Summer 1993 (2017)

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Summer 1993 is a testament to subtleties which can make a film into something imbued with deeper meanings than what we might initially realize. It begins with the title immediately asserting this is a period piece and also implicitly we have the suggestion of the autobiographical. The postcript dedication is the final confirmation.

Otherwise, the film does not project a sense of self-awareness nor does it continually remind us what we are watching. Instead, it works in terms of intimacy and nuanced beats which lay out a world of the past that is piercing for the very transparency it projects. The personal becomes obvious in the ways it is handled with grace and an emotional candor.

This is a story of a small girl named Frida. She owns a pair of beautifully expressive brown eyes. Her hair is curled like a perfect little cherub and she is introduced in the midst of tragedy though we know very little about it. Being a child, she cannot quite understand the circumstances either. Much of the film occupies her head-space and point of view. Conversations waft over her. Things she cannot understand the gravity of. All we know is she has been affected. But even that rarely comes out of her.

She is defined mostly by pensive and measured actions. Her grandma teaches her the words necessary for her first communion. She repeats them obediently. Then, comes the move out of her family home with her new parents — an uncle and aunt — who have agreed to take her to live with their baby daughter.

They are caring and yet as with any change, there is a difficulty in adapting — a disconnect because she must become acclimated to a new life and even as the familiar has been replaced with something novel, we question how the transition will go.

Her doll collection is most important to her — and she plays house with her baby cousin — taking on the persona of the emotionally-detached mother even smoking a make-believe cigarette through her garish mascara. In town, she joins in a game of tag with the local kids and like it always goes — being the one new person — she gets shouldered with the task of being “It.”

She scrapes her knee scampering about and one mother becomes frantic that her child might be infected.  It’s an overreaction but it gives a hint to Frida’s past — the very reason her parents are no longer present in her life. Later there is a solemn conversation held over the kitchen table with all the extended family discussing her as she sits docilely by.

At night she’s lying in bed, saying her prayers and the barely audible notes of a marital argument can be heard between two people who nevertheless seem kind and in love. Life has a way of weighing on our hearts and minds. It is never an easy road to traverse.

When the baby daughter gets lost in the woods, injuring her hand, there is another change. Husband and wife, with prodding from the wife, in particular, agree limits must be put in place for Frida. She can hardly be trusted to look after her sister in this state.

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Even against this backdrop, Summer 1993 is a reminder of the beauty and inquisitiveness of children. Their hands so meticulous, their eyes searching and innocent. In many ways, they are not jaded and troubled by many things as we often are as adults. Still, they are capable of selfish acts, defiance, and naughtiness. They do not understand how their actions affect others besides themselves. What ties us all together is the very fact we all have feelings and emotions. These do not change. They are the universal connector between us all.

The greatest pleasure is that the film very rarely — if ever — feels like artifice. There is such a measured and sensitive eye at work here to be able to capture a moment in childhood and do it without unheeded histrionics.

Better yet are the sweet refrains like the whole family snuggling up in bed together. Double-fisting ice cream as a reward for another successful doctor’s appointment after a whole slew of tests. I was there once as well except it was always Cheetos and strawberry kiwi Snapple.

The other moments are just as real. Frida watches her baby sister tumble into the water and watches wide-eyed as her father jumps in after her. She is scolded for her inaction in the face of the helpless cries for help. Then she drops her grandma’s gift nightdress in the dirt — ungrateful and jealous of her baby sister’s — even spilling milk on it. Her mother tells her to go wash it even as Grandma tries and make concessions.

She likens her plight to that of a Catalan Cinderella but then again for all kids childhood is a bit of a fairy tale even the bad parts. It feels like the whole world is against her. Of course, it couldn’t be farther from the truth but she is blinded by her own childish narcissism.

The fact her adopted parents are so loving, understanding, and have her best interest in mind makes it all the more striking. How can she view the world in that way? One evening she finally gathers her meager belongs, all but prepared to go off on her own, loading her bag with all the necessities including fruit from the kitchen table.

Her baby sister tells Frida she “loves” her and she reciprocates by leaving behind the doll she had packed. It’s undertaken with the sincerity of youth and that’s what makes it so sweetly affecting. There is this gravity to the proceedings even as this innocent girl does not understand all the intricacies of her situation.

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A fitting final scene comes over the kitchen table again. Frida finally seems happier, at least she is getting used to life, but then out of the blue, she asks her new mother how her first mother died? Then, what follows are a row of very honest questions.

Her new mother fields them calmly in a reassuring way so her daughter can comprehend but you also sense there’s a touch of relief as Frida is opening up and willing to talk about the things she’s been aching to know. It’s a moment of deep personal connection. The impact is heady because it is hidden inside something seemingly so mundane in nature. But to those involved, it means the world. It is the beginning of greater understanding, moving them closer and closer to a whole family.

Getting ready for bed Frida spontaneously breaks into tears. For the whole film she has kept it in — remaining surprisingly unemotional — and yet now she can let her guard down. She doesn’t know why she is crying but we have some inclination. Could that be an eye getting misty? Not unlikely.

It recalls one lovely summer I spent living overseas because it is the one and only time in my life where I have lived on the edge of nature where you can hear and see the wildlife and walk around in it. It truly becomes your backyard. But it was in such a paradise where I had to rebound from personal grief as well.

It was not in the Catalan countryside but I was going through the same sense of isolation. Being a bit older I tried to cope in a different manner. What I realized is there is a need to gravitate more toward others opposed to falling away. But even as an adult it is difficult to do. It goes against our impulses in such moments where solitude is our greatest friend. Ultimately, Frida got there and I did too; it simply takes time. What a beautiful elegy to a childhood, to a mother, and, ultimately, the rebirth of a young life in the midst of tragedy.

4/5 Stars

The Only Son (1936)

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Tragedy in life starts with the bondage of parents and children.

The film opens with a single extended scene with the title card reading: Shinshu, Central Japan 1923. Ozu guides us in with his pillow shots framing the story’s sequences with images of his locales which neither serve the narrative nor reveal anything about our characters at hand. But he more than many directors is well aware of his environment and basking in its very contours.

The opening premise has to do with a young middle school-aged boy and his mother. The problem is whether or not he will go onto high school. You see, his father is dead and his mother must eke by a living. They don’t have much money. School costs money.

There are two stories going around. The one he told his mother saying he would not continue his schooling and then the one he told his teacher. His mother only finds out when the man comes by to acknowledge how happy he is for the boy.

Though distraught at first, from that day forward the mother vows to pay for her son to have schooling, first high school and then college. Likewise, he vows dutifully to become a great man so her maternal sacrifice is not in vain.

Flashforward to the present and the now elderly mother decides to pay a visit to her son in the big city of Tokyo. He’s grown now and has a job. But it turns out that things are not as she might have hoped.

First off, he has a couple of surprises for her. He got married and already has a baby son. Also, their home is fairly run-down and humble because his salary as a night school teacher is meager at best. So much for being a great man. It turns out such aspirations are difficult, especially in a metropolis like Tokyo. Look no further than his old teacher who has turned to running a butcher shop just to provide for his family.

However, despite these circumstances, the son throws out all the stops to make a lavish showing of hospitality for his mother’s benefit. After all, he can’t possibly let on how things are actually going. Because that would break her heart. He would have failed her.

So he buys extra chicken, offers small trinkets, and they attend the picture show. Things he probably never would have done if she were not present. Slowly he’s sinking under the surface, borrowing money from everyone who might oblige.

But of course, the truth always finds its way out. She worked so hard to get him to college and the hope of his successes kept her going. The revelation of his current situation pains her heart and she’s forthright in telling him precisely that. She is utterly ashamed as he explains how difficult it is to become a big man in Tokyo. Hard work does not always cut it.

This could be the end of their relationship right there and yet there is another moment. After a horrible accident, he gives all the money they have left to help a single mother pay for her son’s medical bills. It’s a meaningful gesture and right before she leaves, the mother tells her son that she’s proud of his integrity.

All he can think about is how unsatisfied she must be and how much he didn’t want her to come to begin with. His wife concurs he’s lucky to have such a good mother, because by the standards of Japan, she made her child her all so that he might succeed.

Meanwhile, the mother regales her solitary friend back home about her son who has become a great man and his lovely wife and how she can die now without any regrets. All the while we know the full truth but she must save face and so she makes up the most satisfying story she can. Hidden away from view her head is downcast in grief and shame.

What’s striking to the very last frame of The Only Son is the conflicting feelings it provides. It constantly flits back and forth between this false sense of security and contentment to moments of deepest regret.

It never quite allows you to rest on a single one of these emotions but instead requires you to cope with them in equal measures as the scenes are layered one on top of another. First, the mother is happy, then the son is anxious, then the mother is ashamed, then proud. Her son is regretful and finally spurred on to make another go of being a great man. So there’s this lingering sweetness, this not uncertain hope, and yet his mother is in the backroom head bowed, saddened by where she left her boy.

There is no easy answer. There is no definite category. There’s no way to siphon off this person’s emotions from that person’s because they all remain interconnected. That’s what allows this film to make sense and have such an emotional impact as it quietly whiplashes us back and forth between mother and son. We feel for both of them even if their hopes and aspirations seem somewhat misplaced. It’s a film that pains the heart of anyone who hates to see lives in utter distress.

I must confess that I racked my brain for the reason Ozu might spend so much time cutting to shots of the hanging laundry — a recurring motif throughout the film. Surely, there’s some intricacy that I am missing or some subtle symbolism. While that is undoubtedly true, I realized even more clearly that Ozu did not require an overt reason for his shot choices.

Just as our eyes stray to observe the world around us so his camera turns its lens in such a way. It is attracted to faces, rooms, and maybe even the mundane qualities of hanging shirts as the wind softly swirls past. There need not be more than this.

Likewise, I kept on staring at the image of the glamorous movie star up on the wall of their humble home. I was trying to decide if it was Joan Crawford or some German actress I am not aware of. Someone else might be able to distill my ignorance but I realized, again, it did not matter as long as I enjoyed the overall experience.

Ozu can be cast much in the way of the famed woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai most famous for his “36 views of Mount Fuji.” Likewise, the Japanese director took similar forms and topics and unearthed the intricacies of temperament and interrelations which he subsequently revisited again and again.

If you notice, he has simply reversed his normal dynamic of father with daughter and it has become mother and son. Relatively similar origins and yet the outcomes are no less enlightening. So it’s not necessarily about the novel. There can be just as much relish in taking something that we are so used to, like parent-children relations, and recasting them in such a way that we recognize the situations with greater lucidity. Therein lies a space for growth and understanding.

Surely Ozu takes some getting used to. However, eventually his style will age on you and you will come to find the same fascinations he does until your tastes meld and it becomes second nature to see the empathy and beauty in his subject matter just as he seems to. Pretty soon it feels as if you are looking alongside him. If you let him, it can become a thoroughly symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and audience.

4.5/5 Stars

Arigato-san (1936)

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The translated English title of Mr. Thank You somehow comes off insincere as if it’s making fun but there’s nothing of this kind of sentiment in this picture from director Hiroshi Shumizu. It proves to be a cordial exploration of human nature and human kindness played out in the most organic fashion possible. In turn, it’s blessed by extensive on location shooting as well as a wide-ranging cast of players.

What it promises is a charming road film like few I’ve ever seen; self-contained and yet freely spilling out over the roads with meandering ease guided by our eponymous hero. The driver of the bus traversing the road from the rural area of Iku to the big city in Tokyo is known to everyone as “Arigato-san” because when you hear a polite ‘Honk’ followed by an “Arigato,” he’s more than made his presence known.

People appreciate his continuous gratitude and also the courteous favors he does for them along his route. It might be picking up pop records for girls in the hills so they can have quality entertainment. Or for someone else promising to place water and flowers at a deceased father’s grave. He obliges graciously and constantly makes necessary pit stops to accommodate everyone.

The rhythm becomes second nature to us as an audience as well and we gladly follow any diversion the story takes. By the end, we’re so used to the film’s continual visual motif of point-of-view shots followed by an “Arigato” and a rear view of the pedestrians making way and waving our travelers on.

Peppy scoring right out of a Hollywood silent reel comedy does wonders to develop a certain mood on the road. In one respect it matches the jovial demeanor of our protagonist but at the same time, there are slight nuances of more solemn issues merely touched upon. Because it’s a bus that brings together quite the gathering of folks from all walks of life.

If our bus driver is a lovely character full of cheerfulness then his passengers are certainly just as colorful. He can be seen almost like a benevolent symbol of modernity and in some respects, his cohort is one too. She takes the seat right behind him and we gather at first that it’s simply to flirt. But as the story unfolds and we see more interactions those initial preconceptions give way to a more complex reading. She reflects a different sort of progressiveness. A woman who speaks her mind, drinks with the boys, and calls others out for their improprieties. You get the innate sense that she is worldly wise but generally kind-hearted.

The rest of the core group includes an impoverished mother and her daughter who is going to Tokyo for the sake of her family; it’s further implied that she will be forced to take on the ignominious life of a prostitute. Next, is a phony businessman with a handlebar mustache and a penchant for ogling pretty girls. The passengers are rounded out by earthy but nevertheless amiable folks and momentary travelers attending weddings and wakes. Each has a unique destination. Arigato-san transports them all.

For a director as prolific as he was — Shimizu had over 160 screen credits — it’s astounding that he has very little recognition among audiences now, at home or abroad. Yasujiro Ozu, one of his contemporaries and colleagues in their days at Shochiku Studio is of course revered the world over. Some might actually find Arigato-san more accessible in some respects and it’s definitely deserving of more acknowledgment.

Because what it offers up is not only a genial portrait of Japan and its humanity but also some of the inherent plight of the common man in rural Japan. In fact, the film is so affable that some of its undertones easily slip by. There’s a wide range of depth going from humor to surprisingly delicate commentary.

All the while we come to relish the time spent with each one of these individual passengers and especially Arigato-san. When they exit the bus upon arriving at their appointed destination it means something because in such a short time it does feel like we’ve built some sort of rapport with them. That’s one of the joys of travel felt most readily when you make the concerted effort to get to know those around you.

In this particular instance, the film provides deeper cross-cultural understanding and there is the realization that economic depressions were not centered solely around the U.S. Japan had similar if not worse conditions for its populous. And if anything, it makes you realize how the nationalistic movement in Germany or imperialistic ambitions in Japan took root. It comes from people who are weary from economic and social deprivation. They want something better.

For his part, I deeply admire the character of Arigato-san because his purpose is a noble one planted in humility. It seems like he genuinely cares for his neighbors and he readily goes out of his way to increase their joy. On a large scale, things might well seem hopeless but the micro-level shows that Japan was made up of many considerate people. While that cannot alleviate all the suffering of the impoverished it certainly is a jumping off point to instigate human flourishing.

4/5 Stars

The Burmese Harp (1956)

The_Burmese_Harp_Nikkatsu_1956_poster.jpgPut in juxtaposition with Kon Ichikawa’s later rumination on WWII, The Burmese Harp is a romanticized even simplistic account of the Japanese perspective of the war. However,  this is not to discount the mesmerizing nature of the story that is woven nor the overarching truth that seems to linger over its frames.

If anything, it humanizes the Japanese point of view and, rather remarkably, it does this so soon after the war’s conclusion. They were a nation deeply concerned with honor and the only way to get past such an egregious defeat was to frame it in such a way that empowered them for the future.

Because the men who came out of the war unscathed would be the shoulders on which to build a new democracy. You see that even in Ichikawa’s portrayal of the “enemy,” in this case, the English. There is no obvious ill-will. In fact, you could even consider it surprisingly laudatory. Because The Burmese Harp is not concerned with any types of residual politics or long-harbored injustices.

One could make the case it’s a far more universal and a far more moving portrait of the wartime landscape. The story, adapted from a Japanese children’s tale, plays out rather like a parable.

In the waning days of the Burma campaigns, a Japanese Captain named Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni), with a background in music teaches his group of men chorale arrangements which they sing to maintain their morale while they march and during their idle hours. One of their company, Private Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), quickly picks it up and becomes especially skilled at playing the harp to accompany their songs.

One evening they find their position in a local village surrounded by British soldiers in the night. The tense scene is diffused by music in a mutual connection reminiscent of the Christmas cheer in Joyeux Noel.

They learn that Japan has officially surrendered and so they lay down their arms peaceably. Although fearful and demoralized by months of struggle, they resolve to weather it all together. But one of their members is called upon to try and get some of their comrades to stand down before the British blast them to smithereens.

Mizushima volunteers to be the one to undertake this initial task as a liaison to try and avoid the needless loss of more countrymen. It is not to be. Even as the war is already over, it’s this event that proves to be galvanizing in the private’s new position as a missionary of mercy.  After being rehabilitated by a monk, he takes on their dress and shaves his head compelled to give a decent burial to all his fallen comrades.

Moved by the memorial hymn sung over the dead Japanese soldiers at the British Hospital, he realizes what his final calling must be. It’s easy to wager that the film’s most poignant moments occur in conjunction with song. In many of the best interludes, we hear the voices ringing out amid nature whether it’s the shade of the forest or the cleared terrain of a military encampment you can sense the notes rising up into the heavens with the strains of angelic melodiousness.

The same songs lift the spirits of our characters, comforts their souls,  and gives them the resolve to push onward for the greater good.  It has to do with an unswerving belief that each individual life holds dignity. Despite their many spiritual differences, there’s no doubt that this is a conclusion arrived at by both Buddhism and Christianity. Yes, the ugliness is unavoidable. But just as prevalent are immense reservoirs of beauty.

Mizushima is compelled in the inter most catacombs of his being to rescue the bodies of his brothers-in-arms that their spirits might rest in peace for posterity. It seems like such a small even insignificant act especially in response to such a cataclysmic war. But it’s one man’s calling. It is not for a mere man to know the answers to all the plaguing questions. All we can do is ease the suffering. For him, it is something. For him, it is enough.

What lends urgency to the story is the very fact that Mizushima’s entire company is frantically trying to obtain news of his whereabouts as they are getting ready to be shipped home. One of their most faithful messengers is a kindly old lady who learned some Japanese dialect. She can only give them small morsels but they cling to some hope. First, they think he’s been killed. Then, they think they’ve passed him on a bridge. Finally, they get their closure.

The candor is nearly startling especially put in relief with Ichikawa’s later work Fires on The Plain which paints a starkly different picture (or a very different side of the same picture). Likewise, this movie is aided by a script penned by his wife and close collaborator Natto Wada.

What we are left with are clear resounding strains of pacifism but by no means does it feel belligerent. What is conveyed is the sheer meaninglessness of war. However, it’s done through different avenues than his later work.

The film is bookended by the phrase, “The soil of Burma is red and so are its rocks.” The mind quickly flies to the pints of blood that were spilled across this terrain. It’s a grim reminder and yet The Burmese Harp, despite being a bittersweet tale, does boast hope. In the wake of war, such hopefulness is indispensable. You cannot progress without it.

4/5 Stars

Fires on the Plain (1959)

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The opening images of Fires on the Plain nearly catch you off guard. Not only are we thrown into a dialogue sequence that we have yet to grasp but much like Ozu would have a penchant for doing, director Kon Ichikawa photographs two Japanese soldiers head on so their conversation and reactions face the camera directly. It’s the first of numerous times where the film messes around with visual convention. But that’s not the half of it.

Fires on the Plain proves to be a repeatedly idiosyncratic war film while subsequently becoming one of the most appalling. As an audience, we are privy to one Japanese soldier’s listless pilgrimage across the bleak and generally decimated terrain. There’s no goal in sight. No reason even to stay alive. He is stricken with tuberculosis but the hospital, drowning in casualties already, won’t take him because he’s not fatal enough.

His commanding officer, who berated him in the opening minutes for returning to his starving unit, told him to try the hospital again or else use his grenade to kill himself and uphold his duty.

Ichikawa frames his pointless journey with unconventional camera setups that are considerably jarring if not completely detached. Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) lumbers up each hill mechanically. Hacks his way through the underbrush. There’s little meaning to his movements. Any incoming threat seems inconsequential in spite of hikes in dramatic scoring. Still, he wanders through ghost towns and fresh graveyards. Rather haphazardly skewers a stray mutt with his bayonet. Guns down a local inside a hut as part of his constant search for food. Another villager gets away in a boat.

By this point, Tamura hardly cares anymore and proceeds to drop his useless firearm into a river; there are no bullets left. When he’s not alone he joins the most beleaguered band of squatters as they blindly wander toward their evacuation point together but no less pitiful.

It’s not a film to shie away from the stomach-churning, grotesque, forlorn, utterly hopeless realities of what war really is. Fields strewn with dead bodies. Heaps of skeletal remains. Hospitals with abhorrent conditions. Wild tales of men eating human flesh just to stay alive in New Guinea. Wading through mud. Playing dead with incoming enemy fighters. There’s little respite from this onslaught.

It becomes so absurdly hopeless it’s almost funny. What else is there to resort to? In the rain, trampling through the underbrush, first, one soldier sees a pair of discarded boots and switches his worn pair with these. This swapping continues with another man. The first man’s trash is his treasure. By the time our protagonist gets there, the boots left over are completely worn through but his boots have no soles either so he just tosses them on the ground and resigns himself to walking barefoot.

This is insanity. It’s cruddy. Absolutely dreadful imagery again and again and again. There’s a certain point where it simply becomes an act of survival — nearly monotonous in its never-ending, never ceasing plodding toward an ultimatum. We must begin to ask questions. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why must we go through this suffering and inflict pain and injury on our fellow man? We even resort to infighting just to survive.

If you came in with any idealized visions of warfare still intact, Ichikawa’s intent is to rip those preconceptions away limb from limb. There is no good in war. Only vile, putrid, horrible, unthinkable things that extinguish life and crush the human spirit.

Such moments prove to make Fires on the Plain a perfect counterpoint to Hollywood’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) going far beyond their choices in palette. Because Ichikawa’s film takes it’s black and white cinematography and carries it into all aspects of the production. It’s the nitty-gritty, the somber, the absolute disgusting side of war dolled out without much hesitation.

It fits nicely into the world developed in pictures such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and Red Badge of Courage (1951), except one can contend that Ichikawa takes it even further into the abyss. In fact, it would also serve as a fine companion piece for the provocative docu-drama The General’s Naked Army Marches On (1987).

However, not for a moment would I bash David Lean’s landmark epic nor the performances of such titans as Alec Guinness and William Holden. The pictures succeed in their portrayals in part because of their contrasting approaches to the same futility of war. That statement is made in both but the mode of expression is radically different.

If my recollections are correct we never hear explicitly where the action takes place though we can make many educated assumptions. Fittingly, in the last frame, we are told. The Philippine Front, 1945. Not that it matters. It could have been any war in any place.

There are anti-war statements and there are absolute anti-war immersions, arguably none more devastating than Kon Ichikawa’s effort here. Because to be trapped knee deep in this hell hole you know there is no way that such a world should exist. And yet we cannot be so naive to believe that such a shocking scenario is only of the imagination. It’s a troubling film to watch because we can’t help but be assaulted with the truth even as we would like nothing better than to bury it.

How can life get to such an intolerable point where death is perceived to be a greater gift than life? In not so flippant terms, maybe war is hell. Man turned against man. There is no harmony. There is no peace,  only chaos and destruction waiting for us around every corner.

The novel on which the film was based purportedly ends with our narrator taking on a Christian perspective and gaining a more optimistic outlook on Man and life after the war. However, I have few qualms with Ichikawa’s interpretation, though more downbeat, it makes the equally frank assertion that Man is prone to evil and violence. If Man was wholly good there would be no war. But something quakes within us that makes us belligerent. The age-old question remains what or who can save us from this world of death?

4/5 Stars

Summer with Monika (1953)

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If I didn’t know any better I would say what the desires of the kids at the center of this early Bergman picture, sound like the American Dream. Except maybe it’s the Swedish Dream and maybe the main tenets are all but universal to many of the wide-eyed, angsty teens out there.

The lives of Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) have undoubtedly been witnessed countless times. They’re both in unfulfilling jobs. He’s an introverted laborer at a packing house where he’s not particularly happy and his constantly sub-par work ethnic receives the repeated wrath of his superiors. Meanwhile, the spirited Monika spends her days at a grocery store with a skirt chaser. Hardly the ideal environment.

But between Harry and Monika love blooms. He buys her a small trifle. They go to the movies together and she cries over the reveries on screen. This only serves to magnify how unpleasant real life feels, a far cry from the dreams they hold as working-class youth in Stockholm.

However, on a whim, Harry commandeers his father’s boat and Monika leaves behind her two annoying brother and nagging mother for adventure on the high seas (or rather the archipelago). The sun is bright. The water glimmers with personified delight. And it’s much the same for these two as they frolick and enjoy the novelty of this romanticized getaway. Even though the film famously features brief nudity, rather than being utterly sexualized, in more ways it evokes the imagery of Genesis 2 (Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame). The shame comes later.

Right now, they’re yet another iteration of the love-on-the-run narrative that proves you only need a mode of transport and passion does the rest — carrying lovers away on its gleeful wake.

Because at that age we’re all grasping at something intangible that floats above us tantalizing us every day of our lives. There’s not enough experience in life yet to know any better and so we go out and crave these pie and the sky ideals. Until it turns out were really grasping at straws. There’s nothing there for us. Only a harsh reality check.

As they often have a habit of doing, dreams so quickly turn themselves into nightmares and all the hopes that we clung to are dragged through the brush and the briar. So by the end, they’re muddied with dirt. That doesn’t have to be the end, however. Nor do you have to give in to your dreams being trampled.

As in the case of Harry and Monika, you can try and make a go of it the normal way. Grinding out an existence, poor and trying to eke by paycheck to paycheck. There’s a child now and he’s going to school to earn a better life, nagging like a conscientious adult about saving money and making their rent payments on time. There’s the constant bickering when he comes home tired from work and she’s discontent with this very mundane, sedentary lifestyle. There’s no allowance to go to the movies or buy some new clothes.

Soon she’s going to the arms of another man. Divorce is all but inevitable. How could all this happen in rapid succession you ask? Perhaps Summer With Monika is an exercise in heightened drama but Bergman, in essence, seems to be plotting the cycles of life and what hard-edged reality does to you.

It runs you up against the rocks, often destroys all your well-meaning aspirations, and leaves you disgruntled. Especially when we’re young we run that risk but any type of love, even those relationships founded in shallow soil, are rapturous when times are good. It’s a true test of stability when the bad times hit or further still the banality of the everyday. If you are still in love with a person even in those moments, perhaps that’s when you know you have a marriage with staying power.

It didn’t occur to me until well into the picture because I can be slow-witted with a thick skull but early on in the film, we have one of the old-timers observing that it’s springtime. The film is Summer with Monika and that embodies the happy times in the sun. But of course what must follow is Fall where everything begins to fall apart and then there are the bleakest depths of winter which are trying for any relationship to attempt to weather. All Harry can do is look back and yearn for those summer months. Although by wintertime it’s already far too late.

Bergman’s ultimately portentous parable is gorgeously rendered as usual. In fact, I’m not sure if I have ever seen a film by the Swedish maestro that wasn’t so. There’s a crispness to the black and white that while unadorned and unglamorous is nevertheless pure and blatantly arresting. In the moments of free, uninhibited youth it so exquisitely captures that mood while just as quickly shifting into the frigid moments as youthful innocence is forced to die.

4/5 Stars

Paris, Texas (1984)

Paris,_Texas_(1984_film_poster).pngIt occurs to me only someone with an outsider’s perspective would choose to make this movie, which is void of any typical Hollywood flair. No American would have thought in a million years to cast Harry Dean Stanton (a lifelong character actor) and Dean Stockwell (an all but forgotten child star) while capturing such a cross-section of America. Therein lies a moderate amount of the allure in Paris, Texas

We must begin with the locales. There’s little doubt they are indeed as American as they come and yet director Wim Wenders, backed by a joint French and West German venture, has embarked on something distinctly his own. The film’s title perfectly reflects this blending of Americana with European sensibilities. 

Of course, the Heartland of the U.S.A. is evident as well. Anyone who has trekked across Middle America stayed in a cheap motel or found the nearest rest stop knows it well because it turns up so many other places aside from Texas.

It is a film reflecting the degradation of America as much as the austere beauty. Cinematographer Robby Muller captures rundown junk, forgotten turn-offs, billboards, and roadside diners because they are just as much a part of the American experience as any amount of decadence. One might say they are even more indicative of the generally accepted cultural status quo. 

Especially in its opening moments, Paris, Texas readily evokes a bit of the ruggedness of the Old West. What others might envision as the mystique of America with one of its distinctly original mythologies. It is the kind of imagery at home in a Ford picture who was himself one of the foremost purveyors of the American mythos.

The hard-edged twang of Cy Cooder’s utterly distinctive slide guitar score gives us a very concrete inclination of our world. The only time I can recall anything similar might be the minimalist music to go along with Murder by Contract (1958).

Travis materializes in our story almost like an extra-terrestrial life form. He wears his iconic ensemble of a red baseball cap with his suit and tie. Red tones course through the entire film in fact. There’s no missing it again and again. However, in these opening moments, it does feel like Travis never had a true beginning just as he merely dissipates in the end. This almost otherworldly quality readily dictates the entire conventionality of the landscape.

When his brother Walt (Stockwell) receives news of his whereabouts he goes to fetch him. He and his wife (Aurore Clement) are the ones with feet firmly placed in a sort of reality. He is a billboard ad man and they have taken in Hunter (Hunter Carson) as their own son.

Stanton is catatonic and yet there is a near robotic purposefulness to his steps. He has a bit of Forrest Gump but this is not quite right. He undoubtedly is plagued by some form of amnesia, which nonetheless is never fully acknowledged. Walt expects his brother to talk after four years off the grid and he rarely obliges. 

As they travel back to Los Angeles, the movie rolls along leisurely, content to be almost cavalier with its runtime. Because it wouldn’t be a road trip if you didn’t take your sweet time but it’s certainly a European strain of road film.

As such we might easily segment Sam Shepard’s story it into three parts. The opening moments in Texas set the scene, there’s the interim in Los Angeles, environmentally so different, and then the final odyssey back into the heart of Texas.

Surely the film lacks pure authenticity but instead, we are met with a spellbinding subtlety equal parts poetic and mundane. We must only watch the characters a few moments to know they hardly function as we would.

It starts with Stanton and radiates out from there down to his son and finally his long-lost wife Jane (the exquisite Nastassja Kinski ) who is the object of his journeying. There is parental negligence going all but unquestioned. They never seem to cling to bitterness even the little boy seems mature beyond his years, ready to embark to the ends of the earth with his recently arrived father. It’s as if this one quest galvanizes their relationship without question. There is no need to put words to it. They intuitively understand each other as flesh and blood, no matter the years that may have gotten between them.

Stanton himself is a walking corpse who nonetheless never seems in need of sustenance or sleep. And the extraordinary phenomenon, thanks to time, is the establishment of a new status quo, a slightly modified version of the world, which we readily come to accept. Maybe it’s the foreigners perspective I mentioned in passing or a more pensive contentment with the world. I cannot say exactly lest the film loses some power.

Regardless, the final act by some piece of cinematic ingenuity manages to be gripping. Perhaps as an audience, we become more attuned and simultaneously conditioned to the pacing. Because while the journey might seem slight it’s no less of a journey. 

With one concrete lead — a bank in Houston, Texas — father and son set off to find the third member of their fragmented family, staking out the bank with walkie-talkies and waiting for her to arrive. Finally, she does and Travis finally makes contact in a garish back alley peep show.

However, ironically, despite the sullied outer layer, it’s in this environment of anonymity provided by a phone connection and a two-way mirror that allows him to communicate with her in the adjoining room. The pretenses of such a place fall away as the film manages to unearth a tragic intimacy of heartbreak and melancholy in the wake of lost love.

The immaculately staged climax is made up of a monologue — a moment shared between a man and a woman — as he recounts their story. It’s a single scene that must go on for 10, 15, 20 minutes. Except we never realize it. She thinks she is providing a service to the person on the other end of the line, being a listening ear, and she is. But then he solemnly recounts their romance and recognition begins to don on her face.

He pours out his heart matter-of-factly and honestly, turned away from the glass as not to see her in this compromising world. It makes it exponentially easier for the words to leave his lips as she listens captured in every painful recollection just as he is. But there is no emotional outbreak, breaking of glass, or the like. This is purely an exercise in loneliness and regret.

Not until after the fact does the boldness of this scene set in because it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment. We understand the implications and yet we’re desperately trying to perceive the situation, wanting to know if she recognizes him. Even more so we want to know what they will do.

Striking the perfect note of resolution and continued inscrutability, mother and son are finally reunited in a maternal embrace and just as he arrived into the world, Travis fades into the night just as easily.

I can imagine Paris, Texas is a place that is meaningful to Travis just as Nevers and Hiroshima hold importance to the lovers in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). It’s really not a place at all but a part of his identity, a destination he is hoping to get to, a dream he is doggedly pursuing on earth. He is ever searching, always wandering, but in the midst of it, he maintains an unswerving capacity for love. Even though he’s made mistakes we can hardly comprehend, family remains his guiding compass.

4.5/5 Stars

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

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The making of Aguirre, The Wrath of God might be as rich in myth as the film itself which charts a semi-fictitious story of Francisco Pizarro’s expedition to discover the golden kingdom of El Dorado. Not only was it the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s notoriously stormy partnership with Klaus Kinski, but it was also shot entirely on location in Peru — a logistical nightmare in its own right.

Herzog purportedly penned the screenplay in a matter of days while riding the bus with his football club. Meanwhile, many of his resources including his camera and film stock had been purloined from Munich Film School years earlier as required tools of his trade.

In conception alone, it proves titillating as a piece of Spanish history from the point of view of a monk, Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling in a pioneering convoy led by the crazed adventurer Aguirre. But it is colonial history by way of West Germany circa 1972.

The opening images are some of the most breathtaking in the film or maybe in any film. We are instantly hooked as angelic tones herald from above and shrouds of mist engulf the mountaintops. Legions of men and natives weave their way down through the treacherous territory. It feels instantly recognizable.

Because I recall hiking up the side of a mountain one Christmas vacation with friends. As we wound our way up and I could see the edge and the drop off below, I realized rather matter-of-factly, “I really don’t like heights that much.” It comes with playing minds games. Caring too much about where you’re feet are and imagining yourself taking a false step and ending up in the chasm. Tossing some biodegradable object down there is certainly invigorating as it spirals down until you think to yourself that might just as easily be you.

Some of those same friends, more adventurous than me would actually go on to hike Macchu Pichuu the next year. Long story short I wasn’t available but I’m not sure if I would have joined the trip. Far from simply being a long-winded illustration of my cowardice or lack of adventurousness, I think it somehow makes sense in relation to the mesmerizing introduction of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

There are those same perilous heights presented here simultaneously awesome and equally harrowing. For good measure, we watch a container of what looks to be chickens dropped and go hurtling down to the rocks below with a crash. We half expect a couple of people to follow.

This trailblazing along the Amazon River totally embroils them in the muck and the mire. Slaves are seen clumsily carrying a cannon and a lady’s litter in the most forsaken of places. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Next, they tackle the rapids on hastily constructed rafts. If you’re prone to seasickness don’t even dare watch the sequence which is yet another instance of fully enveloping cinematography.

The camera spattered with water is continuously bobbing up and down enough to make even a viewer queasy. The incredulous thing is we are only an outside observer and yet we get impacted so. It becomes increasingly apparent Werner Herzog will readily allow himself to suffer for his art. Not just in this picture but from everything I know Fitzcarraldo (1982) too. He doesn’t fudge on any of the locations. Why do this to himself? Just look at the results for your answer.

Green screens, CGI, studio lots. None of those methods could give us anything half as real as this picture. They seem positively quaint and nondescript compared to the astounding atmosphere he’s able to capture. It’s the same authenticity here validating such laborious works as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Revenant (2015).

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Meanwhile, Kinski totters around the space half like he’s drunk, the other half pure craziness. The film benefits by this razor-thin dividing line between fiction and reality not simply in its environment but also in its actors. He reminds me of the animal magnetism of Toshiro Mifune in a picture like Seven Samurai (1954). You can’t help but keep your eyes on him for the next unthinkable thing he’s about to do.

The weight of Kinski’s crazed performance comes mostly out of the fact that we constantly expect him to do something completely unhinged. He treads dangerously right on the precipice of sanity ready to jump at any moment. Furthermore, Herzog never leaves him alone. His face is constantly being examined time and time again because personal space is all but nonexistent.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God settles into a status quo that is far more pensive than I was expecting. The narrative is full of insurrection but more pervasive is the ever-present dangers suggested by negative space, undoubtedly swimming with stealthy savages. And the fear of the great unknown never ends.

People are killed or die with little fanfare. Those soldiers still living suffer from fever and malnutrition. Their king propped up by Aguirre is an oafish lout. In the figure of Caravajal especially one is further reminded of the oppressive guise Christianity took in this age like many others before and after. Outsiders come in with such a hypocritical superiority complex.

In the end, the only thing Aguirre commands is a raft swarming with monkeys, frankly one of the most indelible images in the film and a fitting point of departure. Though it’s mere coincidence, I watched Terrence Malick’s film Badlands (1973) recently. What it shares with Aguirre which is so captivating is this illusory quality. We have a framework of a conventional tale, in this case, an adventure into the dark murky depths of uncharted territory. And there are moments when we have mutiny, death, starvation, momentary battles but what sets it apart from anything else is the imagery.

Like Malick’s picture, it verges on the dreamlike in a way that is utterly hypnotic. The power is not so much in the excess of things happening one after another but in this continual, unswerving articulation of near monotonous insanity.  In both films, a certain kind of madness takes over and becomes the new status quo. Somehow Aguirre manages to be so immersive and yet leave us still feeling so detached at the same time. The descent into hellish depths is a shared experience, as much documentary as it is historical fiction. But it is also a hallucination.

4.5/5 Stars

NOTE: This is my entry in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON hosted by MOON IN GEMINI!

 

Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

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Luis Bunuel made a name for himself ever since his early work on Un Chien Andalou (1929) as king of the surrealist filmmakers. That and bashing the bourgeoisie. Some might be surprised in finding that Diary of a Chambermaid, adapted from the eponymous 1900 novel of Octave Mirbeau, is a fairly straightforward narrative for him.

From what I gather, that’s not to say its fully faithful to its source but more so it does not send the narrative hurtling into surrealistic visions like many of his other prominent works. What’s not missing is his typical acerbic wit that belittles the lifestyle of the upper class partially through the eyes of a Chambermaid named Celestine (Jeanne Moreau).

Before it’s begun we already know it’s charted out a diverging course from that which Jean Renoir’s Hollywood effort tread. That goes without question because not simply the directors but the systems that they were working under prove drastically different. Thus, there’s little reason to label this a remake. It’s an entirely different beast.

Furthermore, their leading ladies, the vivacious Paulette Goddard, and the aloof Jeanne Moreau could not be more different muses. The latter dame of France projects even a mild indifference to the hoops she’s put through.

Moreau actually received the part over Silvia Pinal who was intent on being in the picture (even learning French for the role). Bunuel was no doubt happy to have Pinal aboard as well but ultimately the French backing won out.

While he did not get his initially chosen leading lady, Bunuel nevertheless was blessed with one of his other most prolific collaborators the young French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere who would go on to work with the director on many of his most prestigious later works.

Celestine, as portrayed here, is not an altogether awful human being — she does show some amount of heart even — but that does not mean she fails to realize the degree of power she has over people.

Yes, she’s only a chambermaid. There’s an elder gentleman who resides in the manor. His adult daughter who oversees much of their affairs. And we have the upstairs-downstairs drama at hand most certainly with gossip being traded. Especially about the Madame’s husband (Michel Piccoli) whose raging libido means he is just about to pronounce his love for anything that moves.

However, in this particular picture, the Monsieur Monteil also has an ongoing feud with the retired army officer next door who is constantly ridiculing him and tossing refuse onto his property. In fact, there are numerous other exemplary moments of wry humor like when a pronounced animal lover annihilates a butterfly at point-blank range his first time using a shotgun. Or the fact that the same man who turns out to be Lord of the manor finds Celestine far too long a name and christens her Marie; that’s what all his past maids went by.

But as Bunuel pictures are accustomed to doing, this one slowly begins to roll out the carpet of perversity masked under refined sophistication. The master has Celestine read to him in the evenings and quite nonchalantly asks to touch her calf. He says she has nothing to fear and otherwise he might be the most charming individual in the home. He’s simply exercising a few whims, after all, he’s advanced in years. He should be given leeway… That’s how the rationalization goes anyway. However, the moment is as cringe-worthy as it is despicable especially in an age where such acts of sexual harassment are finally being brought to the fore and into the light.

Except in a Bunuel picture these proclivities were never really hidden. He tantalizes and nearly taunts you with them. Because this elderly “gentleman” is not the only one. The perpetually vexed husband keeps inquiring if Celestine has settled in because he wants to have a love affair with her. He promises that he’s not a brute though his past history seems to suggest otherwise.

Then, there’s brusque chauffeur Joseph who initially picked her up at the station. He relishes the opportunity of making the goose for dinner suffer because they taste better that way. And he also brandishes callous statements about killing jews after scanning the newspaper headlines. His anti-semitic sentiments are never in question.

The crass behavior doesn’t end there either. The father dies and on the very same day, a darling little girl that Celestine had taken care of is prematurely pulled from the picture as well. Both have dubious shrouds lingering over them. Amid it all, Celestine nearly leaves her post but comes back and the marriage proposals keep on coming from every man. She finally ends up with probably the nicest of the lot. It turns out hurling insults and garbage is almost docile.

Even the priest while not necessarily a wayward figure provides no type of spiritual guidance. He has no wisdom to impart. Instead entreating his parishioners to give to his church. There is no one righteous, not even one.

One of the few moments Bunuel does stray from normal classical filmmaking comes in the final frames. The first time you see it the immediate assumption is your eyes must be playing a trick on you.

But then we see a mass of protesters jump once, then again, and one final time so that they have all disappeared from the screen with each subsequent cut. One final lightning bolt for good measure and the books close on Bunuel’s rueful indictment of the bourgeoisie. It was very much his favorite pastime.

And yet any neat explanation of the film — even if it is more conventional as a narrative — is soon eviscerated by any number of complications. The contradiction in character, political undertones, and even a finale that indubitably has ties to Bunuel’s early career all spring to mind. His picture L`Age d’Or (1930) was decried with a similar protest. There’s no doubt that with each subsequent picture, the director pushed the cinematic boundaries with schemes of visionary ingenuity. Love him or hate him, there is no denying the skill in his craft.

4/5 Stars