Scarlet Empress (1934): Marlene The Great

Screenshot 2020-07-10 at 10.15.53 PM

In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.

A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).

Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.

The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.

Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Marie Dressler) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.

It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.

While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.

The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.

Screenshot 2020-07-10 at 9.34.16 PM

The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.

Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.

But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.

Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.

What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.

Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?

She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.

It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.

Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.

4/5 Stars

Uptight! (1968): Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Uptight was released in December of the same year. It’s a rather unnerving circumstance because the movie was conceived well before the horrid tragedy, and yet this cataclysmic moment haunts the picture. If the struggle for unity was a tough proposition before, how do you begin to make sense of the moment afterward? Now a story that didn’t necessarily need this specificity was inextricably linked to very real events. The film in its updated form literally begins with the wake of MLK.

Only recently did I recognize two separate films that recontextualized Irish struggles during The Troubles with the black experience in the 1960s. John Ford’s The Informer became Uptight with Ruby Dee and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out turned in The Lost Man with Sidney Poitier.

Although I don’t know enough about the nuance and minutiae of these respective histories, I am fascinated to learn if this was merely a coincidence, a marketing strategy someone actually employed, or a small cog in a broader genre conversation.

Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee are easy to tap as the primary architects, one a causality of The Hollywood Blacklist that forced him into European exile, and then Dee, along with her husband Ossie Davis, were two of the foremost black performers and social activists of their generation.

Given this context, it’s not surprising, the film hardly made a blip on the broader cultural landscape. In an era of COINTELPRO, this movie seems more timely than many people realize and a testament to that might just be that very few people recognize the movie. This is not the type of film that would get championed because even today it bristles against some prevailing sensibilities and causes us to reconsider the trajectory of our nation’s legacy.

The FBI purportedly had informants in the crew who helped them keep tabs on the production. The crew, including its director, was predominantly white while the movie was financed by one of the big studios: Paramount Pictures. This is the context of a picture that floundered at the box office.

The film itself is set in Cleveland, Ohio where tensions are high. The nonviolent philosophy of MLK has been brutalized, and the rest of the black community seethes with rage, understandably so. It sets the groundwork for fiercer insurrection. The emerging leadership believes it’s time for a new vision to take its place.

Growing sentiments of disillusionment are made clear early on: “The man from love got his head shot off, and all those people learned nothing.” And they derisively criticize what’s come before:  “Cry, march, pray, that’s the way to win Whitie’s heart.”

Crucial to the film’s core dilemma is the character of Tank (Julian Mayfield). The movie resculpts Victor McLaglen’s carousing tragic turncoat into an even more pitiful figure if it’s possible. Because McLaglen is at least physically imposing albeit neutralized by drink and his own weak-willed failings. Tank here feels like an even sorrier figure. James Earl Jones, who could have been slated for the role, is a muscular, stronger stage presence. Somehow it wouldn’t work in the same manner as Mayfield.

He’s a wretched cast-off grappling for some sense of belonging and searching for people around him who will trust in him and let him be an integral part of their lives even as he backslides. One is Johnny (Max Julien), a member of the local militant movement, but also a lifelong confidante. It seems like the tides of the times are moving and they will leave stragglers like Tank behind unless they get with it.

Ruby Dee plays the other crucial part as Laurie a single mother who carves out an existence for herself as a prostitute. I’m not sure if they’re immediately plausible as a romantic pair, although there’s a kindred spirit between them that feels real with affection as well as reproachfulness. Dee’s imbued with both playing a woman trying to eke by as the world continues to writhe around her.

Because there’s a heartlessness in the face of the impending revolution. Roscoe Lee Brown feels simultaneously crass and charismatic as a man who has gotten fat off a career as a police informant. Black men on street corners stand on their soapboxes preaching black power to the restless masses. Women preach an unswerving Christian rhetoric from their posts. The movement itself is represented by the quiet authoritarianism of a cool cat simply known as B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques).

A deserted bowling alley becomes a forum to air grievances and discuss courses of action within the differing factions: those who believe that Selma, Birmingham, and lunch counters are all old hat. Then, there are others still trying to keep the social doctrines of Dr. King alive maintaining there are legal channels to pursue change for the broader black community.

In this dialogue, one of the most intriguing figures is Teddy (Michael Baseleon). He feels like a James Reeb or James Zwerg type, a white man, and yet a man who earned his stripes in the tussles of Dr. King and Civil Rights. He’s been through the maelstrom. He’s counted the cost and yet to the emerging generation of young black power leaders, his skin betrays him. His ex-communication, even peacefully, from this space, seems to signify a point of no return. None of them know how prescient this will prove to be.

Because under the neon lights of Cleveland’s nightlife, Tank makes his Judas choice — to turn in his best friend — literally trudging through the muddy water of the gutter. He’s been besmirched both inside and out.

The film leans into campier moments from the bar where Tank lives it up and then the local arcade where he has a blast in the shooting gallery before scaring the heebie-jeebies out of some bubbleheaded whites in the funhouse. Blacks and whites alike seem to only exist to string out Tank’s delusions, becoming these grotesque stereotypes as reality (and morality) begin to fragment around him.

The wake for Johnny is one of the most arresting sequences where Dassin again exerts his influence over the material. I’ve rarely seen a sweatier face than Julian Mayfield as he drips all over the scene. The low angles stack towering figures all around that make Tank quake with fear in the presence of everyone. It’s a strangely tranquil space that he fills up with his totally unhinged paranoia as his guilt sets in and closes in around him like a noose.

And then he shares a scene with Ruby Dee running to her for comfort. I can’t quite describe the moment: she’s flailing, gasping for air through the tears, and trying to smack him until she falls over on top of him. She loathes him and loves him and feels sorry for him all at the same time.

As the story is stretched out, I got the sense, even as it remained pretty close to John Ford’s film, that Uptight deserved its own resolutions and universe with a level of nuance fit for its current events. But as we come to understand, this is more poetic and not a stab of purely social realism; it allows us the pliability to accept everything that happens on their own terms.

Whereas John Ford was going into expressionistic territory with inspiration nicked from people like F.W. Murnau, Dassin employs his own kind of stylized language to make sense of a story that he’s an outsider to and also probably still deeply sympathetic towards.

To that end, there’s no churchly absolution to absolve Tank from his sins. He’s literally left in a dirt heap, another sorry life, and another black man left for dead. The upbeat Booker T. and The MGs finale can’t do anything to negate the breadth of this tragedy. Even years later, as a nation, we’re still coming to terms with these events. Because we live in a progressive society encouraging non-violence, and yet in the face of inaction — when nothing seems to change, the call for a more aggressive response is hard to rebuff.

Uptight is not the film I was expecting, but my hope is that more people can see it as a segue into conversations. It tackles the issues of 1968 more overtly than the majority of films of the era. Although it hardly reaped the reward at the time, surely it deserves more consideration now. And if nothing else, it’s another crowning testament of two underrated icons: Ruby Dee and Jules Dassin.

4/5 Stars

Lust For Gold (1949): Biography of a Deathtrap

lust for gold 1.png

The movie opens with a score raging with dramatic tones fit for a title like Lust For Gold. The resulting narrative ploy is not a new one either, suggesting the details of this “unusual situation” were substantiated by historical records and legends of Arizona. It’s meant to provide this obvious sense of real-world ethos.

We find ourselves at Superstition Mountain. A severe voice, strung out with the same dramatic intensity of the music, paints a wild portrait of this horrible place — Satan’s art gallery in the rocks.

His name is Barry Storm (William Prince) — a real figure — and yet for all intent and purposes, conveniently fictionalized to narrate the tale for us. Unfortunately, the man isn’t able to pull off the voiceover like a Bogart or Mitchum. It lacks the hardboiled lip or the inherent sense of noir malaise.

It’s possible to mention noir, even when our prerequisites are more aligned with a western because we are dealing in terms of avarice and the greed found within the human heart. These are the building blocks for any respectful film noir of old where humanity runs amok with murder and deceit. In any regard, this is what the hope is.

Still, Prince comes off lacking from the outset because as an actor he’s a bit of an innocuous blank slate. Even if this is purely how he is meant to function, there’s nothing impressionable about him. But it also falls partially to the anatomy of a faulty story with dialogue practically regurgitated to us to get our pulses going. The effect is moot.

Still, this version of Barry Storm does serve one solitary purpose if only to toss us headlong into this narrative. He’s part unwitting victim, part fresh-faced raconteur and adventurer looking to dig up the famed treasure once belonging to his distant relation “The Dutchman.”

He crosses any number of people among them cocksure explorer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke) and two fellows who act as deputies under the local sheriff: a relaxed fellow named Covin (Will Geer) and the quietly observant Walter (Jay Silverheels).

To their credit, they are the first people who bring some color of any sort to the picture. However, even Geer’s own recounting of the Dutchman legend — delivered in a casual, conversational manner — isn’t able to rescue the dialogue which feels just as straightforward and didactic as before.

The real meat and potatoes of the movie come with a substantial flashback moving the action to 1880, and it couldn’t come soon enough. Because it’s at this juncture we are reminded Lust for Gold has a surprisingly stellar cast, and the best patches of drama come with the biggest stars. Regrettably, they’re never able to assemble in full force spread out across the years as they are.

Glenn Ford is reteamed with Edgar Buchannan from Framed, although this time they’re a bit more dubious and hardened, following the trail of a mythical gold mine. If you were to fashion an approximate reference point the movie, functions a bit like Treasure of The Sierra Madre Lite with everyone gold crazy and opportunistic.

Glenn Ford is not much of a Dutchman. His accent or lack thereof could have used some sharpening if he was really looking to commit, but perhaps, more importantly, he shows himself capable of some vindictive fury before the days of The Big Heat. This is what the story must rely on.

He’s the man who ends up the victor with all the gold to himself and no one else left alive to challenge him when he checks his wealth in the nearest outpost. The whole town’s envious of his cache, and the news spreads rather hilariously through the local gossips. They want a piece of the action because it’s far too much wealth for one man, but he clings to its with near-violent secrecy. There’s not one male or female who’s going to get him to open up about it.

That doesn’t keep them from trying. The best bet is one Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), an educated woman who nevertheless runs the local mercantile and doesn’t have much hope of going anywhere. Her useless husband (Gig Young), hasn’t done anything to alleviate their situation. So, much to his chagrin, she’s prepared to slip off her wedding ring and weasel her way into the miner’s affections.

It works quite well and as with any of these old star vehicles, the movie is most enjoyable when we have Ford and Lupino together. They were both seasoned performers in all the grungy corners of the genre pictures even if this is a hybrid. But what sets them apart is how they both have desires. Sometimes opposing, sometimes convening, and their feelings for one another do become complicated.

To her credit, Lupino plays a far more nuanced part than a simple seductress. She is tired of her life. She is tired of her husband. She’s ready to take things into her own hands, and yet there is some amount of feeling dwelling within her. The Dutchman, for one, is happy to find someone to hold, someone to share his native tongue with. It’s the human face slipped in with the pervading moments of avarice.

Because in the end all parties are pitted against each other in a testy competition for the goods — both in the past and present — weathering seismic avalanches and showdowns up in the rock crevices. Some of these moments, especially crammed within the middle of the story have the pulse of compelling action. It’s only a shame this hybrid noir offering must be so hampered by its own plotting device.

3/5 Stars

My Favorite Year (1982): Dying is Easy, Comedy is Hard.

my favorite year

This is my entry in CMBA’s Fall Blogathon Laughter is The Best Medicine!

In the old days, if you wanted to see actors, you’d go to the stage. Hollywood was the place for movie stars. Lucille Fay LeSueur was given a new name (and a new birth date) only to become one of the most luminary stars of all time: Joan Crawford. Publicity columns were milked for all they were worth and scandals hushed up in equal measure. Archibald Leach donned the much more becoming pseudonym Cary Grant. In fact, he famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Allan Swann (Peter O’Toole) is a creation born of the same dream factory. He is a larger-than-life figure with a fictitious biography and a stage name befitting a gargantuan figure such as himself. He’s entered the twilight years, fading away, and still living off the laurels of his illustrious career. It allows him to maintain mythical stature in the present.

However, he’s allowed himself to become a carousing idol, who’s let himself go. He used to be big. Or maybe it’s the pictures that got small. Because in 1954 everyone is watching TV.

Is this too much like Peter O’Toole already? Although he’s cast more in the image of Errol Flynn or maybe a John Barrymore. Lest anyone misconstrue something, Peter O’Toole was an actor first and a personality second, though he is admittedly an indelible one on par with some of his most prominent predecessors.

My Favorite Year is the kind of movie that plants its flag with nostalgia and if you don’t like it, it’s not going to win you over. For everyone else, there’s time enough to drift back into yesteryear for an hour and a half. It’s altogether contented with its sentimental sense of antiquity be it Buicks or Milton Berle. Because in 1982 and certainly now, there’s a romantic patina about the times. Far from realism, it is most importantly an affectionate send-up.

It imagines a story at the crossroads of the newfound TV generation and the swashbuckling serials of old. When television, as a medium, was still in its infancy and live — more like the theater and radio than film — and you had personalities that existed in people’s living rooms. Comedy Calvacade could be any of a number of shows that were popular at the time most obviously Sid Caesars’ Your Show of Shows.

This is a writer’s room at 30 Rock decades before Liz Lemon. Two of its resident denizens are Alice and Herb. She acts as his comic mouthpiece. Their target is always that eminent tower of jello, Cy Benson, who more than deserves their continual ribbing. Lowest on the staffing totem pole is Benjy Stone and, fittingly, he becomes our willing surrogate.

He’s living the dream in the middle of all the magic, picking up the lunchtime bear claws, and romancing the pretty production hand K.C. (Jessica Harper), who rebuffs all his grandiose come-ons. But he’s not one to give up easily. It’s at the heart of his character.

He wouldn’t be working here rubbing noses with the likes of resident prima donna King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna) or program stalwart Leo Silver (musical legend Adolph Green). You have to believe in the power of entertainment to be there on the ground floor of such an operation.

Thus, when the iconic screen icon Allan Swann agrees to guest on the latest episode of Comedy Calvacade, it seems like the perfect task for Benjy. The bet he has going with Sy makes it personal. He will act as attache — the notorious talent’s constant companion — making sure he makes it to rehearsals and telecasts in one piece.

Swann famously evokes another actor when he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Regardless, this is a part made for O’Toole to fill up and make his own, bringing his Shakespearian bravado and genial wit to a world that otherwise feels twee and conventional. He positively bursts forth with all sorts of magnanimous energy.

The triumphant return of Swann is befitting his reputation. He takes his young guardian under his wing, as it were, returning to the old haunts like the Stork Club. It doesn’t matter that he once got thrown out of the place. He’s shameless enough to grab his old table and pick out the prettiest girl in the place. However, he still finds time for the public, graciously dancing with the lady (Gloria Stuart) enchanted by his romanticism.

It’s this kind of urbanity that sweeps Benjy off his feet as well, informing his own lackluster attempts to woo K.C. And yet over a humble dinner of Chinese takeout in the projection room, there is a chemistry in the air. Watching them watch O’Toole in what very easily could be a scene plucked out of Robin Hood, there’s a light in their eyes. We can sense the suspension of disbelief and the kind of awe movies could engender in a different, simpler time.

There are the travails of Brooklyn where Benjy takes America’s great hero to meet his unequivocally Jewish family (along with his Filipino step-father Rookie Carocca). It has all the trappings of an awkward evening and yet somehow it’s yet another showcase of people forming connections — of a man coming off the screen and being allowed to be among the hard-working people who love him.

That’s not to say there are no instances where we see the man’s faults laid bare. As a man always good for a quote he says, “You can depend on Allan Swann. He will always let you down.”

In the final act, it threatens to be true as the actor plays out his worse narrative. He is a man notorious for going AWOL at a moment’s notice. Still, while he’s not impervious to scandal or drunkenness, womanizing, or any number of shortcomings, there’s an inherent decency he carries about himself.

my favorite year

His greatest shortcoming is fear. He’s crippled by stage fright — being thrust into the arena of live television where his image cannot be monitored — even as he’s too fearful to speak to his estranged young daughter. Really, he’s a shell of a man. Could it be that the mills of Hollywood were lying all the time? For all these years, he was merely an imposter, done up to be extraordinary.

The live taping is best seen without comment. Just know Allan makes his triumphal entry onto the stage, and it’s a cathartic moment; he is allowed his audience and he lives up to their expectations in the most sincere ways. Many of us know the fictions of Hollywood. Benjy Stone is hardly oblivious to them, and yet for a sparkling minute, they are realized for anyone who was ever enraptured by the silver screen, not least among them Allan Swann.

The reason this was Benjy’s favorite year is obvious. He met his boyhood hero. Not only that but for a few fleeting moments the myth became real and the man was alive and in his life as not simply an idol but also a friend. He lept off the screen and he was real and charming and human, but moreover, he made us believe in the dreams of our childhood for the briefest of moments.

Watching him swoop down from the balcony — cutlass in hand — to vanquish the enemy, affords us the fairy tale ending and deservedly so. What a lovely performance it is for O’Toole, and he turns out in spades.

4/5 Stars

Viva Zapata (1952): A Mixed Message of Revolution

viva zapata 1

The place is Mexico City. The year 1909. A contingent of rural farmhands pays a visit to their eminent leader to intercede on behalf of their neighbors. They live a life of poverty and injustice as others gorge themselves on the riches of the land.

For all his progressive well-meaning, it still is a rather sour note seeing Marlon Brando playing national hero Emiliano Zapata,  especially with Anthony Quinn just left-of-center as his brother Eufumio. It seems like a casting opportunity missed just as the movie itself has so many blatant blindspots.

From the outset, these underlying issues slightly neutralize everything Vivia Zapata tries so desperately to embody, a lot of which is of a visceral nature. An old man is dragged across the dusty roads with a rope around his neck by government soldiers. He’s finally hacked free with a machete only to go careening into a cornfield — one of the first visual casualties onscreen.

Likewise, the peasantry begins clacking pebbles together ominously in the wake of horsemen taking their leader away. They are starting to mobilize and unite under a banner of liberty and equality. The grassroots are surging into action.

It’s evident Elia Kazan is searching out a sense of realism between old-school tintypes and post-war neorealism. He’s navigating a way to humanize Zapata as a sympathetic champion of the rural farmer but also make him seem authentic in his visible plight.

Despite its vast reservoir of talent, it falls flat or at least becomes undermined by the faces in the picture that look anything but realistic. It stands out sorely (even comically) against a canvass striving for this intimate, engaging paean of the Mexican revolution.

Furthermore, the story feels like it falls on the wrong side of the border for John Steinbeck who might know the migrants and cannery workers of Salinas and Monterey well, but the universality of that experience doesn’t always directly translate to the aspirations or patois of Mexican farmhands.

Jean Peters is someone I’ve grown to admire and yet as a virginal love interest, although she’s candid enough, the part still feels compromised. The worst infraction goes to Joseph Wisemen, in particular, who sticks out like a sore thumb or for that matter Mildred Dunnock who would do better in John Ford’s pictures. However, now that the air is cleared, we can leave these grievances where they lie and move forward to something more optimistic.

Like all revolutions girded around a cause, we witness how it ably mobilizes the entire population because they are fighting for something they’d willfully die for while their adversary is just striving for containment and holding onto what they already have. They’re radically different perspectives.

My knowledge of Mexican history is so woefully superficial having Zapata and Villa in the same film does me a service. Otherwise, I would probably have them confused. What’s curious is how the film works in passages of time — these almost elliptical increments — where we see more of the aftermath of each subsequent stepping stone in the struggle than grasping the moments themselves.

There are skirmishes in the cornfields and the forests — merciless executions carried out on both sides to enact discipline and reign in radicals, but most of the movie is a social and moral exercise.

viva zapata 3

Zapata aligns himself with land reformer Francisco Madeira who, for all his idealistic shortcomings, seems relatively sincere in returning the land to the common man. However, he comes up against a self-serving mentality embodied by the tyrannical General Huerta.

The themes to be explored are of a valiant nature. Zapata’s trying to raise up a society and a world for his people of freedom only for it to be dictated by war, continual violence, and national corruption.

There’s this very cynical undercurrent to it as well even as Brando’s protagonist fights with a certain dogged and principled idealism. For him, this is a righteous war never sullied by personal gain or public veneration. And yet other men on both sides are only out for their own consolidation of power and their own vainglory. The few allies Zapata has are either compromised or killed.

One thinks of his own brother, Eufumio, who becomes disillusioned by their continual crusade never seeming to end. And sob driven by desperation and drink, he sets himself up as his own private dictator exasperating the mechanisms they had long been warring against. It signals the beginning of the end as their relations splinter at the seams.

Because one cannot live a life like Emiliano Zapata’s without expecting some form of vindictive retribution. For every man who cherishes his name, exulting him as some kind of national savior, there are still more who censure him as a degenerate outlaw.

Although Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) suggests some kind of middle ground — a way to fade off into the background — though this in itself even feels like an illusion. What little I know about Pancho Villa tells me he did not reach the ripe old age of a white-haired man.

However, in its final push, Viva Zapata does not totally repudiate its own message as the name Zapata becomes the ammunition — the brush fire to set the whole countryside alight — so the revolution might continue in the hearts and minds of the common man. It’s a stirring idea just as this film has a great deal to offer in terms of both talent and theatrical motifs.

Ultimately, it proves a mixed message between its roster of dated performances and conflicting aspirations to appeal to a certain progressive ethos. What helps take the sting out of it comes with the realization Kazan and Brando’s collaboration in On The Waterfront was just around the corner.

And Anthony Quinn, though he faced hardships in his career, didn’t do too bad for himself going forward. He was, after all, one of Hollywood’s most unique and versatile talents and a served him well in a truly serpentine career. At the very least, Zapata should lead to a fitting appreciation of him to go with some of its most admirable ideas in service to the downtrodden.

3/5 Stars

Bhowani Junction (1956) and Racial Identity

Bhowani_Junction

“It’s about time the Lord started making all human beings the same on the outside as well as the same on the inside.” – Stewart Granger as Col. Rodney Savage

“They’d only change it back again, the moment his back was turned.” – Ava Gardners as Victoria Jones

Some will easily take offense with Bhowani Junction for its portrayals. To be sure, it’s working in terms of imperialism, British-Indian relations, and biracial identity. Oftentimes Westerners, and Hollywood in particular, are suspect of taking an oversimplified, superficial perspective when we represent other cultures. It could be the “White Man’s Burden,” The Nobel Savage archetype, or even “The Tragic Mulatto.”

Certainly, a lot of these stereotypes — now decades later — aren’t only indicative of a skewed or misguided sense of portrayal. Rather they get maintained through prolonged underrepresentation. It starts with ignorance and the kind of clumsy cultural shorthand that tries to make sense of other people who are different than ourselves. However, its continued pervasiveness lasts partially because it’s never fleshed out or totally dismantled by a flood of new portrayals. In many cases, we’re still getting over this very same hump in the 21st century.

For this reason alone, Bhowani Junction makes an admirable go at offering a slightly different perspective. It’s hard to say the Indian characters get to reclaim their own story because this narrative is still dominated by colonialism like its predecessors.

Granted, we must also still court issues of whitewashing (if not simply with Ava Gardner). You have both Bill Travers and Francis Matthews playing a mixed-race and a native Indian respectively. It feels especially regrettable since an actor like Sabu was passed over for a role.

Likewise, there is something convenient about Gardner ending up with the strapping white man (her fellow Anglo-Indian dies a sacrificial death). Meanwhile, the kindly Sikh she nearly marries out of gratitude is forgotten in the wake of ensuing drama. Still, these are only a few qualms.

The backdrop of the story is of vital importance in order to contextualize what’s going on. The British Empire’s foothold in India is crumbling. You have the peaceful protests of Gandhi sweeping the country. Meanwhile, more militant riots are being instigated by a local troublemaker named Davay (Peter Illing). Deciphering the socio-political climate is hardly easy and that’s why the conquerors usually got it wrong wherever they wind up.

The curious thing is how Bhowani Junction is not about holding the empire together. One of its main representatives, Colonel Rodney Savage (Stewart Granger), knows it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles. What gains importance is the process of leaving well. The primary objective is based on creating stability and relinquishing power honorably with as little bloodshed and animosity as possible.

It’s people like Victoria (Gardner) and her childhood friend Patrick Taylor (Bill Travers) who must figure out where they fit into this narrative. However, it’s noteworthy that the dissociation going on inside her own being goes beyond existing as a mere social pariah. Far from being an outcast, she’s a respected member of the British military and not completely rejected by the local Indian population.

Still, she is different than both. It’s reality and she must come to terms with it. What presents itself is a surprisingly unique perspective for 1950s Hollywood and even if it is imperfect, it proves willing to grapple with history in an altogether different manner. Thus, Bhowani Junction is a welcomed contour of 1950s Hollywood filling in and shading a cross-section of society we very rarely see.

Subsequently, the film does is offer up a case study of racial identity with Gardner caught between three men representative of the three “cultures” tugging at her very being. Because Victoria Jones, half-English, half-Indian, has her affections and allegiances split threefold.

However, Bhowani Junction adds a bit more nuance when it comes to the representation of biracial characters. I will dance around these lines gingerly as I know some might vehemently disagree. I can only speak from my own experience as someone who grew up with a similar background. Even if I am rarely accustomed to this kind of racism or private dissonance, questions of my own identity still creep into my mind from time to time. It’s only natural.

Yes, the romance with Granger and the melodramatics might fall within the realm of accepted convention, but under Cukor’s sympathetic eye, Gardner comes at the part with a ferocity — giving it her all. One particularly scarring moment involves a devastating rape scene.

Far from being a mere lynchpin of the narrative, it’s actually suffused with the terror and concern it should rightfully engender. What a horrible experience to be privy to as Gardner struggles for her life by the local train tracks. In truth, it left the actress so affected she had to make peace with her onscreen aggressor (Lionel Jeffries) off-camera. It’s graphic in movement and emotion and that’s terrifying enough.

Amid the foreseeable beats, there is a far more intimate and engaging story attempting to court themes of a far more personal nature. The hubbub and crowded train depots are momentarily diverting, but they are not Cukor’s prime concern nor his forte. He’s no Demille or David Lean. Give him the relationships, person-to-person, and on this scale, he is a wonderful handler.

Cukor also remains vindicated by history. Because the epiphany that his original structure was ruthlessly bastardized by the studio, through hastily constructed voiceover and other such shortcuts, gives me greater faith in the man. It’s only a shame we cannot see his personal cut of the movie. Not only does the thrown-together bookend narration kill the climax, it feels stilted, wrecking the basic integrity of our story. Alas, what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Historical Dissonance

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is an incredibly intelligent and perceptive director so he probably knew what he was doing. However, when I see Alec Baldwin playing a virulent racist, spewing out slurs, there’s this odd contradiction. Somehow it loses its import if that is what it was meant to have. Because I know the man behind the mask is an avowed progressive. However, this dissonance, thanks to the extratextual association, might be equally compelling for different reasons.

Our actual narrative is based on a true story, albeit delivered in Spike Lee’s own definitive way. We open at Colorado Springs Police Department. Confident and ambitious Ron Stalworth (John David Washington), with a fly Afro, is looking to make a name for himself as a detective. Even in a place like Colorado, it’s a fairly big deal as they’ve never had another African-American police officer.

He will be the precincts Jackie Robinson, and he doesn’t bear the responsibility lightly. Still, he has the youthful entergy to take to the opportunity quickly. For one thing, he’s not looking to be stuck behind the records counter his entire life. He wants action.

His first taste — and his first real assignment — is infiltrating the rally held at the local college for Kwame Ture in order to keep tabs on local “subversives.” These are the days of Angela Davis, mobilization of university movements, and certainly The Black Panther Party. As such, it places Stallworth at a consequential crossroads of history. He plays peacekeeper on the side of law and order, while also looking to change the world from the inside for his “Brothers” who are rebelling against “The Man.”

It strikes me that the conservatives look at something like this with fear. Nixon catalyzed this very same silent majority with his exhortations. But both sides aren’t altogether different — at least how Lee manages to capture them. It feels like Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and other ardent activists, with all their yelling and the raising of their hands in black power salutes, ultimately comes out of a place of restlessness, even helplessness.

Because out on the freeway, they get pulled over, berated, and harassed in the most denigrating of ways. Where whites are given unchecked authority over blacks and thusly abuse their power and the frameworks of society. This is what Ron Stallworth is at war with.

Lee composes the scene in such a telling manner. Because it opens with a song — one I know well and love for its cool vocality — and it’s set against the soft hues of a California panorama only to quickly evolve into the roadside confrontation between white cops and black citizens. Once more the director is working in formalistic contrasts that only help to deepen the disparate ties of his story.

However, he’s also a consummate world builder and not merely in creating a fantastical space, but also by taking us back somewhere we feel like we formerly knew. Looking Glass’s “Brandy” underscores another scene where Ron and Patrice are having dinner together, continuing the vibes, and for me personally, helping to accentuate this sense we are being transported into the ’70s.

All this lays the groundwork for what is at the core of Blackklansman. This is the next phase: infiltration of a different sort. Ron Stallworth will get inside the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, there are a few logistical barriers. Namely, the fact he is very much a black man. It’s an easy enough solution.

He builds up a rapport with none other than the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone using his “white voice,” while one of his Caucasian colleagues (Adam Driver) plays a version of him in person.

Again, the wink-wink parallels between Donald Trump and David Duke are put right there in case anyone should absent-mindedly miss them. Duke too wants to make America great again. It is what it is.

Still, one of the film’s best dynamics is built between the trio of Washington, Driver, and Steve Buscemi because, in spite of their differences, it helps them drum up an electric camaraderie. Aided by Zimmerman (Driver), Ron goes deeper, gaining the confidence of the white supremacists’ gradually, even as incessantly mistrusting types like Felix (Jasper Paakonen) always seems to be testing not only his loyalty but his mettle. It has the seeds of tense drama.

Certainly compared to the timeless visceral nature of Do The Right Thing as a human, social, and political indictment, Blackkklansman is no match. But despite his reputation and political bent, Spike Lee does ponder the dichotomy here as well. You have those striving for militant black power. You have those trying to hold onto the egregious relics of white supremacy. There are the complacent who see the bigotry and fail to do anything about it, even within law enforcement.

Ron is easy to gravitate toward as a hero because he is an African-American man looking to revitalize the police force and their often tarnished reputation. But thanks to Washington, he’s a genuinely charismatic, mostly not-threatening lead. Meanwhile, Duke embodies the ideas of white supremacism going mainstream and somehow becoming palatable, which is a far scarier thought.

But this is equally a story about identity. How we as human beings can be so blinded and narrow-minded. We are a people devoted to rituals and heritage — the way things have been. Where passing as white is seen as a superior outcome and many of us, no matter our background, are juggling identities. For instance, how do you reconcile being African-American and a police officer? It’s just one of the many questions. 

One of Lee’s other evocative exhibitions in crosscutting starts with Harry Belafonte as an old man recounting the horrible lynching of his youth to a rapt audience of mortified onlookers. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the KKK assembly where David Duke makes his grand entrance to install “Ron” as a Klansman.

It’s a visual clash once again between White Power and Black Power. As a caveat, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a movie I have avoided for so long out of sheer apprehension. Not that I would succumb to it, but rather that it would repulse me. Not because I’m some enlightened being; it might actually force me to contend with complicated history. Because Nation as well as Gone with The Wind reflect how cinema itself is so firmly enmeshed with the ignominious prejudices of our nation.

And as such a powerful medium, it can be used to propagate and promote all sorts of messages. I’m not naive enough to believe Spike Lee is the universal soothsayer, and yet I appreciate how he’s willing to confront the issues that run generations deep in the very medium he calls his own.

My mind instead drifts to the very poignant and purposeful inclusion of Belafonte. Here was a man who acted as a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Here is the man who fought tirelessly for greater, more complex representation for African Americans in movies along with compatriots like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

Here is a man at the center of a controversy in the 1960s because, Petula Clark, a white woman caught up in the raptures of their duet, touched his arm on live television. What an unfathomable world we live in. Again, we must question: how can this be?

It galls me there could be people who equate Christianity and “Men of God” to purely a white faith. However, it’s imperative to differentiate that the themes are not solely about holding white people accountable for past sins but actually ousting evil for what it is, then and now. It’s so easy for early-onset complacency to set in. The film’s line in the sand between the then and now isn’t exactly perfect, even as the presence of the real David Duke in the present bids us to take heed and consider soberly.

Blackkklansman is the kind of film you have to consider in light of all the many hallmarks we can laud Spike Lee for. It’s dynamic, boasting its share of humor; at times it’s brutal and trenchant in all manner of ways, slicing and dicing through its material to present us a singular vision and with that an ensuing message.

The story itself makes a brilliant punchline. Imagine. A black cop infiltrating the KKK! The final images are all but a living nightmare.  What makes the film is the continuously startling juxtaposition on display. This is what Lee offers us.The heavy lifting must be done by the audience, working to reconcile and wrestle with the space in-between.

4/5 Stars

Hell to Eternity (1960): The Story of Guy Gabaldon

Helltoetpos.jpgAs someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.

Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.

A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)

Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.

In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.

We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.

The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.

It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.

However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.

Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting.  It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.

Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.

Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.

We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.

It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.

Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.

What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.

However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.

Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.

Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.

And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.

The one figurehead emblematic of the proud foe is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.

So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.

3.5/5 Stars

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars