Friday, January 15, 2016


you could be discussing these while waiting for me to watch some more.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Review:Sansho the Balif, by Kenji Mizoguchi



Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi (May 16, 1898 – August 24, 1956) is perhaps the most Japanese of Japan's great directors. Kurosawa was known for being influenced by the West, and Ozu known for being a Japanese purist mizoguchi was even more so."His films have an extraordinary force and purity. They shake and move the viewer by the power, refinement and compassion with which they confront human suffering."(Mark Le Fanu Mizoguchi and Japan, London: BFI Publishing, 2005, p.1) The story is written by Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda.


Cast overview, first billed only:
Kinuyo Tanaka Kinuyo Tanaka ...
Yoshiaki Hanayagi Yoshiaki Hanayagi ...
Kyôko Kagawa Kyôko Kagawa ...
Eitarô Shindô Eitarô Shindô ...
Sanshô dayû
Akitake Kôno Akitake Kôno ...
Masao Shimizu Masao Shimizu ...
Masauji Taira
Ken Mitsuda Ken Mitsuda ...
Prime Minister Fujiwara
Kazukimi Okuni Kazukimi Okuni ...
Yôko Kosono Yôko Kosono ...
Noriko Tachibana Noriko Tachibana ...
Ichirô Sugai Ichirô Sugai ...
Minister of Justice
Teruko Omi Teruko Omi ...
Masahiko Kato Masahiko Kato ...
Young Zushio
Keiko Enami Keiko Enami ...
Young Anju
Bontarô Akemi Bontarô Akemi ...

This is an extremely sad story, set in the Haien period of Japan.(794-1192) Oddly enough the Haien period is said to have been:

one of those amazing periods in Japanese history, equaled only by the later Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan, in which an unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty. Japanese culture during the Heian flourished as it never had before; such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again during the long Tokugawa peace. For this reason, Heian Japan along with Nara Japan (710-794) is called "Classical" Japan.
In the film, however, it says people weren't really human yet, they had not yet awakened to their humanity. The period is portrayed as brutal, with an economy based upon slavery. Apparently for some reason the Japanese see their own history that way. The story centers around a family whose father is appointed governor by the imperial court. He is eventually deposed and his wife and children must travel alone to join him. The father gave the son an idol of the goddess Guanyin. He tells the son that a human is not really without compassion and urges him to always show mercy. Of course the son is convinced of his father's greatness. He is eager to keep his teachings. The offer counters the abuse of military men who wish to go to war and is deposed form his office.

They journey through an area which is dangerously overrun by slavers. The mother, son (Zushiô ), daughter (Anju), and old female servant, try camping out because they can't find a place to stay. An old woman finds them and takes them in. He is only pretending to help them. She claims to have arranged their passage on a boat but when the mother gets on the boat first it leaves without the children. The children are sold into slavery on the main land and the mother on a small island off the coast.

From that point on ten years pass. The boy is now 23 and he's forgotten his father's teaching. The compound in which the brother and sister is a hell hole, it's a sweat shop ran by this old man called Sansho the Bailiff. The slaves are beaten, they work round the clock with little rest and penalty for escape is branding on the face. Zushio, now called Waka, has gained the trust fo the slavers by being willing to brand run away slaves who have been captured. Anju is appauled at her brother's attitude, she takes charge of the small goddess figure, the only keep sake of their former lives they still have. A new gril is brought to the compound and Anju is instructed to help learn her job. She finds the girl sining a song with their names in it, it talks about how life is torture and the persecution of th persona in the son is that of one betrayed an sold into slavery and separated from Zushio and Anju. Anju tries to find out who wrote the song, but the girl thinks it was a courtesan named "Nakagimi."

We are allowed to see the mother's life. She is a courtesan, who is constantly trying to run away. They cut her tendon so she can't run. Other courtesan's take her to the edge of a cliff everyday where she can hobble to the edge of the water and see the mainland, where her children are. She shouts to them across the water. She has no idea if they can hear or if they are even alive but she continues to do this just in case they get a small sound of her voice they might somehow come to her some day.

One day a woman at Sansho's compound is sick and dying. Because they trust Waka they send him to take the old woman out and dump her in the woods to die (the place is ran by Republicans). He brings his sister with him to help prepare the body for death. Another old woman is back at the fense not allowed to go with her but she shouts to the dying woman "be reincarnated in a good family! Be born to rich people in the next life." Waka has become hard and bitter. He preaches that only through serving the Bailiff and getting on his good side can one avoid being beaten and maybe gain a moment's rest. Once he's outside the compound they hear very faint voice in the distance carried across the waves, their mother's voice calling their names. The boy decides to run away. The sister gives him the idol and she stays to through them off track. They reason that two together would be caught but one by himself might make it. The plan is for him to go to the imperial temple near by and get help and find someway, perhaps through contacting the father, to come and get the daughter out and then find the mother.

Once the boy runs off and the other realize he's escaped, they say they are going to torture the sister to make her tell where she's gone. They are all running off into search parties and they leave an old woman to watch the girl. The old woman tells the girl to tie her up so she can flea and the woman wont be in trouble. The sister does this but he goes immediately to the water and drowns herself so that she can't be made to betray the brother. The search party winds up at the temple anyway, her sacrifice need not have been made. Nevertheless they don't find Zushio because the Abbot turns them away saying "this is an imperial temple and it's under the protection of the emperor and you have to right to be here, get lost," and so on. The son's plan is to go to the imperial adviser and try to illicit help. The priest is a friend of the adviser and so writes a letter beseeching the man for help for the young man.

At first Zushio is arrested and put in a sort of prison cell in a hut. He is treated harshly and they take the little idol figure. The next day, however, he's brought before the adviser who tells him that he is the one who gave the idol to the father in the first place. He knew the guy's father and admired him. His stand against the military was admirable. Even the father is not dead, the advised is determined to help. He appoints the son to his father's old post as adviser. He goes back and outlaws slavery in his Provence. He lacks the authority to confiscate slaves on private property but when Sansho's men, acting under his orders, tear down the posters proclaiming the outlawing of traffic in humans, he has a pretext and leads an army into the compound and arrests Sansho and exiles him. He is deeply saddened to learn that his sister is dead. He can't understand why she didn't have faith to wait for him. He realizes her sacrifice.

He then resigns his post because he's pursued a policy the adviser warned him against. The slave lobby was too powerful to mess with. Sansho has friends and will be back in power. At least he offers freedom to his slaves. They have a wild party in Sansho's great hall, tear the place apart and burn it down. It's hilarious to see them all getting drunk and tearing up all of the possessions of their former tormentor. Zushio offers them an opportunity to go home or stay there and work for pay. He himself leaves. He goes to find his mother on the island. He finds her sitting alone on a beach, blind, muttering to herself, singing her song about her children and how life is torture. At first she doesn't' believe it's him, she thinks it's a tormentor come to mock her. She realizes it's him when she feels the little idol of The goddess of mercy. The two of them are left there, they embrace and the son will care for the mother. The mother says he prevailed because he remembered his father's teachings.

This film is a cray against the prevailing spirit of our own age. It argues against the "look out for number one" mentality. It's not preaching, but the glimpse one get's a world totally dedicated to the worship of power and selfishness is sermon enough.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Federico Fillini's I Vitelloni

  photo 220px-Vitelloni_psoter_zps7382becf.jpg

Federico Fellini, "I Vitelloni-"1953. This a great film, it's a fine film and it occupies an important place in the history of art cinema. It's not like I've said before, of the Bresan film, eat your vegetables (watch a tedious film) so you can grow up to be a strong cinefile, this is more pleasurable to watch than that.

The major achievement of post war European cinema was Italian Neo-realism. This was the European answer to American film Noir. It preceded French "New Cinema." It's hall mark was the squalor of post war Italy, the dark earthy sets and dark earthy  women and degradation (such "the Bicycle Theif."  Fellini was to emerge from the 50's as one of Italy's most important film makers and one of the greats of world cenima. But in the early 50's he was still struggling with one  bomb after another. This film was no exception. It was a failure at the box office, but I think with it people began to notice him. It a mature attempt one upon which he worked very hard.

from Benny Thomas Weblog:
I Vitelloni or the young bulls is the third cinematic essay of Federico Fellini and it was a mature work as far as it reconstructed the trends of neorealism in his own personal idiom. At a time when critics tended to look at films dealing with postwar Italy from a Marxian point of view he was neither conservative nor reactionary. He was far too individualistic to look at social reality with labels. His mature films showed his heart was fully engaged in the creative process whether it dealt with social issues or his interior life.
In emerging to greatness Fillini would forsake Neo-realism  putting in place his own highly individualistic style. That would be both his glory and the greatest criticism of the critics. That process began with this film.

from IMBd page:


Cast overview, first billed only:
Franco Interlenghi ...
Moraldo Rubini
Alberto Sordi ...
Franco Fabrizi ...
Fausto Moretti
Leopoldo Trieste ...
Leopoldo Vannucci
Riccardo Fellini ...
Leonora Ruffo ...
Sandra Rubini (as Eleonora Ruffo)
Jean Brochard ...
Francesco Moretti
Claude Farell ...
Carlo Romano ...
Michele Curti
Enrico Viarisio ...
Signor Rubini
Paola Borboni ...
Signora Rubini
Lída Baarová ...
Giulia Curti (as Lida Baarowa)
Arlette Sauvage ...
La sconosciuta del cinema
Vira Silenti ...
Maja Niles ...
Caterina (as Maja Nipora)

My Original Review:

The title means "the young bulls" it's a slang term they used in Itally at that time for what we might call "a red neck" or a "Yahoo." Young rural guys with noting better to do than cause trouble. they are not really mean but they just have noting better to do. They are basically rural working class play boys. They are from a small town in Italy. The film is autobiographical in that the one guy who actually get's up the guts to leave town is really based upon Fillini himself. He leaves in the last scene of this movie, headed for Rome.years latter in the 70s he did another film Called "Roma" that has that same guy (himself) getting off the train then it takes up with his early days in Rome trying to get established and make it.

The whole film revolves around a domestic problem between one of these young men and his new wife, who is expecting a child,and the child would have been born out of wedlock if the young man had not been forced to Marry her by his father. The father essentially beats him up because he was going to skip town. Most of the movie is not what you would call a comedy but it ends happily when the young guy realizes he loves the girl. The last quarter of the film is  about a mad dash around town trying to find her as she had gone missing, with the baby. He's desperate to find her, he spends all day looking, she seems to have vanished. I wont spoil it.

One funny situation in the film which was a true story from Fillini's life, they were driving along the road and saw men working. one of them sticks his head up through the sun roof and shout's "Hey workers," then something obscene, reinforced with a gesture. He does this for no real reason, he's like a big kid who doesn't work, parties all the time and has nothing better to do than make mischief. Just as he does this the car breaks down. they coast to a stop like 50 yards form the workers, who chase them down the road on foot trying to beat them up. They no match for working muscles.

This is a fine film if you watch films just for feeling it will leave a good feeling. If you watch films to be part of film history this one occuplies an important postion in film history. Italian Neo-realism is one of the great aspects that made films art and made the art film magic in this era (the silver age of the silver screen). Rules are meant to be broken, Fillini's departure from the genre is one of the triumphs of that era. We see the writing on the wall with this film. It's his first baby step toward his own highly individualistic style.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Cleo from 5 to 7

 photo 41Q5CCB48JL._SY445__zps9zbup9rc.jpg

Review by James Bratone

Cleo from 5 to 7

1962, written and directed by Agnes Varda

Cleo Victoire is a young, successful pop singer in Paris with hit singles playing regularly on the radio. She is beautiful, rich, has a successful boyfriend and even a personal assistant. But things are not what they seem. She is ill with what she dreads to be cancer. In fact, as the film opens, she is awaiting test results from the hospital that might confirm her fears. The results are due at 7 pm. and the action starts at 5; the film follows Cleo for those two hours. We watch her virtually moment by moment as she awaits the news that could indicate her imminent death. Two hours of her life are presented in an hour and a half, almost cinema verite style, each episode of ten minutes or so presented as a chapter with a title and the time interval in which the episode occurs, so we are continually reminded of the quickly approaching 7 pm. The first chapter finds her consulting a fortune teller who sees an ominous sign in the tarot cards but can’t bring herself to tell Cleo the bad news. Cleo senses what the cards reveal and leaves in tears, convinced that her death sentence has been written. In the next chapter, she meets her maid and personal assistant, Angele, and with her, Cleo buys a new hat as a way of distracting herself. And so it goes, as we follow her through a seemingly mundane late afternoon, the first day of summer. She goes home where her boyfriend, an important older businessman, visits briefly but he seems always too busy for her. Her songwriter and lyricist drop by and she somewhat playfully argues with them over a new song which she finally decides she likes. Then she goes out alone and wanders the streets of Paris, gets a drink in a sidewalk café, meets her friend, Dorothee, and together they drive around in her friend’s car. As the time gets close to 7, she parts with her friend because she wants to confront her fate alone. To kill time, she wanders through a park and there she meets Antoine, a soldier on leave from the Algerian War. He starts talking to her but she is too preoccupied to pay much attention or to engage him. But slowly she opens up and they develop a rapport. She reveals to him that Cleo is not even her real name but only a nickname, short for Cleopatra, and that her real name is Flora, which suggests that she’s allowing him to see her true self. Antoine tells her that he doesn’t fear death per se but only dying for nothing and without meaning, another hint to her that meaning is what her life has been lacking. He convinces her to let him accompany her to the hospital. On the bus ride there, she starts smiling and even laughing. A bond is forming between them. It turns out that his leave is almost over. In fact he must get on a train in a few hours to return to the Algerian front. At the hospital, it seems that her doctor has already gone home. As the two dejectedly walk away, her doctor pulls up in his convertible and breezily informs her that she has cancer but that it’s not life threatening. Three months of chemotherapy, he casually says, and she’ll be fine, then off he goes, leaving the two of them there. They gaze into each other’s eyes. She has a look that suggests the first stirrings of something she has never felt before.

When the film opens, Cleo comes across as vain and somewhat shallow, and her songs, forgettable pop tunes blaring from radios, only reinforce that impression. She obsesses with how she comes across, primping as she gazes into any reflective surface. She’s spoiled by the adulation of her fans, by Angele who takes care of her every need, her songwriting team and even by her rich boyfriend who showers her with gifts if not as much with his time and attention.

But she is changing. Possibly facing her own imminent end has given her the first glimmers of depth and self-reflection. At her apartment, she takes off her wig and make-up; this is how we see her for the rest of the film. She is shedding her mask, her artifice. She complains to Angele that everyone spoils her but that no one loves her, an insight she probably wouldn’t have come to normally. When she’s out walking by herself, she looks at her reflection in a café window and says to herself in voice-over “I’ve always thought that everyone was looking at me when it was actually me staring at myself.” She’s growing and maturing as we watch, a process that’s greatly compressed due to the inherent drama and gravity of her situation. Set in stark relief against death, the vanity and vacuity of her old life start to fall away. And she feels the first intimations of true love for Antoine, a love she has probably been too self-absorbed to have ever experienced before. Their feelings for each other are intensified because each is facing mortality which has a way of intensifying life and passion. Perhaps for the first time, she can allow herself to experience the moment because her moments may soon end.

This is a great film because it conveys so much about life and love but does so with utter efficiency, even casualness. It has an off-handed, improvisatory kind of depth and whimsy typical of the French New Wave. There is so much sentiment here without even a whiff of sentimentality. Cleo’s journey, which is everyone’s, is embedded in our journey of watching it. The film is made up, to a large degree, of the fleeting beauty of a first summer afternoon in Paris, and this beauty, this fleetingness is a large part of what the film is about. It’s the kind of movie that gives you the impression that you could see more in it with every viewing. It’s also a great early feminist film; a woman sheds the traditional, confining role she’s been handed in order to discover and ultimately become herself.

Agnes Varda, the great, and greatly under-appreciated, writer and director, has often been grouped with the Fench New Wave directors. In fact, many critics and film historians have dubbed her “The Godmother of the New Wave” because of her first film, “Le Pointe Courte” of 1954, six years before Godard’s Breathless, traditionally considered to have started the New Wave. Schools and movements have almost always been invented and promoted by critics and historians, rarely by artists. And the great artists are too stubbornly singular to fit into any school. Yet some of the stylistic elements in Cleo, such as its unfolding in virtual real time, the subverting of the traditional narrative film structure ( the “climax,” which is the doctor’s prognosis, is almost a jokey afterthought, a throwaway), the fluid camerawork and an overall light, breezy, lyrical air, are typical of the movement. It’s more relaxed and slower-paced and reflective than Godard or Truffaut usually are; it has less of their electric energy and formal invention, and yet one can sense a family resemblance. It is slower but also seems more profound somehow than the films of Godard or Truffaut. Its greatness and beauty sneak up on you.

I definitely recommend Cleo from 5 to 7 and also Varda’s Vagabond, the only other of her films I’ve seen, which also has a female protagonist and is also great.

Click here to Reply or Forward

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Tokyo Story by Yasuirô Ozu


Kurosawa is the Western Japanese film Genius, Ozu is Japan's Japanese director. Kurosawa was criticized by critics in Japan as being too Western (in which he took pride--even though he was trained as a samurai). Ozu was one who was hailed by critics of his own country as epitomizing their own style and flavor of film. What that means for the western film buff is long and boring! Not to say the film is no good. It's an excellent film, it deserves to be thought of as up there with Bergman's Wild Strawberries, and Di Sica's the Bicycle Thief, some have said it's one of the greatest films ever made. But Western viewer beware! To get the point where you enjoy and appreciate this film you are going to have to learn to love films where nothing happens. The true Japanese spirit of film is a long ambling slice of life that takes forever to unwind. Once you stick through it all the way it's rewarding, but it's getting there that's the trouble. Another great Ozu film that might be easier to start on, which I also love, is Floating Weeds.

Tokyo Story (1953) is longer and harder to get through. Since I'm not a professional critic I will relay my personal connection. This film is about an old couple and their children who don't have time for them. Since I cared for my parents for three years at the end of their lives this film meant a lot to me. The old couple goes to Tokyo to see their children the only one who is actually glad to see them and has time for them is their Daughter-in-law whose husband is dead. Despite the fact that she is not blood kin, she's the one who is genially glad to see them and sacrifices for them.

The Old couple sit at the sea wall and talk about how
their kids don't want them.

Now that the reader has been warned about the daunting aspect, the reward from watching the film is immense. The cinematography is amazing. Ozu loves to give reflective shots that dwell on some city scape or a view over the tile roofs of the village where the old people are from. These are beautiful and artistic shots that, even though black and white, play up the beauty of Japan and provoke a reflective mood. The shots across those tile roves are wonderful. That's one of my favorite things about the move. The oldest son's wife is so mercenary and selfish but it's not heavy handed. One is easily lulled into a tranquil state thinking nothing is going on these guys are talking about clothes and what they ate for dinner and memories of childhood, yet lurking behind this innocent scene is a host of indications that the people just don't have time for anyone but themselves. One the major sings of the younger couple's neglect and their general state of malaise is the tantrums their children through. Their children don't recognize the grandparents, have no interest in being with them, and act super spoiled because they don't get their way on some small thing. If one notices one can see the attitudes in the mother. The parents (the children of the old people) are just faded worn out versions of the small tantrum throwing children.

The Daughter-in-law is genuinely glad to see them, reaches out to them as the only family she has. Of course one might imagine her sister and brother in-laws are of no help to her. This is early 50,s Japan is still getting over the war, they are resigned to being U.S. allies, they are going whole hog for American things, yet the country is still very poor. The houses they live in have paper walls and they sit on the fool, although the affluent oldest son's house has western chairs. The level of Asian sociology observed is very educational. We all the face saving tactics of a day in Japan in that era. In the end there's a family crisis. The Family gathers. The youngest sister, who is a teacher is appealed at the selfishness of the older ones. Ironically its' the daughter-in-law the only one who had time for the grandparents, who defends her brother and sister's in law. It's not because they are evil, it's not becasue they are mean, it's not even becasue they don't love their parents. Its' because they are caught up in life. They have children of their own. Here a wonderful universality to human nature shines through, one can see one's own family, one's own situation and values and love, failures, reflected in these Japanese people, regardless of being Texan or wherever one is from. Like all great art Ozu manages to bring out the universal aspects of the human condition.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. (1963)

Gunnar Björnstrand

I have reviewed several Bergman films on Metacrock's blog, starting with my review of his death several years ago ("Greatness has Left the Planet: Ingmar Bergman Dies"). Since getting Netflix last Summer I've been watching what I consider to be the greatest films from the the greatest age of art films. From the late 40s, beginning with Italian Neo-Realism, which followed the lead of Viscanti, to the mid 50s in French "new Cinema" and on to the end of the 60s film make reach it's peak in terms of artistic direction. A host of great filmmakers cranked out sublime creations, the greatest among them was Sweden's Ingmar Bergman. Bergman has a special sensitivity to religion. He was an atheist, he did not pull punches about his feelings of angst at the lack of a God (in his world view) but he was not one of these message board Dawkies. He approaches it with a sensitivity that preserves the dignity and intelligence of the believer.

My favorite example of that sensitivity is from my second favorite film, "Wild Strawberries," and there is a scene I love in that film where two young men are competing for the effectiveness of a young lady. Their contest takes the place of an intellectual debate which grows more angry in every scene. Finally they break into a fist fight and both have black eyes. They are angrily corralled by their companions and put in the back seat with the girl between them. She casually turns to the young seminarian and says "so, does God exist?" Bergman shows sensitivity in a scene where all the travels are together at a table the old doctor quotes poetry about religious belief, the atheist doesn't get it the seminary guy does. So even though he's an atheist he still acknowledges that Belief has its reasons and those reasons appeal to the heart, that doesn't make them stupid. Bergman's father the Chaplin to the Queen of Sweden, but privately he was abusive to the young Ingmar as he grew up. Bergman thus had a sympathy for the religious life but also a revulsion and an acute awareness of the personal struggles that go on in the psyche of believers and seeking unbelievers.

Björnstrand and Thulin in
Winter Light

"Winter Light" is the second in Bergman's Trilogy: "Through the Glass Darkly," "Winter Light," and "The Silence." I have reviewed Thought he Glass Darkly. The review of his death included a review of his greatest work,"The Seventh Seal." That is my favorite film of all time bar none. I am almost having a mystical experince just thinking about that film.

Winter light is like setting out for a wonderful vacation in a great setting such as the south of France, and suddenly finding yourself in a dentist chair for four hours screaming in pain. It has all the slow agonizing tedious build up to nothing of a root canal. Well, one might ask, "what's so great about that, it sounds like a crap movie." The first time you watch it, it is. But it grows on you. If you think about it latter you come to realize you did see a fine film. I would not put it in the ranks of the Seventh Seal, or the the Seven Samurai for that matter, but it is a great film. That intense tedium that goes nowhere is intentional. Bergman wants you to feel that. That's the Katharsis. He also wants the film to look dismal, soul crunching, cold, barren, stark, bleak and it does. The setting is a small Island off the coast of Sweden. It has modern convinces but everything is shabby and gritty and the people are isolated and the region is a backwater.It's the kind of place that one begins a practice in (say in medicine) because there's no where to go from there but up.

The first scene is in a church as the Sunday service begins. In fact, the whole film takes place on that Sunday between the noon service and the evening service which is only bout three and half hours. The building is interesting, the service is dismal. The building is old and crumbling with vaulted sealing and very Norse looking statues of Christ on the cross. There are only seven people in the whole church and they are spread out around the sanctuary. The only people who sit together are one couple, the others all lonely individuals who have no one to sit with even in spite of their being a small enough group to have an intimate service. The service is anything but intimate. It's mechanical, and legalistic, formal and by the book. The people in the service, with the exceptions of an old woman and a a hunchback who seem moved by it all.

The opening of the film and the slow unfolding of conflict imply a real slap in the face to Christian belief. The minister, played by Bergman's best friend Gunnar Björnstrand, mutters under his breath "what a ridiculous image" as he gases at the cross.Everything is old and falling apart, ony two out of seven parishioners who bother to show up really get anything out of it, the rest is all perfunctory. The minister (Thomas) stays to talk to the one couple who sat together. The man is a fisherman played by Max Von Sydow (the Father in Virgin Spring, also the exorcist himself in that fim). The fisherman's problem is that he's depressed, to the point of suicide, because he's fretting about the bomb. This is a very periodized anxiety of that era. In that day it would have spoken to the audience. But the minister is totally inept at dealing with the man's problems. He gets him to agree to come back latter and talk to him in private session without his wife. The couple leaves and the minister's girl friend (Marta--Ingrid Thulin) comes in. She is clinging and mothering and hovering and suffocating. She gets him to read a letter which he reads before the return of the fisherman. The content of the letter is a sketch of all the problems in their relationship. The intensity builds as the text of the letter is acted by Thulin. The scene is a masterpiece as Bergman does not allow the camera to stray from a close up of her face as she speaks the text which the minister is reading. This is a violation of all the rules of film making. The close up grows in intensity as the problems of the couple are revealed. The viewer wants to move on but can't. The intensity of the letter is drilled into the face of the audience.

Thomas is sick, he has fever but he's pushing himself. In real life Bergman got the doctor to prescribe ineffective medicine for Björnstrand's bronchitis so he would really appear sick. While we might give Thomas some points for sticking to his duty we have to subtract them from Thomas again because his counciling technique was totally inept. He did not talk about the man's problems at all. Instead he told the fisherman about his own problems. He confessed his lack of belief and all but said things are pretty hopeless. He talked about is ideas of God but not in a way that shed theological light but in an intensely private way that could only be described as self indulgent.The man leaves clearly more distraught than when he came. Surprise, he goes right out and shoots himself.

There is a great scene, the only real outdoor scene where Thomas goes to issue last rights and help with the body. The Fisherman has shot himself in front of a stream which is moving very swiftly. There are mountains around, but none of it is beautiful. Of cousre it's black and white but even so nature can be beautiful in black and white, the great open outdoor forested scenes of Virgin Spring are wonderfully beautiful, this is not. The stream looks cold and bleak and like one might drawn. The mountains look gritty, everything looks gritty, snowy stark and bleak. This is of course, the way Bergman wants it to look. The American Title is "Winter Light" so named because the quality of light in the film is muted. this is the light of the winter in Sweden, dark, somber not happy sunshine but cloudy and stark. The scene focuses on a body being put in a body bag. Thomas doesn't seem shaken as much as bored. He's so self absorbed even this guy's doesn't make him re think what he's doing.It's clear he has no calling. He's just a guy doing a job. He could be a plumber. One can't help but wonder if this wasn't Bergman's feeling about his father's ministry.

The arch of conflict come after this scene where Thomas and Marta have a showdown int he school where Marta teaches and lives in the back. Thomas basically lets her have it. He doesn't like her. he tells her so. He is humiliated her, she's clinging and so forth. She has a habit of calling "poor little Thomas" and hanging to his back. But it's clear if we read between the lines that her main sin is she is not his dead wife. He was really in love with his wife, he says, he will never get over her. He speaks of her "mockery of my dead wife." Marta looks helpless and breaks off her sobbing to say "I didn't know her." To me that means he does see a similarity between the two, but resents it. Marta does have some qualities that his wife had, but she's not the right woman.

Before the evening service Marta sits in the pew and talks to one of the seven, now six members of the church, a little hunchback guy who plays the organ. The hunchback, payed by Johan Allan Edwall, tells her that Thomas and his wife had the same problems that she and Thomas have. Thomas has exaggerated his love for her becasue she's gone and though guilt built her into a saint while she was actually clinging and smothering. He also observes that Thomas's talk of searching, is there a God and so forth is just a way of keeping at bay the realizations about his own character flaws. His search for certainty is a false search because he's using God as a scape goat and search for certainty of himself not God. The real Swedish title of the film is a word meaning "the communicants." That has a double meaning because it applies to the parishioners of the church doing communion but also to the communication between the characters: in both cases it's an ironic title because their doing of communion is hollow and without feeling and their communication is non existent. The only real communicating done in the film is he little hunchback's analysis of Thomas and his revelation to Marta that Thomas and his wife also had the same kind of relationship. The Hunchback is also the only real religious character in the movie. He's the only one (other than perhaps the old woman who is only in it for one fleeting close up at the beginning) for whom faith is really a way of life and really moving.

The film ends with the beginning of the evening service. There are only three people there for the service, the hunchback, the minister and the former girlfriend. But Thomas goes on anyway. He begins "Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God almighty..." as though those meaning anything to him. Another formalistic service by wrote, never mind that the audience is only one person (the other guy plays the music). As long as one person is there the service must go on. We can take this in two ways, either "the show must go on" a dig at Christianity becasue they are so pathetic that even with just three people they still can't depart from the script. Or we can see it as hope because even if only one person receives it the word of God is not lost.

The devastating critique of Christianity and its' position in Swedish culture in this film are obvious. What can be seen if one looks closer are the points of Bergman's sensitivity to religious belief. The only really "together" character was the only religious character who sums it all up in a knowing way and does only actual communicating in the film. The hopeful aspect of the end, even though a bleak winter kind of hope, that even if only one person hears God is still there, the word is not spoken in vein. Of course Bergman didn't believe God was there, but what he actually did believe is unclear, what is clear is that he actually did have a sense of admiration and sympathy for the true believer and the true seeker.

This film reminds me of the life of great theologian Carl Barth. Barth came out of seminary typical nineteenth century liberal. The triumphalism of post millennial was shattered by WWI and he had nothing to say to an audience. He was put in charge of a parish where only three old women came tot he service. But he didn't go by wrote, he formed an intimate little service and discussed what to do about it. He learned from these women what they needed to hear why they believed, why the modern church had nothing to day to people. From there he launched his revolution in neo-Orthodoxy whic brought people back to the churches.

Winter light is a great film, even though I wont put it on a level with Bergman's greatest, ironic since he wanted it to be part of the great Trilogy, like all great films it leads one to think about great ideas.

That was how I ended this review the first time. I think Bergman actually makes a couple of observations that are really insightful about spiritual life. One is that the people getting something out to the chruch service are the only one's willing to really put something into it, the one's transcend the formal obligatory ritual and actually try to see what it's all about. The other insight is that those spiritual one, the organist is allowing the faith to speak to him rather than imposing his own problems over it as a means of using God as something to blame.

I thought I would share the comments made on this one the first time I posted it. apparently I'm the only one who actually reviewed this film. I may be the only person who likes it:

cl said...

You said, "So even though he's an atheist he still acknowledges that Belief has its reasons and those reasons appeal to the heart, that doesn't make them stupid."

Bravo for him, and you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Your commentary is very well written, actually the only good one we have managed to find of Winter Light and it is obvious you really get into the film and its meaning. It is very refreshing to read thoughtful critiques instead of mere sypnosis of the plot or anti-religious raging vagaries.
You would like to give you an excuse to watch the film again to clear out a couple of minor confused memories of the last scenes. There are actually four characters in the chapel in Frostmass (frost instead of Crist +mass= not a mass of\for\from Christ, but of frost, that is if frost is frost in Swedish.... The hunchback is the sexton, not the organ player. The hunchback seems to be a religious person, and the only one who is actually reading the Bible (though he started for all the wrong reasons, and used it as a sedative to go to sleep. He has got interested by the passages about the passion, and comments on the emphasis on the physical suffering of Christ (which is actually not so much so in the biblical accounts). He points that Christ's spiritual suffering must have been much greater: loneliness, indifference to him from friends, being deserted,feeling abandoned by God the Father himself). He implies that Christ Himself must have doubted (mmmm, partial interpretation?,we are forgetting about Psalm 22 and fulfilment of prophecies, the role of Christ as substitute, and the horror of suffering for human sins...) Anyway, that is seen to strike home with the minister, who then goes into the chapel and does his performance again, with Martha(the diligent, obsequious servant), the deformed sexton (neurotically exacting in his ritualism, but having gained an ever so small speck of insight), and the cynical bufonesc organ player.
I agree on the multiple possible readings: the show goes on, it is a show alright. But then it is the unbelieving that makes it a show, a vain ritual, not faith. The irony is that the unbelivers cling to the ritual unable to free thamselves. The chapel is empty of believers, except maybe, the sexton, but then why shoul true believers attend this mockery of spiritual communion? Martha's prayer before the service begins is, well considered, the truest prayer: an honest humble recognition of failure, helplessness, self-abhorence. The closest thing in the film to the possessed boy's father who said to Jesus "I belive, Lord, help my unbelieve" (Mark, 9:24), though not quite there. It may also hint that to these wretched people, even this pitiful scrap of the Gospel is better than no Gospel at all.
I was an atheist until 32, brought up by an atheist Father who has come close to taking orders and a Roman Catholic mother whom I never saw read the Bible, do other than recited prayers once a year to bless Christmas dinner and who did not, at that time,any meaningful spiritual relationship with God either in theory or in practice.
Like Martha in the film, there came a point when the revelation to my conscience of human crookedness, more so of my own, brought me down to my knees. I too, like Thomas, a doubting Thomas, was angry against a God I swore I didn't believe in.
Like the deformed sexton, I too am pathetic in my every effort to do good. Like the cynical organ player, I too feel the compulsion to give myself over to sin and the apparent sense of liberation of not following Christ. But having been there, I know what to expect of myself and the world, and having tasted just a little bit of the Jesus who said "Love your enemy", "come to me, you the overwhelmed and fed-up", "Father forgive them", "Love one another as I loved you",and "Those that listen to me are my mother and brothers and sisters", I'd rather stay out of the palace and the city and in the tents with God.
Keep up the excellent writing and pithy comments.
With respect and affection in Jesus,
Cristina Newton

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review of Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Woman in the Dunes," by Joe Hinman


Hiroshi Teshigahara's  greatest work, Woman in the Dunes, circa 1964, is a brilliant film. I have seen it only one time, this summer just a few weeks ago was my first time and yet I include it among my very favorite films, maybe top 20 of my all-time list. It's themes are universal and existential, which usually makes for a great film. It's well shot, beautiful cinematography, well acted and though it seems like it would be tedious is compelling and I could not stop watching. It's filmed in Black and White and this one of those times when the b/w make for a powerful image rather than bland lack of color.

One of the dominate camera angles of the entire film
is the very tiny

Kôbô Abe (novel)
Kôbô Abe (screenplay)


  (Credited cast)
Eiji Okada... Entomologist Niki Jumpei
Kyôko Kishida... Woman
Hiroko Ito... Entomologist's wife (in flashbacks)
Kôji Mitsui

Sen Yano

Ginzô Sekiguchi

rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Kiyohiko Ichiha

Hideo Kanze

Hiroyuki Nishimoto

Tamotsu Tamura

See more »

Hiroshi Teshigahara (January 28, 1927 – April 14, 2001)

This film is often said to be the product of Toykyo cafe society existentialism as found on the Ginza  of the early 60s. I don't think we can pin it down that directly, but it definitely reflects what was in the air in that decade. By 1964 the Japanese society has srong ties to America and Europe. Even Kurosawa was well versed in Western art and thought before the war. Woman in the Dunes is about a man, despite the title,Entomologist Niki Jumpei, who goes to a desert region to find a rare insect he calls "the tiger beetle." Locals offer him a place to stay for the night as it is getting late. He gratefully accepts they take him to an area which pits and quick sand and its hard to walk. They take down into a pit where a small ramshackle house sits in the pit. The house is owned by a woman who has some mysterious job she doesn't explain that has to do with moving sand out of the pit. She shovels it and other draw it up in buckets on ropes, unseen men who are somewhere beyond outside the pit.

The next morning Niki gets ready to leave, thanks the woman, goes out and sees the rope ladder isn't there. He calls for the ladder but finds they will not lower it or even answer. After some time finally gets the drift, he is to stay there the rest of his life and help the woman shovel sand! Of cousre he's outraged and we go through a spell of his anger and refusal. But he falls back upon his own view of himself; he's a teacher, he's a rational man, he knows more than most people, it's an intellectual challenge but a bunch of rubes such as these can't keep him closed up in a pit! He is actaully arrogant and even to the point of telling the woman her own experiences, which he knows better than she herself.

He knows everything and corrects her on everything. He prays out of her the reason why she is shoveling sand. Her logic is convoluted and silly. Her reasoning really is circular and pointless, but it's still the landscape that defines the new reality. She is shoveling sand because if she doesn't shovel it the pit will cave in an bury the house. In fact her husband and child died in that way a year before. Why does she not leave? Because the village is her home, he's part of it, she belongs to it. Why not the whole village leave? No place to go. Most have already gone anyway, the village is dying and in an attempt to keep it going they have kidnapped many people. She tells him of others who have been there ten, fifteen, twenty years. Why not just let it die out, others left why don't they? It's their village, they have to save their village it's their home.
The woman also voices her own concerns that in the pit she is the homeowner and she has a valid place, in Tokyo (if she went back with him) she's a homeless stranger with no place to go dependent upon him. It is in this conversation that Niki is prompted to utter a phrase which signifies the film's existential theme: he says "are you shoveling sand t live, or living to shovel sand?" He goes on strike and refuses to shovel and even stop her form it. The pit almost caves in she tells him you have to do it every day or it will bury you. So he does give in and they work hard to catch up and keep shoveling. Thus is winds up shoveling to live and living to shovel.

Teshigahara employ's several cinematic techniques to communicate the profound nature of the subject matter. He begins from the credits with a disorienting establishing shot that shows sand particles on microscopic level so that they actually appear to be a landscape in a desert. Then he pulls away so that we can see they are small particles of sand in a land scape of a desert. He also focuses on the woman face and neck so close that the sand stuck her skin looks like rolling hills. Again the pulling away so that gradually we see where we are. He also focuses upon a drop of water in the same way, and in another shot to emphasize how much water means in such a place he fades from the scene to a splash of water in such a double exposure that it seems as though the drop is wetting the entire world around it. Thus there is this interspersion of the very tiny and the grandiose. We lose perspective. The tiny becomes the world, a world unto itself, the world around becomes a collection of the very tiny. This gives us teh feeling going into ourselves. This sense of the shrinking into the inner world, and the undifferentiated unity of all things, the tiny in the grandiose and the grandiose in the tiny will be very important in the over all film by the end.

Niki makes a successful escape. We see him saving little tools and bits of rope and al manner of things he needs to get out of the pit. But he is not able to calculated or provide for what happens outside. He escapes by making a crude grappling hook. From the roof of the house he pulls himself up the cliff wall having stuck the hook on something outside the pit. He then runs and he stays at large until dark. He accident runs around a corner in the hill side of some area he has never been to before (he has no real sense of there the village lies) he runs right into a woman. He is chased and is getting away but finds himself in quick sand. He's sinking up to his chest and has to call help or die. The peruses run out wearing sand shoes, like snow shoes only made from wooden plans lashed to their feet with rope or whatever. They pull him out and take him back. Over the course of the next few months Niki and the woman (never know her name). The two fall deeply in love. The make love a lot and (no porno scenes). The woman is pregnant but it turns out she has a problem. She is sick and a doctor comes and says that she may die the baby may die they both may die. They take her out.

After they take her off, and Niki just watches, they leave the rope ladder down. He stares at it for some time. They left it down. Do they actually want him to leave? Or were they just focused on the woman and forgot the ladder? He climbs to the top, and looks around. He walks a ways. He could leave. It's his chance, but he watches a bird fly and makes some observation about the bird is free form the ground but trapped in the sky or some such. He has his tiger beetle collection to maintain. He's got ties now and he also doesn't need to leave. He goes back into the pit. The last thing he thinks is "I'll escape some time." The view might think Teshigahara is saying something about giving up or developing ties that bind us into a way of life, but it's not really that. The guy has evolved not only through his love for the woman but also in coming to understand that he's free in himself. His observation about the bird he is in the pit but he's also in watching the bird he's in the sky it's all the same. He can appreciate the world as a whole but he can also appreciate the gran of sand in the pit and little beetle at his feet. It's all the same. Freedom is captivity and captivity is freedom. He's found enlightenment. He doesn't need escape, just being is an escape. That relates to the world of the tiny and it's similarity to the world of the large landscape, the realization that the tiny is a landscape of its' own. The focus from large to tiny brings us into disorientation then the realization that all is unified it's all one thing. It draws us into the inner world, the world of the mind which related to going tiny, going in.

The shoveling of sand  is often compared by reviewers to the Myth of the Sisyphus, the legendary Greek who was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill forever, when he gets to the top the rock falls down again. He's trapped in a meaningless endeavor forever. That myth has been expropriated by existentialists as their signature myth (ala Camus). The sand shoveling is likened unto the pushing of the rock, are you shoveling sand to live, or living to shovel sand? But there are differences. Unlike the myth of Sisyphus the sand shoveling relates to real life necessity not to some meaningless drudgery. Even though shoveling he sand is drudgery, it's meaningless relative to leaving, it's necessary if one is to live in the pit. The border implication puts it on a level of a commentary upon society. The useless nature of staying to resuscitate a dying village, kidnapping people to make them save a village it's own people are abandoning, raises a lot of questions about modern society and in that era of the 60s nothing was more cogent and timely. It's still not out of date, it's a universal theme which the individual must re visit again and again.