The Idiot

the-idiot

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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Jane Eyre

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Hurry! You’ve got one last chance to see Jane Eyre at Northwestern University’s art center this weekend. I went last Saturday and was blown away with this production. Northwestern University is famous for its theater majors including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Charlton Heston,  David Schwimmer, Shelley Long, and more.  Thus its no surprise that the plays they put on are top notch.

In this story of orphan Jane’s hard life, the Northwestern students’ acting was, as usual, superb. The woman who played Jane was outstanding. Her voice was lovely. I’d list the names but the program didn’t print the names of actors’ ‘with their character’s name. every cast member was spot on.

I read the novel Jane Eyre a long time ago, but remember the general plot. This production used Polly Teal’s adaptation, which is a little confusing because at the start of the play Jane is reading to a woman who appears to be mad. She represents Jane’s wilder side, but then the same woman is Rochester’s mad wife. I think if I hadn’t known anything about the story, I’d have been thrown by that part of the plot.

The simple set design was sparse but set the right tone of 19th century elegance. For the attic where the madwoman was locked up, there was a platform with one lone chair which could be lowered and raised. This was a genius way to show the attic and how the madwoman haunted life in the mansion.

I love how easy and affordable plays at Northwestern are. Parking’s a breeze and it’s close to home. Tickets don’t cost an arm and a leg.

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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.

Fanny’s Journey

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s true story, Fanny’s Journey shows a thirteen year old girl who must lead her sister and friends out of WWII France into Switzerland. This powerful film captures childhood very naturally. The direction and acting are authentic and captivating.

Fanny and her sisters have been sent away from their parents to live in a boarding house that secretly protects Jewish children. When a priest informs on the boarding house, Madame Forman, one of the adults who run the place, manages to arrange for the children to go somewhere safer. She gets them all fake passports and schools them on what to say to anyone asking them questions en route. Each child is given a new name and Madame Forman tests them on them day and night.

From the start it’s touch and go. Germans are everywhere and Vichy French police are an equal threat. At first an older boy, Eli is in charge of the children, but after he’s arrested, Fanny’s thrust into the lead. She must figure out where to go and what to do next once their train is redirected and they lose touch with Madame Forman. As the going gets tougher and tougher the children feel like giving up and have plenty of complaints. Some are so young they have no idea why Jews must flee or what was happening to Jews throughout Europe. Their ignorance showed their wisdom.

The tension is maintained throughout the film and you’re heart will go out to these children. Fanny’s Journey is destined to be a classic.

In the final credits, you’ll see the real Fanny, who is still alive and has lived in Israel since the end of the war.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

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 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.