Thursday, January 31, 2008

Watched December 17-23, 2007 (part one): Murnau and Lubitsch

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

On a frigid winter day, what could be more consoling than watching a movie about the South Seas? Because the weather was so arctic, and my copy of the new Masters of Cinema DVD of Murnau's Tabu had just arrived, this seemed like an obvious viewing choice.

An island maiden and a young fisherman are in love, but torn asunder when the maiden is chosen to be a new "sacred virgin". They flee from one island to another in the South Seas, and think they have found a place they can be safe and happy together. But they are followed by an old warrior sent to proclaim the taboo -- and bring the girl back. Their attempt to flee further is undermined by corrupt behavior by the residents of the more "civilized" island they had fled to.

The story sounds rather hokey -- and the entire cast is made up of non-professionals. But the South Sea settings are beautiful -- and the young leads are good-looking. And Murnau and his cinematographer (Floyd Crosby, with some assistance by Robert Flaherty) make the most of the locale and the cast. Surely the fact that Murnau chose to make this as a "silent" film (it has a musical score-- but no speech) makes it easier for the film to cast is spell.

No real point in detailed discussion of the film's history (and virtues) -- as Master of Cinema's DVD not only looks wonderful but contains copious background information and documentation about the film. More pictures:

The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

In the lead up to Christmas, our family wanted to watch a film suitable to the season -- so we settled on this, one of Lubitsch's most sweet-natured films, because its climax takes place on Christmas Eve. The film was a perfect choice, with everyone agreeing it was even better than they remembered.

The cast here is near perfect, not just the principals (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), but the entire roster (my favorite of all -- Felix Brassart, as Stewart's meek but honest colleague and friend). And Frank Morgan (better knowmn as the Wizard of Oz) is quite good as the (maritaly) beleaguered shop owner. Stewart is especially good here because he is less easy to like here than he is typically. His character is prickly, and a bit priggish and self-satisfied. Similarly Sullavan's character hovers right on the edge of being annoying here. Lubitsch manages to create an almost perfect romantic comedy out of these somewhat unconventional would-be lovers.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Watched December 10-16, 2007 (part two): Mizoguchi and Imai

Gion bayashi / Gion Festival Music / A Geisha (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

The first Mizoguchi films I saw were the two that are most highly touted in the West, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. While I didn't dislike either of these films -- and I admired Mizoguchi's visual sensibility quite a bit -- neither did I fall in love with with them. It was not until I saw Street of Shame that I discovered there was another side to Mizoguchi's work -- one more closely aligned to the world of Ozu and Naruse. When I finally saw Gion Festival Music for the first time, it too was added to the list of Mizoguchi films I liked best.

This film, like Naruse's 1933 Apart From You and 1951 Ginza Cosmetics and Mizoguchi's own 1936 Sisters of Gion, depicts the rather precarious lives of contemporary geisha. All four films involve a pair of women, an older, more experienced one and a younger, comparatively naive one. As in Naruse's two films (and unlike the case in his own older film), the pair of women at the center of attention are presented strictly as distinctive individuals and not primarily as representatives of old and new types of women.

The central figures in Gion bayashi are Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure), a fastidious, successful 30-something geisha, and Eiko (Ayako Wakao), the teen-aged daughter of a recently-deceased colleague, who had retired to marry a (then) prosperous merchant (Eitaro Shindo). Eiko comes to Kyoto to beg Miyoharu to help her become a geisha, having run away from the relatives who have been looking after her following the death of her mother (her father being too preoccupied with his faltering business to take care of a teen-aged girl). Training and equipping an apprentice geisha is expensive, and Miyoharu has to borrow lots of money to take care of this. Problems arise when Eiko has finally been fully trained, and the businessman who actually provided the loan, made through Miyoharu's employer Okimi (Chieko Naniwa), wants his extra-monetary payback.

Eiko's self-defense tactics leave the client (and financial patron) injured and Okimi furious. This results in a boycott, which will be end only if Miyoharu proves to be suitably "obliging" to a patron who has developed a fancy for her. Desperate, Miyoharu eventually gives in, only to be chided by Eiko for her action. After plenty of recriminations and tears, the two are reconciled -- and Miyoharu promises she will act (in effect) as Eiko's sponsor, and will buffer her from the seamier aspects of the business side of geisha-hood.

The acting in this film (particularly that of Kogure and 19 year-old Wakao) is excellent -- and the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa is absolutely gorgeous. The film is a somewhat curious blend of realism (especially the scenes showing the training of Eiko) and rather lurid sensationalism. It also considerably compressed the time period involved in Eiko's transformation from rank beginner to fully qualified practitioner. For all Mizoguchi's vaunted familiarity with the world of the geisha, his presentation seems a lot less "real" than Naruse's treatment of the same sort of material in films like Flowing (as well as the other two Naruse films mentioned above). All the same, I wouldn't want to be without a film as lovely and interesting as Gion bayashi -- and it is nice to finally have a good-looking English-subtitled DVD thanks to Masters of Cinema (UK).

More images:

Koko ni izumi ari / Here Is a Fountain (Tadashi Imai, 1955)

Tadashi Imai was one of Japan's most popular (and award-winning) directors of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet his work is virtually unknown in the West. Richie and Anderson in their 1959 The Japanese Film, alternated between praising (sometimes very highly) particular films and dismissing him and his work overall. At the root of their dissatisfaction seems to have been the fact that Imai was an unapologetic leftist -- and made no attempt to hide this fact in his films. Time and again, Richie and Anderson return to Imai's politics, claiming too many of his films were nothing but Communist propaganda -- and then deriding him because he got so interested in the details of his films that they turned out to be unconvincing propaganda. One might gently suggest in response that, perhaps, Imai was never so wrapped up in mere propagandizing as Richie and Anderson thought he was.

In any event, where these early writers had mixed feelings about Imai, Audie Bock in her 1978 Japanese Film Directors expressed nothing but dismissive contempt. Richie, in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (2001), is more generally appreciative of Imai's work than he had been decades ago. Nevertheless, he attributes Imai's effectiveness and individuality more to his movies' themes than to any identifiable cinematic style. Despite this recent critical "rehabilitation", the many decades of critical dismissal have made Imai's work essentially invisible in the West (and particularly in the United States).

The present film is not one of Imai's most brilliant and inspired works. And it does indeed have a somewhat didactic core -- emphasizing the importance of disseminating high culture (here western classical music) to ordinary people outside the big cities. But is is far from the simple-minded affair described by Anderson and Richie:
Especially interesting was the films suggestion that only in the Japanese peasant and laboring class is there any real appreciation for the inner substance of the music.
In fact, the film suggests nothing of the sort. The film recounts the (sometimes) rather quixotic efforts of an idealistic group of classical musicians to bring music to people in the boondocks. The musicians are not saints, but ordinary (and very fallible) mortals -- and they live a hand to mouth existence most of the time. Their efforts do not always meet with success -- some school audiences (and their parents) are frankly bored to tears. In other places, they can scarcely find opportunities to play. To be sure, the group does get particularly good reception in one remote rural school -- but this would seem to be not just any old school but the famed Yamabiko Gakko, previously portrayed in Imai's 1952 film of that name. They also get an enthusiastic receptions by a group of farmers and the patients at a hospital for lepers -- but surely the novelty of the experience and gratitude towards people who would make such great effort to bring music to them explains some of the attentiveness of these naive audiences. And the finale of the film involves a performance in Tokyo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (with some of the group's members playing in the orchestra and others in the audience) -- and the upscale urban audience at this concert shows no lack of interest or receptivity.

Any political point the film might be making seems to me secondary to Imai's interest in depicting the story of his unusual group of musicians. And to help ensure audience interest in his characters, Imai was not averse to using very familiar faces in his cast, which included Keiko Kishi, Eiji Okada, Keiju Kobayashi, Koji Mitsui, Daisuke Katô, Sadako Sawamura, Eijirô Tono, Hisako Hara and Noriko Sengoku. Despite the recognizability of the principal cast members, Imai manages to create an almost documentary-esque feel for his film (integrating non-professionals with his veteran performers).

There is very little point in summarizing the plot here, but one can note that the core character is a violinist played by Eiji Okada. The other most important characters are Keiko Kishi, a pianist (and eventually Okada's wife) and Keiju Kobayashi, more or less the music director of the group, who lets his obsession with music wreck his domestic life. The cast is uniformly effective -- and there is undeniable meta-cinematic fun in watching Daisuke Kato banging drums and Koji Mitsui playing trumpet and the like. The script is by Yôko Mizuki (who crafted many fine scripts for Imai and Naruse, among others) and the cinematography by Shunichiro Nakao (who shot not only many of Imai's best films but also Naruse's remarkable but neglected Haru no mezame). The film is available on DVD in Japan, but not with English subtitles (of course).

Friday, January 18, 2008

Watched December 10-16, 2007 (part one): Kozintsev and Trauberg

Due to the (increasing) tendency of my posts to slip further and further behind my viewing of movies, I've decided to start breaking my weekly posts up into smaller pieces. And I may take more radical action soon, separating the list of what I watch on an an ongoing basis (which I would try to keep as current as possible) from the reviews (which might take longer to appear). In any event, this week's submission comes in two parts. Part two will move from 1930s Russia to early 1950s Japan.

Yunost Maksima / Maxim's Youth
(Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1935)

The previous film by Kozintsev and Trauberg was Alone, a pre-talkie with a synchronized score by Dmitri Shostakovich, sound effects and even snippets of speech. With this first film of their Maxim trilogy, they entered the realm of talkies. Nonetheless, this film (and its two successors) retained many features from the silent era -- like long wordless sequences and occasional intertitles. This film also has a bit of music by Shostakovich, accompanying a silent-esque sequence of rich revelers celebrating New Year's Eve by a rather inebriated sleigh race through the streets of St. Petersburg. Revolutionary songs (sung and/or played on the accordion) make up most of the music for the rest of this film.

The first film of the trilogy is set in 1910 (once it gets past the last day of 1909). Its protagonist is Maxim (Boris Chirkov), who is sort of a Soviet (initially pre-Soviet) Everyman. He starts out as a rather heedless young worker and progressively becomes entangled in union activity, which is (of course) viewed as subversive by the owners of his factory and the Czarist authorities. He has two male buddies, who are even less political than himself -- and a female acquaintance, Natasha (Valentina Kibardina), who is up to her neck in labor organization and other left wing political activities, working under the direction of a veteran politician, Polivanov (Mikhail Tarkhanov). Maxim's radicalization begins with the death of one of his comrades due to dangerous conditions at the factory. When the dead man's co-workers hold a funeral procession for him, it is smashed by Army troops. This leads to further unrest, into which Maxim and his remaining colleague are swept. Both are arrested, but the friend makes the mistake of violently resisting arrest. In prison, as the condemned prisoners are being led off to be executed, Maxim and his comrades protest by singing the "Internationale", bringing more punishment on their heads.

Maxim is eventually exiled to any place in Russia except St. Petersburg and Moscow and about thirty other cities and districts (leaving only rural boondocks open to him). After bidding a last farewell to Natasha (now undercover -- as a member of the upper bourgeoisie), Maxim departs for the countryside. But even there, he manages to get tangled up in labor troubles (strumming his guitar, he gives coded directions on where a secret worker's rally is to be held); this time he escapes capture, but just barely.

The style Kozintsev and Trauberg utilize here is closer to the populist one practiced by Boris Barnet than to the more avant-garde work of Eisenstein. But this film shows plenty of traces of the expressionistic style used in their earlier masterpiece New Babylon, particularly in the way lighting is used. The cinematography (by long-time collaborator Andrei Moskvin) is often quite striking, considerably more sophisticated than the relatively simple (albeit interesting) plot.

No English-subtitled DVD is available, but the French-subtitled version from Bach Films is serviceable -- and cheap. More pictures:

Vozvrashcheniye Maksima / The Return of Maxim (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1937)

Part two of the trilogy, is set in 1914. It is set in St. Petersburg (soon to be renamed Petrograd) --as Maxim has now returned there (still armed, Woody Guthrie-like, with a guitar). Maxim has now openly joined the ranks of revolutionary agitators, along with Natasha who sheds her "respectable" alter ego soon after his return (she acted as a spy, while in a rather courtesan-like situation). Labor troubles are now general, as the First World War is having a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary workers. Maxim is waylaid (and almost killed), and then disappears -- leading his comrades to fear the worst.

Recovered, Maxim helps coordinate a general strike. When attempts to suppress a massive march by the strikers are turned back, the strike turns into an insurrection of sorts. At this point, the Tsarist government sends in troops in full force, overwhelming the workers' feeble barricades. Some of the comrades are killed, and others (including Natasha) are captured. Maxim escapes -- by joining the army, where he will continue to campaign for political change, on the front lines.

Visually, this is a simpler film than its predecessor. Not that there is no mood and atmosphere (when needed), but the style is more vigorous and direct. The success of the first film obviously made greater resources available to the film makers -- and some of the gigantic crowd scenes are quite impressive. This film. like the first, offers a blend of comedy, romance, suspense, music (with more contributions by Shostakovich) and "propaganda". Overall, Kozintsev and Trauberg seem more concerned with the fate of their characters (and the working poor), than in selling ideology here.

Additonal screen shots:

Vyborgskaya storona/ The Vyborg District (Grigori Kozintsev & Leonid Trauberg, 1939)

With this film, we move (with Maxim) to 1917, around the time of the October Revolution. Interestingly, we none of the "action" featured in other soviet films set in this period, rather the political focus is on parliamentary wrangling. Meanwhile, Maxim himself has been appointed commissar of a leading bank, and the old management is far from happy (and does its best at obstructing oversight). Counter-revolutionaries, making use of economic chaos, try to stir up unrest among the unemployed poor in order to provide cover for a plot to assassinate Lenin. Natasha is busy representing the local worker's organization in the Vyborgsky District (then one of the city's major industrial areas), making demands for more financial help than the government and banks (viz. Maxim) were able to provide. The climax of the film is the trial of looters, including Yevdokia (Natalya Uzhviy), as an impoverished war widow with a sick child, who got ensnared in the unrest due to desperation. Clemency by the people's court, once it hears her circumstances, leads to the capture of one of the leading counter-revolutionaries. At the end of the film, Maxim is once again on his way to fight, this time for the (new) government.

Given the subject matter, this is the most frankly political film of the trilogy -- and it features appearances by Lenin, Trotsky (renamed Sverdlov) and Stalin. While they mainly appear in the "governmental" sections of the film, they do interact with Maxim on occasion. Most amusingly, when they find Maxim taking a catnap, after staying up all night to work, Lenin has Stalin add another hour to the time that Maxim had designated for wakening by his colleagues. The handling of political issues is more heavy-handed here, by necessity. Still, Kozintsev and Trauberg generally keep one interested in the proceedings. As with the preceding film, this features less in the way of stylistic flourishes than did Maxim's Youth -- and the cinematography (still by Moskvin) suits the direct style.

Needless to say, the film also features more music by Shostakovich. To tel the truth, one of the main reasons I ordered the Maxim trilogy from Bach Films was to see and hear how Shostakovich's music was used in context. Disembodied scores can be musically effective -- but (for scores I like) I really feel the need to find out how the musically is actually used. The fact that the films were visually pleasing and generally interesting and entertaining was a nice bonus. While the Maxim films are not as remarkable as Kozintsev's and Trauberg's masterpieces, New Babylon and Alone, they are nonetheless of more than simply historical interest.

More screen captures: