Thursday, December 24, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
This was a pretty serious time in American history, and so it’s surprising that director Philip Kaufman chose to illustrate it the way he did. The Right Stuff gets the nuts and bolts right about the Mercury program, but he coats it in a thin veneer of whimsy and fantasy. A purist might blanch at this treatment of history, but in a strange way, it works.
Take the film’s opening passages, which tell the story of Chuck Yeager and the pursuit of the sound barrier. Yeager, as played by Sam Shepard, is a good ol’ boy in the tradition of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. His approach to flying is much the same as say, riding a bucking bronc. – Ya jest git on and do it. Yeager is a mythical character to the denizens of Andrews Air Force base, and in the local watering hole (Whose walls are decorated with the photos of pilots who have been killed). The sound barrier is treated like a mysterious, malevolent ghost, waiting to wrest the controls out of a pilots hands and tear his plane apart in midair. Yeager’s crashing through the barrier dispels these fallacies, and sets the stage for the second part of the film, when the space race gets underway in earnest.
Kaufman again tweaks the story with the introduction of two NASA recruiters, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer. These two serve the purpose of introducing the Mercury portion of the story, but Kaufman also uses them as pure comic relief. Their narration during a presentation in the White House is hilarious. They bicker over points, and when a montage of possible candidates includes racecar drivers, the comment is “These people are adept at operating their own machinery…and they already have their own crash helmet.” There’s also a back and forth between Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) and a German engineer which is striking in it’s illustration of how two people speaking the same language can screw up a conversation.
The reason TRS is such a favorite of mine, however, is because of the astronauts. The film is mainly concerned with only four of the seven: John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Although Glenn had Nashville and Urban Cowboy under his belt, and Quaid had Breaking Away, none of these guys were big stars yet, and that helps them slide inside the skins of these well-known American heroes. Harris in particular hits just the right notes as the gung-ho Dudley Do-Right John Glenn. This character could have easily come across as hokey, but Harris somehow makes him gentle and earnest, yet as tough as nails. My favorite scene illustrates this beautifully. When Johnson tries to bully his way into Glenn’s house for an interview with Glenn’s wife Annie (who stutters badly), Glenn stands up to the Vice President, rather than let his wife be humiliated on national TV.
Pauline Kael wrote that “The scene is perhaps the wittiest and most deeply romantic confirmation of a marriage ever filmed.” Damn right. Ed Harris is my wife’s favorite actor - She thinks he’s hot. In watching him in this film, I can start to understand why she feels that way. His John Glenn is a Mr. Rogers goody-two-shoes, and is touchingly tender in his scenes with his wife, but he is no softie. When he confronts the others about their sexual indiscretions, he means business. It’s extraordinarily hard for an actor make a character both tender and tough at the same time. John Wayne could do it, but it’s hard to think of many others. Harris does it here, and beautifully. It’s a great performance.
What’s wonderful about this group of guys is the way that the job draws together men who are all strong, and all have an ego. Cooper, Grissom, and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) are friends going in, and they are openly dismissive of the others, especially Glenn and Scott Carpenter (“Archie and Jughead”, as Grissom calls them) There’s a press conference early on where the men are introduced, and Glenn manages to take center stage with his natural exuberance. The others recognize quickly what’s happening, and the conference subtly turns into a game of one-upmanship. All the same, when Glenn is threatened with being pulled off his flight in the scene described in the previous paragraph, the others back him up on it. Despite their differences, they are pilots, and they support each other.
The same is true of the wives. When the others meet Annie Glenn, she is shy and unresponsive to them. They don’t yet understand why, so they see her as a snob. Later, when John is in his flight, they have all banded together for support. It’s impossible to miss the fact that the women have their own group, bound together just as strongly as that of their husbands.
The truly tragic character in TRS is Gus Grissom. Grissom is the second one into space, but his flight is a disaster. The hatch blows prematurely, and the capsule is lost in the sea. Grissom always maintained he wasn’t at fault, and time has vindicated him, but the film suggests that that wasn’t the case back them. Where the others get to meet the President and have a ticker-tape parade, Grissom gets stuck in a seedy little hotel. The final blow was still to come - Grissom was ultimately killed when a fire tore through his Apollo 1 capsule in 1967.
Watch the seven astronauts during a performance by “fan dancer” Sally Rand. With her huge feathers, and a large harsh light behind her, she brings to mind Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and perished for it. These guys didn’t perish, but they did something just about as outrageous, which only this tiny group can appreciate. When they exchange silent smiles during the show, that’s what’s going on. It’s the acknowledgment that, “Hey, what we did was really special.” The camaraderie is tangible, and the differences they felt at the start are long gone. It’s a beautiful ,transcendant moment.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
The Lady Vanishes – Hitchcocks’1938 story of a train ride, an old lady who…vanishes, and why nobody seems to remember her ever being there in the first place. This one spent a wee bit too long establishing the characters in a snowbound hotel, but when they get on the train and get the real story going, it’s a lot better. There are a few classic Hitch touches, especially a bit with two glasses of poisoned brandy. I myself don’t consider this a must-see, but it does have a lot of admirers, so you might want to check it out anyway.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Mauvaise Graine – Billy Wilder’s first film is the story of a spoiled rich youth who falls in with a gang of car thieves. It’s billed as a comedy, but in reality, this one shows quite a few traces of what would become Wilder’s Noir-esque tendencies. Lightweight, but enjoyable.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Burmese Harp – I am a huge admirer of the films of Kon Ichikawa, but I had never seen this, the one that put him on the international map in 1957. It’s the story of a Japanese soldier of the Burma campaign who is traumatized by what he sees, becomes a monk, and takes on the duty of burying his dead comrades. This makes a good companion for Ichikawa’s great anti-war film Fires on the Plain. The films mine similar ground, but they are different in style. Where Fires is sharp and angry, this one is quiet and melancholy. A great film, heartily recommended.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Sunday, November 08, 2009
Thursday, November 05, 2009
When Enjo opens, Shukoku temple has already been burned to the ground, and the strange, silent Mizoguchi has been found nearby in a coma-like trance with matches on him. There aren’t any questions about guilt here – It is taken for granted that Mizoguchi has started the fire, but the police run up against a brick wall in trying to get a motive from the mute boy. There are a couple of unusual things that we can take away from this, however: Mizoguchi has two knife wounds on his chest, and as one detective says to another, “He has a slight split personality.”
Enjo is told almost entirely in flashback, as we keep jumping back to fill in more info about Mizoguchi. We see him as he comes to the Sion temple to work, and we discover that he is the son of a prominent priest, now deceased. This little vignette also marks the first time Mizoguchi speaks, and when he does, it’s with a severe stutter. The first piece fits into place…
Enjo is based upon a novel called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, written by the infamous Yukio Mishima. Mishima was notable for his belief that Japan should return to the Bushido code of the Samurai, and that life should be a quest for beauty and purity. This second point is especially salient as it applies to the film’s young protagonist.
It’s hard to wrap your head around Mizoguchi at first, because Ichikawa obscures him. Early on, a young naval officer leaves his uniform and sword with him, with orders to look after them. Mizoguchi promptly defaces the scabbard with a pocketknife. The easiest message to derive from this is that the young stutterer is repulsed by the air of assumed superiority that the officer carries. Upon hearing Mizoguchi speak, he remarked “In the navy we would cure him of stuttering in less than a week.”
There’s also the matter of Mizoguchi’s mother, who is portrayed as a braying irritant. When she comes to visit her son, he shuns her – She’s a source of embarrassment to him. There’s the strong suggestion that she has become a prostitute in the aftermath of her husband’s dying, and she also admits that she has sold his temple. For Mizoguchi, who worshipped his father, this is more than he can bear.
Enjo is an enigmatic film, one that isn’t easily interpreted. Since Mizoguchi says virtually nothing, we have to intuit what is going on in his head from his actions, and those close to him. There’s a scene where a girl comes to Shukoku with an American serviceman. When she tries to enter, he attacks her, exclaiming “Don’t you dare defile Shukoku!” That’s a good tip-off. He sees the temple as being beautiful and pure – Unlike himself.
Take the case of the head priest at the temple. He is a kindly and respected older man, and an old friend of Mizoguchi’s father. A paternal bond develops between them, and the priest sees Mizoguchi as a possible successor. The old man, however, has his own demons. He is entertaining a mistress on the side, who ends up pregnant. Mizoguchi’s discovery of this fact is yet another emotional domino falling over.
The most interesting character in the film doesn’t make his appearance until later. That’s Kashiwagi, a crippled and cynical student. Mizoguchi probably gravitated towards him due to his disability: He mistakenly thinks they are kindred spirits. In reality, Kasawagi is cold and mentally cruel. He uses his disability to seduce a girl, and then winks at Mizoguchi while doing it. He also helps push Mizoguchi towards his last mad act.
The fire itself is beautifully photographed, and the fact that is shot in a stark black night with the searing flames looking like a pure white gives the event a tragic finality. (The cinematography is by the legendary Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot, among other things, Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa, Sansho the Bailiff for Kenji Mizoguchi, Floating Weeds for Yasujiro Ozu, and Fires on the Plain for Ichikawa)
By the time the fire occurs, we have gotten a pretty good handle on Mizoguchi. As a shy stutterer, he is only too aware of his own shortcomings. The temple was a central part of his father’s life, and the love that the father felt for it is transferred to the son. In his mind, Mizoguchi sees Shukoku as an emblem of the perfection that is missing from every other part of his life. Everything that happens in Enjo serves to illustrate to Mizoguchi that he is living in an imperfect world. His stuttering, the mother-turned-prostitute, the old priest with his clandestine affairs, the mean-spirited cripple are all factors which lead to the arson. The tipping point comes when he realizes that Shukoku’s purity is not necessarily eternal, either. The early scene with the young girl is recalled later in the film when he sees dozens of tourists streaming out of the temple. By this time, the die is cast for Shukoku. In order for it to be preserved, it must be destroyed.
So, is that all? Is Enjo simply a movie about a troubled youth who commits a needless act of arson? Yes and no. Ichikawa devotes a lot of time establishing Mizoguchi's neuroses, and illuminating how they lead to his breakdown, but at another level, the film is about the sickness of post-war Japanese society. Everyone we encounter in the film is corrupt on some level, whether it's the priest with his concubine, the cripple with his cynical methods of seducing women, or Mizoguchi's mother, who surrenders to prostitution. Seen in this light, the temple can be viewed as representing "old Japan", standing as a bulwark against polluting modern influences. When it is gone, something more than a mere structure is gone forever. Mizoguchi knows this, and Yukio Mishima knew it as well. The old priest figures it out, as well, and this fuels his telling remark as he watches Shukoku burn to the ground.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
I Fidanzati – My first exposure to the work of Ermanno Olmi, and it won’t be my last. Clocking in at less than 80 minutes, this simple story of a young couple separated by a job transfer packs a huge amount of loneliness and longing into its little frame. The dialogue is sparse, so Olmi illustrates his main characters thoughts through simple little flashbacks, and quiet observation. A brilliant film, highly recommended.
Milk – Gus Van Sant’s examination of the life of murdered gay politician Harvey Milk. Sean Penn is superb in the title role, as is Josh Brolin in the role of the troubled Dan White. I loved the way the film doesn’t just take the easy way out with the White character, making him a homophobic psycho. There are levels to this guy that the movie hints at, but doesn’t spell out, and it the film is the better for it. Recommended.