Ikiru (1952)

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Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a perfect movie for New Year’s Day. It’s all about a new start. The word “ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese. Kurosawa is known for his great samurai epics loaded with action and suspense where even the courtroom scenes in Rashomon and the dialogue, relationships, and personal growth in his medical drama Red Beard have a very fast pace about them. Ikiru couldn’t be more different than a usual Kurosawa film. Its story is told at a very slow pace and actually isn’t that much of a story at all. It’s more of a meditation on what it means to live.

The film opens with the x-ray picture of a stomach with a cancerous tumor. A voiceover narrator tells us that the stomach we’re looking at belongs to our protagonist. The protagonist is Watanabe played by Takashi Shimura. Watanabe has never lived. He worked, obsessed over money, believed that his work was for the benefit of his son, but his son didn’t appreciate it at all. His son was not ungrateful, he was unappreciative because his father gave him only material things and never invested in their relationship, what he really needed.

When given his diagnosis, Watanabe is told that he has no more than a year to live. He admits to a man he meets that he has wasted his life and wants to live but doesn’t know how. His new friend tries to help him live through expensive wine, parties, and strippers. Watanabe comes to see through his friend’s attempts that he is not the only one who doesn’t know how to live. He interrupts a party when the musician offers to take requests. Watanabe requests a song called “Life Is Brief.” We see Watanabe grieve as he accepts this reality not only for himself but confronts others to search their own lives as Watanabe’s health crisis has forced him to do. Through his eyes, he shows both a lost look of confusion not knowing how to live along with hope from a newfound desire to help others learn how to live, even though he doesn’t know how to do it himself yet.

Watanabe moves on in a pursuit of a new guide to teach him how to live. He ran into a girl who worked for him before the diagnosis. He hadn’t quit his job but his long absence was very puzzling to his co-workers. The girl tells him that everyone at work is excited for him not showing up at work since he was clearly a workaholic, they see it as his transformation. She’s right, but he can’t realize that transformation until she tells him. She teaches him how to have fun, enjoy life, to create, and to give willingly to others, giving what they really need instead of what is easy to give as Watanabe had previously done with his son. She encourages him to reconcile with his son, and she is the way he learns what it means to live.

After a bitter meeting with this girl that ends their friendship, he leaves a restaurant while all we hear is the sound of other patrons singing “Happy Birthday” to someone else. I don’t think this is an ironic contrast between the celebration of a birthday and the dejectedness of a man losing even more while already knowing his life is about to end as many think. Even though the relationship ended, she is the reason he knows how to live which is exactly what he leaves that restaurant to do. It is a birthday of sorts for him. The last hour of the movie takes place in flashback after Watanabe’s death, showing with absolute certainty that he did learn to live, that he did experience a new birth through that decision, and that he taught others to do the same. By the end of the movie, Watanabe has taught even those of us watching the movie 65 years after the film’s release, what it means to live.

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Now, Voyager (1942)

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2017 is the 75th anniversary of the film that Bette Davis gave her greatest performance in. Like Whoopie Goldberg’s Celie in The Color Purple, Bette Davis’ character Charlotte is transformed from victimhood of years of abuse and deprivation of love and kindness into a confident woman who is able to experience the reality of goodness in the world and to be part of that goodness, giving of herself to others and healing the brokenness in others, helping them experience the same transformation she has gone through. The story of The Color Purple is overtly religious while Now, Voyager‘s is not, but the process we see in Now, Voyager is just as much of a spiritual transformation.

Charlotte’s existence is controlled by her mother. She makes no decisions on her own, has no friends of her own, and thinks of herself as incapable, ugly, stupid, and completely dependent on her mother because that is exactly how her mother has groomed her. The psychological abuse Charlotte endured is almost unbearable to watch at times, and we see enough flashbacks to know that it has been going on her whole life. But the story begins at a breaking point in Charlotte’s relationship with her mother where she meets a psychiatrist (Clause Raines from Casablanca and Notorious playing one of the rare upstanding characters of his career). He helps her see that there is more to herself than what she can see and that the only way to discover that is to have some separation from her mother.

After her psychological treatment, the doctor encourages her to travel apart from her mother. As she does that, the transformation becomes real. She has to fight with the lies she’s heard from her mother for so many years that she’s too ugly and stupid to be lovable. When a man expresses romantic interest in her, she has to learn to accept herself as worthy of that kind of love. She has to know that she is capable of giving any kind of love. As the transformation unfolds, Now, Voyager becomes one of the most romantic movies ever made, but since this man who she falls in love with is married, her transformation is complicated. She learns to love Jerry (Paul Heinried, also from Casablanca) through his daughter Tina whose experiences mirror her own.

The movie’s most famous scene includes the line, “Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Her transformation is complete because she has been able to love another. Charlotte and Jerry both have too much respect for Jerry’s commitment to his wife to let their attraction to one another tear his family apart. That would be to ask for the moon. But they truly love each other in a way that allows Tina to escape the abuse she endured from her mother by becoming like the daughter of Jerry and Charlotte, even though it’s separate with Charlotte as her caretaker. That’s what it means for them to have the stars.

These characters experience spiritual transformations that make them able to receive and to give love. They are empowered to no longer be trapped by the effects of abuse they’ve experienced and to heal others through the love they’ve been shown. While Now, Voyager is one of the most romantic movies ever made, its view of love is much fuller than that. The expressions of love are life-giving and sacrificial. They empower others to be transformed as they have been.

 

The Immigrant (1917)

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This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s greatest short length film. Like most of Chaplin’s movies, he balances on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy in The Immigrant. The film opens on a ship headed for the U.S. Its occupants are mostly Russian Jews seeking refuge from the oppression of the tzar. On the ship, Chaplin accomplishes some of his greatest physical comedy including the results of seasickness and a choreographed scene with a fish that must have inspired Monty Python’s obsession with fish slapping. But Chaplin does all this surrounded by grief, poverty, hunger, and desperation.

Chaplin’s character doesn’t seem to have the same amount of physical and emotional distress as those with him on the ship. The movie doesn’t explore why that is or give any of his (or anyone else’s) backstory. We just know that he’s surrounded by hurt and sees himself as a way to make things right. Chaplin’s characters are often unintentional heroes that do great things for other people but only by accident. His character in The Immigrant is no “little tramp.” This may be his only true heroic character.

Most of the movie is set on the ship. Through what happens on the ship, we see that the story is set in a time where immigrants are unfairly labeled “bad hombres” just like the world we live in in the U.S. right now. An older woman on the ship realizes she has lost the money that will make her able to enter the U.S. legally. Without that money, she gets sent back. Chaplin’s character has compassion on her and has a very funny scene where he tries to sneak money into her pocket without her knowing it. But an American guard on the ship sees and accuses him of being a pickpocket. When they reach the border, things just get worse.

Everywhere he goes, he’s treated like he doesn’t belong, like he’s ruining the country, and like he’s a “bad hombre.” Nobody is willing to show him the same compassion that he is so willing to give others. Chaplin’s usual characters would fight over this, but not this one. Chaplin’s immigrant character is always willing to fight, but only for other people that he sees being wronged. In less than a half hour, we see a story that vividly shows the themes of justice, compassion, and mercy, something so sadly missing from the America of its time.

It’s been 100 years since The Immigrant was made, and in the last few decade, much progress has been made to avoid the type of treatment of people seen in this movie. But ever since Donald Trump decided to “make America great again,” he’s shown that his vision of American greatness looks a lot the anger, oppression, deceit, and discriminatory behavior that marks how the American characters in this great Chaplin film treat immigrants. That is a very sad reality, yet Chaplin’s character offers such a contrast to all the harm by being a source of healing. So the movie shows us that we can fight against these cultural swings towards hatred and indifference by giving love and compassion.

 

Other Chaplin movies I’ve reviewed:

The Gold Rush (1925); Modern Times (1936); The Great Dictator (1940)

Paths of Glory (1957)

“Sometimes I’m ashamed to be a human being. This is one of those cases.” Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas)

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Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is centered around a German attack against the Anthill in WWI France. But Paths of Glory isn’t a war movie. It’s a courtroom drama without a physical courtroom. Col. Dax is both a French military colonel and a highly skilled defense attorney. He is commanded to lead his men in a suicide mission that he begins to carry out but eventually hinders. This command is the first event that leads him to be ashamed of being a human.

As the highest military officials learn that many men backed out of the suicide mission and didn’t obey the orders, trials begin. Col. Dax is the center of that trial but only because he’s a lawyer, not because he did his duty of leading his men to retreat when the mission became impossible. In doing so, he was the only one who disobeyed any orders. But the political corruption and blackmail that directed the military officials wouldn’t allow a colonel to be tried for insubordination. Everybody knew that Col. Dax did what he needed to do and that his men did what they were ordered to do and that Col. Dax saved many lives. But all the officials cared about what political expediency, so they demand a court-martial where the decision of the death penalty has already been made before the trial even starts.

Through most of the movie, we watch this farce of a trial with its defendants knowing they’re condemned long before any sentence is issued. But most of all we watch Col. Dax fighting a suicide mission. He refused to let his men fight in the suicide mission he was ordered to lead, so instead, he fights a suicide mission that ends his career. Even though he knows the results of the trial just as well as the accused do, he’s more motivated by his knowledge of what’s right and wrong, by his sense of duty to preserve justice, than he is by the corruption that controls the case.

Col. Dax is completely alone in his fight for truth and justice. He is the only person with any compassion for the people wrongfully accused. Through his defense of the accused, he is punished for his own actions that caused the trial. He is punished for seeking justice while at the same time seeking more justice for the three men chosen to pay for his own actions. He even offers himself to be executed as the officer who gave his men orders that disobeyed the orders given to him. But the “court” wouldn’t hear it. They wouldn’t hear any council or any argument that presents truth or demands justice.

Col. Dax is one of the greatest movie heroes because he never backs down on his pursuit of justice no matter how impossible his situations are. The impossibilities are always caused by corruption and indifference to the lives of troops coming from the commanders over him. And they always lead him to a sense of shame about being human, because he knows what is right but being completely alone in his attempt to carry out what is right, he is never allowed to do so. But as ashamed as he is, that shame is always of those associated with him. He remains unshaken in his commitment to truth and justice, so regardless of how horribly things turn out, we are inspired and motivated by this man who cares so much about the people under his command, that he is willing to sacrifice everything of his own career and life to protect them, to grant them justice, and to stand up for what is right and what is true.

Other Stanley Kubrick Films I’ve Reviewed:

The Killing (1956)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Lola (1961)

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The Turtles recorded a strange song in the 60s called “Grim Reaper of Love.” The song doesn’t make much sense, but I bring it up because Jacque Demy movies always have a grim reaper of love. And Demy’s films make sense out of that character. His first movie Lola and his third (and best) movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg share a character named Roland Cassard (played in both movies by Marc Michel, pictured above). In both films, Roland is the grim reaper of love.

Lola (Anouk Aimee, pictured above) has a grand fantasy about the man she loves but left her with their son and a dishonorable job. But she’s convinced he will come back. His despicable actions toward her their son don’t matter to her. She’s much smarter than such beliefs seem to indicate, and even though she has no good reason to believe he’s coming back, she believes it anyways. She continues to love him even though Roland comes along and tries to convince her that her first love wasn’t real and that he can love her instead.

Roland’s words and actions sound good, but by attempting to crush her dreams, he is killing her very capacity to love. Roland does the exact same thing in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in a very different situation. Since Umbrellas is far better known than Lola, most people go into the earlier film Lola already knowing quite a bit about Roland from Umbrellas. But only when the two movies are seen together can we really understand that he’s not the well-meaning romantic savior he passes himself off as.

Lola romanticizes first love just as most of us do. After years have passed, many people remember their first love with much more fondness and joy than was actually there. That is probably not a healthy thing, but Demy does a great job of both capturing that common occurrence and showing that every once in a while, that type of fantastic nostalgia may not be fantasy at all. Because Lola believes it so much, so do we, and this is what makes Roland’s attempt to destroy her dream so wrong.

Demy’s trilogy, beginning with this film and ending with The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) shows maturity in attitudes towards first love. Lola fantasizes nostalgically about it, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is willing to “believe”, as Cher sang in the 90’s in “love after love,” and The Young Girls of Rochefort is willing to simply believe in the possibility of romantic love regardless of the shape it might take. The one thing that all movies keep in common while this maturity takes place is the value for waiting. Lovers in a Jacques Demy movie become believable, fully-realized characters because their romances depend on whether or not they are willing to wait for another. I have Roland Cassard the grim reaper of love because he tries to rush relationships with women who are vulnerable at the moments of his advances but do not love him. These women are waiting, expressing real love for someone else through that waiting, and Roland always tries to get in the way of that waiting.

This theme of waiting is what I love most of the Jacque Demy’s trilogy. The relationship between love and the willingness to wait goes far beyond romantic relationships and extends into all areas of life. The willingness to wait is the willingness to put another need’s first, to put off personal gratification and even to sacrifice for the sake of the other. Lola is a character whose waiting often looks superficial and unrealistic, but as the story unfolds we know that her waiting is very real and nothing less than a great expression of her love.

 

 

Vertigo (1958)

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Alfred Hitchcock’s best movie is based on a novel with a title much better than the movie’s title. Boileau-Narcejac’s Dentres les morts means “From among the Dead.” I haven’t read the novel, but it’s a better title because it’s what every frame, every twist and turn, every character, and the eventual solving of the mystery in Vertigo is all about.

The movie starts with the traumatic event that caused the main character’s vertigo. When we see his attempts to recover from the trauma, we see that he sees himself still as living among the dead (among those who died in the traumatic event). He agonizes over whether or not he could have saved anybody, if he did the best police work he could have done, if the whole matter was his fault.

He learns that his vertigo can only be cured by another traumatic event. He’s quit the police force but gets a call out of the blue asking him to take up a private job of detective work. It’s a ridiculous offer with a ridiculous premise, but he accepts it because he is trying to find his way out from among the dead. Just as he thinks his vertigo will be cured if he finds his way into another traumatic situation, he thinks he will have the opportunity to answer all the questions that nag him about the last one. So the whole plot to solve the mystery put in front of him is for Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) a way to recreate his past and see if he can make it turn out differently, in a way where he’s not disappointed in himself anymore.

He didn’t fail in the situation that haunts him, but that doesn’t stop him from believing he’s a failure and from living as if he’s a failure from that point forward. He didn’t just quit the police force, he quit living until getting obsessed with this new case. It was his way out of his situation “among the dead.”

It’s not only the Jimmy Stewart character who finds himself “among the dead,” but every character in the movie. At the beginning, we see him with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) who’s in love with him, but he sees her more as a sometimes-maid, sometimes-nurse, and sometimes-mother. They had a romantic relationship long ago that she wants to resurrect but he doesn’t show any signs of wanting any life back to their relationship as it once was. She sees him as her only hope to find her way back from “among the dead.”

In case you haven’t seen the movie, I can’t tell you about any of the other characters and how they are “from among the dead” without giving away major plot points. And being an Alfred Hitchcock movie and the greatest mystery movie of all time, Vertigo is loaded with twists and turns. Except for what I’ve already described as far as everyone’s place “from among the dead” and their pursuit of a way out, nothing is ever as it seems until the very last second of the movie.

But if you have seen Vertigo you know that this doesn’t matter for multiple viewings. Knowing all the revelations doesn’t make it any less rewarding to rewatch and rewatch. I watched it last week for about the 10th time. There’s always more depth to the characters and to the storyline than meets the eye, so even knowing how things turn out, there’s always something to be missed that needs another viewing. But I wish that Hitchcock would have given the movie a title like the novel. From among the Dead tells us that this is a movie about attempting to regain life when it’s been stolen. And even though we don’t get to know for sure if Scottie ever finds his way out “from among the dead,” we do know that he had a chance. These spiritual, philosophical, and psychological concepts that fill every second of this film are what makes it come alive.

7th Heaven (1927)

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Along with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, F.W Murnau’s Sunrise, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, and the first movie to ever with the Academy Award for Best Picture, William A. Wellman’s Wings comes another classic from the first great year for movies and very possibly the best year for movies to date. At the end of the silent era, 1927 was also the year of The Jazz Singer but even though it was the first talky it barely mattered in comparison to the silent powerhouses of 1927.

Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven visually transports us to a seedy Paris neighborhood. The frankness of the subject matter is unparalleled for 1927 and for many years after as the Hayes Code would prevent intelligent portrayals of themes it found indecent for many years. Seventh Heaven is one of the movies that probably paved the way for the code but proves the silliness of it. The Hayes code did not like the topics of abuse, prostitution, and atheism, all of which are at the center of this beautiful film, but the topics are dealt in a way that demonstrates exactly what moral decency is, something that code could never dream of.

Chico likes to call himself “a very remarkable person.” But he work in a sewer, barely makes enough money to live on, desires to be married but has no prospects, and is not well liked by the people around him because his “very remarkable person” schtick is pretty much just cockiness. He claims to be an atheist, yet he blames God for his lot in life claiming that he is entitled to such much better since he is a “very remarkable person.”

He does do one very remarkable thing. He rescues a girl from a horrendous situation where she is physically abused by her sister and forced into prostitution. He saves her life and then regrets it because his good decision gets in the way of his own self-centered plans. He often encounters a priest who doesn’t do much preaching to him. He just helps Chico evaluates how he thinks. He helps Chico see that he isn’t really an atheist, and he confronts him with the truth that his problems are his own fault, not God’s. But he’s also not quite as selfish as he’s convinced himself, as he really does care for the girl who has inconveniently entered his life. Through this relationship, he’s constantly confronted with questions of how he sees himself and how he sees God.

What starts of as pity for her the girl makes him ask the big theological question of why good things happen to bad people. If God really exists (and Chico’s pretty convinced that he does, even though he says otherwise), then he must not care at all about this girl, and that he just let her be abandoned and abused. When she attempts suicide, he seems just as convinced as she does that there’s no real hope for her, that nobody cares, and all he comments on when he saves her is that he didn’t want her using his knife. But this pity and anger against God gradually changes as develops into one of the most romantic films ever made.

The relationship between Chico and Diane is the first kind of heaven Chico experiences. That’s what the title refers to. As he learns to respect the lives of others, he becomes able to love Diane and ultimately himself. 7th Heaven is a picture of a spiritual awakening that unfolds gradually, casually, and believably. It couldn’t be farther removed from the stories produced by Christian companies that shove transformation and religion in their viewers faces in ways that even the most devout Christians can’t take seriously (only people who approve of these films’ not-so-Christian evangelical propaganda fall for that insanity). It wrestles with the deep theological questions that plague all people at some point in their life. It never reaches for easy answers or tries to explain away the harsh realities of life with some canned false hope.

7th Heaven shows both a spiritual journey and a lovely romance. Both of these aspects of the film are life-affirming but based in reality. They give a picture of what the filmmakers think love is supposed to look like without ever minimizing its power that is often activated by grief and sacrifice. But they are never over-the-top. They are never in-your-face. 7th Heaven can be appreciated by people of all faiths or no faith. But just like the priest who works with Chico, it will leave everybody asking big questions that might just require some changes in life. And that is definitely a wonderful achievement that Frank Borzage reached in one of the greatest of all silent films.