The Idiot

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Ayako and Kameda, the Idiot

Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot blew me away with its depth and complexity of emotion. Many years ago I saw David Schwimmer in the lead role in the play at The Lookingglass Theater. That adaptation left me cold. I still recall how bored my friend and I were. In spite of this bad experience I was curious what Kurosawa might do with the story.

In a nutshell, The Idiot is about Kameda, a man who due to an injury during the war is rendered an idiot. His particular cognitive “deficiency” is that he’s somewhat mentally slower and also sees the worth of every person and thus loves every individual. When he returns from the war to Hokkaido, he stays with a family and the feisty daughter Ayako, against all her wished, falls for him.

In the same home is another boarder, Mr. Kayama who though he loves Ayako, has agreed to marry a kept woman famous for her beauty, Taeko, for 600,000 yen. Taeko’s photo is up at the train station and when Kameda and Akama, another man returning to the city, see it they’re swept off their feet. Taeko and Ayako both despise Kayama for valuing money over love.

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Both Taeko and Ayako fall for the idiot, Kameda, because he’s the only person in the story who’s honest. No one has met such an honest, perceptive person. Although these women are at their most genuine when they’re with Kameda, you know that they’ll corrupt him and that no healthy relationship is available for him. Still Kameda is thrust into a confusing web between these women, his friend Kayama, Ayako’s parents and Akama. While the film has several grasping, selfish characters, we see that they’re grasping at a virtue that they value but will also corrupt. There are no villains, just people who can’t make up their minds and whose indecision and schemes are lethal.

The Japanese actors, all Kurosawa regulars, were masters of emotion which this story requires. It’s a long film at almost three hours (cut down from over four), but Kurosawa kept me interested.

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Poldark, Season 4, Episode 1 & 2

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Poldark, Season 4 started with two strong episodes, one last night and the other the Sunday before. The first episode showed Hugh Armitage still pining for Demelza and penning pretty poetry for her. It’s appealing, but Demelza stays on the edge of fidelity for Ross. Hugh’s health is deteriorating and wants Demelza by his side, which concerns Ross, but the situation leads to some impeccably written and acted scenes that portrayed a tough aspect of marriage.

Politically, George’s use of power is dangerous. Ross sees how his backing away from taking a seat in Parliament has made for injustice. In episode 1, in an uprising at the port, where the hungry, were protesting, Demelza’s two brothers are erroneously arrested along with Zacky Martin’s son Jago, who was fit to be tied at the injustice. Jago, a hothead, accidentally kills a merchant. All three are arrested.

Hugh Armitage, dashing and poetic, continues to woo Demelza, though Dwight advises him not to. Hugh is going blind and dying so he’s not going to give up on his dream girl. Demelza is flattered. It’s nice to have such devotion when you’re husband takes you for granted.

Ossie’s the same ogre and churl. His mother has come to town and plans to arrange for a governess to put a distance between Morwenna and her son. How much is this poor woman to endure?

The tension grows as Sam, Drake and Jago’s hanging nears. Ross believes it’s best for Demelza to be in the dark so he ships her off to a fancy dinner at Hugh’s uncle’s with Caroline and Dwight.

Ross has a certain deux ex machina charm and convinces the magistrates to spare his brother-in-laws, though Jago is hanged. Yikes! Demelza is reunited with her brothers though she’s unaware of exactly how close they were to hanging.

More good news! Caroline is pregnant!

The premiere drew me in from the start when Aiden Turner emerged bare chested from the ocean. Certainly, the writer and producers wanted all the audience to be rapt from the get-go.

For episode two, visit Armchair Anglophile. I’m too far behind and having trouble with my computer lately, so I suggest you visit Armchair Anglophile for a recap.

The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

Beijing Bicycle

Based on the classic Bicycle Thieves, (1948)  Beijing Bicycle (2001) has some funny moments, some touching moments and shows the local color of the hutong neighborhood of Dongcheng, but I just couldn’t watch the whole thing.

I got the DVD from the library and had no idea that it was a Chinese version of Vittorio De Sica’s earlier film. At first this story of a poor boy who comes to the big city and gets a job as a messenger pulled me in. His boss hires several new messengers and they get nifty uniforms and new bikes which they can buy once they work a certain amount. His one friend in the city, tells him this is a really good job. Yet it’s not easy to keep it. There’s plenty of trouble getting across this labyrinth of a city and dealing with hard to find customers.

As in the original, just as the boy’s about to own the bike, he comes out of an office and it’s gone. He looks high and low and it’s been stolen. It’s catastrophic.

I sympathized with the hero when his bike was stolen. I was impressed by his perseverance in tracking down the bike (though in a city as vast and populous as modern Beijing, I didn’t entirely buy that). But after watching scene after scene when the boy’s beaten by the thuggish friends of a kid whom he found with the bike. This other boy’s dad had promised him a bike, but then tells him he couldn’t buy the bike because his younger sister has tested into a good school so the father decides to use the money for her tuition. This second boy, who attends a private school, where his pals are all wealthier. They all have bikes. So this kid steals from his father and buys the bike at a second hand bike shop. There’s a lot of conflict over the bike and the hero is beaten and harassed by the second boy’s thuggish friends.

Eventually, I reached a point where I couldn’t take any more of the film. I couldn’t imagine a way for the film to end and satisfy me. It was a portrait of a society or sub-culture of people with no morals. Everyone learns that the second boy stole money to buy this bike, yet his pals still beat the other kids and hold him hostage for hours. I reached a point where if felt like punishment.

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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Jules and Jim, the Novel

Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim intrigued me for days. It’s a beautiful film, but the story itself haunted me. Through the DVD extra interviews I learned that the film was based on a book and the book on actual lived experience. Oh, my!

I tracked down the book to get a closer look, a deeper understanding of these people. Written by Henri-Pierre Roché, the style is clear and fresh. It’s a fast paced book, that covers more time and space than the film. Jules, Jim and Kate move from summer house, to Parisian apartment to chalet in Jules’ country, here and there again and again. I doubt Kate stayed in the same place for more than 18 months. Kate and Jim also find lovers quite easily so change was in their blood.

Somehow Roché’s style countered Kate’s destructive behavior and Jim’s sorry obsession with her. The style doesn’t hide Kate’s annoying penchant for looking for slights and then punishing men to get even because they did something she deemed “irreparable” (i.e. not idolizing her totally). For most of the book, I wished Jim would wise up and leave the crazy whirlpool that Kate creates, but he evidently was crazy too.

In the book there are many extra events. At one point Kate befriends a woman who’s a Freudian psychoanalyst. Psychology was a new field then and this analyst was a nincompoop who just took Kate’s side and blamed Jim for the wild moods and irresponsible actions that Kate used to manipulate those around her.

The book does present a different way to live and doesn’t glorify manipulation. It’s an excellent study for someone who’s adapting a novel to film because Truffaut whittles down the plot adroitly.

State of the Union

While watching my MasterClass in Dramatic Writing by David Mamet, I got curious about Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whom he mentions. So I found the DVD for State of the Union, (1948) a film adaptation of their play. I found it delightful, even though there’s plenty of jokes that you just couldn’t say today.

State of the Union stars Spenser Tracy as Grant Matthews, a successful business man whose young mistress, played by Angela Lansbury, is a newspaper owner with political savvy in spades. She sees that he’s got the background and charisma to become President. She convinces Jim Conover, her partner in political maneuvering to take on Matthews’ campaign. The one problem is Matthew’s wife Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn. Viewers know when they see Hepburn in the credits that the newspaper owner’s met her match.

Grant and Mary haven’t been together for four months. Mary’s aware of her husband’s affair and has kicked out the mistress the one time the hussy visited her home. Mary still loves Grant and does believe that he’d be a good President — if he stays true to his beliefs. Mary leaves her home to travel the country so that Grant is seen with the loving wife the public expects. His first speech is a doozie and reaps accolades from the common voter. However, Conover & Co. only care about political movers and shakers who can deliver delegates. They know how to game the system by making the right promises to key people. Mary is leery of Conover’s tricks and the mistresses manipulations. Still she sticks with the campaign hoping for the best, hoping Grant doesn’t slide all the way down the slippery slope.

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I will say I was surprised by some of Grant’s political ideas. For example, he foresaw and believed in a world government. He thought that since the 13 colonies banded together and made the USA, that a bunch of countries should band together and create a world government. Well, the EU is somewhat like what he proposed, but Grant envisioned a more far reaching confederation. I wasn’t surprised that Conover practically blew a gasket.

The film has wonderful banter and some rousing speeches. State of the Union examines our political system which is corrupted by campaign financing. (Sadly, such films don’t have much effect because money still taints the government.) Tracy, Hepburn, Lansbury and the rest of the cast offer delightful performances and a bold look at infidelity. Yes, there are jokes about gender stereotypes but I was able to forgive those venial sins of another era.

It was odd to enjoy a film that promotes fidelity knowing that the stars had an affair for 27 years. It’s a troubling issue. On the one hand, it’s acting and what’s presented is the better scenario. On the other, many in Hollywood have made bad choices and tried to glamorize them. It’s a question well worth discussing.