Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Godfather by Francis Coppola

With its golden-brown hues, Coppola's The Godfather (1972) is an autumnal movie. It describes the fall season in the life of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), a "benevolent" Mafia boss, for those who believe that such a contradiction can exist. In Chinese philosophy, autumn is the season of iron and steel, the matter from which the bullets and knives with which the gangsters kill, are made. Corleone is shot down by a rival gang, ironically because he refuses to assist them in the drugs business, which he detests. That allows the real hero of the film to step to the fore: Corleone's youngest son Michael (Al Pacino), who was meant for a career in society outside the "family," but who now returns to avenge his father.

In a pivotal scene, where we see his bright and youthful eyes turn cold and cruel, he assassinates the rival gang boss and his henchman, a corrupt police officer. Then he hides for a while in Sicily, on native ground so to speak, before returning to take over the gang. He grows as a strategist, but also becomes as cold as steel. The apex of his nihilism is reached when he shows off his ruthlessness by killing the bosses of five rival families, who were ganging up on him, while himself attending a church service. "Do to others all the evil they want to do to you, but do it faster," he must think with a criminal variant on a Christian maxim. The assassination scenes are intercut with the baptism ritual in the church. Michael professes his faith, while outside he is dealing in death.

The three hour film is based on a pulp novel, but raises the material to epic heights, although soap elements are not lacking either. The problem is, that it has no complexity, no ambiguity, and as "just an entertainment" ends up glorifying the gangsters and the anti-society culture of "the family." For a realistic treatment of the mafia as a social problem, read the crime novels by Italian authors as Sciascia or Camillieri, who show how admiration for gangsters (or silence about their misdeeds) can pull a whole society down into gangsterism and nepotism. It is therefore unbelievable to me that The Godfather is often called the “best film ever made” - it is stupid pulp, only good to waste a few hours - the best thing of the film is the music by Italian classical film composer Nino Rota which in fact is much too beautiful for this sordid tale.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Boudu Saved From Drowning by Jean Renoir

In his work made in the 1930s, the legendary French cineast Jean Renoir usually expresses his concern about the large class differences in his country. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) addresses that problem at its very start, when the tramp Boudu looses his black dog, asks help from a policeman and instead is chased away with the threat of prison. An elegant bourgeois lady who makes the same request only seconds later, gets immediate assistance from three constables. This is indeed typical “class justice.” Later, when the tramp tries to kill himself out of sadness for the loss of his dog by jumping into the Seine, he is saved by the kind bourgeois bookseller Lestingois, who invites him into his home for recuperation, and then we get the class struggle on a higher level, between Boudu and the Lestingois household that is thrown into utter chaos by this asocial guest. Indeed, one couldn't be less bourgeois than Boudu!

But the film goes much deeper than only antagonism between social classes. This is a film about total freedom in the sense of Chinese Daoist philosophy, incorporated in the tramp Boudu, played by Michel Simon, who also in real life had Boudu-like qualities. Boudu is almost animal-like, he lives completely outside society. He is untrammeled by any concerns, going his way in total freedom. Or, in the Buddhist sense, he is wholly free from attachments - except to his dog. Being free, he doesn't know love or gratitude. Not bound by any conventions, he is brutally honest: when told not to spit on the floor, but use a handkerchief, he retorts that putting a dirty handkerchief in your pocket is even more unhygienic - in the end he uses the pages of an antiquarian book to get rid of his spit. He is also a "natural man," who even in the bookseller's house prefers to sleep on the floor. He never washes, so you can smell him through the screen. Although a hairdresser later in the film changes his appearance, making even Madame fall in love with him, his character remains the same. He wins a fortune in the lottery and gets to marry the bookseller's maid, but neither money nor marriage have any meaning for him. He has by chance drifted into the bookseller's family, and finally will leave it in the same way, floating down the river from where he came, returning to his life as tramp as easily as changing his clothes. Boudu's freedom is so immense that it is almost frightening.

This simple but meaningful story plays out against the backdrop of charming footage of Paris, the Seine, the Bois the Boulogne and the Marne in the early 1930s, filmed in the long tracking shots that were Renoir's trademark. Boudu is truly Renoir's first masterpiece.
Boudu Saved from Drowning is available in the Criterion Collection.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Japanese Zodiac

That the years in Japan are associated with the animals of the Oriental Zodiac can escape no one who sees their effigies on New Year cards, posters and calendars and who is amazed at the tremendous amount of clay dolls of the Animal of the Year sold in department stores and temples. By the way, 2012 will be the Year of the Dragon.

In the past, these animal signs were also associated with directions of the compass, seasons, days and (double) hours.

[Zodiac animals in the Kushida Shrine, Fukuoka]

The Japanese zodiac consists of the following twelve animals, and rotates in the order given below:
  1. Rat (Ne) - the first year of the cycle. Symbol of industry and prosperity on account of its hoarding abundant supplies of food. The rat is also associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune, as it is shown gnawing on the rice bales on which the deity usually stands. Hours: 23:00-01:00. Direction: North. (2008, 2020)
  2. Ox (Ushi) - patient and faithful, as well as an emblem of spring and agriculture (ploughs were pulled by oxen). A lucky year. Associated with Sugawara Michizane, the deity of the Tenmangu Shrines, who road an ox when driven into exile. Hours: 01:00-03:00.  (2009, 2021)
  3. Tiger (Tora) - the king of the land animals, symbol of awe and terror, but also short-tempered. Tigers never existed in Japan, but were rather common in China. Hours: 03:00-05:00. (2010, 2022)
  4. Rabbit (U) or Hare (Usagi) - Smooth talking, but also an emblem of longevity. A fortunate year. Reminds people of the legend of the Hare in the Moon, pounding rice cakes, or the myth of the Hare of Inaba.  Hours: 05:00-07:00. East. (2011, 2023)
  5. Dragon (Tatsu) - Most important mythical animal in folklore. In contrast to the Western dragon, the Chinese/Japanese one is associated with benevolent constructive forces, as well as good health and energy. Hours: 07:00-09:00. (2012, 2024)
  6. Snake or Serpent (Mi) - Emblem of cunning, but also of the ability to increase money. Regarded with feelings of veneration due to its kinship with the benevolent dragon. The animal of Benten, one of the Seven deities of good Fortune.  Hours: 09:00-11:00.  (2013, 2025)
  7. Horse (Uma) - wild freedom. Represents the element of fire. An ancient animal in Japan.  Hours: 11:00-13:00. South. (2014, 2026)
  8. Sheep (Hitsuji) or Goat - art, elegance and passion. Symbol of a retired life. Not very numerous in Japan. Hours: 13:00-15:00. (2015, 2027)
  9. Monkey (Saru) - Clever and skilful. Symbol of trickery. Very prominent in fairy tales, as Momotaro. Hideyoshi, who rose from commoner to the highest status in the land, was born in the year of the monkey. Think also of the three Koshin monkeys "seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil."  Hours: 15:00-17:00. (2016, 2028)
  10. Cock (Tori) - valor and watchfulness, a lucky year. Associated with the Sun myth and the Ise Shrines.  Hours: 17:00-19:00. West. (2017, 2029)
  11. Dog (Inu) - loyal and protective.  Hours: 19:00-21:00. (2018, 2030)
  12. Wild Boar (I) -  reckless courage and stubbornness.  Hours: 21:00-23:00. (2019, 2031)

Friday, December 23, 2011

And God Created Woman by Roger Vadim (with Brigitte Bardot)

The mid and late 1950s saw a spate of films worldwide about wild, rebellious youth. There are the James Dean films in the U.S., the “sun tribe” films as Crazed Fruit with Ishihara Yujiro in Japan, and Et Dieu Crea la Femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) with a very wild Brigitte Bardot in France. The French and Japanese films are set on beaches, the hangout of young people. These youngsters are both rebellious and hedonistic, they hunt after their private pleasures in an amoral and asocial way, even cruelly so. In a certain way, Et Dieu Crea la Femme can be called a precursor of the French Nouvelle Vague.

As the fame of the director, Roger Vadim, seems to rest more on his relationships with young and beautiful actresses than his films – he was married to Bardot at the time this film was made – one could easily approach Et Dieu Crea la Femme with some trepidation. That is indeed justified as far as the story is concerned, an all too simple tale about a wild woman who drives three men crazy. On top of that, the sexual politics of the film are ultra-conservative, despite the seeming modernity. But the film also soothes the eye with colorful views of St. Tropez in CinemaScope format, and it is breezy and energetic.

But above all, we have the well-known “iconic” shot of Bardot sunbathing. Voyeuristic though it may be, this image of Bardot has become part of our cultural memory. It is also alluded to heavily - in a postmodern way - in Godard's Contempt. Bardot on the beach in St. Tropez blew away the dark shadows of war and austerity in Europe and allowed people a glimpse of the oncoming sixties. That being said, there really is nothing in the film that will steam over your glasses today. Bardot goes barefoot to emphasize her wildness, but on the whole the film it is more modest than the average contemporary advertising billboard. In fact, the scene that shocks us most today for its political incorrectness is that Bardot uses her invalid stepfather in his wheelchair as a shield to ward off her angry stepmother.

Et Dieu Crea la Femme is available in the Criterion Collection.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris ("Contempt," 1963) is the story of the dissolution of a marriage because the wife starts feeling contempt for the husband. It all happens in a day's time. In the early morning there is not a cloud on the horizon: Paul Laval (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) are a happy couple, living in Rome. Paul is a playwright, but that day he gets an offer from vulgar American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the scenario for a film about Odysseus that is being made by director Fritz Lang (played by himself). Remember that this was the period of the "sword-and-sandal" movies, pulpy Italian films about mythological heroes played by muscular American wrestlers, with lots of ladies in skimpy dresses. Paul is promised big bucks for this task, money necessary to finance the couple's new apartment. But Paul goes too far when he – unconsciously? - uses the charms of his beautiful wife to win over the producer.

He leaves them on purpose for a lengthy time together and later, back in their apartment, while bathing and dressing to go out again in the evening, Paul and Camille have a big marital argument. This has been filmed with incisive psychology. Paul keeps trying to be rational, while Camille argues from her emotions. And indeed it is all a matter of feeling, objectively Paul has done nothing wrong, but Camille senses how he tried to use her. It is perhaps also not strengthening his argument that Paul takes a bath with his hat on and a fat cigar in his mouth.

The next day they visit the house of Prokosch on Capri and there the matter reaches a decision: Paul has dropped so much in the esteem of Camille that their marriage is over, although Camille is not at all interested in Prokosch. While its own drama is unveiling, Le Mépris draws parallels with the mythological film Prokosch is making, where Odysseus (Laval) and Poseidon (Prokosch) are rivals for the wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

Le Mépris has been filmed in beautiful colors - stark reds and yellows, a sort of European modernism. The locations are interesting, too, from the Cinecitta studios in Rome shown pastorally empty to the Casa Malaparte with its flat roof top and long staircase on Capri, built by Le Corbusier, which is used in the final part of the film (This house was built in the 1940s by Italian author Curzio Malaparte in which the house also plays a part). The sea behind it is immensely blue, as the Mediterranean should be. Godard also includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "iconic shot" of Bardot in And God Created Woman. And it is fun to see the legendary director Fritz Lang acting himself.

Contempt has lots of style – you will find that certain colorful shots keep turning around in your head.
Contempt is available in the Criterion Collection.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Phantom Carriage by Victor Sjöström

The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) by Swedish director Victor Sjöström is marketed as a horror film, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality it is a Christian morality tale of Sunday School inspiration, decked out with all the cheap and sentimental stuff imaginable (alcohol addicts; brutish violence; fatal illness; the deathbed of a good Christian; a renegade father who tries to breath TB germs on his own kids; an almost suicide of a desperate mother and her children). That is how some people a century ago liked their stories.

Salvation Army nurse Edit (Astrid Holm) lies on her deathbed. She is dying from tuberculosis given her by alcohol-addict David Holm (Sjöström), a man she has tried to reform, but without success. She wants to see him again, but Holm is drinking with a couple of guys in the local graveyard, and hit with a bottle during a drunken brawl. Suddenly, a ghostly carriage with the "grim reaper" on the coach appears to collect his spirit, but instead of carting him off, the Reaper shows him flashbacks of some disastrous scenes from his wasted life. Luckily, as Holm is not really dead, he can still reform and save his wife and two kids who were going to drink poisoned tea. Ouch.

The ghostly carriage finds its origin in Scandinavian legend. It collects only souls that are refused entry into Heaven, and the driver is himself also such a black soul – the last one to die in the old year before the clock strikes twelve. In fact, the present driver is an old buddy of David who died a year ago. He would like to shift his heavy job onto David's shoulders for the new  year. The ghostly carriage has been made properly ghostly by using double exposure, and the director seems to have liked this technique so much that he rather overdoes it. More impressive is the scythe carrying figure of the driver, the “grim reaper,” – this image formed the inspiration for the figure of Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal.

Amid all the tears of this multiple handkerchief film, there is one scene that stands out: at a certain moment, David Holm when chasing his wife, goes berserk and smashes in a door with an axe. Where have you seen this before? It was borrowed lock, stock and barrel by Kubrick in The Shining: "Heeeere's Johnny!"
The Phantom Carriage is available in the Criterion Collection.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Something Wild" (1986) by Jonathan Demme (Film review)

There is one itch we all may have now and then: the wish to get away from it all, if even for a few hours. After lunch, standing in the sunshine outside, you suddenly don't want to go back to your office, but instead lie on the grass in a park, or depart town for the nearest hills and hiking course. On the spur of the moment, you really would like to step out of your humdrum life and do something unexpected. Well, most of us never act on this, perhaps because some additional incentive is necessary. For example, a beautiful, unknown woman who suddenly offers you a ride...

That is what happens to strait-laced yuppie banker Charles Driggs (Jeff Daniels) in Something Wild (helmed in 1986 by Jonathan Demme, who five years later would become famous for Silence of the Lambs) when he meets sexy, wild woman Lulu Hankel (Melanie Griffith). She looks like Louise Brooks from Pandora's Box plus African jewelry for hippie effect, so he should have been warned. Instead of driving him back to his Manhattan office, she in fact kidnaps him and takes him on a wild road trip, indulging in petty crime. Although he keeps protesting, he seems to enjoy the little adventures she exposes him to - including a scene with manacles in a motel.

The Friday afternoon turns into weekend, and she not only keeps him away from his job but also from his wife and children (as he weakly protests). On Saturday, Lulu has him pose as her husband and visit her sweet, knowing mother ("See, Mamma? Just the kind of man you said I should marry"), as well as join a rather silly high school reunion.

There the genre changes from road movie to noir when they run into Lulu's violent husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), who is just fresh out of prison - of course she never mentioned to Charles that she already had a husband. Her buddy wants his wife back and does his own kidnap act - one fraught with real danger. Ray is a guy who oozes violence and sadism from all his pores. The silly game Lulu was playing with Charles turns serious.

In the final part of the movie, another, more rebellious side of Charlie surfaces – he also has a marital secret: his wife is in fact divorcing him and has run away with the kids - and he fights Ray with all he has on behalf of Lulu. It is literally a fight to the death, but as this film was made in Hollywood, we all know how it will end. Yes, and he gets her, too.

Despite the kink in the middle, this is a film that will keep your eyes glued to the screen. It has excellent acting by all three protagonists. Ray is violence incarnate, with a menacing shrewdness; Daniels is exactly the right comic type for the conventional, square guy; and Melanie Griffith is the star of the film, both alluring and dangerous, and totally reckless - she really looks as if she might do anything. Director Demme has infused the film with the right amount of weirdness and black humor.

A pity that this kind of off-beat movie can't be made anymore in today's degenerate Hollywood, which is dominated by safe, "template" stories and cardboard characters and therefore only turns out forgettable junk. Not to speak of bringing a “three-dimensional” woman like Melanie Griffith to the screen...
Something Wild is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Nights of Cabiria" (1957) by Fellini (Film review)

Thanks to the beautiful story and wonderful performance by actress Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) is Frederico Fellini's most moving film, about a prostitute who shows great resilience in the face of life's tragedies and disappointments. She is both a victim and a survivor. It reminded me of a film made in more or less the same period by Japanese director Mikio Naruse, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs, in which a bar hostess who tries to realize a better life each time is pushed back by fate.

Cabiria is a prostitute living on the outskirts of Rome. She owns a stone shack and has a reasonable income, but is also the envy of unscrupulous boyfriends. At the start of the film, she is thrown into the river by her man who then makes off with her purse. This will be echoed at the end of the film, when her money is stolen again by another guy she trusted.

In between, we have several episodes from Cabiria's life: she is taken home by a famous film star, only to have to spend the night in the bathroom when his fiancee appears unexpectedly (Fellini doesn't fall into the Hollywood trap of Pretty Girl); she joins a pilgrimage to a holy shrine sincerely believing that a miracle will happen, only to realize the lies of religion; and she meets Oscar, a mild-mannered accountant, who professes to be in love with her and doesn't ask questions about her life. Will she finally become happy?

Of course not. This is Italia and not California, our realistic world and not dreamland. What this great film teaches us is that it is futile and even dangerous to have blind faith in people, in chance and in religion. But it also reminds us that, whatever happens, life is precious. It vividly demonstrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome terrible personal crises.

For the wonderful thing is that Cabiria, this small, sprightly and energetic woman, each time picks herself up and carries on with her life. Each time, she has the strength to move on.

During the film, Cabiria learns about life, she is a better person at the end than she was at the beginning. When she sees a solitary man distributing food to the poor in the fields outside Rome, she realizes that it is our own actions that count.

Her experiences teach her to live her life free from illusions. That is the only way to take control and work towards a better future. At the end of the film, Cabiria has lost money and love, but she has won hope. As viewers we trust she will be able to realize a better future.

The part of Cabiria is wonderfully played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. The early Cabiria is thick-skinned and her mouth is her largest organ (Italian-style) - even when she has been saved from the river she gives a tremendous verbal broadside to her rescuers when they ask unwelcome questions. Here, Masina plays for laughs alone, but gradually the veil of comedy is lifted and we get a glimpse of the real Cabiria, who has never experienced love but who is capable of deep feelings. She is even a bit sentimental. As viewers, we gradually start to love her and follow her with interest on her journey of self-discovery. Thanks in large part to Giuletta Masina, Cabiria is the most touching and realistic creation in all Fellini's films.

Watching this magic film is like a spiritual experience.

  • The food distribution scene was cut out by the Catholic censors who regarded it as criticism of the Church whose task it is to feed the destitute.
  • Cabiria is also the title of a silent historical drama from 1914, wholly unrelated as it is about the trek of Hannibal over the Alps. 
  • Le Notti di Cabiria won the best foreign film Oscar in 1957 and Giulietta Masina won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Hollywood couldn't keep its hands off the film and remade it as an empty musical called “Sweet Charity” (with Shirley MacLaine playing the lead role).
Nights of Cabiria is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

Monday, December 5, 2011

"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) by Carl Dreyer (Film review)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer is a film about faces. Dreyer uses a special cinematic language that consists of incessant, sometimes brutal close-ups (coupled with daring camera angles). It is as if the director wanted to study the grammar of faces. With great psychological authenticity, the characters are revealed in all their nakedness.

The actress Renee Maria Falconetti who plays the role of Joan (Jeanne d'Arc) is simply mesmerizing. Her beatific face - without any make-up for the film - is usually lifted upwards (towards an imaginary Heaven?). She strongly brings out Joan's innate beauty and strength, and faces her clerical captors with dignity and humility.

The judges and wardens, in contrast, are false, unthinking, grotesque, bored, decadent, evil, in short, the type of faces you can meet daily on the street. They are us. In the film, they are also the face of the organized church. It is a wonder that Joan, while being tortured by these men, can still believe that goodness exists in the world.

This impressive film is not a historical account of Joan's life, showing her military exploits. It is also not a nationalistic vehicle, the way the image of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is used in France in times of distress, such as WWI. And, happily, it is also not a torture movie like The Passion of Christ. Dreyer only shows us Joan's trial and subsequent execution. The trial is held by churchmen in a room in the castle where Joan is prisoner. We, too, are confined in these spaces for almost the whole film's length - anything obviously cinematic from Joan's life has been left out.

The film is based on an authentic document: the original deposition of Joan's trial in 1431 (here condensed from four months to one day). Tried for heresy and blasphemy, she faces her main enemy, Bishop Cauchon, who places various wily, semantic traps in her way. She evades them all. It is only under heavy pressure - the threat of torture - that she finally signs a confession, only to retract it almost immediately because she feels she would betray herself. She then gets the maximum punishment and is burned at the stake.

This is a most moving film, perhaps thanks to its conscious limitations. It is also the coming together of an actress who gives a breathtaking performance and a director at his innovative best.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is available in the Criterion Collection. 
(Revised August 2014)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Japanese Film: "Days of Youth" (1929) by Ozu Yasujiro

Days of Youth (1929, Wakaki Hi) was Ozu's 8th film and his first full-length feature film. It is also the first film by Ozu that has been preserved intact. Ozu started his life as director making several "student comedies" with nonsensical gags and this is one of them. The influence of American films is noticeable (for example Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and The Freshman), although even in this early film Ozu is already Ozu. The film is carefully composed, with interesting parallels and symmetries. There is for example a great shot of the long, smoking chimney of a mountain hut, which is followed down, into the hut, to the stove and a kettle with boiling water. But the camera work is rather different from late Ozu - it is very dynamic as befits the outdoor subject. The script was written by Ozu together with Fushimi Akira, one of the best Shochiku script writers of that time.

The film starts and ends (in reverse) with something we are not used to in Ozu films - a long pan from a station, a university with sports grounds (Waseda) to a quiet residential street. This brings us to the second-floor lodgings of Watanabe Bin (Yuki Ichiro), a crafty rogue of a student who spends his time "girl hunting" in a rather ingenious way. He glues a notice on his window that the room is for rent, hoping that a nice female student will knock on his door. Of course, if one does, he has to move out, but he will take his time for the removal and come back regularly for things he has "forgotten." When a male student wants to rent the room, he tells him that "he himself has just rented them and still has to take the notice down."

This is how Watanabe manages to meet Chieko (Matsui Junko), who happens to be already friends with shy and bookish fellow student Yamamoto Shuichi (Saito Tatsuo), whose character is symbolically indicated by his "Harold Lloyd glasses." When Watanabe has given up his rooms for Chieko, he moves in with the reluctant Yamamoto - keeping him effectively from studying for the impending exams.

After the exams, halfway the film, the "student film" turns into a "ski film," as Watanabe and Yamamoto travel for a ski holiday to Akakura in Nagano. There they meet Chieko again and they compete for the girl - with Yamamoto usually the patient butt of Watanabe's jokes. Chieko actually happens to be there for a miai (arranged marriage) with the ski teacher, so both students have to return to Tokyo without success in love. They have also flunked their exams - and everything starts anew as Watanabe again sticks a "for rent" notice on the window.

It may surprise viewers to find such a lot of skiing in an early Ozu film. Skiing had been introduced to Japan about twenty years earlier and is credited to one Theodor von Lerch, an Austrian major, who taught skiing to the Japanese army at Joetsu in Niigata in early 1911. It soon became popular and Ozu used to ski every winter around the time the film was made. He usually went to the same place where the film is shot, Akakura, where the parents of his cameraman Mohara Hideo ran the Takadaya Hotel (shown in the film) - the cameraman was also an expert skier, as is clear when seeing the hand camera work on skis in Days of Youth. Ozu was still young when the film was made, 25, and we can imagine him having fun in the snow with his colleagues.

This obviously is not the film to start your Ozu experience with, but after you have seen the great films and want to know what Ozu's origins were, Days of Youth is quite interesting.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Japanese Film: "A Page Of Madness" (1926) by Kinugasa

An elderly man (veteran actor Inoue Masao) feels responsible for the schizophrenic condition of his wife (Nakagawa Yoshie) and has taken menial employment in the asylum where she is interned. His ultimate plan is to flee with her. Memories of their happy past mingle with scenes of their present misery.

That is the simple premise of the avant-garde film A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji) made in 1926 by young director Kinugasa Teinosuke (1896-1982). A Page of Madness was long thought lost, like so may other films from the 1920s, until in 1971 the director found a copy of the negative in his storehouse.

The script of A Page of Madness is purposely scrambled and jumps from memories of the past to the here and now, mixing in various fantasies and hallucinations along the way. The beginning of the film is typical: a montage of shots of violent rain hitting the windows of the hospital; the unsettled weather induces one of them, a former dancer, to start a frantic dance. We see the dancing girl in fancy costume dancing on a stage, behind her a large colored ball is turning around. This is a memory from the past. The dancer collapses, the stage becomes a cell (we see the black bars, a fixed motive in the whole film), the dancer now wears rags - we are back in the mental hospital.

The film contains a barrage of startling imagery and haunting dreamlike visuals. Any cinematic device known, such as rapid montage - although Kinugasa didn't know the films by Eisenstein as Soviet products were forbidden in Japan - at the time is used. It is not only far ahead of anything happening in Japan in the mid-twenties, but also ahead of the world. And it is very original, there is no resemblance with for example Wiene's Dr Caligari as is sometimes claimed.

There is much misinformation about this film going around, so here are some sober facts (thanks to the study by Aaron Gerow, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2008):
  • The project was not a low-budget, independent art film made solely by a group of enthusiastic youngsters. The studio for which Kinugasa worked invested in the project and the film was shot at Shochiku's Kamogawa Studios in Kyoto. The budget was 20,000 yen, twice as much as that of the commercial jidaigeki Kinugawa usually made for Shochiku.
  • Although famous modernist author and future Nobel-Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari wrote a script for the film, that was not the only scenario nor even the major one. There were several scenarios floating around this film, written by various persons.
  • Originally, the film was not as incomprehensible as it is today, for the following reasons:
    • The 60 minute version that was unearthed by the director (which is all we have today) was shortened and some of the more conventional narrative scenes seem to have been cut - perhaps to bring the film more in line with notions of what was considered "avant-garde" in the seventies. 
    • The film originally incorporated some conservative Shinpa-type narrative elements and there also seem to have been at least some inter-titles (now there are none).
    • On top of that, the film was originally shown with a benshi - the famous benshi Tokugawa Musei gave his cooperation. 
Some other points I would like to add:
  • As was usual with art films, it was shown in a theater reserved for foreign films, the Musashinokan in Shinjuku in Tokyo.
  • In the 1920s, there was a flourishing avant-garde scene in Japan (especially the Shinkankakusha, or New Impressionists, whose work experimented with a wide variety of modernist styles - Constructivism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and Expressionism) and much interest in what happened abroad in this field, so the film did not come out of the blue. 
  • One interesting scene: at a certain moment, the male patients of the asylum are aroused by the dance of "the wife" and they cause a riot. They are then given Noh masks to wear which make them peaceful.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Japanese Film: "The Munekata Sisters" (1950) by Ozu

The Munekata Sisters is a study in contrasts: between the conservative, married older sister Setsuko (Tanaka Kinuyo), always wearing kimono, and the free-spirited younger sister Mariko (Takamine Hideko), always in Western-style dress; and between the locations of Tokyo, the center of the modernization of Japan, and the Kansai with the old temple cities of Kyoto and Nara.

Setsuko lives in Tokyo with her husband Mimura (Yamamura So), who is out of a job and into hard and fast drinking. With them also lives her younger sister Mariko. To sustain the family finances, Setsuko operates a bar and Mariko helps her. Their ailing father (Ryu Chishu) lives in Kyoto and Setsuko and Mariko regularly visit him. Also based in the Kansai (in Kobe, a Westernized city) is Setsuko's former flame, Hiroshi (Uehara Ken), who has just returned from France and now has an antique shop. He often visits Tokyo as well. Mariko – who is rather childish - tries to reunite Setsuko and Hiroshi, although she herself is also secretly in love with Hiroshi. Her meddling, however, has unintended tragic results when Mimura gets jealous of his wife and Hiroshi.

This film has been called “lesser Ozu” because it is different from his other, mature works in being more melodramatic. But it serves to show one thing: that Ozu could make quite different films, and not always repeated the same story as some other critics say. The main theme of The Munekata Sisters is typical Ozu: the loss of traditional family values due to Japan's Westernization, embodied in Mariko who lightly advises Setsuko to separate from her drinking and violent husband. On the other hand, Setsuko is the very embodiment of those traditional values: she is reticent (reason why she did not speak out to Hiroshi about her love in the past) and after her husband dies, she refuses to marry Hiroshi. It seems natural that she now should do so and Hiroshi actually asks her, but she decides to never meet him again as marrying him after what happened to her husband – who died doubting her truthfulness to him – does not seem right to her. Instead, she moves to Kyoto to take care of her ill father.

  • One of only 3 films Ozu made for another company than Shochiku. 
  • His only adaptation of a novel, by then popular novelist Jiro Osaragi. 
  • The script is more melodramatic than the usual Ozu – Mimura slaps Setsuko in the face and Mariko screams when she sees that Mimura has died from a heart attack (it is the only Ozu film to contain a woman's scream!). 
  • The film took seventh place in the Kinema Junpo ranking for 1950.
  • Contrasting two women, usually sisters, of different types – one traditional, one modern - was common in Japanese film since the 1930s. A famous example is Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. 
  • The film contains several famous, idyllic Japanese spots as the temples in Kyoto and Nara, or the resort town of Hakone. 
  • The use of Yakushiji Temple in Nara is probably intentional: it is dedicated to the Buddha of Healing (Yakushi Nyorai) and during the visit to this temple, Hiroshi hopes to “heal” his relationship with Setsuko. By the way, in 1950 Yakushiji looked very different from today – both main hall and second pagoda were later rebuilt, but I prefer this old Yakushiji with pine trees growing in the courtyard. 
  • Osaragi Jiro loved cats (see his museum in Yokohama!) and Mimura is constantly carrying a cat with him.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Japanese film: "Tokyo Story" (1953) by Ozu

Many critics have called Tokyo Story the best film Ozu ever made - it also features in the top 10 of an influential list of best films (Sight & Sound). The subject is - as in many other mature films by Ozu - the decay of traditional values seen in the lives of the members of a family. The rite of passage this time is not a wedding, but old age and death.

The Hirayama's, an elderly couple (played by Ryu Chishu and Higashiyama Chieko) are living with their youngest daughter Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), a school teacher, in Onomichi, in Western Japan (near Hiroshima). They have three other children: Koichi (Yamamura So), a local physician, married to Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko) and with two children; Shige, a beautician, with husband Kaneko Kurazu (Nakamura Nobuo); both these live in Tokyo and so does daughter-in-law Noriko, the widow of their son who has never returned from the war; a younger son lives in Osaka. They haven't seen their busy children in a long time and now plan a long trip to both cities to spend some time with them.

You may already be able to guess what happens, for this is a perennial the world around: the children are busy, busy, busy with their own lives and have no time for the parents they have not seen in many years; their egoism is so gross, it becomes even funny; the two oldies are obstacles which are shoved from the house of the son to that of the daughter, and then packed off to Atami, a vulgar and noisy spa town on the Izu coast, about two hours from Tokyo, where they are kept awake by partying youths. When they return unexpectedly early from Atami, they are at first nowhere welcome and almost become "homeless," as they joke among themselves.

There is one exception: daughter-in-law Noriko, who has an office job and lives in a tiny wooden flat. Like a traditional widow, all those years since the war she has kept the memory of her missing husband alive and refuses to consider remarrying. She takes a day off from work (although she is the one who can least of all miss the income) to guide her parents-in-law through Tokyo - we see them on a sort of "Hato bus tour." She also takes them for dinner to her flat - she is so poor she has to borrow not only the sake from a neighbor, but also the sake cups and flask. And when the parents have no home, she takes in the mother, who spends the most valuable moments of the whole Tokyo visit talking with Noriko (the father from his side has gone to visit some old friends, with whom he gets pleasantly drunk, after which the police brings him and one friend to the house of daughter Shige - the egoistic daughter gets her deserts having to take care of two totally plastered old men!).

The mother has had an attack of dizziness in Atami, and on the return trip, again in Osaka. When the parents arrive back home in Onomichi she falls seriously ill and soon dies. Now the family has to make the reverse journey for the funeral. This is done with the same blatant egoism. They stay as short as possible. Shige steals some clothes of the dead woman, "as a memory." And again, only Noriko is different. She stays as long as possible with her widowed father-in-law, who gives her the watch of his wife - and remonstrates with her in a kind way to be sure to remarry. Kyoko, the youngest sister, is shocked at the coldness of the family, but Noriko tells her serenely that is "how the world is." In the train on the way back to Tokyo, she looks pensively at her gift - will she remarry?

Some other points:
  • Onomichi is a port town on the Inland Sea, with narrow alleys, steep slopes and many old temples. There is still a lot of atmosphere left, making it a great place to visit.
  • In 1953 there was no Shinkansen yet (it started services between Osaka and Tokyo in 1964). Today the trip from Onomichi to Tokyo by ordinary trains (skipping the Shinkansen) would take more than 12 hours, in 1953 it was probably even longer - a heavy trip for two elderly people. 
  • Atami is a large resort town with hot springs. Now past its prime, in the fifties and sixties it was a fashionable - though even then already quite vulgar - destination for group tours and newly weds ("Atami" has been jokingly called "tatami" - where Tokyoites travel to do things in a horizontal position).
  • The scars of the war are still visible in 1953: Noriko's husband is missing in action, his body has never been retrieved. 
  • During funerals in Japan, both men and women should wear black clothes, including the tie.
Thanks to the various locations - from Onomichi to various places in Tokyo, to Atami, Tokyo again and finally again Onomichi - this is a film on a big scale. It has all the typical Ozu trademarks I discussed in a previous post. Due to the subject matter, it is a bit darker than for example Late Spring, but happily, it is full of humor as well. This is a very humane film, of great universal value.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nishi Otani Cemetery

Even today, that Kyoto is overrun by hordes of tourists, it is still possible to find quiet spots. One beautiful autumn day, we happened to find a quiet road (away from crowded Pottery Lane) from the Gojo crossing to the Higashiyama range and the grounds of Kiyomizu - the Road of the Dead, as the path cut through the immense graveyard belonging to the Nishi-Honganji Temple.

You will find the entrance to this little road between Gojozaka and the stone bridge leading to the Otani Honbyo, the funerary temple of Nishi-Honganji, to the right of a small drugstore. It leads up the hill with temples to the left, and the wall of the Otani Honbyo to the right. Where the Otani Honbyo grounds end, the real graveyard starts... We skipped the Otani Honbyo temple this time, as there was a funerary ceremony going on, moreover part of the buildings was being restored and therefore packed in the usual plastic sheets.

In the maze of the graveyard, we followed signs pointing to the site where Shinran, the founder of the sect, was cremated (called dabisho; his ashes are buried in the Otani Honbyo, at least part of them, because the sister-temple, Higashi Honganji also claimed its share of the heritage). He died in 1263 at the advanced age of 90. We found the site incongruously in a sort of pit between the overflowing graveyard and some ordinary houses. The fact that the honored founder was cremated and buried here, forms of course the inspiration for his followers to do the same.

The shops selling gravestones, flowers and incense were all open and doing brisk business. Although not a Buddhist festival, we saw many people taking the opportunity of this holiday to visit the family graves to clean them. When you come here during the Obon Festival of August, relatives place lanterns with candles on the graves, transforming the cemetery into a fairyland.

The green and brown hills were beautiful when we entered the valley, and contrasted pleasantly with the gray gravestones. The 40,000 sq. meter large graveyard dates in its present form from the early 17th century, but I do not know if there are any really old gravestones left. The temple religiously checks the annual payments for the gravesites (this obviously is an important money cow) and attaches a yellow notice to graves whose owners are in arrear. I presume they will be demolished and the site sold again.

As every graveyard, this one, too, formed a small history lesson. The tall, pointed stones lining the path at fixed intervals belong to soldiers who died in China during the war. The sides of the stones were inscribed with the names of all the battles they took part in.

We also saw some beautiful autumn leaves, although most trees had probably been cut down in order to make space for the graves, which took up every available inch. The path came out into the grounds of Kiyomizu, next to a small restaurant selling amazake.

We had a great view over Kyoto, with Kyoto Tower visible in the distance. There was already a graveyard here in the Heian-period, called Toribeno, so for ages the people of Kyoto have been bringing their dead to this mountainside.

One last thought: of course these graves only contain ashes, not bodies, but still, they are sometimes uncomfortably close to each other. In life, people here live in houses that are too small for comfort, in death they are buried in tiny graves, and all the time they are as closely lumped together as a bowl of sticky rice...

Japanese Film: "Late Spring" (1949) by Ozu Yasujiro

Banshun is quintessential Ozu: a daughter is living a happy, quiet life with her widowed father; a meddling aunt warns that it is time for her to marry; the daughter is less than enthusiastic, so the father pretends he himself is going to remarry; jealous, the daughter agrees to an arranged marriage; the father remains behind alone.

Also the characters are typical: Ryu Chishu as the father, an elderly professor (Ryu was only 45 at the time, but he was good at playing aged persons); Hara Setsuko as the daughter, more radiant than ever; and Sugimura Haruko as the meddling aunt.

And so is the style: the stationary camera position, the low angle shot, the conscious arrangement of characters and careful composition of each shot, the avoidance of movement, the many distance shots/low number of close-ups, the camera running on for a few moments even after people have left a room, the clearly spoken, unhurried and uninterrupted dialogues, the disregard for eye matches in dialogues, the full-face shot of the speaker, the use of curtain shots, etc. This formalistic way of filming helps to make the viewpoint more neutral and unsentimental. It also serves to set off the characters with greater clarity. And it is interesting because it is a decidedly non-Hollywood film grammar.

But it goes too far to call Ozu's techical style "typically Japanese" as Western observers have done. For in that case it would have to be shared by many other Japanese directors, and that is only partially the case (Shimizu Hiroshi and Mizoguchi Kenji for long takes and low camera angles). Stylistically, Ozu is first and for all "typically Ozu." Even in Japan nobody else comes even close to Ozu's style. (It is in another aspect, his adherence to traditional values, that Ozu was indeed "typically Japanese").

Ozu is interested in characters, not in plot, so the slight story I have sketched in the above, suits him just fine. Anyway, in Ozu' case stories do not do justice to the films, which are incredibly richer than the quotidian events that happen in them.

As in all later films by Ozu, the subject of Banshun is the loss of traditional family values, especially the care family members used to have for each other, and which used to be more important than personal gratification. This was for example the main theme in Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941), where most family members are shown as too egoistic to take proper care for the homeless mother and younger sister. In Banshun Ozu turns this theme humorously on its head: Noriko is the traditional one who wants to go on taking care of her widowed father, but the father himself sees that such behavior would be too large a sacrifice - she must have her own life and her own family.

There is a secondary theme, too, that of a "rite of passage:" life consists of several stages and we have to move on, even if that means leaving loved ones. The time comes that children have to leave their parents (something Ozu never practiced, he lived unmarried with his mother almost until his death!).

It is a common idea in Japan that both men and women should marry in order to take their proper position in society (only now this is being hollowed out by the increasing number of singles). Men, once they have the financial means to do so, and women before their mid-twenties. Noriko in the film is 27 (the "late spring" of the title), and although there is a suggestion she may be still single because men her age died in great numbers at the war front, in the Japanese thinking of 60 years ago, it is definitely time for her to take the next step. The aunt fulfills the role of the absent mother - the father is too busy with his research to notice. And thanks to the system of arranged marriages, after Hattori, a friend of Noriko and her father's research assistant, already appears to be engaged, another suitable partner can soon be found.

Banshun was made under the Occupation when films often preached the new "democracy." Ozu does that too, but in a very soft way. The father, for example, is no dictator, even with the arranged marriage system, the daughter can make her own, free choice, as he stresses. After all, the legal underpinnings to the family system (ie) had been abolished by the Occupation and small, nuclear families were a fact of life.

The miai system works as follows (it still exists, although now less than 10% of marriages are still arranged). Photos and CVs are exchanged, after which a meeting in the presence of family members is set up, usually in a restaurant or a hotel. Here, the prospective partners can see each other and talk without committing themselves. They can also have more meetings if they like. Noriko can still say no if she doesn't fancy her future husband (in The Makioka Sisters, filmed by Ichikawa Kon, the second sister Yukiko has a whole string of miai where she routinely rejects the proposed partner!).

But in Banshun the guy is found to be alright, thanks to some slight facial resemblance to Gary Cooper. By the way, we never see the marriage prospect nor the miai, nor also the final wedding. All these scenes are elided to concentrate on the story of Noriko leaving her father. The last time we see Noriko is when she has dressed in her heavy wedding kimono, which seems to press her down not only physically, but also mentally...

Japanese traditional culture is also re-evaluated and shown to fit well into a modernized, democratic Japan: the film starts with a tea ceremony, there is a Noh performance, and a visit to Kyoto with the Kiyomizu temple and the rock garden of Ryoanji. But these are the outward aspects of Japanese culture, of culture as a pastime. We should realize that the underlying traditional value system was damaged by leading the nation into war and defeat, even to a conservative as Ozu. He just tried to salvage the positive aspects.

By the way, Banshun does not contain any "Zen" elements as some Western writers wrongly infer due to a tendency to equate Japanese culture with Zen (Mr Daisetz Suzuki is to blame for this!). Japanese culture is not a Zen culture - it is much too varied, and the most important Buddhist groups are the Pure Land sects, not Zen. On top of that Zen Buddhism had firmly allied itself with the military during the war and was therefore in the years immediately after '45 rather suspect among ordinary Japanese. (This very different view of Zen in Japan and in the West also caused the surprise many Japanese felt when the first American and European Zen students arrived and started knocking on temple doors).

Also the "still-life cutaways" such as the famous (because much discussed) flower vase in the inn in Kyoto, have no "Zen connotation." These neutral "curtain shots" just serve to separate different scenes and are not themselves filled with a specific  meaning. The fun comes, when Ozu plays with this system: after showing the vase at night in the inn, where Noriko is sleeping beside her father, instead of cutting to the next scene as expected, we are returned to Noriko whose smiling face now looks pensive. But the vase is just a neutral interior object here, not a "vessel filled with meaning."

Some other cultural points:
  • Noriko and her father live in a detached house in Kamakura, now a quiet temple town (except for the tourists) and residential area. Kamakura is about an hour from Tokyo by train, a train ride which is actually shown in the film.
  • A bell is attached to the sliding door at the entrance to the house. This announces visitors - in a very safe Japan in 1949, the front door is not locked. When the father comes home after the wedding, the bell rings to an empty house.
  • In a discussion with his research assistant, Hattori, the father mentions the economist Friedrich List. The assistant thinks wrongly the father is talking about the composer Franz Liszt. Foreign names are often difficult for the Japanese, just as Japanese names are difficult for Westerners.
  • When Noriko is cycling with her friend, they pass a Coca Cola sign, in the middle of nowhere. Besides the obvious symbol of Westernization, this was also a token of the in 1949 still ongoing Occupation (it lasted until 1952). 
  • In their place of work, Japanese men wore Western clothes, but on coming home they changed quickly into informal Japanese dress. Lots of clothes are changed in Ozu's films!
This film made in 1949 is the most serene film Ozu ever made. Nothing negative happens, as if Ozu wanted to show the public that four years after the end of WWII, peace had finally come to Japan.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Japanese Film: "Gallant Jiraiya" (1921) by Makino Shozo

This short film from 1921 is the oldest Japanese film I have seen. It is one of the hundreds of period films made by director Makino Shozo (1878-1929), the "father of Japanese period drama," and Japan's first star actor, Onoe Matsunosuke (1875-1926). Onoe had been an itinerant Kabuki actor and was "discovered" by Makino. Between 1909 and 1926, he appeared in over 1,000 films, mostly one-reelers.

Onoe specialized in heroic warrior roles. One of his most popular films was Goketsu Jiraiya ("Gallant Jiraiya," or "Heroic Thunder Boy," 1921). This is a rare surviving film of the Makino-Onoe combi.

Jiraiya is a figure from vernacular fiction from the late Edo-period (the first tale was published in 1839), a ninja who uses magic to morph into a gigantic toad. His wife Princess Tsunade can use snail magic and his enemy Orochimaru has mastered snake magic. He is popular in Kabuki and today lives on in manga and games.

Thanks to the tricks necessary to morph Onoe into a toad, Jiraiya is Japan's first special effects movie (tokusatsu). It is all very elementary, just stopping the action and replacing Onoe with a humorous-looking toad-like doll, but it works. We also see him flying through the clouds.

The film doesn't have a unifying story line, but consists of some loose scenes, exactly like the Kabuki play on which it was based, and similar to other period films made at that time. Intertitles only give the name of the next scene, for the rest the benshi-narrator had to fill in the story. The film consists almost wholly of fighting scenes. Called tate or tachimawari, these too are as in Kabuki: unrealistic and heavily stylized - more like a dance or ballet than a fighting scene.

That looks rather strange as the action has been filmed on location outside. Instead of watching a realistic film, it is as if you are seeing a group of people perform a play. The camera position is also fixed during the whole scene, filming from the seat of the ideal viewer in a theater.

Onoe is a rather small man with an enormous Kabuki wig. He jumps and slashes, but keeps himself neatly upright all the time. It must have been hard work. All actors including Onoe wear beautiful but unrealistic and unpractical Kabuki costumes.  As was customary in Kabuki, the weapons don't touch the body of the opponents. The victims fall down automatically when they are pointed at.

No wonder that Onoe Matsunosuke was especially popular among children, who took to imitating his ninja performances in their games. A more serious type of period drama "for adults," would start a few years later with the advent of the "nihilistic hero."

Makino Shozo's films are characterized by long takes and long shots, and therefore make a rather archaic impression. Only in his later years he would use the camera a bit more inventively - after he had broken with Onoe and set up his own production company. But real innovations would come from the next generation of directors, including his own son, Makino Masahiro.
This film is available at Internet Archive

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Japanese Film: "Humanity and Paper Balloons" (1937) by Yamanaka

Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo Kamifusen, 1937) by Yamanaka Sadao (1909-1938) is the samurai film to end all samurai films. Except for a fist fight, there is no violence shown onscreen. The samurai who appear in it are so dirt-poor they have sold their swords - they can't even commit harakiri!

The story is set in the Edo-period, in a quarter of Tokyo where the poor live in tenement houses. The ramshackle houses stand on both sides of an alley that can be closed off with a gate. Impoverished, masterless samurai (ronin) live here among equally poor people of lower social classes.

The film starts very dark: a masterless samurai living in one of the houses has committed suicide by hanging himself - he had already sold his sword, so harikiri (seppuku) was out of the question. The residents of the tenement houses talk their landlord Chobei into providing some sake during the wake, so they have quite a party. But the merrymaking also serves to cleanse the tenement quarter of lingering evil influences.

One other ronin, Unno Matajuro (Kawarasaki Chojuro), is trying to find work by approaching an acquaintance of his deceased father (a samurai official called Mori, who was once helped by his father), but each time the official who knows neither giri nor ninjo, deftly evades him. His wife, Otaki (Yamagishi Shizue), makes paper balloons at home to earn a few coins. Unno keeps aloof from the others living in the slum and he never touches sake - there is a hint that his downfall had something to do with his previous excessive love of the intoxicating nectar.

Next door lives Shinza the barber (Nakamura Kanemon), a lusty but naive fellow who is constantly harassed by the local yakuza because he runs a gambling joint in what they consider as their territory.

Shinza is not the only one who has yakuza troubles: the upright citizens of the town, such as the merchants, frequently use the services of the gang to beat up bad customers or unwelcome visitors - also Unno Matajiro falls victim to their fists when he follows the samurai official Mori to the premises of a money lender, Shirakoya.

The usurer gets his deserts: his daughter Okuma is to be married to a party introduced by the samurai, but she is in love with her father's clerk, Chushichi. One rainy night, when she is planning to elope with the clerk, she crosses the path of Shinza, who is more penniless than ever. Shinza impulsively abducts her, demanding a ransom from her rich father. When the yakuza come looking for her, he hides her at Matajuro’s home.

But the desperate ransom attempt backfires and the crafty landlord has to sort things out with her father Shirakoya and the samurai official Mori, who was arranging a marriage for her. Okuma is returned to her parent's home and as after this experience she is not suitable for a samurai anymore, she is allowed to marry Chushichi.

She is the only one for whom the story ends happily. This time, Shinza does not get away with it and he is killed by the yakuza boss Yataguro because of the loss of face he has caused him (by hiding Okuma when the yakuza came searching for her). And the poor ronin and his wife, after the umpteed futile attempt to approach the samurai, commit suicide - by killing themselves with a small knife. The last image of the film is of one of the paper balloons the wife has made, blown away by the wind and rolling in the gutter...

Director Yamanaka Sadao was one of the talents of the 1930s, the first "Golden Age of Japanese Cinema," when also Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi and Shimizu were going strong. Unfortunately, he died a year after making Humanity and Paper Balloons - he was drafted into the army and sent to Manchuria were he died of dysentery. In his short life, he made 24 films, of which only three survive (besides the present one, The Million Ryo Pot and Kochiyama Soshun).

Yamanaka's films have been highly praised by critics as Sato Tadao and Donald Ritchie for the focus on delineation of character, the blurring of genre lines (between samurai films and modern stories, and between comedy and drama), and the focus on average people. And of course for the cinematography that beautifully captures the claustrophobic nature of the slum in which the story is set on the one hand and that on the other hand cuts away from scenes of violence, only hinting at them (we see the yakuza ominously stamping their feet and unsheathing their swords when about to kill Shinza but then the film cuts to another scene). Yamanaka laid the groundwork on which Kurosawa's films such as Yojimbo became possible. Even in recent times directors continue to pay tribute to him, such as Koreeda Hirokazu in Hana, the Tale of a Reluctant Samurai (2006).

Some cultural points:
  • Ninjo is human feeling that complements or opposes giri, or social obligation. Ninjo in the film is the poor helping each other, or in a wider sense, humaneness or humanity. 
  • Paper balloons were made by gluing strips of colored paper together. As they contained no gas, they would not fly, but were a toy for children. In the Edo-period, they were made popular by the itinerant medicine vendors from Toyama, who used them as presents to customers.
  • The sword was the "soul of the samurai." So selling it, was the lowest level of disgrace one could sink to - but that is what utter poverty did to people. Usually, such a samurai would carry a bamboo sword and dagger to hide his shame. In Harakiri (1962) by Kobayashi Masaki a ronin is cynically forced to commit suicide with just such a bamboo weapon.
  • These historical epics without sword fights were called "modern films with chonmage." Chonmage is the traditional haircut of the samurai, a shaved pate with the remaining hair bound in a topknot. 
  • In the 1930s in Japan, many films were made that commiserated with the plight of the poor - and not only by leftists. Even the first war films were not the victorious epics one would expect, but rather films showing how the average people and ordinary soldiers had to suffer. 
  • Yamanaka did not use normal film actors, but all roles are played by members the Zenshinza Theater group.  
  • Part of the story is based on the Kabuki play Shinza the Barber by Mokuami Kawatake.
  • The first jidaigeki (historical film) about ordinary people and without swordplay, was made in 1928 by Kinugasa Teisuke (Crossroads, "Jujiro").
Humanity and Paper Balloons is a film with a dark theme - a bitter critique of traditional values by exposing the greed and hypocrisy of the privileged - but is not a dark film. On the contrary, it is shot through with comic characters and funny scenes, and the poor are shown as brimming with life and energy despite all their tribulations.

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) by Alain Resnais (Film review)

Last Year at Marienbad  (L’année dernière à Marienbad) is a 1961 French film helmed by New Wave director Alain Resnais from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the radical master of the "new novel." Not surprisingly, this film is like a surreal dream, if not a nightmare where past and present are mixed in an ambiguous cloud - some even say it is a ghost story.

There are three protagonists, all unnamed: a handsome man, X, who speaks with a slight Italian accent (Giorgio Albertazzi); a beautiful woman, a brunette, A (Delphine Seyrig); and M, a man with a gaunt face (Sacha Pitoeff), who could be A's husband.

The location is a palace or luxurious European baroque hotel (or perhaps a hotel in such a palace), with glittering mirrored salons and geometric gardens featuring shrubs and statues, everything elegantly shot in black-and-white widescreen by Sacha Vierny.

The film starts with a justly famous, long tracking shot in which X wanders through the hotel's corridors cataloging in a voice-over items he sees, accompanied by discordant organ music: "Empty salons. Corridors. Salons. Doors. Doors. Salons. Empty chairs, deep armchairs, thick carpets. Heavy hangings. Stairs, steps. Steps, one after the other."

Both voice and organ music have an intoxicating quality, like a many times repeated incantation, and they will be with us for the whole duration of the film. Increasingly, the voice tells us shards of a story that took place the year before, and these story fragments, too, are repeated with slight variations.

The narrator X approaches A, claiming to have met her the year before at Marienbad. He asserts she must be waiting for him now, as she has agreed to leave with him if only X would be willing to wait one year, but she insists that they have never met.

The narrator stalks the reticent woman through the corridors and salons of the palace and tells her more and more details about their (supposed) previous meeting. Their conversations are repeated with slight variations in several places in the palace and gardens, as if we are caught in an endless loop.

But the more he tells her, the more his story shows internal discrepancies - made clear by the director by having different images accompany identical parts of the man's narration. Gradually, we feel that the atmosphere of uncertainty contains a threat, as if some danger lurks in the background.

The man with the gaunt face who may be the woman's husband, repeatedly plays a mathematical game called Nim with the narrator, and by beating him each time at the game, he as it were asserts some sort of dominance.

The nightmarish quality is enhanced by the fact that the other glamorously looking characters, presumably guests to the hotel, mostly sit or stand frozen, in mannerist poses and with a glazed look on their faces.

At the end of the film, the stranger leaves with the woman, but we do not know if that is happening now, or last year, or whether it is just wishful thinking.

With is ambiguous flashbacks and shifts of time and locations, the film is a conscious enigma. Is this an investigation into the nature of memory, does everything take place in the head of the narrator, even as a dream or the memory of a dream? As Resnais said, "For me this film is an attempt, still very crude and very primitive, to approach the complexity of thought, of its processes." Or in the words of Robe-Grillet: "The whole film, as a matter of fact, is the story of a "persuading": it deals with a reality which the hero creates out of his own vision, out of his own words."

I agree with the interpretation that everything takes place in the head of the narrator, but there are other explanations possible: for example, a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; everything takes place in the woman's mind; everything takes place in the man's mind, and depicts his refusal to acknowledge that he has killed the woman he loved; or the characters could be dead souls in limbo.

Take your pick! This great film deserves repeated viewings.

P.S. The film was shot in various palaces around Munich, and not in the actual Czech spa town of Marienbad.
P.S.2 Inland Empire (2006) by David Lynch was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad.

Note: I have learned recently (2014) that the film was in fact inspired by the novella The Invention of Morel, written in 1940 by the Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares - a lifelong friend of Jorge Louis Borges. What Last Year at Marienbad and The Invention of Morel have in common is that characters in both repeat their actions and conversations. In my review of the novella I suggest that they are not real persons but a sort of "holograms," three-dimensional recordings which are indistinguishable from reality. This would indeed mean that the characters are dead (although no "dead souls in limbo"), for in Bioy's tale the recording of part of their lives also transfers their souls to the "hologram." I now believe this is the best solution to the enigma of the film.
Last Year at Marienbad is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) with Henry Fonda (Film review)

"12 Angry Men" (1957) by director Sidney Lumet has been called a "courtroom drama," but it really is a "jury room" drama, because the viewer is locked up together with a deliberating jury for almost the whole duration of the 90 minute film. That is quite a suffocating experience. In 1957, the jury was all white, and all male. And these men are angry: for having to act as jury members, for being locked up while there are nicer things to do such as attending a baseball game, because they have to discuss the case seemingly endlessly, although there is only one dissenting member, and everything is clear, isn't it? "That colored guy, that immigrant, murdered his father with a knife, there are two witnesses, more or less, so lets quickly decide on a 'guilty' verdict, they are all scum after all, and we want to get out of this room as quickly as possible..."

The dissenter is Henry Fonda, and gradually he convinces the other eleven, not that the accused is innocent (they don't know that), but that he - like everyone - should get a fair trial and that the evidence is full of holes. In other words, there is plenty of room for a "reasonable doubt." In the process, every jury member is shown as an individual character, whose background may be pushing him to take a certain stance. The story comes neatly full circle, but it is a bit too neat, "Hollywood-style," and the prosecutor's work is shown as just too sloppy (not to talk about the defense) to be realistic.

Anyway, I am glad I am not living in a country with a jury system. Seeing the flimsy grounds on which most of the jurors decide (personal prejudices) does not inspire confidence in such a system. It is only a more civilized form of lynching. If Fonda would not have held out against eleven others - most people would have gone along with such an overwhelming majority - and patiently argued the case with the "angry men," the accused would have been wrongly executed.

It is interesting to watch the cultural traits in this film: the body language, the fact that these American (Western) men simply can't sit still, and also have trouble concentrating - but in the end, they do get the job done. They all have clear opinions and state these loudly and confidently. The discussions are rather confrontational. One of the men acts as chairman (of course, as is usual in A,merica, his authority is challenged at a certain time - leaders have to prove themselves all the time), but the whole process is quite disorderly. I realized how used I am to more quiet and orderly processes because of my life in Japan. When in a meeting, Japanese don't get up to pace the room all the time, the discussions would be more polite and general procedure would be more structured. But whether that means the job would be done faster, I don't know... (although it would be done in a more pleasant atmosphere).

12 Angry Men is worth watching for these cultural traits - there is also excellent acting all-around the table, and the story satisfies as the "good guy" (Fonda, who uses both his mind and his heart) wins. But this film is not the great plea for democracy some people have made out of it, on the contrary, it only shows how dangerously fallible the jury system is.
Twelve Angry Men is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Japanese Film: "An Actor's Revenge" (1963) by Ichikawa Kon

An Actor's Revenge (Yukinojo Henge, 1963) was made by director Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008; Fire On the Plain, An Obsession, Harp of Burma) on the request of his studio, Daiei, to honor the Hasegawa Kazuo (1908-1984; Gate of Hell, The Crucified Lovers) - it was the veteran actor's 300th (and last) film, but that number of course includes many one-reelers made in the silent era.

Ichikawa was asked to do a remake of a 1935 tearjerker in which Hasegawa had starred and which had been helmed by Kinugasa Teisuke (1896-1982; Kuritta Ippeji, Gate of Hell). The project had been foisted on Ichikawa because his previous films based on literary works had not brought in enough cash. The original scenario, written by Ito Daisuke, "was so bad, it was good" as Ritchie puts it in A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. Ichikawa's fixed scenario writer, his wife Natto Wada, almost kept it as it was.

But I have the feeling that Ichikawa decided to get back at the studio by having some fun. He asked Hasegawa Kazuo to play the same roles as in 1935, those of "onnagata" (female impersonator) Kabuki actor Yukinojo, and of Yamitaro, a good-hearted thief. The first role meant that the now fifty-five year old matinee idol had to appear in drag for most of the film, for Kabuki actors playing female roles also wore woman's clothes in daily life. The campish possibilities are immediately clear, especially as the story of the film has the elderly onnagata engage in a love affair with a gorgeous, young woman...

Ichikawa also decided to make a consciously stagey film, a stage within a stage so to speak, thereby creating the necessary distance between the viewer and the rather hackneyed story. For this special project, he got all the resources he needed from Daiei: excellent color stock, wide view format, and a group of experienced actors and actresses. Ichikawa tried every color experiment he could think of in the film, using innovative camera angles and displaying great virtuosity.

The story ia about onnagata Yukinojo, who one night when his Osaka theater group is performing in Edo, spots his arch enemies among the audience: when he was a small child, way back in Nagasaki, his parents were driven to their death by the magistrate Dobe Sansai (Nakamura Ganjiro) and two merchants, Hiromiya and Kawaguchiya. Dobe's daughter, the beautiful Namiki (Wakao Ayako), is also watching the show and falls in love with Yukinojo. The actor plans to use her to get closer to the three men he wants to kill, but unexpectedly, he falls in love with her himself... Other characters in the film are the above-mentioned thief Yamitaro, his man-hating girlfriend Ohatsu (Yamamoto Fujiko), another thief Hirutaro (Ichikawa Raizo), who dislikes to have to act in the shadow of Yamitaro, and a sword-fighter who is after Yukinojo, Kadokura Heima (Funakoshi Eiji).

Yukinojo's revenge will be successful, but in the process he will loose his love...

Cultural points:
  • Women were forbidden to appear on stage in most of the Edo-period, as the authorities feared that might lead to prostitution. So in Kabuki, men had to play the roles of women. Such actors are called "onnagata" or "oyama." In daily life they also wore woman's clothing, but in order not to be too attractive, the onnagata were forced to have a bald patch in the middle of their head. Despite that precaution, the theater became a source of male prostitution.
  • Onnagata are still going strong in modern Kabuki as well. It is sometimes said that onnagata are more "female" in their body movements than real women, because they are consciously acting femininity based on a centuries long tradition.
  • Yukinojo is not only an actor, he also has studied as a sword-fighter. He is not a hereditary actor, but was brought into the theater after the death of his parents.
  • In traditional Japan, teaching fighting skills, but also crafts, was done by having the pupil for many years watch the Master and imitate him. There usually was no "secret tradition" in written form, as is shown by the "empty scroll" episode in the film. One could only learn through personal contact with a teacher.
  • Originally, under the influence of Kabuki, also women's roles in film were played by men. This lasted until the early twenties, when love stories with close-ups become more frequent and the Adam's apples of the actors got too much attention. Kinugawa Teisuke, the director of the original Yukinojo Henge, had in fact started his career as an onnagata in films.  
  • Some Western commentators mention the jazz music in the film as another stylish innovation by Ichikawa, but that is a mistake: in jidaigeki (historical films) and sword fighting films from the 1950s on, often Western forms of music were used, and jazz was rather common. (Also the tap dance in the finale of Kitano's Zatoichi (2003) was not an innovation, but rather a return to traditional form, as older jidaigeki often had such musical numbers.)
This is a very entertaining film, visually pure pop-art, although there are no deeper layers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Gold Rush" (1925) by Chaplin (Film review)

The Gold Rush (1925) is Chaplin at his most characteristic. It was also the film Chaplin himself liked best. But there are two "buts" standing in the way of my enjoyment: when I was a kid, The Gold Rush was played so often on TV (with other Chaplin and slapstick stuff) that even today I can remember all the gags - there is no freshness left (others call it the "collective memory of our culture"); and the "Little Tramp" is a rather mawkish figure, a sort of sentimentality that simply is not of our time. I am more a fan of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

The tramp has become a lone prospector, venturing into the snows of Alaska to make his fortune. The first half hour of the film is set in a cabin around which the snow storm blows. The scenes I could remember are from this part and include the prospector's cabin teetering on the brink of the abyss, the consumption of a leather shoe when food has run out, and - for the same reason - Chaplin envisioned as a juicy chicken by another hungry inmate. After that, the story moves back to civilization in the form of a rough and ready gold-digger's boomtown, where Chaplin visits the saloon and meets the unavoidable girl (Georgia Hale). Of course, he falls in love with her and by a nifty trick (a more sophisticated element in the film) is led to believe this feeling is mutual.

One of the weak and sentimental scenes is the one in which Chaplin has been made to believe that Georgia is coming to Christmas dinner in his cottage - he has prepared a real feast, shoveling snow to get the money for all the delicacies, spending lots of time setting the table - but of course she doesn't show up...

Chaplin filmed only the opening scene of the film on location, in the mountains between California and Nevada. You see a long line of black "ants" crawling up a mountain pass through the snow. But the rest was made in the studio, which better fitted Chaplin's slow way of working (real snow would melt before he had taken his second shot).
The Gold Rush is available in the Criterion Collection.
 (Revised August 2014)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Japanese Film: "Woman of Tokyo" (1933) by Ozu

Woman Of Tokyo (1933) was a quickie for Ozu, a film he was asked to make in just eight days by his studio to fill in a gap in production. The melodrama is not very typical for Ozu, but then, in the 1930s he also made a couple of gangster films...

The rather short film (more about that later) is a simple tale about the poor Japanese college student Ryoichi (Ogawa Ureo) and his sister Chikako (Okada Yoshiko). Chikako works as a typist to pay for the study of her brother (apparently, there are no parents anymore and brother and sister live together in a shabby aprtment). Unknown to him, her daytime salary is not sufficient, so she also works in the evenings as hostess and prostitute (we are shown that she accompanies clients when so requested) at a sleazy local cabaret - although she pretends to be helping a professor with translation work.

Ryoichi is in love with Harue (Tanaka Kinuyo), who also lives alone with her brother, but here the roles are reversed as the brother works as policeman. Harue hears from him that Chikako seems to be a hostess - the police are investigating her for illegal prostitution -  and she informs Ryoichi. Angrily, he confronts his sister with this knowledge when she returns home, and even gives her a severe beating (a "patriarchal duty" in the old Japan).  She acknowledges the facts, and Ryoichi runs into the street. He feels so full of shame that he doesn't know what to do and just keeps walking around. The next morning, his body is brought home. He has committed suicide. The two women sit together at the side of the body and refuse to answer questions by two rather nasty reporters. Finally, the reporters leave and decide "this is not something worth reporting on."

The reason the film is so short may have been that part had to be cut out. Originally, Chikako seems to have been doing her night-work not only for her brother, but also to donate money to the Communist Party. But in 1933 the authorities clamped down on leftists and all scenes referring to leftist politics had to be cut out of the scenario and were never filmed.

The film is extremely compact and grim. We only see the protagonists in enclosed, confined spaces. The theme of the strong, supportive woman and the weak male is more characteristic of Mizoguchi than Ozu. But on the technical side, there are lots of typical "Ozu shots." As he said himself: "A certain compositional style of mine began to emerge from this point on." In fact, more than for the mawkish and seemingly truncated story, it is for seeing the development of Ozu's style that this film is interesting.

Some cultural points:
  • In the ideology of the Meiji-period (which in fact was influential until the end of WWII), it was considered natural for an older or younger sister to work themselves to the bone in order to help educate the oldest son or brother. The sacrifice of a woman often formed the basis for a man's worldly success, and that was considered as right. So we see Chikako not only working in an office, she also manages all the household affairs, she cooks, cleans and toils so that Ryoichi can completely devote himself to his studies. 
  • Like a surrogate mother, she also gives Ryoichi some pocket money so that he can go to the cinema with Harue.
  • Ozu pays homage to Ernst Lubitsch by having Ryoichi and Harue see the scene of The Clerk from If I Had a Million when they are in the cinema.
  • Telephones were still rare, so Harue has to visit a shop in the neighborhood to receive a phone call. This is a shop selling clocks, and there is a nice Ozean switch from Harue looking at the clock on the wall, to a whole wall full of clocks.
  • Note the white gloves of the policeman (you still see them today on taxi drivers and politicians). He also wears a sword, the symbol of authority until the war years.
  • Also see the oil stove in the room of Ryoichi and Chikako. The top is flat, and is used for putting on a kettle for boiling water. A nice "ecological" solution.

"The Lady-killers" (1955) with Alec Guinness (Film review)

The Lady Killers (1955) is one of the last comedies made by the Ealing Studio in London before it was wrapped up for having fallen behind the times. And indeed, although there are flashes of interesting black humor, as a whole the film is rather too soft and cosy, like the frayed finery in the Victorian mansion where most of the action takes place. The criminals are bungling bumpkins you can spot from a mile distance, the policemen are your favorite son-in-law who helps old ladies cross the road, and although several persons get killed, the process is totally bloodless. The story is funny in a cartoonish way, but there is not a shred of real suspense.

That is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here. 77-year-old Katie Johnson steals the show as the indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, renting out rooms in her Victorian house, and Alec Guinness plays criminal mastermind Professor Marcus, a fine comic performance of a man becoming gradually more unhinged. He is also over-polite in a sinister way and wears monstrous false teeth. His oddball gang of thieves includes a thuggish Peter Sellers and murderous Herbert Lom.

Professor Marcus pretends to be a musicologist who now and then will be receiving colleagues to rehearse music (they play a Boccherini record to mislead others) and uses Mrs Wilberforce's lodging rooms as hideaway. Her house is conveniently located at the end of a cul-de-sac, above the railroad tracks near St. Pancras Station, and the sweet old lady looks as if she is just as conveniently daft. But as usual when a crime has been carefully planned, something unforeseen happens during the robbery of 60,000 pounds from an armored bank van, and then the criminals also make the mistake of accidentally revealing their stack of banknotes (hidden in a cello case, which falls open) to the old lady.

So instead of fleeing, they decide they have to kill their landlady first - initially so harmless they even used her to carry the stolen cash from the station depot to her house, she now has become a liability. Well, easier said than done. The old fox, who looks so naive, easily outwits the five men. The thieves start quarreling among themselves, and instead of doing the old lady in, they end up finishing off each other, as each one looks for a chance to escape alone with all the loot. The last one, the "professor," is killed by a railroad sign while hanging from the bridge over the railroad tracks near the cul-de-sac (from which he has thrown several colleagues to their death). The old lady is very law obedient, so she goes to the police to inform the authorities and return the money left in her house by the dead robbers, but the police regard her as dotty and laughingly send her away. All the better for the old lady's finances...

Director of this film was Alexander Mackendrick, who would move to the U.S. and there make the cynical The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The Lady Killers is pleasantly silly and entertaining enough to help you pass a rainy afternoon, but not much more than that.

(Revised August 2014)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"It" (1927) with Clara Bow (Film review)

One of the funniest silent films is undoubtedly It from 1927, helmed by Clarence Badger and an uncredited Josef von Sternberg, and starring Clara Bow as the resourceful  shop-girl who is the veritable personification of the "roaring twenties." I quite like "silent films," but a fact is that many of them are a sort of museum pieces, outdated stuff that we watch with a mix of polite academic interest and boredom. Not so with It: this is an amazingly entertaining film, a romantic comedy that sizzles in all its reels, and is still as fresh as when it was made - and that all thanks to the electrifying screen presence of Clara Bow.

[ Clara Bow, half-length portrait,
standing, facing right, in backless costume]

But what is "IT?" Well, there once was a novelist called Elinor Glyn (1864 - 1943), who pioneered mass-market women's erotic fiction (you can find samples of her writing on Gutenberg, including Red Hair that was also filmed with Clara Bow). Today she is forgotten - and there is nothing scandalous about her books anymore - but in the 1920s Glyn was a popular author who also wrote scripts for Hollywood. That her novels were considered quite risky was expressed in the following doggerel: "Would you like to sin / With Elinor Glyn / On a tiger skin? / Or would you prefer / To err with her / On some other fur?" (from Wikipedia).

In her writings, Madame Glyn had famously coined the term "IT" for an elusive quality found in certain people, a sort of animalistic magnetism that attracts the opposite sex. Of course, "IT" simply was a round-about and inoffensive way to describe "sex appeal." By using the term, the film also shrewdly evaded the scissors of the censor.

[Portrait of Elinor Glyn, 1927]

Author Elinor Glyn plays a cameo in the film, in the scene set in the dining room of the Ritz, where she has the chance to explain "IT" herself: "a self-confidence and indifference to whether you are pleasing or not, and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold." The studio paid her $50,000 for the "IT" idea, but for the story they used a totally different script. They did enlist Glyn's help in promoting Clara Bow as "The IT Girl." And the vivacious, saucy and free-spirited Clara Bow truly has "IT" ("she is top heavy with "IT","as someone in the movie remarks) - the movie was made as a vehicle for Bow and it indeed boosted her Hollywood career.

At the beginning of the film, the concept of "IT" is enthusiastically explained to Cyrus Waltham Jr. (Antonio Moreno), heir to a department store emporium who has just succeeded in his father's footsteps, by his friend Monty Montgomery (an obviously homosexual William Austin, who does some rather weird things with his eyes). Monty proposes to look around in the store if any of the shop girls possesses this quality, but Cyrus has more important matters on his mind. When both men leave the store, the new, young boss Cyrus - a handsome millionaire - attracts the eyes of all shop girls, including Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow). Monty spots Betty and decides she is the only one among hundreds of female employees who has "IT." He arranges to meet her, and Betty talks him into taking her out for dinner at The Ritz - a ruse to see her boss Cyrus again, for she has overheard that he will be there with his fiancee. Dirt-poor Betty has no suitable evening dress, so in a very funny scene she just cuts up her everyday dress into a gown - giving her the chance to show some skin on the go - and it looks great!

At the dinner, Betty keeps casting meaningful glances at Cyrus. His high-society fiancee Adela (Jacqueline Gadsden) indeed is beautiful, but also boring - clearly not an "IT-girl." When the dinner has ended, Clara manages to have Monty introduce her to Cyrus, who admires her beauty. She makes a bet with him: next time they meet, he will not recognize her. This is of course exactly what happens the next day in the department store. Cyrus has to "pay" Betty by taking her out - and this time it is not The Ritz, but Coney Island, where they eat hot dogs and enjoy the rides (again a chance to show some leg), all quite a new experience for the rich boy. But when Cyrus tries to kiss her, he gets a slap in the face - she doesn't like "Minute Men" ("men who the minute they see a girl, think they may kiss her").

Betty is also kind-hearted and that almost upsets her scheme. Her sick friend Molly (Priscilla Bonner) is an unmarried mother and Betty allows her to stay with the infant in her apartment. When a meddlesome civic group threatens to take the child away as they deem Molly too ill to take proper care of it, Betty claims the child as her own. Because of the fracas, reporters have stormed in and also Monty happens to be there. So Betty's claim is reported in the papers and Monty informs Cyrus that his flame already has a baby...

Cyrus is shocked, and his ardor suddenly cools, even though Betty drapes herself over his desk, batting her eyelashes and sticking our her legs. She won't let him jilt her! With the help of Monty, who has something to make good, she plans a strategy that will play out on the yacht of Cyrus. I won't disclose the details, but in the final scene they embrace on the anchor of the boat (called the ITola), wet after an accident and full of "IT," while Monty and fiancee Adele conclude that they simple haven't got "IT."

Clara Bow (1905-1965) was a very dynamic actress who played sparkling and energetic heroines. She was the personification of the uninhibited and flirtatious flapper. In addition to being a great star, Bow was also America's first sex symbol and received 45,000 fan letters a month. But her light only shone briefly, chiefly because she had trouble making the shift to sound - indeed, she can do great things with her face and eyes, typical for silent pantomime. It is also rumored that she had a terrible Brooklyn accent (she had been born and raised in dire poverty, and had come to film thanks to winning a photo beauty contest), but that doesn't seem to have been the chief reason: she just didn't like "talkies." So Clara Bow retired in 1933 with her husband, cowboy star Rex Bell, to a ranch in Nevada and never came out of retirement again. Her best film is arguably It, but she also played an interesting role in the mediocre Wings (1927), where she eclipses all the other actors, only to be herself eclipsed by the aerial dogfights in the WWI film. For the rest, she seems to have been mainly cast in fluffy stuff. That makes It all the more precious.

Also see my article The Twenty Best Silent Films

Clara Bow: Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Elinor Glyn: Philip de László, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons