Fires on the Plain

5ktNHhaExfhysweGFg6JzMlBmEH

Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and yet they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

Advertisements

Executive Suite

exec suite.jpg

Executive Suite is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1954. Directed by Robert Wise, Executive Suite begins with Avery Bullard, Tredway Co. president, whom we never see, calling a last minute meeting and then suddenly dropping dead on the street. From a skyscraper’s window one of the executives sees Bullard’s body on the street and immediately places a short sale on company stock that he doesn’t have the funds to pay for, planning to cash in.

Bullard was legendary, but had no succession plan. He turned the struggling furniture company around but has let it go stagnant recently. He’s been romancing the founder’s daughter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, but recently has been ignoring her. It seems he’s checked out are relied on prior charm and expertise and has been coasting.

As Bullard’s i.d. was missing it took a while to identify the body. Once they do, the executives now must vote for a new president. Shaw, the numbers man, wants the post and begins to persuade his colleagues to vote for him. Blackmail is not beyond him. Good guy, who’s in the design and development division, McDonald Walling is played by William Holden.

Also starring June Allyson, Frederick March, and Shelley Winters, Executive Suite addresses relevant concerns like corporate vision, responsibility to workers and the duty to create quality products at a fair price.

Stray Dog

th-3

The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

stray_dog_01

I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

The Kindergarten Teacher

I never really wanted to get caught up in someone else’s obsession. When I watched The Kindergarten Teacher, (2014) I was a witness. The film was engrossing and well-acted, but rather disturbing. (After The Minutes, I could do with a some drama that wasn’t.)

The Kindergarten Teacher is about Nira, a teacher who becomes obsessed with Yoav a student who’s a poetic genius. Poems come to him from out of the blue, poems with words like “banality.” Poems that describe the complexity of love with more wisdom than most adults can muster. The teacher is a would-be poet and she starts passing off Yoav’s work as her own in her poetry group.

Nira becomes obsessed. So focused on Yoav’s genius, Nira ignores most of her other students and while she has a fine marriage and two children, none of this matters much compared with Yoav’s poems.

Soon Nira has gotten Yoav’s nanny fired and has disregarded every boundary in her profession or commonsense. Watching this film is like watching a train wreck. You know it will end badly, but I was surprised how.

The Kindergarten Teacher is compelling, and I was able to believe that Yoav did write the poems. I would certainly watch another film with the star, Sarit Larry, who played Nira, bu for a time, I need to watch drama that isn’t disturbing.

FYI: There’s going to be an America version released in 2018.

Earrings of Madame de . . .

Directed by Max Ophuls, Earrings of Madame de . . . is a film dripping in style. The earrings have a magical power, power to return to a married couple that grow apart and power to represent a range of emotions.

The beautiful Countess Louisa is married to an older general. While she’s hidden her debts from him and thus decides to sell a pair of earrings he gave her, their marriage isn’t bad. They are distant from each other, but he seems to understand her and marriage. In their social circle, I don’t believe anyone has an ideal marriage between soulmates. Here we see a marriage where there’s a lot of freedom. The general seems icy, but he does care about Louisa.

After she sells her earrings and reports them missing at the opera, the jeweler informs her husband and he buys them back. He then proceeds to give them to a lover as a farewell gift. When the lover must sell them to cover a gambling debt, you wonder just when they’ll return to Paris and to the countess.

Louisa soon meets an Italian diplomat named Donati. Their relationship goes from cordial to flirtatious to romantic obsession. As you’d expect, Donati has bought the earrings and gives them to Louisa, who’s already made a spectacle of herself when like Anna Karennina collapses when Donati falls from a horse during a hunt. People have been talking, but the sophisticated General brushes aside such possible indignities. He’s above such trifles.

However, things begin to fall apart when Louisa thinks she can fool her husband into thinking she’s found the earrings in her drawer.

The film is a masterpiece of cinematography and style. I constantly reevaluated what I thought of Louisa, the General and Donati. I had sympathy for each at various points. The film’s mastery is that they’re all likable and all in the wrong. Because of their social standing and their inability to sympathize much with each other or put aside social façades, the ending was inevitable. Louisa’s fate was due in large part to her distance from reality and her own lies.

It’s an intriguing and stunning film, but it’s also easy to remain aloof from the aloof characters.

I started to listen to the commentary that’s available on the Criterion Collection DVD, but the pedantic theories got old fast.

White Christmas

There’s something about old musicals that’s so uplifting. I’ve seen White Christmas a few times, the best viewing was on Saturday at Chicago’s Music Box Theater with all the surrounding fanfare: Santa, jingle bells, carolers and organist.

The film probably wouldn’t be made today. The script would be rejected. It’s not a dark or edgy film. There’s no desperation. No here characters are perfect, but they all have spunk and hope, which is why by the end of the film, I left the theater filled with cheer.

It’s the story of two nightclub singers played by Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. They served in WWII together when Kaye saved Crosby’s life. Thus no matter how annoying, Crosby can’t shake the whimsical Kaye, who’s forever getting sensible him into complicated situations.

The pair meet a pair of sisters, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen who’re trying to scale the ladder into showbiz. They’re talented, but are just starting out. The younger sister schemes to get the famous Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye’s characters). Both Crosby and Kaye are enamored with a sister, but you know romance will not be easy.

The crux of the story revolves around the plight of Wallace and Davis’ old general, who owns a failing Vermont Inn. The general feels like a failure and misses his army camaraderie and success. No one’s coming to the inn because there’s no snow for skiing. Soon Wallace and Davis get the sisters to help them change the general’s fate.

The characters all had a lot of elegance and style. The costumes were bright and well tailored. They spoke with rhythm and intelligence. There’s no offensive language or swearing. I think all of these things contribute to how good the film makes people feel.

The film has great music and dancing. The jokes, often corny, made me laugh.

Try to find time for White Christmas this holiday. Introduce a younger relative to this cheerful film. Pray Hollywood finds a way to make more films like White Christmas. Not all films need to be cheery, but how about a few new ones that are?