The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

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Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

Dodes’ka Den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

Crazed Fruit

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When I picked Crazed Fruit (1956) out at the library, I had no idea what it was about our who the director, Ko Nakahira was. Until recently, the only directors I knew were Ozu and Kurosawa. I’ve learned Japan has produced many masterful filmmakers.

Crazed Fruit takes place in the late 1950s when Japan is getting prosperous, at least the elite are. The main characters are two brothers from a wealthy family. The brothers, Natsuhisha and Haruji, spend their summer with their fellow rich kids gambling, smoking, drinking, fighting and going after girls. Another occupation is complaining about how their college professors know nothing and how their futures are meaningless. While it’s becoming an economic wonder, Japan doesn’t offer any outlet for their passions.

When the brothers arrive at the train station en route to their pal’s summer house, they see Eri, a beautiful, alluring young woman. Haruji, who’s the young, innocent brother, is smitten, but his brother, who’s quite the lover boy, pulls him away so they can hurry over to their friends.

The next day while out on a boat, they notice a girl in the water. It turns out to be Eri. Soon both boys are smitten and don’t really care or, in the case of Haruji, know, that Eri’s married to a much older, prosperous Western man.

Haruji innocently courts Eri, who always has an excuse why she can’t be picked up at home. The scenes with Haruji and Eri are tastefully sensual. The camera captures their desire as they lie next to each other sunbathing on the rocks by the sea in a way that’s exquisite. It’s a much more compelling than any sex scene I’ve seen in 10 years or more. Nakahira is a master, who deserves to be studies by every filmmaker and film lover.

Soon Natsuhisha becomes obsessed with Eri. He finds her house and sees her husband. He promises to keep her Western husband a secret from Haruji if Eri will have sex with him. She agrees. Eri’s character is hinted at rather than well defined. She’s a mystery and unlike other characters. She’s insulted and angry, but also willing. Natsuhisha exudes animal chemistry and she finds him more than satisfying in the bedroom. Eri seems to want to keep her three men, to keep those relationships separate, but to keep them. Of course, this is impossible

The film, which is based on a novel by Ishihara, broke new ground in depicting sensuality and the abandonment of traditional morality among rich youth. At the time, though people’s own mores had changed, film had not. Japanese films tended to uphold traditional morals. While the tragic ending in Crazed Fruit certainly doesn’t promote the lifestyle or choices of the idle rich, it did shock the elders at the cinema.

Crazed Fruit was conceived and produced to be a low budget, teen flick that would cash in at the box office. The story, in Nakahira’s hands, is a beautiful classic.

The Criterion Collection offers two thoughtful essays on Crazed Fruit. The commentary by Japan film expert Donald Richie greatly enhances the film as he explains the social context and context of this film within Japanese filmmaking.

 

Zazie dans le Metro

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Directed by Louis Malle, Zazie dans le Metro (1960) is an exuberant, colorful film that sends up all the devices and techniques of film based on a masterful comic novel by . The story is simple and doesn’t capture the quality or

Zazie is a lively, 10 year old girl, who visits her uncle in Paris while her mother has a rendezvous with a lover. Her one hope is to ride the metro, but there’s a strike so that seems unlikely. A flamboyant man with an odd set of friends, Zazie’s uncle lives an unconventional life since he’s an exotic dancer and has a wide assortment of eccentric friends.

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Zazie explores the city and outsmarts most of the adults around her. She’s a worldly girl who speaks honestly at all times, but swears a lot. Since my French isn’t street French, I doubt I understood the full force of her swearing. In the essay, Girl Trouble, the writer notes that many people took their children out of the of the theatre because the language was so offensive. Form me, I realised that Zazie spoke like a sailor, but that it was a convention of the film and I took it as a comment on the adults’ behaviour more than anything else.

The film’s comedy is fresh and the pace fast with several of the best chase scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is exuberant and one I keep thinking of and smiling each time I do. The actress who played Zazie, Catherine Demongeot, gives a realistic, captivating performance. It’s a film I whole-heartedly recommend and know I’ll watch again and again.

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Good essay on Criterion Collection “Girl Trouble.”

The Burmese Harp

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I’m catching up on my blogging. I saw this movie before I left China and haven’t had time to blog.

Another Criterion Collection DVD, this one based on a popular Japanese novel, The Burmese Harp is set as WWII ends. A company of Japanese soldiers is in Burma, on the look out for British soldiers. Their captain is very musical and has used singing to build espirit de corps and to trick the Brits, or try to. When they hear the British soldiers approaching their camp, the captain urges his company to laugh and sing to give the impression that they’re goofing off though they’re on their guard. When they start singing a song with the same tune as “Home Sweet Home,” the Brits echo back. Soon the Japanese learn that their side has surrendered.

Yet there’s another Japanese company up in the mountains, a fervent nationalistic group that’s still fighting. Mizushima, a soldier who’s learned to play the Burmese harp, volunteers to go up the mountain and tell these soldiers the war’s over. He’s given 30 minutes to get these hold outs to surrender. No matter what he says, they refuse. They don’t believe Mizushima and feel their duty is to fight to the death no matter what.

After 30 minutes, true to their word, the British start attacking. Most of the hold outs get killed. Mizushima survives, but is shocked. His world’s been shattered and he can’t  return to his unit. He steals a Buddhist monk’s robes and wanders the countryside as a monk.

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His unit search for him and don’t want to return to Japan without him. At one point they think they’ve passed him on the road, but Mizushima doesn’t acknowledge them. He’s too shattered and lost to return to his old life.

The Burmese Harp doesn’t address the atrocities the Japanese committed, but it does show the horrors and effects of war. Most of the civilian Japanese had no idea what their soldiers did overseas so it wasn’t part of the original novel, or something the director, who broke out with this film, knew of.

The Burmese Harp presents an interesting view of WWII, one that I’d never considered. It also depicts Japanese culture with nuance.

Wives and Daughters


I finished the BBC’s Wives and Daughters, a very satisfying mini-series. I’ve learned that the author Elizabeth Gaskell didn’t finish this novel so the ending is conjecture. Intriguing . . . I wonder if she’d told anyone how she wanted the story to end.

As I posted earlier, this is the story of Molly Gibson, a fair, down-to-earth young woman whose mother died when she was a girl. Molly’s father remarries when he sees his daughter blossoming and young men falling for her. Suddenly, Molly needs a mother.

Enter Hyacinth, a fussy, social climber with plenty of airs and her daughter Cynthia. Luckily, the Gibsons fare better than Cinderella. While Hyacinth starts by getting rid of all Molly’s furnishings, which were her mother’s, and she can be a gossip and eavesdropper, she isn’t evil or oppressive, just annoying. Educated in France, Cynthia is more fashionable and self-centered than Molly, but she’s also a dear friend to Molly. Because Cynthia’s aware of her own failings, she’s likeable. So Molly lucks out in the stepsister area too. Thank you, Elizabeth Gaskell, for your light touch: just enough conflict and flaws to make for a good story.

Cynthia does bring secrets and problems to the Gibson’s calm home. When she was 15 she promised to marry Robert Preston, a rather shadowy land agent who lent her 20 pounds. At 20 she has no intention of marrying Preston and in fact agreed to marry Robert Hamley, whom Molly pines for.

There are quite a few familiar faces in the cast. Dr. Gibson is played Bill Paterson, who was on Law & Order: UK. Cynthia is played by MI-5 and the new Upstairs Downstairs Keeley Hawes. Tom Hollander, who played the unctuous Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice plays Osborne, Robert’s older brother who starts with such promise, but brings his family heartache.

Molly's in white - a lot less lace

I got a kick out of the costumes here. The more lace one wore, the better off or I’d say the more pretentious the person was. Molly usually donned more streamlined dresses whereas Hyacinth and some of the townswomen were drowning in lace, though I suppose the gigantic puffy sleeves they wore could act as floatation devices in an emergency. Less is more, ladies.

I enjoyed Molly and her friendships with Cynthia, Osborn, Mrs. Hamley, the Squire. She brought out the best in people. She wasn’t a doormat, but she wasn’t overly rebellious either. I marvel at how 19th century characters are so often articulate, wise and fair-minded even when arguing for their lives, or if not lives, their love lives and freedoms.

How do these people remain so respectful? So civil at all times? What have we moderns lost?

Persuasion, BBC 2007

I’m not that sure I’ve read Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. I recall Bridget read it, but if I did, it was long ago.

I saw this BBC adaptation on Netflix and thought, “Why not?” and I’m glad I did. Persuasion is simpler than Austen’s other works like Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park. There are some minor storylines, but we don’t get invested in them as we do in Austen’s other books.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliot is surprised when her former fiancé Mr. Wentworth re-enters her life eight years after she turned him down. Her father’s squandered his fortune and must lease his grand home. His tenants turn out to be Mr. Wentworth’s sister and brother-in-law.

She has not gotten over him and he still feels the sting of rejection. Anne rejected Wentworth due to the persuasion of her relatives who believed he was too poor for her. Now he’s returned after acquiring a fortune for his success in the navy.

This book lacks a confidante for the heroine and doesn’t have as much wit as one finds in say Sense and Sensibility or Emma or P&P. Yet I was drawn into the story wondering how the couple would get together. Austen wrote while suffering with the illness that eventually killed her. (Experts can’t agree on what it was.) Thus this book wasn’t revised as carefully as her other books.

While I did like the story it was hard to understand why Wentworth was so smitten with Anne, why he couldn’t forget her. She wasn’t especially beautiful and because she isn’t shown amongst friends we don’t see her wit or spark. She’s a good, dutiful young woman with a churlish family. It’s a short film at just about 90 minutes so you don’t have much time to wish for more characters or dialog. The film moves along at a clip.

 

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A fine film about a horrible time when the middle and upper classes of Mississippi were blind to the hideousness of the racism that kept their households running. (If they weren’t blind, they’d taken denial to new heights.) Based on the best selling novel, the film follows an aspiring journalist who after getting a job as a columnist writing about house cleaning decides to expose the inequity inherent in a society where African American women raise white people’s children, cook all their meals, and keep their homes immaculate, yet can’t use the same restrooms not just in town, but  in the homes where they work. It’s a look at a society that is starched and genteel, where asking a few questions about the injustice all around them is sure to get you in trouble, big trouble.

Skeeter, the journalist, doesn’t really belong in pink and poofy Jackson, Mississippi as the civil rights movement begins. She’s smart and hasn’t rushed into marriage as all her friends have. She wants a job and respect. This frustrates her Southern Belle mother to no end. Her goal is to write about “The Help.”  The hard part is convincing the housekeepers to participate. Most know that in this society where vengeance is swift and severe.

The film is touching and often humorous, though there were a couple parts I didn’t quite by. I do think anyone would detect the smell or consistency or something about the special ingredient the housekeeper she fired added. Yet that was a small matter. I liked the film, though I hated Mississippi. I just kept thinking “How can anyone stand living here?” Even in the days of Jim Crowe, Mississippi was considered the most racist state.

What’s interesting about the plot of the book is that while the action develops, there isn’t much change in the characters. Skeeter becomes moderately successful, but she never was a racist. Her beliefs were just confirmed. The housekeepers, Aibileen and Minny, become a bit braver, but it’s not like they’ve gone under a major change. They were always strong, smart women. None of the racists change. So much for scriptwriting rules — and that’s okay by me. This was more plausible. I’ve grown tired of the same old narrative structure and its rules.