Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

Shoplifters

Winner of the 2018 Palm d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters was at the top of my to-watch list. It’s now out on DVD and I got it from the library after a short wait.

Set in Tokyo, Shoplifters takes us into the hovel where a motley crew makes up a family. Early on it’s quite foggy how this grandma, mother, father, teenage girl and boy related. They live hand to mouth off of the grandma’s small retirement allotment, the mother’s wages at a commercial laundry, and by shoplifting. The teenage girl works at a kind of sex shop, but it seems she can keep all her earnings.

The “dad” teaches the boy to shoplift and during one of their sprees, they discover a young girl of 4 or 5 who’s neglected and abused. They coax her to come home with them because they feel sorry for her. This quiet girl, whom they name Lin, comes to feel at home with this rag tag family, that doesn’t follow society’s rules.

They are a likable bunch even though they take advantage of each other quite a lot. They keep secrets from each other and

The way the film delves into poverty I was reminded of Kurosawa’s and Renoir’s The Lower Depths. You know that the characters’ behavior is the main reason they’re stuck in poverty. Since the Shoplifters features children, it pulls the heartstrings more than Kurosawa and Renoir’s films.

I found Shoplifters charming, but also depressing in parts. Yes, there were moments that highlighted everyone’s generosity and kindness. Their quirks were endearing. I thought the sex club that the teenager worked in to be disturbing, particularly the first scene there. Later we learn more about the grandmother’s role in the girl’s life and her plight of prostitution, though not entirely revealed to the grandmother is even more disturbing.

While I didn’t want an unrealistically happy ending what we got was too abrupt and I wanted to know more about what happened to the teenager.

All in all, despite good acting, I was disappointed by Shoplifters as the story’s rather bleak and it left too many bows untied.

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.

 

Jeux Interdict, Forbidden Games

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Set in WWII, Jeux Inderdict (Forbidden Games) follows Paulette, a girl of maybe 5, who’s fleeing Paris with her parents. Refugees run along a country road as I suppose they do now in the Middle East. As war planes bomb a bridge, refugees seek cover. Paulette gets separated from her parents as she runs after her little dog. Soon, both parents and her dog are killed by German bullets. Paulette’s left to wander amongst the refugees.

Eventually, Paulette crosses paths with Michel Dollé, an older farm boy who’s searching for a cow that’s scared by the bombs and shooting. Michel brings Paulette to his poor family and they take her in. There’s no other place for her to go, other than to the neighbors, whom they view as snobs. The father does not want the neighbors to get a good write up in the local paper for taking in a war orphan.

Though he’s probably about 9 or 10, Michel’s the most educated of his family. He knows all the prayers by heart and regales Paulette with facts about animals and religion.

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Paulette’s been carrying around her dead puppy and Michel convinces her to bury it. When Paulette sees a cross in the Dollé’s house, she’s curious. She never knew what they were for. Thus Michel leads Paulette to build their own private cemetery in a deserted mill and they begin to steal crosses from wherever they can get them–graves, churches, hearses.

The adults can’t understand who’s taking the crosses and the rivalry between the neighbors grows.

All in all, Forbidden Games  is a natural, haunting film that mixes innocence, war, poverty, generosity and faith. It’s a simple, yet profound film, one I doubt anyone could make today.

Ballad of Narayama

narayamaThis 1955 movie was a hard one to watch. It’s about an old woman of 70 who’s intent upon following her region’s tradition of going up the mountain to die. Spry and sharp, you’d think she’d resist like another man in her village, but no. While her son is heartbroken about having to carry his mother up the mountain to leave her to starve, her insolent grandson, who’s newly married keeps taunting her with songs about her good teeth. Repeatedly, the overgrown brat, who does no work and contributes zilch to the family, unlike his grandmother, sings about his grandmother’s “devil teeth.”

Though well done, I found myself stopping the DVD often. I watched in short spurts hoping the woman could stay with her family. But no, it would be too much of a disgrace to be alive after a great grandchild was born. The whole village would gossip.

I like to be culturally sensitive, but this test I couldn’t pass. The director clearly wanted to show how horrid it was to abandon the old in this ritualized way. How despicable the neighbor who threw his father out refusing him food since he didn’t want to go up the mountain to a slow death. Granted food was scarce and Japan was a poor country until it industrialized, but societies are judge by how they treat their weakest members. While I watched I thought of the short comings of our own system. Still this seemed so cruel. Seventy seems far too young.

Downton Abbey, Season 4 Begins

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Mary with a rare smile in episode 1

I’ve seen the first two episodes of Downton Abbey and thought I’d weigh in with my thoughts and opinions. First it’s just so nice to see these characters again after a ten month break. I was eager to see what Julian Fellows would do with them, what everyone would be wearing, how Mary would cope with Matthew gone and what year we’d be in for season 4.

I was surprised and oddly disappointed that O’Brien’s gone. Of course, another villain can always pop up, but O’Brien hit the right note of despicability. Her relationship with Thomas also made her more of a danger. So now we have Edna, which annoyed me. I so wanted Cora to listen to Mrs. Hughes. Actually, I couldn’t believe she didn’t put more trust in Mrs. Hughes’ wisdom of giving Edna a good reference to work elsewhere. No wonder Cora wound up with O’Brien to begin with. She probably disregarded a servant in the past. Cora, I’m sure you’ll regret this.

The first episode seemed rather poorly structured. It didn’t make sense to bring in a troublesome nanny just to get rid of her so quickly. Why is it that getting a new nanny for two children isn’t a major concern at Downton when getting a new lady’s maid was? I can accept that Cora needs a maid as we’ve been shown that in that era it was crucial, but it seems the nanny would really be needed too. Today childcare is the one area where we still need extra paid help.

I thought Mary’s grief made sense. She would be deeply saddened by Matthew’s death and in time people would want to push her out of it. I think a culture signifying mourning through clothes’ color and defined mourning periods is wise. It cues people to be more respectful or patient with someone and while imperfect since grief will vary from person to person it does provide a norm, which helps loved one’s more or less know when it’s time to try to encourage someone to move on. Both Carson and the Dowager’s prompting were well done, though I’ve heard experts say a butler would never have addressed Mary as Carson did.

The question of inheritance was a big matter. No one knew of a will or any document that gave Mary any power over Downton. It looked like Lord Grantham would manage his portion and his grandson George’s, which doesn’t bode well since he has such a poor track record with money. The idea that as a lawyer whose life has been radically changed due to inheritance didn’t have a will was implausible (though Fellows does eventually address this). Luckily, due to some deux ex machina magic, a letter from Matthew expressing his desire that Mary inherit does arise. Perfect! Now Papa will have to listen to Mary, whose ideas differ. There’s sure to be some conflict and tension from this arrangement.

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The house party

The second episode shown in America revolved around a guest party at Downton where a famous Australian opera singer was invited to perform. Even the kitchen servants got to listen. The times they are a’ changing!

Throughout the three day party Tom Branson was very ill at ease with his clothes and making small talk. Violet gave him the occasional tip, but I wish others had done more. Edith, rather than focusing on how your father is ignoring your sweetheart, why not include Tom in a conversation. Both men are of lower social status and they’d probably have plenty to discuss. I’m sure Tom feels out of place, but everyone has his problems and this one isn’t that bad.  Edna’s the only one giving Tom much attention, which makes me nervous. I see her as an opportunist and big trouble.

Edith’s beau did save the day by winning back poker money all the upper crust lost. Lord Grantham lost an unspecified amount, but it seemed hefty. The poor man has no luck or skill with money it seems.

A childhood neighbor came to the party and seems like a candidate for Mary’s heart. He is engaged, but that just adds some conflict to the drama. I’d be surprised if she found someone immediately after mourning Matthew, that seems way too convenient and life’s rarely like that. Also, while he’s handsome, he lacks that je ne sais quoi required of a suitor for Mary.

The biggest event of the party revolved around Anna. One of the guests’ servants was very jovial with her and Bates tut-tutted about the impropriety. Bates just took a disliking to this man. Rightly so, it seems because during the concert, when Anna stepped out for a drink, this miscreant followed her and raped her. It was a shocking scene well presented in that viewers could see how it played out and how no one was downstairs to possibly help. Yet the scenes weren’t graphic. Viewers know what happened to poor Anna, without explicit scenes, which is good since young girls do watch Downton.

I wish Anna didn’t feel she had to hide this crime fearing that Bates would kill the man and wind up in jail again. Anna, there is the option of having him arrested. I would have liked to see how such a crime would have been handled.

Spalding Gray: Our Town

A friend, Sandra blogged about Our Town and included the YouTube video above. I love the play and watched the video.

This Our Town scene was extra poignant because it features the wonderful monologuist Spalding Gray, who, sadly killed himself a few years back. In Japanese they have a tendency to let sadness just ring like a bell. That’s how this made me feel.

I also like the My So-Called Life scene below.