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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Belle de jour (1967)

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This is the 50th anniversary of a movie that does something that sounds impossible. Belle de jour tells a story about a prostitute that is both honest and clean. Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) gave the best performance of her career as the prostitute known to her clients as “Belle de jour” (lady of the day) because she never worked at night. She’s married, and in the movie’s opening scene we see a nightmare of her husband finding out her secret and having her tied to a tree and beaten (the scene pictured above). And the dream, she tells her husband that it’s his fault too. We have no idea why it might be his fault, but we believe her.

In his usual surrealist way, director Luis Buñuel cuts back and forth between scenes of the present, dream sequences, and scenes of the past. We don’t always know which is which, but it’s never confusing. Whichever perspective we see the main character from, we learn something about her. It doesn’t matter much if it’s past, present, or a dream. All that matters is that we get to know why she does what she does, who she thinks she is, how she sees the world around her, and whose fault her behavior really is.

Belle de jour is a movie about a prostitute, but it’s not a movie about prostitution. It’s a story about abuse, power, slavery, and most of all guilt. One of the clear flashback scenes of the past shows her as a child with her father in a way that tells us that her father sexually abused her throughout her childhood. We see the effects of that play out not just in her “profession” but in her marriage and in how afraid she is of all men. When she first learns about the house of prostitution she works for, she doesn’t say a word but we know from her facial expressions everything she is thinking. She’s going to do it, not because anybody’s forcing her and not because she needs or wants the money badly enough. She does it because she believes she needs to be punished.

Her false sense of guilt over what her father did to her controls every decision she makes. Her husband doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t really try to. He tries to love her on his own terms without knowing what it means to love someone who’s been what she’s been through. She can’t see the past as anyone’s fault but her own. Her false guilt leads her a lifestyle that brings real guilt, and she can’t tell the difference. Because she feels that she needs to be punished, she gives herself over to unspeakable cruelty. This is exactly why I can say the movie is clean. The movie understands that sexual abuse, and in many cases prostitution, has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power and violence.

The things we see in Belle de jour are very difficult to watch. But they are a very candid and real picture of the devastation caused by sexual abuse and toxic masculinity. In the world we live in right now with new accusations of famous and powerful men every day, it’s necessary to enter the world of people who have endured the torment of sexual abuse. Watching Belle de jour can be a powerful but very uncomfortable starting point.

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)

What’s Cooking? (2000)

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The most American of all Holidays is brought to screen by British-Indian director/screenwriter Gurinder Chadha (co-written with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges). We follow the events of Thanksgiving day for four families, each from a different ethnic background, that all live in the same L.A. neighborhood.

The Vietnamese family struggles with the tensions of Americanized children that don’t share the same values, and when their turkey with all its Asian spices gets burned, the kids are happy to have dinner from KFC. The Mexican-American family is just beginning to heal after years of betrayal and infidelity that led to an unavoidable divorce, except that the son has the not-so-brilliant idea of inviting his father to Thanksgiving along with his mom’s new boyfriend. The African-American family is full of conflicting expectations for what their Thanksgiving is supposed to look like, and those disagreements end up exploding into the revelations of secrets and scandals that could threaten to destroy the family or bring them together instead. And the Jewish family has to reconcile with the fact that there are lesbians in the family; nobody in the family wants to exclude them or be insensitive, but we see a very believable clash between the rest of the family’s religious and cultural sensibilities and how those beliefs are challenged by the fact of homosexuality in the family and how the couple challenges them to live out their beliefs through how they include and express love to the couple.

I may have just made this sound like a sappy, ingenuine soap opera, and if so I apologize deeply as that could not be further from an accurate explanation of this warm, smart,  sophisticated, complex, and extremely entertaining portrait of the diversity of American families. That diversity is shown through what initially looks like a complete separation between the four families. It appears to be four different stories connected only by a neighborhood and a holiday. But it is actually only one story. As it unfolds, we see more connection between the families than we (or they knew was there). They talk about how they don’t know their neighbors, but there’s a little more connection than they realize.

That connection is what makes What’s Cooking? so special. There’s a very bad thing that happens in the middle of the movie, but it’s a kind of bad thing that good things can come out of. Through that bad thing, the families all come together unintentionally. The connections between the families that were secret before are now in the open. All the people involved, whether they know it or not (and even whether they really want to or not), help each other heal.

Thanksgiving is a time when families come together, and often that means clashes of beliefs and values, resentments, and hurtful memories come face to face with each other.  That kind of confrontation may be unavoidable for many Thanksgivings, and What’s Cooking? points out the truth that this is not a bad thing. How we respond to it can be, but it can also result in healing of relationships. Divisions can be broken, walls between people can come down. What’s Cookingshows the potential power of healing and family available on days like Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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.