Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review - Blind Husbands

 July 31, 2021
 
Blind Husbands – US, 1919
 

It is said that upon its release, Erich von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands was an instant success and that the film announced to the world the arrival of a new and innovative director, one who was not afraid to tackle tough issues. Fast forward 102 years, and the question becomes how we should best evaluate the film. Should we, for example, try to look at it through the eyes of an audience member from 1919 and reflect upon what were then bold themes and creative camera techniques? Or do we look at the film through contemporary eyes and assess it based simply on its content? If, as Roger Ebert wrote, a film should feel brand new each time we see it, how should we assess a movie that we know was important historically, but which feels more than a little too dated in its understanding of the human psyche and is much less audacious than the films that proceeded it?
 
Blind Husbands is the story of Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) and his wife, Margaret (Francelia Billington). They have been married long enough for the spark that initially brought them together to need a lot of effort to remain burning, and in the film’s prelude, we are asked whether an inattentive husband deserves as much of the blame when his wife strays as the outside who came between them. This notion is further enforced in the film’s opening scene. Set in a carriage, the scene presents us two contrasting couples. The doctor and his wife are one; the other is a younger couple whose hands and eyes are constantly locked and whose lips curl into joyous smiles at just the sight of the other. The doctor and his wife have long passed that stage. Well, one of them has anyway. The doctor’s eyes are buried in a book, while his young wife appears lost and lonely. Sure, her arm is in his, but that seems more indicative of her continued efforts rather than his. A question she asks him is answered by someone else. Sitting on in the opposite side of the coach is Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben (von Stroheim), whose keen eyes notice the distance that exists between the doctor and his wife. Perhaps more tellingly, they also notice the wife’s legs.
 
Just prior to this, we have witnessed something that until the introduction of the lieutenant has not made a lot of sense. A rugged mountain guide referred to as “Silent” Sepp (Gibson Gowland) has received a letter, the contents of which have produced a look of indignation. For the rest of the first half of the film, Sepp acts as a kind of restrained chaperone, always around to observe the movements of the lieutenant and inferring that what looks genuinely innocent – such as bringing Margaret a blanket - is, in actuality, anything but. The character is interesting, and moments in which he throws mental darts in the direction of the lieutenant let us know exactly how we should interpret his acts of “kindness.” The problem is that we’ve known not to trust him since he ogled Margaret in the coach.
 
Blind Husbands was revolutionary in its time. Here was a movie that acknowledged that a woman could be dissatisfied with her marriage and, even more shocking, that that displeasure could lead her to consider infidelity. But does Margaret every really contemplate that? Von Stroheim shows us Margaret reflecting on the changes that have taken place since she got married, but we never actually see mental images in which her husband has been replaced by the lieutenant. In fact, all we’ve seen from Margaret is a desire to get away from the lieutenant, and the sentiments she expresses when the lieutenant is in her room can hardly be said to have been expressed under the most romantic of circumstances.
 
So, in other words, I never thought Margaret was truly interested in the other man, and without that buy-in, you don’t really have any suspense. Perhaps as a result, the film’s final act is to add jealousy and homicidal impulses into the mix because apparently a lecherous flirt always has to be capable of murder and a man drawn into the service of others must always end up being a slave to his own foolish emotions. It would have been more realistic to present the lieutenant as a coward and the doctor as a man whose passion has been eclipsed by overconfidence. Alas. Exactly where, I can hear studio executives saying, is the drama is that?  And they’re right. Audience in 1919 flocked to the film, and if box office results are any indication of satisfaction, they liked what they saw.
 
Nonetheless, there’s no getting over the tameness of the film. This is a film what wants you to imply interest on the part of the wife when there are no real signs to infer it from. It wants to you to assume the worst of the lieutenant, but refuses to show him doing anything that would help explain why he is suddenly overrun by murderous impulses at the end, and it wants you to believe that a man as decent as the doctor could be completely undone, both emotionally and mentally, by the words of someone he only met a few days earlier. I just didn’t buy it, but then again, I’m looking at the film from contemporary eyes. (on DVD from Kino)
 
2 and a half stars

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Miscellaneous Musings

July 25, 2021
 
On Something That Is Hardly New and Rather Natural
 

On April 12, 1922, a jury, after just five minutes of deliberation, returned a not-guilty verdict in the case charging comedian Fatty Arbuckle with the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. During four of those minutes, the jury produced a note proclaiming the following:
Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him … there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime. He was manly throughout the case and told a straightforward story which we all believe. We wish him success and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame. Not everyone shared these generous sentiments.
 
Much has been written about the Arbuckle case in the years that followed, much of it favorable to Arbuckle and, more recently, some seeking to restore Rappe’s good name. This article is not about which side should win that debate. Rather, it is to point out the historical trait of “cancellation,” as it is commonly called today. Arbuckle was cancelled, first by an industry whose executives no longer had confidence in his ability to attract an audience, and second, by the public, none of whom took to the streets demanding that Arbuckle be allowed to return to the silver screen. For right or wrong, they simply moved on.
 
Throughout history, this has happened numerous times. People have risen to become presidents and world leaders only later to be reduced to footnotes in history. Rulers have been revolutionaries in their lifetimes, but tyrants after their deaths. Singers and music groups have sold millions of albums at the height of their careers, and then reduced to one-hit wonders in the next. Professional athletes have been touted as role models to fathers, yet villains to their sons, while once incredibly influential books have become regarded as problematic.
 
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is the way it should be. Every generation decides who it wants to hold up as a hero and role model, just as every generation decides who it doesn’t want to praise or support. Earlier generations saw nothing wrong with naming high schools after Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson. Their upbringing had taught them to see these men in a positive light. Later generations, however, saw history differently and openly questioned whether these were indeed honorable people. Similarly, moviegoers during the silent and early sound years thought it natural to cast Caucasian actors in non-White roles and even awarded some of them with Academy Awards for their work; later generations have been appalled by the sight of these actors in Yellowface or artificially darkened skin and openly debated whether the offending movies should continue to be watched.
 
This constant re-evaluation is part of the normal evolutionary process. As we have grown over successive centuries, we have strived to improve, to be more decent to each other, and to leave the world a better place than it was when we inherited it. We sought freedom, religious rights, and educational opportunities even as we sometimes denied those things to every resident. We told our children stories about heroes and villains while elevating some rather imperfect people to the status of icons. And we gifted talented entertainers both money and fame in exchange for making our lives just a little bit more enjoyable without ever inquiring as to their moral character. It is the right of successive generations to correct these wrongs.
 
So statues and flags fall, sports teams change their names, once beloved TV actors become pariahs, and movies become harder to see. The saintly become less so, the wicked perhaps more sympathetic. A word takes on a new connotation, which another is reclaimed. In some cases, a person’s whole record becomes more important than an individual act, just as a single act of another person is deemed to be so egregious as to wipe out all of that person’s positive deeds. It is all part of the natural flow of time, reflecting the ever-changing landscape of the human conscience.
 
Cancel culture is, thus, nothing new. It is evidence of a genetic manifest destiny, an inherent drive to create that elusive Utopian state. It is a process that is ultimately destined to yield disappointment, as there is no agreement as what constitutes paradise. Therefore, the process can be both painful and liberating, and there will inevitably be injustices along the way. However, as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. One generation’s pain can be another’s pleasure. Just look at Fatty Arbuckle. Enter his name on Amazon, and 74 entries come up. It seems he’s been un-cancelled.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Review - Mephisto

 July 3, 2021
 
Mephisto – Hungary, 1981
 

There must be something addictive about the arts. How else can you explain the arts’ ability to make the sane irrational and the struggling obstinate? Of course, these same qualities can be viewed romantically, as implications of one’s dedication to and pure love of a craft. Sleeping in your car is thus a sign of an actors’ commitment. Living with five people in a one-bedroom shack becomes just the first act in a rags-to-riches story. Just how, though, can you explain the actions of such celebrated figures as Emil Jannings, Sessue Hayakawa, G.W. Pabst, and Elia Kazan, people who used their art as a justification for either turning a blind eye to or actively engaging in propagandist actions?  Did they fully embrace the policies of the dictators and governments their work aided, or were they simply unable to conceive of a life without the stage and the applause of the audience?
 
Istvan Szabo’s 1981 film Mephisto is about one such man. It tells the tale of a struggling actor named Hendrik Hoefgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, here giving an absolutely amazing performance) who fancies himself as one of theater’s undiscovered treasures. He is a believer in Cultural Bolshevism, which he interprets to mean bringing art to the masses. In one scene, he envisions using every inch of the theater during a performance; this, he explains, will make the theatrical experience more inclusive. He also wants to use the stage to the explore the struggles of average people and to confront politics head on, views that were not generally shared by the National Socialist Party that would come to power just a few years later.
 
Mephisto unfolds in three parts. In the first, Hoefgen is a pugnacious actor, frustrated by others’ inability to recognize his talent and the public’s rejection of serious theater. In the second, he leaves the company that he’s made a name for himself with for the prestige of working on the Berlin stage. There, despite signing a contract that pays him less money and offers him no say as to the roles he’ll play, he is soon playing to packed house and earning thunderous ovations, partly due to his portrayal of the Devil’s agent Mepistopheles in Faust. The final act details the choices he makes after the election of Adolph Hitler and the rise of the National Socialist Party, about whom Hoefgen remarks, “I don’t have a lot of friends among them.”
 
Of these three parts, the first feels the most rushed. Other than Hoefgen, few of the characters are fully fleshed out. This includes a director who recognizes Hoefgen’s talent, a fellow actor with whom he is staging a “Bolshevist” play, and his first wife, Barbara (Krystyna Janda), who has a better understanding of where Germany is heading that Hoefgen. A fellow actor with National Socialist affiliations is equally undeveloped, so much so that when he reappears later in the film, it took a moment for me to remember his relevance. Plays begin and end at dizzying speeds, and before we know it, Hoefgen is, if not renowned, gaining in fame.
 
Fortunately, the film slows down when Hoefgen arrives in Germany, even as the women in his life remain afterthoughts to both he and the film’s screen writers, Peter Dobai and Szabo. It is then that Hoefgen begins to slowly lose his moral grounding. Early in the film, we see him stand up for the Jewish owner of a restaurant he and his friends frequent; later, he witnesses thugs beating up a Jewish man and merely looks away. He hears of writers being banned and directors being arrested and doesn’t know how to respond. When asked to participate in a protest performance, he replies, “I’d rather stay out of this now.” On a film shoot abroad, he is encouraged to flee. He doesn’t. Offered another opportunity during a trip to France, he simply says, “What could I do here?” See, there he’s a star.
 
Interestingly, Hoefgen is never a sympathetic character. We first see him staring at himself in the mirror screaming, apparently because he’s not on stage. Soon we see him dancing rather joyfully with his girlfriend, Juliette (Karin Boyd), yet their happiness devolves into a messy encounter, made all the more awkward by Hoefgen’s recitation of a Shylock-inspired monologue as foreplay and the pair’s constant hurling of insults (i.e. “You are but a comical bit of misery.”) at each other. Their subsequent attempts at wild passion are a dismal failure. In fact, throughout the film, Hoefgen never meets a woman he doesn’t then cheat on, and his relationships with his fellow actors are equally strained. He’s the kind of person you’d probably enjoy working with, but conveniently forget to invite to a cast party after a performance.
 
Indeed, Hoefgen is Faust, a man who sells his soul in pursuit of fame and opportunity. His Mephisto is the German General (played exceptionally by Rolf Hoppe) who after taking a liking to Hoefgen’s performance, decides to use him in his crusade to rid Germany of Cultural Bolshevism and sell the Nazi Party to the public. It’s quite a turnaround, one made complete in late scene in which Hoefgen publicly states to the general, “we love you as a master.” We can easily envision him later starring in the kinds of anti-Semitic productions that Jannings made. All in the name of doing what you love. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)
 
3 and a half stars
 
*Mephisto is in German with English subtitles.
*The film was awarded Best Foreign Language Film of 1981.
 
*In reviewing Mephisto, Roger Ebert described Brandauer’s work in the film as “one of the greatest movie performances I’ve ever seen,” and I see no reason to disagree.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Review - Bell Boy 13

 June 26, 2021
 
Bell Boy 13 – US, 1922
 

There’s an old saying regarding the impact of familiarity that must be tempered from time to time, for while it would be great if every movie were a complete original, the truth is that audiences often prefer what is recognizable. It is no wonder then that some of the earliest movies were adaptations of popular novels and why early physical comedy was sometimes little more than one person hitting and another falling down. After all, when you cannot rely on words to move the narrative forward, perhaps it helps to be able to identify the structure early on.
 
One of the most archetypical narrative tropes to develop during the silent era involved a lazy wealthy young man and the sweet young lady who refuses to marry him unless he proves himself worthy. It was a variation of the duck-out-of-water theme, and it presented its protagonist with a number of comic opportunities, many of which relied on the notion that those born wealthy were out of touch with common people. In 1920, it was Buster Keaton who stepped into this role in his first feature length film The Saphead; two years later, it was Douglas MacLean in William A. Seiter’s Bell Boy 13.
 
Like most early slapstick comedies, the narrative of Bell Boy 13 is less important than the gags employed to get its characters from Point A to Point B. In fact, we know how the film will end after just a few minutes. In that small amount of time, we meet Harry Elrod (MacLean), the pampered rich kid, Kitty Clyde (Margaret Loomis), the actress he intends to marry, and Elrey Elrod (John Steppling) the uncle standing in their way. It doesn’t take a genius to know: a) that the uncle will oppose their marriage in the beginning and b) that the young lovers will be together in the end. The only question is how Harry changes his uncle’s mind.
 
The film is divided up into four parts, each one featuring a particular comic scenario. The first two involve Harry trying to elude his uncle so that he can elope with Kitty. The first is a variation of the standard “go out, see someone, go back in” gag, and it’s interesting how well these scenes work in spite of their predictability. The second revolves around Harry’s attempts to go through an open door and the many obstacles, one of which is a terrible singer, standing in his way. For the third one, Harry dons a uniform and attempts to make an honest living; he caps off the film by instigating a walk out that ends up only benefitting him.
 
The movies doesn’t give its supporting cast that much to do. As Kitty, Loomis is asked to be sweet and innocent, which she does well enough. Only during a scene in which someone enters her room at a most importune time does she really have a chance to shine. Steppling is given a bit more to do, and I admired the way he contorted his face and used his body to show anger and moral judgment. The actor playing the character who gets Harry a job fares best of all primarily because he is interacting with MacLean. A scene in which his character engages in an elbowing match is quite humorous, and an earlier exchange about employment opportunities allows him to show just how decent he is. (He was uncredited, so I could not find his name. Believe me, I tried.)
 
Of course, Bell Boy 13 is MacLean’s film, and he is truly a delight to behold. Here, he’s essentially playing a spoiled child in a man’s body, and he fully embodies the two personalities. In his scenes with Kitty, he is sweet and smiley, but never fully mature. With his uncle, he is both cowardly and innovative, showing that while his nerves may falter, his mind is active and quick. When he’s working, MacLean adopts the demeanor of both a child playing a game and an adult experiencing an aspect of life for the first time. He was truly a master of facial expressions.
 
The film’s final act is slightly disappointing due to the insertion of a character that screen writers Violet Clark and Austin Gill clearly had no plan for. The character is introduced early in the film and gives the impression of being a thief in pursuit of an envelope containing $25,000. By the end of the film, I was unsure exactly what his motivations were, for if he is who he is revealed to be, his continued presence in the film defies logic.
 
I’m reminded of Baz Luhrman’s belief that the audience should be told the ending of a film very early on, reasoning that when you know how it ends, you’ll relax and enjoy the journey getting there. Perhaps this is how we should see films like Bell Boy 13. Having seen so many films in my lifetime, ones made both before and after this one, it is hard to find one with a completely unique storyline. Maybe the best way to judge some films is to look at how well its individual pieces worked, rather than how creative the overall narrative is. Seen from this perspective, Bell Boy 13 is a success. Its first act is clever, its second a riot, and its third a lot of fun. The fourth is not on the same level as the three that precede it, but watching MacLean end a strike by proclaiming that he had received everything he wanted more than made up for it. MacLean was indeed a cinematic treasure, and it grieves me that One a Minute and Bell Boy 13 are all that remain of what must have been a stellar body of work. (on DVD as part of Undercrank Productions’s The Douglas MacLean Collection)
 
3 and a half stars
 
*Bell Boy 13 is a silent film.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Review - Red Sun

 
June 19, 2021
 
Red Sun – U.S., 1971
 
Quick: Which movie am I describing? A rather pleasant, almost gentlemanly bandit and his gang of much less chiseled henchmen have just held up a passenger train when the leader of the gang comes across a group of Asian men on a mission. One of these men ends up dead at the hands of bandit’s cohort, prompting another to vow vengeance. The nice bandit is soon betrayed, and eventually he and one of the Asian men team up to find the man who wronged them. They are unwilling partners at first, but eventually they form a formidable – sometimes comic - team. Now, if you are of a particular age, namely under 50, the aforementioned description might make you recall the fun pairing of Jackie Chan and Own Wilson in the 2000 film Shanghai Noon; however, for older viewers, another film may come to mind – Terence Young’s 1972 Western Red Sun.
 
The difference between these two associations illustrates one of the challenges that order can present for moviegoers, mainly that our perception of one cinematic experience will always be influenced by what we have already seen, even if we acknowledge we did not see them in true chronological order. Just imagine seeing Play It Again, Sam before watching Casablanca or Hot Shots before Top Gun. Without the proper context, the viewing experience would certainly be diminished. It would be like getting the punchline before the set-up.
 
Right now, my mind is being inundated by phrases such as stepping into the Owen Wilson role and remarks about how much the film holds its own, neither of which are appropriate, given that Wilson stepped into Charles Bronson’s role and Shanghai Noon is a parody of Red Sun, and not the other way around. And then there’s the impulse to compare, or even worse, speak of variations between the two narratives as being indicative of quality and preference. However, to deny the presence of Shanghai Noon in my consciousness would be a deception. It was there, and yes, I did my fair share of comparing.
 
Red Sun begins with one of those beautiful Western images of a man emerging from a misty desert plain. It’s the kind of sight than never gets old; the only question is just what kind of person has emerged. This is soon answered by the man’s simple act of releasing his horse back into the wild. Soon he’s announcing to the good people on a train his intention to rob them, and wouldn’t you know it, he makes the experience sound downright romantic.  
 
After robbing the requisite safe containing a fortune, the sweet, comical ruffian, inexplicably named Link and played by Charles Bronson, stumble upon a car which is occupied by the first Japanese ambassador to the United States, and while Link is content with the occupants’ money, his partner Gauche (Alain Delon) insists on taking a jewel-encrusted sword intended as a gift for the U.S. President. The ensuing resistance results in one Samurai being shot dead and another, Toshiro Mifune in one of his few English-speaking roles, vowing both to retrieve the sword and avenge his fallen comrade. Oh, and Gauche makes a further enemy by trying to blow up Link and absconding with all the loot. Hence, the eventual team-up.
 
What follows is a rather fun adventure featuring two great performances. In truth, Link and Mifune’s character, Kuroda, makes a rather odd couple. Link is calm and smooth-talking, while Kuroda probably couldn’t tell a joke if his life depended on it. The first half of the film is primarily devoted to establishing their characters’ respect for the other, an endeavor that it has more success with than many other films of this sort. There are no heartfelt conversations or scenes in which one of them teaches the other an important phrase in his language. Rather, the bond comes as a result of a growing respect for the man each one is. Neither compromises, and while Link eventually gets the upper hand, he shows no great pleasure in doing so.
 
Their journey takes them across Texas to a bordello where Gauche’s lady-friend, Cristina (Ursula Andress), works. To give you a sense of this character’s personality, let me give you a sample of her sentiments. Early on, she says to Link, You know what I like about you? The older you get, the sweeter you get. However, before you get the wrong impression, I should add that she delivers those sentiments in the same tone as the one she uses when she calls him “a lousy broken down gunfighter.” It’s quite fun to watch, and Andress shows great comic timing.
 
Eventually, Gauche and his men come for Cristina, an act that would normally lead to a great confrontation replete with bullets flying and one-on-one clashes. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. Sure, we get the climactic clash, but it involves a third party, and it is here that the film feels dated. The attackers are nameless Comanche Indians whose only purpose for being in the film is to look bloodthirsty and lustful. More to the point, they disrupt a perfectly reasonable scene. You have the good guys squaring off against the bad guys; the viewer’s mind is scrambling with anticipation: How will our heroes get out of this? Will Cristina betray Gauche? Will we finally get to see what happens when Samurai sword meets gun? And then: “Comanche!” Thankfully, the film recovers, and its ending is quite touching.
 
Throughout the film, Bronson and Mifune are a marvel to behold, and their characters’ bonding feels natural and earned. If the film feels disjointed at time, it is because it never fully commits to its more dramatic elements, preferring instead an unnatural rhythm that I’d describe as joke, joke, drama. Cristina and Link fluctuate between comedy and seriousness, which seems appropriate, but Gauche never comes across as being as ruthless as he should until the very end. Mifune is masterful as usual, and the film benefits by allowing his character to maintain his rather serious demeanor throughout. However, it also allows him a few moments of unexpected tenderness. I won’t spoil the scene, but it involves a young woman who recognizes in Mifune a kinship and expresses it in the only way she knows how. It is a special moment in a mostly likeable film. (on DVD from Warner Bros. Archive Collection)
 
3 stars

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review - Tragedy of Japan

June 12, 2021

Tragedy of Japan (a.k.a. A Japanese Tragedy) – Japan, 1953


What remains when the bombs stop falling and the dust settles? On a surface level, this question seems easy to answer. We can count buildings and see with our own two eyes the companies still operating, albeit at much less capacity. We can observe the buses and trolleys, the restaurants whose kitchens still churn out delightful meals, and the government buildings still able to dispense aid and operate essential services. Perhaps, a better question, would be what has been lost. To really unravel this, we must look past the rubble and the before-and-after shots of devastated cities. We must even look beyond numbers, past casualty counts, and dollars and cents. Instead, we must put society under a microscope, for it is only when we witness the voids and chasms that now exist that we can truly begin to assess the costs of war on culture and society.

Keisuke Kinoshita’s Tragedy of Japan offers such a view of Japan in 1953. It begins with a startling overview of the country post-World War II – first the war crime trials and scenes of the emperor being greeted by enthusiastic crowds during an ill-conceived tour intended to humanize the former leader, and then, eight years later, protest-filled streets, harsh police tactics, a thriving black market, a dearth of political ingenuity, and a spike in crime and murder. This represents Kinoshita’s view of Japan on a macro-level. To get a personal view, he then zeros in on Haruko (impressively played by Yuko Mochizuku), a single mother supporting two young adults. The son, Seicchi (Masumi Taura), is a university student; the daughter, Utaka (Yoko Katsuragi), is learning sewing and English. The mother works at a hostess at a local inn.

Had there not been a war, their story would likely have gone something like this: The children are raised in a two-parent household; they adore their parents and see them as sources of wisdom; they focus on their studies, believing that better days await those who study hard and play by the rules; marriages - most likely arranged ones - and children follow; and the final shot is one of proud parents, content in the knowledge that their efforts have paid off. The status quo would have remained; their culture reinforced. It is an alternative that the characters in Tragedy of Japan seem acutely aware of; some even speak of it the way one would of the great love that got away, that mythical character whose sudden emergence in your mind often reflects extreme dissatisfaction and an overwhelming sense of regret.

Kinoshita gives us snippets of this view throughout the film. A number of women speak of their husbands as if they were scraps the war forced on them. In their minds, their counterfactual husbands would have been confident, ambitious men capable of really bringing home the bacon instead of emotionally scarred men too timid to reach for the stars. To be fair, the sentiments of their husbands are rather similar, making Japan seem like a country full of mismatched couples intent of making the other aware of their rather massive discontent. And then there are the children. We meet the child of an English teacher to readily admits to being ashamed of her father, a son who values alcohol over a well-fed family, and a young man who attacks a motherly co-worker for having the gull to tell him he was being used by his unscrupulous love interest. If true love is indeed present, it is in hibernation, no match for the lust with which society seems to be chasing its latest paramour, money.

In the beginning of the film, Seiichi returns home with news for his mother. In flashbacks, we see the family struggling in the bombed-out remains of what could be their home, finding food where they can and living day to day. These are actually the good ol’ days – at least they’re together. Back in the present, Saiichi informs his mother that he wishes to be adopted by an older wealthy couple who lost their only son in the war. He knows what this means for his mother; he just doesn’t care. Later, Haruko, alarmed by her son’s request, ask him to take her home, a request Seiichi rejects. As for Utaka, she appears to have developed an interest in her married English teacher, even as her mother pursues an arranged marriage for her, a pursuit that is met with persistent disinterest.

And the reason is horribly simple. War has broken the nation’s collective spirit. What united them, now divides them. Traditionalism is on the out, replaced by a desperate dash for individual destinies that mask a disgust for the past and a severe lack of empathy. Family members take advantage of relatives in need, and moral decisions made in desperation are used against people, even when the alternative was almost certainly starvation and death. There, but for the grace of God, go I has been replaced by If it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t have to happen to you. At one point, Haruko explains, “If a mother knows her children love her, she can go on living.” It is fitting then that Kinoshita ends the film with two characters proclaiming her to have been a good woman, and neither of them is related to her.

Tragedy of Japan is aptly titled, for what Kinoshita shows us is heartbreaking both on the macro and micro level. I admired how he was able to use Haruko’s story as a microcosm for society, and it is clear that he has sympathy for women whose only means of survival was to embrace sin. He saw clearly that what people do on the outside does not always reflect who they are on the inside. Yet he also knew that there are consequences to even the most well-meaning of actions. He saw the chain: War brings about devastation; devastation causes economic ruin; economic ruin begets tough decisions. And tough decisions do not always lead to admiration and understanding. His film is a cry for help. (on DVD in Region 3)

4 stars

*Tragedy of Japan is in Japanese and English with English subtitles. Alas, the subtitles are haphazardly constructed, with lines of dialogue frequently appearing on screen at the inappropriate time. Sometimes the dialogue disappears before you have had a chance to read it; occasionally it stays on the screen long after it has been said. Suffice to say, this is a film that demands a better release.

*Tragedy of Japan was voted the sixth best film of 1953 by Kinema Junpo Magazine.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Review - Dodsworth

May 29, 2021
 
Dodsworth – U.S., 1936
 

William Wyler’s Dodsworth has a moment of absolutely beautiful resolution, and if the movie gods had had their way, it would have been the film’s final impression, a poignant reminder of one of life’s bitter truths about “normalcy” and its vastly different effect of men and women. The problem – for Warner Bros. most likely – is that it’s a downer, and so, instead of cutting to the ending credits, there’s a fade in and the narrative continues in search of happier circumstances regardless of the inconsistencies and sheer coincidences that have to occur for those merrier trails to emerge. Had these impulses been suppressed and audience trusted not to revolt at the notion that not every hero and heroine rides into the sunset, Dodsworth would have been a masterpiece. As it is, it’s damaged goods.
 
The film’s central characters are Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) and his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton). In the opening scene, we see Sam standing at a massive window that overlooks the automobile plant that he has run for the past twenty years. The camera then pans to a newspaper, the headline of which announces the sale of the plant. As he walks to his car for the last time, some of the men he employed stop to shake his hand, thank him, and wish him well. And then he is off. The factory continues to churn behind him, but in a moment of poetic foreshadowing, Sam does not look back. He is simply not that kind of man.
 
So, what’s next for Sam? Why, travel, of course, that hobby that so many people put off due to insufficient finances, commitment to their jobs, and the overwhelming responsibilities of child-rearing. Their destination is Europe, and the plan is to spend six months country-hopping. Thus, you’d expect them both to be excited and jovial, yet the night before their departure, there’s a telling exchange. Sam speaks about the opportunity his company and its success has provided them; in her response, Fran hints at an entirely different consequence – long days spent either alone or raising their daughter, evenings spent entertaining her husband’s co-workers and industry bigwigs, hours spent in the role of host to people she hardly knew. In other words, his success meant her confinement. One can only assume, then, that to her the vacation represents her release.
 
The exact ages of the Dodsworths are unclear. Huston was 49 in 1936, Chatterton 44, and these ages seem appropriate for their characters. They have an adult daughter who has recently married, indicating that they had a child early on in Sam’s career, a fact that would have restricted Fran’s life considerably. However, early in the film there’s reference to the age of 35, a number that is problematic when it comes to marriage and motherhood. However, it also helps explain the importance Fran places on social activities and the attention of male suitors. It could also mean that Sam was the first person she dated, and I think most people would agree that the life you think you’ll be content with at 15 is not always the life you want twenty years later.
 
And this is essentially the message of Dodsworth, that two people can grow apart and not even be aware of it. In Sam, we see the experience of many men, for having both a successful career and a family can indeed breed overconfidence and complacency. After all, everything can seem fine when your career is going well. Perhaps this is why Sam is surprised when his wife does not share his enthusiasm upon seeing the beacon of a lighthouse from the upper deck of the ship and when she insists that they put on their best attire even when on vacation. In one key exchange, a passenger on the ship named Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) tells Sam, “One drifts for lack of a reason to do anything else,” and while she is talking about her habit of traveling, the sentiment helps explain Fran. For twenty years, she’s been drifting.
 
Mrs. Cortright is a central reason why the film’s final act seems so superficial. After meeting the Dodsworths at sea early in the film, her most poignant moment comes when she recognizes something in Fran that gives her pause. She then delivers to her a message that is is brief and powerful: “Don’t.” And then she is gone, and that is where she should have stayed, for then she would have been a harbinger of things to come, someone who recognized the path Fran was on and tried in vain to steer her to safer waters. Instead, she becomes just another minor female character who conveniently brings “joy and purpose” to a much older man in far too little time for those sentiments to convincingly be the result of true love. Alas, that’s what Hollywood thinks audiences want, and in the end, it is what brings down a masterpiece. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
 
3 and a half stars