Friday, December 24, 2010

Nicholas Ray Triple Feature: Bigger than Life (1956) / Johnny Guitar (1954) / Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

Nicholas Ray never won an Oscar or a lifetime achievement award, worked in Hollywood for little more than a decade, and directed only a few canonized classics. His most famous film, Rebel Without A Cause, is remembered for James Dean's iconic performance rather than Ray's direction. Surprising, then, that this was the man whose career launched the auteur theory. François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard sang his praises in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, seeing in his work the possibilities of a newly personal cinema, in which the director was the true author of the movie. When these same critics became filmmakers themselves, and the leaders of the French New Wave, they continually cited Ray as a formative influence. Godard even dedicated his film Made in U.S.A. to Ray, and once declared, in typically hyperbolic fashion, "The cinema is Nicholas Ray!" All this while Ray was ignored in his native land.

What, exactly, makes Nicholas Ray an "auteur?" Upon first glance, he might seem merely a workmanlike, efficient Hollywood director. Unlike his French admirers, Ray was never really an independent filmmaker, rather working under the confines of the studio system. Neither did he specialize in a particular genre, but rather dabbled in film noir, Westerns, Biblical epics, socially conscious dramas, adventure films, and more. But Ray's triumph was to make deeply personal films with popular appeal. Each of his films, no matter the genre, is graced with the same qualities: a dynamic and expressionistic visual style, and a thematic concern for the lonely and isolated. Ray's films also address societal issues like suburbanization, the Communist witch hunts, and environmentalism - themes that were overlooked at the time but which only make his movies more fascinating as time goes by.

Bigger than Life (1956) is perhaps Ray's masterpiece. The story could almost be an after school special: a suburban father begins taking an experimental drug, which dramatically transforms his personality and nearly destroys his family. In the end, though, he recovers, repents, and the happy family is reconciled. Under another director, Bigger than Life could have been an insufferable message movie. Instead, though, Ray uses this plot to launch a freewheeling critique of American society in the 50s. We begin to understand that Ed Avery, the main character played by James Mason, is not fundamentally changed by the drug - it merely unleashes his suppressed feelings about his life, his family, and his culture. The failings of American education, the obsession of consumerism, the banality of suburban life, the superficial distinctions of class, the realities of a loveless marriage - all are targeted in Bigger than Life.

Part of what makes Ray a great director is his ability to dramatize his themes visually, and Bigger than Life is perhaps the best example. The film is shot in the aspect ratio of 2.55:1, an extremely wide format that allows Ray to fill the frame with revealing details. Consider the way Ray films Avery's house. The house is a typical specimen of suburbia, and would not be out of place in Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. As the film progresses, though, the house becomes a visual representation of Avery's character, an extension of his psyche. The walls of the house are plastered with posters of European cities that Avery will never visit. A deflated football on the mantelpiece is a sad reminder of his fading college football days. The spacious interiors and separation of rooms suggest the estrangement that Avery feels from his family.

Ray, who made some of the great film noirs, is certainly no stranger to shadows. In Bigger than Life, they are everywhere. Initially, most of the interiors are shot with muted colors and low light, but Ray ups the contrast later in the film, setting bright colors against dark shadows. Consider the shot below, in which Avery looms over his son, pressuring him to finish a math problem. So many themes of the movie are present in that one shot: the impossible expectations Avery sets for his son, the God complex that the use of cortisone has given him, the ugly demons that overtake his personality. And perhaps above all, Richie, the son, isolated in the foreground, overwhelmed and silently crying.

Richie, in fact, may be the key to the film. Upon a second viewing, it struck me that the viewer's sympathies - and certainly Ray's - lie almost entirely with this little boy. Richie is the wisest character in the film - the first to notice the effect of the drug on his father, the first to question his father's newfound obsession with spending money, and ultimately the one to call the doctor and make his father stop taking the pills. But Richie's mother dismisses his concerns, and his father considers him a failure. "Childhood is a congenital disease, and the purpose of education is to cure it," Avery says at one point. In the end, Avery gives up on even this cynical mantra, deciding to sacrifice his son in an imitation of Abraham slaughtering Isaac. Until a deus ex machina appears, of course, saving Richie and delivering a happy Hollywood ending.

Despite this obvious compromise, Bigger than Life remains perhaps Ray's greatest film: a social satire posing as a domestic melodrama that becomes something of a horror film. It is a movie of ideas, but these ideas never overtake the film's emotional center - Richie. He stands for his entire generation, I think, and he shares some affinities with the hero of Ray's previous film - James Dean's Jimmy Stark. It is easy to see how Richie, too, could become a rebel without a cause.

How to describe Johnny Guitar (1954)? François Truffaut put it this way: "It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western...Johnny Guitar is the Beauty and the Beast of Westerns, a Western dream. The cowboys vanish and die with the grace of ballerinas." That oft-quoted description comes close to capturing the film's wonderful strangeness, its bizarre remove from its own genre. Here is a Western where the gunslinger is a mopey, laid-back guitar player who hardly influences the action at all. The real drama, and indeed the final shootout, is between two women: Joan Crawford's Vienna, a saloon owner who is being run out of town, and Mercedes McCambridge's Emma, a Puritanical cattle rancher who wants her gone. The ostensible cause of the women's enmity is the love of a man, but the film is rife with barely concealed lesbian tension. "I never met a woman that was more man," a bartender says of Vienna, and Emma seems oblivious of all men in her quest to bring down Vienna.

The plot is patently ridiculous, the colors are outlandish, and the film has few of the traditional pleasures of the Western. It's easy to see, then, how Johnny Guitar has become something of a cult classic; it's also easy to see how it could be dismissed as little more than an eccentric example of genre revisionism. But the movie is better than that. Despite all of its ludicrous trappings, the true story of Johnny Guitar is a sincere, affecting one. It reiterates Ray's perpetual themes of loners and outsiders. Vienna is a woman hardened by life and unrequited love, who builds her saloon as a kind of haven. Johnny is a wanderer who returns to his ex-lover, Vienna, for a few days of happiness before Emma's posse descends on the saloon and ruins their paradise.

Johnny Guitar is also an unapologetic commentary on McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist. About halfway through the film, Sheriff McIvers (Ward Bond) is desperate to frame someone for the robbery of a stagecoach, and his gang try to make townspeople testify against each other - a clear parallel to the House Un-American Activities Committee and their attempts to root out suspected Communists. The issue would certainly have had personal significance to Ray. His political views leaned towards the left, and many of his closest collaborators - among them Johnny Guitar's screenwriter Ben Maddow, and Humphrey Bogart - had been targeted by HUAC. Ray dresses the sheriff's gang in matching black, and arranges them in diagonal formations that suggest their gang mentality.

What emerges from Johnny Guitar most clearly, though, apart from these political overtones, is a sense of doomed romanticism. Ray's vivid use of color and space, the melancholic score, and the script's surprisingly moving romantic exchanges do indeed create a dreamlike quality, as suggested by Truffaut. This is not a hard-hitting Western, but a sensitive, passionate one, in which the characters all seem to be wounded and yearning for love.

Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is obscure even by Ray's standards. It was never released on VHS, let alone DVD, and its two main stars were hardly A-listers: Burl Ives and Christopher Plummer. What's more, it has to be asked if it is a Nicholas Ray film at all. The movie was the brainchild of screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and was produced by his brother Stuart; when they were unhappy with Ray's style, they fired him and Budd directed the rest of the film. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has described it as "a kind of litmus test for auteurists," and from that perspective it is a fascinating case study.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, the movie itself is somewhat choppy. Schulberg so resented Ray that he threw away much of his footage, and the narrative is not easy to follow. The story is set in early 19th century Florida, and concerns a game warden (Christopher Plummer) who comes to enforce conservation laws and goes up against a violent bird poacher (Burl Ives). There is also a romantic subplot that goes nowhere.

Wind Across the Everglades
plays like a rough draft of a film that, if polished, could have become something much greater. Nonetheless, the movie is not without interest. For a 1958 film, it is curiously modern in its depiction of the environment. The opening scene depicts, in a documentarylike fashion, how the whims of women's fashion nearly decimated the population of birds in Florida. The main character, moreover, is a strident conservationist who pits himself against a ruthless hunter. The relationship between these two men is the core of the film. Both men are, in their own way, outcasts from society. Despite their professional differences, the two men unite over a drinking game, in an extended scene that seems spontaneous and improvised. Alas, such improvisational techniques are what got Ray fired from the film.

Wind Across the Everglades is less than the sum of its parts, but in some scenes Ray's brilliance is clearly evident. Ray's visual gifts are on full display, though this time he largely trains his camera on beautiful wildife exteriors, as opposed to the interiors of Bigger than Life and Johnny Guitar. A subplot involving a Native American is a classic example of Ray's outsider theme, and the performances he coaxes from the actors are uniformly strong. One only wishes that Ray had been allowed to see his vision through from beginning to end.

What makes a great director? For the famous critic Andrew Sarris, it was the presence of a theme. For Orson Welles and the New Wave critics, it was the extent to which the work represented the man who made it. Others might point to style, or influence. Whatever the criteria, Nicholas Ray seems to have it all.

Apologies for the delay with this post! When I saw these films in July at the Harvard Film Archive, I never expected that it would take 5 months to write the blog post on them. Hopefully, with my college apps almost done, I will have more time for blogging in the future.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

7 Women (1966)

Few directors loom larger in American cinema than John Ford, and few directors are so commonly oversimplified. I make no pretensions of being a Ford scholar, but as I have explored his films over the past few months, I have not been satisfied with any of the generalizations typically applied to him. It has been said that he is primarily a director of Westerns. True, Ford's Westerns are the best-remembered of his films, but his filmography extends far beyond that genre. It has been said that he was a workmanlike director, who saw directing as a job rather than an art. That is certainly the impression that Ford conveyed in his interviews, yet his films are graced with an undeniable artistry, in his painterly compositions and the themes that repeatedly express themselves in his work. It has been said that he was a stoutly conservative man, who could even be backwards in his depictions of race, yet socially conscious films like The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and later Westerns like Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) contradict this theory. In short, Ford remains something of an enigma to me. Although he is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors, I can never quite pin him down.

Case in point: 7 Women (1966). Ford's final film was derided upon its release, as was much of his later work, as being the work of a man past his prime. A few film critics and Ford scholars have challenged that consensus, but the film still doesn't hold much of a reputation - meaning, inevitably, that it is unavailable on DVD and remains something of an obscurity. That is a shame, because 7 Women is one of Ford's most fascinating films: imperfect, yes, but distinguished by subtleties of character, a claustrophobic visual style, and a harsh cynicism that masks a kind of humanism.

In its broadest outlines, 7 Women could almost pass for a Western: in the middle of the wilderness, a group of bandits descends on an isolated outpost of civilization. However, the setting is 1935 China, the bandits are Mongolian warriors, and the outpost isn't a stagecoach or a frontier town but a Christian mission. The mission is run by Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), a rigidly pious woman who betrays almost no warmth, except to Emma (Sue Lyon), a teenage girl whom she has taken under her wing. The other missionaries include a pregnant middle-aged woman, her husband, and several refugees from other missions who seek shelter after theirs is destroyed by the bandits.

This uneasy mixture is thrown into further distress upon the arrival of Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), a cynical and atheistic doctor who outspokenly challenges the beliefs and values of the missionaries. Much of the early drama of the film is psychological, as Cartwright wins the admiration of Emma and brings forth the repressed emotions of the women. Later, the drama becomes more pronounced, as a cholera epidemic rages through the mission and the bandits arrive.

It is curious that Ford, whose films are so populated with strong masculine characters, should choose as his last film a movie with an almost entirely female cast. What is more curious about 7 Women is its tone. Even in Ford's more "serious" films, like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there is quite a bit of comic relief, usually in the form of Andy Devine or John Qualen. But in 7 Women, the mood is consistently somber and ominous. There is a line early on that sets the mood for the rest of the film, as the frenzied Florrie Pethers shrieks out, "This is the last place on Earth!"

That kind of apocalyptic foreboding is well matched with Ford's visual style. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 7 Women was shot largely on studio sets rather than on location. Gone are the panoramic vistas of The Searchers and Ford's other Westerns. Instead, the movie has a decidedly artificial feel. The characters hardly ever leave the confines of the missionary; when they do, they merely stand outside the gates and muse about an outside world over which they have no control. As such, there is a palpable sense of confinement. Ford's use of color, too, is quite atypical. In contrast to the bright hues of, say, The Quiet Man, 7 Women is dark. Muddy browns, dirty greys, and dark purples are ever present.

With all of these anomalies, it can be difficult to look at 7 Women from an auteurist perspective. It doesn't really feel like a John Ford film. With the pronounced and dramatic use of interior space and the lesbian undertones of one relationship, it could almost pass for a Nicholas Ray movie.* Yet upon closer examination, the movie betrays several of Ford's recurring themes. One is the idea of community and tradition. In movies like The Quiet Man (set in rural Ireland) and The Sun Shines Bright (set in the American South), Ford explores the dynamics of fixed communities and their responses to change. His point of view is usually mixed: a combination of affection towards their traditions and criticism regarding their somewhat backwards ways. 7 Women illustrates this principle. Many of the missionaries - the self-described "soldiers in the army of the Lord" - are admirable characters that elicit our sympathies. But Miss Andrews is depicted in a rather unflattering light, as an unthinkingly stubborn adherent to an outdated form of Christianity. In the end, she is doomed to irrelevance, as all of the other missionaries come to reject and ignore her.

The real hero of 7 Women is Cartwright, the atheist. It seems odd that Ford, a devout Catholic, would celebrate her, but then again Cartwright is in many ways the embodiment of the Fordian hero - an outsider, tough, outspoken, brave, and yet compassionate. In the final scenes of the film, Cartwright must sacrifice herself to save the other women. This decision is not revealed with any teary speeches, but simply as the resolve of a woman who knows what she must do. The final moments of the movie are all the more moving because they seem so distanced and cold. There is no sentimentality, and the way Ford chooses to end the movie is brilliant - jarring, disturbing, and not easy to forget.

What, then, can explain the movie's negative reception, and its current obscurity? For one, several of the performances - particularly the supporting ones - are quite simply bad. Sue Lyon is wooden and bland; Betty Field is shrill and irritating. The script showcases some truly bizarre dialogue. And the portrayal of the bandits as a bunch of greasy, brawny musclemen randomly given to fits of uncontrollable laughter is more unintentionally funny than frightening.

Still, these are ultimately minor shortcomings in one of Ford's richest and strangest movies. It is telling that he himself considered it one of his best, and was deeply disappointed by the public's lack of interest. After 7 Women, plans for at least one more film fell through, and Ford retired from filmmaking. But it is a fitting capstone to his career, and the final scene takes on greater significance in this context. "So long, ya bastard!" Cartwright exclaims in a final act of defiance, and we are reminded of that gruff Irishman whose film this was, uncompromising to the end.

*About Ray - I initially planned to make the next post about him. But I saw "7 Women" and felt compelled to write about it. The next entry will be about three Nicholas Ray films, though - "Bigger than Life," "Johnny Guitar," and "Wind Across the Everglades."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sunrise (1927)

Quick trivia question: what was the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture? The official answer is 1927's Wings, directed by William A. Wellman. But in fact, there were two winners that year: Wings won for "Best Production" but F.W. Murnau's Sunrise won for "Unique and Artistic Production." Over time, the dichotomy between those two films has grown even sharper: Wings, a romantic, expensive World War I spectacle, has all but receded from memory - or to be more accurate, is more remembered in name than for its artistic merits. Sunrise, on the other hand, was largely ignored by audiences upon its initial release, but has since become a film school staple and is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, the greatness of Sunrise lies not only in its importance to film history - for combining the sensibilities of German and American filmmaking, and for its array of innovative visual and aural effects - but also in its sheer beauty. This is not a stuffy old silent film, but one of the most ravishing and lyrical films I know.

To summarize Sunrise is to trivialize it. The film involves three main characters: The Man (George O'Brien), The Wife (Janet Gaynor), and The Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston). The Man is a farmer who begins an affair with The Woman, who then convinces him to drown his wife. The Man brings his wife out on a boat to do the deed, but cannot go through with it. The rest of the film concerns The Man's attempt to repair and renew his relationship with The Wife.

Right down to the lack of character names, Sunrise has the potential for a simplistic, treacly allegory. That it is something more is above all a tribute to F.W. Murnau. Murnau was one of the most significant pioneers of German Expressionism - a bold, exaggerated style that utilized high contrast cinematography, oblique angles, and shadows to great effect. It was a style most famously used in horror (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and sci-fi (Metropolis); it also provided part of the inspiration for American film noir. Sunrise does not sound like it would need this kind of treatment. But Murnau uses it to explore the dark side of its protagonist's heart.
Murnau's visual style in the opening and closing scenes - looming shadows, canted angles, and dimly lit shots - reflect The Man's estrangement from his wife, and his tortured sense of guilt. At the beginning of the movie, this estrangement is out of choice; The Man chooses to abandon his wife to elope with another woman. By the end of the movie, the two have reconciled, but after a fateful storm, The Man believes he has lost his wife forever. In shots like the one below, Murnau seems to suggest that without his wife, The Man is quite literally a shadow of his former self.Murnau's visual mastery also extends to his use of superimpositions. Several times throughout the film, Murnau uses these layered images to explore the characters' dreams, hopes, feelings, fears, and nightmares. This kind of effect could be cooked up easily today, but in Murnau's time, it was a painstaking process. Whatever the limitations of the technology, though, the superimpositions still hold up today as evocative, sensuous, telling images.
I've barely scratched the surface of Murnau's innovations. I could also point to his roving camera, in an era when cameras were bulky and usually kept stationary. I could mention his use of Movietone, an early soundtrack system, to include not only a classical film score but also numerous sound effects. But the real genius of Murnau's film is how seamlessly these techniques are woven into the fabric of the story. His direction is never intrusive or distracting, and he knows when to simply pull back and observe. During the long reconciliation scene, Murnau leaves most of the heavy lifting to his wonderful, expressive actors.

I'm reluctant to call any film perfect, but Sunrise comes as close as any film I've seen. The movie was initially overshadowed by movies like Wings as well as The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, released the same year. Within a few years, silent films would be all but obsolete in Hollywood. Yet Sunrise reveals all the possibilities of that medium, and achieves a level of purity and simplicity that few films can claim. With silent films as great as this, who needs sound anyway?

Coming soon to the blog: a trio of Nicholas Ray films!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

Upon first glance, Make Way For Tomorrow looks like an awfully treacly, didactic melodrama. The movie opens with a shot of the sky, a bombastic music cue, and a title card outlining the major themes of the movie - the "painful gap" between "the aged and the young." The whole thing caps off with "the ancient words of a very wise man - HONOR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER." Thankfully, though, this well-meaning but rather overstated opening is hardly indicative of the film that follows. On the contrary - Make Way for Tomorrow is a remarkably subtle film, full of quiet observational grace. It regards its characters honestly, objectively, in all their faults and failings. And yet the movie balances this objectivity with deeply felt empathy. Though the film is 73 years old and tells a simple story of an elderly couple cast out of their home, it is universal in the way that it shows how we all live our lives.

As the film begins, the elderly Lucy (Beulah Bondi) and her husband Bark (Victor Moore) gather their children to make an announcement: they have lost their home to a bank, and need to move out in a few days. None of the children claim to have the resources to support both parents, so as a "temporary measure" Lucy stays with their son Robert (Thomas Mitchell), while Bark goes with their daughter Cora. The children assure their parents that everything will work out, but as Bark is quick to mention, "It never has worked for any one else."

The film picks up with the parallel stories of Lucy and Bark trying to cope with their new separate lives. Robert, ever the devoted son, looks kindly after his mother, but his wife Anita (Fay Bainter) and daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) see her as little more than a nuisance. Bark, meanwhile, makes friends with a local Jewish storekeeper (Maurice Moscovitch), but otherwise feels neglected by his own family.

And so Make Way for Tomorrow proceeds - moment by moment, dealing in insightful observations rather than dramatic revelations. The story may sound slight, but the film's profundity lies in its details - in the embarrassed looks exchanged by the children in regards to their parents, in the way that Bark and Lucy withhold their emotions from their children, in the way actress Beulah Bondi delivers simple lines like "Don't worry about me" while suggesting so much more. Every scene of this film is full of such moments - details of family life that are so honest and observant that they can be painful.

The cast (largely unknown, but uniformly strong) and the writers certainly deserve praise, but at least equally important is the man behind the camera: Leo McCarey. McCarey is not remembered today; perhaps he worked in too many genres to be easily pinned down as an auteur. Moreover, McCarey follows the classical Hollywood tradition of invisible style: the camera shows only what needs to be shown, and the style never draws attention to itself. Still, this is surely one of the film's assets. Not a shot is wasted, and the whole movie unfolds with economy and precision. McCarey always knows where to place the camera. Consider an early scene, when Lucy loudly talks on the phone to Bark, interrupting the bridge game of Robert, Anita, and friends. For most of the scene, McCarey uses two camera set-ups, cutting back and forth between the two. The first shows Lucy in the foreground, with the scowling bridge players in the background. The second is a reverse-shot, isolating Lucy in the background while placing the others in the foreground.Those two shots are deceptively simple. McCarey is actually breaking one of the fundamental principles of continuity editing: the 18o degree rule. In doing so, McCarey creates a tone of awkward embarassment, revealing how oblivious Lucy is to her surroundings. But he also allows us, literally and emotionally, to see both sides of the scene. In the shot of Lucy in the foreground, we see Lucy's excited expressions, hear the happiness in her voice, and as a result empathize with her. In the second shot, we realize just how loud Lucy is, and how she is disrupting the game, and thus empathize with the bridge players. That seemingly simple camera setup is really a microcosm of what makes the film great: an ability to be objective about the story, to understand multiple sides of an issue.

As mentioned earlier, McCarey largely adheres to the invisible style of Hollywood filmmaking. But within the boundaries of that tradition, his shots are often rife with meaning. This ironic shot shows Lucy and Bark gazing at a window display with the advice, "Save While You Are Young" - exactly what they both failed to do.

That shot takes place near the end of the film, when Lucy and Bark are reunited in New York. They spend a few precious hours together - walking in parks, going to restaurants, visiting a hotel they both stayed at, talking about the past - before Bark must leave on a train for California. He is to move in with another son there; Lucy will be sent to a rest home in New York. It is in this final passage that all of the movie's themes become clear. "I figure that everyone is entitled to just so much happiness in life," Lucy tells Bark. "Some get in the beginning, and some in the middle, and others at the end. And there are those who have it spread thin all through the years." Lucy and Bark get one last day of happiness together, and then Bark leaves. In the final shot, Lucy gazes after the departing train, watches it go, and turns to leave the frame as it fades to black.

The studio tried to impose a happy ending, but McCarey refused. As it is, the ending is devastating but perfect. A happy ending would have been a betrayal of the movie's themes. It is a movie that contains great love and joyous moments, but more importantly it is about life's little disappointments, about how bad things can happen to good people for no reason. The title, I think, is ironic. This is not a cautionary tale about preparing for the future. In fact, the movie seems to say that we cannot prepare for what will happen. Tomorrow makes way for itself.

After years of being unavailable on video, Make Way for Tomorrow was released on DVD earlier this year as part of The Criterion Collection. It's certainly well worth your time to catch up with this neglected classic.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Human Condition (1959-1961)

Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition is exactly what it sounds like - a long, sprawling, grandiose epic about war and heroism and patriotism and humanity and a whole variety of other things. Unsurprisingly, it is overlong and overambitious. More surprisingly, it is often a bore. The first film in the trilogy is at least engaging as a conventional war story and character study, but the second and third parts become so prolonged and predictable that when the trilogy finally stopped in its tracks, nine and a half hours after it started, I had lost interest. There is a lot of money thrown at the screen, and a lot of speechifying, and many pretty widescreen vistas. But none of that can hide the film's lack of a meaningful insight into any of the themes it considers.

The Human Condition
was originally released as three films, each about three hours long. In Part 1, we are introduced to the protagonist, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young management trainee who gets appointed to the position of a labor camp supervisor in Manchuria during World War Two. There, he tries to implement his socialist ideals in the treatment of the workers, but is opposed by an immoral and rigidly bureaucratic military system. In Part Two, Kaji becomes a soldier in the Imperial Army and is sent to the front lines. In Part Three, a disillusioned Kaji deserts in order to return to his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama).

If that plots sounds awfully tidy, it's because it is. From very early on, we know where this is heading. The film follows a linear decline: as time progresses, Kaji's circumstances become more dire, he becomes increasingly cynical, and the film's mood becomes all the more somber, its tone all the more self-serious. Even with nine and a half hours to spare, Kobayashi finds little time to develop his characters in any but the most basic ways. Kaji does change over the course of the trilogy, but his development seems perfunctory, always at the service of the plot and Kobayashi's grand thematic aspirations. The films were based on a six-part novel, and apparently Kobayashi was so enamored of it that he cut almost nothing from the book. But his slavish devotion to the arc of the novel doesn't give the film any room to breathe.

On a technical level, The Human Condition is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Kobayashi hired a new cinematographer, Yoshio Miyajima, specifically for the film. He also employed a then-innovative widescreen film format called Grandscope. Kobayashi's direction is clean and clear, but also rather dull. The camera seems to merely record the action. There are many wide shots of landscapes, but one gets the impression that Kobayashi and Miyajima are merely straining for grandeur; the shots lack depth and meaning. In terms of music, Kobayashi lays it on pretty thick, employing loud, bombastic swells to call our attention to anything particularly dramatic.

For a while, The Human Condition gets by on the strength of its cast. As Kaji, Nakadai is eminently likable, and convincing in his descent from sincere idealist to disillusioned cynic. Aratama, playing his wife, is equally good in what could have been a thankless supporting role. These two actors keep the audeience interested, even as the plot follows its all-too-predictable course.

The Human Condition is perhaps most interesting as a social and political document. Released 15 years after the end of World War two, the film - which depicts the entire Japanese army as a corrupt and outdated institution - was enormously popular in Japan. That says a lot about the nation's postwar attitude. The film's existential concerns also clarify why it was so popular; such themes were the staple of 60's "arthouse" cinema.

Still, the fact that the film's social and political context is its most interesting aspect suggests a larger truth - that over time, The Human Condition has become dated and esoteric rather than universal. Kobayashi's literal-minded and heavy-handed apporach to the film renders it curiously unaffecting. It seems to me the Japanese equivalent of a particularly overwrought Hollywood epic, or maybe a Japanese imitation of a David Lean film. Perhaps the only reason why this film is so revered, why the critic David Shipman called it "unquestionably the greatest film ever made," is that it comes dressed up in subtitles and a long running time, making it seem worth more than it really is.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Different Kind of Top 10 List

It is customary for movie critics to finish the year with a list of their 10 favorite movies of the past year. Seeing as I spend much more time watching classics than new releases (I haven't even seen 10 new movies this year), I figured I would present my own variation. These are the Top 10 movies that I saw for the first time in 2009.

I have always been obsessed with movies, but this past year was when my obsession came to fullest fruition. I went through Netflix discs rapid-fire; I went to the library to track down VHS copies of more obscure films; I taped films off of TCM; I got rides to the Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theaters. Unfortunately, I also slacked off when it came to blogging. I was moving through movies so quickly that I thought writing about them would slow me down! So here is an opportunity for me to talk about the movies that made the most impact on me this year - many of which I haven't yet written about.

Limiting this list to 10 proved a challenge, and as a result many great films were excluded. I decided to include a long list of honorable mentions, all of which are just as worthy as the top 10. Without much further ado:

10. Days of Heaven: Terrence Malick's 1978 film begins as Bill (Richard Gere), a Chicago steelworker, accidentally kills his supervisor and flees to the wheatfields of Texas with his girlfriend and sister. This fairly standard lovers-on-the-run plot suggests little of the film's beauty. The viewers sees the story from a distance, through the eyes of Linda, Bill's sister. Her voiceover narration is astonishing in its detail and insight. Ennio Morricone's score is alternately uplifting and haunting. But what remain most of all are the images. The cinematography, by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, captures the beauty and harshness of the natural world like no other film I have ever seen.

9. Woman in the Dunes: Hiroshi Teshigahara's bizarre masterpiece was an arthouse sensation in its day but is now largely forgotten. The script was written by Japanese writer Kobo Abe, from his novel about a bug collector who stays a night at a widow's shack, but is held against his will, forced to shovel out the sands that continually encroach her home. The film is above all an existential allegory, but it is not easily classifiable. It is a variation on the myth of Sisyphus, a psychological study, and a story of obsessive, erotic love. Despite its pretentious trappings, the powerful acting and unsettling mood (symbolized by the ever-sifting sand) make Woman in the Dunes a consistently fascinating film.
8. Grand Illusion: Jean Renoir, like his successor François Truffaut, is one of cinema's great humanists. This 1937 film, about a group of French POWs and their German captor, is a detailed and moving character study, as well as a reflection on the European class sysem. It never resorts to melodrama or easy moralizing. It effortlessly moves from romance to cynicism and back again, with grace and style.
7. The King of Comedy: Of all the collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, The King of Comedy may be the least well known - and arguably the greatest. The film plays like a black comedy version of Taxi Driver. De Niro is Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand up comic who worships late night comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). When he fails to break through in the business, Pupkin decides to kidnap Langford in an attempt to get on the show. The film is undoubtedly funny, but it is also unsettling in its depiction of its delusional, celebrity-obsessed characters. The ending seems prophetic in the wake of today's reality TV landscape. It's also perhaps Scorsese's most experimental film; he toys with notions of reality and fantasy without telling us which is which.

6. Apocalypse Now: When I first saw Apocalypse Now, I loved it almost unreservedly, though I didn't really "get" the ending. Upon subsequent viewings, I think that may be less my fault and more Coppola's - the ending seems less assured and cohesive than the rest of the film. Still, Apocalypse Now is pretty stunning. The idea that war is hell is hardly original; but Coppola expresses it visually like no other war film I have seen. And he does not focus merely on the physical realities of battle, but also reveals the inner psyche of the soldier. Apocalypse Now is far superior to say, the contrived The Deer Hunter or the simplistic Saving Private Ryan.
5. The Apu Trilogy: Satyajit Ray has long been acknowledged by respected film critics everywhere as one of the greatest directors of all time. Yet he remains largely unknown, and most of his films are unavailable on DVD. I had to watch The Apu Trilogy, perhaps his most acclaimed work, on three scratchy VHS tapes from the library. The trilogy tells the story of Apu, who is born in a poor Indian village and progresses through life to become a scholar, a priest, and a wanderer. Ray was inspired by the Italian neorealist movement (e.g. The Bicycle Thief), which used nonprofessional actors and real locations to depict the everyday realities of working class people. But The Apu Trilogy is not just a depressing evocation of poverty. It is universal in its scope and its depiction of family relationships. And it contains images of such great beauty that they can only be called visual poetry. This is what "humanistic" filmmaking is all about.

4.The Apartment: Every time I see Billy Wilder's The Apartment, I can see its flaws more clearly - it's overlong, Jack Lemmon's acting is a little too hammy, and some of the supporting acting is rather wooden. But Wilder's film is uncommonly affecting, and it strikes a balance between comedy and drama that few films achieve. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, an employee in a huge corportation who works his way up by lending out his apartment to his philandering superiors. From this plot Wilder fashions both a cynical satire on the business world and a warm romantic comedy. In addition to the obvious charms of the cast and script, the film earns extra points for its gorgeous, wide-screen, black and white cinematography. Expect more on Wilder - as soon as I see a few more of his films, I'm going to do a retrospective post on the blog.
3. Three Colors Trilogy: Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy is based on the three colors of the French flag, and their respective values (liberty, equality, and fraternity). But like Kieslowski's similarly masterful The Decalogue, the films do not get bogged down in abstract theories, but relate with the trials and struggles of real people. The characterizations - by the screewnriters and Kieslowski's cast - are wonderfully nuanced, and Kieslowski's assured direction and perfectly composed images let us known we are in the hands of a master. I recently re-watched these films, about a year after I saw them for the first time, and they still hold up. I even grew to appreciate White, which I had mixed feelings about the first time around but which I now think is just as good as Blue and Red.
2. Nashville: This film - running 2 hours and 40 minutes, virtually plotless, with a cast of 24 characters - could have so easily degenerated into a rambling mess. But Robert Altman somehow makes it work. It's a satire, a character drama, a musical, and a loopy comedy all rolled into one, and one of the film's strength is that it is so mysterious, so hard to classify. That may not sound very appealing, but make no mistake, Nashville is fun, populated with goofy songs and appealing characters. It also, of course, has quite a lot to say about America in the 1970s. I have already seen Nashville twice, and no doubt will return again and again.
1. Persona: There's a certain tendency, I think, to see Ingmar Bergman as the King of pretension, obvious symbolism, and arthouse clichés. That does him a great disservice, especially in a masterpiece like Persona. The film tells the apparently simple story of two women - an actress who has inexplicably decided to stop speaking, and the nurse who is assigned to take care of her. Bergman is at the height of his powers here, and his sheer command of his form is too strong to dismiss the film as pretentious twaddle. The cinematography is so perfect that every shot seems to be a representation of the film's themes. The result is unsettling, dreamlike, and beautiful - "a poem in images," as Bergman called it.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
- Trouble in Paradise
- The Graduate
- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
- The Decalogue
- In Bruges
- Hiroshima mon Amour
- Network
- Bed and Board
- Sunset Boulevard
- Manhattan
- Swing Time
- Pickpocket
- A Woman Under the Influence
- Ace in the Hole
- Bride of Frankenstein
- Singin' in the Rain

Coming soon to the blog (and I do mean soon!): a review of Masaki Kobayashi's nine and a half hour epic, The Human Condition!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nashville (1975)

A minor controversy arose in the online film scene this past October, when Richard Schickel, film historian and critic for Time magazine, launched a scathing critique of Robert Altman in the LA Times. The occasion was a new book, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, but Schickel spent most of the article denouncing Altman's personal failings, in addition to spouting out pithy attacks on his films ("To make sure the audience never quite understood what was going on, he overlapped dialogue..."). Schickel concludes that Altman's films are hopelessly dated, and will not "survive as anything more than historical curiosities."

A film like Nashville is undoubtedly emblematic of its times - what with the long hair, the hippies, the drugs, and the music. But what Altman manages to do is create a sardonic commentary on the times posing as a celebration of them. For a director whose films supposedly resemble "someone else's not-very-interesting drug haze," as Schickel claims, Nashville is quite critical of the 70s generation, revealing the hypocrisies that lie beneath the world of politics and the entertainment industry.

In describing Nashville, I am reminded of Mark Twain's preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot." Like many of Altman's films, Nashville is essentially a series of character sketches and vignettes loosely tied to a main idea. The film follows no fewer than 24 major characters - a motley crew of hippies, folk singers, housewives, country stars, reporters, and political campaigners - as they descend on Nashville for a benefit concert. The candidate is Hal Phillip Walker of the "Replacement Party" - never seen, though his voice can be heard delivering speeches from his seemingly omnipresent van.

Using the campaign as a springboard, Altman paints a huge, sprawling canvas of American life. Altman follows dozens of storylines and fills each of his widescreen compositions with detail. His camera is fluid, constantly shifting perspective and revealing new details, making us an active observer. Aside from its technical feats, though, Nashville has grand thematic ambitions. The film is essentially an ironic response to Watergate; Altman contrasts the patriotic American ideals celebrated in the upcoming bicentennial with their seeming irrelevance in a disillusioned America. The whole tone of the film is set by the first song, a patriotic anthem sung by country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) that includes the not-so-inspiring chorus "We must be doing something right to last 200 years."

That song is the first of many in the film; Altman has even classified Nashville as a musical. Certainly the songs are central to the film, helping to establish mood and develop character. (Almost all of the songs were written by the actors specifically for their roles). One of the most famous is Keith Carradine's "I'm Easy," sung in one of the film's greatest scenes. Carradine's character, a womanizing folk singer named Tom Frank, takes the stage at a local bar and dedicates the song to "someone special who just might be here tonight." Three women - Tom's habitual fling, Mary (Cristina Raines), Geraldine Chaplin's kooky BBC reporter, and a groupie played by Shelley Duvall - all think that the song is about them. But Tom is actually playing to Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), a housewife and gospel singer that caught his eye at a recording studio a few days ago. They go to bed, of course, but Linnea decides that the affair must go no further, and she returns to her family. Tom tries to incite jealousy by calling another woman, but Linnea remains strong and leaves with dignity. That scene alone, so rich with restrained emotion and subtle characterization, reveals what a terrific director of actors Altman was.

And it is moments like that which make Nashville so rewarding. For all of his cynical commentary on hypocrisy, Altman makes us genuinely care for his characters. So many of them seem adrift - the lonely old man with the dying wife; the waitress who wants to be a singer but can't sing; the country star's son, who manages his father's career but has no life of his own. In many ways, Nashville is about the ways that these characters envelop themselves in patriotic ideals, in country music - in anything - to make themselves feel better. That theme is there in the first song, and it's there in the last one. After an assassination occurs at the benefit concert, a wannabe country singer takes the stage to lead the crowd in a song called "It Don't Worry Me." "You might say that I ain't free, but it don't worry me," they all sing.

Is that song a stirring hymn of unity, or a feeble attempt to cover up a sad reality? Altman doesn't tell us what to think, and the film's ambiguity is what makes it so fascinating - and so frustrating to viewers like Schickel. Since seeing Nashville last month, I have read a number of reviews and essays concerning the film, but I am still far from penetrating its mystery. Altman once said that it depressed him when people told him they had seen one of his films, when what they meant was that they had seen it once. Coming from the man who made Nashville, you can see why.