A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

Truth tells the story of a disastrous hoax

B Recent historical drama

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning it into a scandal about the press attacking the president, giving Bush the boost he needed for re-election. It also destroyed several careers, including that of the biggest and most respected news anchor of the time, Dan Rather.

Writer/director James Vanderbilt uses this story to give us a slick, entertaining, and educational movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. The picture is well-made, but unexceptional. It has one very big casting flaw. But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

That story is told through the eyes of Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett. And as we’ve come to expect, Blanchett is wonderful. Whether she’s struggling, enjoying her very satisfying work, or throwing biting sarcasm, she hits every note perfectly. I don’t know what the real Mary Mapes looks like, and I don’t care. Cate Blanchett looks and acts absolutely right for the Mary Mapes of this movie.

Not so with Robert Redford as Dan Rather. If you grew up watching broadcast TV news, you know what Dan Rather looks like. And he doesn’t look at all like Robert Redford–even today’s elderly Robert Redford. I did not believe for a moment that Redford was Dan Rather.

The film indulges in some very heavy sentimentality on the evening of Rather’s last broadcast. After he signs out and the broadcast is over, the movie actually switches to slow motion as his loyal staff cheers him on and the music swells.

Despite such silly touches, the film sticks reasonably close to the original facts–at least as I remember them. Mapes led a team to research rumors that Bush had shirked his Vietnam-era military duty. Using family connections, the future president got into the Texas National Guard to avoid going into actual combat–all the while publically supporting the war. But a lot of evidence, arguably incidental, suggested that Bush shirked even that light responsibility; he even went AWOL for months and was never punished for it. Keep in mind that Republicans were building Bush up as a war hero, while attacking the military record of his opponent, John Kerry, who had actually served in combat and was awarded several medals.

While researching these allegations, Mape found what appeared to be the smoking gun: two memos from Bush’s superior, complaining about his behavior. Almost immediately after the report was aired, evidence turned up proving that the memos were forged. Bush’s behavior ceased being the story and everyone was attacking CBS. To this day, we don’t know who forged those memos.

The last section of the film has Mape trying to justify her work to a panel of lawyers that behave like a kangaroo court. She has to make a choice between justifying her actions and holding onto her job. The movie clearly wants us to hope that she’ll succeed in both.

But here’s the problem: Although I am in complete agreement with Mape’s politics, and I believe that Bush’s behavior should have been an issue, I can’t help feeling that both Mapes and Rather should have been fired for this error. They put out a big story based on very faulty evidence. They didn’t know where their source got the memos. They only had copies, which made it impossible to test their age. The text was in a proportional font–possible but very unlikely for a typed memo before the computer age.

The film catches the look of 2004 very well, and it’s amazing how much things have changed in the last 11 years. The computers in this film all have CRT monitors, and most of the TVs are 4×3 standard definition. A few people have wide-screen TVs, and they’re all set wrong–cropping or spreading the old-shaped image to fit the new-shaped TV. Most people with widescreen TVs back then didn’t know how to set them up properly.

Truth reminds us of an important part of recent history, shows how network TV worked in the recent past, and does it all entertainingly. Despite some serious flaws, it’s well worth catching.

Searching for the root of all evil: My review of Experimenter

A- Biopic

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda

Why do so many people do what they’re told, even when the orders given to them are manifestly immoral? That’s what social phycologist Stanley Milgram set out to discover in the early 1960s. His testing methods were controversial, but his results could not be ignored. Michael Almereyda’s engaging biopic uses realism and whimsical expressionism to bring us into these tests, show us how they were done, and reveal how their resulting notoriety effected the rest of his life.

Even if you don’t recognize Milgram’s name, you’ve probably heard about his experiments. Under the ruse of testing how punishment effects learning, Milgram and his assistants would have one person “punish” another with increasingly greater electric shocks. The “victim” was in on the ruse, and would scream in agony while remaining perfectly comfortable. The real idea was to see how many people would continue to torture a fellow human because an authority figure insisted on it.

Most people continued to torture.

The test results became controversial as soon as they were published. Many objected to what Milgram put his subjects through, making them believe that they were hurting someone. Milgram wrote a book on the subject and continued as a college professor, but his academic career was hurt by the controversy.

I don’t know enough about Milgram to have an opinion on the debate, but Almereyda unquestionably takes Milgram’s side. He tells us cinematically that no one was hurt, and that the people who thought they were torturers were let down as easily as possible.

Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) was an American Jew, working under the shadow of the then-recent Holocaust. The big question–why did so many people follow such horrible orders–was a big one at the time. The Holocaust, and Milgram’s ethnicity (there’s no hint that he’s in any way religious) come up again and again in the story.

While the film concentrates on his career, it spends time on his private life. Winona Ryder plays the love of his life, and it’s wonderful to see her again after all these years. She plays the conventional loving and supporting wife, but with an intelligence that suggests that she understands her husband’s work and easily becomes part of it.

Almereyda takes some unusual directions in telling Milgram’s story. Sarsgaard narrates the story as Milgram, addressing the camera directly ala Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Twice, he narrates while walking through a college hallway, with an elephant inexplicitly following him. (Why? Your guess is as good as mine.) A few scenes are set against obviously, and I have to assume intentionally, fake backdrops.

Almost all of the characters in the film are actual people, and they seldom looked like the men and women they were playing. This was only a problem in a couple of scenes involving famous celebrities. Tom Bateman does not look like Dick Cavett, and Kellan Lutz most definitely does not match William Shatner. The short scenes with them felt jarring.

Which is too bad, because the scene with Shatner (and Dennis Haysbert as Ossie Davis) was the funniest in the film. Here Milgram, working as a paid but powerless consultant, has to watch the creation of a very bad TV movie loosely based on his work.

I’m so glad we now have a good movie on the subject.

Pride, decency, nationalism, and the Bridge of Spies (also the Mill Valley Film Festival screening in Corte Madera)

A- Espionage drama

Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Two superpowers, each hating and fearing the other as a military and ideological enemy, face each other off. Neither wants to back down. Neither wants to give an inch. But both know full well that if their cold war ever got hot, it would be the end of both of them–and probably the end of civilization.

Such is the setting of Steven Spielberg’s complex and cerebral espionage drama, Bridge of Spies. Note that I said drama, not thriller. There’s very little conventional suspense or action in this picture. The film concentrates on court rooms and international negotiations. Some minor characters face imprisonment or execution, but the protagonist is only briefly in danger.

That protagonist is a New York lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). As the film begins in 1957, he’s asked to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He’s not particularly happy about defending a “commie,” but he realizes that everyone deserves a fair trial. In fact, he seems to be the only person in America who realizes that.

Rylance, Spielberg, and his screenwriters (who include the Coen Brothers) turn this spy into a very nice, and even admirable guy. Quiet, self-effacing, and resigned, he spends his time painting cityscapes and self-portraits. When arrested, he refuses to become a turncoat and help the American government–the exact response we’d hope to get from an American spy. Donovan respects Abel’s courage and the two begin an uneasy friendship.

But the film isn’t really about Abel’s trial, or even about the way that trial turns Donovan into one of the most hated men in America. The bulk of the story concerns Donovan’s trip to Berlin in the early 1960s to arrange a spy swap: Abel for Gary Powers–an American spy-plane pilot whose plane was shot down by the Russians.

Meanwhile, the East Germans are holding an American student, and Donovan decides to free him, as well. The East Germans have their own agenda–they want to be seen in the West as a real country, not a Russian puppet.

A handful of scenes are in German. Unfortunately, those scenes lack subtitles. I don’t know why. I’m hoping it was a problem with the pre-release DCP.

A title card at the very beginning tells us that the picture is “inspired by a true story.” I don’t know how much of it is truth, and how much is inspiration, but I like that word inspired. Too many narrative films based on actual events claim that they stick close to the facts. Sometimes they even do what they claim, which usually results in a bad movie.

Bridge of Spies takes you into the early Mad Men era, but without the glamourous clothes. It captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. much of it is dark and unsettling, especially in Berlin.

Tom Hanks plays his patented decent American guy (yeah, I know, James Steward actually owns the patent). His Donovan appears to be a reasonably good lawyer who turns, through experience, into a great negotiator. But he has little faith in his own abilities. In his own eyes, he’s a lost American with no overcoat and a bad cold, stumbling in the dark as he faces more skilled adversaries. Hanks doesn’t give us a great performance, but he gives us everything we need, including a star that we’re used to rooting for.

For most of the film, Spielberg avoids the smooth camera movements, the Spielberg Face, and the other tricks that tend to drown many of his films in sentimentality. But when Donovan comes home to his loving family, the sentimentality is laid on thick. There’s even an absurdly convenient TV news broadcast. The movie would have ended much better if it had ended ten minutes sooner. (Maybe five minutes sooner, but it felt like ten.)

I saw the film Tuesday at a Mill Valley Film Festival screening at the Corte Madera Century Cinema. None of the filmmakers were in attendance, and there was no Q&A.

The Corte Madera is a rarity in today’s world: A single-screen first-run theater. But that single screen is one of the best in the Bay Area–huge and curved and perfect for immersive cinema. Amongst the films I saw there in first run were The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home–all in 70mm. (Bridge of Spies isn’t particularly immersive, and didn’t really need that screen.)

A+ List: Grand Illusion (and Hoop Dreams)

Most movies are forgotten five years after their release. The masterpieces last decades. And so I continue with my survey of my all-time favorite films–my A+ list.

I’ve written about many of these films extensively in the past, and I don’t feel a need to write about them again. So if you want to know why I consider Hoop Dreams a masterpiece, you can read my Blu-ray review.

With that out of the way, let’s get down to the major subject of the day:

Grand Illusion

Early in Jean Renoir’s 1937 POW tale, a German officer announces that he just shot down a plane. He orders an underling to find and a capture the French crew, and “If they’re officers, invite them to lunch.” Odd for what is essentially an anti-war film, Grand Illusion looks back at World War I as something of a gentleman’s game. In the two prisoner-of-war camps where most of the film is set, basic decency prevails. Soldiers are soldiers, officers are officers, and aristocrats are aristocrats–no matter what side of the barbed wire they’re on.

But then, Grand Illusion is not really about war. It’s about the way that human beings separate themselves into nationalities, classes, and ethnicities. These illusionary differences inevitably lead to bigotry, suffering, and worst of all, war. Renoir doesn’t show us that war is hell–that’s a given. But he shows us the common humanity on both sides of national and class divisions. Perhaps, if we could all remember that humanity, we could prevent the next war.

Grand Illusion has no villains. The German guards may occasionally be stern, but never excessively cruel. At times the guards go out of their way to be kind to their charges.

Two characters represent the aristocracy–the French Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and the German Rauffenstein (Stroheim). At some point between treating his prisoners to lunch and his reappearance much later in the film, Rauffenstein suffered a serious-enough wound to take him out of the front lines. For this military romantic, his new position commanding a POW camp is a fate worse than death. When Boeldieu is transferred to the camp, Rauffenstein befriends him. The fellow Germans under his command aren’t worth his companionship, but an aristocratic enemy is a gift from heaven.

Stroheim turns Rauffenstein into a tragic figure. His identity is completely wrapped up in his status as an aristocrat. But he knows that the days of Europe’s aristocracy are numbered, and that he would soon be an anachronism. By contrast, the French Boeldieu carries his aristocratic status lightly, and doesn’t see himself as anything special.

The top billing, of course, goes to the movie star, Jean Gabin. His Lieutenant Maréchal seems to be of lower-middle class origin. He’s a decent fellow, and a ladies man (hey, he’s Jean Gabin). But he carries the casual bigotries of his upbringing, and will have to overcome them.

Most of those casual bigotries aim at Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). His family of bankers has more money than any of the aristocrats, but they gain no respect from that. Their money isn’t old. And worse, they’re Jews. Rosenthal receives wonderful care packages from his family, and he takes great pains to share them with the other prisoners. But that doesn’t protect him from their thoughtless insults.

But when Maréchal plans the daring escape that dominates the film’s final section, he chooses Rosenthal as his companion. It’s also in this late section that Maréchal has a romance with a German woman played by Dita Parlo. Love knows no borders, but borders can interfere with love.

Grand Illusion is the earliest talkie I know of that absolutely demands subtitles–no matter what’s your native language. It’s a French film, and most of the dialog is in French. But there’s quite a bit of German, and some English and Russian. Rauffenstein and Boeldieu often speak to each other in English, presumably because they can. Or perhaps because Stroheim, after nearly 30 years in the USA, now spoke German with an American accent.

The message of Grand Illusion didn’t reach anybody, and certainly not the people who really needed it. Two years and two months after the film’s release, France and Germany were at war again–in a conflict far more deadly than World War I. It would be years before anyone could again accept a movie where a German prison guard behaves like a decent human being.

Four nights at the movies: The Crowd, Preston Sturges, a Teenage Girl, & 2 Noirs

I managed to see four feature films theatrically in the last four nights–plus another on television.

Sunday: The Crowd

My wife and I, along with another couple, went to the Castro to see one of the greatest silent films ever made, and arguably the most difficult American masterpiece to see, King Vidor’s The Crowd. I’ve already written about the movie, so I’ll stick to the presentation.

This was something of a special event–the last silent film to be accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that has graced both silent films and before-the-movie concerts at the Castro for over 30 years. The Castro never owned the organ, and the owners are finding it more and more difficult to maintain. The Silent Film Festival hasn’t used it in years because of technical problems. The theater is raising money to replace it with what is being claimed as “the largest hybrid (pipe/digital) organ in the world.”

Unfortunately, this last hurrah for the old organ was disappointing–despite the great cinema up on the screen. Bruce Loeb’s improvised score felt off, often ignoring the actions and emotions on screen. Even obvious music cues, such as a close-up of a phonograph about to be put on the turntable, didn’t affect what Loeb was playing.

Monday: Christmas in July

My wife and I stayed home Monday night, and we watched the one movie I always wanted to screen on a double bill with The Crowd: Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July.

What does a talk-heavy comedy have to do with a silent drama? A lot. They’re both set in New York. Both protagonists have lower-level white-collar jobs adding numbers in a large office filled with similar employees. And each dreams of breakthrough success via advertising slogan contests.

Of course the big difference is that Christmas in July is funny. The hapless hero of a loser (Dick Powell) thinks he’s won a slogan contest with a “funny” catchphrase that other people just find bewildering. So he goes on a generous spending spree that’s headed to disaster. The ending is utterly and completely absurd–and hilarious. I give it a B+.

Just remember: If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee. It’s the bunk.

Tuesday: Diary of a Teenage Girl

The next night, we went to the Shattuck to catch Diary of a Teenage Girl–the only new film we’ve seen this week. In fact, it’s the only film we saw this week that was made before after 1950.

We both loved it.

Minnie (Bel Powley in an amazing breakthrough performance) isn’t just any teenage girl. She’s the daughter of a irresponsible hippie mother in 1977 San Francisco–and when we first meet her, she’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. She’s also an inspiring cartoonist (the film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and the images often burst into underground-comic-style animation). The movie follows her early sexual experimentations, mostly with the morally weak, age-inappropriate man who should be loyal to her mother. The film captures San Francisco in the late 70s flawlessly (I was there). But even better, it captures the rocky emotions of a young woman bursting with hormones and not sure what to do with them.

I give it an A.

At least when we saw it, the Shattuck was running Diary of a Teenage Girl in one of their tiny, hole-in-the-wall auditoriums. I hate these. The tiny screens are bad enough, but the very wide aisle down the middle of the theater makes it worse. There’s nowhere you can sit that isn’t very far off to the side.

Wednesday: I Wake Up Dreaming

The I Wake Up Dreaming film noir series moves to Berkeley this month. Every Wednesday in September, The California Theater will screen two classic or obscure noirs–mostly obscure.

That’s the good news. The bad: The $15 ticket price is high, and there are no discount prices. The other bad news: The films are being screened digitally, and I don’t think any of them will be off DCP. Some of the films will be projected off of Blu-ray, which is reasonably acceptable. Most, I suspect–including the two I saw Wednesday night–will be off of DVDs.

If you’re curious, there’s an easy way to tell if a film will be screened off a Blu-ray. Google the title, the year or star, and the word blu-ray. You’ll soon find out if a Blu-ray is available. If it is, chances are very high that California will screen it in the better format.

I attended the first double bill last night (my wife wasn’t able to join me that night). It was in the California’s large and lovely downstairs auditorium. Okay. Now onto the movies:

Phantom Lady: Enjoyable and fun, this 1944 murder mystery is awful light for a noir. The good guys are just too good. And thus, dull. But the bad guys are a lot of fun–especially Franchot Tone as a totally psychotic killer (don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away) and Elisha Cook Jr. as a horny drummer. But then, any noir with Elisha Cook Jr. is better than the same movie without him. By the way, the plot involves a man convicted of murdering his wife, and the loving secretary (Ella Raines) out to prove him innocent. Enjoyable but unexceptional. I give it a B-.

Criss Cross: This one is considered a minor classic. I wouldn’t go that far, but I liked it enough to give it a B+. Burt Lancaster plays an armored car driver who finds himself in a love triangle with his ex-wife and a gangster. And not just a love triangle. They also join forces to pull off the heist of the century. But as the name suggests, everyone is planning to double cross everyone else. Director Robert Siodmak keeps the story moving fast and tight. Look fast, and you’ll catch a not-yet-famous Tony Curtis in a non-speaking role that’s little more than an extra.

[[Thanks to my wife, Madeline, for catching that before/after error.]]

Resnais and Stroheim at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, I attended two very different screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The first, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece. The other, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, is the uncompleted final work of great but controversial filmmaker.

It was my first experience seeing either film.

Hiroshima mon amour

Why did it take me so long to see Alain Resnais’ first feature film? Simple. For more than 40 years, I’ve actively hated his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad. But finally, I decided to give his first feature a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Hiroshima mon amour starts with a couple in bed, presumably naked, locked in love’s embrace. But their talk is not about love–or even sex. They’re talking about the bomb and Hiroshima. He wants to make sure that she has seen everything of importance in that victimized city and understands what it means. (The film was made in 1959. The end of World War II was as close then as 9/11 is to us today.)

Soon we get to know these lovers. The woman is a French actress (Emmanuèle Riva), working on location in Hiroshima. He’s a Japanese architect, and Hiroshima is his home–it always has been. He was in the army, serving elsewhere when the bomb hit. But his family was there.

They’re very much in love, but it’s not that simple. Not only are they of different cultures (he, conveniently, speaks fluent French), but both of them are already married. She will be gone soon, and presumably they will never see each other again.

But sex can lead to other forms of intimacy, and soon they’re telling each other their secrets. Actually, she tells more than he does, about the German lover she had during the occupation and the punishment she endured for “betraying France.”

Hiroshima mon amour is an intimate, hopeless love story set against the ruins of a massively horrific war that scarred everyone involved (mentally or physically). My one complaint: I would have liked to know more about the man’s past. The flashbacks were all the woman’s.

The film has just been restored, and was screened off a DCP. It looked fantastic.

I give it an A-.

Queen Kelly

How could this be anything except a disaster? Joseph Kennedy, without any real movie experience, financed Queen Kelly as a vehicle for his mistress, Gloria Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim to write and direct it–despite Stroheim’s reputation as an overspending, uncommercial, and uncontrollable egomaniac. (He was all those things, as well as a brilliant artist.)

It’s no surprise that Queen Kelly, made at the very end of the silent era, was never completed. Swanson and Kelly fired Stroheim, shelved the film, unshelved it, pieced it together, shot additional scenes, and eventually released it in various forms.

It’s probably remembered best today for a couple of scenes that appeared in Sunset Boulevard.

The film today, at least in the 1983 restoration screened Friday night, is of little but historical interest. The plot–or what’s left of it–is silly. The characters are cardboard. Its attempts at being kinky are just kind of annoying. The whole last part of the film is a series of intertitles–with a few photographs–that tell the audience what would have happened had Stroheim been able to complete his vision.

But then, of all the brilliant and daring auteurs who fought the Hollywood studio heads to have their visions brought to the screen, only Erich von Stroheim makes me feel sorry for the studio heads.

The 35mm print had serious focus issues, presumably because the sources were several generations away from the original negative. Although this was a silent movie, it was shown at the PFA with a recorded musical soundtrack–probably from a very early release. By the time the film came to paying audiences, movie theaters had laid off their musicians and the American silent cinema was dead.

And if it hadn’t been dead, this film might have killed it. I give Queen Kelly a D.


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