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.

The Forbidden Planet

A rather corny, yet fun sci-fi movie, The Forbidden Planet is a welcome delight. The effects are primitive compared to today’s, but I still enjoyed this film. In fact, the lower quality, not at all overstimulating, effects were just fine, rather nostalgic in fact.

Starring Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Moribus, a reclusive scientist who’s lived on this remote planet for years. He came there 20 or so years ago with a group of 20 or so scientists who all died mysteriously. When the film takes place Commander Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen, ignores Moribus’ warnings to turn around. Adams’ mission is to find out what happened on a planet called Altair IV when Moribus’ colleagues all died. Soon after landing, the commander and his men (there are no female or minority astronauts in 2200) are greeting by Robbie the Robot, whom I thoroughly enjoyed. Robbie speaks hundreds of laws, can manufacture clothing, food, alcohol and who knows what else.

Robbie takes a team of Adams’ men to Dr. Moribus, where they learn about the planet’s history and all the advanced technology he’s developed or was developed by a highly sophisticated society, the Krells. Despite their intelligence and high-minded philosophy, the Krells are no more, which is mysterious.

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Adams and his colleagues meet Dr. Moribus’ beautiful, sheltered daughter Alta and romance ensues.

Soon the odd Moribus, who’s not about to leave the planet, comes into conflict with Adams’. On top of that, a formidable monster attacks and kills one of Adams’ men. Then the monster comes to attack Moribus’ home/headquarters.

The film was fun and swift. Robbie the Robot was a real star, and the first robot to show personality in the history of science-fiction films.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the 1956 review in the Chicago Daily Tribune and saw that the reviewer was far from amused. Sci-Fi clearly wasn’t the reviewers’ genre. Take a look at the citation to see that writer’s pen name.

Note: My friend Kevin shared an article that shows how The Forbidden Planet is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Reference
TINEE, MAE. “This Space Ship Fails to Soar Far enough.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Apr 17 1956, p. 1. ProQuest. Web. 9 June 2018 .

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.

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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Stolen Kisses

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Antoine and Christine

A François Truffaut film, delightful Stolen Kisses follows Antoine from 400 Blows and Antoine and Collette as he gets kicked out of the army and hops from one menial or clerical job to the next. His first job as a hotel watchman comes via the father of his hearts desire, Christine. As in Antoine and Collette, Antoine charms the parents of his object of desire more than the young woman herself.

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Extremely idealistic, Antoine’s got a bit of Chaplain’s Tramp in him. He’s got terrible luck and as he’s estranged from his parents so he’s all alone. Yet a job always pops up when he needs it. My favorite job was when he was a detective. Most of the time he’s tailing someone, but then he gets hired to work in a shoe store. The socially inept, bragging owner must find out why people don’t like him. Thus Antoine goes undercover at the shop. So no one will think that the new guy is a plant, the shop owner has a contest with job candidates. They each must wrap a shoe box. Antoine does a terrible job. He’s by far the worst in the bunch, but he’s hired. While at the shop, Antoine gets smitten by the owner’s sophisticated wife. She’s a goddess to him, though he still wants Christine. He sees all women as elegant paragons. And can’t believe that his goddess would fall for him and sneak into his apartment one morning proposing a few hours of hanky panky, which is never to be spoken of or repeated. The goddess crashes to earth with a light comic touch.

The story flies by and has several fun moments showing all the misadventures Antoine encounters trying to get his footing in the adult world. I have my doubts about this poor guy making it.