Monday, October 22, 2018

François Ozon | Frantz

the outsider
by Douglas Messerli

François Ozon and Philippe Piazzo (screenplay, based on the film Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch), François Ozon  (director) Frantz / 2016

All the time I was watching French director François Ozon’s 2016 film Frantz, I kept feeling that I had seen this film before; and, indeed, I had, evidently in a forgotten viewing of Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby of 1932. I still cannot recall when and where I saw the Lubitsch movie, but I do remember the power of its narrative: a former French World War I soldier who has killed a German soldier, who he realizes from a letter of the dead man’s body, was a pacifist, who had not even loaded his gun. The guilt of the murder leads him to follow the address back to Germany.
      Ozon’s version is a much subtler and more intelligent version of the earlier film, bringing in many other elements which the original contained, based on the French play by Maurice Rostand and its 1931 English-language adaptation, The Man I Killed by Reginald Berkeley. Not only does this version present a truly sensitive portrayal of the leads of two still-opposing cultures, Anna (Paula Beer) and Adrien (Pierre Niney), but more clearly than Lubitsch’s version, suggests that—after Anna spots Adrien delivering flowers to her finance’s grave—that perhaps the two men, both aesthetes, had had a homosexual relationship. Certainly, his description of their sharing of music and art in Paris (both are violinists) was a deeply sensitive event, that strongly effected their lives.
     The German family upon which he intrudes himself, the Hoffmeisters (Ernst Stötzner and  Marie Gruber), who themselves are obviously of the upper middle-class, have brought up their son in an atmosphere of cultural involvement. It is, ultimately, their own cultural enthusiasm which allows them to let the French soldier—an outsider to most Germans, and in Lubitsch’s version someone to which the entire community negatively reacts—into their household. I think it’s more than a little interesting that in Ozon’s film, they quite quickly embrace the Frenchman, while in the German director Lubitsch’s earlier rendition their embrace is a far more laborious event. Nonetheless, the Hoffmeisters like the Holderlins before them, do emphatically allow Adrien into their inner circle, and permit and even encourage their son’s would-be wife to fall in love with him. The world of “them” and “us” easily fades away, as they perceive in the young friend of their son another image of him, which he carefully projects, and perhaps falsely upon their suffering memories, a bit like the film Six Degrees of Separation.
     In this sense, this work, in all of its forms, is actually a study of ingress, the entrance of one culture upon another, which, given our current American government’s stand against immigration, speaks more strongly today than it may have in Lubitsch’s day—even if the same issues were clearly there as well in 1932, when Hitler had begun to make such issues visible.
     The fact that what Adrien is really seeking is simply forgiveness does not make him more lovable. He has murdered their son, and when he admits the truth to Anna he betrays her own belief in a possible reconciliation with her past. Yet his simple attempt to anneal the past draws Anna to him, even when she inwardly knows she must push away.
     When, after he returns to Paris, and she attempts to reconcile her feelings for the “outsider,” she finally determines to not only forgive him but seek out what has seemed to be the relationship he has proffered her, she discovers, to her horror, that he is not at all the loving companion whom she might have sought; that, instead, he is a kind of “mamma’s” boy, who to please his domineering mother (Cyrielle Clair) he is now determined to marry his childhood friend, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing), an ever-patient and actually quite lovely woman who attempts even to embrace the woman who she recognizes as her sexual opponent. Yet, it quickly becomes clear that Fanny will win simply because Adrien is so very weak. His guilt is only a small part of the story: he is a man who cannot even face his own past actions.
      The last few scenes of this wonderful film, which moves subtly between stark black-and-white and light color, are revealed by the “false news” she sends in her letters back to the hopeful Hoffmeister family, who have now psychologically adopted the French “murderer” as their own son, wherein she tells them of her nonexistent relationship with Adrien, attending concerts and art museums together. She does, indeed, attend these events, but now completely without him, even though the film ends with their joint viewing of Manet’s painting Suicide, which may, alas, signify one or the other’s end. In Orzon’s film, it is clear, any such action will not be that of the now independent and strong-minded Anna, but that of her weak would-be lover.
     Both the men in her lives, it is now apparent, have left her empty-handed, the one by not even defending himself, and the other by refusing to embrace her open love.   

Los Angeles, October 22, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2018).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

John Ford | The Long Voyage Home

you can’t go home again
by Douglas Messerli

Dudley Nichols (screenplay, based on the plays “The Moon of the Caribees,” “In The Zone,” “Bound East for Cardiff,” and “The Long Voyage Home” by Eugene O’Neill) John Ford (director) The Long Voyage Home / 1940

As I’ve expressed earlier, I’ve always thought the Eugene O’Neill’s SS Glencairn plays as slightly tacky theater, filled with a wide range of types (a brooding Englishman, a Swede, an Irishman, an American named “Yank,” etc.) who, in the playwright’s original script speak in accents that not only represent stereotypical attitudes about their cultural differences that are quite painfully inaccurate.
      The production I recently saw at REDCAT by The Wooster Group changed much of that, while quite literally “accentuating” it and giving full force to the actual narratives O’Neill was attempting to tell. If it didn’t always work, it sheds new insights on the original short plays, revealing the dreams and desires of these sometimes stock characters, such as the relationship between Yank and Driscoll.
      Accordingly, I thought it necessary to see the film version, rendered by the admirable director, John Ford. At first, I must admit, I was a bit leery of his updating of the tale to World War II, and his casting of Thomas Mitchell as Driscoll, Ward Bond as Yank, and, almost incomprehensibly, the Iowa-born actor with a drawling plainsman accent, John Wayne, as Ole Olsen, the simple-minded Swede who just wants to go home.
      Can you blame him, given that the Glencairn is presented as vessel of bondage and servitude, upon which authorities have dumped a cargo of high explosives to be delivered up to England for the War? These men are rightfully terrified and, at first, quite forcibly rebel.
      Thank heaven Ford, a master of filming male-bonding, tamps down the West Indies’ delights of these heavy drinkers—a young Mildred Natwick, if you can believe it, plays one of the hussies—quickly shifting to an adventure tale that kills off Yank as they move through the war-zone when he is injured by a shifting anchor, and, given their bad conditions—no doctor aboard on this almost suicidal voyage—who soon after dies.

    Like so many of Ford’s movies, the rest of this work is an almost all male-tribute to survival and the deep-bonding of heterosexual men, with an occasional nod to the homoerotic possibilities that lie just beneath their hard-living love. This is Ford’s territory, and despite O’Neill’s sometimes clumsy and adolescent gestures, he transforms the play, with the help of screenwriter Dudley Nichols and cinematographer Gregg Toland, into a quite successful film, wherein these men gradually grow to respect and love their fellowmen.
     If the Conrad-like character, Smitty (Ian Hunter), in his insistent isolation from their raucous activities, may briefly appear to them as a Nazi-spy, the discovery of his love-letters between him and his wife, sadly reveal his real struggle with alcoholism, giving us a glimpse of a character who—given what we later learn about O’Neill family member’s problems—who is soon killed off by the author in a German plane attack on their ship. Smitty might have been one of the more interesting characters of this film had he been given a chance, but O’Neill was taking no chances, given the self-destruction of both his beloved brother and father.
     Even the crew’s betrayals—when the ship’s agent spikes Ole’s drink when he is about to head off in another ship, the Amindra, back home to Sweden—prove positive, when he is unknowingly saved from being killed when the vessel is torpedoed by the Germans. When he and his fellow sailors hear the news, they know they are all damned to sign on again. There appears to other way out this indentured servitude.
     These sailors are trapped within their lives, and there appears no way out except, like the men of Ulysses’ endless voyages, to move on from port to port, from adventure to adventure without any meaningful purpose in their lives.
     This is Ford’s territory, and he presents it quite effectively, despite O’Neill’s best intentions to create an expressionist voyage of men-on-the-run. O’Neill knew only too well what Thomas Wolfe later wailed, “you can’t go home again.”

Los Angeles, October 21, 2013

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Ming-liang Tsai | 青少年哪吒 (Qīngshàonián Nézhā) (Rebels of a Neon God)

the prodigal son
by Douglas Messerli

Ming-liang Tsai (writer and Director) 青少年哪吒 (Qīngshàonián Nézhā)  (Rebels of a Neon God) / 2009, US 2015

Somewhat in the tradition of Rebel without a Cause (a large movie poster of James Dean, in fact, shows up in the room of one of the movie’s central figures), and with relationships to Truffaut’s 1950s five Antoine Doinel films, Taiwanese film director Ming-liang Tsai’s Teenage Nézhā (shown in this country as Rebels of a Neon God) shifts the focus from the California and Paris streets to the neon-lit Taipei of 1992, it’s original release date; the film was not released into the US until 23 years later.
         In Chinese culture, Nézhā is a kind of child-god born into a human family and who attempts to kill his father. The young Nézhā figure in this work, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), is evidently a not-so-bright student, who with his taxi-cab driving father’s and spiritual-impelled mother’s support (she truly believes her son is an incarnation of Nézhā) has been enrolled in an overcrowded school to cram for college-entry tests. Clearly his parents are determined that he will be able to achieve in a manner which was impossible for them. Yet the tortuously old-school teaching methods of the buxiban (cram school) are painful even to watch, let alone to actually have been suffered by a young man or woman in their daily sessions.
     In one scene, as the children leave their crowded classrooms, we see that a young girl’s scooter has been meaninglessly towed while our “hero,” lower in the screen, discovers that his scooter has suffered the same fate. He can only get home through the arrival of his taxi-driving father, who briefly, sympathizing with his son, suggests they attend an afternoon movie—the first shared experience proffered evidently in decades.
     Given the difficulties of city living in Taipei, everything soon changes, as two young “hoodlums,” Ah Tze (Chen Chao-jung) and Ah Ping (Jen Chang-bin)—petty thieves who steal the change from phone booths and abscond with the motherboards of many of the arcade games they nightly patrol—purposely break the side-mirror of the taxicab. The young boy is asked to return to his classes as the father angrily drives off.
      Hsiao Kang opts out of his cram-class, asking for the money which his parents paid back, and moving into the world of the two small-time hucksters, presumably to track them down. Yet as we quickly perceive—although little of it has been spoken about in the reviews of this work—his stalking of these figures not only represents a desire for their desolate, but somewhat exciting life-styles, but signifies a kind of homoerotic fascination about them.
     The central figure’s major focus is Ah Tze, who lives in an apartment that is nearly always under water, a slosh of debris and decay which he evidently shares with his elder brother. The wonder is that his brother can somehow still attract a young working girl, Ah Kuei (Wang Yu-wen), who eventually attaches herself to the younger sibling.
     Ah Tze’s real emotional commitment, however, is focused on his friend, Ah Ping; and, although he eventually, and very much after the fact, does finally have sex with this clearly sexually available woman, he abandons her time after time, and finally, when Ah Ping is beaten for one of their petty robberies, offers her up to him for “hugs.”
     Throughout—although nothing ever visually occurs or is even spoken about it—this film represents a ménage à trois between its three major male figures, two of them not even knowing about the existence of the third. The passion that embraces them is not so much a gay sexual desire as it is a dissatisfaction with their lives and, simply put, “the way things are.”
     This entry into the dark neon-lit world of Taiwan’s major city never quite allows the sexual release that any of these trapped young men are really seeking. Instead of a love story it ends as a kind of strange revenge comedy, with Hsiao Kang spray-painting and glunking-up the engine of his idol’s scooter with glue. Symbolically, he strips his beloved enemy of his sexual power, the film ending, in fact, with Ah Tze giving up his woman companion to his own friend. Surely, he can now never win her back, so, in a sense, the invisible young stalker has turned his obviously heterosexual object of fantasy into a kind sexually neutered being, a boy in whom he might find some sexual release. And, in another respect, he has finally redeemed his father’s promise to take him to the movies by making his own “midnight movie” in real time and space in which, finally, things turn out “right,” or at least possible on his own terms.
     If previously, his own father has locked him out of their home, one of the final images is of the father (or mother) carefully opening the door a crack which might allow their wild, disobedient son to return.   
Los Angeles, October 17, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

Agnès Varda | Les plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès)

confused flies
by Douglas Messerli

Agnès Varda (writer and director) Les plages d'Agnès (The Beaches of Agnès) / 2008

You might describe The Beaches of Agnès as a sort of love poem celebrating, a bit like Whitman, the self. And also a bit like Whitman, French film director, Agnès Varda celebrates that self not through a catalogue of her achievements nor a telling of her life adventures—although she does visually take us to several of her childhood and adult homes and locations of family outings—but through the multitudes of daily workers, actors, directors, and lovers she has known; and in this sense, Varda’s cinematic autobiography is similar to what I have striven for in the many My Year volumes written since 2000 (I publish these “semi-autobiographical cultural histories” annually).
      One might argue, in fact, that although she is viewing this work through the lens of her own life, it is more a poetic documentary about her life “gleaned” through (one should recall that one of her most interesting films was about “gleaners,” those people who sort through what the rest of the population leaves behind, searching for anything that might be of value) than it is a autobiography. She begins, in fact, on a beach of her childhood with a crew placing both frames and mirrors horizontally and laid out upon the sand at various angles, signifying the method of her filmmaking, suggesting that she will both reflect upon and look through framed contexts in order to get to the heart of the 80 years this “little old lady, pleasantly plump” has experienced and achieved.
      Without Varda having to thump her chest, she randomly shows us photographs (she began, we might forget, as a photographer), objects, recreated and vintage scenes from her films, and, of course, the faces of people: not only the numerous celebrities to whom she was close—her husband was another famed director, Jacques Demy, with whom she regularly entertained nearly every significant film personage in the world—but of fishermen, butchers, perfume and button sellers, and the members of her own parents and siblings (her father was of Greek origin), the last strung out in a series of photographs on one of her beaches.
     Varda visits extras in her early films, lovingly allowing them, in the case of two fisherman, to see their performances for the very first time. She, herself, has photographed many of those she loved and admired. And when she doesn’t have a photograph, she creates her acquaintances and the laborers she loved with bits and pieces of their lives, a kind of bricolage of memorabilia that brings those who are now gone from life.
       As Roger Ebert pointed out in his 2008 review of the film, five years before his death from cancer, throughout this film, Varda is seen walking backward, as if receding from view in recognition of her own inevitable demise. Yet, given her constant sense of wonderment, exploration, and humor, we recognize that she, even if always a bit plump, has not truly become “little old lady.” Rather, she’s a kind of mischievous force, poking around in the debris of her own past for new ways of seeing and perceiving what it all meant. As she alertly declares "I am alive, and I remember." I have never seen “a little old lady,” moreover, sailing alone a small boat down the Seine.
      Much of Varda’s life is connected with the sea. She thinks of nearly every male as a potential Ulysses, a kind of wanderer. And throughout her childhood, living near various bodies of water, she learned not only how to sail, but to weave nets and tie knots—real-life talents that might almost be seen as metaphors for how she later conceives her cinematic works and her life. She and husband Demy bought an entire back-alley of several small, derelict shops, gradually redoing them into a series of two story “rooms,” in which they lived separately and apart from each other and their gifted children, Rosalie and Mathieu. One might argue that even at home, Varda and Demy lived less within themselves than in a kind of small community where they might call out for one another through open windows.
      What you won’t discover in this loving film are gossipy tidbits of family life. Varda had already made a film before this, Jacquot, about her beloved husband as he was dying of AIDS (Demy was also a kind of “wanderer,” often engaging in gay sex). For Varda, it seems clear, the inner eccentricities of life do not matter as much as the way life engages people and things in space and in spontaneous acts. And, in many respects, it is that viewpoint that links her films with the French New Wave. Although she may not have “hung out” with Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, hers is, nonetheless, a kind of existentialist art, demonstrating what people do rather than merely what they claim to think. Varda never studied film and was no theorist; she worked by instinct through her personal values, and these could take her in many directions within different or, sometimes, within the same work, which is what excites us about her vision. Even memories, she insists, move in many contradictory directions, flying “about me like confused flies.”

Los Angeles, October 15, 2018

Friday, October 12, 2018

Paul Greengrass | 22 July

how to react to hate
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Greengrass (screenplay, based upon the book One of Us by Åsne Seierstad, and director) 22 July / 2018

Reading various reviews of Paul Greengrass’ 2018 Netflix movie, 22 July, you feel the critics had seen two different films. And, strangely enough, there is another film about the events of that horrible day in 2011 when 77 children, some of Norway’s brightest and most promising, were shot to death by the rightist, anti-immigration terrorist Anders Behring Breivik (in this version played by the Norwegian actor Anders Danielsen Lie); Erik Poppe’s U – 22, also based on Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath, premiered in the same year.
       Having not yet seen Poppe’s film, I cannot comment on that work; but even Greengrass’ production seems to have garnered widely varying opinions, some, such as that expressed in Slant and Variety, arguing that, as in his United 93 film, the director dramatized shockingly painful events in an attempt at “blunt moralizing,” while creating characters that seemed one-dimensional.
       There is no question that there are elements of righteous indignation in these comments. Certainly, the monster of this film, Breivik, has little dimension; but as Glenn Kenny has argued, he long ago had given up the possibility of being a true human by his actions, even if, at times, the Norwegian government and Greengrass vaguely try to see through to some humanness beneath his ranting political views.
         Other critics, such as Kenny and me, feel that the film is far more moving and nuanced, despite obvious political viewpoints expressed in this work. In part, for me, it was a very personal work, since I lived in Norway for about a year early in my life; and, along with Greengrass’ inevitable “outsider” view, it was one I shared. The director, using an all-Norwegian cast speaking in English—which most Norwegians do—clearly attempted as best he could to be accurate to events and Norway’s attitudes and moral values. I think he quite succeeded, and that, perhaps more than anything else, is what moved me about this film.
         Unlike a certain American president, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth), who plans that day, July 22nd,  to visit the students on retreat on the island of Utøya (a camp for the future leaders of Norway’s Labor Party), chastises his speech writers for not making his speech more personal—after all, he also attended that camp as a young man—and demands that he have a couple of hours after just to talk to the young women and men on a one-to-one basis. The rationality and empathy of his statements, in the first few scenes of this film, demonstrate it seems to me the entire nature of Norwegian culture.
       If the arrival of these healthy-looking—most of them with ruddy red cheeks—and gender friendly boys and girls might seem almost out of a fantasy tale (these kids greet one-another with kisses and hugs and joyfully play co-ed soccer), these were the same kind of young adults I met when I suddenly landed in a Oslo fjord folk high school, as different from my previous American high-school experience that, at first, I simply didn’t know what to make of it. These children grew up in a society that simply liked one another.
       True, Utøya may be a world of fairly like-minded kids, but it also reflects the newly opened-minded immigration policies of Norwegian authorities, with blacks and other minorities mixed into the blond, white Norwegians. These, moreover, were clearly the brightest of Norway’s children; as Breivik would later proclaim, as he arrives to shoot them down, “You will die today. Marxists, liberals, members of the elite.”
       Unlike many contemporary populists, Breivik did not attack those immigrants he hated, but working in the forests of Norway, carefully built up an arsenal of bombs and weapons to attack at the very heart of Norwegian progressive politics, first bombing one of the major government buildings in Oslo, its façade blown to glass splinters before, dressed as a policeman aiming to check on and protect the Utøya children, demanding the ferry to quickly take him to the deaths of so very many beautiful beings.
      There is no doubt that Greengrass’ presentation of the carnage that this terrorist caused—the monster murdered whole rooms of hiding children and anyone whom he could see—is absolutely horrifying, something which, at moments, we can only turn away from. Children race to the cliffs to hide, stumbling over one another before they are shot to death. The terror is palpable and overwhelming. How, in any honest film, could it not be?
       But Greengrass, fortunately, tamps this violence scene down a bit by concentrating on just two children, brothers Sveinn Are Hanssen (Thorbjørn Harr) and his elder, protective sibling Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who keeps the younger on the run. Yet, in the process he, himself, is finally found and shot—five times. Breivik, like so many mass murderers, was determined to assure that everyone he shot would be dead.
       Viljar, the son of a female mayor in the far-north of Norway, becomes the central focus of this story, not simply the story’s victim, and that is what gives this movie its moral meaning and significance. His terrified parents rush to his hospital bedside, where, unbelievably, he remains alive—but not without losing one eye, the use of one arm, and retaining in his brain stem bullet fragments that the doctors dared not even remove for fear of killing him on the operating table.
       The captured terrorist, although attempting to create a myth of complicity with a larger underground community, betrays himself with his insistence that he be represented with the liberal attorney, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who by Norwegian law is obligated to represent the criminal if asked to do so, and, even after Lippestad and his team prepare a defense of insanity, makes it quite clear that he has carefully planned this attack as a statement of his opposition to Norwegian government policies.
       Although, at moments, Breivik brings up issues that seem to put into question the entire society—at one point arguing that he represents the protection of societal values, to which the investigator argues, “It’s you on trial here, not the government,” the murderer responding, “Are you sure?”—ultimately his arguments, despite the humane treatment he receives (again so far different from USA prison procedures that it leaves one in tears), become almost irrelevant.
     In this film, it is Viljar, endlessly working to rehabilitate his heavily-damaged body, who becomes the center of focus. The only drama of the last half of this film concerns whether or not he might return himself to the healthy society with which he began the film and if he will be able, physically and psychological, to testify against the man who hoped to end that.
      As Kenny observes: “Greengrass doesn’t go for any big triumphalist moments; he doesn’t make Viljar’s courtroom speech a masterpiece of eloquence. This is a movie about difficulty and necessity.” And, obviously the very society that produced such a monster is regrettably undergoing a kind of trial. Can it survive such hate which exists with the reality of Breivik being one of them?
      Every society on the planet, clearly, contains such haters and terrible murderers among them, but the truth of the values of each society are made most clear in their response and solutions to such deep hatred. Open vengeance, simple reaction, resistance to the reality of events, or sane social response makes the difference between these societies in terms of their survival. I might suggest that the US could learn a very great deal from the tortured but expedient Norwegian response.
       Oddly enough Breivik was correct. When such terrible acts are committed, dozens of citizens meaningless destroyed, ignored, or simply given no way out of such horrible destruction, it is also the society that is under trial. Greengrass makes it clear that some countries and its citizens simply handle it better than others.
       If 22 July is not a great film, it is, nonetheless, a quietly profound one.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2018

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mikio Naruse | 山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain)

behind the mask
by Douglas Messerli

Yoko Mizuki (screenplay, based on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata), Mikio Naruse (director) (山の音 Yama no Oto) (Sound of the Mountain) / 1954  

It is somewhat surprising that a Japanese film—based on a novel by Nobel-Prize winning Yasunari Kawabata— made in the early 1950s, seems almost ripped out of the contemporary headlines. If Naruse’s film, in some respects, seems superficially tame, almost slightly “embalmed,” as film-critic Keith Uhlich describes it, some of those reactions emanate simply from the style: the realist settings of the picture (Naruse filmed on sets built to look like Kawabata’s own neighborhood) and his use of almost post-card-like vignettes, each framed with a slightly slow fade-out that suggests a further sense of nostalgia, as in Vincente Minelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis.

     Even more importantly, in this male-dominated Japanese cultural moment, the major figure of the film, Kikuko Ogata (Setsuko Hara), who has evidently replaced the maid in her in-law’s household, seems ecstatic as she goes about her daily duties of shopping, cooking, and cleaning while in near-servitude to her family. The slightly hidden incestuous-like relationship with her kind and caring father-in-law, Shingo Ogata (Sō Yamamura), also dampens some of the emotional resonance of the movie. How can this woman be so seemingly joyful in her situation, we can only ask?
     Yet this is hardly a valentine to the central Japanese values of the day. Shingo’s daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) soon returns home with her two children unhappy with her relationship with her husband, and later, after returning to her marriage, escaping it once more to live temporarily with others before again moving back in with her mother and father. Fusako’s timid daughter seems emotionally scarred.
      Even more disturbingly, Shingo’s main ally, Kikuko—his wife is a rather sharp-tongued complainer, who noisily snores each night—is equally unhappy in her own marriage to his son Shuuichi (Ken Uehara), a kind of spoiled drunk (in a manner very similar to what has been ascribed to the younger Supreme Court Judge, Brett Kavanaugh) who works for his father, and is witnessed by the older man as meeting several nights each week with his secretary. When he does return home, late most evenings, he is drunk and dismissive of his wife, continually referring to her as childish and ignoring any attempts she devotedly makes to please him.
      What Naruse, working outside of many Hollywood conventions, doesn’t reveal is that inside her emotions are, as Uhlich characterizes them, “roiling and bubbling,” as if a volcano might lie within the mountain of the title, emotions sensed by Shingo—particularly since he is now confronted with his past disinterest in his daughter’s marriage—discovering from the secretary that his son also has another extra-marital affair, this, it is hinted, with a singer who has a lesbian relationship with her roommate, the two of whom in their evenings with Shuuichi, alternate musical interludes, hinting that they both share in his sexual activities. Welcome to the Kanagawa Prefecture of the late 1940s!
        Ultimately, Shingo attempts to visit his son’s “other” lovers, but, at the last moment, refuses to encounter them. After all, as a younger man, he too apparently had had affairs. This is, Kawabata and Naruse remind us, a patriarchal society. Yet he is determined to protect his daughter-in-law at all costs by, at least, keeping his son’s philandering quiet.
     What he doesn’t know is that Kikuko is aware of his husband’s sexual alliances and his alcoholic dalliances. The final scene of this sad film takes place on a park path where Kikuko admits to Shingo that she has had an abortion, unwilling to raise a son from the man who has fallen out of love with her; and, perhaps, we suspect, afraid that the son might be too much like his cruel father, a man clearly fascinated with and who himself hides behind masks.
        Only occasionally did Hollywood films of this period attempt such intensive analyses of a family life that has fallen apart. One must recall that Eugene O’Neill’s tragic family drama did not premiere until 1956, in Sweden. This 1954 film, based on the novel serialized from 1949 to the year of the movie, deals with issues that might be seen as already sympathetic with our current #MeToo movement and the continued debates of Roe vs. Wade. Patriarchal society is deeply questioned, and, even though neither father-in-law nor his son’s wife act on their emotions, they have a deeper love and respect for one another than they do for the others by whom they are surrounded; throughout he brings Kikuko home small presents of fish and flowers, almost as if he might be courting her.
       If Naruse’s film might appear, at first sight, a little tame, by the time we reach the last frame that safe world has been completely upended, and we are thrust into a world of different values. The characters, in various ways, reveal what might be described in those days as engaging in unnatural sex, struggles for dominance, and parental neglect. O’Neill’s family seems almost Victorian given the goings-on in the Ogata family. It’s little wonder that Naruse himself described this work as one of his favorites.

Los Angeles, November 9, 2018

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Aki Kaurismäki | Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past)

the kindness of strangers
by Douglas Messerli

Aki Kaurismäki (writer and director) Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past) / 2002

It’s a wide generalization, but I’d argue that most comedies these days are not all that naturally funny. Their humor derives, often, from a kind of maniacal series of events which reveal the absurdity of life along with the bad-boy and bad-girl behaviors of their characters.
     Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (who often writes, directs, and produces his own films), although entirely contemporary in his stories, seems more like a director out of another era, a bit like Pierre Etaix, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tatti, and even Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey, whose films feature sad clowns, men and women who do not even perceive their lives as somewhat tragic but who simply suffer the “slings and arrows” which they almost expect to daily survive. It is only the viewer who perceives their suffering as beyond the normal, which reduces their lives to something that is painfully laughable from our presumably happier perspectives. And like those great comedic directors, Kaurismäki’s heroes are made more loveable by their unknowing recognition that they might be contemporary Jonahs.
     Indeed, you might almost say that the hero of the now-fifth film I’ve seen of this director, The Man Without a Past, might be truly said to have been swallowed up in the wail (if not whale) of uncaring contemporary society. M (Markku Peltola), perhaps a reference to his identity as “man” but surely not without the overtones of Fritz Lang’s child murderer, has arrived in a city (evidently Helsinki) with only one bag. He clearly is at the end of existence, with nowhere to go and utterly exhausted: he falls to sleep immediately upon arrival on a park bench.
      Lest you think that the highly touted Scandinavian-Finnish society is filled only with wealth and kindness, Kaurismäki immediately introduces us to three local thugs (Clark Coolidge and I were threatened by just such figures on our one night in Helsinki, and I encountered other versions of Finnish brutes in Estonia as well), who immediately beat the sleeping visitor, rob him of any money he has in his billfold and steal most of the useable contents of his baggage before again beating him with a bat into near-death amnesia.
      M wakes up in a hospital, having been already pronounced brain-dead by the doctor, and inexplicably detaches himself from his life-saving tubes, staggering away, collapsing at the edge of a small body of water where, nearby, poor Helsinkians have been forced to seek residences in cargo containers.
      Two young brothers find him and carefully bring him “home,” where, despite their own destitution their gentle father and caring mother shares their simple means of gruel, onions, and rice with the stranger, forcing the food into his mouth, cleaning his bandages, and gradually restoring him to “health.”
      Like these outsiders, the sad-sack visitor, now must face a society that demands identification and history in order to even help with aid and public support. A man with no memory has no place in this well-run near-socialist society.
     Yet M, finding a kind of “landlord” willing to rent him a nearby container in which to live—although threatening him with a brutal dog attack if he doesn’t pay up—he calmly cleans, turning this squalid space into what almost appears a true home.
     Finding a job is almost impossible, but the good services of the Salvation Army, which provides these poor folks with regular meals, and the kindness of the hard-faced Irma (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen) eventually leads to a job and, gradually to love, at the heart of every film of this director. 
    There is a kind of understated respect for each other in Kaurismäki’s films that his suffering characters award to one another that provides his films with their dignity and uplifting view of human life. The Man without a Past, in is simple representation of what it truly means to be dependent on “the kindness of strangers,” is so powerful that it frees us to find joy and laughter in M and Irma’s lives (she survives the demanding sacrifices of her daily job only by listening each evening to a heavy dose of rock’n roll), which is up-ended by a seemingly more destructive discovery of actually who, the now lost and found again, M actually is, as his wife contacts him after seeing his picture in a newspaper.
       Fortunately, the wife has now found a new lover, and can only remind our forgetful hero that he lost all of his long-playing records on gambling debts. Her current lover is ready to defend his territory, but the always gentle giant, who incidentally has taken in the supposedly mean watchdog as a pet, is happy to give his old life up. After all, he now has his “doll” (as in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls), the Salvation Army worker who, we know, will happily redeem herself and her new lover’s life.
      In Kaurismäki’s pictures, nothing happens with great drama. The possibility of escaping the harsh worlds which the characters face, is so gradually revealed that neither they or we actually see it coming. It just naturally—an important word in this director’s films—comes to be through the humanity of all the work’s figures, both good and bad.
      What this Finnish director’s films seem to make clear is that no matter how impossible the world seems to be—with soldiers chasing after you, machines and automobiles working against you, love constantly alluding you, the money you once had having completely disappeared—life is still redeemable; the human spirit is always capable of making something amazing come to be. It’s a comic possibility that we all pray for, dream of, imagine for ourselves. Perhaps Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, in her desperate need to be love, was on to something: sometimes, even in the brutal context of a devastatingly bad life, you can, in fact, depend upon the kindness of strangers. Certainly, I have, as has every single character in Kaurismäki’s caring oeuvre.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2018

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mikio Naruse | 妻 (Tsuma) (Wife)

an act of disappearance
by Douglas Messerli

Toshiro Ide (screenplay, based on the novel by Fumiko Hayashi), Mikio Naruse (director) (Tsuma) (Wife) / 1953

The masterful Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse often deals with women at the edges of society— geishas, women trapped in abusive relationships—and with men married to their jobs and feeling frustrated with their lives.
     His 1953 film, Wife contains all of these elements and more in its exploration of an unhappy couple, an everyday worker Nakagaa Toichi (Uehara Ken) and Toichi’s wife Mineko (Takamine Mieko). Their marriage is gradually deteriorating, Mineko being forced to do home sewing and renting out rooms to make ends meet. Toichi is clearly unhappy with both his low-paying job and his unhappy marriage, while Mineko has sacrificed nearly everything to being, as the film’s title emphasizes, a “wife,” which in this case means, given Naruse’s direction, a near endless prostration while serving and removing food, sewing, and, most importantly, accepting her husband’s silence and, later, his brief affair with a former secretary Fusako Sawara (Tanami Yatsuko)—the most banal of extra-marital relationships.
     What’s made clear, although very subtly expressed, is that Mineko is the better business-person of the two (she does double-work as a household servant and a piecemeal sewer as well as renting out three rooms), and if only Toichi could allow her more possibilities—even an occasional movie which he attends with his secretary, or a dinner in a café where one of her renters works as a kind of geisha—their relationship might be restored. But theirs is a totally traditional Japanese marriage, wherein the wife has no role but to serve her husband, that permits no opening up of the very boundaries which also have caused Toichi to lose interest in his wife.
     The other alternative, represented by two of her tenants, a husband and wife (the wife working at night as the geisha mentioned above), would be to simply separate, allowing both to live fuller lives. But, the second, obviously, given the mindsets of both Toichi and Mineko are totally inconceivable.
      Mineko also rents to an artist, a single man frustrated by the lack of women in his life, but nonetheless a creative being who offers some small consolation to Mineko’s loneliness. And an independent woman friend, Sakurai Setsuko (Takasugi Sanae), who visits Mineko’s husband at his office. She also later rents out to a woman being kept by a wealthy industrialist, a kept-woman.
      As film critic Brad Stevens has written, Naruse curtails nearly all of Mineko’s movements to the outer edges of the frame, even snipping out her few travels in space outside of the house:
      Naruse’s meticulously organised patterns of imagery make it clear that the husband enjoys freedoms which, however compromised, are inaccessible to his spouse, even enabling him to have an affair with co-worker Fusako Sawara (Tanami Yatsuko). For most of the running time, camera movements (aside from a handful of minor reframings) are motivated by the husband, the most significant exception being a shot in which Mineko’s independent female friend…visits Toichi in his office, her passage from one end of this small room to another being followed by Naruse’s camera.
      For the most part, such stylistic assertion of agency is unavailable to Mineko; as she walks around the house, her activities are observed by a stationary camera, and when she exits a shot, she is rarely granted enough liberty to pass through the edges of the frame, instead disappearing behind partitions located at the edges of the screen. When Mineko visits friends or relatives, Naruse usually cuts from one location to another, eliminating her journey in its entirety. It is only ten minutes from the film’s end, when Mineko decides to take decisive action by confronting her husband’s lover, that camera movements are determined by her.
     Even if Toichi is also trapped in his loveless marriage, he, at least, has methods of transportation, by train, automobile, and bus, to take him away and apart from his claustrophobic relationship.
     With his boss Toichi travels out of Tokyo and meets up, later, with his former secretary in Osaka. Mineko is more like a prisoner, allowed out only to get groceries and other necessary items. Whereas in most of Naruse’s films the women, even if unhappy and maltreated, move in the geisha and other worlds freely and openly, the wife, in this case, is chained to her dinner table which he transforms on evenings to a sweatshop workplace. Her only contact with the outside world is through her boarders, who, together, do not represent a totally healthy picture of the larger society.

If, finally, Mineko is determined to and successful in stopping her husband’s affair with Sawara, the couple simply return to their unhappy conventionality. There is no escape for this determinedly heterosexual couple, who cannot even live out their traditional sexual values. By film’s end, we realize the “wife” will never become anything else, just as the “husband” will never be able to fulfill his desires sexually or as a worker, a theme explored that same year in another film by Naruse.
     Naruse might almost have described his excellent film No Exit, the play by Jean-Paul Sartre which premiered just 9 years earlier. In short, if the geisha and kept-women of Naruse’s world were abysmally treated, the role “wife” was even more demeaning in post-war Japan. At least the geisha, even at an age beyond her beauty, might still climb the stairs to some sense of possibility; the wife of Japanese culture basically was an act of disappearance.

Los Angeles, October 2, 2018

Monday, October 1, 2018

Jean-Pierre Melville | Le deuxième souffle

stalking death
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Pierre Melville (screenplay, adapted from a novel by José Giovanni, and director) Le deuxième souffle / 1966

Anyone who has seen a film by Jean-Pierre Melville knows that the director is fascinated with crime and the societal outsider. Several of his films not only attend to the plans for robberies and heists but focus on the often brutal elements of such events. In the hands of a lesser gifted director one would perhaps not be able to feel any empathy for these outsider villains, their lovers and families. Yet in Melville’s works, if we do not exactly root for the murderers and thieves, we are nonetheless fascinated by their mindsets and the dangers they undergo.

     The film begins with Gustave “Gu” Minda (Lino Ventura) making a daring prison escape with two others. The youngest and most handsome of the trio easily jumps from a tower across empty space to wall, to which he attaches a rope. The second follows allowing the first to, presumably, make his way down on the other side. Finally, it is Gu’s turn, but seeing already how dangerous it was even for these younger, thinner men, we truly wonder whether Gu is up to the leap, and it appears he too has second thoughts. He almost does fall, but is pulled up by his friend to safety, and both scramble down the rope, at the bottom of which they discover the first man dead, evidently having fallen on his way down or during the arrival of the second. Suddenly, we perceive this elder, the “hero” of our story, has, in fact, gotten his second breath, with the opportunity of now creating a new life.
      But we soon discover just how impossible that will be, again expressed visually when Gu, following his cohort, can just barely leap on the slowly moving train that will carry the two survivors away.
     Clearly Gu has been a quite successful thief, since his sister in Paris, Manouche (Christine Fabréga), who runs a rather expensive small restaurant, lives in a rather luxurious mansion. And it is clear, since she maintains a body guard, Alban (Michel Constantin), that she too has been involved in the so-called family “business.”
      Melville does not use dialogue to tell us any of these things. In fact, there is not word spoken for the first several scenes of the film. But in his attention to detail we are told a story far richer that any dialogue might have revealed. We are not even surprised when Manouche later confirms our suspicions that she is also a kind of thief, and is ready to run off with her brother, with whom, —again without language—we recognize, that she has an incestuous-like relationship.

      The first real sentence of this film is a date and time, evidently when a bar-keeper in Marseilles, 
Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) is planning his own heist. Ricci, we soon discover (again without verbal confirmation) must have been crossed by Gu, since his henchman and two goons soon show up to Manouche’s restaurant, killing her manager and lover, Jacques. Alban, who also works as the bartender, quickly pulls out a gun and shoots down the henchman, with the other two soon after showing up at Manouche’s house, evidently attempting to force her to pay a great deal of money for her survival. Gu, who has come there to seek asylum, saves the day; taking both the goons for a country drive in which he shoots them to death, his signature method of killing.
       Nearly everyone in this “underworld” is almost mute, even Ricci dancers, long cigarette holders in their mouths sing nothing, although you can almost hear them counting out their routine maneuvers under their breaths.
      It is only the police, in particular Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), who speak in full paragraphs. Arriving at the scene of the murder Blot questions Manouche, Alban, and the other workers (the patrons having all run off), and when they refuse to speak ends up giving each them sarcastic alibis. It’s clear he knows these criminals far too well.
      The plot, which is always complex in Melville films, hardly needs repeating; we know from the start in the film that it will involve a three-way showdown between Gu, Blot, and Ricci; and that there will be the inevitable heist, in this case to tide over Gu and his sister upon their escape to another country.

      We hardly need the heavy-handed summaries of the various policemen to piece together the intricacies of story. The director simply counts down the hours through intertitles with the month and day, as we move from the late October of the first scenes through the end of the year and into January, when Gu, now involved somewhat inexplicably with Ricci’s brother, plans to rob a truck filled with platinum bars.
      Ultimately, of course, the police do hunt down the two leaders, Gu and Paul Ricci, physically torturing and manipulating Gu into a vague admission.
       In a kind of “third” breath, Gu escapes from a hospital to capture the Marseilles inspector and his assistant, forcing them to write out a letter of expunction before doing away with them in his usual manner.      
      By the time Commissaire Blot has arrived from Paris, there has been a final shootout between the robbers and their associate, Orloff, resulting in all their deaths. Discovering the letter confessing that Gu had no hand in their betrayals, the world-weary police head simply tosses it at the feet of a nearby journalist, as if it might stand as another kind of silent testament to the murderous criminal.
      Words, in short, are nearly meaningless in this world. And that is the problem. When these men think, they do not speak, do not attempt reason out their ideas through language, but simply act, immediately and impulsively, sometimes simply circling in their actions as when Gu, prepared to make a hit on Gucci’s place, tells Alban to circle three times before he finally determines that something is not right.
     Death, accordingly is always a step ahead or behind them since they have no concept of talking themselves out of inevitability. If the cliché of death being the “silent stalker” makes any sense, one might argue that in Melville’s film these men are the silent stalkers of death. And in their mute dance with death there is a strange kind of nobility.
       We are asked not to judge the actions of either the criminals of this film nor those who mete out the justice. This is, as Melville makes clear, simply a fiction. Yet, I would argue, in his deep attention to details, it is a fiction to which we can only give credence.

Los Angeles, October 1, 2018