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.

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.

The Bigamist was a Great Film… Except for the Title

I suppose the fact that the title spoils one of the ‘Aha!’ moments of the 1953 film The Bigamist, should bother me less than it does. But even though this reveal comes early in the film, audiences already knew it was coming… and it would have been a wonderful moment.

I suspect that this bad decision was caused by either the marketing folk sacrificing a delightful moment for a lot of box-office prurient interest (the film was on shaky financial footing pre-release) or the director wanting to stop the shock of the reveal from becoming the most important part of the film so audiences could focus on the human interest story behind it. Whatever the reason, it led to my main disappointment with this one. I would have loved to be shocked by the discovery that the main character was a bigamist instead of knowing exactly why he was worried in the first scene before it was revealed.

The other disappointment was knowing it would end badly. The Hays Code (which we hate) meant there could be no unambiguous (miraculous, seeing the mess this dude was in) happy ending allowing people to leave theaters uplifted. I don’t mind unhappy endings, but I prefer not to know it’s coming from the off. When that happens, it weighs on me all the way through the movie, the dread of bad news to come.

And the prophecy comes to pass, even if the ending isn’t as awful as some of the crime movies where everyone ends up dead.

Joan Fontaine is utterly charming in this one–an actress in her mid-thirties who was much more attractive than she herself was in her twenties, unusual as that may sound.

Anyway, you already know what the guy’s crime is, and you know it won’t end all that well… but watch it anyway. It’s a good psychological study which goes right to the heart of human emotion and is just as relevant today (perhaps more in our alienated world) as it was in 1953.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own look at human emotion is a book entitled Love and Death, a novel told in short story form following a cast of characters whose lives, unknowingly intertwined, form a single coherent narrative. I won’t tell you whether it has a happy ending, but 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.

Umberto D., or the Redemption of Vittorio De Sica

After suffering through the awful, political Ladri de Bicicletti, I’m actually quite grateful that I only learned that today’s subject, Umberto D. was directed by the same man after I watched it.

If I’d known they were both directed by Vittorio De Sicca, I would probably have suffered through Umberto D’, waiting for something unspeakably awful to happen to one of the two sympathetic characters (or to the dog).

But if you go in blind, the film feels strangely positive. Despite the suffering of the old man (the film’s main character) and the pregnant teenage maid who knows she will lose her position and income once her patroness learns about her condition (the film’s most sympathetic character, even if she isn’t the smartest), it somehow feels like everything will be all right in the end for some reason. There’s a certain fatalistic determination to be as happy as the situation permits and not to brood on the troubles that lifts this one above the usual socially conscious films of the time… and makes it enjoyable.

Of course, the message is still there, but as we always say here: there’s nothing wrong with a message, the problem is when the message is ham-fistedly delivered (if you want to learn about ham-fisted messaging, you can look here or, conversely, pick up any diversity-politics-obsessed science fiction book from the 21st century. You won’t enjoy it, but I did warn you.

This one is done well, however, and is easy to enjoy. Just let yourself be transported to postwar Italy and let your mind wander and just enjoy the texture of the place. The plot is simple enough that you won’t miss much. I linked to the film on YouTube above (that one has English subtitles). I recommend it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a wild romp through the Ural mountains pursued by monsters. Genetically modified dinosaurs, mutant giant arachnids and monsters in human form make it a deadly adventure. You can check out Test Site Horror here.

The Bad, the Beautiful, and Another Film About Hollywood’s Obsession with HollyWood

Wow, we already knew Hollywood was fascinated with itself in the early 1950s, but we seriously didn’t know how much or how badly. But we probably should have after watching, Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place and Singin’ in the Rain in such quick succession.

The Bad and the Beautiful takes up the subject matter once again, and once again, we get a good film (unlike the other 1950s Hollywood obsession, westerns, I find these films to be interesting and well-paced… and find Westerns glacial and a bit flat). Maybe there actually is something in the old “write what you know” saw.

While this one is as self-indulgent as Sunset Boulevard, it goes about it in a very different way, with a much lighter-toned story, far less dense than the earlier film. This makes it a fun film; even if it’s essentially a drama plot-wise, building it from a connected series of entertaining episodes never allows the emotional weight to overwhelm the action–much to its benefit.

The pacing is likewise brilliant, keeping audiences entertained with shenanigans and incidents… while never losing sight of the central driving force which is how hyper-creativity and living for one’s art often cause people to forget how other humans actually work.

This film made me notice something else about Hollywood, and that is that they seem to have discovered Kirk Douglas. We’d seen him starring in another role that looked at the media business, but now (and more of this in future posts) he seemed to be showing up in significant films almost as often as Cary Grant, playing a bit of a bad boy counterpoint to Grant’s Mary Sues.

If I had to rank Hollywood on Hollywood, Id do it as follows:

1. Singin’ in the Rain – it’s just good on so many levels that it transcends the subgenre.
2. The Bad and the Beautiful – I enjoyed this one more than Sunset Boulevard when I watched it.
3. Sunset Boulevard – I originally had this one in a tie for second place, but eventually decided to avoid cop-outs of that sort. It’s a little denser, but it has more chops, in my opinion as a great film that B&B. I will likely remember it more clearly ten years from now.
4. In a Lonely Place – it was good, but the others on this list are great.

All of these are films I’d recommend without hesitation. And I’d add Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to the list if you enjoy them. It’s the modern equivalent of these movies, and well worth your time.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own look at the media industry can be found in Timeless, a fast-paced and sexy thriller that follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she uncovers a smuggling and drug ring in Southeast Europe. You can check it out here.

At Least it had Marilyn in it

After a couple of truly ground-breaking films, the 1001 movies list delivered a bit of a dud.  A reasonable caper film which, however, felt like a throwback to an earlier era.

The Asphalt Jungle Film Poster

OK, so calling The Asphalt Jungle a dud may seem a little bit unfair.  After all, this one was directed by John Huston, spawned a TV series and was nominated for four Oscars.  And yet, it felt like a dud in the context of the 1001 films and in 1950.  It might have been awesome in 1940.  It might have been an unforgettable classic in the pre-Code era.

We’ve been watching Code-impaired crime flicks for a while now, so we know the drill: all the interesting characters either die or go to jail at the end.  Objectively speaking, the only thing in any way special about this one was how detailed the heist planning was.  That made the movie interesting.

But other than that, it was pretty much standard fare, mixing elements of film noir in with neo-realism to create something that is neither, but isn’t particularly new.  It’s a decent Code-era crime flick, entertaining and well-paced but with the limitations of the genre.  You will never know how much you love not being able to guess how a film ends until you watch a few Code-era crime films in a row in which the main characters are criminals.  You spend the entire movie getting to know them, all the while knowing they are doomed.  An exercise in futility.

This one, however, does have one redeeming feature.

Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle

Yep, that’s Marilyn herself, playing a minor but notable part, in one of her breakout roles before her trademark look was quite perfected and looking young and innocent–although her role as one of the character’s kept women was anything but innocuous.  It’s the one thing that gives this film a link to the future as well as countless ties to the past.  Say what you want about Huston’s miss on the screenplay, but he sure knew how to pick aspiring actresses for supporting roles.

Well, at least once, anyway.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a creature feature with an utterly unpredictable ending entitled Jungle Lab Terror.  Buy it here!

 

The Hays Code Ruined this One

The Lady From Shanghai Film Poster

Almost from the first scene of The Lady from Shanghai, you know it isn’t going to end well for at least a few of the protagonists.  Why? Because one thing that the damnable Hays Code insisted on was that no one involved in crime or amorality was allowed a happy ending.

It is a classic, apparently, but it could have been so much better.

Directed by Orson Welles (who also played the lead role) and starring Rita Hayworth, it should have been better.

But it wasn’t.  It’s a disjointed noir story about unfaithful wives after money, as in so many other noir films (Double Indemnity springs to mind immediately), except here, the narrative is full of either plot holes or intentional ambiguity.  No one acts the way they probably should, although the debauched atmosphere does go a way to explaining it all.

In its day, the fault for the movie being a flop was laid at Welles’ feet, and I suppose he does shoulder a good part of it, but as I said, I was immediately certain that the thing would end badly for most of the cast because I knew the rules you had to play by in the Hays Code era.

If you wanted to have a happy ending for an ambiguous hero, you essentially had to move to France and film there.  Likewise if your heroine crossed a few too many lines.

So this one is a mixed bag, likely only of real interest to Orson Welles’ completists and to people who really, really love the shootout in the mirror maze (admittedly, that part was pretty cool).

Maybe put this one on the back burner until you’ve watched more pressing films.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book, Love and Death is a series of intertwined stories that delve deeply into what it means to be alive and what love means in different scenarios.  You can buy it here.

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

You Have the Whole God Damn Thing

Parkland Image

Abraham Zapruder viewing for the first time his home movie of the JFK assassination, portrayed by Paul Giamatti in Parkland.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with the JFK assassination continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Parkland.  For the previous posts in the series, see here and here.

 

In his poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden says the Old Masters were never wrong about human suffering, “they understood its human position; how it takes place…” which is while everyone is going about their daily lives, whether they are treating injuries at a hospital, managing brick production, or making a home movie of the Presidential motorcade.

Parkland begins on the morning of November 22, 1963, with hospital staff watching news reports of the President’s arrival in Fort Worth the night before, and his two speeches thus far that day. Then it shifts to Abraham Zapruder at his office, beginning to tell a joke, and then informing his staff they’re having an early lunch, so everyone can see the president. It’s almost like the first song in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. It seems like it’s going to be a lovely, lovely day, and if you didn’t know which day it was, you wouldn’t guess how unfortunate an event Zapruder is about to witness as he climbs a short column in the plaza to get a clear view above the crowd filling the ninety feet between him and the motorcade route. Not until the president’s car speeds away, with Jackie kneeling over the trunk, does Zapruder suddenly realize what he saw, what is contained on that reel of film. “Oh, my God, they killed him! They killed him! Oh, my God!”

CUT TO a nurse talking on the phone when she hears “601 Code 3!” As she’s hanging up the phone, she has to ask another nurse what a 601 is. VIP transport. The president’s in town. But it’s not until blood-splattered Secret Service men arrive that either nurse begins to understand.

And that blood probably has more time on camera than any of the actors, although it isn’t listed in the credits. The Secret Service men have it splashed over their shirts, with globs of it soaked into their jackets from their contact with the president as they carried him; the doctors and nurses have it up to their elbows; and Jackie is nearly bathed in it. The president’s blood plays a huge role in this film, and yet, the camera never shows the fatal head injury. What we see graphically is not the injury, but the effect of that injury. While this approach is the strength of Parkland, it is also, to a great extent, Parkland’s undoing. Even after fifty years, when any handful of middle school students could easily make a JFK assassination movie on their smart phones–the details are that well known and the conspiracy theories that widely discussed–there are still people, roughly half of all US movie viewers, who want to see the magic bullet again. But Parkland isn’t concerned with how long it might have taken Oswald to run down the stairs, or whether he fired the bullet, or where it came from. What Parkland delves into and serves as the god damn whole is the true impact of that bullet on the people surrounding the president, and on the people surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald.