Saturday, December 31, 2011

William Keighley | The Man Who Came to Dinner

locked up
by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman), William Keighley (director) The Man Who Came to Dinner / 1942

Every year at Christmas time at our home we watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, the wonderful comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Even though this film takes place at Christmas, however, the movie has very little to do with the holiday, and is almost as far removed from the happiness of the season as it could be.

    In fact, this time viewing the film I was struck at just how removed this comedy is from any joy. Although it often howlingly funny, underneath, it is more of dark comedy akin to Buñuel's  The Exterminating Angel than it is to the family farce of this play righting pair, You Can't Take It with You! The movie is so popular that I need not, I hope, repeat the plot. Although the film is filled with numerous plot complications, it actually has only one major event, repeated at the film's end: Sheridan Whiteside (inspired by Alexander Woolcott) comes to Medalia, Ohio, presumably to give a lecture, but falls on the ice-filled stoop of the Stanley family's home, whereupon a local doctor declares that he must be wheel-chair bound until he heals some days later.

     Although extremely popular in the media, having a weekly radio show, Whiteside (wonderfully played by Monte Woolley in large, campy gestures) is a tyrant who puts his own welfare over concerns for anyone else; so monstrous is his surface behavior that it is almost impossible to imagine how a sweet woman like Maggie Cutler (played against type by Bette Davis) can stand to be in his employ. As she, herself, comments: "You know, Sheridan, you have one great advantage over everyone else in the world. You've never had to meet Sheridan Whiteside." The poor Stanley family, Ernest, Daisy and their two children (the parents acted by Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are horrified by the situation, as Whiteside threatens to sue them, and insists upon taking over their library, living room, and front entrance, while they are assigned a back stairs and confined to their own bedrooms.

     In short, the Stanley family is locked away in their own house, just as Whiteside is locked up in a small hick town which he has not even wanted to visit ('I simply will not sit down to dinner with midwestern barbarians. I think too highly of my digestive system.") The house, in fact, has become a kind of penitentiary, reiterated by the behavior of the completely flustered Nurse Preen (Mary Wickes) and the Stanley children, who, each for their own reasons desire to leave home, the daughter being in love with a union agitator whom her businessman father detests, and the would-be photographer son desiring new scenes and subjects for his art.

      The theme of imprisonment is played out again and again in this work. Whiteside, it is suggested, is fascinated by criminal activity, and invites several inmates from a nearby penitentiary for lunch—much to the horror, of course, of the locked-away Stanleys. Throughout the movie, Whiteside is sent presents—penguins, an octopus, and a mummy case—the first two contained in crates while the latter is itself a kind of coffin.

     Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with the local editor of the town newspaper, the affable Bertram H. Jefferson (Richard Travis), and for the first time after years of exciting travel, suddenly seeks to settle down into this small town and marry, another kind of imprisonment—at least to Whiteside's way of thinking. Jefferson has also written "the great American play," which helps Whiteside lure Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) from vacationing in Florida to Ohio, hoping she will bollix up Maggie's plans. By the end of the film, having caused a series of disastrous situations, he must also lock away Lorraine and ship her off in a plane.

     Finally, the Stanley home has itself another kind of prisoner, Harriet, an aunt who, as a young woman, killed—like Lizzie Borden—her mother and father. She is also imprisoned in the family secrecy of her past.

     When the penguins escape their crate, they are quickly rounded up and impounded once more by the doctor and nurse. When the children both bolt the home, Ernest Stanley quickly tracks them and returns them home. Suddenly one can comprehend, perhaps, Harriet's childhood actions, and may help explain her strange behavior.

     Only two people, it appears, can come and go at will, but both these, like Sheridan Whiteside, are so self-centered that they cannot escape themselves. Carlton Beverly (based on Noël Coward, performed by Reginald Gardiner) drops by to see Whiteside, but talks of hardly anyone but himself:

                           I have very little time, and so the conversation will entirely
                           be about me and I shall love it.

Banjo (inspired by Harpo Marx, wonderfully played by Jimmy Durante) can barely sit still for more than a moment, "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay," imitating the "I must be going" phrase of Groucho in Animal Crackers. Both visitors conspire to help Maggie to escape Whiteside's grasp so that she might enter matrimonial bonds.

     Even the two servants, cook and butler, hoping to escape the Stanley household by taking up service in Whiteside's home, remain locked away, as Whiteside, finally leaving the Stanley mansion, once again falls on the ice. Like the figures in The Exterminating Angel, no one in this work can leave his self-imposed entrapment.

     With such a marvelous cast, however, who cares? Even though director William Keighley has done little to transfer this stage-bound work into film, we might wish to watch these poor trapped beings play out their destinies again and again.

Los Angeles, December 18, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treastures (December 2011).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vicente Minnelli | Meet Me in St. Louis

by Douglas Messerli

Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finlehoff (screenplay, based on the stories by Sally Benson), Vicente Minnelli (director) Meet Me in St. Louis / 1944

 As anyone who has seen the great Vicente Minnelli musical knows, Meet Me in St. Louis, based on Sally Benson’s beloved tales of the American belle epoch life in the Missouri river city, is a beautiful paean to American family life, as lively and enduring of a picture of Americana as any book or film before or after it. And even I, who love to point out different perspectives of cinema and literary texts, concur. For years I have loved this film for those very reasons.

     The last few times I have watched this chestnut of a film, however, something else—a darker under image—has begun to seep through its lovely Technicolor tableaus; like shadows on a mid-summer day, in which this film begins, the gentle nostalgic view of American city life, reveals more substance but also more troubling issues upon each viewing.

     The film is split into four seasons, beginning in the Summer of 1903 and ending in the Spring of 1904, with the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair. Each season features a major celebration, most including music and dance.

    In the first summer of the Smith family, sisters Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) throw a party in honor of their brother, Lon, Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.), inviting friends and the “new” boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), with whom Esther is secretly in love. The party is exuberance personified, as the party-goers dance a kind of frontier square dance, “Skip to My Lou,” and Esther and her younger sister ‘Tootie’ (the talented child actor, Margaret O’Brien) dance the famed late 19th century cake-walk “Under the Bamboo Tree.” Both are joyous examples of the kind of entertainment young people of 1903 clearly enjoyed. But already here, in these early scenes, we sense something more sinister behind the merriment. The “Skip to My Lou” dance was born in the frontier necessity for a way for men and women to innocently meet by “stealing partners,” a man standing in the center while the others circled while clapping hands until they reached the line “I’ll get another one prettier than you,” at which point the dancer in the center choses a girl, who now must wait out her turn in the center of the group. It was a perfect ice-breaker and way to meet new friends; one might almost describe it as an early kind of speed-dating.

      The second song, although written by Blacks (the lyrics by J. Rosamund Johnson and his  renowned poet brother, James Weldon Johnson), was originally sung in a Black version of a Ministrel Show, A Trip to Coontown, all of which hints of stereotypical racial attitudes and St. Louis city housing covenants that would not be struck down until 1948.

     Throughout this first summer, moreover, the sisters are constantly plotting events, covered by small lies. The most innocent of these is Esther’s hiding of John Truett’s hat at the party, and her plea that he help her put out the lights since she is afraid of mice. Somewhat more serious is their plot to have dinner an hour earlier than usual so that Rose can have a long distance telephone conversation with her boyfriend away from the family. This entails the girl’s encouraging their maid Katie (Marjorie Main) to lie:

                               Esther: Oh, Katie, they were just little white lies.
                               Katie: A lie’s a lie. Dressin’ it in white don’t help it. And 
                                          just why was I lying this time?

The lie, it soon appears, has not been necessary, since everyone in the family except the father (Leon Ames) knows that Rose is expecting a call. When, after refusing the early meal, the father discovers that he is the only who has not been told, he is justifiably hurt: “When was I voted out of this family.”

     These are all small events, nearly painless incidents that occur perhaps in every family. But far darker images of life lie in the imagination of the youngest member of the Smith family, Tootie, who lives a private life of dying dolls that might be more at home in the Addams family. Joining the iceman on his rounds, Tootie notes of the doll in her arms:

                 Tootie: Poor Margeretha, I've never seen her look so pale.
                 Mr. Neely: The sun oughta do her some good.
                 Tootie: I suspect she won't live through the night, she has
                             four fatal diseases.
                 Mr. Neely: And it only takes one.
                 Tootie: But she's going to have a beautiful funeral,
                            in a cigar box my Papa gave me, all wrapped up in silver paper.
                 Mr. Neely: That's the way to go, if you have to go.
                 Tootie: Oh, she has to go.

     Throughout the film Tootie and her slightly older sister, Agnes, conjure up a world of horror and terrorism. One of the most disturbing family discussions occurs in the Fall sequence of the film as the girls, dressed up as ghouls Halloween, speak with Katie:

                  Agnes: Katie, where's my cat?
                  Katie: I don't know... a little while ago, she got in
                             my way and I kicked her  down the cellar steps. I could hear
                             her spine hitting on every step.
                 Agnes: Oh, if you killed her, I'll kill you! I'll stab you
                             to death in your sleep, then I'll tie your body to two
                             wild horses until you're pulled apart.
                 Katie: Oh, won't that be terrible, now? There's your cat.

A few minutes later, the girls describe why they are going to “trick” (as in “trick or treat”) an elderly neighbor man:

                  Tootie: We'll fix him fine. It'll serve him right for poisoning 
                               cats... He buys meat and then he buys poison and 
                               then he puts them all together.
                  Agnes: And then he burns the cats at midnight in his furnace. 
                              You could smell the smoke...
                  Tootie: ...and Mr. Braukoff was beating his wife with a red 
                               hot poker... and Mr. Braukoff has empty whiskey 
                               bottles in his cellar.

     Tootie, not allowed to get near the Halloween bonfire because of her age, is the only one who will “fix” Mr. Braukoff by throwing flower into his face. For her the scene is one of true horror—she is a true believer in the myths about him that she and Agnes have recounted—while we perceive him as a rather sweet man with a friendly dog.

     Perhaps it is almost inevitable that these to fantasists later that night decide to throw a dummy on the tracks, almost causing the trolley to go. John Truett, who has witnessed the event, hides them in a nearby alley, but Tootie escapes, claiming John has tried to “kill” her. Indeed, she needs stitches. Esther, shocked by Tootie’s claim, runs next door, slugging and kicking the man she proclaims to love in revenge, a strange version of what one might describe as “domestic violence.”

      Of course, once she discovers the truth, she returns with apologies that end in a kiss. But the shadows of events remain. There is a dark world in this paradisiacal St. Louis that no one, except perhaps for Tootie, is really talking about.

     Further darkness descends soon after, as the father announces his plan to move his family to New York. Just as the family has not consulted him about Rose’s plans, he has not talked about the consequences of such a move with anyone, and the rest of the family is horrified by the impending transition in their lives, Tootie, once again, expressing it most bluntly:

                   'Tootie': It'll take me at least a week to dig up all my dolls 
                                 in the cemetery.

     Although they ultimately accommodate themselves to their new fate, by the Winter sequence new worries and fears have beset them. Rose has no a date to the annual Christmas dance and must go with her brother Lon. At the last moment before the dance, John Truett arrives to tell Esther that his tuxedo is still at the cleaners. Their Grandfather (Harry Davenport) dapperly becomes John’s replacement. He is a man who, throughout the film, wears many hats, and has a large hat collection. But the truth remains: the family is escorting one another to the ball, seemingly isolated from the community they love.

     This time, like their two younger sisters, it is Rose and Esther who have plotted to “fix” their foe, the New Yorker Lucille Ballard (June Lockhart), who has stolen away Rose’s boyfriend Warren Shelffield (Robert Sully); they have filled out her dance card with the most ugly and obnoxious males in attendance. When Lucille, however, turns out to be an utterly sweet woman who suggests that Rose pair off with Warren, and she with Lon, Esther is forced, under the vigilant eye of her grandfather, to take over the dance partners they had assigned to Lucille. The long sequence of dancers with these monsters is certainly comical, but also painful to watch as we recall that this is her last night in St. Louis. Through the miracle of movies, John Truett shows ups for the last dance, as tears rush to Esther’s (and our) eyes.

     The two talk of marriage, he even willing to give up his college education. But both know it is the wrong decision and despair of ever seeing each other again. Upon returning home, Esther finds Tootie still awake, and to comfort her sings one of the most sad-hearted Christmas song ever created, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The haunting ballad, written by Hugh Martin, was originally even bleaker than it is in the movie, Garland arguing for changes for fear if she sang it people might think she was a monster. Today, it is one Garland’s most profoundly sung songs, assured to bring tears to everyone’s eyes. And the scene after, in which Tootie runs out into the snow to destroy her beloved snow people so that “no one else can have them,” truly dramatizes the darker world the Smiths are now inhabiting. As Esther rushes out to retrieve her young sister, the father is forced to reevaluate how his plans are effecting his family, and determines to remain in their beloved St. Louis. Christmas morning has arrived, and the family seems once again blessed, Warren Sheffield even rushing in the middle of their celebration to announce that he and Rose are going to be married, as if it were a challenge instead of a proposal.

     But the very last scene of the film reveals other shadows that we have sensed all along. This is a story of a world already lost. In a short time the two elder daughters will be married and have left home. But even more importantly, the whole world it has pictured will have died. From the very beginning of the film, Minnelli and his writers have subtly interwoven themes of decay and death into the very structure of the work. Obviously, Tootie has been obsessed with the subject, but even the young Esther has reminded her suitor, by her choice of perfume, of his grandmother. At another point, her grandfather describes her as "the very image" of her dead grandmother. Esther, in turn, describes her older sister as becoming “an old maid.” Underlying the joyful festivities of family life is the very quickness of the seasons. By the time Spring arrives all the women family members move outside the home dressed in white; only the mother has a touch of lavender in her apparel. The men are dressed in beige and gray. The lovely colors of that first Summer scene have seemingly been washed away. One might almost describe them as already being ghosts, far more ghoulish, in a sense, that the young Agnes and Tootie dressed for Halloween.

      The family is on its way to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the World’s Fair, a wondrous event that  also, eventually, is lit up in white. As the family gathers after a day of enjoying the experience of the whole world having come to small town America, they are filled with joy and love. But the scene, in contrast to almost all others, is played out, at first in the dark. As Dave Kehr recently wrote in an astute review of the new DVD version of this classic film in The New York Times:

                                  Minnelli begins with a sun-filled, back-lot exterior
                                  —the Smith house, standing at the crest of its own 
                                  little hill—but concludes with a darkened, soundstage 
                                  interior, dressed to represent the fair's opening night. 
                                  The progress is not one of growth and expansion, 
                                  but of the increasing darkness and confinement.

     Two small events occur that perhaps express yet deeper shadows creeping over their lives. As they move toward the restaurant where they plan to have dinner, they each move in different directions, until the father calls them together to lead them off. They have become lost in their own hometown. A moment later, after the fairgound buildings become awash in light, Tootie asks the crucial question: “They won’t ever tear it down, will they?” The grandfather blusteringly answers: “Well they better not!” The film’s weak ending, echoing Judy’s Garland’s phrase “There’s no place like home” from The Wizard of Oz, cannot possibly erase the doubts the two events have created. In reality, only two of the St. Louis World’s Fair 1,500 buildings actually survived: the St. Louis Museum of Art and a building now on the campus of Washington University, Brookings Hall. The others, made of plaster of Paris and other cheap materials, were only meant to last a year or two. The same year’s summer Olympic Games would forever change the size and look of the city; St. Louis was no longer a small hometown.

    The era, of course, did quickly pass. Ten years later any younger male of this story would probably have been drafted into World War I. Those who returned came back to a different universe.

    As for Tootie? Sally Benson, upon whom she was based, never got visit the St. Louis World’s Fair, her father having moved the family to New York City.

    Despite its glories, it was perhaps a society too based on myths, small lies, and impermanent values to last.

Los Angeles, Christmas Day, 2011
Reprinted from American Cultural Treasures (January 2012)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Akira Kurosawa | Ikiru (To Live)

the mummy
by Douglas Messerli

Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay), Akira Kurosawa (director) Ikiru (To Live) / 1952

It may seem strange that on Christmas Eve I sit writing about a film in which the major character, Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura) discovers that he has stomach cancer and is about to die. In fact, the film ends in his death and funeral and much of the movie is concerned with Kanji's learning how to die. It some respects, however, I cannot imagine a more appropriate work to mull over on the holiday, for Kurosawa's moving and brilliantly conceived film is really about a rebirth, about a man who suddenly comes to life.

     As his female assistant, Toyo (Miki Odagiri) tells Kanji later in the film— after admitting that she has created imaginary names for each of her co-workers—she has dubbed her boss, "The Mummy." Through voiceover and brief snippets of past history, the director lets us know that Kanji, who works at a government agency, may have begun his life with the energy and belief of possible change, but after his wife died, gradually let himself fall into the bureaucratic mindset of nearly all the post-World War II governmental agencies of Japan. Partly, in an attempt to support and educate his beloved son, he has allowed himself to become one of the living dead.

     It is only the discovery that he has stomach cancer with a short time to live that suddenly wakes him up and forces him to face his previously empty life. This very subject, obviously, could be played out with lugubrious pathos, allowing the audience immense pity and sorrow. There is certainly, at least for this viewer, plenty of room for tears, but Kurosawa punctuates his fable with humor, which only adds to the poignancy of events. Even the way Kanji discovers his illness shares something with black comedy, as another patient, eager to gossip about doctors, reveals that when a patient has just a short time to live, they will announce that he only has an ulcer, and send him on his way without really declaring his condition. The nasty patient goes on, however, to list the symptoms of stomach cancer, as we observe, one by one, Kanji ticking them off. By the time he enters the doctor's office, to be told precisely what his fellow patient has predicted, Kanji has been able to self-diagnose: one year to live at most.

     Falling into despair (he later describes the experience as like the feeling of "being drowned"), Kanji returns home, refusing even to turn on the lights. His son and his wife return, confused to find the house open and no lights on, presuming that the father has forgotten to lock up and is unexpectedly late from the office. Their discussion, that of any young couple, is about the future, particularly her desire to be able to move into a modern house, away from her father-in-law. The son reveals that soon his father will be soon retiring and they can draw on his pension and the money he has saved. When they discover the father in the house the whole time, obviously overhearing their greedy conversation, the two are a bit chastened, but still resolved.

    So, it becomes clear, after all his sacrifices—years of simple, repetitive existence—he does not even matter, so it appears, to his loved ones. That discovery and Kanji's inability to sleep send him onto a wild night trip that might be described as the Japanese version of Stephen Dedalus' Nighttown journey. Certainly it is as breathtaking and hallucinatory as Joyce's fiction. Meeting a young novelist (Yûnosuke Itō) in a bar, Kanji tells his story. The sympathetic writer, who recognizes "How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death," becomes determined to take his new-found friend on an all-night spree through Tokyo.

     The journey includes numerous seedy, red-light neighborhoods, some filled with geisha, others with Western-style prostitutes, and a number of clubs, some obviously gay, others simple strip-clubs or pick up bars. The dizzying night trip sickens and yet enlivens Kanji, who has been completely unaware of the existence of such an incredible world. At a bar where more traditional Japanese songs are sung, Kanji sings an older song of carpe diem:

                              Life is so short
                              Fall in love, dear maiden
                              While your lips are still red
                              And before you are cold.
                              For there will be no tomorrow.

One might describe this as the film's theme song.

     The fact that he has not returned to his office, after years of not missing a single day, and that he has returned home with new, white, hat, distresses both his family and employees. One young woman, Toyo, bored with her job, wants to move on to another, but needs Kanji's stamp of approval before she can do so. She seeks him out on the street, determining that she get his stamp of approval, he taking her into his home to sign the documents. Her appearance in the house, and a later friendship between them, convinces Kanji's children that he has, shockingly, taken up with a mistress who is siphoning money from Kanji's account.

     Even that innocent friendship is stolen away from him, as the young girl, unable to explain Kanji's attentions, demands her freedom.

     Slowly, Kanji becomes aware of a group of neighborhood women seeking to have a nearby lot filled with sewage water cleaned up and turned into a children's playground. Kanji's own office, when approached earlier, had shuffled the woman to another office, who, in turn, did the same, each office following the same pattern. Well experienced with the system in which he has worked, Kanji takes on their cause, patiently waiting outside the various government offices through which the plea must pass, cajoling officials, refusing to be sent away.

     The accomplishment of the park might have been a joyful ending to Kurasowa's otherwise bleak work. But here again, the director shifts the tale to another perspective, where we must move beyond Kanji's death. The funeral party for Kanji is attended even by high government figures, who boast of their achievements in creating the local park. But as they leave, the lower officials begin to discuss the strange series of events leading up to Kanji's death and his own advocacy of the park, allowing both the family and the viewers to recognize that it has been Kanji, alone, who is responsible for this now important public facility, that for the first time in years Kanji ceased being passive and forcibly made something come into existence.

     We never know whether the family, son and daughter-in-law and Kanji's brother, truly come to perceive their father and brother's achievement, but we do comprehend the grace in Kanji's end: observed swinging through the night on a children's swing in the new park, Kanji sings, as the snow falls, his song of "seizing the day." In the morning he is discovered frozen to death.

Los Angeles, December 24, 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Aki Kaurismäki | La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian Life) and Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds)

two films by aki kaurismäki

the influence of blue on art
by Douglas Messerli
Aki Kaurismäki (screenplay, based on the fiction by Henri Murger), Aki Kaurismäki (director)
La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian Life) / 1992

Aki Kaurismäki's La Vie de Bohème has often been described by critics as a rather dour version of the Henri Murger novel which, in turn, inspired Puccini's La Bohème. And I suppose, given the doeful looks of Matti Pellonpää, playing this film's Rodolfo, the lean grizzled appearance of André Wilms as Marcel, and the long-haired, chain-smoking  down-and-out composer Schau-nard (Kari Väänänen) that one might be tempted to imagine that the film's characters have none of the joie de vie of the original.

      Although he first wanted to film in Helsinki,  Kaurismäki soon became convinced that there was no other place in which La Vie de Bohème could exist but in Paris. The streets in this "city of light," however, seem so deserted and covered with debris that it might as well have been shot in a Helsinki suburb. Although the Eiffel Tower appears in a couple of scenes, it has none of the glitter—this is, after all, a gritty black and white work—that the lacy iron symbol has in other films. Although seasons come and go, this La Vie de Bohème is played in an eternal winter.  Kaurismäki's Paris, in short, is a desolate spot.

     And why wouldn't it be if you had your 21-act play was rejected simply because you had refused to cut even a semicolon? Or if you composed music—vaguely influenced by the what the composer suggests is the effect of "blue on art" and your newest sonata is entitled Traffic Jam—to which even your friends cannot not bear to listen? Or, as in Rodolfo's case, if you were an Albanian in Paris without any legal papers? The moment Rodolfo meets his Mimi (Evelyne Didi) he is arrested and sent back to Albania. And, as in the original, none of them have  money to pay the rent!

     Yet it is the Murger's and Puccini's versions, as romantic as they are, that might truly be described as bleak. These three untalented artists somehow get along quite amusingly, while their stone-faced commentaries spoken in French by Finnish actors, making the lines seem even more "artificial," often result in a laughter that does not come in roars but through continuous chortles from the audience.

      Despite their down-and-out lives, they do reap some financial windfalls. Marcel is hired by a short-fused publisher (played by American director Sam Fuller) to edit his magazine, Girdle of Eris. Rodolfo is commissioned to do a portrait by a wealthy man (Jean-Pierre Leaud). But the moment that any money enters their hands, they quickly share it, buying up provisions, liquor, and other consumer  goods—even a ridiculous Mathis, a tri-care manufactured in France in 1946. When they have money, their girls, Musette and Mimi, share their lives; when Rodolfo is deported and Marcel fired for printing his terrible play in the magazine, the women predictably disappear from their sides. Although Mimi may be tubercular, Kaurismäki does not at all sentimentalize her, and she rarely coughs. She is simply another poor victim of the street, forced at times to wander on snowy nights. When fired from his job, Marcel summarizes one of the themes of this film and what might characterize several of Kaurismäki's somewhat eccentric achievements: "We make child's play of it all misfortunes. We don't get depressed."

     When Rudolfo sneaks back into France, Mimi drops her current boyfriend, and the men each contribute a few coins in order to buy enough food for a moderate feast. The artist sells what is left of his paintings to his patron. As Mimi grows ill, the men gather about her bed, but she sends them off, dying in an almost uneventful manner, the way most of us draw our last breath.

       Kaurismäki's Bohemians are the true artists, often so untalented that they cannot sell or share their work, but so impassioned about their art, or just stubbornly determined to create it, that they survive. They are fools, clearly, clowns in a society that seldom has room for their existence or a desire for what they might produce. It is not just Schaunard's music, but their entire lives that might be said to demonstrate "The Influence of Blue on Art."

Los Angeles, December 10, 2011

by Douglas Messerli

Aki Kaurismäki (writer and director) Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds) / 1996

The first of what is described as Kaurismäki's Finland trio of films—also sometimes dubbed the "losers" trilogy—Drifting Clouds is a kind of dark comedy that should resonate with today's American audiences. Despite the economic strength of the Finnish economy through the 1980s, a few years before this film northern Finland had suffered a severe economic depression not unlike that facing the US over the past couple of years.

Ilona Koponen (Kaati Outinen), a hard-working and extremely conscientious maître d' at a once elegant and rather expensive restaurant, Dubrovnik, now spends less time with the decreasing number of customers than she does with calming down the cook, who, from time to time, imbibes in hidden alcohol which, when taken away from him, sends him into a violent frenzy. Yet it is clear from her calm and efficient-looking demeanor that she is proud of her job, and basically happy with her life, each night after work, traveling by tram to her home, with her husband who is the tram's driver.

     Lauri (Kari Väänänen), her husband, is an equally pleasant fellow who proudly announces to her, upon their return home, that he has purchased a new television set on credit. Ilona, obviously the more practical of the two, is a bit nervous with the purchase, particularly since they have already recently purchased a couch; but since both have jobs, things look good for the future.

     Bleak fate is often a subject in Kaurismäki's films, yet no one could imagine what faces this happy couple the next day. Arriving at work, Lauri's boss reports that three men must be cut from the payroll, and, as they draw cards to see who goes, it is clear that Lauri's card contains the lowest number. Meanwhile, Ilona and the staff are informed by the owner of the restaurant that the Dubrovnik has been sold to a chain, who will be bringing in their own employees.

     Both good citizens immediately attempt to find other jobs, refusing to even go on unemployment. Lauri is offered a job as a bus driver, but disastrously fails the medical examination: he is deaf in one ear, requiring him to give up his driver's license.

     Ilona tries several other restaurants but is quickly rejected by most (there are dozens of people waiting for jobs), one cold hearted restaurateur going so far to say "To be honest, you're beginning to be too old." Ilona replies: "I'm 36," to which he answers: "You can pass away at any time." Ilona even applies as a dishwater, but is told she has no experience, reiterating the kind of dark comic wit characteristic of Kaurismäki's films.

     Lauri begins to drink and, from time to time, so does Ilona. Life has lost all of its beautiful luster. Yet we know from the rich hues of the director's shots that there must still be some hope. Eventually Ilona, paying for the recommendation, finds a job in a cheap and decaying bar/restaurant which she attempts to improve by introducing some small decorations and pretending to take orders as a waitress before running into the kitchen to serve through the window as if the place were somehow a legitimate establishment. We soon, discover, however just how illegitimate the place is as officers come to arrest it's owner for tax evasion. The bar is closed without Ilona having ever been paid after working there for six weeks. Lauri's attempt to collect her wages ends in his being horribly beaten, and for a few days, until he mends, he stays away from home and wife.

     The drinking increases, while Ilona imagining her restaurant juggles with various financial scenarios to see if such an idea would be possible with the few funds they have left. They sell their car, and out of desperation Lauri bets it at a local casino, hoping they might double the amount. They lose it all. As Lauri says, "We can always eat wallpaper."

     The creditors send workmen to remove the new television set and most of the furniture they have.

     In complete desperation, Ilona visits a local hair salon, telling its owner that she had trained as a hairdresser as a young girl. The woman offers her a week without pay as a test. But before she can accept she discovers in the salon chair the former owner of  Dubrovnik, Mrs. Sjöholm (Elina Salo), who suggests that Ilona should open a restaurant. Although it has been her dream, Ilona is now utterly fearful of such a risky endeavor, even though her former boss agrees to loan the money for the start-up costs. Ultimately, if reluctantly, she agrees.

     She hires the former head waiter and together they search out the Dubrovnik cook, who now hangs out on the street with other winos. Whisking him away to a alcohol rehabilitation hospital, where he is cured, they take him back into their little family. His suggestions to serve up some of the same menu items he had at Dubrovik is met with approval, but Ilona has also come to new perceptions, as she demands there be some simple food on her menu for the local workers. Her restaurant does not have the exoticism of a distant Adriatic city, but, is rather, a straightforward statement of what they have all been seeking and are willing to do: Work.

      As the first lunch approaches, the place remains empty as the waiters nervously adjust the dishware and Ilona touches her hair, remaining in her place in near terror, yet with the perseverance she has maintained throughout. Will anyone come? Mrs. Sjöholm shows up, trying to cheer them. She is a tough bird who admits: "When I was young I drunk many men under the table."

      The clock is near noon, but only one couple peruses the menu outside, declaring it too expensive.

      Then, suddenly, two garbage workers enter and order. Others begin to appear. On the telephone Lauri takes a reservation for 30 wrestlers that evening. When the camera pans back to the dining room, we see the place is abuzz. Calmly and quietly, Ilona and Lauri move to the front stoop of their small miracle of a restaurant and gaze off into the sky. A future is visible once more. 

Los Angeles, December 11, 2011