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Director: Jim Jarmusch
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I often think of Jim Jarmusch as the short-story director. Among his short-story “collections” are Night on Earth and Mystery Train. Even his more unified (and better) films, such as Dead Man and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, have stories within the larger story that can be enjoyed in and of themselves. As writers know, short stories are hugely challenging, requiring extremely careful selection of details to sketch the entire mood and motivation of the action and actors. An episodic film also requires discipline and fortuitous choices, something that Jarmusch excels at when he’s on. He misses, too, sometimes badly, as with the hopeless Night on Earth.
Coffee and Cigarettes is an episodic film shot over 17 years in which the vignettes are visually—not thematically—linked by having characters sitting in bars and restaurants smoking and drinking coffee (or, in two cases, tea). It is done in the best tradition of sketch comedy but with an actorly emphasis, and reminded me of an evening of one-act plays I saw at the Actors Studio. The atmosphere of an actors’ showcase and scene-study classes pervaded that evening, and pervades this film as well. This is not to condemn either event. I thoroughly enjoyed both my evening at the Actors Studio and even more thoroughly enjoyed Coffee and Cigarettes. I just make this note to prevent viewers from feeling the need to conduct a rather tortured formalist film analysis of the sort Jonathan Rosenbaum felt compelled to perform on this film in Chicago’s The Reader newspaper.
The film grew out of a request by Saturday Night Live to have Jarmusch make a short film for the show. The first episode, introduced (as all the subsequent short films in C&C are) with a title card, features SNL regular Steven Wright and Jarmusch regular Roberto Benigni speedy on espresso and barely able to understand their own conversation. It’s got art-house silly written all over it, a perfect parody of a show like SNL by Jarmusch. Subsequent segments of the film feature duets by musicians (Iggy Pop/Tom Waits; DZA/RZA of Wu-tang Clan), relatives (Cate Blanchett/”Cousin Shelly,” Blanchett, in a dual role; Alfred Molina/Steve Coogan [I know, I know, just watch the film]; Jack White and Meg White playing brother and sister; Joie Lee and Cinque Lee) and frequently paired actors (William Rice/Taylor Mead, Joe Rigano/Vinny Vella). The basic thematic link seems to focus on rivalries that eventually melt into camaraderie, but that’s as far as I wish to go in trying to find a unified field theory of this film.
What Coffee and Cigarettes does best is make audiences laugh their asses off. Watching Bill Murray drink coffee directly from a coffee carafe is pure sight gag. The exchange between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan is the most polished and most hilarious of the segments; it cracks open the sycophantic and emotionally needy actor stereotypes. Jarmusch gives the black-and-white cinematography he favors a bit of a goose when The Whites put on old-fashioned pilot goggles and watch a homemade Tesla coil crackle in an homage to the special effects used in Frankenstein. Blanchett is her usual brilliant self as a too-good-to-be-true version of herself and as her envious, neurotic cousin. Tom Waits apologizes to Iggy (“Call me Jim. Call me Iggy. Well, my friends call me Jim. Or Iggy.”) for being late to meet him because he had to perform roadside surgery. “You’re a doctor?” Iggy asks incredulously. “Oh yes. Music and medicine go together.” It’s priceless pretension.
The film’s monochromatic cinematography emphasizes the checkerboard table tops of many of the cafes in which shooting took place and reminds one of The Seventh Seal, as though something of great importance MUST be going on here. The film is a visual in-joke for film buffs, particularly those familiar with Jarmusch’s previous work. You’ll see a painting of Lee Marvin in one segment (the two marshalls in Dead Man are called Lee and Marvin in tribute to Jarmusch’s hero), a cap embroidered with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai in another. But you don’t have to be a film buff to get it. Have a cup of java and see for yourself.
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Director: Greg McLean
By Roderick Heath
Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was greeted by a success-starved Australian film industry with ravenous cheer. After good reviews and box office, it was sold onto the Weinsteins. Opinion amidst U.S. critics was much less favorable—Roger Ebert regarded it as a virtual atrocity—but undeniably it hit its target audience square in the middle. With its superficial realism, it almost succeeds in executing the fan-dance required for a modern horror film—exciting its audience’s visceral responses whilst slowing thought processes to comatose levels.
I’m a horror film fan, and I’m also not a fan, that is, the majority who count themselves as such, who devour them by the dozen on DVD, and for whom the grisliness is itself a virtue wouldn’t recognise me as one. It’s possible that it’s never a good season to be a horror fan. Good horror films float on a sea of dross so vast as to boggle the mind, and the genre has always been the bane of mainstream critics, the villain of censorship boards, and the terror of the protective mother. It’s also the most cheerfully radical of genres. It survives like a xenomorphic monster by filling in the gaps of crudity, unpredictability, the forbidden zones left by other films. It is the one form where we are not coddled—at least, not overtly. Goodies can die; monsters may not be killed, or if they are, they can come back in the sequel. The forces of darkness, once evoked, cannot necessarily by driven back into the box.
To watch a horror film is to court what is most repulsive to us. Of course, that’s not all there is to the genre, but it does explain why horror films can be so appalling by every traditional measure and yet still register, even be counted as great films. Equally, a horror film can be made with polish, class, and cash, and come out weak, unimaginative, and tasteless by comparison with its true poverty-row arbiters. As a genre it has suffered most from the modern pattern of annexation by the dumb action film. Yet there will always be the little film made by the guys with the digital video that stands a chance of being a hit.
Wolf Creek is, however, a very bad film. It’s inspired by (“ripped off” might be another phrase) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is technically polished, exceptionally so for a low-budget Aussie film. The three young leads—Kestie Morassi and the charming Cassandra Magrath as English backpackers and Nathan Phillips as Ben, their witless but hunky Sydneysider guide—are scarcely delineated except that Liz and Ben kiss, Kristy describes Liz as “fantastic”, and that they’re all headed for deep doo-doo. But then the innocents in horror films are meant to be blank slates so that audiences can slip guiltlessly into the role of masked, motiveless villain.
The trio is headed for Cairns from Broome, Western Australia, where they’ve been partying hearty. On the road in the outback, they detour to see the monumental Wolf Creek Crater, the impact zone of a meteorite. Later, they stop into a pub, where the usual selection of clichéd yokels leer at the girls. In a supposedly spooky echo of a story about UFOs told by Ben, the threesome find their watches have stopped and their car refuses to start. They remain stuck in the middle of nowhere until a truck pulls up, driven by Mick (John Jarratt), an inversion of Mick Dundee from Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee, who presents an avuncular, helpful ocker persona, telling them he’ll fix their car for free and towing them to his remote mining encampment. After telling them of his experiences as a professional hunter working on cattle stations, Mick eyes Ben evilly when he makes a clumsy joke, but everyone settles down peaceably for the night. Come morning, Liz awakens, finding herself tied hand and foot and gagged in a tool shed.
The fun and games commence as Liz escapes, finds Kristy being tortured by Mick in a shed, and with some quick thinking, distracts Mick long enough to get hold of his gun and shoot him in the neck. This lays him flat, and our heroines start doing everything wrong in the style of trash movie exposition: they fail to kill Mick; they steal his truck but contrive to almost drive it over a cliff; they split up; Liz wastes time looking through the belongings of previous victims. When she finally gets around to stealing a car, Mick’s already in the back seat. He stabs her, cuts her fingers off, then severs her vertebra, reducing her to a paralysed “head on a stick.” Kristy makes it to the highway, but when an old guy tries to pick her up, Mick’s long-distance shooting skills takes him out. Then he chases Liz on the highway until he runs her off the road and shoots her in the head. Ben, who’s been nailed to the wall of a mine tunnel, manages to pull himself off the spikes and stumble out into the desert, where he is rescued by a pair of German tourists in a Kombi van and taken back to civilisation. A title card coda tell us he was briefly suspected of the killings, cleared, and the true circumstances remain unknown.
So, why have we just sat through this film? The film claims to be based on true events, but as usual, the connection with reality is tenuous. The inspirations for the film are the Ivan Milat backpacker killings that occurred on the East coast in the mid 1990s, and more recently, the assault on Joanne Lees and Peter Falconio on an outback route by Bradley John Murdoch. So many of the positive reviews cheer the film for being “genuinely terrifying.” I was never terrified, not even mildly perturbed; in fact, once I realised the director had no interest in whether or not the characters lived, died, got revenge, or got killed trying, I became impatient and then bored. There have been more gruesome films, but few so with such a perfunctorily cruel demeanour. The accent of recent horror films, including Hostel, Hard Candy, the Saw films (also composed by Aussie film makers, with Hollywood money), is on suffering and torture. Why? Well, it’s the last playground of the transgressive film maker. The horror genre is one where rules can be chucked out, but too often, this a pass for directors with no actual ideas, who can’t think of an ending, who can’t build tension without gore or illogical pizzazz, who substitute absurdity for real wit, and who plan for umpteen sequels rather than dramatic strength.
Indeed, in genre film-making, we are in a real dark age. In assessing the recent action films, horror films, and sci-fi films I’ve watched, most have been so mechanical, so lacking in human content as to suggest they were spat out by computers. So many are set up with no intention of giving you people to care about or stories to follow. Wolf Creek lacks precision, dark wit, or thematic purpose. Bear witness of the reduction of the genre–from the tragic ambition of Frankenstein, the disorienting perversity of Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, and the hard subversion of George Romero and Tobe Hooper, to lamp-on-your-face campfire stories. Woooo! Once there were some kids in a car and a killer killed all of them! Wooooooo! The dark oppositions that fire the narratives of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are not consciously extended by Wolf Creek, which magpies the structure of those films without nearing their impact. Mick is evoked as a malevolent force of nature rather than a twisted progeny of a culture.
A happy ending to a modern horror film is the exception, not the rule, quite often with the most facile of effects and motivations—it helps keep the franchises alive. There is a deeper chord to this trend, however. Morality is no longer a motivator in a horror film, that is, traditional dimensions of right and wrong, good and evil, reality and unreality. John Jarrat’s Mick is monstrous and not especially convincingly so—Jarrat’s performance is so eye-rollingly broad he invokes Robert Newton’s Long John Silver—and monsters are easy to create. Those few heroes who inhabit the modern genre, such as Wesley Snipes’ Blade or the heroes of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing, follow the patterns of superhero flicks in their featurelessness and indestructibility. In a review of Sleepwalkers (1992) in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopaedia of the Horror Film, we find a telling comment: “It is hard to take seriously that any creatures could live forever if to destroy them takes not the spiritual and moral strength of a Dr Van Helsing, but merely the panicky reactions of a popcorn girl and a horde of housecats.” Beyond the specifics of the comment, the whole failure of most modern horror films is laid bare. Spiritual and moral strength? What the hell are those? Hugh Jackman’s Van Helsing was turned into the shallowest, most plastic of knights. In the cruel swamp of Wolf Creek, Liz is the closest to approach heroism, and she meets the nastiest of ends. Her sacrifice means nothing. Kristy is caught quickly and Ben escapes only because Mick doesn’t expect him to ever leave the mine and doesn’t check on him. Thus, the film’s theoretically thrilling final third throws tension out of the window by playing cynical games.
Wolf Creek, then, is not so far from from de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in the impulses it invites in its audience . The “innocent” are ritually abused to pay for their innocence. Or are they innocent? Are they not the sort of drug-pumped, rich ratbags who comprise most of the audience, globe-trotting tourists who make poverty their spectacle? In the modern torture film, the decadent westerner is being treated to the excesses of Abu Ghraib that they have sanctioned simply by living according to the decadence of their societies. This subtextual relevance doesn’t, however, actually make a film good. On the contrary, it might make them worse because it propagates the kind of careless attitude to life and death it pretends to warn about. They punish their viewers as much as they do their characters.
Another feature of Wolf Creek is its unredeemable misogyny. This might be taken as a tough-minded attempt to trash gal-power clichés of so many improbable butt-kicking girls in tight pants taking on massive enemies. Yet even Halloween was more sophisticated. Certainly Halloween‘s slutty cast was butchered and its virginal, geeky heroine was the one left to fight the evil, but there is in that a defence of the intelligent as more equipped to fight and survive than the cluelessly sensual. In Wolf Creek, Mick starts with the thesis that girls are “weak as piss,” something which is only temporarily contradicted by Liz, who gets herself killed with stupidity.
So, what good horror films have been made in the last few years? Frankly, it’s a short list. I’d count Tim Burton’s gleeful Sleepy Hollow; John Fawcett’s witty Ginger Snaps, Neil Marshall’s derivative but muscular Dog Soldiers, all of which, tellingly, break away from the structure of the slasher film as invented by Hitchcock and Bava and long since driven into the ground. The horror film is having a boom as its box office relevance has returned, and yet there has been a lack of creativity and originality in the new films. We are in a mean age, looking for mean thrills. After watching Wolf Creek I went to bed and started watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead again. Now that’s a horror film. l
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Director: Mark Robson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the classic films of horror is a subgroup that I’m going to call “eerie.” These films are not really horrifying and generally do not include nonhuman monsters or otherworldly creatures, such as ghosts. Rather, they tap more directly into the human capacity for cruelty and subversion to generate their unsettling mood. The acknowledged master of the eerie was producer/writer Val Lewton, whose films for RKO Radio Pictures are stylish, distinctive, and very, very good.
Among Lewton’s acknowledged masterpieces are I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945). Bedlam was inspired by the engravings of William Hogarth of London’s notorious Royal Hospital of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem, an asylum for the insane better known as Bedlam. Indeed, Lewton gave Hogarth (1697-1764) a writing credit, so much does the atmosphere of the picture derive from Hogarth’s tortured rendering of Bedlam’s inmates in The Rake’s Progress.
The film opens on a man hanging by his fingertips from the gutter of a roof, trying to pull himself up. A guard walks over and crushes the man’s fingers under his boot, loosening his grip and sending him plummeting to his death. A carriage transporting the fat and lazy-minded Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his pretty and quick-witted companion Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) stops at the scene. Mortimer knew the dead man and questions why he died in an insane asylum, angrily demanding that the head warden, George Sims (Boris Karloff), make a full explanation at his chambers the next day. Nell grows curious about Bedlam, and Mortimer informs her that for tuppence, anyone can take a tour of Bedlam and laugh at the “animals” in their cages.
Sims toadies slavishly to Mortimer to appease him, but Nell is revolted by Sims. She makes a visit to Bedlam and pays her tuppence, but is frightened by the faces and movements of the inmates. She runs off, encountering a Quaker stone mason named Hannay (Richard Fraser) who has just been turned down for a commission at the asylum because he will not overcharge and kick back the overage to the asylum. He believes she felt compassion for the poor wretches in Bedlam, but she sneers that she feels nothing but contempt. She is a very hard case, it seems, but she later petitions Mortimer to upgrade their living conditions, trying to persuade him that it would be amusing.
Sims counters that he could provide better amusement by having his loonies put on a play for Mortimer and his friends. One of his performers, covered in gilt dust, dies of asphyxiation. Nell decides to make war on Sims. Sims attempts to get her out of the way by persuading Mortimer to offer her money to go to the spa at Bath. She takes the money, puts it between two pieces of bread, and takes a bite out of it. This rash act will be used against her in a trial at which Sims succeeds in having her committed to Bedlam.
The sane person locked away in a madhouse is a familiar horror fantasy, and the inside of Bedlam is indeed menacing, filled with shadows and shadowy figures groping in the dark. But Lewton and Robson are reform-minded and make their inmates sad, mistreated creatures, Nell their guardian angel, and Sims the cruel taskmaster who tries to justify his actions by the necessity of going along to get along to a kangaroo court of inmates who waylay him. We have seen him stroke the cheek of a catatonic woman, however, and can imagine that this is a subtle way of suggesting that he regularly gropes her. Karloff, of course, is punished for his depravity, and we are told in a title card that reforms come to Bedlam in the years that follow.
Karloff is very good in this role. He had grown sick of the grotesques Universal had cast him as, and relished the opportunity to play a real, if deviant, man for RKO and Lewton. He would give several strong performances for them in other pictures, but most particularly in The Body Snatcher, perhaps his best performance and film.
Anna Lee plays an ordinary woman who tries to fit into the amorality of her adopted class. She puts on a very tough and callous front, but her basic decency wins out. Lee, however, is a little too hard and softens so subtly that it’s hard to notice a change in anything but her behavior. When she appears to be starting a romance with Hannay, it just doesn’t ring true. Lee does not have the chops to properly shade her Nell. On the other hand, I was very taken with Fraser as Hannay. I enjoyed his gentle, but shrewd manner, and he seemed to use “thee” and “thou” with an ease that would suggest this verbal twist favored by Quakers at the time was absolutely natural to him.
Most of all, I loved the look of this film. It is a tribute to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca that he could recreate the look of Hogarth’s engravings so vividly on camera. This is an atmospheric film, a first-rate example of the eerie genre that seeks to unsettle and, possibly, to teach.
The Val Lewton Horror Collection boxed set of DVDs is available widely and includes Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People / I Walked with a Zombie / The Body Snatcher / Isle of the Dead / Bedlam / The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship / The Seventh Victim / Shadows in the Dark. For a first-rate discussion of The Leopard Man and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau, read our own Roderick Heath at http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/50/leopardraven.htm
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Director: Stuart Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In a time of unbridled greed…
In a world that took itself quite seriously…
One man dared to dream his dream…
Of ETERNAL LIFE…
The year was 1985. A lot of men were wearing power ties, and a lot of women were wearing skirted suits with running shoes. People were in a hurry to be somebody. Maybe Stuart Gordon was, too. He had been the Artistic Director at Chicago’s legendary Organic Theatre. The Organic was energetic, ballsy, and outrageously funny, and had produced such hits as Bleacher Bums, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, and Warp! Gordon was a local celebrity. But he wanted more. He wanted movies. So he left Chicago and went to Hollywood. Working with writers Dennis Paoli and Chicago theatre chum William Norris, Gordon took on the notoriously difficult-to-adapt H. P. Lovecraft. The result was Re-Animator.
I don’t honestly know what the reception was when Re-Animator first hit movie screens. I was too busy taking myself quite seriously and trying to find a power outfit that didn’t involve suitcoats and sneakers to notice. When I finally did catch up with Re-Animator, it was via videotape on the small screen. I should have made time for it in ’85. It would have shaken every uptight bolt in my body loose.
Of course, I became an instant fan of this bloody hilarious story of a mad scientist whose “reagent” reanimates the dead, with their level of mental sophistication apparently dependent on how long they’ve been dead and how fiendishly brilliant they were in life. When the opportunity to see Re-Animator on a movie screen came up this past Saturday at midnight, I joined a packed audience of mostly adults in their 20s. Sick humor done with perfect timing and semi-cheap special effects never loses its appeal.
The film couldn’t open in better fashion. When strange sounds issue from the office of the brilliant Swiss physician Dr. Gruber, medical staff and police force their way in. They see Gruber prostrate, with his student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) kneeling over him holding a syringe in his hand. Gruber rises and starts to shake. His face contorts and his eyes bulge and explode onto the white uniform of the portly nurse in front of him. West sneers, in a stage aside, that Gruber was a fool.
The scene changes to Miskatonic Medical School, which is run by Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his research grant magnet Dr. Hill (David Gale). Med student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is applying chest compressions to a flatlined woman. He has to be coaxed to stop by the seasoned veteran, Dr. Harrod (the wonderful Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, the director’s wife). Deflated by his powerlessness to prevent death, he seeks comfort in hot sex with his fiancee Meg Halsey (Barbara Crampton), Dean Halsey’s daughter.
The next day in brain surgery (?) class, Dr. Hill discusses his theories of brain death while sawing the top of a cadaver’s skull off and removing and handling its brain for maximum gross-out. Herbert West, who has transferred to the school, challenges Hill’s theories and accuses him of ripping off the work of Dr. Gruber. “Just why did you leave Gruber, West?” Dr. Hill accusingly asks. “Because I had nothing more to learn,” West sneers.
Dan posts a notice for a roommate wanted. Later that night, West shows up at his door with the notice in his hand. Meg is there and takes an instant dislike to West. Nonetheless, Dan shows him around the house. West asks in a somewhat sinister manner, “Is there a basement?” When Dan takes him downstairs, West shrieks in maniacal glee that it is perfect! Although Meg tries to dissuade him, West pulls out a handful of cash. Dan appears to have no choice but to rent him the room.
The cast of characters assembled, Gordon unravels the insane experiments of West and the equally insane lust Hill has for Meg, which eventually collide in a bloodbath of reanimated corpses in the hospital morgue. In between, we have an almost surreal scene in which Dan discovers the body of his cat Rufus in West’s refrigerator and later has to go to West’s rescue as the reanimated cat claws at him ferociously. Banging around the basement, Combs wrestles with a stuffed cat fastened to his shirt back as Abbott bats at shadows. Eventually we get the money shot of the matted, bloodied corpse of Rufus twitching and mewling after he gets a dose of the reagent. Naturally, Dan gets caught up in the reanimation experiments.
Dean Halsey becomes a reanimated corpse as well, strapped in a straitjacket in a padded cell. Meg watches in horror—and we in glee at the humiliation of a father figure—through a one-way mirror as the man she calls father beats his head against the mirrored side and oozes blood out of his mouth for no apparent reason. The scene is gory and campy—as is nearly every scene in the film.
Gordon’s gift is to set up cartoon serial climaxes again and again. We see what is coming, but the actual moment—for example, when the reanimated Dr. Hill calls forth his army of reanimated corpses in the morgue and they all sit up under their sheets—is such surprising fun we can’t help cheering. Logic isn’t important in this film; only the energetic comedy and gross-out fun matter.
Combs is absolutely perfect as the sneering, superior, completely mad Herbert West. His horn-rimmed glasses and flat, ironic tone of voice create a young Dr. Frankenstein the midnight crowd can identify with. Abbott makes a believable innocent sucked in like a comic-noir victim. Crampton is more than just a pretty face and body, and brings the normally thankless job of the female lust object into greater focus as an actor in her own fate. Finally, David Gale is sheer perfection as the ruthless scientist who will stop at nothing, not even death, to get what he wants—fame by stealing West’s work and the lovely Meg. His devotion to Meg plays out in this film in a particularly sick—and oddly satisfying—way.
Midnight movies are not for everyone, but they should be. We all need a dose of the ridiculous put out by an enthusiastic film maker and company of actors who show their relish in their evil doings. I’ve seen a number of mocking midnight films with some inspired moments that thud against their own lack of imagination and joy. Their wit is borrowed and sometimes too angry. Re-Animator was made by a master storyteller, a true thespian with a crack stock company and a mission to entertain. Stuart Gordon is the real thing. So is Re-Animator. l
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Director: Busby Berkeley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If the movies had not had Busby Berkeley, they certainly would have had to invent him. The medium of film was made for visual dazzle, and nobody dazzled them like this spectacle-loving director and choreographer. I can just imagine him as a boy, twisting the end of a toy kaleidoscope he had just received for his birthday, lifting his eye above the spyhole, and visualizing the room around him cracking and tumbling in on itself in gay abandon. Indeed, in The Gang’s All Here, a late entry in Berkeley’s oeuvre and his first film in Technicolor, the final hallucinatory musical number, “The Polka Dot Ballet,” breaks into a kaleidoscopic image that prefigures the psychedelia of the 1960s.
Before we reach this ultimate abstraction of human form, which I will elaborate on later, Berkeley weaves some of the most over-the-top musical routines of his career into his soldier boy-meets-chorus girl story. Alice Faye plays the sweet Edie Allen, who, while doing her patriotic duty dancing with soldiers on leave at the USO canteen, falls for Andy Mason (James Ellison), a sergeant with a fiancee he neglects to tell her about. He ships out the next day and when he returns a hero, his rich father (Eugene Pallette) arranges for the entire floor show from the Club New Yorker—where Edie works—to do a welcome-home show for Andy at the estate of the Potters (Edward Everett Horton and Charlotte Greenwood), the parents of Andy’s fiancee Vivian (Sheila Ryan). Of course, a misunderstanding ensues, but it all comes right in the end. And boy, what an end!
This solid cast, led by the luminous Miss Faye, takes delight in the comic moments that serve as just a bit more than matchbooks fitted under the off-kilter legs of Berkeley’s fever dream. An especially good moment occurs when the wife of straightlaced Peyton Potter reveals herself to be former chorus girl Blossom Murphy upon encountering the director of the nightclub show, Phil Baker, playing himself. They go from the most proper formality to a dance that ends with Potter catching them doing a suggestive dip.
More comic relief is provided on and off the dance floor by Carmen Miranda at her fruity best. Her midriff is bared (but her belly button discreetly hidden by flesh-colored cloth) and her head is piled high with fruits and baubles as she shuffles through a series of forgettable songs. Miranda seems comfortable embodying the stereotypical Latina, whose words never match and whose wardrobe and elbow-high bangle bracelets seem likely to topple her off her skyscraper platform shoes. She is oddly sexless, almost a screaming drag queen. She wears thin fast.
Alice Faye could sing the Federal Register and bring you to an emotional peak. She has three numbers in this film, all forgettable songs made memorable by her delivery, particularly “No Love, No Nothin.” She’s a fabulous movie star whose shine has faded considerably over the years. It’s a shame. She deserves to be better remembered.
But, of course, the screaming star of the show is Berkeley’s choreography. “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” must boast the largest collection of bananas ever committed to the silver screen. As is typical of Berkeley, why hire 10 dancers when you can have 50, or start a musical number with one organ grinder and monkey, unless you end it with a dozen? In between, put a banana-clad Carmen Miranda among the bevy of chorus girls, have her play a banana xylophone, and finish with her standing in front of a backdrop that shoots an enormous fan of bananas out the top of her head. What could be more obvious?
Believe it or not, “Tutti-Frutti Hat” is a more traditional number for Berkeley. When he reaches the final production number, he passes through the looking glass. He begins with Faye performing “The Polka Dot Polka” among a group of dancing children dressed in polka-dotted clothes. Almost ominously, Faye sings “The polka is gone, but the polka dot lives on.” We then watch the chorus girls slip in and out of neon circles and then move like a synchronized swimming team with gigantic polka dots as props. Berkeley runs their movements in reverse at one point, a favorite trick of musicals directors. Just when we think the acid trip is over, he has the diembodied heads of all the principal actors appear one at a time in the middle of a polka dot singing the movie’s signature love song, “A Journey to a Star,” starting hilariously with the bullfrog voice of Pallette. We learn that Faye and Ellison are together when we see them in the same polka dot at the very end. In this way, Berkeley cleverly avoids the cliched final clinch, while turning the entire cast into his version of the night sky to parallel the song lyrics.
The songs in the film have among the worst lyrics I’ve ever heard. The Benny Goodman Orchestra is featured prominently, and maybe Berkeley thought he was doing Benny a favor by letting him sing a couple of songs. Although I was interested in hearing Goodman’s singing voice, heretofore unknown to me, did he really have to say, “Paducah, Paducah, if you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka”? He fares a bit better in “Minnie’s in the Money,” and I enjoyed watching the dancers do the jitterbug for all it’s worth.
This movie has a lot of so-bad-they’re-awful moments, but you can’t help but laugh. This is not a good musical, but it is still a must-see. You won’t really believe it until you see it for yourself. l
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
The rites of spring are upon us, when a young man’s thoughts turn to love, a housewife’s thoughts turn to wardrobe rotation and offloading junk to the Salvation Army, and a birder’s thoughts turn to LBJs and warblers. I fall into the second two categories, but since house cleaning is repetitive and of no interest to anyone besides S. C. Johnson Wax, I prefer to talk about this interest I share with millions of people all over the world that, to a nonbirder, must seem terribly square.
Square it may be, but birders can be as serious about their sport as athletes are about theirs, maybe moreso. I’ll get to the dark side of birding later. First, I will explain about birding. I mentioned LBJs. That is shorthand for “little brown jobs,” usually sparrows that escape everyone’s notice, that is, except the avid birdwatchers alongside whom I frequently stand and hope to overhear an identification. I’m not the type to study my field guides for weeks in anticipation of the biannual irruption of small feathered creaures passing from one place to another thousands of miles away. I am often stumped by the simplest of birds, say, a golden-crowned kinglet, which is among the most delightful of animals drawing breath on this planet. How is it that I can look at this tiny, far-from-shy bird flitting close enough for naked-eye identification and still have to run to my Peterson’s guide, warped and stiff from the time my mother dropped it in some bogland during a thoroughly miserable day of birding—rather, failing to bird—in the rain.
Yet I must say that after stalking the wild bird for more than 20 years, some of it seems finally to have sunk in. I can quickly spot at a distance a bird that just doesn’t look ordinary, and my best guesses of briefly glanced specimens seem to be right more often than not. For example, as I gazed out the window of the Skokie Swift train (named for the chimney swift, a lovely whiskered bird), I spied a bulbous bird with a white breast, a black cap, and naked legs perched in a tree. Clearly not a hawk, because of the legs. There was water around. Must be a black-crowned night heron. Not many novice birders would call that bird. They’d be too cautious and call it a red-tailed hawk despite the legs, or they’d pick out a rarity that, if correct, would have every birder within a four-state radius camping out looking at it or a bird that doesn’t occur in the area. I have made these errors many times, but not anymore.
I also know my habitats. Edge habitat, the place where one type of habitat collides with another, is the best place to spy migrant birds. I can just look at a crowd of bushes or a tangle of naked branches and know I’ll find something I don’t usually see. Rosehill Cemetery is one of my favorite spots because it has a wide variety of habitats all pouring over each other. The open, grassy areas where the grave markers stand are good places for thrushes, better known to most people as robins. Of course, robins aren’t the only type of thrush, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the birds you think are robins aren’t red. More often than not they’re brown-speckled hermit thrushes, who boast a lovely song characteristic of their bird family.
I like to drive along a gravel road barely wider than a path to seek out the smaller birds that prefer its scrubby edges. That’s where I spotted this season’s first yellow-crowned kinglets, not considered much of a find by seasoned birders because of their larger numbers, and the less numerous, more coveted ruby-crowned kinglet. This tiny bird doesn’t seem like a bird at all. It looks more like a new potato with startled eyes and toothpick legs. But then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the patch of red on the top its head, which often is hidden from view. Much to my delight, my ruby-crowneds didn’t seem the least bit inclined to hide their glory from me.
When I reported to another birder who had shown up what I had seen, she said, “Those are good birds.” This kind of comment really gets on my nerves. Birders tend to dismiss the ordinary birds we see every day (robins, house sparrows, rock doves [pigeons], even the magnificent Northern cardinal) and more common migrants (yellow-rumped warblers, phoebes, juncos) as “not good birds” or not “important” birds. My friend Eleanora, who is a near-expert birder, and I had a good laugh when we pursued the identification of a sparrow near the lakefront bird sanctuary while some old male birders told us we were foolish not to have gone to North Pond first to see the “important” eared grebe that had been spotted there. I’m not that kind of a birder, I admit. I enjoy bird behavior more than being able to say I’ve seen a certain bird. I get a kick out of the mating dance of the common house sparrow, the most successful bird on the planet, while still coveting a chance to see sandhill cranes flying high in a V-formation over the south suburbs. I simply enjoy being out in the wind and the sun, away from human commerce, hearing bird songs and feeling leaves and earth pressed softly under my feet.
Not all birders feel as I do. Let me tell you just how serious, how all-consuming birding can be. There is an event called a Big Year that a handful of expert birders decide they will do when conditions seem right. Birders on a Big Year travel all over the United States (there are Big Years in other countries and state Big Years, too) in an attempt to see as many species of birds as they can in a single year. This effort requires them to have spotters all over the country who will call them when a bird they haven’t listed shows up. The Big Year birder then must hop on a plane or drive for several hours, whatever it takes, to get to the bird before it flies away. Mind you, this is a competition that is self-declared, that offers no prize money, that requires each contestant to spend many thousands of dollars, lose many nights of sleep, and brave savage weather in such places as Alaska, to win. All the winner gets is bragging rights. Now THAT’s dedication.
As much as I admire the skill of the Big Year birders, I can’t help but feel they are missing the point. A Big Year is more like bean counting than anything else. Show up, see the bird, add it to the list, await the next call. Me, I’d like to say I saw a bird pick up a twig or piece of lint and know it was going to be used to build its nest. I’d tell you about the house sparrows who always build a nest on my mother’s drain pipe, and how a chick always falls out and how I always pick it up and put it back in the nest. I’d tell you that I saw not one, not two, but THREE yellow-bellied sapsuckers hopping along the side of a tree ready to peck a hole to build a nest. Yes, I really did. l
For insight into the world of competitive birding, I highly recommend The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.
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Director: Robert Altman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The legacy of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, is a complicated one. Nixon was a ruthless, paranoid, relentless hunter and destroyer of perceived communists in the 1950s, but he actively courted the friendship of communist China, becoming the first U.S. president ever to visit the country, in 1972. He was revealed to be a savage bigot who threw around the words “kike,” “spic,” “nigger,” and “wop,” but his best friend, “Bebe” Rebozo, was Cuban. He employed future ultraconservatives Pat Buchanan and Dick Cheney on his administrative staff and nominated William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court, but his policies on the environment, the social safety net, and nuclear arms limitations were quite liberal.
Nixon was the ultimate comeback kid in politics. He rose from several significant political defeats, including the loss of the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960, to being elected for a second term as president in 1972 by the widest margin in history. Only two years later, to avoid impeachment proceedings related to his role in the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., he became the only U.S. president to resign the office. At the time Secret Honor was made, Nixon appeared to be buried in shame forever, but he had already started to rehabilitate his image. By the time of his death in 1994, Nixon was admired by many as a wise elder statesman.
The purported last days of Nixon’s presidency seem to be the leaping-off place for Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s screenplay for Secret Honor, based on their play of the same name. Nixon was said to have gone quite mad at the end, talking to paintings of presidents past and raging at his persecutors, real or imagined. Although the film takes place at his New Jersey estate long after Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) has become a private citizen, Nixon’s mental deterioration seems to have progressed to an astonishing degree. Of course, his lunacy may have something to do with the decision he appears to have made to end his life. He sits down at his desk with a Chivas neat, places a revolver in front of him, and fumbles helplessly trying to get his tape recorder to record. An audience who knows of Nixon’s obsession with taping his conversations must certainly find his ineptitude with the machine hilariously ironic. I wondered whether he might shoot it instead of himself.
Eventually, the recorder is made to function, and Nixon launches into a long and harrowing rant about his life in the form of a lawyer presenting a case to a judge. He is the lawyer with his foolish self as the client. His envy of his golden-boy brother Harold, lost to TB at the age of 17, sets the stage for his escalating list of backstabbers and persecutors, ranging from Dwight Eisenhower, for whom he served as Vice President, to the Kennedys, to some of the players in the Watergate scandal. He muses about his White House counsel, John Dean, who testified against him in the Watergate hearings, saying, “If John Dean hadn’t existed, I would have had to invent him!”
Indeed, this Nixon has invented a lot of things to explain his actions over the course of his life. He claims to have been in league with a so-called Committee of 100, a business cabal that chose him as their man in Washington and backed his career. Their ultimate aim, Nixon says, was to usher in the new nexus of world power, the Pacific Rim countries, which they would do by having Nixon serve a third term as president so that he could continue the Vietnam War.
Nixon constantly rails against the Eastern establishment that treated him like a hick Quaker from the sticks. “The Founding Fathers were nothing more than a bunch of snobby English shits,” he spits. Nixon’s self-pity at the snubs he has received track perfectly with his weepy self-justifications in real life, including his declaration after losing the 1962 race for governor of California (“You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. Because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”) and his infamous 1952 Checkers speech to address questions about whether he was using political donations improperly ( “We did get something, a gift, after the election. …It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate … sent all the way from Texas, … and our little girl Tricia … named it Checkers. And you know, the kids … love the dog, and … regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”)
Philip Baker Hall gives what might be the performance of the century as he reprises his stage appearance for Robert Altman’s camera. I have read that because Secret Honor is almost a complete interpolation of the stage play to the screen that Hall’s seeming overacting is, in reality, an exercise in stage acting. I disagree with this assessment. Hall does not seem to be overacting to me. Nixon was a self-aggrandizing, grandstanding man in public and a foul-mouthed, paranoid bigot in private. I can well imagine Nixon in a frenzied stream-of-consciousness about every detail of his life, and I think Hall did a tremendous job of remaining absolutely objective toward his character.
There are moments when we can almost pity Nixon, such as when he opens his mother’s bible and lovingly gazes at the photos and remembrances pressed between its pages. But the scheming, grasping Nixon is always in plain view, Shakespeare’s Richard III in a red smoking jacket. His line about his motivation in life could be a line out of Shakespeare: “Resolve to win—period—because that is the American system. You take either side—it doesn’t even matter which one—and you go on the attack.”
Altman can’t really add much to this stagebound production, but his well-known technique of overlapping dialog seems to come into play here as Hall’s Nixon interrupts himself, jumps about from topic to topic, confusing us and giving us an immediacy to events that, for him, may be long past. Altman also frames the four television monitors and the closed-circuit camera Nixon uses to watch himself to emphasize the claustrophobia and narcissism infecting this man.
I’m old enough to remember many of the events and participants of the Nixon years, and I know enough about the 50s to recognize the names Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Rosenbergs. I think for people unfamiliar with Nixon’s history, this film will make very little sense, and I fear that this astonishing performance by Hall will be forgotten forever someday.
But a notion Freed and Stone explore that remains of interest is why Nixon kept coming back long after he should have been buried politically. This is what they think: “I would be a winner because I was a loser! That’s right. I dream of failure every night of my life, and that’s my secret. To make it in this rat race you have to dream of failing every day. I mean, that is reality.” I’m not so sure. But when I look at the popularity of the perennially losing Chicago Cubs all over North America, I wonder if maybe they weren’t on to something.
Regardless, I’m not sure that the appeal of the loser Cubs is the same as that of Nixon. The final “Fuck ’em,” in which Altman repeats again and again Nixon uttering these words and flinging an upper cut into the air in defiance is shocking and the last nail in the coffin for Nixon apologists. He doesn’t need or want them–and he doesn’t deserve them.
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Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Have you ever wondered why the majority of prison wardens in the United States who have participated in executions are against the death penalty? Have you ever thought about why individuals who were about to be executed used to give their executioner a coin? The answer to the first question is that these wardens know that innocent people have been put to death, and they want no part of it. The answer to the second question is that the coin was a token of forgiveness to a person with a morally ambiguous job to do. Veteran Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan uses parallel stories to show the tragedy that is capital punishment.
The year is 1941, a time of social foment in India. Kaliyappan (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) is a hangman in Travancore (now part of the state of Kerala) at the southern tip of India. His willingness to do this distasteful job has afforded him many privileges from the Maharajah, including a house and fields to tend. Nonetheless, he carries a heavy burden. He has learned that one of the people he hanged was innocent. The guilt has driven him to heavy drinking. It has driven his son Muthu (Sunil) to seek guidance from the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi.
The scene switches to a classroom of girls. A trickle of blood runs down one girl’s leg, and she starts to cry. The girl, Mallika (Reeja), has just begun her very first menstrual cycle. Later, at her home, many people are gathered to perform the rituals welcoming her into womanhood. Mallika is delighted with the attention and the new regard people show for her. After a glancing look between her and her brother-in-law, we return to Kaliyappan’s story.
On the road, an official finds himself stuck on the wrong side of a creek. Two villagers who encounter him inform him that he can wade across. The official, smartly dressed in a white uniform, curls his lip with distaste. The villagers end up carrying him across the creek and then inform him once they learn he is looking for Kaliyappan that he could have made the approach using the road. This interlude imitates the comedic moments found in Shakespearean tragedies.
Upon reaching Kaliyappan’s home, the official reads the decree that a new execution has been ordered. Kaliyappan is beside himself with grief, and complains that he is unwell. The official is unsympathetic. One simply does not postpone a hanging. The reason was made clear by the gossiping villagers who carried the official across the creek—the Maharajah absolves himself of guilt over the hanging by sending a full and complete pardon that is timed to reach the jail after the execution takes place!
Kaliyappan prepares ritually for the job ahead, purifying himself night and day with water and prayers to Kali, the wild and wrathful Hindu goddess and consort of Shiva the destroyer. Because Kali represents duality–destruction and creation–Kaliyappan is said to have the ability to cure the sick. He suspends the noose of his most recent victim above his altar to Kali. When a villager comes to him for a cure, he cuts a bit off the noose, burns it at the altar, and anoints the sufferer with the ashes. Now that a new execution has been ordered and Kaliyappan is praying feverishly and filling himself with the spirit of Kali, villagers start flocking to him for cures. By the time the officials come to take him to the site of execution, he is literally and figuratively at the end of his rope.
Once again, Kaliyappan tries to beg off due to illness. He does indeed look extremely ill. The official insists that he go, and that Muthu accompany him. A rueful look passes between father and son as they climb into a tiny, covered cart and are escorted to the execution site. Upon their arrival, Kaliyappan is fed drink after drink, which makes him sleepy. The rules say that he cannot sleep the night before an execution because his victim certainly will not be able to sleep. Two guards begin telling him classical stories, but these are too boring to keep Kaliyappan awake. One of the guards, after expressing doubt about the propriety of telling a story not prescribed by the rules, begins to relate the case of the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. We return to Mallika’s story and become immersed in her short life of innocent love with an orphaned boy and her brutal end at the hands of her obsessed brother-in-law. An even more shocking revelation follows the story. In the end, Muthu the pacifist takes his father’s place on the gallows.
Gopalakrishnan takes his time setting the stage for this drama. Kaliyappan, his family, his habits, and his surroundings are lovingly captured to help us empathize with a man we might have dismissed as a repugnant drunk who exchanges state-sanctioned murder for material comfort. Every frame is like a painting, emphasizing the beauty and timelessness of this lush, tropical land and contrasting it with the dark environments of the people who inhabit it. In this way, Gopalakrishnan brings the spirit of Kali to life for us visually.
But he doesn’t refrain from shining a light on the very real social problem of capital punishment. The cynicism of the Maharajah, the careerism of the official who will not lose his job over a postponed execution, the soul-destroying toll it takes on the hangman, and the miscarriages of justice are all in plain view. Setting the film in 1941 has a slight distancing effect, however, and initiating Muthu forcibly into state-sanctioned slaughter seems heavyhanded, though plausible.
The parallel story structure also allows us to empathize with the feelings of the victim’s family in a way we did not expect to. We would think they would want to have revenge, but instead they choose to back up the murderer’s story so as not to leave their other daughter a widow, which was a horrible fate for an Indian woman at that time. They seem content to discard an innocent life in the process–perhaps the beliefs in reincarnation and the caste system make this more tenable in Indian society. However, we never get to see their reaction, so it is difficult to judge whether we are getting a true picture of family attitudes toward the murderers of their kin.
I have two other reviews on this site that deal with capital punishment. Deadline is a documentary about the death penalty, and Chicago features the hanging of an innocent woman convicted of killing her husband primarily because she was poor and couldn’t speak English. Joining them, Shadow Kill is a very fine fiction about this timely and troubling topic from a land exotic and beautiful, dark and familiar.
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Director: Akira Kurosawa
By Roderick Heath
There’s always a slight aesthetic shock in watching a Kurosawa film. His films, even entertainments like The Hidden Fortress, are so sensually alive, so hard, so unpretty but beautiful, that you practically smell the blossoms, the rancid flesh, the fresh blood, the horse dung. They look, feel, sound so modern compared with Hollywood films of the time. The Hidden Fortress, a comedy-action epic made as a favor to Toho Studios for taking so many risks for him, is in some ways the ultimate Kurosawa film if you think of him as a director of hugely entertaining samurai epics. It treats playfully themes that Kurosawa could turn into the grimmest of anatomizations of human nature.
The world in The Hidden Fortress has fallen apart. Without preliminaries, we’re thrown in with Taihei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakichi (Kanutari Fujiwara), a pair fit for Beckett, two peasants walking and bickering in a desolate plain. Having sold their farms to buy arms and make a fortune plundering as members of the army of the Akizuki clan, Taihei and Matakishi were captured following a great battle the Akizukis lost to the rival Yanama clan. They escape and reach the border to their own peaceful province of Hayakawa, only to find it guarded by Yanama troops. Taihei and Matakishi are swiftly recaptured and are put to work digging with thousands of filthy, starving prisoners, in the ruins of the Akizuki’s castle by Yanama troops to find a buried store of gold. There’s a revolt, a slaughter of rioters, and Taihei and Matakishi escape again. Wandering in the wilderness, they accidentally discover a piece of gold hidden in a dead tree branch. Frantically smashing every branch they find, Taihei and Matakishi encounter a mysterious, ferocious-looking man (Toshiro Mifune) who they take to be a bandit. The stranger claims to have the rest of the gold and offers them a share if they can find a way to get it to Hayakawa. Taihei and Matakishi already have a plan for that; they’ll go through Yanama province itself, thus skirting most of the enemy army. This idea tickles the stranger, who gives his name as Rokoruta Makabe. Taihei and Matakishi are incredulous, as Rokoruta is a great general.
Mifune, of course, really is the general, charged with transporting the clan’s fortune and its surviving heir, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), from their hideaway in the mountains to the safety of Hayakawa. There’s a tragic tension between Rokurota and Yuki; Rokoruta’s sister surrendered herself, claiming to be Yuki, and was beheaded. The ferociously proud, tomboyish Yuki weeps angrily for this, as Rokoruta maintains calm for the dangerous mission ahead. Soon, Yuki and Rokoruta depart, accompanied by the peasant pair. On the road, they battle enemy soldiers, slip through checkpoints, and, at Yuki’s insistence, rescue a girl who has been taken from a former Akizuki farm and bought as a sex slave. The girl repays Yuki’s kindness by fending off Taihei’s and Matakishi’s attempts to ravish the sleeping princess, making these awesome losers cower as she threatens them with a log.
The Hidden Fortress was cited by George Lucas as the basis of Star Wars—chiefly in the way the story unfolds through the eyes of two comic characters. But the whole narrative, from its in medias res opening on, shows Kurosawa’s strong influence. Rokoruta recalls both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in his protective, dutiful, love-hate relationship with Yuki. There’s also the germ of everyone’s favorite bad guy when, on the road, Rokoruta encounters and duels with an old friend, Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who commands troops for Yanama. Tadokoro is defeated in the duel, but Rokoruta does not kill him. When Tadokoro turns up later, he’s been scarred across the face as punishment by the Yanama lord for losing. In the end, Yuki, claiming to have had the only good time and true life experience she’s ever had, calls the Yanama lord idiotic for treating any loyal subject, even a loser, in such a way. This act convinces Tadokoro of her essential greatness, and he saves them in the finale. Right there are many aspects of Darth Vader’s character arc. Of course, things end happily, and even Taihei and Matakishi get a reward and a measure of self-respect.
The gritty, grotesque detail that enlivens The Hidden Fortress’s texture and makes it more than a fairy tale, its pungent physicality, the opposition and intertwining of nobility and depravity, the belief in humans even when they act wretchedly, and the powerful effect displays of kindness, heroism, and decency from individuals can have on others, are also found in Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965). Red Beard was, unhappily, Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune, who was succumbing around this time to the twin evils of alcohol and international movie-making. Mifune was the consummate star actor on whom Kurosawa could hang most any narrative because he was able to play such a wide variety of riveting variations even on the simplest heroic figure. Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but one of his least appreciated. As epic as The Seven Samurai, as humanistic as Ikiru, as troubling as Rashomon, it displays all of Kurosawa’s disparate qualities working in harmony. Like many a great artist of an older breed–Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky—Kurosawa maintains uncanny balance between an unflinching, almost despairing view of humanity as well as a warmly lucid trust.
“Red Beard” is, properly, Dr. Kyujio Niide (Mifune); the nickname describes his face and excuses people from pronouncing his difficult name. He runs a state-funded clinic for the poor in late Tokugawa-era Japan, where small scraps of foreign knowledge, like Dutch medical texts, are prized. Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) has studied these at medical school in Nagasaki. He wants to put this knowledge to lucrative use by becoming the Shogun’s personal physician. He’s young, arrogant, angry over being jilted by the daughter of his mentor, who has sent him along to work at Niide’s clinic. Noboru is convinced Niide has sent him away to bury him professionally and to filch his medical knowledge. The clinic is a humming hive of activity, crammed with the dying and desperate, staffed by dedicated but unsentimental (and unsentimentalized) people—doctors who aren’t good enough to work elsewhere, overtaxed nursesm the worker women who keep the place going. Niide himself treats rich men for big fees to put toward the clinic, and is not above using the knowledge he fishes for to blackmail officials when necessary.
Red Beard is, in structure, a series of vignettes displaying the human and spiritual growth of Yasumoto, who initially refuses to work or wear the clinic’s uniform. He is rudely introduced to the savage side of life by a mad woman (Kyoko Kagawa) who lives in a house separate to the clinic, cared for by a private nurse. The woman is a fascinating sexual mystery to the men in the clinic; young and beautiful, she has been placed there after seducing three of her merchant father’s clerks and then stabbing them to death with a hairpin. One night she escapes from her house and comes across Yasumoto lying indolently in his chamber. This discovery is accompanied by the sound of gusting wind that here, and in other Kurosawa films acts, as leitmotif evoking a plain of spiritual despair. She talks of how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father’s clerks before she began turning the tables. Yasumoto is sympathetic, but suddenly she attempts to kill him in a scene horribly erotic and hypnotically violent. Niide rescues him, and when Yasumoto recovers, Niide asks him to watch over the slow, agonising death of , Rokosuke, a poverty-stricken man dying aloneof tuberculosis who was reputed to be an artisan. Yasumoto is called from this wretched scene to aid Niide in operating on an injured female agricultural worker. In a stunningly filmed and edited scene, Niide, Yasumotom and another assistant struggle to hold the woman’s sweating, bucking, bloody body still long enough to sew her gashed belly up.
This would be an intimidating day’s work for most professionals. Two vignettes outline for Yasumoto that behind every one of their poor, anonymous patients, there is a story, quite often tragic. For example, Rokosuke’s daughter turns up with three starving children in tow, and explains her sad, warped life. Niide performs a judicious act of blackmail to get her government assistance. Another vignette involves Sahachi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), beloved of other patients because he performs their chores and gives away his food. “He’s my idea of Buddha!” one declares when Sahachi falls deathly ill. On his deathbed, Sahachi tells Yasumoto he ought to wear the uniform so people can tell he’s from the clinic. When a landslide reveals buried bones under Sahachi’s hut, Sahachi explains they belonged to his wife; many years before, she had married him though she considered herself beholden to a rich man who had helped her poor family. She took an opportunity when an earthquake struck their town to disappear, but eventually Sahachi met her on the street; she had married the rich man. Returning to Sahachi in the middle of the night, she committed guilty seppuku by holding a blade secretly to her belly; when he came to embrace her, the blade slid home. Sahachi dies in peace, and Yasumoto begins wearing the clinic uniform.
Yasumoto and Niide go for a check-up visit to the local brothel, they find a girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), who was raised there by the vicious Madam and now finds the Madam is trying to sell her virginity. She’s so traumatised, all she can do is feverishly scrub the floor. When Niide announces his intention to take the girl to the clinic, the Madam calls the bouncers to stop him. Niide, in a cheer-along scene, uses his surgeon’s skill and knowledge of anatomy and judo expertise to snap wrists, arms, legs and knees, leaving a dozen tough guys in painfully hilarious contortions. Yasumoto takes on the job of rehabilitating Otoyo from a near-catatonic wreck, putting up with the provocations she provides is her expectation that his nice treatment will be supplanted by violent punishment. Yasumoto collapses exhausted and ill after many days of this rough treatment. The clinic’s serving women try to take Otoyo in hand, but find her so ungrateful and frustrating that they want nothing to do with her. However, Yasumoto finds when he recovers sufficiently to follow her around that Otoyo begs all day to get money to replace a vase she smashed, and later she tries to aid and adopt a boy, Chobo (Yoshitaka Zuki), whose own family is poverty-stricken.
It’s hard to do justice to the richness of plot and character in Red Beard. Suffice to say Yasumoto is converted to the creed of Niide. This was a powerful theme of Kurosawa’s, the master-pupil relationship between the young and worldly and the elder, the wise, the hero, the visionary. This underpins The Seven Samurai and is inverted in Sanjuro (1962), where Mifune’s title character angrily disdains his young cronies’ hero worship after he had committed an act of bloody slaughter. Sanjuro, though a funny entertainment, comments intriguingly on the problems of hero worship. “Red Beard” Niide also warns Yasumoto about following in his footsteps. Look, he says, I blackmail, I do favours for despicable men, I fight every day. But Niide is, in the end, a true hero, and Yasumoto knows it.
The brothel Madam is one of the few outright villains to ever appear in Kurosawa. Usually his villains are either massed, undifferentiated—the bandits in The Seven Samurai—or comic, like the corrupt officials in Sanjuro, or shaded opposites of the hero, like The Hidden Fortress’s Tadokoro or Sanjuro’s Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuyo Nakadai). The forces of entropy in Red Beard are undeniable. There are always illnesses that cannot be cured, deaths that cannot be avoided, tragedies that can’t be helped, people who are beyond redemption. Dedicating yourself to fighting against them means constantly communing with these ugly facts. Beneath the humanism of Red Beard is a conviction that humanity is doomed to darkness and savagery unless people like Niide lead and Yasumoto follow. l