Kurosawa Diary, Part 30: Madadayo

And so I come to Akira Kurosawa’s last film, made five years before he died. When I watched Madadayo last night at the Pacific Film Archive, I completed my journey through all of Kurosawa’s works in (mostly) chronological order. That same screening also ended the PFA’s own, non-chronological retrospective of the same 30 films.

Madadayo never received a regular theatrical release in the United States. I saw it on DVD about 10 years ago. Last night was my second viewing of it, and my first theatrically.

A few days ago, I described Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, as “pleasant.” But compared to its successor, it’s more like King Lear (or Ran). Madadayo is so relentlessly  upbeat it seldom rises above the banal. The story (and that’s way too strong a word to describe what unfolds onscreen) concerns a beloved professor who retires early to pursue a writing career. He turns 60 not long after his retirement in 1943, and the movie ends on his 77th birthday. Despite being bombed out of his home, his life between these events are extraordinarily uneventful.

Much of the film involves social calls from former students, especially four madadayo particularly close ones who appear to devote their lives to their old professor’s happiness (his wife is equally devoted). They organize annual banquets in his honor. They buy undeveloped land adjoining his house to make sure that nothing blocks the sunlight. They take time off work to help him find his cat.

Yes, Madadayo is so bereft of conflict that it devotes a full half hour to a search for a missing cat. Everyone–local schoolchildren, shop owners, the cop on the beat—get involved with the search. After all, what could be more important than finding this old couple’s cat? And the whole cat sequence ends on an anti-climax.

When they aren’t looking for missing cats, the former students enjoy their old professor’s witty comments and his clever/cute ways of discouraging miscreants. These often are witty and clever, but they never justify the oversized belly laughs of the characters onscreen. Kurosawa seems obliged to tell the audience “This is really, really funny” when something is, in fact, only mildly amusing.

It’s easy to view Madadayo as being indirectly autobiographical. Kurosawa was an old artist, beloved by much of the world, when he made this movie about an old professor, beloved by his former students. (The film is based on the memoirs of professor-turned-author Hyakken Uchida.) The protagonist is a ripe 77 when the movie ends; this was the third film Kurosawa completed after turning that age.

One wants a great artistic career to end with a masterpiece, but they seldom do. Akira Kurosawa made an astonishing number of masterpieces and near-masterpieces in his 50 years of filmmaking. But he ended his career with a movie as bland as unseasoned white rice.

The Clay Remains Open

I just received the following press release from Landmark Theaters:

30 August, 2010 – Landmark Theatres announces that they have come to an agreement with the landlord of San Francisco’s Clay Theatre to remain open for the short term.   “We hope continuing operation at the Clay will give all interested parties the opportunity to pursue mutually beneficial remedies,” stated Ted Mundorff, CEO, Landmark Theatres.  “I want to thank Mr. Jaiswal, our landlord, for the amicable arrangement that we completed just two days prior to our otherwise expected last day of operation.  He went above and beyond and we are so pleased we could reach this resolution,” Mundorff further stated.

The current feature THE CONCERT is continuing its engagement at the Clay with daily showtimes.  Scheduled to open at the Clay on September 10 is the French drama MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON.  Landmark’s Clay Theatre is located at 2261 Fillmore Street at Clay in San Francisco.  Showtimes and information are available at (415)267-4893 and www.landmarktheatres.com.

Note: This post has been altered since it was first posted. The original Landmark press release contained an incorrect phone number.

PFA Coming Attractions

I’ve had the new September/October Pacific Film Archive schedule for a few days now. I’m finally getting around to telling you about it.

From my point of view, the most interesting series on the schedule is Shakespeare on Screen, running for the entire two months. It contains some obvious choices (Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, Olivier’s Henry V, Throne of Blood), and some oddball ones like Hamlet Goes Business and the very strange, Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I tend to think of the 1990’s (specifically 1989 through 1999) as the golden age of Shakespeare on film. Curiously, the only title they’re showing from that period is Baz Luhrmann’s gimmicky Romeo + Juliet—a casebook example of how not to set Shakespearean verse in a modern setting. Not being screened is Richard Loncraine’s Richard III—a perfect example of how to do it right.

Also coming up is Swoon: Great Leading Men in Gorgeous 35mm Prints. You can think of this as the flip side of the Castro’s current series, Blonde Bombshells. Here you can gaze at Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, William Holden in Picnic, Jean-Paul Belmondo in the original (and recently restored) Breathless, and the triple treat: Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity.

For Drawn from Life: The Graphic Novel on Film, the PFA screens movies based on comic books, graphic novels, and the people who create them. Not surprisingly, a lot of these movies were designed for large audiences, although they didn’t always find them. In addition to recent hits Hellboy and Sin City, and older hits like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, they’ve got the 1980 campy remake of Flash Gordon and Robert Altman’s bizarre flop Popeye, as well as the amazing biopic American Splendor.

If that sounds too commercial, they’ve also got Days of Glory: Revisiting Italian Neorealism, playing all the classics and a few obscurities (and running through December), Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Elegant Perversions: The Cinema of João César Monteiro. A two-night series, Behind the Scenes: The Art and Craft of Cinema will screen Akeelah and the Bee and Hud with filmmakers present. Special events include Yang Bang Xi: The Eight Model Works, Home Movie Day Screening, Safety Last, and the East Bay premiere of the new Metropolis restoration.

What’s Screening: August 27 – September 2

The Maya Indie Film Series, showcasing six Latino-themed films, runs this week (Friday through Thursday), at the Camera 7 Pruneyard theater.

Once again, I’m putting several Kurosawa films at the end of the schedule. If you’re getting sick of him, fear not. The centenary series are running out.

B- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Castro, Friday through Sunday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water. In this film, at least, Russell is funnier and sexier. The Castro will present a brand-new 35mm print, each day on a different Blonde Bombshell double bill. Here are the second features:

  • The Seven Year Itch: Billy Wilder’s first film with Marilyn Monroe is no Some Like It Hot, but it’s still a funny and observant look at the sex drives and fantasies of the 1950’s.
  • How to Marry a Millionaire: This lavish 1953 romantic comedy fails to be either romantic or funny. But as one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, it has considerable historical interest.
  • The Girl Can’t Help It: It’s been ages since I’ve seen this over-the-top satire of the entertainment industry. I remember enjoying it.

A- The Public Enemy, Castro, Thursday. Not quite the best of the early pre-code gangster epics (Scarface outdoes it), but the one with the best lead performance. James Cagney lights the screen on fire as a violent thug with a little (very little) bit of heart and—because he’s Cagney—the grace of a tiger. On a Blonde Bombshell double bill (the bombshell here is Jean Harlow) with The Burglar, which I’ve never seen nor heard of. [This paragraph has been altered to correct an error.]]

D Vertigo, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo?  Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.

Kurosawa Films at Different Venues

A Yojimbo, VIZ Cinema, Friday, Saturday, and Tuesday. A masterless samurai yojimbo(always the best for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of Viz’s series,Samurai Saga Vol.2: Kurosawa on Sword Battles.

A Sanjuro, VIZ Cinema, Friday, Sunday, and Monday. Yojimbo was such a huge hit that Kurosawa made a sequel. This time, Mifune’s masterless swordsman reluctantlysanjuro helps a group of naive young samurai clean up their clan. Of course, they insist on doing everything properly and honorably; without him, they wouldn’t last a minute. The result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. The climax involves one of the greatest, and most unique, swordfights in movie history. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of Viz’s series, Samurai Saga Vol.2: Kurosawa on Sword Battles.

A The Hidden Fortress, VIZ Cinema, Saturday through Thursday. Akira Kurosawa showed astonishing range within the samurai genre (as well as outside the genre). hiddenfortress_thumb[1]Seven Samurai is an epic drama with fully-developed characters and realistically unpredictable violence; Yojimbo is a black comedy; Throne of Blood is stylized Shakespeare. The Hidden Fortress is just plain fun–a rousing, suspenseful, and entertaining romp. It was also his first widescreen film, and contains two comic peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who were the inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of Viz’s series, Samurai Saga Vol.2: Kurosawa on Sword Battles.

A- Throne of Blood, VIZ Cinema, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday. Kurosawathroneblood stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth.Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Another part of Viz’s series, Samurai Saga Vol.2: Kurosawa on Sword Battles.

D Dreams, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:30. Anthology films—features that tell multiple stories one after the other—usually suffer from inconsistencies. Good dreamssections are balanced with bad ones. In Dreams, however, the bad far outweigh the good. The worst “dreams” are truly wretched, while the best are merely pretty good. All eight vignettes are allegedly based on Akira Kurosawa’s own dreams, but real dreams are seldom preachy. Most of these didactic little sketches tell you exactly what you should think and feel about the subject at hand—usually about humanity’s relationship with nature. That’s an important subject, but preaching doesn’t help. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. One of the last screenings in the PFA’s summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 29: Rhapsody in August

Little actually happens in Akira Kurosawa’s 29th and penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, and nothing really bad. Something horrendous happened 45 years earlier (the atom bombing of Nagasaki), but that’s ancient history. It’s time for Japan and America to forgive and, if not forget, then to honor the memory together. Six years after the devastatingly pessimistic Ran, Kurosawa made an optimistic movie that can best be described as “pleasant.”

I first saw Rhapsody during it’s American first run. I saw it for the second time last night at the Pacific Film Archive. Yes, this was another screening in the PFA’s Akira Kurosawa Centennial series, and part of my personal project of watching all of his films in chronological order.

Rhapsody came out in 1991. That’s significant because his previous film, Dreams, came out in 1990. The last time Kurosawa released new films in consecutive years (a once common occurrence)  had been Sanjuro and High and Low in 1962/63.

Perhaps he got this one done quickly because his modest intentions made it easier to finance and shoot the picture. It’s a chamber piece, set in the present day, with a small cast and few settings. The photography—so beautiful in his last four films—here seldom rises above functional. The picture runs only 98 minutes—extremely short for Kurosawa.

But modest intentions bring modest results. Rhapsody in August is a fine motion rhapsodyaugust picture that does everything Kurosawa probably wanted it to do. It makes its points about familial love, healing, forgiveness, and the horrors of war without ever feeling didactic. Watching it is a sweet and enjoyable experience. But no one should mistake it for a masterpiece.

The story focuses on four teenagers—all siblings and first cousins—spending the summer with their grandmother in her rural home near Nagasaki. Long ago, her husband (the kids’ grandfather) had been incinerated in the blast. The kids’ parents are in Hawaii, visiting a uncle who immigrated long ago, made a fortune in the pineapple business, married a Caucasian, and became an American.

The first half simply observes the teenagers and their loving-but-teasing relationships with each other and their grandmother. It includes a tour of important Nagasaki sites—a way to introduce us to a modern city with memorials to one horrific event within living memory.

In the second half, the parents return, bringing generational conflict with them. Their interest in long-lost relatives are mercenary—they hope the connection will lead to better jobs. And they’re terrified of offending their American cousins with any reminder of the war and especially the atom bomb. These attitudes offend both the teenagers and the grandmother.

The parents come as close to villains as does anyone in Rhapsody, which means they’re not villains, at all. They learn from and apologize for their mistakes. One thing I noticed on this second viewing: The parents are dressed in formal business attire when we meet them. They dress more casually as the story progresses, until they end up in tee-shirts and jeans like their kids.

Near the end, the Hawaiian uncle’s half-white son turns up for a visit. He’s played by Richard Gere—the only time Kurosawa ever used an American movie star (if you don’t count Martin Scorsese in Dreams). The make-up department did little or nothing to make Gere look half-Japanese. I think I noticed the slightest alternation in the shape of his eyes. But even in close-ups, and with me in the second row, I can’t be certain. He certainly looked whiter than any of the half-white/half-Asian people I’ve known.

His character, of course, is a very nice guy. Everyone in this movie is very nice.

In his classic period, Kurosawa showed us a world full of cruelty and indifference, and celebrated those who fought it with kindness and charity. In later works, especially Ran, the world is just as bad, but kindness and charity no longer help. But in Rhapsody, bad things happened long ago, but kindness and charity are bringing us together.

Maybe he was getting optimistic in his old age. Or maybe just senile. But at the age of 81, he could still make a good movie.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 28: Dreams

Warner Brothers called this film Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams when they released it in 1990. The name is appropriate, and not only because Kurosawa wrote and directed the film. The eight vignettes that make up his only anthology feature are, allegedly, based on Kurosawa’s own dreams.

I was recovering from a herniated disc, and under doctor’s orders to avoid sitting, throughout Dreams’ short theatrical run in 1990. I therefore first saw it on Laserdisc, soon after its video release. I watched it for the second time, on a rented DVD, last night as part of my project to watch all of Kurosawa’s films in the order they were made. I’ve never seen it theatrically.

Anthology films—features that lack a narrative drive and tell multiple stories one after the other—usually suffer from inconsistencies. Some sections may be good, and some bad. In Dreams, however, the bad far outweigh the good. I mean that in two ways: It contains more bad sequences than good ones, and while the worst parts are truly wretched, the best are merely pretty good.

It starts with a pretty good one, “Sunshine Through the Rain,” about a boy who sneaks into the woods and watches a fox wedding—something forbidden to humans. Hedreams then must face the consequences. But the story cuts off way too soon, like a movie with the last two reels missing. The best sequence, “Mount Fuji in Red,” starts like a Godzilla movie, with terrified crowds fleeing special effects. A nuclear power plant has exploded, and all of Japan will soon die of radiation poisoning. A businessman, a mother clinging to her child, and the young-man Kurosawa alter ego who’s basically the film’s star discuss what to do as death approaches.

The remaining six stories range from the agonizingly boring to the annoyingly preachy to the unintentionally funny. Leading that last category is “Crows.” The sight and sound of Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, complete with red wig and beard, but speaking English in his own New York accent, deserves the Mystery Science Theater treatment.

I said earlier that these films are “allegedly” based on Kurosawa’s dreams. Dreams can be a lot of things, but they’re seldom preachy. Most of the stories here are didactic little message pictures that tell you exactly what you should think and feel about the subject at hand. With one exception (the anti-war “The Tunnel”), they all examine humanity’s relationship with nature. That’s an important subject, but preaching doesn’t help.

This was the first film since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail that Kurosawa wrote and directed all by himself. He was one of several screenwriters on each of the 23 films made in-between, which include all of his masterpieces. Maybe he needed other people’s contributions at that early stage to avoid his worst excesses.

One thing Dreams has going for it: Like the three films that preceded it, it’s visually beautiful. Takao Saitô’s and Shôji Ueda’s photography, much of it of an enhanced version of the natural world, is just stunning to look at. And it’s complimented by Industrial Light and Magic’s special effects, done at the height of that company’s pre-digital golden age.

But all that beauty is at the service of an uneven, preachy film.

The Death of the Clay

My posts have been very Kurosawa, lately. That’s understandable as my Kurosawa Diary and the Pacific Film Archive’s Akira Kurosawa Centennial series come simultaneously to an end. But I figured I needed to write something about the death of Landmark’s Clay Theatre.

In case you haven’t heard, the Clay, which may be the only remaining single-screenclay_sm[1] theater in the Landmark chain, goes dark on Sunday, and will probably never light up again. The San Francisco Film Society offered to take over the Clay’s lease or buy the building, but landlord Balgobind Jaiswal isn’t interested. See Meredith May’s article in the Chronicle for details.

The Film Society’s interest is obvious. The Clay is located a short (but steep) walk from the Kabuki, and is used heavily for the San Francisco International Film Festival (or was used, I should say).

To make things all the sadder, the Clay marks its 100th birthday this year. It opened as a nickelodeon in 1910, and has been showing movies ever since.

I have to admit that it was never a favorite of mine. Although I went to an awful lot of movies during the two years I lived in San Francisco (1977-78), I have no memory of visiting the Clay. Afterwards, I crossed the Bay once to see Live of Brian there; I don’t remember why I didn’t see it someplace closer. With all the spring days I’ve spent at the San Francisco International Film Festival over the past few years, the only event I attended at the Clay was Kevin Kelly’s State of Cinema Address in 2008.

Still, we’re losing a piece of local movie-going history. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

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