Monday 27 June 2016

The Cranes are Flying (Letjat Zhuravli) (1957)

Tranerne flyver forbi
When I think of Soviet films the image I get is of technically adept films marred by a heavy dose of propaganda. Movies intended to bolster the moral of the local population with the grace of a bulldozer. With that in mind “Letyat zhuravli” or “ The Cranes are Flying” is a very positive surprise.

Yes, it is a technically adept film. In fact the best reason to watch this movie is to enjoy the very mobile camera and the interesting photography done here. This is not, as my late friend Chip would call it, shaky-cam, but filming with a presence as if we are really there. For 1957 this is very advanced, if not revolutionary. 

However the surprise lies in the story and the picture it paints of Soviet life during the war. Instead of heroic working class heroes fighting and winning over German vermin we watch the suffering of the individuals left behind at home. Note the use of “individuals” rather than the collective. They are families reluctant to send their sons to war, there is relocation to Siberia and corrupt apparatchiks using their influence to protect the privileged for money and favors. And the heroes in the war just dies totally random and not very heroic deaths, stray bullets in a swamp, trying to get away from the fighting. This is certainly not what I expected, but it is most definitely far closer to reality than most of what the Soviet public was fed with at the time.

I also found it curious that the family we follow is a doctor’s family belonging to the upper middle class. This most reviled class in the communist narrative is here pictured as essential and necessary and just as much a part of the suffering and ultimate victory in the war. Okay, they are not factory owners or hardcore capitalist, but they live a privileged life with a Steinway piano in a beautiful home and yet the Soviet audience will see them as a member of their reality.

All this is most interesting in its own right, but also from a modern perspective does this movie have something to offer us. The characters, in particularly Veronica (Tatiana Samoilova), the lead character, goes through an unusual story arc. From a largely irresponsible and dreamy character pre-war she has to go through a transition imposed by brutal reality. How that transition acts out is to give the movie away, but where a normal arc would make her grow up and become responsible she first dives into self-loathing, then grasps for feeble hope only to be dashed by reality. This is not a happy ending movie and you would not see this type of movie come out of Hollywood in the fifties and still there is an odd satisfaction in the way it turns out. Veronica does not grow tough, rather the opposite, but she carries the cross of those who lost in the war and that is beautiful.

“The Cranes are Flying” won Palme D’or in 1958 and I understand why. These are exactly the qualities that work in Cannes. It was also one of the rare movies to be widely circulated outside of the Soviet Union and that is an achievement in its own right considering the McCarthy era politics.

If I should point at a negative then I think it is a shame that the acting qualities aside from Ms. Samoilova are not up to the quality of the filming and the plot. That and a probably insufficient script means that the movie at time feels forced and acted, which is totally at odds with the very realism of the filming. But that is nit-picking on an otherwise excellent movie.

I am happy that Soviet film moved on from poor transition to talkies (I am looking at you, Eisenstein) and have hopes that future Russian entries on the List can live up to this standard.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Mother India (Bharat Mata) (1957)

Bharat Mata
Oh My God!



I have been of half a mind to leave it at that, but I suppose I should expand a bit.

Bollywood and I are just completely incompatible. Ray’s movies, reviewed earlier, are at least using the familiar neorealist style. This, “Mother India”, however is totally Bollywood. All the way through. Both the book and Wikipedia praise this movie for being one of the most loved movies to come out of India and that just leaves me flabbergasted. I knew I was far away from India, but I had no idea it was this far.

I have been trying hard to find something positive to say about this movie. It is always nice to say something positive and I think… I like the colors. Yeah, they are real pretty, but that is also about it.

The story played out here is at the same time very simple and yet totally confusing. A woman, Radha (Nagis) is getting married to a jolly man, Shamu (Raaj Kumar), but is also in debt to a moneylender named Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal). The family is getting lots of children, but a series of disasters are ruining them, crippling the husband and killing off half the children. Jump in time and the remaining children are grown up. Birju (Sunil Dutt) is the bad boy teasing the girls and rebelling on the state of affairs and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) is the good boy. Sukhilala is still terrorizing the familily, something about that he actually want to marry Radha, but she does not want him and so her family must pay, or something like that. Eventually Birju goes after Sukhilala and becomes a bandit.

Frankly I am interpolating, because at any given time I had no idea what was actually happening. Partly because the movie works in its own Indian universe and partly because the ongoing football championship is a lot more interesting and I am perhaps too easily distracted. Yet it seems to me there were some very odd jumps as if parts have been cut out from the movie.

There is a lot of tragedy and hardship in this movie, but it is all acted out with such exaggeration that it was often more comical than actually tragic. The scene where Shamu loses his arms is a good example or watching Radha being the oxen to draw the plow is just so over the top melodramatic. Shukilala is supposed to be the big villain cheating and oppressing the entire village, but he is a laughable character and I wonder if his role was more as comical relief then as the bad guy. It is also rather mindboggling that in a so densely populated country this village can be so isolated that Shukilala can hold generations of villagers in an iron grip. It would take a mediocre lawyer about five minutes to unravel his entire business.

I would like to be engaged an moved by the fate of these people as I actually did in Ray’s movies, but the overacting and incredulous plot just leaves me cold and bored. 2 hours and 45 minutes is a very long time to be bored. Luckily the movie is seeded with 4-5 minutes of singing and dancing every 15 minutes or so. Not that I really cared about those, but I could put the volume low and watch some football or read some news for a few minutes until the song was over. I would not say that I hate this type of music and obviously some people really like it, I just find it mildly irritating and odd.

The conclusion of course is that this kind of movie is just not for me. I have watched Chinese, Japanese and weird eastern European movies and usually gotten something out of them (so far Brazilian movies have note really worked out, I am thinking of “Limité”), but I knew Bollywood is not my thing and, well, I just got it confirmed.

Wednesday 8 June 2016

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Broen over floden Kwai
I think the DVD box of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” has been standing on my shelf for about five years, waiting patiently for me to arrive at 1957. Uh, I have been looking at it often, wondering if I should watch it, just for old time’s sake, ahead of schedule, but I have resisted the temptation, knowing that the reward is so much sweeter.

And finally the day arrived when I could take off the plastic cover and savor the pleasure it is to watch this master piece. Oh, I have enjoyed every second!

This is not the first time I watch “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, not at all. I must have seen it about a handful of times over the years, but upon watching it again I realize that it must have been quite a long time ago. It actually surprised me how superior this movie is on almost every parameter. In that light this review could very easily be a checklist of all the reasons I love this movie and that is frankly a bit boring. Besides I think most readers will know this movie and agree with me of its qualities. Instead I would like to focus on some of the interesting themes it brings up.

At the core of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a discussion of war, honor and humanity. Not surprisingly, really. Those themes tend to pop up in this sort of movies. But rarely is the discussion as interesting as here. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is old school British army. Honor and self-respect is core to his thinking, both for himself and his outfit. When he and his unit is taken prisoners by the Japanese his objective is to remain a soldier and for his me to remain a military unit and not a prisoner or a slave. He refuses to cave in to Japanese pressure, not by refusing the forced labor they are imposing on his outfit, but by refusing to be considered a prisoner. The project, in this case a bridge, becomes a tool to keep his unit and himself above the swamp of human degradation. That he is actually helping the enemy is to Nicholson entirely beside the point.

Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the commander of the prison camp is just as much a man of honor, but in many ways a very different kind of honor. To him (and his) being taken prisoner is the ultimate dishonor and therefore his prisoners should be ashamed and not proud. He is baffled by the British reaction and struggles to deal with it.  In fact his honor depends on his ability to assert his supremacy on his prisoners. His position is further compromised by the fact that he needs the prisoners. On paper he may have won a victory when the prisoners build him a magnificent bridge (I think it is no coincidence that it resembles the Forth Bridge in Scotland), but to Saito it is a personal humiliation that the bridge was built on his prisoner’s terms rather than his own. His humiliation is clearly demonstrated when he cuts off his samurai knot prior to the opening of the bridge.

While these two “fossils” are defining themselves through their honor we get two radically different points of view in commander Shears (William Holden) and the doctor Major Clipton (James Donald). In the eyes of Nicholson and Saito Shears has no honor. His objective is to keep himself alive and get out of the war with the secondary objective to get laid as often as possible. He does not care what people think of him and do not mind degrading himself. Yet on a personal level he has as much integrity as Nicholson, it is just not the military sort. He sees people, not soldiers and in this sense he represents the “modern” view as the old codes seem to take off in very bizarre directions. As a viewer we may far easier associate with Shears, yet it is difficult not to respect Nicholson and Saito.

And Clipton, he is the voice of reason and sanity and the one that reminds us that all these honor games get people killed, but then, as Nicholson keeps reminding him, he has lot to learn about the military.

The genius of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is that it all makes sense. We understand and respects all these points of view and yet in the end all it does is getting everybody killed. So, the movie manages to be both a great war film and a great antiwar film, demonstrating both the sense and the senselessness of war.   

And in between we get beautifully shot pictures, sublime suspense, terrific action and some of the most memorable acting achievements of the era. I think nobody who has watched the movie will ever forget Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson. No matter his roles before or after, and there are many, this will forever be his defining role. A younger generation may think that Colonel Nicholson sounds like Obi Wan Kenobi, but that is not the case. Obi Wan Kenobi sounds like Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson.

I still have a lot of extra material to get through, but that I will bring along for a long flight on Thursday. That will serve to extend the joy of this masterpiece. Maybe I will also do some whistling…

Wednesday 1 June 2016

The Unvanquished (Aparajito) (1957)

I am back from my voyage to the other side of the world and that means it is again time to write some movie reviews. I brought with me the Indian movie “Aparajito” and except for some plane movies that was what I managed to watch. That is a good thing really because it meant I had a good and eventful trip.

It is no secret that I have a troubled relationship with India. I do not understand that country and I understand the people less. Something that makes watching Indian movies in general rather confusing. However when Satyajit Ray made the Apu trilogy of which “Aparajito” is the second he employed the European Neorealist style rather that the traditional Indian ones and thereby opened the movie for westerners like me. It certainly helps, but there is still a lot to baffle the viewer here.

“Aparajito” takes up the story where “Pather Panchali” left it. The little family, Apu and his parents, has moved to a big city and are getting along decently well when Apu’s father dies. As the breadwinner, Apu’s father was pretty important for the family who must now move back to the countryside again. In the village Apu discovers a school and with the help his mother he enrolls. Fast forward a few years and we see that Apu is doing extraordinarily well in school. He is granted a scholarship and moves to the big city to further his study. This is particularly hard on Apu’s mother who finds herself entirely alone. Daughter and husband has died and the son is studying in a faraway city so now she is rusting away in loneliness, something you apparently can die from eventually, which is exactly what happens to Apu’s mother.

So, yeah, a continuation of the misery from the first movie.

Technically “Aparajito” appears to be a big step up from the first movie. Scene composition, lighting, cutting and even the acting is sharper now. Where “Pather Panchali” would often feel incredibly slow “Aparajito” keeps a much better pace helping me to stay interested. Mind you it is still a slow movie where very little is played out for dramatic effect, just sort of a portrait of everyday events that add up to the personal tragedy these people are experiencing. In a sense that is both the best and worst of Italian neorealism and “Aparajito” crosses that line where I get personally invested in these people, for better and worse (Italian movies of this era can generally be grouped into two groups, the good ones where I do get invested and the poorer ones where I do not).

There is that sense of realism here that makes this a window into real lives and not the staged ones it is obviously portraying. I always find that interesting and thank heavens there are no divine intervention or group dancing here. The flipside however is that reality was and is in India dismal and in my eyes weird. On a personal level I do not get these people’s motivations and their actions are often strange. That is the cultural overlay and involve religious elements and traditions and are very far away from my reality. When the movie manages to get below that layer into basic human emotions it does a much better job at engaging me and there are parts there that are really good.

I doubt that a movie about a guy who loses his parents to sickness and poverty is a movie I would take out for easy entertainment. Maybe my motivation should be to get subdued and reminded why I do not want to go to India and I do not really need a movie for that. Having said that this is not a bad movie. A punch in the stomach, yes, but a well-crafted example of neo-realism.