film history

Fatalism in the Face of Melodrama: Tokyo Story

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Madame De… a melodrama that, by its treatment became almost a black comedy and much more watchable than one would expect from the subject matter.

Now it’s the turn of Tokyo Story which proves that melodrama can be made palatable in different ways, too. This one may be even more brilliant.

What the French film does by being humorous and worldly, the Japanese film does with a fatalism that flies in the teeth of the topic and even–to a certain degree–of the characters themselves. And like the French film, which gives a glimpse into the sardonic national character, this one also lifts one of the cultural veils and shows westerners the power of acceptance.

Briefly, the film is about an older couple who visit their children living in Tokyo and find them to be both too busy and too modern and cynical to spare time for their parents. This is a trip they’ve been waiting a lifetime to take, but it is clear that it’s special only to them and the one loyal character in the movie: their widowed daughter-in-law (seen in the pic above).

Then the mother dies.

But it avoids becoming overly emotional and unwatchable (think of a random 1970s melodrama where someone dies of cancer) because of the fatalistic acceptance that things are as they are and that one should be thankful for the little things that are good instead of hurting because of things that aren’t.

The couple’s genuine acceptance of life if a message that not only gets them through disappointment and tragedy but also stands as a strong rebuke to the wonderful film Ikiru in which precisely such acceptance is pointed to as the source of many national ills. The sympathetically-portrayed daughter-in-law in Tokyo Story is proof that the director was aware of this, even if the focus was elsewhere.

As always, when two diametrically opposed points of view collide, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact Tokyo Story shows a side of the Japanese character in a way that makes it possible for a Western audience to understand. And that is a wonderful thing.

And, as always, a shout-out to Kyōko Kagawa, who is still with us. If you’re reading, thank you for being part of this wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose fascination with the human psyche follows him across genres. While his more commercial work has well-drawn characters, it is in his literary fiction where he explores this facet most deeply. Love and Death shows how real people act in those moments that define their lives. You can check it out here.

Even the Emasculated Version Beats the Hays Code

I gripe about the Hays Code a lot here on Classically Educated, and with good reason. The Code was the dumbest thing ever. While I understand that the movie industry adopted it in order to avoid government censorship from a prudish, adolescent nation, the sheer cowardice involved is staggering. I think a lot of the US tendency to act like children even today (the current “social discourse” with its childlike black-and-white extremes is clearly a fight between groups of coddled adolescents who grew old but never grew up. Cancel culture is another excellent example of people who never outgrew their teen immaturity and need for extreme definitions and inability to see grays or comprehend context) probably stems at least partly from this act of cowardice from the media.

But sometimes, a film comes along that, even though it had to appease BOTH the code and the Army, is still suitable for adults. Such a film is From Here to Eternity.

It’s wonderful to see a film from the 1950s has so much adultery in it without moralizing whether it’s good or bad and with at least one of the adulturers going scot-free at the end of it; even if he didn’t manage to keep the girl, it’s nice that nothing bad happened to Burt Lancaster’s character. I was sure he’d get killed by the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Briefly, the story follows the careers of two soldiers–one a man who refused to bend to the pressure of his superiors and one who bedded his CO’s wife, and both are portrayed sympathetically (which, especially in the second case was specifically against the Code).

Of course, the novel didn’t make it to the screen even remotely unscathed. One of the bad guys had to be punished, references to homosexuality were suppressed and a prostitute was changed to a “hostess”. But the lack of judgment passed against what in the 1950s would have been immorality bordering on the criminal (and actually prosecuted if you went far enough) was more than enough to set this film apart. It thumbs its nose at the censors.

Numerous Oscar nominations followed, a sign that someone other than me thinks the Code was stupid. More importantly, though, the Code was cracking… and From Here to Eternity was one of the first hairline chinks in the armor. The sixties, and their utter demolition of the childish morality of the fifties were, after all, just around the corner.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction quite clearly has no regard for the Hays Code, artificial moralities or any other consideration except how realistic characters would react in specific situations. His literary collection Love and Death, a series of linked short stories that tell a single long tale about multiple characters unaware of how they’re interacting, can be purchased at Amazon.

Madame de… is one of the Weirder Films on the list

The 1001 movies list contains films of all kinds. Romances and westerns, comedies and horror. It’s even got some core science fiction on it.

Madame de… (translated into English as The Earrings of Madame de...) defies easy classification. If you go by the plot, it’s obviously a melodrama, especially considering the ending.

But that would be an oversimplification. The story is told in a way that would work much better for a romance even bordering on a romantic comedy, with an absurd coincidence involving a pair of earrings driving the twists and turns of the plot.

We see a love triangle in which a man of action is forced, by the indiscretions of his wife to first enter denial and then acceptance of the realities of their marriage. He responds in truly the only way open to him… with melodramatic results.

So the light frivolity of a period romance and the serious underlying reality occur in parallel with the result that the film never achieves the weighty, ponderous tension of true melodrama. The audience is carried lightly from scene to scene, more interested in the weird perambulations of the earrings than in the disintegrating relationship underlying everything.

Until it explodes in an obvious but still unexpected denoument.

Bringing an audience to the end the director did without making it obvious (despite there being very few other possibilities) is an act of genius, and Max Ophüls is to be commended.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel told in short story form which follows the intertwined lives of a dozen people who experience both love and death and show once again that these are the only two things worth writing about. You can check it out here.

Astaire Returns, Not Quite as Fresh, in The Band Wagon

Although we watched them before this blog existed (which means I can’t link to the reviews), trust me when I say that the 1930’s dance films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers felt new, edgy and just plain fun in their context. They really were that good.

However, by 1953, there was a new king of the dance: Gene Kelly. His films are a bit different, more manic and catering to a post-war sensibility.

To its credit, The Band Wagon attempts to mimic the new aesthetic, and it does so quite well. It could very easily be a Gene Kelly feature, and it’s no wonder it did well. Even better, the plot centers around the return of an aging actor from retirement, a wink to the fact that Astaire was not the flavor of the month.

Of course, the film, though good, can never feel revolutionary or groundbreaking. What it does well has already been done, and I assume that it’s only the fact that Astaire was in it that lands it on the 1001 movies list. It’s a good film, but perhaps only marginally great. Still worth watching, though.

One of the funniest things about the movie came as I was researching the cast to write this post. It seems that half of the people who would go on to act in the 1960’s Batman series are in here. We have Batman’s Aunt, Mr Freeze’s squeeze and, best of all the great Julie Newmar, who is still with us and who will always be the greatest Catwoman ever.

Holy batwagon, Bandman… I mean…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fiction spans every genre from literary to creature feature. His eclectic nature comes out very strongly in his most recent collection, Off the Beaten Path, in which science fiction and fantasy moves away from the well-trodden paths in the developed world. You can check it out here.

The Golden Coach and Renoir Weirdness – in English

The Golden Coach (1952) is a gorgeous film. The color, the acting, the homage to the theater… it’s all wonderful. And make no mistake, this is an homage, unlike All About Eve’s colder, more realistic take on life on the stage.

I use the word “romp” quite a bit, but I don’t use it lightly. So many of the films that stay alive are ones that entertain in a somewhat over-the-top way that they can’t really be described any other way.

Well, this one is a romp. It concerns a fascinating actress, the headliner of a troupe that travels to a South American capital in early colonial times only to find that… well, they’ve traveled to a colony that is far from being a European capital of the time.

That, of course, doesn’t stop this actress from obtaining three different suitors, each of which exerts a different kind of fascination. It ends about as well as situations of that kind do, but we’re never heartbroken because the color and the action are much more farcical than dramatic. It’s a fun film as well as being gorgeous (it’s easily as beautiful as The Red Shoes, except with no serious dance).

Other than the film, what I found most interesting was that the only version I was able to track down was in English when I was expecting a French film befitting director Jean Renoir. In the end, I settled for the English-language version, thinking how well dubbed it had been… I only learned that it had originally been filmed in English when researching it for this post. Interesting.

I recommend this one. Watch it without expectations and you’ll be entertained in parts, and delighted in others.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, is also a romp, but one with monsters and Russian special forces soldiers in it. Whether that makes it better or worse than The Golden Coach is a question left to the reader. But you can check it out here.

High Noon is the Perfect Cowboy Film

We’ve reviewed a lot of Westerns here on CE, most recently The Big Sky. They’ve increased in frequency over the past few months because the 1950s, the era we’re currently watching, is bigger on Westerns than other eras.

Now many westerns are similar. The actors spend a considerable chunk of the film traversing the majestic landscape, whether it be on horseback or, as in the case of The Big Sky, on a boat. There are a couple of gunfights–either with outlaws or with indians–and the boy gets the girl.

High Noon dispenses with all of that. The guy has the girl from the opening of the film, no one rides across majestic landscapes for interminable periods of time and the action sequences are contained in the last ten minutes of the movie.

And yet, it’s about a hundred times more entertaining than most of the slow-paced Westerns I hated as a kid (and enjoy now, but not quite as much as other kinds of films).

Loosely, this film, produced in “real time”–an hour in the film is an hour in real life–tells the back story of the departing Marshall we see getting married in the first scene, and the cowardly way most people discard loyalty when their lives are on the line.

It’s about one man against the world… and, this being a Western, that man wins.

It’s the best Western we’ve watched since My Darling Clementine.

I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you the details (many people have seen it, but the new generations might not). Just track it down somewhere and watch it. You will enjoy it.

The only jarring note is actually the opening wedding scene, in which a visibly aging Gary Cooper (looking so similar to Tommy Lee Jones in face and gesture) marries… the angelic vision of a very young Grace Kelly in her first major film role. Even great actors have a hard time making that one believable.

A genre link in this one is the presence of Lon Chaney Jr, but my hopes that he would become a cowboy wolfman and take this film in an unexpected direction were sadly dashed.

Still recommended, though.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is an action-packed creature-feature entitled Jungle Lab Horror. You can check it out here.

Kurosawa’s Ikiru – Wondrous Light in the Face of Tragedy

An old man on a swing in the snow, singing a traditional Japanese song while smiling happily doesn’t seem like the kind of image that can bring hardened movie-goers to tears, but that’s because you haven’t yet seen Ikiru.

This is a movie about celebrating life, of living every day as if it as if it were the last, for the simple reason that, one day, it will be. That, and the incredible acting of Takashi Shimura, who plays a beaten down bureacrat who, in the first minutes of the film, discovers he will soon die of stomach cancer.

The rest of the film deals with that man trying to make sense of the death sentence.

The film reminds you once again that life exists for those who live it. So many people are just going through the motions, happy just to have a job that gives them a position in society and forgetting the truly important parts of life.

I once called Ladri de Bicicletti the most communist film ever. In the same vein this is the most un-communist film ever. It represents everything that liberal humanism celebrates, and criticizes conformism, equality (in the sense of everyone desiring the same path through life) and especially bureacracy.

It’s an exploration of how the individual–even one who never thought of rebelling against the pressure applied by society–is more powerful than the forces of conformism. It’s wonderful if you happen to celebrate the individual or enjoy an uplifting story. It’s deeply and subtly subversive if you believe that individuals should be subordinate to the tyranny of the majority.

Highly recommended as a way to brighten your day.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent literary book is the linked short story collection Love and Death, which deals with life in its most piercing aspects. You can check it out here.

Angel Face Would Have Been Treated Much Differently Today

Angel Face, for those who haven’t seen it (a group that included me until last week) is a clear descendent of the noir films of the classic era. Jean Simmons plays a classic femme fatale in the most literal sense of the word, and Robert Mitchum’s character is ripe for falling into her web.

It’s another of those unflinching noirs from the fifties–entertaining but without the possibility of redemption that tipified the true greats in the genre.

But the fact that noir had completely lost its way in the fifties is, in this particular case, not the point. What jumped out at me from this movie is that it would never be made with the same focus today.

The plot is driven by an obsession–the femme fatale, in this case, is compulsively in love with the guy, and this drive eventually, as in all fifties noir, ends badly.

So far, so good, but I got to thinking: would this film ever be made today?

And the answer appears to be “no way”. In fact, if this one was filmed in 2020, it would either be a horror film in which we focus closely on the disturbed, deranged character of Simmons’ character, moving through the evolution of her obsession while she wreaks tragic havoc on those around her. A psychological thriller could work, too, but a harsh one.

The other possible take would be to look at the woman as a victim. Undiagnosed mental illness leading to awful, tear-jerking events and, eventually, to her doom. All very touching and sad.

In a nutshell, this is why we’re still watching movies from the 1950s. It’s much more fun to watch the femme fatale doing her thing for no reason except that that is what femmes fatale do. And the plot built around that is much better than what would transpire viewed through a “modern” lens.

In fact, this overly indulgent attitude towards people who create serious problems is probably the reason Hollywood has moved to the science fiction blockbuster: having caricatured bad guys is much more entertaining than a politically correct view of mad criminals. People want to be entertained, so anything that doesn’t preach at them is appreciated.

And that makes Angel Face, a film made in 1952, refreshing.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Outside gives a nice mad bad guy to go with a well-thought-out science fiction setting. If you enjoy Loki in the MCU, you should love Graham. You can check the book out here.

Older School Art Film

There was a time when any film from 1951 would have been old-school enough for me.  But that was before I started watching the 1001 movies list.  Now, I can differentiate between a film that seems old from a film that seems old for its time.

Today’s entry is about a French film that feels old for its time, which is a weird feeling since the last French entry in this lest felt extremely avant-garde.

But Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) feels like something from the early 1930s, despite being a 1951 film.

Diary of a Country Priest.jpg

The main culprit is the cinematography, which, at times, is soft-focus, I think probably intentionally, because old-style filming is perfect for a film about the inner life of a priest.  No matter where in history one is standing, at least in the past 150 years, the Catholic Church always seems to be regarded as remnant of an earlier age.  This is clearly how the 1950s saw it and this film treats the problems of faith and belief as something venerable, to be treated as an antiquity.

But that’s not all.  The quick scenes telling the story in choppy little pieces also brings out an earlier age (and works really well), the lack of color (this film would have been a disaster in color) also add to the sense.

Most of all, however, the stark nature of the background and sets, a truly rural setting which, had it not contained 1930s cars (adding to the sense), would have felt like the action took place in the 1910s due to the prominent role or railroads and bicycles.

This is a truly interesting film, one of those that sticks with you, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of cinema.  It made Robert Bresson’s reputation, and deservedly so.  It certainly was very different from anything else on screen in its day (and before or since, too).  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books span the genres from pretentious literary mainstream to monster horror. A good chunk of his incisive literary fiction which gets right to the core of modern life is collected in a series of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  Those who enjoy realistic looks at reality without falling into navel-gazing or losing the sense of humor one needs to face life will enjoy this book.  You can check it out here.

Ace in the Big Carnival

Here’s an interesting entry in the 1001 Films list–a movie with two different titles.  Apparently, the studio changed the name from Ace in the Hole to The Big Carnival upon release and then Turner Classic Movies arbitrarily changed it back.

Ace in the Hole - Kirk Douglas - Movie poster

More interesting still is that this one completes Hollywood’s media attack trifecta.  They clobbered the theater, cinema and now the press.  All three are fascinating in much the same way as a car crash.  A cynical view of modern cultural icons as they were back then.

Though it continues the list of films that show media people in unattractive light, this one is particularly cynical because Kirk Douglas‘ character (too bad he died this year as it would have been awesome to give him a shoutout) plays someone who isn’t just battling internal demons but also corruptly putting others at risk.

The important element of the ending is one you can see a mile away and, worse, though the character does come to see the error of his ways, the Hays Code means that it ends well for no one.

It’s another bleak Wilder vehicle after Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend, and our estimable director apparently wanted us never to forget his previous unfortunate characters, as evidenced by the fact that the insurance company man from this film works for the same fictitious company featured in Double Indemnity.

Anyhow, this one is for people who enjoy a good suffering melodrama.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose dark fiction is collected in the 2020 ebook Pale Reflection.  You can check it out here.