The Snake Pit (1948)

In The Snake Pit, Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cummingham, a young woman who finds herself committed to a mental hospital but doesn’t know why.  The title comes from the practice from long ago when mentally ill patients were placed in literal snake pits. Of course, they’d be shocked and traumatized, but once they got out of the snake pit, they’d be able to cope with the world, which had less to scare one. (Who thought of that?)

Virginia never goes into a literal snake pit, but the mild mannered, though schizophrenic woman is surrounded by utter madness.  Through flashbacks when Dr Kik analyzes Virginia, who has a history of reacting with fear, wild fear, in her romantic relationships. Virginia’s also plagued with irrational guilt which has compounded her instability.

De Havilland drew me, while her fellow patients repelled me despite my sympathy for their suffering. Most of the staff at the hospital were professional and kind, but one was a Nurse Ratched-type dictator and when that nurse finds fault with Virginia who was ultra-careful to stay on her good side, has the heroine reassigned to the ward with the most disturbed patients. It’s a real hell on earth.

The Snake Pit reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with less corruption, drugs and sex. Virginia is able to help those around her through kindness. She comes to understand the source of her troubles. The Snake Pit shows us what life’s like inside a mid-century psychiatric hospital. Lots of drama and some hope.

Tempest (1982)

I got the this movie by accident. When I read Shakespeare’s The Tempest for my book club, I wanted to watch it performed. I got this film which is a loose version. I put this aside as I wanted Shakespeare’s language. This weekend I watched this 1982 version with John Cassavetes and Gina Rowlands. 

The story of a midlife crisis, in Tempest acclaimed architect Philip Dimitrius is dissatisfied with his work and his marriage to a lesser extent. His wife Antonia and daughter Miranda (Molly Ringwald) try to give him support and space, but he can’t find meaning with his life and gets more and more irascible. No red Ferrari is going to help this man though a good philosophy course could. He has nothing to give anyone though he does offer a bit of encouragement to his wife when she announces that she’s returning to the stage.

The film jumps back and forth between the New York Park Avenue and a desolate Greek isle inhabited by goats and a crazy guy named Kalabani (Raul Julia) where Philip and Miranda and Philip’s girlfriend Aretha (Susan Sarandon) wind up.

Philip’s search for meaning has him consulting his father, his client, an uber weathy business man. Nothing helps. He kvetches, gets drunk, embarrasses his wife and yells at Miranda. I had no sympathy for him whatsoever — until he sees his wife out with his client Mr. Big Bucks. When he confronts Antonia, she asks for a divorce. Off Philip goes to Greece with Miranda in tow. In Athens he meets a Aretha, a singer. Romance ensues. When Antonia and Mr. Big Bucks track him down, he takes Miranda and to a desolate island. 

The film has many parallels to the Shakespearean play. The deserted island, the betrayal is Philip and Antonia’s divorce (though Philip played a role too), rather than immersing himself in alchemy, in exile, Philip immerses himself in baseball statistics. Kalabani, like Calaban, shows the hero how to live on the island, and in turn the newcomer shares life off the island with him. 

For much of the film, the story jumps in time and from New York to Greece. Cassavetes, Rowland and Sarandon were dynamic and engaging, yet the story often drags and my attention waned particularly when I got to much of the noisy, neurotic, upper crust world. The complaints about marriage were very much like those in Woody Allen films and got tedious. 

The island was beautiful and the main characters were rather compelling, but I wouldn’t say this is a must-see film. At 2 hours 20 minutes, an edit would have improved the film.

Whisper of the Heart

From M’s famed Studio Ghilbli, Whisper of the Heart begins with the much loved John Denver tune, “Country Road.” The Japanese love “Country Road” and you’ll hear it in schools, businesses, hummed by people walking around. (The Carpenters and Beatles are also BIG.) 

Spunky, bookworm and middle schooler Shizuku wants to write some new “Country Road” lyrics for her junior high graduation, but this perfectionist can’t get it quite right. Her high school entrance exams, which are super important to the future of all Japanese students in determining their options in life, loom, but Shizuku has other priorities and shrugs off test prep. Her best friend Yūko Harada leans on Shizuku for advice in dealing with a love triangle, while also offering understanding.

While delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku follows a fat cat (literally a cat that’s too well-fed) and discovers an intriguing antique shop where there’s a seemingly enchanted cat figurine called the Baron, who longs for his love. The shop owner is a wise old man, i.e. mentor, who helps Shizuku with her search for understanding and direction.

A patron of a library that still has a card catalog and check out cards where you can see the names of previous checkouts Shizuku notices a weird coincidence that a mysterious reader has borrowed exactly the same books she checks out. Who is this person? Shizuku imagines a paragon, but when she learns his identity is infuriated that it’s a boy who annoys her to no end. To make matters worse he loves her. 

Could things be more aggravating for this girl?

Whisper of the Heart shows so much of Japanese culture from the junior high where entrance exams hang over everyone’s head, teasing is rampant, yet kids do want the best for their classmates, in a way only kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten and belong to a culture that prioritizes group belonging can. 

I was struck by how upset Shizuku was because as a third year middle school student (probably 14 or 15 years old) she hadn’t yet figured out her career direction. I liked how assertive she was no matter whom she was dealing with and how reasonable the adults were. Parents, the teacher in the lunchroom, the antique shop owner, all had some wisdom and insight to share. There was a teacher who reprimanded students who weren’t studying or ready to answer a question, but isn’t that okay? Isn’t that his job? 

In Japan high school is optional, though well over 90% of students do go to high school, thus this was why Shizuku and Amasawa consider foregoing high school. I was impressed with Amasawa’s dedication to crafting top quality violins and actually working towards that end. That’s another very Japanese quality of the film — dedicating long hours to excelling in a field. 

I loved the details in the animation, which includes rust on stoplight poles, lace curtains, dingy concrete walls and a myriad of perfect details. 

I highly recommend this charming film which will transport you to Tokyo and introduce you to a delightful girl.