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!

Friday, November 27, 2009


Directed by Rudolph Maté

Frank Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Homicide Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Frank Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Homicide Captain: Who was murdered?
Frank Bigelow: I was.

I want you to read the above quote again, but slower and with more emphasis. -Who was murdered? -I was. These are some of the very first lines in Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. Has there ever been an opening line that powerful before? It's blunt and straight-to-the-point. It immediately captures your attention. It's not everyday that you hear someone talk about there own death. But here he is, Mr. Frank Bigelow, reporting his own death to the police. What's even stranger is that the homicide captain nods his head, pulls out a file, and tells Bigelow that they have been expecting him. The captain asks Bigelow what happened, and what follows is one of the most fascinating stories that has ever graced the genre of film noir.

But why then am I writing about it? If it is a classic, people should know about it already! Well, my guess is that it isn't remembered because it doesn't comply with the modern day image of what a film noir should be. There isn't any piercingly clever dialogue as in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Some of the lines are well crafted, but none are on the same level as such classics as “I left my sense of humor in my other suit.” There is some impressive cinematography, but none of it is as powerful or recognizable as The Naked City (1948). Finally, the lead actor, Edmond O'Brien, puts in an impressive performance, but he never gained the star power of film noir icons like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. But don't make any mistake, D.O.A. is a film noir of the highest caliber. It's strength is its incredible story that keeps the audience interested and fascinated until the very last shot.

But before I get to that last shot, perhaps I should fill you in on the rest of the story. Bigelow is introduced as an accountant and notary public in his hometown of Banning, California. Tired and bored with his current life, he says goodbye to his lover (I'm sorry, this is the production code era: confidential secretary) and goes to San Francisco for a one-week vacation. It's obvious that Bigelow is tight-strung. Immediately after checking into his hotel, he is spirited away by a group of salesmen to a jazz club. The jazz is loud, the drinks are strong, and the energy is palpable. Bigelow couldn't be more out of his element. While the group around him get into the music, he gets jostled around and desperately tries to escape. He doesn't have much luck. When he sits down at the bar, he discovers that they don't quite speak English there. He asks the bartender who the blonde is over on the other side of the bar. He answers, “Oh she's one of the chicks that hang around here, she's jive crazy.” Confused, he slinks away. It turns out that this is one of the cinema's first representations of the Beat subculture, and he sure isn't with it, daddy-o.

He orders a drink, but when he isn't looking, a strange man swaps his drink with another one. He drinks it, grimaces, and says that it doesn't taste right. He decides to flee before anything else happens to him. It's too late, because as he finds out at a clinic the next day, he had been fed a “luminous toxin” that is guaranteed fatal because there in no antidote. He storms out of the doctor's office in denial to get a second opinion. In one of the film's best scenes, the second doctor holds up a vial filled with what we believe to be his blood. He turns out the light and it glows brightly in the dark. Yes, it is a luminous toxin. And no, he doesn't have long to live. Probably a day or so.

The rest of the film concerns Bigelow desperately tracking down his own murderer. It is a frantic search. His entire personality changes after he discovers that he is doomed to die. As Foster Hirsch said in this 1981 review: “One of the film's many ironies is that his last desperate search involves him in his life more forcefully than he has ever been before... Tracking down his killer just before he dies — discovering the reason for his death — turns out to be the triumph of his life." And what a triumph. Through the film, he will survive several shootouts, an encounter with a completely psychotic henchman named Chester played by Neville Brand in his first screen role, a couple of shocking discoveries concerning backstabbing wives and hardened gangsters.

The film has some breathtaking sequences. One of the very best is when he runs out of the doctor's office after being diagnosed as a murder victim. He sprints down a street with the camera speeding along capturing his every move. If it looks realistic it's because it is! It was a “stolen shot,” which means that a real city street was used with real pedestrians blocking his way. None of them had any idea that a movie was being filmed. It makes you wonder if any of them had any idea that Edmond O'Brien would be colliding into them that day. He finally stops at a newspaper stand where he tries to catch his breath. And wouldn't you know it, the racks are full of only one magazine: Life.

But at the center of this film is Bigelow: a simple man out to find those who have wronged him. It is a plot that is stunning in its simplicity. It is actually quite a refreshing change from the majority of film noir like The Big Sleep (1946) that have plots that are so labyrinthine that it leaves the audience confused at the end. D.O.A. represents the heart of film noir without any additional dressings: a good story, a strong central character, and of course, a plot twist that leaves you reeling.

Editor's Note: In the years since D.O.A.'s release it has fallen into the public domain. A free version is available for download here: http://www.archive.org/details/doa_1949


Thursday, November 26, 2009

하녀 (The Housemaid)

Directed by Kim Ki-young
South Korea

“Look at this. A man in Gimcheon committed adultery with his maid.”

Kim Ki-young's film 하녀, or The Housemaid, is about a middle-class family trying to establish a place for themselves in the world. It is the perfect nuclear family: a father, mother, son, and daughter. They have the ideal life, or at least they are getting close to it. And then, suddenly, it is all taken from them. Unlike most thrillers where the central characters are exposed to evil by accident or chance, The Housemaid is unique in that the characters invite their own destruction into their house. Everything that happens to them can be traced back to their own selfish desires and desperation to maintain their status in society. It is a frightfully complex movie. And yet, as the characters explain at the beginning and ending, it could happen to anybody...

The family's patriarch is Tong-sik, a music teacher, who alternates between leading choir practices at work and private piano lessons at home. The mother spends her time working at a sewing machine where she earns money for them to buy nice, expensive things: a television set, a piano, and other things that good middle class families should have. The daughter is crippled and has to walk around wearing arm braces. Unfortunately, she has to deal with the constant harassment directed to her by her younger brother, a cheeky little whelp who has no problem in calling her a cripple and mocking her when she can't make it up the staircase. They all live in a beautiful western two-story house in a nice neighborhood. It is obvious that they were not born into the middle class but had to work their way up to it. It is also obvious, perhaps even more so, that they want to improve their lot in life even more. They can be frightfully blunt, even borderline cruel, in their quest for upward mobility.

Take, for example, their crippled daughter. The perfect daughter would not have such a disability. So, they want her to get better. In one particularly harsh scene, Tong-sik arrives home with a new pet squirrel. It is a present for his daughter. He holds it up to her and casually explains how when a squirrel is locked up inside a cage, it exercises to keep its legs strong. The girl stares blankly at the cage. With an empty look on her face, she replies, “You want me to exercise too, right?” Then, quietly weeping, she turns around and hobbles up the impossible stairs. This brings up another interesting point: why would the family buy a two-story house when they have a crippled daughter? In fact, why would they have such a huge house when there are only four of them? My guess is that they buy things that they think they want, not necessarily the things that they need.

One night, the mother breaks down from being overworked. So Tong-sik asks one of his students to find him a housemaid. When she arrives, it is clear that things are not going to be the same for the family. With girlish good looks, pigtails, and an extremely tight sweater, she quickly becomes the wife's sexual rival. In addition, she acts in a very disconcerting manner. She catches and kills a rat in the kitchen with her bare hands. She has an unnerving stare that she uses to examine the house and its occupants. The children are quick to distrust her. But Tong-sik keeps her employed. Unfortunately, forces are already in motion that will lead to her seducing him.

Earlier in the film, one of his students gave him a love letter. He quickly reports it to her boss at her factory. It becomes apparent that Tong-sik did so because he was trying to avoid scandal which would inevitably lead to him losing his job. Unfortunately, the student did not take it well. She kills herself in grief. Horrified, he rushes to her funeral where her mother attacks him. When he returns home, he is beset upon by yet another student who loves him. She threatens to go to the police and say that he raped her if he doesn't sleep with her. He shoves her away. It is at this moment, when he is at his weakest when the maid seduces him.

Things only continue to get worse from there as the maid discovers that she is pregnant. Now she poses a threat to the social standing of the family. So the mother takes drastic steps to keep her family intact. In one of the film's most chilling scenes, she confronts the maid. We don't hear much of what she says, but we can only expect the worst. She leaves the maid standing at the top of the staircase and goes down to meet her husband. She assures him that everything will be taken care of.

“What happened?”
“Everything will be taken care of soon.”
“We can't let our precious lives be destroyed now.”

We see them walk away from the stairs where the maid is standing at the top. They walk behind a door. There is a crash and a horrible scream. They go back in where they find the maid sprawled on the floor. He carries her back upstairs where the maid desperately grabs him.

“Don't go. Your child is dead. I did as your wife told me. I'll die too. I'll die!”

We then cut to a group of doctors walking down the stairs. In a moment it becomes clear: she has had an emergency abortion. Now everything starts to unwind. The maid threatens to go to the police and say that they murdered her child. Desperate to avoid scandal, the family allows her to control them with an iron fist. She walks into Tong-sik's bedroom at night and demands that he sleep with her. His wife is powerless to stop her. She cruelly kills their son with rat poison. She thinks that it's only fair. After all, they killed her son, so she had the right to kill their's. Once again, the couple refuses to go to the police. Things only keep escalating out of control until she convinces Tong-sik that they should commit suicide together...

The Housemaid is sinister in its implications of middle class psychology. There were many times when the family could have gone to the police to get help, but they choose not to in order to avoid scandal. One would think that after their own son was murdered that it would be the final straw, but they continue to bow to the maid's will. They adore their lifestyle with their big two-story house. In fact, the house itself becomes an important symbol. Normal families wouldn't need a two-story house. So, the second story represents the luxury that the family desperately clings to. Observe what goes on in the different floors. The emergency abortion takes place upstairs where the maid's room is. Later in the film, the mother also gives birth to a son. Her delivery is downstairs where their bedroom is. The piano room is upstairs. Later in the film, it becomes a source of psychological torture as the maid is heard banging on it all throughout the day (and late at night) as the family unravels. It is upstairs that the maid poisons the son. We see him die as he plummets down the stairs.

If the second story represents their unnecessary lifestyle, then the staircase becomes a constant reminder of their decision to bend to the maid's will. So many important things happen on the staircase: the maid throws herself down them to induce a miscarriage, the boy falls down them to his death, and the girl is forced by her parents to walk them in order to strengthen her legs. They become a tool through which the family destroys themselves.

The film itself is a masterpiece of atmosphere, composition, and pacing. It shares the same sense of dread as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) yet moves along at the same pace as The Honeymoon Killers (1970). As the story evolves, the house seems to undergo a metamorphosis from a spacious home into a claustrophobic dungeon. Not only is The Housemaid a disturbing film, it is also an incredibly brave one. At a time when Korean cinema was chained to realism, director Kim Ki-young's was willing to delve into themes such as psycho-sexual drama and the post-war middle class values that drive Tong-sik's family towards destruction. While it was a hit at the box office, the film was crucified by Korea's critics. Now, over forty years later, it is recognized as one of the three greatest Korean films of all time. Hopefully one day it will gain its proper place as one of the greatest thrillers that mankind has ever produced.

Editor's Note: Many thanks for the World Cinema Foundation for restoring this priceless work of art. According to the website:

Hanyo (The Housemaid) has been restored digitally by the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) with the support of the World Cinema Foundation. The original negative of the film was found in 1982 with two missing reels, 5 and 8. In 1990 an original release print with handwritten English subtitles was found and used to complete the copy. Unfortunately, this copy was highly damaged, and the English subtitles occupied almost half of the frame area. So far the restoration process has included flicker and grain reduction, scratch and dust removal, color grading, etc. and has turned out to be very complex. The final removal of the subtitles is expected by the end of the year.

This film can be seen free of charge at http://www.theauteurs.com/films/2039


Monday, November 23, 2009


Directed by Woody Allen
The United States of America

Leonard Zelig: I've never flown before in my life, and it shows exactly what you can do, if you're a total psychotic!

I wonder, at times, what it would be like to be Woody Allen. It must be nice to be one of the greatest comedic geniuses of the 20th century. But in earning his accolades he has become his own punch line. He consistently plays one character in his movies: himself. His comedy is always about two things: himself and how messed up he is. His movies are always about three things: himself, how messed up he is, and how hard it is for him to fit into society. Notice a pattern? Certainly, many comedians rose to fame with self-deprecating humor. But whereas comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor end their shows with a smile and a bow, Allen always seemed to frown and shuffle offstage. It makes one think, “How much is he actually joking?” The man has been in psychotherapy for over thirty years. He has had several turbulent relationships that always result in scandal. When he says, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it's all over much too soon,” we get a feeling that he truly believes it. Maybe Woody Allen is not a great comedian. Maybe he is the world's funniest nutjob.

But that is what makes the Woody Allen persona so endearing: we want to know what makes him tick. Thankfully, as I have already mentioned, he has been most gracious in diving into his own psyche in most of his movies. Many fans will point to Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) as some of his most autobiographical work. They are both fine films, to be sure. But neither one of them explains his motivations for what he does. Oh, Annie Hall explains that he is neurotic because he fears relationships and so on and so on, but why? A bizarre childhood is mentioned, but it never seems to justify the destruction of his relationship with Diane Keaton. No, if you truly want to understand Woody Allen, I would recommend watching Zelig, one of his best and most under-appreciated masterpieces. Even though the film isn't about Woody Allen being Woody Allen, it explores his motivations as a person better than any other film he ever made.

The plot concerns a man named Leonard Zelig who has the great (mis)fortune to live in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. He becomes somewhat of an overnight celebrity for a talent that he picked up during his youth. Well, it's not so much a talent as a disorder. He has a strange ability to completely change his appearance to match those around him. I don't mean to imply that he is a master of disguise. He literally changes. When surrounded by two overweight men, he suddenly gains over a hundred pounds. When confronted by black men (or “Negroes” as the movie refers to them) his skin literally changes color. When he is around “Chinamen” his features become pale, his eyes stretch out, and he begins to act like one of them.

Zelig as a fat man, a "Negro", and a Scotsman.

These are not just physical changes. It affects his speech patterns and thought processes as well. While at a party hosted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, he begins to adopt upper class mannerisms and a Boston accent. When he is confronted by doctors, he assumes the identity of a doctor. During a session with a psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher, he actually begins to speak of mental diseases and patients that he must get back to (“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”). Leonard Zelig is dubbed a “human chameleon.”

Zelig as a Native American

The remaining plot is fairly simple to work out: he is sent to a mental hospital where Dr. Fletcher tries to cure him (“I have an interesting case. I'm treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I'm getting paid by eight people.”). Money-hungry relatives spirit him away to Europe where they turn him into a high society freak show. They are tragically killed and Zelig is sent back to the States where he undergoes more therapy with Dr. Fletcher. They fall in love, Zelig is cured, and they get married. But people come forward to accuse him of crimes that he committed when he was still a “chameleon.” He tries to apologize and set things straight (“My deepest apology goes to the Trochman family in Detroit. I... I never delivered a baby before in my life, and I... I just thought that ice tongs was the way to do it.”) The pressure makes him relapse. He disappears. A nationwide manhunt is started for him. But he eventually shows up in the Vatican as one of the Pope's protégées, then as a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party. Dr. Fletcher goes to Germany, attends a rally, and finds Zelig seated next to Hitler. He recognizes her, they escape to a plane, and try to fly away. Unfortunately, Dr. Fletcher is knocked out, so Zelig transforms into an airplane pilot. He escapes from Germany and flies all the way back to the States while setting the world record for fastest trans-Atlantic flight made while upside down. Zelig is named a hero, and the two live happily ever after.

Zelig is a marked departure from much of Allen's other work. It is filmed as a documentary with a narrator giving us the details of Zelig's life. Interspersed throughout are interviews with people that Zelig “knew” back in the Twenties and Thirties. Most of the time we see Zelig it is in old newsreel footage, tattered pictures, and grainy voice recordings. Instead of re-staging historical events, Allen used state of the art technology to insert him into historical footage. The scene with Hitler was especially well executed as Hitler pauses during a speech and appears to look right at him. This was all done with old-fashioned blue-screen technology that took so long to complete, that Allen was able to film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) while the effects were still being finished. But it paid off magnificently. Allen was so perfectly inserted into historical films and pictures that not once did it seem fake or phony. For the scenes that were not based in historical footage, Allen used real cameras, lenses, and sound equipment from the 1920s to mimic the eras films. In order to properly age the film, the negatives were showered, stomped on, and even scrunched up. The result is a documentary that is so convincing that we frequently forget that we are watching Woody Allen. Well, almost.

Zelig with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover

The one-liners are classic Woody Allen. And, of course, there are psychotherapy scenes. It is during these scenes that Dr. Fletcher is able to discover why Zelig transforms the way he does. “I want to be liked,” he moans during a hypnotherapy session. Therein is the key to Zelig, he transforms so that people will accept him and simultaneously leave him alone. Quite a paradox, to be sure, but as the sessions continue, it becomes clearer and clearer why Zelig is so desperate to fit in. During his childhood, he was a constant recipient of abuse (“As a boy, Leonard Zelig is frequently bullied by anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites.”). Never able to get the attention or support that he craved, his body developed the ability to transform so that people will no longer abuse him and instead accept him into the fold.

Now, consider the case of Woody Allen. He had a difficult childhood marred by a temperamental mother who frequently fought with his father. He grew up speaking Yiddish and going to Hebrew School before transferring to the public system. He earned the attention of his peers with magic tricks and comedic routines. His comedy began to reflect his pain. He once joked that at an inter-faith summer camp, he was “sadistically beaten by boys of all races and creeds.” At 19 he began to write for The Ed Sulliven Show, The Tonight Show, and even Caesar's Hour. After further developing his standup talents, he began writing for Candid Camera, then moving on to writing for The New Yorker, and finally penning Broadway plays. He starred in his first film, What's New, Pussycat (1965) and the rest is history.

Woody Allen developed comedy as a means to escape his scarred past and get ahead in life. He turned himself into a giant joke and in the process gained wealth and success. He could disappear into films and created characters where people would pay to see him. By embracing fantasy, he was able to conquer reality. Or did he? After all, he's still in therapy. He still has issues. Unlike Zelig, he cannot disappear from the public eye. But like Zelig, he can tolerate the public eye by transforming. Zelig can transform. Allen can crack a joke. But really, it's all a front. As Allen once said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Сталкер (Stalker)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Сталкер (Stalker) is a film of many questions, but very few answers. It concerns three men who journey to a place known only as the Zone, which may or may not be the site of a meteor strike or an alien spacecraft landing. They sneak past a military blockade that guards the Zone. Why did the military feel obligated to blockade the Zone? We don't know, and neither do the characters. But they are perfectly willing to risk being shot on their trek to the Zone. Why? Because the Zone, which may or may not exist, is said to be a room which grants the deepest and innermost wishes of those who enter it. How? We are not sure. But it is obvious that the influence of the Zone is beyond our understanding. It distorts the normal laws of physics and somehow seems to set deadly 'traps' for those who seek entry. Progress must be slow, for the slightest mistake could prove fatal.

They are led by a man named Stalker. They do not use the Russian word for stalker, but the English one. His profession is to lead people inside the Zone. He knows how to navigate it and avoid its traps. He brings along metal nuts tied to strips of cloth which he throws ahead of him in order to see whether or not it is safe to continue. Despite his dire warnings, the nuts always land harmlessly. But this doesn't seem to surprise Stalker. They are a necessary precaution, and to do without would mean certain death. This annoys his two clients, named Professor and Writer (Stalker insists that they not tell him their names). They both seek the Zone for reasons that are never truly explained. There are whispers that Writer has lost his inspiration and that Professor wants a Nobel prize, but there seem to be other motivations that they keep secret.

Stalker has traveled to the Zone many times, but he has never entered it. He explains that Stalkers can never enter the Zone. He recalls the story of a previous Stalker named 'Porcupine' who broke this rule. During his trip, he caused his brother to die in the Zone. After reaching the room, he won the lottery. However, he quickly hung himself afterwards. This raises more questions. While the Zone may grant our deepest wishes, do we even know what they are? Was winning the lottery Porcupine's greatest desire? Or could it be that his true wish was an unconscious one: the death of his brother? To that question we only have Porcupine's suicide as an answer. Yes, we realize, it is best if Stalkers stay out of the Zone...

It makes the audience wonder if we as humans are capable of knowing our greatest desires? Are we equipped to seek them out? What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve them? And, moreover, what happens if we are granted our greatest desires? Are they the key to true happiness or inner fulfillment? These are all questions that are constantly confronted in Stalker. Indeed, the film is inundated with uncertainty and philosophy: Stalker frequently quotes the New Testament. Stalker's wife recites a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev at the end of the film. Tarkovsky injects the script with quotations from his own father. What is the purpose? They certainly do not help explain anything happening in the plot. The three men's philosophical musings have no bearing on their journey. In the end, we are presented with a portrait of a group of men who are merely seeking something. Something which may or may not be there. Something which they may or may not even want.

Tarkovsky was always a master of making normal, everyday objects seem unreal. In his other great science fiction epic Solaris (1972), a few tracking shots of Akasaka, Tokyo are used to help transition between events on earth and events in outer space. In Stalker, Tarkovsky is able to transform scenes of industrial buildings and forests into still lifes from a nightmare. In one of the most famous scenes of the film, the three men break through the military blockade using a railway handcar. Up until this point, the entire film has been in tinted sepia But then as they finally manage to escape from the military, the environment explodes into color. 'We are home,' Stalker exclaims as Writer and Professor cautiously regard their new surroundings.

Key to the entire effect of the film is the cinematography by Alexander Knyazhinsky who re-shot almost the entire thing after it was discovered that the first draft was shot on corrupted film. Knyazhinsky continued Tarkovsky's tradition of long takes with slow camera movements. In fact, for a film that is 163 minutes long, it only contains 142 shots, averaging out to around one minute per shot. Many shots last for more than four minutes. In one of the most famous shots of Tarkovsky's career, the three men sit just outside the entrance of the room in the Zone. The camera regards them and then slowly zooms out, revealing the room to be a shallow pool of water. Suddenly, it begins to rain inside the room. It gets stronger and stronger and louder and louder until suddenly, it just stops. The torrent is reduced to a few solitary raindrops before finally dying out. And still, the three men just sit there.

The glacial camera techniques all lend themselves to the fulfillment of the three classical unities as written by Aristotle in his Poetics. The first is unity of action which states that a play should have only one main action. The second is the unity of place which says that a play should cover only a single physical space and should not compress the area's geography. The third is the unity of time which says that a play should take place over no more time than 24 hours. Tarkovsky, always a strident film theorist, wanted to make Stalker because he could finally make a film that conformed to these elements. And so, we have a film that does indeed realize the unities: there is only the search for the Zone, it takes place in its immediate surroundings, and it takes place over the course of a day and a night. By doing so, it creates an atmosphere that other filmmakers can only dream of creating. The Zone is a world unto itself. We regard it, but we never quite see it. We hear it, but we never quite understand it. We touch it, but we never fully grasp it.

It probably all goes back to a metaphor used by a character in the source novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. The Zone is like the scene of a picnic. After the picnickers leave, animals emerge from the forest and find the refuse left behind: motor oil, flowers, matches, balloons, candy wrappers, etc. The trash is a tangible reality, but it is beyond the animals' understanding or comprehension. The Zone is the aliens' picnic trash: it is there, it is the source of some kind of power, but we can never understand what it is. We can only touch it and hope for the best. And so the Stalker must go on leading men into the heart of this bizarre world. Like a priest offering a prayer, the Stalker puts one foot in front of the other in an attempt to reach an entity that we may not understand, but we desperately want to touch. What is the Zone? Why is it there? What does it do? Do we even want its gifts? These are all questions that have no answers. But then again, that is probably the point. It is the journey, the search for the answer, that drives men forward into the unknown reaches of the universe and their own souls.

Editor's Note: The editor would like to thank Jonathan Cameron for suggesting this movie and birubirFilms for graciously providing it.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Punch-Drunk Love

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The United States of America

Lena Leonard: You got me out of my hotel room. You came and got me out of my room...It's so nice.

Punch-Drunk Love is a strange movie about strange things happening to strange people. Sometimes the events are tragic, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes uplifting. The story is deceptively simple despite its execution. The characters who inhabit it are uneasy, nervous, and occasionally psychotic. They make bad choices, idiotic mistakes, and even sometimes life-threatening ones. And yet, by the end of the movie, we feel a bond with them that few other films are able to create. Simply put, Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is the greatest American love story never told. For while most films attempt to recreate love on the screen, Punch-Drunk Love provides it in an undiluted form that is so powerful that it may feel overwhelming to movie-goers who have been drugged on romcom popcorn flicks for decades.

Anderson was no stranger to emotional films that featured large, ensemble casts with volatile characters: Boogie Nights contains some of the best acting performances of the Nineties and There Will Be Blood gets my nomination for the best leading male performance since Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But here, he only has a couple of significant roles. First and foremost is Barry Egan, a self-made business man who runs a company that sells novelty toilet plungers and other novelty items. We see him at the beginning of the movie in a long shot that has him cramped into the corner of a huge room with his desk making phone calls. This shot establishes his character perfectly: he is an isolated man. He tries to reach out to society, to people, but it is never normal.

After this opening shot, we are treated to one of the strangest and yet most captivating opening sequences in recent memory. He walks outside of his building and stares at the street. Anderson frames this scene in long, geometric shots that examine the action from the front, back, left, and right of Barry. It is early in the morning and there is no traffic. Nor is there anybody else out on the sidewalks. Suddenly, he sees a car do a barrel-role down the street in a loud crash. Incredulously, he looks on. Immediately, another car pulls up in front of him, deposits a harmonium in front of him, and drives away. He retreats into his building, but he peeks out and sees that it is still there. As he tries to approach it, a car enters the parking lot. Startled, he tries to retreat, but a woman gets out and asks him if she can leave her car there for the mechanic. He uncomfortably reassures her that she can. She leaves, and he reenters the building. His employees arrive and the work day begins.

If this all sounded strange, don't worry, because it is strange. It establishes the kind of world that Egan lives in: one in which things just seem to happen. Not necessarily ordinary or incredible things, but strange things. Later, Barry figures out a loophole in a Healthy Choice promo that allows him to get one million frequent flyer miles simply by purchasing large amounts of pudding. Barry is constantly berated by his seven sisters who have no problem of insulting him to his face and yet can't understand why he acts so strangely. He is seized by sudden, intense fits of rage that cause him to break things. Early on, at a party at his sisters house, after repeatedly being mocked by his sisters he shocks everyone when he breaks all of their patio windows. Later, when his sisters is brought up in a conversation, he destroys a public bathroom. So I repeat, strange things happen Barry Egan.

I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but I guess that now is as good a time as ever to say that Barry is played by Adam Sandler. That's right, the same Adam Sandler who made a fool out of himself in such 'classics' as The Waterboy, Little Nicky, and Big Daddy. It is disconcerting to see him in such a serious role, but he knocks it out of the park. I'm going to throw up my hands in defeat and quote Roger Ebert one more time because I cannot for the life of me sum up Sandler's performance better than he did in his review:

"Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power.”

And what power. I have always believed that comedians make some of the best serious actors because in the pursuit of their craft they had to perfect a sense of dramatic (and comedic) timing. And watching Sandler here, we can only imagine what inner demons must have lurked around in his head, begging to be let out.

This was his first serious role outside of comedy, but it wasn't his last. As one of maybe ten people who actually say his performance in 2007's Reign Over Me, I can confidently say that Sandler is one of the most powerful actors working today. The fact that he wasn't nominated for any awards is downright criminal. And once again, Sandler was able to flex his dramatic muscles this year in Funny People, where he plays a comedian who has to face his impending death. All three roles prove that behind his playful exterior is a man capable of projecting a kind of hurt that is rarely seen in movies. It is here, in Punch-Drunk Love that we see it for the first time. This is important. Until then, audiences expected crazy antics out of Sandler. To see him so down-trodden and hurt produced a powerful reacion among movie-goers. We want to see him get better. We want to see him get the girl. But first he must earn her. But it isn't easy for Barry Egan. For his greatest shortcoming is an overpowering sense of naivety.

In his loneliness, he calls a phone sex line. He doesn't want any kind of stimulation, but instead just wants to talk to somebody. I guess he never gets to talk to people who are required to listen to what he says. The phone sex operator can't understand what is going on.

“You getting hot?”

“No, not really.”

“Are you naked?”

“No, why?”

He struggles with her for a few minutes, but not before making a massive mistake by giving the company his personal information, credit card number, and social security number. I guess he was incapable of distrusting people, because no sane person would do the same thing. Of course, he is blackmailed by a group of scammers based out of Utah. They demand money. They insist that if he is going to be a pervert, he will have to pay for it. Barry doesn't get angry or upset at this. He just gets confused. He calls up the service and asks them why they are doing it. They respond by sending out four men who beat and rob him. Once again, he calls the company and says that he was assaulted and he insists to speak to the manager.

The fact that Barry acts this way proves that he is socially inept, at least unto a certain degree. But that changes when he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) again. She is introduced to Barry by his sister Elizabeth, one of her co-workers. Obviously she intended to hook the two up together, but why, might I ask, does she constantly tell Lena that he is acting weird? Wait a minute. Lena looks familiar to Barry. Where has he seen her before? Oh! That was Lena who left her car outside of his building at the beginning of the film! It turns out that she dropped her car off because she wanted to see him after seeing a picture of him with Elizabeth. It turns out that she in incredibly in love with him, but doesn't know how to approach him. In fact, it turns out that Lena has been following Barry for a while now, trying to contact him. You can actually see her following Barry while he is in the supermarket 21 minutes and 30 seconds into the film. Of course, she is out of focus, but we see her vibrant red dress. It could not be anyone else.

So here the relationship develops between two people who really have no business being in a relationship: Barry is an anti-social train wreck, Lena is a timid woman who is afraid to reach out to him. But that is why their relationship works. They need each other. It isn't as simple as love-on-first-sight or infatuation. Barry and Lena complete each other. One can provide a kind of strength that the other cannot make. It is the kind of desperate need that make the films Last Tango in Paris, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Leaving Las Vegas such perfect love movies. They are the antithesis of traditional Hollywood love stories where two characters fall in love simply because they are the first attractive man and woman who appear on the screen. I call it the Hitchcock Effect. If you examine Hitchcock's work, rarely do you feel any kind of genuine attraction between the love interests. Take Marnie where Sean Connery tells Tippi Hedren that he loves her. His entire confession is said in an almost complete monotone voice. There is no passion behind the performances, no chemistry.

I think that Hollywood, and most of the movie-making world, thinks that love stories have to be big, dramatic spectacles. I whole-heartedly disagree. Sometimes the most powerful love scenes are the most subtle. One of my all time favorite love scenes is in Rocky when he takes Adrian to the ice rink and he scuttles on the ice in his shoes as they talk. These are the subtle moments that make cinematic relationships real. Punch-Drunk Love has one of these moments, too. Near the end of the movie, Barry follows Lena to Hawaii on a business trip. They share dinner and Lena leans forward and says, “You got me out of my hotel room. You came and got me out of my room...It's so nice.” She finally can leave her hotel room because she finally has a reason to.


Monday, November 16, 2009

Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc)

Directed by Robert Bresson

"Are you in God's grace?"
"'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

One of the most frequent images in Robert Bresson's Procès de Jeanne d'Arc is of somebody peeking through a hole. We are presented with a stone wall, then we see an eye poking out of it. Then, a point of view shot that frames Joan of Arc through the small hole. These shots are repeated over and over again, but I wonder how many people understand their purpose? My guess is that they establish a frame of reference from which the audience is supposed to view the movie: as a peeping hole into an historical event. For we know that Joan of Arc was a real person. We know that in 1412, a girl named Jeanne d'Arc was born in Domrémy, France. We know that she believed that she was guided by God to lead the French army against the British in the Hundred Year's War. We also know that under the orders of King Charles VII she ended the seige at Orléans in only nine days. And finally, we also know that on May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake by the English. But what do we truly know about Joan of Arc? We do not know what she looked like. She was burned at the stake three times so that there would be no remaining body parts that could be venerated as relics. We don't know anything about her except for the records of her trial and rehabilitation that have miraculously survived the wears of time. It is from this manuscript that Robert Bresson based his screenplay for this movie. And it from his movie that we get what could be the most authentic peek into the life of the great Joan of Arc.

Of course, saying so will undoubtedly raise calls of blasphemy from many circles. For most, the supreme cinematic representation of Joan's story would be Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), featuring a lead performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti that many consider to be the greatest ever captured on film. But understand, I am not challenging the supposed superiority of this film. Notice the titles of the two films: Dreyer's in the Passion of Joan of Arc. Bresson's is the Trial of Joan of Arc. While Dreyer and Falconetti may have created one of the greatest films ever made, it focuses on Joan. Everything in the film is designed to replicate Joan's internal turmoil: the spare, yet expressionist sets speak to her sense of isolation and unfamiliarity. The almost suffocating use of facial closeups emphasize the emotions of the characters. Falconetti's performance speaks more to the ideal or Joan of Arc: a brave martyr ready to die for her God and country. But these qualities that enthralled the cinematic world were the same things that made the film so repulsive to Robert Bresson. The performances were not inspired, but 'grotesque buffooneries.' They did not represent reality, but the interpretations of reality as put forth by Dreyer and Falconetti. How are we supposed to know whether or not Joan shed bitter tears during her trial? How are we supposed to know how she acted, how she responded, or how she faced her death? All we have is a transcript of her trial; a mere carbon copy of words and deeds over five hundred years old. So what is a director who wants to make a film about it supposed to do? Embellish the past like Dreyer did? Or should he perhaps try to restrain himself to creating a movie that strips away all dramatics, fanfare, and possible historical inaccuracies?

As one can guess, Bresson chose the latter option, and the result is a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. Instead of experienced actors, Bresson worked with non-professional actors. Instead of letting them 'act' Bresson would have them do take after take until all emotion or emphasis was stripped from his actors. Instead of choosing daring and exciting camera angles and tricks, Bresson uses an extremely minimalistic filming style. All of this leads to an organic film experience that feels a bit like a documentary. And therein is the goal of Bresson's work: to create a film that as accurately depicts history as possible. Since we can't know how Joan of Arc behaved during her trial, Bresson had his leading actress, Florence Delay, go through the motions of the trial and deliver the lines as curtly as possible. The courtroom scenes are merely a relay of questions and answers. There are no emotional tears in the courtroom. In fact, the only time we see her cry is near the beginning of the film when she is alone in her prison cell. Bresson only lingers on that shot for a few seconds. The purpose was to establish that she was sad at the start of the trial, so there was no need to linger on it.

But what of the story itself? Well, if Bresson really did stick to the original courtroom transcripts, then we are presented with a portrait of a fascinating woman. We know that in real life Joan was illiterate. But if one studies her answers, it shows that she possessed untold depths of knowledge and logic. She manages to answer all of her interrogators' questions without betraying herself, her king, or her God. It calls to mind the story of Jesus and the coin which can be found in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12: 13-17, and Luke 20: 19-26. The story goes that the Pharisees sent people to trick Jesus into saying something that he could be arrested for. So, they approach Jesus and ask him whether or not they should pay taxes. If he said no, then he could be arrested for disloyalty to the Throne. If he said yes, it could be perceived as blasphemy since the coins had Caesar's image on it. Jesus' answer was to ask for a silver coin. He asked whose image was on it. The Pharisees said that it was Caesar. And then the famous response: 'So give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' The innate brilliance behind Jesus' answer was that it didn't constitute one of the two loaded answers. Instead, he gave a reasonable answer that satisfied both parties. Coming back to Joan of Arc now, she is frequently asked questions where a 'yes' would make her a heretic and a 'no' would label her a traitor. And yet she manages to give answers that simultaneously support her and protect her from her adversaries. When asked whether or not she was in God's grace, she simply responded, 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.'

It is from these answers and from Joan's actions that the audience begins to draw their own conclusions concerning her. And that is the genius behind Bresson's work: in stripping away all embellishments, the audience can discern their own ideas about Joan and her supposed divinity. Where Dreyer insists, Bresson suggests. Where Dreyer has chaos, Bresson has control. Where Dreyer seeks to inflame emotion, Bresson seeks to quietly mediate on this great woman. The audience may leave Dreyer's film with tears or a renewed religious conviction. But audiences will most likely leave Bresson's film with more questions. By showing us the bare minimum, Bresson has introduced us to a character of impossible strength and power. By stripping away all of the extraneous cinematic language, Bresson has given us the closest look into the life of that glorious saint that we will probably ever get.


Monday, November 9, 2009


Directed by Robert Altman

Billy: "Jesus H Christ. You know what I'm doing? You know what I'm standing here doing? I'm a 24 year old college graduate. God damn intellectual type. And I got a knife in my hand, thinking about coming up behind one black human being, and I'm thinking, I wanna cut his throat! That is ridiculous, man! You think I need a reputation as a killer? You want to be a bad ass animal, go! Get it on! But I wash my hands, man! I'm not human as you are!"

Editor's Note: This review is the second part of a mini-Altman retrospective. For the first part, refer to Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

After the failure of 1980's Popeye, Altman waited two years before he returned to the world of cinema with screen adaptations of two Broadway plays. The first film he directed was Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), a mesmerizing examination of the inner psychological workings of a group of women. He would follow it the next year with Streamers, a terrifying examination of a group of men based off the David Rabe play of the same name. Whereas Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean examined women who tried to live normal lives, Streamers took a look at a group of army soldiers getting ready to be shipped off to Vietnam. Instead of a five and dime diner, Streamers would take place entirely inside an army barracks. We see glimpses of a courtyard and basketball court outside the barracks, just as how we saw glimpses of Jimmy Dean outside the window of the diner in Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Both films featured characters who had abnormal sexual orientations: the former had a post-op transsexual and the latter a closeted homosexual. And in both films, they are the source for much of the ensuing drama. But just like Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers is an examination of a group of people. Each character has an important bearing on the group.

Two of the first characters that we meet are Billy (Matthew Modine) and Roger (David Alan Grier) who in their short time together in the army have become close friends. They spend time wondering about Vietnam and whether or not they will be deployed. They take turns assuring each other that it is just a rumor. Surely it must be. Whatever reason could the US have for invading Vietnam? Well, it doesn't matter. These conflicts just strengthen their friendship. They share a particularly warm moment when Roger walks in and starts acting like a drill sergeant. He orders Billy to do drills and push-ups in a mock voice that would make R. Lee Ermey proud. They stare at each other intimidatingly and then burst out laughing. Even though the army is full of racism, Roger feels comfortable living in a white barracks. Did he request this strange transfer? If he did, was it because he wanted to be with Billy? Altman wisely decides not to reveal the answers.

Another one of their bunk mates is a young man named Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) who is the aforementioned homosexual. He tries to hide it from his fellow soldiers, but that doesn't stop them from thinking that he is a strange one. Suspicions really start to fly when he tends to another soldier who tried to kill himself in the bathroom by cutting his wrists. Instead of tending to him the way a trained medical professional would, he croons over him. 'Don't worry, it'll be okay,' he assures with an almost singsong voice.

Everything else he does comes off as effeminate. Billy and Roger don't care enough about it to make a fuss, but Richie's mannerisms drive another recruit, Carlyle (Michael Wright), to a boiling point.

Already, Carlyle is a bundle of hot nerves. He is terrified of being deployed to Vietnam. He protects himself by flaunting a black power attitude that is obviously compensating for something. He asks Roger why he is living in a white barracks. Roger tries to calm him down by telling him that the guys in their barracks are down with it. But that doesn't stop Carlyle. Throughout the film, we watch him slowly implode upon himself before acting out in two quick, horrific outbursts of violence.

But then, there are two other players in this story. The first is Sgt. Rooney (Guy Boyd), a man who is anxious to go overseas and see combat. To counter him is Sgt. Cokes (George Dzundza), an alcoholic veteran who has already served overseas. Constantly drunk, the two stammer all around the barracks barking at the men. Sgt. Roony keeps hitting Sgt. Cokes in the shoulder and saying how he is a true hero. 'Look at his boots,' he yells, 'the rubber is worn away. That's from being in the swamp! Those are a soldier's boots!' All the while, Sgt. Cokes nods and leans back and forth. He is obviously dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. But for whatever reason, Sgt. Rooney doesn't see it. To him, he is just a hero to be praised. But Sgt. Cokes doesn't want any of it. He keeps having flashbacks to a time when he threw a grenade into a spider-hole and sat on the roof, trapping an enemy soldier inside. The guilt is killing him, and by the time that the movie ends, he slowly loses his grip on reality. How ironic is it that by the end of the movie, he is the only one sane enough to offer meaningful advice to the men.
I could continue going on about the characters, but there is only so much I can say to establish them. This is a movie of personal revelations and broken relationships.

The genius of the movie comes from how the cast interacts with each other. They were so successful at focusing their talents that at the Venice Film Festival, the entire cast was given the Best Actor award. Consider that for a moment. A group of actors came together and performed with such precision that they can be viewed as a whole, not just as a sum of various parts. This was probably the effect that Altman struggled his entire career for: a cast that lives and breathes as one. They perfectly embody Vietnam era soldiers to such a degree that I stumbled across this interesting comment on the Internet Movie Database:

I went to Viet Nam in 1971 as a replacement. I spent time in just such a scenario and except for the gay issue which would not have been discussed so openly, it was very realistic in it's description of the emotional interaction of the soldiers.

Author: redrrtbmw from United States

Streamers is an incredibly powerful film. After the success of M*A*S*H* people wanted him to do a real Vietnam War movie. Well, this film is the fulfillment of that wish. While it may not have the anarchy of the latter, it makes up for it with some of the most powerful performances that Altman has ever commanded. I see that I have yet to explain the movie's title. Well, a streamer is a parachute that doesn't open when the ripcord is pulled. Supposedly, when a paratrooper gets a streamer, he sings a song on his way down to the ground. During a scene of brutal intensity, Sgt. Roony and Sgt. Cokes sing the streamer song to the men of the barracks. The song is sung to the tune of beautiful dreamer:

Beautiful streamer open for me
Blue Skies above and no canopy
Counted nine thousand - waited too long
Reached for my ripcord - the darn thing was gone.

Beautiful streamer, why must it be
White silk above me is what I should see
Just like my mother looks over me
To hell with the ripcord, twas not made for me.

Beautiful streamer, follow me down
The time is elapsing and here is the ground
600 feet and then I can tell
If I'll go to heaven or end down in hell.

Beautiful streamer, this is the end
Gabriel is blowing "My Body Won't Mend"
All you jump happy son's of a gun
Take this last warning - Jumping's no fun

So why is the film named after a safety device that fails to open and protect its user at the very beginning of combat? Oh wait, I think I just answered my own question. Think about it. You'll get it, too.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Directed by Robert Altman
The United States of America

Stella Mae: I just love to try an' guess at people from old photographs.

What can I say about Robert Altman? He is one of American's greatest and most original directors. And yet, the early Eighties were a time of severe crisis for this true auteur. In 1980, he made the commercial and critical stinker Popeye. It had good intentions and even a talented cast, but it ultimately fell apart. Suddenly, nobody wanted to finance his movies anymore. The man who had created such phenomenal films as M*A*S*H*, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville suddenly was out of work. So, he took a two year break from the world of cinema. Thankfully, when he returned, he proved that he was still a cinematic giant to be reckoned with. The next three films that he directed were Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Streamers (1983), and Secret Honor (1984). Even though they would be largely overshadowed for the rest of his career, these three films have been remembered as three of his greatest. All three of them were cinematic adaptations of theatrical plays. All three of them featured very small casts and even smaller sets. Just like Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), they were restricted to a single set piece (or even a single room). Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was set in a diner, Streamers was set in an army barracks, and Secret Honor was set in ex-President Nixon's office. Their minimalistic approach were a satisfying return to form for Altman after such excesses as A Wedding (1978) which supposedly contained 48 primary speaking parts. While it is true that they may not have always used Altman's overlapping trademark dialogue or naturalistic filming techniques, they were perfect examples of what made Altman's earlier work so endearing: stories centered around great characters being performed by great actors. These three pieces of the Altman pantheon have gained somewhat of a cult status among the die-hard Altman fans. Secret Honor was lucky enough to even get a Criterion Collection release. However, the first two have long since faded into obscurity. And so, I will do a two part review of these two movies. Tonight, I will write about Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean while tomorrow I will write about Streamers. And so, without further ado, I give you Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

In a small Texas town in the middle of nowhere, there sits a small, decrepit five-and-dime store. On this particular day, a number of women file in and greet each other for the first time in twenty years. They are the members of the Disciples of James Dean, and they have gathered to mourn the twentieth anniversary of the passing of their hero. Unlike many others who were enamored with James Dean when he was alive, these women share a special connection with the late actor. Their little town is located a few miles away from Marfa, Texas, where Dean starred in Giant in 1956. They fondly remembered going up to the set and seeing their star. But the real magic happened when one of their own is chosen to be an extra in the film. And so the women regroup in order to celebrate old times. The group is populated by many fascinating characters who over the course of the day will have their realities turned upside down as confessions and realizations wash over them.

First, there is Juanita (Susie Bond), the owner of the little shop. As the day crawls by she stalks around her store looking for mosquitoes to kill. A devout Christian, she is constantly justifying her actions in the name of the Lord and annoys many of the other women with her Gospel and country music on the radio. Then, there is Sissy. She is the local sexpot who flaunts her figure and delights in aggravating Juanita with her language and lifestyle. She is effortlessly played by Cher in one of her best movie roles. Indeed, it was her performance in this film that earned her respect from movie-going audiences and critics for the first time. Then comes Stella Mae played by the great Kathy Bates who married a rich petroleum executive and now lives the good life. There are other players as well, but they do not hold a candle to Mona and Joanne.

Mona (Sandy Dennis) is the leader of the Disciples of James Dean. This is probably because she was the member of the group who was chosen to be the extra in Giant. Well, it's not only that. It's also because she believes that she slept with James Dean and bore his child nine months later. She named him Jimmy Dean. He became a tourist attraction to fans who were grief-stricken at the passing of their idol. In fact, nearly 3,000 people came to see little Jimmy Dean for the first week after he was born. It literally put their little town on the map. However, as he grew older, it became apparent that he was mentally retarded. Feeling great shame, Mona had him cooped up away from people. Despite this, she viciously defends the idea that her son is James Dean's son and takes great pride in it. 'He chose me, from everybody else, to bring his child into this world,' she says in an almost trance-like state. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that she has a tenuous grip on reality. Her son (well, James Dean's son) is the only thing keeping her from descending into a crazed state of mania. But this is all challenged when Joeanne shows up.

In an Oscar-worthy performance, Karen Black plays a character named Joeanne. I say character, because this person was not always known as Joeanne. In fact, Joeanne was originally a boy named Joe who had a sex change. Twenty years ago he did a routine with Sissy and Mona where they imitated the McGuire Sisters. He was then publically assaulted for dressing up like a girl. Even though there were many bystanders, nobody helped him. Nobody recognizes her at first. When they do, there is a mixture of shock and adulation. Juanita confronts her and says, 'You're just one of them perverts, that's what you are!' Joanne coolly responds, 'Well, that's what you always thought I was, Juanita.' She explains that she got the sex change with money that she received when her mother died. Before the operation, she loved Mona, but she rejected him because she promised to love only James Dean. How ironic considering that Joeanna was Jimmy Dean's real father........

As I mentioned before, the entire movie takes place in a single room: the diner. Try as I might, I couldn't think of a better way to describe the set than how Roger Ebert did in his 1982 review:

[Altman] works just as closely with David Gropman's extraordinary stage set, on which the movie was shot. Gropman has actually created two dime stores, one a mirror-image of the other. They're separated by a two-way mirror, so that at times we're looking at the reflection of the "front" store, and at other times, the glass is transparent and we see the second store. Altman uses the front as the present and the back as the past, and there are times when a foreground image will dissolve into a background flashback. In an age of sophisticated optical effects, this sort of dissolve looks routine until you learn that Altman isn't using opticals, he's actually shooting through the two-way mirror. His visual effects sometimes require fancy offscreen footwork for his actors to be in two places during the same shot.

It's only appropriate that the flashbacks are in the mirror. In these small town cafe mirrors, people watch themselves transform from children to seniors. Their whole lives could be observed over cheeseburgers and orange crushes. In the flashbacks, we learn that the diner has barely changed in twenty years. It is an altar to dime-store Americana and has its walls plastered with photos of James Dean. It projects this rustic, dirty look that was championed in Hollywood New Wave films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). This is due in large part to Altman's choice to photograph the entire movie in 16 millimeters. In post-production it was enlarged to 35 millimeters. The resulting effect makes the movie seem like it was filmed with a special lens that gives everything a small layer of sepia coloring.

All of this was done on a meager $800,000 budget. This just proves that all Altman needed to create a great film was great actors. Every single one of them gives power house performances. Maybe this has to do with the fact that Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was originally a play on Broadway. Cher, Black, and Sandy were actually cast members from the original stage play. During their time on the stage, they honed their characters and performances until they were pitch perfect. They all seem so alive, so incredibly real that we find ourselves becoming attached to them as the movie goes on. Therefore, it breaks our hearts when they leave the reunion shattered from the night's events. We can only hope that their next meeting in another twenty years will be better. I only wish that Altman could have been their with his camera to film the Disciples of James Dean reunite for one last time. But we are given one last shot in the movie of the five and dime twenty years in the future: It is decayed and abandoned. All that remains are the streamers from the last meeting all bunched up in the corner.

Editor's Note: I couldn't find any more pictures from the movie. All of the other available pictures were from different theatrical adaptations.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

近松物語 (The Crucified Lovers)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

I have never seen Madam with such an air of happiness! Mohei as well, his expression so alive and beaming...It's hard to imagine they are on their way to the scaffold...

One morning in Kyoto during the early Edo period, a somber procession makes it way down the main streets. People crowd into streetsides, doors, and windows to grab a peek at the main attraction of the parade. They watch as a horse walks by with two people, a man and a woman, tied back-to-back on top. They have been found guilty of adultery. Their punishment is crucifixion, for adultery is a capital offense under the Tokugawa shoguns. But first, they must be revealed to the public and shamed before they are executed. And so the stream of people continues until it exits the town and arrives at the execution grounds. One of the many people watching this display is a rich scroll-maker named Ishun. 'How dreadful women are,' Ishun mutters when a pair of condemned are paraded down the street. He shakes his head and continues, 'If a samurai does not punish the adulterer himself, he loses his rank and title.' The woman accompanying him says 'Better to die by the hand of one's husband than to perish so shamefully!' But she has been ignored. Ishun has already moved on and left her behind. This callous act sets the stage for one of Kenji Mizoguchi's last films, 近松物語 , which literally translates to A Story From Chikamatsu. But it's Western title, The Crucified Lovers, seems more appropriate considering it beings with two lovers being crucified and it ends the same way. What we as an audience will witness between these two events is a story of tragic love and harsh social injustice.

It all starts with a misunderstanding. Ishun's wife, Osan, is frmo an impoverished family. One day, her brother asks her for a loan for a payment on their ancestral home's interest. Ishun is notorious for being stingy. So, Osan asks one of his top assistants, Mohei, for help. Little does she know, Mohei is in love with her. So, he decides to take a serious risk and forges a receipt for the money that her brother needs. But unfortunately, he is caught. In a terrifying shot, we see the outside of Ishun's office, we hear Mohei apologizing, and then we see him getting thrown out by Ishun. When he lands, he quickly prostrates himself in front of him and begs for forgiveness. Osan is about to leap to his defense when suddenly a maid named O-Tama yells out that it was her fault. She claims that she had asked for the money. In reality, O-Tama is madly in love with Mohei. All she wanted to do was protect him. But this was a bad choice on her part. Ishun has tried on several occasions to seduce her, including one early scene where he goes into her room, starts to stroke her arm underneath her kimono, and says, 'I can come in here and do what I want when I want to.' Enraged at the thought that O-Tama loves Mohei, he has Ishun imprisoned in his attic.

Here, the plot begins to get complicated, but I will try to summarize it as succinctly as possible. In what seems like a scene out of a French farce, there is an unfortunate bed-swapping. When Osan goes to thank O-Tama for her help, she discovers that her husband has been cheating. So, in an attempt to catch him in the act, she sleeps in O-Tama's bed. However, Mohei escapes from the attic and goes to O-Tama's room where he hopes to thank her before he tries to escape to avoid being handed over to the authorities. However, he discovers Osan in O-Tama's bed. At that exact moment, the shop clerk walks in and sees the two together. The alarm is raised and general havoc ensues. In the commotion, Mohei manages to get away. However, Osan is forced to face her husband's wrath. He gives her a dagger and tells her to do what a person of her status should do. However, instead of killing herself, she flees. As chance should have it, she runs into Mohei again. The two go on the run to Osaka. They come to realize their love for one another and swear to never be apart again. However, the authorities are looking for them, and there is nowhere to hide........

It is difficult to give a good description of this movie's plot while doing it justice. It is no easier than if somebody told you to give a detailed summary of all five acts of Shakespeare's Hamlet in one paragraph. But that seems appropriate considering that it is based on the play Daikyoji sekireki by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, who is called the Japanese Shakespeare. It is a deep, complicated plot that examines a wide array of human emotions. However, we find ourselves caught up in the social implications and the flagrant hypocrisies of the antagonist Ishun. For that, we have to thank the veteran director, Kenji Mizoguchi. No stranger to social issues (particularly ones pertaining to women's rights) Mizoguchi has established a long line of truly insidious and cruel male antagonists who use women to their disposal. One of the most memorable is Mr. Asai from Osaka Elegy (1936) who forces his daughter into prostitution because 'it's his right to use his daughter as he sees fit' and then throws her out of his house when she is arrested and brings shame to his family. Just like Ishun, Mr. Asai sees women as commodities or vassals of pleasure designed only to serve men. When they become inconvenient or troublesome, they simply get rid of them. But why do these antagonists keep showing up in Mizoguchi's movies?

The main reason would probably be that Mizoguchi had a real life experience that changed his perspective on women's rights. His father was a cruel man who made life for his mother and sister miserable. When Mizoguchi was still young, he sold his older sister as a geisha. This trauma of seeing his sister forced into the human meat market transformed Mizoguchi and made him one of cinema's first feminist filmmakers. One can only imagine how many times he seen the face of his father in his villains and the face of his sister in his heroes. Despite his demons, he went on to become one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of all time. In fact, he is referred to as one of the three godfathers of Japanese cinema, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. The three formed a kind of trinity that has inspired and amazed filmmakers and moviegoers for generations. If one were to assign them roles (at least in a Christian sense) it would probably go as such:

Ozu is God the Father. His movies explore the inner workings of families and personal relationships in a penetrating manner that many filmmakers have imitated, but never successfully replicated.

Kurosawa is God the Son. His movies always seemed to try and discover a redeemable side to human life. Even in his darker films, he focused on strong, charismatic characters who at least tried to do right. In his later life, his films took on a darker tone, as if he was trying to atone for the sins of his characters.

Mizoguchi is God the Holy Spirit. More than any other director of his era, he was never afraid to explore the dark side of society and witness the suffering of its outcasts. Many of his movies feel like we are witnessing them as if we were some kind of omnipresent deity who sees everything and everybody who suffers. He has been declared a master of the long take and mise-en-scene. One of his greatest trade marks was his 'scroll shots' where he would pan over a scene from left-to-right or right-to-left and observe the action as if we were looking at a living Japanese paint scroll. One great example of this technique is used early on in the film when Ishun enters his workshop looking for Mohei. We get three consecutive shots: one of him entering the shop, one entering the courtyard, and one into his room. Each one starts with him entering the screen from the right and exiting the frame on the left. The three shots sweep across the set, following Ishun as he crosses the set.

Despite all of his amazing talent, for a long time, Mizoguchi was ignored by audiences overseas. Along with his contemporary Ozu, his films were considered too Japanese for Western audiences. However, all this began to change in the 1950s when his work began to get recognized in European Film Festivals. The Crucified Lovers was actually nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. His later movies like Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) received tremendous accolades and finally established Mizoguchi as one of the world's greatest filmmakers. Unfortunately, many of his films are lost or unavailable in the West. So movies like The Crucified Lovers seem doomed to fade away into obscurity. If there is any justice in the world, his movies would be saved and distributed to a wider audience. Go figure. Most of his films deal with injustice in one way or another. Sometimes, they end happily, but most of them end on a sad note. And indeed, The Crucified Lovers ends on a tragic note. Osan and Mohei are being paraded down a street on the way to the executioner's plot where they will be crucified for their adultery. But they seem happy. They hold hands and make defiant faces at the crowds. Even the onlookers admit that they have never seen them that happy. Maybe that is what life is about: those few, fleeting moments where we can find some form of happiness, regardless of what society wants for us. Mizoguchi worked for decades only to be acknowledged for his work in his twilight years. Osan and Mohei loved for only a few days. But those days were enough to see them heading towards their deaths with their hands intertwined and their hearts singing. May we all be so lucky...