment of dance. A consummate professional, Astaire was as hardworking as he was talented, rehearsing his numbers for hours until they became second nature. Watching him on screen is to behold somebody completely devoted to his craft, and loving every second of it.

But then there is Bing Crosby! The voice that made a million women swoon! It can't be emphasized how popular he was. In terms of ticket sales, Crosby is the third most popular actor of all time in terms of ticket sales, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. In 1948, he beat out Jackie Robinson and Pope Pius XII for number one in the “most admired man alive” poll. Not only was he a terrific singer, but he was also a dynamite actor, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Father Chuck O'Malley in Going My Way (1944). He teamed up with Bob Hope for a series of seven Road to... musical comedies between 1940 and 1962. He has one of the most recognizable voices in recorded history. Even people who have never seen his movies know his voice and the songs that they are forever linked to.

So it is no surprise that when Astaire and Crosby got together in 1942 to make a musical, what resulted was one of the most entertaining films the genre has ever witnessed. But little is known within the public consciousness about the film itself and the impact that it had on the film industry and popular culture. Few know that this film is the birthplace of one of the holidays most famous songs, White Christmas. Fewer know that Bing Crosby hated it and only sang it because he was under contract. What even fewer know is that the song White Christmas was so popular that it inspired the movie White Christmas (1954). And yet, to those who know, the film Holiday Inn is one of the true forgotten pleasures of the Christmas season.

But is it correct to call it a Christmas movie? Sure, it begins around Christmas and ends about two years later on New Year's Eve, but Holiday Inn is a celebration of all the major holidays. It doesn't have a plot so much as an excuse to roll out musical number after musical number. It revolves around best friends Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Astaire) who perform a musical act in Manhattan with Ted's girlfriend Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). The opening scene sets the dynamic for the entire film. Both men try to woo Lila. Crosby croons, “I'll capture her heart singing!! Ba-bada-ba-boo, Ba-bada-ba-boo.” Astaire jumps up and belts, “I'll capture her heart DANCING!!” He starts to tap dance, tackity-tackity-tack.

Crosby leaves the act on Christmas Eve to go live on a farm in Connecticut. Of course, it is not as relaxing as he would have hoped, so one year later he is back in New York. He tells Astaire that he has a new idea for how he can use his farm. He will turn it into a theater called “Holiday Inn” which will only be open on holidays. So, we follow the inn and its employees for a year as they go through all the major holidays, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and some less than essential ones, Washington's Birthday, Lincoln's Birthday, etc, etc. Along the way he hires Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) who he quickly falls in love with. Astaire gets dumped by Lila who goes off to live with a Texas millionaire. Astaire shows up, falls in love with Linda, a love triangle is formed, jealousy erupts. But why am I telling you this? You don't really care about the plot. Besides, it's one of those silly Hollywood plots where the entire mess can be solved with a single line: “Ted, I love Linda.” But instead it goes unsaid and we get more and more musical set pieces.

But what set pieces and numbers they are! Crosby and Astaire are both at the very top of their game. So marvelously set up, so marvelously executed! Such bold confidence in Crosby's voice. Such precision in Astaire's steps. How can you pick out a best one?

There's the New Year's Eve dance where a newly single Fred Astaire meets Linda for the first time. Stinking drunk, he dances a ridiculous dance that genuinely makes him look intoxicated. That Reynolds is able to not only keep up with him but match him is a miracle in itself. The mere thought of how hard Astaire had to work to nail such a difficult dance makes my feet hurt.

Or what about Valentine's Day where Jim reunites with Linda for a heartbreakingly beautiful dance that matches anything that Astaire did with Rogers? While they dance away in front of a giant paper heart an oblivious Bing Crosby croons (yes I know I have used that word a lot, but how else would you describe his voice) Be Careful, It's My Heart.

But then there is the Independence Day show where Astaire is forced to “improvise” an entire dance. Thankfully, with a pair of tap shoes and some firecrackers, Astaire puts on what could be the most exciting dance of his career. And yes, I say that after seeing many of his movies.

Then we get to Lincoln's Birthday where we are treated to a nice...black face number....

Okay, truth be told, although Crosby starts up by playing up the Uncle Remus bit, he actually is very respectable. The song is about former slaves praising Lincoln, or “Abraham,” for setting them free. It's a genuinely heartfelt number. But then....

Yeah...moving on...

Oh! I forgot about Washington's Birthday! But you know what, I'll let you discover that one for yourself.

And then finally, we have Bing Crosby singing White Christmas underneath a Christmas tree. What else do I need to say? Seek this movie out. Find it. But beware, it has been colorized. Go for the original black and white. It's much more satisfying. Not to mention, much more true to the original purpose of the film. If the filmmakers had wanted it in color, they would have put it in color! So find it. Watch it. Love it. Preferably with somebody you love and care for. And may your Christmas season, all of them, be bright.


Monday, December 21, 2009

殺しの烙印 (Branded to Kill)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki

Misako Nakajo: My dream is to die.

Shot in 3 ½ weeks, edited in a day, filmed for a modern day of equivalent of $200,000, Seijun Suzuki's 殺しの烙印 , or Branded to Kill, is a pop-noir masterpiece. It's a gritty revelation of crime noir mixed with devastating satire, Japanese yakuza pulp, and pop art. It's unlike anything that had ever been made, so it should come as no surprise that it's director was promptly fired after making it for creating “incomprehensible films.” Blacklisted for this piece of radical film making, Suzuki was unable to make a film for ten years. But forty years after it's initial release, Branded to Kill has been quoted by directors as varied as Jim Jarmusch, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino as an influence. It has become a cult classic that has inspired countless knockoffs, few, if any, of which have been able to match the power of is story and style. But yet, it remains one of the most confusing films that I have ever seen in my entire life.

So why am I including such a bizarre film in my blog if I am not even sure if I understand it? Well, I'd like to refer to what Peter Bogdanovich told his friend Orson Welles concerning his film Touch of Evil (1958), ``I'd seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story.” Just because I didn't understand everything about a movie doesn't mean that I won't like it. I've seen six of Suzuki's films. I've only understood three of them. But I liked all of them. Despite the confusing story lines, every time I see a film by Seijun Suzuki I know I am seeing something consistently different from regular cinema. His films evoke the same feelings that John-Luc Godard does in that we may not always know what is going on, but we like it. We know that we have never seen anything like it before and probably never will again. So to this end, I say that Seijun Suzuki is a great director. And if that is so, then Branded to Kill is his masterpiece.

It concerns Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido) who just so happens to be the Japanese underworld's Number Three hitman. The movie follows him through encounters with other ranked hitmen, a femme fatale with a deathwish, four “jobs,” and a fight againt the Number One hitman which climaxes in an empty boxing ring. The various set pieces and scenes are legendary, like Goro sniping a hit from behind a billboard's animatronic cigarette lighter or when he kills another target by shooting a gun up a pipe drain into his face as he leans over a sink. They are endowed with a chaotic poetry that elevates them into the stratosphere of quality pulp. They are so convincing that by the time Goro misses a hit because a butterfly lands on his sniper, we completely believe that it is possible.

Of course, the characters themselves are works of art. Shishido makes Goro completely convincing as a suave hitman. Shishido, who underwent cheek augmentation surgery in 1957 to gain a more “ruggedly handsome” look had long played villains in action movies. After working with Suzuki he began to gain a “tough-guy loner image,” and he channels it brilliantly. As a character, Goro is especially memorable for one particular eccentricity: the smell of boiling rice acts as his personal aphrodisiac, causing him to have violent sex with whatever woman he currently has on hand. Suzuki later explained that this curious habit was established in order to make him seem like a more quintessentially “Japanese” killer. Suzuki later quipped, "If he were Italian, he'd get turned on by macaroni, right?"

Much can be said about Goro's two love interests, as well. An argument can be made about how misogynistic the character of Goro's wife Mami Hanada. She walks around the house naked (in fact Suzuki casted her actress, Mariko Ogawa, because she was the only one willing to due nude scenes), is constantly within reach when Goro wants sex, and is ultimately killed when she tries to kill him. But I disagree. She comes off more as a woman who knows what she wants as a woman. She doesn't come off as a bimbo, but more of a woman who constantly keeps her options weighed. It's too bad that she attempted matricide on the Number Three hitman in Japan. One wonders if she would have survived the movie if she had just “kept her place.”

But then the real curiosity is Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari), what with her apartment decorated with dead butterflies and cloaked in their patchwork of shadows. They first meet when Goro's car breaks down and she picks him up in her open top convertible. At first, she is his contact, providing him with jobs from her boss, Yabuhara. Then, she tries to become his murderer. But eventually she becomes his lover (time to boil the rice). But ultimately, she becomes his bait for the showdown with the mysterious Number One hitman. Whatever her role, she remains a dark, sometimes frightening woman with a powerful death wish. As she says in her first line, “My dream is to die.”

But what about the Number One hitman? He is played by a delightful Koji Nanbara as he first psychologically tortures Goro before he attempts to kill him. His role is too delicious to spoil in a review, so all I will tell you is that his methods are unorthodox, but cruelly efficient. One wonders if he might be a distant Japanese relative of Hannibal Lector in the manner that he likes to tease his prey before he moves in for the kill.

But these are merely characters. The real delight is seeing them all morph into a glorious whole. Although the finished product is at times disjointed, it remains one of the hallmarks of the Japanese crime genre. By watching it, you are witnessing the birth of something that no ordinary director could create, and no sane production company could finance. It's a good thing that Suzuki didn't use storyboards. If he did, and any studio executives had seen them, it would have resulted in the abortion of one of the crime cinema's most stylistically bold and unequivocally daring films. It's so good, you can practically smell the rice boiling.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wo Die Grünen Ameisen Träumen (Where the Green Ants Dream)

Directed by Werner Herzog

Your white men are lost. You don't understand the land. Too many silly questions. Your presence on this earth will come to an end. You have no sense, no purpose, no direction.

The cinema has had quite a longstanding love affair with the native Aborigines of Australia. There is something about them that holds a certain mystique over filmmakers. Many directors have tried to brave the depths of Aboriginal culture with various levels of success. Films such as Peter Weir's The Last Wave (1977) and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) are great examples of Aboriginal culture being transferred to film. But there is one film concerning Aborigines that I believe gets regularly overlooked by film lovers. That film is Werner Herzog's Wo Die Grünen Ameisen Träumen, or Where the Green Ants Dream.

Now, Herzog himself is quite a film-making legend. No other director on earth has been so consistently willing to put themselves (and their film crews) into so much danger all for the sake of art. In his Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, he and an eight man crew braved the Peruvian rain forest for five weeks, spending much of the time on rafts in the river. In Fitzcarraldo (1982) he endangered the lives of many of his cast and crew by literally pulling a steamship up over an isthmus. We are talking about a man who hypnotized almost all of his actors for the film Heart of Glass (1976). We are talking about a man who is revered by some as a genius and reviled by some who call him a madman.

So what was it that drew him to the Aborigines? After all, he wrote the story to Where the Green Ants Dream. Although it was undoubtedly modeled after many other such clashes between the Aborigines and Australians, the story is his. What would compel him to do so?

My guess is that it has to do with his obsession with images. He has this undying thirst to create images that the world has never seen before. Whether it be a boat going up a mountain, a raft full of monkeys, or even a tear-drop shaped balloon floating over the rain forest, Werner has to create it and then document it. This is the man who filled the closing shots of Stroszek (1977) with dancing chickens and a ski lift going up a snow-less mountain. Why? Well, ask yourself: have you ever seen a dancing chicken? Me neither.

So once again I ask, why the Aborigines? My guess is that the image that Herzog was pursuing was that of the Aborigines themselves. And what images they are. More than any kind of people that I can think of, they seem to blend into their surroundings. Everything, from how they walk to how they sit to how they stand still is unique. And what's more, these images are quickly dying out as foreign influences keep encroaching into their lands.

And that is what the film is about: a clash between ancient culture and modern culture. It starts with a mining company who is attempting to do tests in an area for minerals. They prepare to set charges so they can scout the area for resources, but the Aborigines won't let them. They cut cables and sit in front of bulldozers so they cannot move. The mining company sends out a lawyer to try and negotiate with them. The Aborigines refuse all of their offers. They try and remind them that the land isn't part of a reservation. They answer, “You tell me what is the Land Rights Act because we have been here for 40,000 years, longer than when you came. If you begin mining in this land, you going to destroy the land of the green ants, and green ants will come out and destroy the whole universe world.

There lies the trouble. It isn't a matter of land holdings or tribal land, they believe that if the area is disturbed the world will be destroyed. Despite this belief, the Aborigines are no fools. When they are asked again why they won't leave, they ask one of the representatives if he is a Christian. He responds that he was raised that way. The Aborigine responds, “What would you do if I bring bulldozer and dig up your church?

The matter is eventually taken to court where it is ruled that the company has the rights to the land. During the judicial process, the company takes two of the tribal leaders into the city to show them around. They come across a military plane which they immediately want. Bemused, the company buys it for them in an act of goodwill. The film ends with the Aborigines flying the plane away from the mining site. But you don't want to know the plot. You want to know what makes this film “Ein Film von Werner Herzog.” So, we must look at this film's images. While they may not be as entrancing or majestic as the jungles in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes or as quirky as the characters in Stroszek, there are some amazing images in Where the Green Ants Dream.

Some are beautiful, like the opening shots of giant dust storms and tornadoes twisting to the sounds of classical music. Some are ironic, like the site of sacred dances being done by participants wearing khakis and t-shirts. Some are sad, like a group of Aborigines huddled together around a huge box of Winfield 25 cigarettes. And some are wistful, like an Aborigine playing the didgeridoo in the shadow of a gigantic bulldozer.

But some of the images are of things that only Werner Herzog would think important enough to film. Take one scene inside a supermarket. A member of the mining company is going around trying to learn more about the local Aborigine tribe. He enters a supermarket, calls over an attendant, and points towards a group of Aborigines sitting in a circle in the middle of one of the aisles. The attendant explains that it is a sacred site. He says that the only tree for miles used to grow there. When the supermarket was built the tree was cut down. This presented a problem because the tree used to be where the Aborigines' children were dreamed. Their teachings said that first a father must dream their children, and only afterwards can they be born. As the man from the mining company looks on at this incredible site, the attendant smiles and says that they are actually good for business. “More children equals more buyers,” he cheerfully quips.

So what makes Where the Green Ants Dream so special among films about the Australian Aborigines? I would say that it is how Herzog beholds them as images to be savored and saved. The Aborigines are the center of attention, not their mystique or their culture. Take, for instance, one last scene during the trial. During an impassioned speech by a scientist who is speaking in defense of the Aborigines, one of them gets up, goes up to the bar, and starts to talk. He speaks and then stops, completely quiet. When asked what he said, the other Aborigines say that they don't know. He is the last member of his tribe, and therefore the only man left on earth who can understand his language. So why did Herzog put him in the film? My guess is that he couldn't resist the opportunity to include the last member of an entire people in his film. The need to possess him, to save him and his culture from the uncaring ages was enough motivation for Herzog to include him. After all, if he didn't film him, the world would never have another opportunity to see him.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Bao Giò Cho Đến Tháng Mười (When the Tenth Month Comes)

Directed by Đặng Nhật Minh

When the tenth month comes
Rice ripens in the storm-softened fields.
I leave behind me days of longing,
filled with loss and hardship.
While the autumn sky shines bright and blue...

In case you have never checked a map, there happen to more than three countries in Southeast Asia. Therefore, there are movies from Asian countries other than China, Japan, and Korea. I just wanted to get that out of the way, because we film lovers tend to forget that countries exist if they don't have a prominent film industry, or at least a critically respected one. But they do. One such example is Vietnam, who despite being involved in several wars throughout the 20th Century managed to produce some exemplary films. But then, why don't we see them more often? My guess is that Western audiences don't like to be confronted with the subject matter that always seems to find its way into Vietnamese films. That subject is war. Particularly the war against the United States and to some extent France. And I'm not exaggerating. I wasn't until 1945 that the government became involved in the national film industry. When the Ministry of Information and Propaganda created a film department, they focused on documenting battles of the First Indochina War and other documentaries. During the Vietnam War with the United States, North Vietnam focused on making propaganda films. Their documentaries and feature films would even go on to gain some attention from Eastern Europe. But for the most part, the Hanoi-based film industry spent most of its time documenting the Vietnam War. Take this interesting statistic that I found:

Between 1965 and 1973, 463 newsreels, 307 documentaries and 141 scientific films were produced, in contrast to just 36 feature films and 27 cartoons.

Even when traditional films were made, they would linger over issues of war. Things became even more morose (thematically speaking) when North and South Vietnam were reunited. Filmmakers began to make social realist films. Three of the most popular topics were: 1) Heroic efforts during the revolution, 2) human suffering caused by warfare, 3) social problems of post-war reconstruction. It has only been recently that Vietnamese filmmakers have pursued more commercial stories and themes. Therefore, most classic Vietnamese films have to do with war. And since said wars were with two foreign superpowers who happen to have great influence in the film industry, is it any surprise that Vietnamese films didn't get as widely distributed as those from China, Japan, and Korea?

But they should. Vietnam has its own cinematic voice that deserves to be heard. Because of its near continuous state of warfare in the 20th century, it has a unique outlook on such subjects. One great example is the 1984 film Bao Giò Cho Đến Tháng Mười, which translates to When the Tenth Month Comes. Instead of focusing on the war itself, it dwells on the psychological toll that it has on the families of soldiers who die. The main character is a young woman named Duyen who lives in the small village of Trung Nghia. When we first see her, she is walking by herself and seems incredibly depressed. This is probably due to the fact that she has just discovered that her husband, Comrade Tran Dinh Nam, has been killed in action. This leaves her as a widow with a young child named Tuan. When we first see him, he is running around playing with a plastic machine gun. I cannot imagine how Duyen must feel when she sees this after learning of her husband's death, but she certainly doesn't show it. She loves Tuan and her late husband's family. She loves them so much that she is going to sacrifice her own happiness (and eventually part of her sanity) in order to protect them.

She decides to hide her husband's death from everybody. When they ask her where he is, she replies that he is sick and in the hospital. Where is he stationed? The Central Highlands. Shouldn't he be here on leave? She is letting other soldiers go on leave first. But what about the letters? A-ha! Therein lies the flaw to her plan. So she makes the decision to ask one of her friends, a schoolteacher named Khang to write letters to her family and address them as if her husband had written them. Naturally, Khang is shocked by this request. After all, he doesn't believe that he is dead. Alas, she reveals that he has actually been dead for almost a year. “His unit was preparing the letter of death just as I came to visit,” she sorrowfully replies. So he agrees. Duyen gives him all of her husband's other letters so he can mimic them appropriately.

It is at this point that we ask why she would go through so much trouble to hide her husband's death from her family. Well, take a look at them. Her father-in-law has already had a son killed in action in Quang Tri in 1968. He has a picture of his enshrined up on the wall. The other wall is covered with pictures drawn bu Tuan of soldiers and warfare. It is obvious that he idolizes his father for being a soldier. Even his grandfather dotes on a tree that he planted one time when he came home on leave. Further more, his death happens to come right near the anniversary of his mother's death. Duyen realizes that the news of his death would crush them, so she suffers in silence and commissions fake letters to cheer her family. But this doesn't take into account her own personal feelings. She holds out hope that he may still be alive. When Khang says that it is wrong to hide her husband's death from her family, she replies, “But maybe they've made a mistake. Maybe he's still alive somewhere, and hasn't been able to contact anyone.” Could it be possible that when the fake letters arrive, she pretends that they are real? After all, they were dearly in love. She is obviously in denial. It's quite possible that the letters are just as much for her as they are for the rest of the family.

Alas, while this plan originally works, it is not long until one of her neighbors intercept one of the letters and read it. They realize that the handwriting is different. They take it to he authorities who investigate it. They find out that it was Khang who wrote the letters. They confront him and he confesses. Another stunning realization occurs when he confesses that he loves Duyen. Was that his motivation for writing the letters? Who knows. Whatever the answer, he moves away to a different school system. This is all too much for Duyen who has begun to have hallucinations of spirits. She mentions earlier in the film, “My grandma says that in the old days, on the 15th of the 7th lunar month there was a ghost market here where living and dead people could meet.” Eager to meet her husband again, she goes out in the middle of the night to try and find him. She has a couple of encounters with spirits. Her first is with the ghost of a dead soldier who has become a kind of guardian protector for her village. “I once went off to war like your husband, and left behind a young wife like you,” he says. She asks, “Is my husband truly dead?” He pauses and answers, “He now lives on only in people's memories. I live to this day for that same reason.” But things do not really begin to get strange until she actually stumbles upon the ghost market. She desperately searches for her husband. In a moment of great joy, she finds him. She tearfully confesses that she has hidden his death from everybody. He doesn't care. “Only living people can bring happiness to each other. I've completed my role in the living world,” he says. The rest of the movie concerns her attempts to reveal his death to her family. Unfortunately, a patrol of soldiers arrives to deliver the news first...

When the Tenth Month Comes is a powerful film dealing with a powerful subject matter. It's director, the criminally under-appreciated Đặng Nhật Minh wrings every last drop of emotion out of his actors. But probably his greatest triumph will go unnoticed by many. He never makes any distinction between the real world and the supposed “spirit world” where the ghosts live. Neither does he use any transition shots. They are just there, as if it were perfectly natural. I think that this was a stroke of genius. Because the line between reality and the other world is so vague, it brings up an important question: is it all real? Is there really a spirit market, or did she create the illusion of one so she could invent a scene where she meets her husband? Maybe she hallucinated it all in a desperate attempt to find closure. Whatever the answer, the power of When the Tenth Month Comes remains. It is a story about war. But more important than war, it is a story about loss. The lose of life, the loss of loved ones, and the loss of a future. Let us pray that we survive with our sanity intact.

Editor's Note: In order to help explain the title, here is a handy little quote that I found:

The tenth month in the title of the film refers to the time of forgiveness in Vietnamese culture.

Once again, thanks to taipeistory for recommending and providing this film. As of this time of writing, the whole film can be watched at:


Thanks again Marc!


Thursday, December 17, 2009


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Patricia "Pat" Martin:
I'm afraid we're not behaving very well.
Barry Kane: What's the difference, we're not invited anyway.

There are two ways to watch Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur. The first is to take it completely seriously. If one choses to, they will discover a sophisticated film by a sophisticated director in the midst of a serious transition. But more on that later. The second way to watch Saboteur is to bask in its inherent campiness. And yes, I do mean camp. Saboteur is one of Hitchcock's most easily entertaining films. It involves several of his favorite tropes: the wrongly accused man, the icy female love interest, and scenes taking place on famous and recognizable landmarks. And yet, if you watch with a close eye, you will realize that the story is almost too preposterous to take seriously. The story is believable enough. But how the characters go about acting it out is almost too outrageous to comprehend. But it is important to watch Saboteur as both a great piece of campy entertainment and an important transitional work by one of the great masters of the cinema.

Saboteur was the fifth film made by Hitchcock after he relocated to America. It is part of something that I lovingly call the “Glorious Nine.” The “Glorious Nine” are the first nine pictures that Hitchcock directed after he moved to America. It is my humble opinion that they represent some of his best work. “The Glorious Nine” represent the first high point in his career where each of his films would fire on all cylinders (and yes, I am including Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a film which many consider to be Hitchcock's only bad film, but I personally enjoyed it). The second high point would be from the mid-50s to the early 60s where he would direct many of his most well known films like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). I happen to refer to these as the “Glorious Ten,” although I would debate the quality of Dial M for Murder (1954). But if they let me have The Trouble With Harry and The Wrong Man (1956) then I suppose I can make one exception. But anyway, back to the point.

The reason that I love the “Glorious Nine” so much is that we get to witness the full blossoming of a cinematic genius. Hitchcock did direct some good films while in Great Britain. But that's just the point. They were good. They weren't necessarily great. Yes, yes, I know that The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) are two of his most beloved films. And, yes, I know that there will be a huge flock of cinema lovers who will be rearing to lynch me for saying that his British work was inferior. But seriously, for every film that Hitchcock made in Britain that really worked, like The 39 Steps, there were others that completely misfired. For example, The Lady Vanishes was followed up by Jamaica Inn (1939), a film that has a promising beginning, but ends up as a tedious melodrama. Hitchcock's work in Britain can be likened to an energetic amateur. But once he arrived in America, that was when Hitchcock the professional arrived.

Probably the first sign of this is how his first film in America, Rebecca (1940), won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But there were other signs, too. Hitchcock began to develop an eye for how to balance humor and suspense in the same film. While The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes did succeed in having both, his other work was usually only able to display one or the other. But by the time that his second American film, Foreign Correspondent (1940) came around, he had figured out how to utilize both. He also began to develop more complex characters to drive the suspense with. In his earlier work, we knew bad characters were bad, good character were good, and whenever they encountered each other things would get interesting. But when he came to America his characters became ambiguous. Characters who we originally liked would reveal themselves as the villains. Probably the best example would be the superb Shadow of a Doubt (1943) where the audience is horrified to learn that one of the main characters, Charlie Oakley, was a serial killer. Or what about another one of the “Glorious Nine,” Lifeboat (1944) where the entire story is driven by character development wherein we see people devolving into monsters under stress and desperate circumstances. And then, of course, there is the last member of the “Glorious Nine,” Notorious (1946), widely considered to be one of Hitchcock's finest masterpieces. At the start of the film, we don't know whether to root for Ingrid Bergman or not. It is only after she marries a Nazi in hiding does the audience really begin to trust her.

But I believe I have rambled on long enough. I should probably get to the story of our feature film, Saboteur. It starts with a fire at a California airplane plant. A small fire breaks out which is quickly strengthened after one worker is unfortunate enough to discover that the fire extinguishers have been filled with gasoline. Through a series of unfortunate events, one worker, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is singled out as the perpetrator. Of course, he is innocent and actually knows who the real criminal is. He goes on the run from the law while he tries to find him. The real criminal is named Fry. Kane just so happened to get ahold of his personal information, so he goes to a ranch in Central Valley to confront him and clear his name.

He actually manages to find the saboteur's boss. It turns out that he is one of the leaders of an international sabotage ring intent on blowing up Boulder Dam. One thing leads to another, he acquires a woman who doesn't want to go with him named Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), they travel across country to New York where they confront the ringleaders, and they foil another plan to destroy a new US navy ship at the Brooklyn Shipyard.

What's remarkable is that Hitchcock manages to balance two distinct styles of drama in the same storyline. On the one hand, there is a grand plot akin to North By Northwest where the main character gets chased around the States and has confrontations on big national landmarks. I should probably mention that the climax takes place on the Statue of Liberty. On the other hand, there is tense, interpersonal drama. Kane has great chemistry with Pat. He has to drag her along with him because she knows who he is and is desperate to tell the police. Through another series of unfortunate events, Kane ends up in handcuffs which are eventually transferred to Pat. It's really quite reminiscent of The 39 Steps where the two protagonists were handcuffed to each other while they were on the run. So, for most of Saboteur, Kane is running around trying to stop an international terrorist plot AND keep a lid on Pat. It creates some delightful chaos that keeps the movie interesting even when the police are not hot on their trail.

But wait, I think I mentioned that this movie has camp value. A lot of its inherent campiness comes from Kane and Pat trying to avoid the law. Throughout the film, Kane manages to ride and jump a horse over a fence while being chased by a horseback brigade of police officers, jump off the side of a hundred foot bridge into raging water and survive, and sneak his way into a spy organization. Along the way, he will hide out with a blind man (who channels the blind man from Bride of Frankenstein (1935)), a circus troupe of carnival freaks, a jolly truck driver who doesn't mind distracting the police for Kane, and run into a bevy of American traitors loyal to some foreign power. He will end the film hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty while he tries to save the real saboteur's life. Now, look me in the eye if that doesn't seem fantastic. I know Hitchcock was known for amazing plots, especially during his later career, but that is just ridiculous. He bounces from one movie cliché with such energy that it morphs into something fantastically original. Like I said, if you want to, you can take it all in stride. But from a realistic standpoint the entire plot sounds absolutely stupid. But it works, and it is awesome.

And isn't that the real charm of Hitchcock? His movies are outrageous, but that is what makes them so much fun. We like being taken away to fantastic locations with impossible storylines. In a way, I personally feel like other film franchises like the James Bond series owe a lot to Alfred Hitchcock. The love of international landmarks, the beautiful female live interest slash sidekick, the handsome male lead who knows how to handle any situation, and plenty of suspense. And Saboteur remains one of his most enjoyable ventures. It is a turning point where we find Hitchcock channeling his past while he looks toward the future.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

狂った一頁 (A Page of Madness)

Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa

I remember a trip that I took with my family to Cancun, Mexico a few years ago. We were celebrating my parents wedding anniversary in style complete with the best rooms in the best hotel that we could find (my parents having their own room, of course). During one of the many long walks that I took with my dad, we came across a strange collection of rocks along the main walkway. Puzzled, we asked one of the employees what they were doing there. We were shocked to find out that they were ancient ruins that were on the land when the hotel was built. Sharing my father's great passion for history, we asked what culture they were from. Aztec? Inca? Or maybe even something older? He shrugged, said they had no idea, and walked away. We then spent several minutes looking at the rocks.

They were fairly regular rocks. Nothing about them spoke of any apparent use that they may have had thousands of years ago. But that didn't stop us from thinking. Could these old rocks have once been the altar in a forbidden temple? Maybe they were something less impressive, like the foundations of a building? Was it something commonplace or did it have some special purpose within the forgotten indigenous community? After a few minutes, my father said that he was going back to his room and left. But I stayed. I wanted to dream just a little bit longer...

People who are interested in history are familiar with the sense of fascination that I felt in that moment. I was looking at something so old that nobody knew why is was there or who put it there. But the feeling isn't exclusive to ancient ruins. The same feelings of wistful melancholy over lost history can be felt at battlefields that are not even a century old. They can be felt looking at a relative's uniform back when they were fighting in the first Great War. They can even be felt after discovering a long lost toy that was once a steadfast companion during more innocent days.

And yes, they can be felt when viewing old movies. In a few years the cinema will be over 110 years old. It would only stand to reason that many films, especially strange, obscure ones, would disappear into the sands of time. Thankfully, some are recovered and restored. But what happens to silent films that are found without any title or speech cards? Let me take this question one step further: What about films that have no dialogue cards, no title cards, and no narrative coherence? Well, such a film does exist. It is the legendary 狂った一頁 , translated as A Page of Madness (1926). Oh, there is a story all right, but we have almost no idea what it is. We know who directed it (Teinosuke Kinugasa), we know who star in it (Masao Inoue and Yoshie Nakagawa), and we know who made it (the Shinkankaku-ha, or School of New Perceptions, an avant garde group of artists). But the narrative remains lost in time. We get a general feel of characters, locations, and even a trace of a story. But we will never know their true motivations. We will never know the fine print of the storyline. Ladies and gentlemen, A Page of Madness is the closest thing we have to a genuine cinematic fossil.

Of course, it was not designed that way. It was designed for audiences to understand the story. But to explain this, perhaps a short history lesson is in order. During the 1920s in Japan, movies would be narrated by 弁士, or benshi. It literally translates to speech person. They would stand to the side of the movie screen and narrate the film, provide commentary on the story, and even voice the on-screen characters. They would coordinate this with live musical accompaniment provided with instruments that would regularly be found in kabuki plays. In fact, the art of being a benshi is stems from kabuki and Noh theater. Therefore, the benshi added an entire element to the theatrical experience.

In addition to provided narration and context throughout the film, benshi also would introduce the film. Sometimes the introduction would include the history of the film's setting. Missing scenes would also be explained to the audience. Therefore, the benshi was a vital part of the film industry. Taking away a benshi from a film would frequently cause disorientation. And now we return to A Page of Madness. It was a film designed for the aid of a benshi. Therefore, with the absence of benshi, we have a film that is isolated within itself. We have no idea what the setting is, what happens to the characters, and even what the characters say. It is like an ancient stone altar without any ritual markings. It is like a great monument without a plaque. It is like a magnificent fresco missing a signature. It is a film that time forgot.

But thankfully, we still have the film. Those intrepid enough to try and make heads or tails of it are in for a one-of-a-kind film experience. With no help, no narration, and no explanation, A Page of Madness is a movie that you literally discover for yourself as it plays.

It opens with a chilling sequence of a woman dancing at an ornate ball. Well, it would be a ball if she wasn't the only one there. Dressed in a dazzling outfit, she dances like mad. Suddenly, we cut to a woman, dressed in rags, doing the same dance. The film cuts to jail cell bars. Then, we are treated to an early film montage of this poor woman dancing mixed with several instruments playing. Slowly, we begin to realize the truth about this woman: she is a patient in an insane asylum. As she collapses onto the ground with bloodied feet, it becomes apparent that she is dancing to music that only she can hear. Even after she collapses, a spidery hand taps out a hallucinatory beat on the cell floor.

A nervous man walks by cell after cell looking in at the inhabitants. Each one is gripped by insanity. Then finally he arrives at the woman's cell. He looks hard at her. Suddenly, there is a cut to a scene of a woman trying to drown an infant. Is it her? Wait, yes, it must be her. He walks away mournfully. Suddenly, a young woman in a kimono approaches a large gate. She is allowed in and meets the man. He acts shocked to see her. Then they both go over to the dancing lady's cell. They look in, look at each other, and then look down at the floor miserably. The dancing woman takes no notice.

This all takes place during the first fifteen minutes of this hour long film. It establishes three characters: the dancing lady, the caretaker, and the young woman. We know there is some connection between the three. They seem to recognize each other. Well, at least the caretaker and the young woman do. And they both seem to recognize the dancing lady. So what is their connection? Well, many essays and even a book has been written concerning the plot. Far be it from me to ruin the plot of the film. The plot is an enigma, and should remain so for those who want to watch it. It is the viewer's task to fit the pieces together, like an archaeologist rummaging through fossils or a historian pouring through ancient historical documents.

But what I can discuss is the style. One of the main triumphs of A Page of Madness is how it develops its atmosphere. Unlike many other silent horror films from the same era, like F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926), that can seem like endurance tests for modern audiences, A Page of Madness remains strangely watchable. It flows with a kinetic energy that would not be utilized in film, especially Japanese film, for several more decades. Montages, dutch angles, closeups, and even tracking shots are frequently used to keep the film moving. They work as a perfect counterpoint to the claustrophobic setting of the insane asylum. They evoke the same madness felt by the inmates and the people charged with protecting and healing them.

Wait, something just occurred to me. The dancing woman is not the same person as the woman that the caretaker and young woman go meet. They are two different people. So why does the film linger on her at the beginning and throughout the film? She causes a small riot near the halfway point of the film. The segment is filmed with what I can only be assumed to be unusual lenses. Most of the shots look like they are being reflected by fun house mirrors that distort whatever appears in them. What is the point of this scene? Like most of the details of this film, the dialogue, the characters, and their motivations, they will remain an enigma for future generations of film goers to figure out.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Trouble with Harry

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The United States of America

Capt. Wiles: Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed.

Throughout his extensive career, master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock developed a distinct brand of humor that he injected into many of his films. His theory was that humor was a critical element in the creation of suspense. He once said, “For me, suspense doesn't have any value if it's not balanced by humor.” But the humor in his films were never relegated to the world of one-liners. Instead, Hitchcock would be much more subtle. Irony and understatement, mayhem and misunderstanding, and finally juxtaposition and timing formed the foundation of Hitchcock's signature brand of humor. For example, in Foreign Correspondent (1940) Hitchcock interrupts a wild car chase with a drunk repeatedly trying to leave a tavern only to jump out of the way of speeding cars whenever he tries to enter the street. Another example is the fight scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) where James Stewart is attacked in a taxidermy shop. While he tries to escape, he is repeatedly accosted by various stuffed animals including one particularly large swordfish.

But the true delight in Hitchcock's brand of humor is found in wit. Hitchcock's public persona was molded on sophisticated British deadpan humor. When it appeared in his films, it frequently became macabre. One of Hitchcock's favorite subjects was the idea of murder, so there are several films where the characters have frank conversations on the matter. In Rope (1948) James Stewart (once again) has a playfully curt conversation during a party where he describes the perfect murder. He justifies the action with the idealogical concept of Nietzsche's Übermensch. The humor comes from the fact that everything he just described, from the murder to its justification, mirrors an actual murder that took place minutes before he arrived for the party. All the while the other guests munch on their dinners that they had been served from on top of a wooden chest where the body was being stored.

But if somebody truly wants to familiarize themselves with Hitchcock's style of humor, they need not look further than his 1955 comedy The Trouble With Harry. And yes, I said comedy. Unlike many of his other, more successful films, The Trouble With Harry was never meant to be a suspense picture or a thriller. It was designed to be nothing more than a comedy. Now, Hitchcock had experimented with the comedic genre before in the past with various results. While I personally enjoyed his attempt at screwball comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), it is almost universally regarded as a critical and financial flop. But here, in The Trouble With Harry, did Hitchcock successfully fire on all cylinders. However, it was quickly forgotten about because it was also a box office flop and it happened to be sandwiched between two of his more successful thrillers, To Catch a Thief (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). But in hindsight, The Trouble With Harry remains a treat for those willing to try something different from the master of suspense.

The story, appropriately enough, centers around Harry. Harry is a dead body in the middle of the woods.

The trouble is that nobody knows how he died and how he got there. He is first discovered by Captain Albert Wiles who thinks that he accidentally killed him while hunting for rabbits. He asks his friend Sam Marlowe to help him. Marlowe is a free-spirited artist who paints pictures that nobody seems to buy. But nevermind, he is always happy. So much so that he doesn't take the death of a strange man seriously at all. The first thing he does when he encounters the body is to sit down and draw a picture of him. Of course the problem is only exacerbated when a Miss Ivy Gravely comes forward and claims that she killed him after hitting him with a hiking boot after he attacked her. But later it is revealed that the man is the estranged husband of a young mother named Jennifer Rogers. Marlowe quickly falls in love with her and asks to get married.

That's pretty much summarizes the plot. It may seem strange to write it off so quickly, but in The Trouble With Harry, what happens isn't nearly as important as how the characters react to it. Nobody seems very distressed at the sight of a dead body. Instead of screaming or rushing for help, Captain Wiles' first reaction when he sees it is one of great displeasure at such a nuisance. Marlowe isn't any better; he is more concerned with Miss Rogers than he is Mr. Harry. At first, Captain Wiles' is terrified that he will be blamed for Harry's death, so he gets Marlowe to help him bury the body. Afterwards, he realizes through a series of mental connect-the-dots that he couldn't have killed him. But they can't leave him in the ground. It would look suspicious. So they dig him back up. But later they discover more incriminating evidence, so back into the ground Harry goes. But then more evidence to the contrary appears so Harry must be dug up again. This process repeats itself three times before they finally decide not to bury him after Captain Wiles' wearily cries out, “Oh please don't make me bury that body again.

The humor in The Trouble With Harry centers on how nonchalant the characters are at the discovery of a dead body. They treat it the same way they would an abandoned kite or baseball. There is no pomp or circumstance when dealing with the body; when it needs to be moved people drag him by his stiffened legs. Watching the characters bury him and dig him back up again becomes so ludicrous that we cannot help but laugh. But therein lies the charm: these people act completely contrary to how most people would if they discovered a dead body. We stare with mouths agape at the sight of people enjoying blueberry muffins and lemonade over discussions of violent homicide. We scoff in disbelief when they throw Harry's body around. But whatever our reaction, we feel awed by such an audacious black comedy by such an established director. But perhaps that's the final punchline...


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

八月の狂詩曲 (Rhapsody in August)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kane: People do anything just to win war. Sooner or later it will destroy us all.

When Akira Kurosawa's 八月の狂詩曲 (Rhapsody in August) first premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, it was ruthlessly attacked by critics. It was the story of a family coming to terms with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 about forty years later. It was decried as a kind of revisionist history where the Japanese were depicted as innocent victims of the atomic bombs. During the press conference at the film festival, a journalist apparently yelled out, “Why was the bomb dropped in the first place?” Even back home in his native Japan, Rhapsody in August was besieged by critics. One Japanese cultural critic wrote, “Many critics, myself included, thought Kurosawa chauvinistic in his portrayal of the Japanese as victims of the war, while ignoring the brutal actions of the Japanese and whitewashing them with cheap humanist sentiment.” It seemed as if nobody was willing to look beyond the historical implications and look at the movie itself.

True, the story did center around a family headed by a 被爆者 (hibakusha), or explosion-affected people, who was widowed by the Nagasaki bombing. And yes, it did make her out to be a victim. And finally, yes, it didn't make any mention of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war crimes committed by the Japanese against the civilian population. But it was never intended to make Japan look innocent. It was an honest story about the victims of the atomic bombs. There were people who survived the attacks and were forced to live with the memories of lost loved ones. Many of those people were civilians who had no part in the war crimes committed abroad. And yet, when Kurosawa tried to focus on these unfortunate souls, he was attacked as a whitewasher of history. The jury at the Cannes Film Festival may have taken umbrage at the depiction of World War Two aggressors as victims. After all, they had no problem awarding Lars Von Trier's Europa the Jury Prize, a movie about neo-Nazis in Germany destroying the life of an American do-gooder (The jury that year was headed by Roman Polanski, a survivor of the Kraków Ghetto. There were, by the way, no Japanese members of the jury that year). But to those who understand Kurosawa, Rhapsody in August is one of his most personal films. It depicts a major reconciliation with one of the defining themes of his career, the atomic bombing of Japan. It's agenda was not the placement of blame, but an examination of those who were scarred, both emotionally and physically, by one of the most devastating attacks in human history.

There are three generations involved in Rhapsody in August. The first is an elderly woman named Kane. Her husband was killed in the Nagasaki bombing. She herself was affected by the radiation after she went into the city directly after the blast in order to try and locate her husband. She lived through the worst part of the war. Thankfully her children, the next generation, only had to live through post-war Japan and the reconstruction. One of these is an American cousin named Clark who lives in Hawaii. His father was a man who may or may not be one of Kane's brothers. But it doesn't matter. Kane clearly doesn't want to see him. It's obvious that she hasn't forgiven the Americans for the bombing. Of course, she would never admit that. Whenever the subject is brought up, she sighs and says that it was all part of a war. You can't blame people for what they do during a war. Sachiko Murase does a fantastic job as Kane. Her lines are sparse, but we are always able to tell what she is thinking. Her body language and subdued reactions express more than any piece of dialogue ever could.

But the film primarily concerns itself with the last generation: Kane's four grandchildren who come visit her while their parents go to Hawaii to meet the man who may be a member of their family. They are fascinated by the idea that they may have an American relative. But they realize that the implications of an American family member are devastating for Kane, so they decide to go into Nagasaki and learn more about the bombing. Several of the film's most poignant moments come during the children's exploration of Nagasaki. They visit a memorial fountain with an inscription that after the bomb dropped all you could hear was people begging for water. Before they leave they splash water onto the plaque as if to quench the eternally thirsty. They visit the place directly under where the bomb exploded. They comment on all of the statues sent from all over the world. “Where is the one from America,” one asks. “America wouldn't send one, they dropped the bomb,” another answers. During these scenes, Kurosawa makes an interesting choice of frequently framing his shots on the locations that the children visit with them taking up part of the foreground. It is a powerful effect as it seems to beg the viewer to stop and truly look at these places where one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century took place.

But one of the most powerful scenes comes when the children visit the old schoolyard where their grandfather was killed. Everything has been rebuilt and a concrete lot occupies the spot where the building must have stood. The only exception is a rusted old jungle gym that was somehow left standing after the bomb dropped. Now, the survivors who had classmates at the school return annually to clean it and place fresh flowers around it. Someone with a careful eye will recognize that they place the flowers around the jungle gym in a circle, except for two small openings on either side. Why are they there? So the children who died can enter the circle and play on the jungle gym, of course.

Here we see one of the best examples of a flower motif that Kurosawa evokes several times over the course of the film. Flowers are seen at various memorial services, particularly the one held on the anniversary of the bomb at a small shrine near Kane's house. The children notice a long line of ants on the ground and follow them to see that they end on a glorious rose blossom. An obvious interpretation would be that flowers represent life amidst this story of death. But I would like to point out another possible reading of this motif. After the bombs were dropped, it was reported that flowers and other plants returned after the dust settled at enormous sizes. Apparently the nuclear radiation sped up their growth and resulted in some of the most vibrant flowers that the cities had ever seen. Make of that whatever you will.

But I have lingered on motifs and symbolism long enough. What about Kane's American cousin? He is played by Richard Gere and I would like to say right now that I loved his performance. Some might be bothered by his less than perfect grasp of Japanese and his accent, but that is what makes his character believable. Gere plays a man who obviously knows a little Japanese, but as an American probably doesn't have many opportunities to practice it. So of course when he goes to Japan he will sound awkward. Let me explain something. When I went to Japan I had spent two years studying Japanese. And yet the first couple of weeks there, I could hardly make myself say simple things like “thank you” or “please.” When I finally did, it sounded broken and foreign. Now imagine if I had gone to Japan to meet long lost family members. I shudder to think how I might have sounded.

Ah yes, but what impact does Gere's character have? Well, he hits it off with the children right away. “He's as tall as John Wayne,” one of them jokes while they try to make a bed big enough for their American guest. They take great delight in practicing their English with him and Gere is more than happy to oblige them with his tenuous grasp of Japanese. They go to a local waterfall and Gere accidentally makes a fool out of himself by misquoting a Japanese proverb. The kids joyfully correct him and Gere falls to the ground in mock disappointment. The kids laugh some more and Gere looks up with a smile on his face and joins them. Of course, he is there to meet his family, but what we are really interested in is his meeting with Kane.

It's a quiet meeting that takes place at night. They talk in hushed tones about their family and how their lives have changed since the bomb dropped. I don't want to spoil the poetry of the moment, so I can only advise you to discover this scene for yourself, but it does end in reconciliation. And this is what the movie is all about. It is about survivors of one of the greatest tragedies that the world has ever known coming to terms with themselves and the people who caused them so much pain. I like to imagine that in this scene, Kane is played by Kurosawa. Throughout his career, the ghost of the nuclear bomb has haunted him. This is why I don't think that it is proper to call this movie a piece of revisionist history. If Kurosawa released this film as a sprightly twenty-something, then that might be cause for concern. But he was eighty-one years old when this film was released. He actually lived through Japan's darkest moment and his films are a testament to this. They document Japan's desperate struggles to rebuild, the glory of the economic miracle, and finally the days of Japan as an economic superpower. In a sense, Kurosawa's films are one of the best historical records of Twentieth Century Japan that we have. And finally, at the end of his career, he is able to have his characters embrace those who caused so much pain and suffering to his beloved country. That is the true miracle.

Before I end this review, I want to draw attention to the last scene of Rhapsody in August. Gere has left for the United States after learning that his father has died. The family has reconciled, but there is still tension as the anniversary of the bomb approaches. And then, suddenly, a rainstorm hits. The lightning causes Kane to have a flashback to the bomb. She covers the children in white clothing because she believes that it will protect them from the radiation. And then, one of the most beautiful sequences in Kurosawa's entire career takes place. She goes outside into the rain armed with nothing but a small umbrella. The children chase after her, but they cannot catch her. Kane struggles in the wind until her umbrella folds itself into the wind. At that exact moment a chorus of children are heard. Some may see this as a depressing ending that proves that Kane has not in face come to terms with the bomb. But I would like to point something out to the naysayers. Look at the umbrella. Doesn't it look like a rose? And the song that the children sing...Is it not also about a rose? Look in the movie for other references to roses. Hopefully you will understand that this is not a moment of desperation, but a moment of hope. But the only people who will realize this are those who choose to truly give this film a chance. And may God bless those who do.