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52 Movies: Week 53 - Tony Takitani

[Sorry, I missed one. --Ed.]

What a lovely little film this is. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, this minimalist gem carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.

The opening ten minutes provide the backstory for our oddly-named protagonist. Takitani Shozaburo is a Japanese jazz trombone player who was captured in China during World War II. After the war he returns to Japan, marries, and the following year the couple has a son. The boy’s mother dies soon after he is born, and Shozaburo gives him the Americanized name Tony, liking the sound of it.

Tony’s father continues to travel as a musician, and Tony grows up basically alone; among other things his Western name is a hindrance to the development of friendships. But he likes to draw, and eventually becomes an accomplished illustrator, one who excels at drawing cars and machines, but whose work shows little emotion despite its technical skill.

This prelude to Tony’s story is told largely via voiceover narration and a series of brief visual vignettes, during which the camera remains mostly static within each scene, but pans from scene to scene directly from left-to-right like in a slide show. These movements mark the passage of time, as in the technique in older films of having calendar pages flip or be blown off by the wind. At first this technique may seem a little forced and perhaps distracting, but as you settle in with it and the film progresses it becomes quite fitting and natural to the way in which director Jun Ichikawa tells the story.

After this prelude we see Tony as a successful technical artist, still alone in early middle age. One day he meets a pretty young client, and after a time he asks her out. They go on a few dates, seemingly hitting it off, and Tony proposes. Surprisingly, the girl, Eiko, agrees to think about it, and eventually says yes. They marry, but not long afterwards, and despite their apparent happiness, Tony finds out something disturbing about his new bride: she buys an “alarming number” of designer clothes.

Eventually Tony and Eiko talk about this obsession of Eiko’s, and she agrees to cut back. But an obsession is an obsession, this one takes a tragic turn, and again Tony finds himself faced with the possibility of being alone. His attempts to deal with this make up the remainder of the story.

The overall feel of this film is that of a fable, or even a sort of visual poem. Dialogue is sparse – most of the story is told by the conjunction of the narration and the visuals, and the narration itself has the matter-of-fact quality of a folktale. Issey Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father, and who is better known in Japan as a comedian and comic actor, captures both Tony’s lonely world-weariness and his hope perfectly. It’s a quietly wonderful performance. And Rie Miyazawa, who plays both Eiko and another girl, Hisako, that Tony meets later in the film, plays both of these quite different girls so well that only the credits give away the fact that it’s the same actress.

The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is sparse too – all solo piano, made up of haunting melancholy themes for the most part, but punctuated occasionally by the more upbeat, almost jazzy moments that accompany the film’s brighter scenes.

On a surface level, then, the whole thing seems very simple. But the excellent understated performances, the uncomplicated storytelling, and the visual poetry combine in a way which makes Tony Takitani deeper and richer than it appears. And the gentle touch of irony with which the film ends is perfect. Ultimately what we have here is a jewel of small beauty -- a fine poetic meditation on life and loneliness, love and memory.

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—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


52 Movies: Week 52 - About A Boy

No man is an island. – Jon Bon Jovi

This quote is the theme of the movie, discussed in voice-over by the main character at the very beginning, and then again at the very end. Will Freeman considers himself “an island”; completely self-sufficient, and in need of no other islanders to share with him his realm. To be perfectly honest I have never really liked living with other people, so was very much drawn to this movie from the opening scene back in 2002 when I was fourteen years younger. Now, such an island seems a little bleak.

It is always odd revisiting a film after many years have passed. Especially when it is one you felt at the time seemed to speak to you. There is a reason I have never re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that the enjoyment my 13-year-old self had reading it would be much diminished as a wiser adult. But I digress. When I first saw About a Boy I was surprised that:

  • Hugh Grant seemed to be playing a real person, and not the fluttering eye lidded floppy haired fop from so many of his previous films.

  • A “rom com” (romantic comedy) could have a little depth, make me think, appear to exist in a world I might recognize.

I am happy that watching it again so many years later it does still retain much of its inherent charm. I probably do not relate to Will as much as I did back then, but the movie was enjoyable and went by quickly. I kept thinking, “is this really going to make me laugh” and then during one scene I was suddenly laugh/crying and getting the insides of my glasses wet with my tears!

Grant plays Will Freeman, who lives a life that is certainly enviable in many respects: no wife, no kids, no job, money to live comfortably, ability to meet beautiful single women. But I suppose Will finds himself a little lacking in that final category and begins to date divorced single mothers. Then he attends a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together) self-help group meeting, pretending to be the father of a two-year-old son named Ned. Through some oddity involving a date with a woman there who knows the mother of our titular “boy” Will eventually befriends the 12-year-old Marcus (Nicholas Hoult, who lately plays Beast in the X-Men films, and used to date Jennifer Lawrence).

I must sheepishly admit that I did like the Hugh Grant persona to some degree in those previous films, especially Four Weddings and a Funeral, regardless of how annoying his typical character back then was. About a Boy seems to be the point in his career when he either got a better agent, or simply made a conscious decision that he should try to act rather than simply react to the actors around him.

Marcus’s mother (“was clearly insane, and appeared to be wearing a yeti”- Will) Fiona (Toni Collette) is a vegetarian, neo-hippie, and quite depressed. All three of these conditions help to make his school-life more difficult than your average already difficult middle-school experience. His solid brown shoes, sweaters knitted by his mother, and occasional singing of mid-70s lite-rock hits during class without realizing it does not endear him to his fellow students. Marcus provides the viewer with a second occasional voice-over, helping to explain the action.

About a Boy began as a book by Nick Hornby, who is a favorite author of mine. He also wrote High Fidelity which was adapted into a fine movie starring John Cusack. The filmmakers who adapted High Fidelity moved the action from London to Chicago, but this time with About a Boy we stay in the UK. Both have music as a recurring theme, and the soundtrack to About a Boy was written and performed by Badly Drawn Boy, who is some sort of lite-rockish, neo-folk English singer who always wears a knit hat. At the time it came out I found his music endearing, and enjoyed how it strung the movie together. All these years later it reminds me of Jack Johnson, and I was more impressed with the U2 and Roberta Flack songs included. Redo the sound and ditch Badly Drawn Boy! As a matter of fact, both he and Jack Johnson can end their careers and do the world a favor! Uh oh, another digression.

Nick Hornby, if you’ve never read him, is what I would categorize as a very smart contemporary writer. His books are not very long, and they all speak with what I suppose is his voice. They tend to be written in first-person narrative, wherein you easily hear the main character and understand all his (or her) quirks and motivations. Hornby has also gained some success writing screenplays lately. I believe he was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for last year’s Brooklyn (a tremendous movie, and an even better book). With all of that said, Hornby did not write the screenplay for About a Boy.

I am discussing other things besides the movie because I feel I have already given away too much of the plot along with one very funny line. Will and Marcus befriend each other. Will understands what a boy needs more than Fiona does. Through their friendship Will becomes more open to the idea that his island does not have to be a population of simply one. That said, it is not the typical romantic comedy which has Will and Fiona carrying on at the end. It is more about the man and the boy and their friendship. And yes, I do know that John Donne said “no man is an island”, not Jon Bon Jovi.

This is probably the first romantic comedy reviewed in the series. A movie to enjoy that is not in any way cerebral, or taxing. I feel like a commoner introducing silly nonsense to a group of smart people. However, very much recommended, good acting by all parties! In 2018 let’s do “52 Rom Coms”! It made me chuckle out loud just to type that. 

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 —Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog. If not lolling in his university office cavalierly responding to outside stimuli, he can often be found walking a dog, or reading a book.


52 Movies: Week 51 - Four Movies: Two Horses, a Queen, and an Artist

This post is made up of four short reviews of movies that are only related in the flow of my own stream of consciousness. I was thinking about the first film one day and one thing led to another, and this was the result.

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I first stumbled on the movie Dark Horse (2016) when I was looking for The Dark Horse. I had seen a trailer for the latter on the DVD of another movie, and it looked like it might be good. The description of Dark Horse looked interesting too, so I put it on my Netflix queue. By the time it arrived, I had it in my mind that it was a movie about an actual event, but in reality, it is a documentary.

Jan Vokes is a barmaid in a small Welsh mining town. Her father bred parakeets, and she followed in his footsteps, breeding other animals among which I think were greyhounds. I wish I could remember exactly, but I don't have easy access to the film now. In any case, she had a background in breeding animals, and when she overheard Howard Davis, a well-to-do patron of the bar, talking about his unprofitable foray into horse racing, she decided to give it try.

When she told her husband, Brian, what she intended to do, he said something to the effect that she was daft, but he also said that when Janet put her mind to something, you could be sure that she would do it. (I had to laugh at that, because I have heard my husband say the exact same thing many times.) Then, despite the fact that Davis had sworn to never get involved with horses again, she convinced him to help, and persuaded 100 locals to join a syndicate in which they would contribute £10 a week toward the expense of breeding and racing a horse.

Despite the fact that they had so few resources and had to go to the bargain end of the stud book to achieve their goals, the syndicate succeeded in breeding a winner. Dream Alliance gained increasing respect from the racing community who originally snubbed the syndicate, and in the end won the Welsh Grand National.

Louise Osmond, the director of the film, did a wonderful job of interviewing the members of the syndicate and telling the story in a delightful way. Godfrey Cheshire at RogertEbert.com described the film as crying out, “to be a Mike Leigh film starring Jim Broadbent and other members of the director's stock company,” and this is as accurate a description of the film as you could find.

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The Dark Horse (2014) begins with a large Maori man wearing a large quilt, wandering through the streets of a New Zealand town muttering to himself. He turns into a second-hand shop, and when he sees a chessboard on the counter, he immediately snaps into a more understandable monologue and begins playing chess. He is still obviously disturbed and the proprietors call the police who take him into custody and back to a facility for the mentally ill.

The Dark Horse is based (to what degree I don't know) on the life of Genesis Potini, a man who had in his youth had a reputation as an up-and-coming chess master. His severe manic-depression, however, put an end to his early promise. The story of the film begins as he is released into the custody of his brother, Akiri, who is the only person willing to have Genesis in his home.

Akiri is not the ideal custodian of a mentally ill person as he is the leader of a gang, the Outcasts, and his home is the place where the gang hangs out. Besides the Outcasts, Gen has to deal with his resentful nephew Manu, who has had to give up his room for his uncle. Manu is, understandably, a troubled young man who is torn by his desire to make his father happy by joining the gang, and his desire for a different kind of life.

Gen, seeing a poster advertising the Eastern Knights, a chess club for underprivileged youth led by an old friend, offers his services as a teacher for the group. The friend isn't at all thrilled with Gen's offer, but is finally convinced to see how things go. Needless to say, it isn't all smooth sailing, but the story of the Eastern Knights, the relationship between Gen and Manu, and Gen's struggle to stay on top of his illness make for a compelling film.

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I also enjoyed the French chess movie, Queen to Play (2011). Sandra Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a woman who cleans rooms in a pastoral hotel in the Corsican countryside. One day a couple tells her to go ahead and clean their room while they are sitting on the balcony playing chess. As she cleans, she watches the beautiful couple—the woman in her slip--on the balcony, intent on their game and one another, and feels a growing hunger. After the couple leaves the hotel, Hélène finds that the woman has left the slip behind in the bed, and she takes it home and begins to wear it, a sort of talisman of the life that she wants to lead.

Hoping to be able to play chess with her husband, Hélène buys him an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he is completely baffled by the gift. He does try to learn, but the complexity of the game is too much for him, so she tries to teach herself to play.

Hélène has another job cleaning the beautiful home of a reclusive and irascible Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). She finds that he owns a chess set, and asks him to play with her. He declines, but she is persistent. She even offers to work for free if he will, and he says they will try once. When he sees how serious she is about the game, and how much it means to her, he agrees to teach her.

The picture at the top of this section comes from a NPR review by Ella Taylor that describes Queen to Play as not-too-terrible, but I think it's a good deal better than that, and that Ms. Taylor has some kind of an ax to grind, particularly with Kevin Kline. I hesitated to link to the site, but I liked the picture.

Roger Ebert, on the other hand, says this about the film:

I wonder if someone who doesn't love chess as much as I do would like “Queen to Play” as much as I did. Such a person could enjoy the transformation of a Corsican maid into strong chess player. They might read it as a story of female empowerment, of a woman asserting herself in her marriage and in her job. That would be fair enough.

But what I enjoyed was the way the film summons up the pure obsessive passion that chess stirs in some people.

I live with a bit of that in my husband, but, since I can't grasp the spatial aspect of the game, I'm not a chess enthusiast myself.

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The last film is about yet another French housekeeper who has a an inner passion, and that passion is for painting. Like The Dark Horse, Séraphine (2009) is a movie about the life of a real person, a person who is also mentally ill. Séraphine Louis (played by Yolande Moreau) was born in Arcy (Oise), France in1864. She was very poor and and seems to have had a rather limited intelligence. She used the money from her work cleaning houses to buy the materials to paint the pictures which she secretly worked on at night.

Séraphine's work was accidentally discovered by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who was a neighbor of one of her employers. He was very impressed by her work, which he exhibited, and her paintings became very popular. Some of them are quite beautiful, but as you can see from the above picture, many of them had a rather disturbing quality, and they came by it honestly. Séraphine was very ill and ended her life in an institution where she was unable to paint.

This is a good movie but it is very sad and very disturbing. I would only cautiously recommend it. In fact, I'm not even sure that I want to include it in this post, except that it ties in so well with what's gone before. And then it shows that even the most unlikely people can have deeply hidden talents. Her works are still exhibited.

As I think about these four movies, I realize that the one thing that they all have in common is this discovery of gifts in unexpected places: the barmaid who breeds a race horse, the manic-depressive who mentors children, the chambermaid who plays tournament chess, and the housemaid who creates masterpieces. It's odd that I never noticed that until now.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


52 Movies: Week 50 - La Sapienza

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I believe that La Sapienza, a 2014 film written and directed by Eugène Green, has not been widely seen. I forget how it came about that I heard of it; probably there was some approving notice in the local press when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015. In any case, and box office returns notwithstanding, it is a film very much worth seeing.

We are introduced to a middle-aged couple, Alexandre and Aliénor, he an architect and she a psychoanalyst. They are both professionally successful, but beset by problems: their marriage has grown cold and dry, and he, in particular, has come to regret the path his professional life has followed, for though he has won many accolades he has neglected the guiding ideals that had inspired him to become an architect in the first place. He decides to travel to Italy to rekindle that early love of his subject, and she goes along.

It soon transpires that they cross paths with a young brother and sister, Goffredo and Lavinia. She is ill with a strange malady, and he, it so happens, is about to begin his university studies in architecture. Thus we get a natural shuffling: Aliénor elects to remain with Lavinia as she recovers in order that Goffredo can accompany Alexandre on his architectural tour. From this point, the film jumps back and forth between the two women and the two men, following their developing friendships, and, subterraneously, re-aligning and healing the original relationships.

The architectural tour, devoted especially to the works of Borromini, takes the two men to Turin and then, for the bulk of the film, to Rome. My friends, I know of no film more apt to delight the heart of a lover of the Eternal City! The camera lingers lovingly over details as it gently slides across a facade, or is content to gaze raptly at the intricate symmetries of a church ceiling. Rome, and its many beauties, is no mere setting, but becomes itself a subject of the film. It is truly glorious. Even were there nothing else going on in the film, the devoted attention it lavishes on these architectural gems would be enough to recommend it.

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But there is more going on. As the two women get to know one another, Aliénor explores with Lavinia her hopes for the future and the nature of her illness. Meanwhile the two men, ostensibly the master and the student, through a series of encounters and conversations find their roles gradually reversed, the older learning from the younger how to recover his lost passion for his art. Those, at least, are two of the main arcs of the story, but to leave it there would be to oversimplify.

On the surface La Sapienza is about how the friendships and experiences of the characters change them for the better, for the film believes strongly in truth and beauty as spiritual curatives. But having pondered it at some length (and watched it twice), I believe that one of its leading convictions, sunk into numerous aspects of both story and presentation, is that spiritual realities manifest themselves in physical things, or, put the other way, that tangible things possess an inner reality. This is true of buildings as of bodies. It's a rather Catholic idea, consonant with a sacramental imagination, but the film itself does not stress any particular religious connection. (Indeed, all we know of the religious convictions of the lead characters is that one is a syncretist and another an atheist.) It is nonetheless an amazingly rich theme to explore, and one rarely encountered at the cinema.

At this point I should note the most obvious thing that will strike the average viewer of La Sapienza: it is weird. I choose the word advisedly, intending to catch the resonance with the old sense of 'uncanny', as well as the modern sense of 'unusual'. Green has adopted a daring formal technique: almost always the actors speak directly into the camera, as if addressing the viewer, even when actually addressing one another. The conversations have a studied quality, each line having a little more silence around it than we’re accustomed to. Furthermore the actors often adopt a highly artificial acting style, with stiff movements, vacant facial expressions, flat tone. Even the blocking is deliberate: characters who are unfriendly to one another, for instance, stand angled away from one another, while characters who love one another stand face to face. So strange is the cumulative effect of these unconventional rules that I confess I found the experience of watching it curiously unnerving.

Here is a short excerpt of a conversation between Alexandre and Goffredo, illustrating, in part, what I mean:

 

At first I was puzzled by the purpose of these odd formal strategies, but upon reflection I believe they are related to the idea I discussed above: that inner realities are conveyed by means of external signs. In this film what we see on the characters' faces, and in their postures, and what we hear in their voices, are their souls, without disguise or polite veil. The face looks hard because the heart is hard. The eyes are bright and open because the soul is alive and beautiful. They smile because they feel genuinely happy. They walk stiffly, or easily, because their souls are bound, or free. The drama we see is the interior drama. And this revelation of the inner world by the outer is transposed in the film also to the architectural masterpieces, palaces of space and light, in which we see only the surface but are drawn to the spirit.

I hope, but doubt, that these notes adequately convey what I found so alluring about the film. If I have made it sound dull or didactic, this is just because while writing I've been trying to work out in my own mind what I think it is doing.

All told, I found it to be a fascinating and surprisingly touching film. It is rare to find a movie that has such great confidence in beauty and goodness, and one that is so wholly oriented toward light. It may seem perversely odd at first, on account of its unfamiliar and apparently bizarre conventions, but as it proceeds it slowly excavates an interior space until the viewer, without quite knowing how, finds himself in a realm of mystery.

—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.


52 Movies: Week 49 - Topsy Turvy

As a child I involuntarily acquired a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan from my grandmother’s record collection (which consisted almost wholly of their operettas and Strauss waltzes — the popular music of her parents’ generation) and from the occasional televising of a performance. These were the days when a household had a single screen, and the children got to watch whatever the adults decided should be on it. In 2005, for the World Expo in Aichi, the commissioner of the Belgian pavilion published a lavish volume on the history of Japanese–Belgian relations (economic, diplomatic and cultural). I revised the essays in the book, more than one of which was about the 19th-century craze for Japanese arts and crafts (which can be seen in Van Gogh’s imitations of Hiroshige, or Monet’s more oblique debt to Hokusai).

Not long after this I first saw Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on television. I have rewatched it five or six times since, and regret having become aware of it too late to see it on a big screen. The film covers a period of about a year in the mid-1880s when Gilbert and Sullivan came close to ending their flagging artistic collaboration, but triumphantly got it back on track with The Mikado. So many influences on our appreciation are personal that I do not know whether anyone else would respond with quite the enthusiasm that I did — a reluctant Gilbert and Sullivan buff, with an unsought depth of knowledge about the Victorian enthusiasm for Japan. The film certainly seems not to have done very well at the box-office, where according to Wikipedia it recouped not much more than 6 of the 20 million dollars that it cost to make.

I really cannot imagine why it had so little success at the box office, as I would count Topsy-Turvy among the cleverest, best written, best acted, and most beautifully produced films of the last twenty years. The sets and costumes are unimpeachable. It does rather pack in the novelties of the time – telephones, fountain pens, ice-cream cones, indoor plumbing – but in an entertaining enough manner. I think I’m right in saying that it won Oscars for costumes and make-up; if it didn’t it certainly deserved to. And of course, it is filled throughout with songs from the works.

As fair warning, I will mention that two scenes do always irk me. One is of Sullivan in a Parisian brothel, which takes a good deal longer than is necessary to convey whatever artistic point its inclusion requires (similarly, in Mr Turner, a film that is a stunning exploration of light and colour, Leigh has an uncomfortable sex scene that goes on long after its point is made, for no clear reason — certainly not for titillation). Luckily, once the brothel scene starts you miss nothing by skipping straight to the beginning of the next chapter on the DVD. The other is a group of leading actors from the company (the bass, tenor and baritone who in the final production of The Mikado have the roles of the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) dining together and discussing news from the Sudan (the contemporary events that provide the plot for the 1966 blockbuster Khartoum). They speak with a crude and dismissive racism that rings false. Racist assumptions may have been characteristic of many attitudes of the period, but the dialogue in this scene strikes me more as a modern liberal trying to sound like an imperialistic jingo (see how unenlightened they were!) than something respectable people at the time would actually have been likely to say over dinner in a public restaurant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these minor irritations, but in the balance of the film as a whole they certainly detract little from it.

 —Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


52 Movies: Week 48 - Diên Biên Phú

Diên Biên Phú is a two-hour war film by the French director Pierre Schoendoerffer, released in 1992. It tells the story of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the decisive defeat of French forces in Vietnam that led to the French abandonment of its client state and former colony, and indirectly to American involvement in the ensuing civil war between Communists and nationalists. There’s a contemporary newsreel regarding the battle at this link. In Schoendoerffer’s film, three plotlines intertwine: the course of the battle itself, a famous violinist rehearsing and performing her farewell concert in the opera house in Hanoi (the capital of French Indochina), and vignettes of an American reporter trying to gain not just the latest information but also an understanding of the background to events. Exposition of context is provided in the scenes in which the American interviews or interacts with a range of figures — soldiers and nationalists, smugglers and opium dealers. He’s the outsider whose need to learn about the situation justifies explanations that for the other characters would be redundant.

The scenes of the battle are unlike any others I have seen. It is in one respect a very unusual sort of war film, quite possibly unique: the director had himself been present at the battle, as a cameraman for the French army’s film service. He saw it as his duty to document the event, but when defeat came he destroyed his cameras and his reels of film, so that nothing he had shot might be of use to the enemy. Almost forty years later he directed a film that would, in a sense, recreate his lost recordings from memory. One of the characters, played by his own son, is even a cameraman for the army film service. Battlefield scenes, whether of combat, or care of the wounded, or of an army chaplain’s field mass, bear witness to his memory of events. If the American journalist is a pretext for exposition, the battlefield scenes are essentially documentary reconstructions. Diên Biên Phú doesn’t fall readily into either of the two typical types of war drama, the glorifying and the anti-militarist, as it shows the anguish and suffering of the soldiers in the firing line quite bluntly and at some length, while also showing astonishing and admirable acts of courage.

Finally, there is the music. If the camera seeks accurately to recreate what Schoendoerffer saw on the battlefield, the haunting score adds an entirely different emotional layer to the experience. The first time I saw the film was on television – it happened to be on, and although I had never heard of the film before I had vaguely heard of the battle. As soon as possible after seeing it, for the first time in my life, I sought out and acquired the soundtrack. I have done the same for two other films since: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The composer, Georges Delerue, is apparently very famous, although I had to Google him. Apparently he scored another war film set in Vietnam, Platoon, but I haven’t seen that.

The clip below, from about an hour in, combines all three strands, cutting between the opera house in Hanoi, where the American journalist is in the audience, and the battlefield, where an artillery lieutenant defies an order to spike his guns, instead using them to cover the retreat of his comrades. Although rather low resolution (perhaps best watched on a mobile phone?), it captures many of the beauties of the film. The cinematography is far more stunning than it might suggest. The clip also contains the only explicit cinematic reference I have ever noticed to Newton’s laws of motion (the artilleryman’s “la loi du vieil Isaac”).

It is not a film to be watched for plot, although it does have one, but for the camerawork, the composition of the shots, the music, the vignettes of the sights and sounds of French Indochina in the 1950s, and above all the testimony to the hard-fought defeat in which three quarters of those who surrendered died in captivity.


Dien Bien Phu (Schoendoerffer) par henrisalvador

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


52 Movies: Week 47 - I Know Where I'm Going

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Originally, I had meant to write about another movie, but after talking about Wendy Hiller on the My Fair Lady post, I decided to write about my favorite Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I'm Going. The movie was filmed in black and white during the last months of World War II. The writers/directors/producers of the movie were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were also responsible for two other films in this series, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and One of Our Aircraft is Missing; and for the film based on Rumer Godden's novel, Black Narcissus.

Joan Webster is a young woman who from her earliest days has known what she wants from life. When she was five, she asked Father Christmas for silk stockings. She didn't get them, but that didn't stop her from keeping her eyes on her goal, and that goal was to have all the finer things in life. Now at 25, Joan is about to achieve her dreams.

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Joan invites her father to an upscale restaurant to tell him that she is engaged to an older man, Robert Bellinger, the owner of Consolidated Chemical Industries. She explains that she is leaving on a train that evening to go to the Hebrides, where she will marry Bellinger on his island, Kiloran. When Joan arrives at the train, we see that Bellinger has arranged everything for her: a private coach, an elaborate itinerary, and a lovely wedding dress. Asleep in her berth, Joan dreams of her wedding—her wedding to Consolidated Chemical Industries. You can see this rather amusing wedding beginning at 3:13 on this video.

Arriving on the Isle of Mull, she finds for the first time in her life that she has met an obstacle that she can't overcome by force of will. The fog will not permit her to get to Kiloran. At the dock, she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a young naval office with eight days of leave which he wants to spend on the Isle of Kiloran. Since they can't cross that day, and it's too late to go anywhere else, he takes her with him to the home of a friend, Mrs. Catriona (pronounced Catrina) Potts, who arrives dripping wet from hunting on the moor with a brace of rabbits, and a warm welcome for Torquil; and happy to have some female company because she, “hasn't heard any intelligent female nonsense for months.” Catriona is pretty much an image of the spirit of the islands. Life is difficult and they don't have much, but they would rather live the way they do than move elsewhere and give up the things that are really important to them.

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Before they go to bed, Torquil tells Joan that if she counts the beams in her room, she will get her wish. He says it will only work on the first night in the house, and only if she believes. So Joan does count the beams and makes her wish in the form of a little prayer, “Please, Lord, don't let the wind drop, and let it blow away the fog.” And her prayer is answered, but in the way of so many fables, it isn't answered in the way she intended. Not only does the wind not drop, it strengthens into a gale.

For the next several days as the weather continues to be a problem, we are immersed in the culture of the Hebrides. We meet the people who live on the Isle of Mull and visit the ruins of an old castle, go to dinner at a grand house in Achnacroish and hear the old woman who lives there describe their wonderful balls, and attend a ceilidh celebrating the diamond wedding anniversary of a local couple, where Joan and Torquil dance away the night.

The outcome of the movie is very predictable. From almost the first moment of the movie, we have an idea of what is going to happen, and from the moment Torquil appears, we know who it is going to happen with. I'm not too worried about spoilers because I know that you know where this movie is going.

I Know Where I'm Going is a romance, but it is the best kind of romance. While there is a definite physical attraction between Joan and Torquil, there is more than that. There is an attraction to each other as people, and the relationship is full of respect and courtesy. What is more, it's not a romance that concerns two individuals isolated in their own little world, but it takes place in a community where that relationship has a place.

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All the actors play their parts very well. Wendy Hiller gives a wonderful performance. I love her face. While she doesn't have a traditional kind of beauty, she has something more. I think it's character. Nancy Price, who plays Mrs. Crozier of Achnacroish, draws the viewer completely in with her description of the big local Highland dance. There's also an appearance by 12 year old Petula Clark.

While I was trying to find a way to watch the film without waiting for a DVD (It's available on DVD from Netflix, and streaming from Amazon), I found a half hour 1994 video called I Know Where I'm Going Revisited. It begins with Martin Scorsese saying that he had just seen this film for the first time and discovered a classic. It has a lot of interesting information, but the cinematography was designed by the demons in the eighth circle of hell. Some of it is pure torture to watch.

 While the Isle of Mull is a real place, Kiloran is not, or at least, the real island isn't named Kiloran, but Colonsay. The characters in the movie never actually reach Kiloran, so it's more or less a prop in the film. From the above video I learned that many visitors still (at least in 1994) go to the Isle of Mull to visit the places in the film. The Castle of Moy which plays a part in the film is still standing, and unless things have changed in the last 22 years, you can still visit a call box along the road which Torquil uses to make reservations at the hotel where Joan will have a big room, and he will have a small one. The hotel is under new management but people still go there because they want to stay in hotel where Joan and Torquil stayed. It makes me want to get a passport.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


52 Movies: Week 45 - My Fair Lady

It occurred to me that we're approaching the end of the year and we haven't had a musical in this series, so I decided to include one.

I'm not a big fan of musicals. There was a time when I would just have said flatly that I don't like them, or at very most that there were a few that I didn't mind. As a teenager dragged to see The Sound of Music with the family, I recall somewhat grudgingly admitting that I had enjoyed it. I remember a conversation from my 20s, in which I disparaged musicals to a female acquaintance, saying that I found it ridiculous to think of people walking down the street and suddenly starting to sing and dance. She replied that she thought it would be wonderful if people walking down the street suddenly started to sing and dance. Well, I could see the appeal of that, though it didn't give me much liking for the actual thing.

I didn't really change my mind until I saw My Fair Lady for the first time about fifteen years or so ago. I think I rented it as a family movie, expecting to be a little bored, but finding to my surprise that it was delightful. I was actually somewhat familiar with the songs, as my parents had an LP of songs from the Broadway show (I think this was before 1964 when the movie came out), and I liked them, but had not (as far as I can remember) heard them since my early teens. Hearing them in the context of the movie made me realize just how very good they are. That may have been the beginning of my learning to appreciate and love popular songs apart from the rock and folk traditions. 

But I think what really won me over in My Fair Lady was the script (called the "book" in theater, right?). It's brilliant and witty, and I remember thinking as I watched it that this was awfully good writing for Hollywood. Well, of course, it wasn't Hollywood's work at all. The musical is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and most of the dialog in the movie is Shaw's. 

You probably know the basic story. Come to that, there's a good chance you know the movie better than I do. But in case you don't: Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a student of dialects, claiming that he can place a Londoner's birthplace within a few blocks (or something like that) by listening to him or her talk. He meets a cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), and makes a bet with a Colonel Pickering that he can enable her to pass for a duchess by training her to speak like one. And so the project begins. Eliza moves in, and Higgins goes to work on her. Much frustration ensues, until finally one day...By George, I think she's got it.

Hepburn's singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Of course you really need to hear the way the way she was saying it before to get the full effect. (There are other clips on YouTube, but you get the idea.)

And then it's one thing to have the right voice, and another to know what to say with it, and the gap between the two produces what is to me not only the funniest bit in this film, but a truly classic moment of comedy, on a par with, say, Groucho Marx's mirror scene.

I don't think it will be a big shock to anyone, or a big spoiler, if I tell you that (Crusty Old Bachelor) Higgins and (Lovely Young Woman) Eliza begin to fall for each other in a very reluctant way. Hearing the songs years ago without knowing how they fit into the story, I made some assumptions based on a rough idea of the story, and  was surprised to discover that several of them are not what I thought. Specifically, I assumed "On the Street Where You Live" and "Get Me to the Church" on time were by Higgins and about Eliza. But they aren't. There are a couple of amusing subplots which involve those songs and some ancillary characters such as Eliza's disreputable father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who describes himself as one of the undeserving poor ("and I means to go on being undeserving") and a young man (played by future Sherlock, Jeremy Brett) who falls in love with Eliza. And then there's Higgins's aristocratic mother, both shrewd and kind.

A charming story, brilliant dialog, great music, and Audrey Hepburn: how could anyone fail to like it? 


52 Movies

We need eight more to get to 52. I have four that I want to write about (three of which I've seen in the last three days at the Fairhope Film Festival). Stu and Rob have said they would do one more each. That leaves us needing two. I can fill those in if needed from my vast store of experience, but if there was a film you really wanted to write about but haven't gotten around to, here's your chance.


52 Movies: Week 44 - Stations of the Cross

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The opening scene of Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) sets the stage: a group of teenagers sit around a long table, books open before them, and a young priest speaks to them about their upcoming reception of the sacrament of Confirmation. He is articulate and winsome as he encourages them to stand firm in their faith, to embrace their identities as "soldiers of brotherly love" and ambassadors for Christ in the world. He proposes that during this final week before Confirmation they each should choose something to sacrifice to the Lord, offering it willingly and with stout hearts for the good of others.

Well and good, you might say, but his exhortation strikes several ominous notes as well. It becomes evident that he, and these young people, belong to a schismatic Catholic group -- called the Society of St Paul in the film, but clearly based on the Society of St Pius X inasmuch as it rejects Vatican II and the authority of the reigning pontiff. It is also clear that the priest strongly disapproves of contemporary popular culture, especially the "satanic rhythms" of popular music, which he believes will corrupt the souls of his students. In other words, this is a group of Catholics that sees itself as the last faithful remnant, surrounded by perils on every side.

The film unfolds over the course of the week preceding Confirmation, and as it progresses we follow one of the young students in particular: Maria (played wonderfully by Lea van Acken). She is devout, taking her priest's instruction very much to heart. But she is troubled as well, shy and lonely, and her family situation is difficult: she has an angry and dominating mother, a sullen and mute father (whom one infers has been slowly beaten into submission by his wife), and an ill younger brother. The sole light in her life is her family's au pair, Bernadette, a young woman a few years older than Maria who lives with them and helps with the younger children.

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Over the course of the week, for a variety of reasons, tensions within the family escalate, and, at the same time, Maria begins to decline. We see her, step by step, in a series of carefully conceived scenes, falling prey to self-doubt, loneliness, sin, and sickness, and the film, step by step, turns from a sensitive character study into a tragedy.

But we knew that it would. The film's title announces its structure: it is divided into fourteen sections, each preceded by a title-card naming one of the Stations of the Cross: "Jesus Carries His Cross", "Jesus Meets His Mother", and so on. In each "station" the connection between what happens to Maria and what happened to Christ is sometimes clear and sometimes less so, but the overall arc is clear enough. We know how this story goes.

Structuring the action of the film in parallel to Christ's Passion is a compelling enough formal idea, but the director, Dietrich Brüggemann, has greatly enhanced his film by investing the individual "stations" with a strong formal element as well. To wit: each of the fourteen parts of the film is filmed in a single, unbroken shot, and all but a few of these shots are static. The camera does not move, pan, or zoom. One might think this would be dull, but in fact the effect is electric: every detail on screen, every entrance and departure, becomes something to notice. The filmmaking is stripped down to its most basic elements, and we become more, not less, aware of the filmmaker's craft. I cannot emphasize too strongly how effective I found this technique. This was especially so on those few occasions on which the camera did move. There are three. I'll not reveal the details, but only say that simply by breaking the film's established rules they become moments of high drama.

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How to interpret the film? Is it a critique of religion? Of Catholicism in particular? A portrait of a saint? Or is it exploring a more general set of problems to which the religious setting is merely incidental? I'd answer a tentative 'yes' to each, with the caveat that whatever interpretation I try seems to be complicated by some detail or other.

I can imagine, for instance, a Catholic watching the film and concluding that it's anti-religious in general, or at least anti-Catholic in particular. After all, Maria's unwavering faith is a necessary part of her decline and crisis, entering both as motive and means. But there are other factors at work too, such as her volatile relationship with her mother, and the family's self-isolation from the surrounding society. And the plausibility of an anti-Catholic reading is strongly undermined by the filmmaker's apparent affirmation, at the film's climax, that their beliefs are in fact true.

But neither do I think that the opposite interpretation -- that the religious setting is incidental -- is plausible. It's simply too deeply woven into every detail for that to work.

Instead, I think that, despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

The neat complexity of the film is summed up in the last of the fourteen stations, a wordless scene in which Maria's life seems to be regarded with a mixture of both affirmation and interrogation. It could hardly end any other way.

For what it is worth, the film played at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, where it won the award for best screenplay. The film is in German, with some admixture of French.

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This trailer for the film contains more cuts than the the film itself:

 

 

—Craig Burrell blogs now and then at All Manner of Thing and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives near Toronto.