Jalsaghar (1958)

3 01 2009

In a lot of ways, this is Ray’s weakest film. A story that echoes Citizen Kane but is divided into three musical performances? Sounds like a completely terrible idea and possibly unnecessary since Ray would go on to do another very Kane-esque film in Nayak / Hero (1966) but the music is just really great here. I’ve always been fond of Ray’s music and this film is really just an excuse for him to go crazy with his score. It is a little tedious at times, which isn’t all that surprising considering how much time Ray devotes to the three concerts, but this flawed structure ends up being part of its charm.

Like Welles’ Citizen Kane before it, and Ray’s own Nayak after it, Jalsghar tells the story of a wealthy and successful individual who slowly begins to realize his life is shallow and empty. In this case, the main’s character emotional collapse is attributed to not only his age, but also his declining fortune. Unlike the aforementioned films, the character’s state is worsened by the death of his wife and teenage son. It’s easy to criticize Ray’s rather incident-driven timeline, but its the sort of tragic drama that I’ve come to expect from him, at least every now and then. More often than not, Ray has to have someone die for his stories to progress, which would be a problem if he didn’t seem to put so much effort in fleshing out these characters. They are ultimately just plot points, which is always a bad thing, but the deaths here (with the exception of the film’s finale) are dramatically played down.

Many people seem to be fond of one time theater actor Chhabi Biswas’ performance, but while he does fill his role without too many problems, I would have much rather seen some of the more familiar faces of Ray’s work. Obviously, Soumitra Chatterjee would not have been old enough to play the main role and at this point, he had yet to collaborate with Ray, but it was still disappointing to not be able to see Ray’s usual players. Especially in a film like this, in which most of the “drama” is rather kitschy and embarrassing. This isn’t exactly Biswas’ fault, but the sequence towards the end where he reaches some sort of epiphany is made a complete joke by the goofy horror movie music in the background. I guess no one could really make such a sequence feel subtle, but Biswas certainly doesn’t help make it feel any less ridiculous.

So why did I end up enjoying this? Well, again, the music (from the performances, not the previously mentioned horror movie music) is absolutely fantastic. In addition, the performance seem to nicely break up most of the melodrama, making it a bit less noticable. It also helps that I do enjoy watching Ray’s free-roaming aesthetic, even if the content isn’t exactly suited towards my taste. It’s not as though this film is anywhere close to Days and Nights in the Forest, but it isn’t any worse than Abhijan and it is a hell of a lot better than The Chess Players.

Mucedníci lásky (1966)

1 01 2009

Unfortunately and perhaps, inevitably, this is a big step down from Jan Nemec’s wonderful and innovative debut, Diamonds of the Night. In all honesty, the two films have very little in common. Perhaps Nemec was pressured to move away from the aesthetic of his first film. I can’t think up any possible reason why someone would go from the kinetic and visceral poetry of that film and make a rather dubious attempt at sub-Buñuel humor and surrealism. There’s some nice moments here and there, but the whole thing is a bit of a mess. It’s not enough of a mess to be energetic and free-form like Nemec’s first film.

The film is divided into three separate, but thematically connected stories. The first, entitled “Temptation of a Manipulator” focuses on a lonely businessman who dresses like Charles Chaplin. His physical appearance and goofy mannerisms set the tone for the rest of the film. This section actually ended up being my favorite since there was plenty of potential for something great. Nemec reused some of the imagery of his masterpiece early on, particularly with the repetitious shots of girls looking out windows. What little story lies in this segment implies that the main character is lonely and is looking for love amongst all the hectic events of daily life. Unfortunately, this seems to be depicted in a way that is more symbolic than observant. It all feels a bit like Vera Chytilová’s Daisies, which I wasn’t very fond of when I saw it about a year or so ago.

Both Chytilová and Nemec’s work can be called surrealistic, but both films are so in the way least interesting to me. They both seem to take cues from Buñuel’s surrealistic comedies, which is fine by me, but they also seem to exaggerate goofy imagery to a Jodorowsky-level, which isn’t fine by me. Both films are also “crazy” (I suppose) but not like say a Herzog, or Korine film. It is just a goofy and “zany” mess. Many of the gags, if you can call them that, are likely to cause eye-rolls. It sounds a bit close-minded, but maybe I just don’t “get” this.

I must give Nemec credit for something here, though. Unlike Chytilová, his garrish and theatrical surrealism is photographed in a far more interesting way. It’s still the type of thing I hate, but in this case, it does look quite nice. The two other stories only take to the “random” images to another level, completely eliminating any sense of compassion for an actual character. Perhaps one is suppose to approach this film as a hallucogenic collection of uhm, things, but I personally found it rather dull in its forced sense of “artiness.” I’d still say it’s worth seeing, but its also a far cry from Nemec’s best.

Husband and Wife (1953)

1 01 2009

It may have been a result of watching it right after the woefully melodramatic Immortal Love, but this ended up being one of the most enjoyable Naruse viewings I’ve had in a long time. For starters, it is one of his most outrightly comedic, but fortunately, never falls back into a level of zany screwball-esque hi jink as Sudden Rain sort of does. More importantly, the comedy comes from this very strictly-created nervous tension that is more often found in Ozu’s work than in Naruse’s. The story is also one of Naruse’s most immediately accessible, bearing more resemblance to Mike Leigh’s efforts from the 70s than to Naruse’s films from the 50s.

Taking the last two points into account, this isn’t exactly Naruse’s most personal film, at least in a formal sense. It’s made in his usual style, a calmer version of an Ozu film, but it seems the least Narusian of all his stuff from the 1950s. The story concerns a young couple, Isaku and Kikuko – played by Ken Uehara and Yoko Sugi respectively – adjusting to married life. There are some kinks within their situation, though. First, they have to live with one of Isaku’s longtime friends, Ryota, a widower who has become something of hermit since his wife’s death.

The tension between all three is clear from the start: when Isaku and Kikuko arrive at Ryota’s house after the wedding, he isn’t exactly ready. He seems to have a terrible cold for one, but he’s also caught completely off guard by the couple’s arrival. The idealistic romance of Isaku and Kikuko’s future is almost immediately demolished. Once the couple finally gets settled in, the “third wheel” complex doesn’t become any less complicated. Ryota, still in mourning, isn’t so much a burden to the couple as he is a neighbor. A lot of credit goes to Naruse and his usual evenly focused characterization. Ryota could have easily become comic relief, but the humor displayed through this character’s interactions does not ease the tension, it only makes it more obvious.

All of this is a bit on the emotionally analytical side of things, as opposed to the cinematic, but I guess that’s because I’m already aware of how well Naruse is in the technical aspect of his films. The acting here is, as any Naruse fan would expect, absolutely fantastic. Ken Uehara is essentially playing the same role as he did in Naruse’s Repast and Wife, which make something of a trilogy with this film. He’s a passive, perhaps neglectful husband, but he is not a villain. In fact, to characterize him as any character “type” would be failing to get Naruse at all. His wife, played by Yoko Sugi, is a wonderful and fascinating character as well. Sugi is probably the least well known performer to star in any of Naruse’s film, only making notable appearances in some of his other works, and as a “dancer” in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel.

It is very tempting to compare Sugi to Setsuko Hara, who plays the wife of Ken Uehara’s character in Repast, which inevitabley makes Sugi look bad. Overall, I found the women in this film to be the least “strong” of any in a Naruse film. At one end, this makes them much more realistic than the border superhero resilence of Hideko Takamine in Untamed, but they also lack the edge, so to speak, of the women in a film such as Flowing. Of course, that film deals with aging geishas, while this one with strictly middle class housewives (and housewives to-be) so maybe I’m being a bit too critical. It’s not really a criticism, actually, as much as it is an observation. The “flaws” in Naruse’s characters are proof of his insight. The fact that I’m able to be so analytical about individual (fictional) characters is proof of Naruse’s mastery. If humanism in cinema was contest, he’d be the champion.