Treno popolare (1933)

18 03 2013

One of the benefits of being a cinephile in the digital age is the ability to address gigantic blind spots quickly and Italy before Rossellini is such a blind spot for me. I decided pretty much just this afternoon that I wanted to study (read: see) more from Italy, basically anything outside of the country’s contributions to the typical arthouse canon. Treno popolare has not received much ink, nor has the film’s director Raffaello Matarazzo. This is something of a shame, as this is one of the most gorgeous films of the time period, perhaps not much is “there” in the pathos department, but there is a bittersweet tone to the superficially light story.

1

Giovanni plans a Sunday picnic date with his coworker and crush, Lina. They take the “common folks” train from Rome to the city of Orviento. Along the way, they meet up with Carlo, who is the charming opposite to the bookish Giovanni. Eventually, Carlo and Lina find themselves planning their picnic around Giovanni’s presence, capitalizing at every opportunity to get rid of him. There’s also a side story involving a lecherous businessman, who is caught by his wife. The young girl he was planning on spending the day with is left alone and totally humiliated, giving us the more tragic perspective of a scenario that is sometimes played up for laughs.

2

I try to avoid comparisons when I’m not entirely sure of a film’s background (as is the case  here) but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san from 1939. There, we follow a group on a bus ride and despite the jaunty attitude of Shimizu, there is a deep, troubling sadness brewing in the lives of all of the characters. Here, too, we have a jaunty, upbeat tone, but we don’t get anything quite as upsetting as a young girl being sold into prostitution. Instead, the affairs here seem somewhat frivolous, a point which is magnified by the middle class status of all of the characters. In fact, there is a reoccurring song about the glory in belonging to the populist working class, though I get the impression that the songs presence is somewhat tongue-in-cheek here.

3

Another point of comparison might be Jean Renoir’s Toni, which came out a year later. The film is considered something of a starting point for Italy’s neo-realist movement and Luchino Visconti served as an assistant. To my knowledge, there weren’t too many other Italian films from the 1930s that were shot on location. Indeed, I went ahead and looked at some of Matarazzo’s other films and it most of them were shot primarily in a studio, and look like they maintain the aesthetic of the “telefono bianco” (white telephone – dramas about the upper class) movement. Here, though, the images here are vital, and they seem to channel the youthful exuberance of Carlo and Giovanni. The film was shot by Anchise Brizzi who is responsible for Shoeshine and would work with everyone from Julien Duvivier to Orson Welles.

4

There’s a lot here to love (I haven’t even mentioned Nino Rota’s first score!) but I would hesitate to call this exactly “neo-realist” at least from my own personal understanding of the movement. Certainly, elements are there, but I think approaching the film as proto neo-realist might set up unreasonable expectations. The problems here are the anti-thesis of neo-realism, they’re entirely trivial and immediately solvable. Maybe this makes Matarazzo’s film silly or less important than something like Umberto D. but still, perhaps as just a piece of technical filmmaking, it is excellent and an absolutely worthwhile experience. If you’re in the mood for something delightful, you couldn’t do much better than this.

5

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Zamri, umri, voskresni! / Freeze Die Come to Life (1989)

12 03 2013

I had wanted to see this for a number years just from the strength of the title alone. It has a weird poetic tone to it, which I guess could be a good point to start talking about the film itself. It fits into that mold of beautiful but ugly movies about impoverished children. Yes, this fits very comfortably with Pixote, I Was Born But…, and yes, even Gummo. If there’s really any faults in the film, it’s that I’ve already seen this sort of thing done before, but the movie still fulfills the promise by building on a similar pathos as those films.

1

Valerka lives in a remote Siberian village with his mother. He makes money by selling teas to both the locals and Japanese prisoners of wars. Galia also sells tea, and is occasionally both the victim and the perpetrator of Valerka’s teasing. Because the rest of the children in town seem just too young or just too old for them, they begin to bond just by the fact that they have no other friends. Through their eyes we see the absurdity and sadness in the forced marches for Stalin, yeast poured into the sewers, and retrieval of a stolen pair of skates.

2

It’s important to note that Kanevsky’s film never goes the political route. Sure, we see Stalin’s perceived negative influence on an isolated community, but his film is not one of commentary, at least not an explicit commentary, but instead one of observation. These forced marches and sing-alongs are completely ridiculous, and if anything, they’re played up for laughs. The one time we see them in an extended sequence, the man enforcing the marches orders everyone to march through the feces that have brewed to the surface from Valerka pouring yest into the school’s sewer system. Such an image has that weird ugly-beauty reminiscent of the films I’ve already mentioned, but it has comedic quality as well. One can sense a growing dissatisfaction with Stalin as most of the town ignores and scoffs at these rituals, even as no one goes out of their way to make a declaration of his politics.

3

The strength in Kanevsky’s images is, in fact that no subtext is necessary. There certainly is one. This is one of the last Soviet films of note (Sharunas Bartas’ Three Days from 1991 is the latest I’ve seen) and while there isn’t a perceptive foreshadowing of the Soviet’s collapse, but instead a sense of giving up. That’s the subtext in these images, but again, I don’t think they’re necessary. The images themselves make the film vital not only because of their immediacy, but because they are beautifully composed. Sure, the camera wanders a lot, but at times, there are expressionistic flourishes throughout. The sequence where Valerka gets his skates stolen seems something from Guy Maddin’s canon, somewhat a contrast to the more free-wheeling tone that dominates the majority of the film.

4

As I hinted at the beginning of the review, there is really nothing wrong with this movie. It is sort of perfect and its finale really manages to pack a punch. So why isn’t this the best movie ever? Well, in a weird way, the film met my expectations perhaps too perfectly. It really is sort of a middle point between Gummo and a Bela Tarr film. If that sounds exciting, then you should definitely see this film. It seems to turn on a more surrealistic switch towards the final half hour. The vignettes that happen earlier seem a little bit “organic” and “real” where as the ones towards the end more closely resemble an imitation of something from a Herzog documentary. Again, there’s really not a single thing wrong about this movie, but I’m somewhat jaded from seeing  a similar thing already. It’s still a masterpiece, though. Sometimes you don’t need a film to reshape the cinematic vocabulary, you just want it to re-examine what you’ve already believed. That’s what this is for me. To make my rambling a bit more concrete, just see this movie. It’s really great.

5

 





Rikugun / The Army (1944)

10 03 2013

It might be some good luck on my part, but it seems that most of the WWII-era Japanese films I’ve managed to see haven’t seemed too propagandic.  I wouldn’t say they’re all subversive, but the restrictions that came into play in 1939 didn’t seem to trouble directors like Mizoguchi, Ozu, or Naruse. This film, one of Keisuke Kinoshita’s earliest efforts, is strikingly anti-war. Kinoshita’s pacifism would resurface, but it feels particularly strong here, especially because he’s projecting it in a film that was intended to be pro-war. It’s not exactly a great film, but it’s statement is particularly powerful considering the context.

1

The story begins with a young Tomosuke, being taught about his (and everyone else’s) duties towards the emperor. Years pass, Tomosuke was involved in a war peripherally and he now has a family. We see him force the same values into his son, Shintaro, who he fears to be somewhat weak, much like the way he was. Still, through the constant preaching from him and his wife, Waka, Shintaro grows to an athletic young man. He’s called into the army quickly, in a role that we expect to be of greater importance than Tomosuke’s.

2

On paper, this probably seemed like an ideal setup for the government officials supervising the film, but Kinoshita takes approaches all the concepts of duty, honor, and so on in a (justified) negative light. There’s scenes where Tomosuke, played by Chishu Ryu somewhat out of his element in a “louder” role, micromanages his son’s behavior. Oddly, he’s critical of his wife, Waka (Kinuyo Tanaka) when she does the same thing. It’s all very much on the nose, which would be problematic and enough to dismiss a film in a different context. However, the fact that Kinoshita managed to make such an anti-war film out from a pro-war sentiment is impressive enough on its own, even if the film itself doesn’t seem exactly like anything great.

3

There are many inspired moments here. The film might be worth a viewing on the grounds that this is one of the few times (the only?) where we get to see Chishu Ryu and Kinuyo Tanaka be a married couple. Unfortunately, Kinoshita’s style doesn’t exactly give them time or space for performances they were capable of in the hands of much better directors. Still, Tanaka’s famous final sequence, while didactic, is absolutely wonderful. It begins with a minute-long static shot of Tanaka’s face, and then follows her as she tries to reach her war-bound son, in the middle of a military parade. This isn’t even the best film I’ve seen from Kinoshita but obviously, it’s hard to fault an effort as passionate as this one. Usually, this earnestness is a fault in his films, but he channels into a nice way here.

4





Shiroi yajuu / White Beast (1950)

6 03 2013

Mikio Naruse’s best films are ones begging to be revisited. One could say that this film, 1950’s White Beast is a film that begs multiple viewings as well, but it’s not because it’s a masterpiece. If anything, this film is a complete mess, one that conflates a social problems film with a completely sensational project more fitting to a more exploitative director. There’s an overbearing score and some obviously noir-inspired visual flourishes, making this film quite unlike anything else in Naruse’s oeuvre. There are moments where he achieves a poetry that is remarkable as anything in his more acclaimed films, and he flirts with making some actually progressive statements, but the whole thing is more of a fascinating misstep.

1

Yukawa, a presumed sex worker, is sent to a women’s rehabilitation facility. As the facility’s personnel explain, she’s not there against her will but she will be arrested and sent to jail if she tries to leave. Yukawa’s arrival works as something of a launching point, as her more refined clothes and fancy haircut bothers the other women in the facility. Yukawa develops an interest in one of the rehab’s staff members, Nakahara, who is an outside doctor. Yukawa gets close to Nakahara but it’s only with the intention of learning the extent of Nakahara’s relationship with Izumi, who serves as the director of the entire facility.

2

The drama that comes from the main protagonist, Yukawa, serves as something of a traditional main plot line, but Naruse weaves in multiple stories about several different women within the institution and with doing so, he doesn’t seem to unfairly divide his sympathies. Indeed, the strongest and most charismatic character is Yukawa, who is something of a fireball. She’s a femme fatale but she’s been stripped of her place in society and demoted to the ranks of the other sex workers in the film, who we are to presume come from a lower economic standing in Japan. This is where things start to get interesting with the film, while it does present its arguments under the umbrella of liberating sex workers, it takes on other contexts as the story unfolds.

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Perhaps the most oppositional of these contexts in the implication of Yukawa’s homosexuality. Her interactions with Nakahara are eventually framed as being faked for a chance to get closer to Izumi, but the early sequences between them are convincing that Yukawa was completely interested in Nakahara from the very beginning. Sure, we get her seducing Izumi but not after her own proclaimation that she’s “not sick” – a reference to her profession before she joined the institution. Additionally, Yukawa explains her disgust with her sisters or inmates by comparing their antics to that of childish men, and she delivers a big blow towards the film’s end when she declares “I just can’t stand the hypocrisy of men.” Considering the conditions, Naruse probably never intended such a story but these moments should be considered, especially when they’re woven with the melodramatic fibers as they are here. This is the sort of film Parker Tyler would have loved.

4

As one might be able to deduce from what I’ve written so far, a lot of the film is driven by the Yukawa character. The performance by Miura Mitsuko might not be close to the usual high-standards in a Naruse film, but it is indeed memorable, albeit in a different fashion. The scene where she attempts to seduce Izumi (played by the legendary So Yamamura) borders on being comical as Mitsuko wiggles around on her bed in a desperate attempt to be sexy. It comes off as pathetic, but that might be the film’s intention. She’s become so conditioned to seduce, as a means for money, that she has worked it into her own life as a means of performing her femininity for a man she has a crush on. It fails and this is not a surprise, because there isn’t any way we’re going to see a filmmaker reward the tortured past of a prostitute in 1950. Her failure in seducing Izumi directly relates to her profession, as Izumi shows an interest in the more respectable Nakahara, who has the most acceptable profession, one in medicine.

5

I think there’s something to be said about the class distinctions between the sex workers and the doctor, Naruse seems very much concious of the fact that the doctor achieved her position starting in a more privileged background. We understand simply by the way the inmates dress that they’re coming from the bottom of the economic pool. Here’s another oppositional reading but one that gives the film it’s most progressive tilt: the institution itself is a metaphor for a patriarchal society. It claims to be protecting the women and helping them, but it pressures them to turn against each other and in one instance, it enables one of the members to be raped by her boyfriend. This sequence in particular is disturbing even as Naruse shows little. This is because Izumi tells the women in question that her boyfriend is probably sorry and that he really loves her. The cycle of abuse continues to turn thanks to the push of the institution’s director, who certainly doesn’t seem like an evil guy but such a sequence announces something more disgusting brewing underneath.

6

This is all taking some liberty with the story, which is mostly meant to being nothing more than sensational and stylish. Perhaps the last theory explained is going a little bit too fair but I think even within such salacious territory, Naruse very much knows what he’s doing. The film’s most wonderful moment is one of Naruse’s loudest from an ideological perspective. Some corporate gentlemen arrives at the institution to give the women a speech about their damned profession. He says that it’s not worth the money, and that it’s better to starve than to bring down all of Japanese womanhood. Yukawa breaks out in laughter and asks, “and who are our customers? You are! And your sons!” It’s a powerful moment and argument, perhaps the brightest moment in a film that struggles to find a perspective. It’s not Naruse’s most affecting work, but moments like this one make it a vital one.

7