Red Beard

 

2014-12-03

Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Two English Girls

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I was on a roll with Truffaut’s films till I got to Two English Girls, which based on a Henri-Pierre Roche novel. Again Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Claude, a young man whose mother sends him to stay with her British friend, who’s the mother of two young women, Ann and Muriel. Ann decides that Claude and her sister Muriel, who’s possibly going blind, are perfect for each other. Claude is rather inexperienced with women and there aren’t any other young women

All the characters are solemn. Missing in Two English Girls is the humor that is found in most of Truffaut films like Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Zazie dan le Metro, or even The 400 Blows. Since Jean-Pierre Léaud is never better than when he can be funny, so I’m not sure why that talent is wasted here. Probably the story is somber, but then why adapt this book? I just can’t figure out what compelled Truffaut to make this film.

Ann keeps pushing Claude into Muriel’s arms. She says it’s because Muriel is so smart and talented, but we just are told she is. There’s no demonstration of her talent or intelligence. Thus the film unintentionally demonstrates the poor results when you break the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing.

Claude does fall for Muriel, but I thought that’s because Ann and Muriel were the only women he saw. It’s almost like Claude is stuck on a low budget, Gilded Age version of The Bachelor. Eventually, Muriel pushes Claude away so the turns to Ann.

I bet you guess that some complications ensue, but they aren’t as explosive as you’d hope. These characters were more Zen than any I can remember. Very matter of fact and earnest. Very little joy. And when a character is heart-broken, he or she was something of a stoic zombie.

“Sometimes even Homer sleeps,” and in the case of Two English Girls, Truffaut seemed to be napping.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

 

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Kurosawa’s The Lower Depth

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The landlady Osugi and the thief, Sutekichi

Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.

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The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.

Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.

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I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.

The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.

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The 400 Blows

If I taught French or film, I’m have all my students watch François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I’d seen it years ago and after watching the other films centered on Antoine Doinel, I had to re-watch the first.

Formidable! I see why this is deemed among the top of the French New Wave movement. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud in his first film, The 400 Blows introduces filmgoers to Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s alter ego, who’s constantly chastised at school by his poor overworked, overwhelmed teacher who spends his days getting 50 some students to recite poems they don’t care about and winds up blowing his top everyday. School is a dull hell full of humiliation. Then at home poor Antoine has ripped pajamas in an old bed stuck in a corner of the kitchen. His parents argue constantly. His mother is constantly on his back. She never learned to mother as she was a teenage mother who did not want her son, who her mother convinced her to have. Antoine is acutely aware how unwanted he was and is.

Yet Antoine is clever, though irresponsible. He cuts school with his friend René. When he gets in trouble at school he tells his teacher that his mother has died. Of course, his lie is revealed and as usual severely punished so he runs away from home.

Antoine’s life spirals downward. Sure he made stupid mistakes and sure he was dodgy, but other than René this poor boy has no one on his side. It’s just heart-breaking. To think that Truffaut’s life is even tougher is painful to imagine. The film is shot masterfully. The acting so real and moving. It’s a haunting film that though I saw it (for the second time) last week, I still think of The 400 Blows.

The Criterion Collection DVD includes interviews with Truffaut, Léaud’s screen test and other bonuses.

Bed and Board

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I’m working my way through the DVD set, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, and watched the fourth film, Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal in French). Bed and Board delights as it shows Antoine as a newly wed. He’s married Christine whom he met in the previous film Stolen Kisses. The film offers a charming look at Antoine and his better functioning family members (i.e. his wife and in-laws) as he continues to hop from job to job. At the start of the film, Antoine’s job is coloring flowers for a florist shop. When his experiment to dye flowers red blows up, he soon gets a job with an American company controlling model boats in a harbor. It’s a silly job, which he got through an error, but Antoine never complains.

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As a husband and father, Antoine is old fashioned in a quaint way and really wants to play out his role as protector and loving husband and father in his dreamy way. Christine and Antoine do disagree and have problems, but none are major. One of my favorite part of the movie is how Antoine goes behind Christine’s back to name his son. Yes, the was wrong. They should have solved the problem if only by flipping a coin, but it was a cute, very Antoine move.

Truffaut is amazingly sensitive about how he shows childbirth, infidelity and conjugal life. I’m guessing it was his style and not censorship in 1970s France. It made me smile.

A chance encounter with a Japanese siren, for whom his chivalry leads to temptation, shows a failing, and . . .

SPOILER

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