Advertisements

Poem of the Week

Boy and Father

by Carl Sandburg

The boy Alexander understands his father to be a famous lawyer.
The leather law books of Alexander’s father fill a room like hay in a barn.
Alexander has asked his father to let him build a house like bricklayers build, a house with walls and roofs made of big leather law books.

The rain beats on the windows
And the raindrops run down the window glass
And the raindrops slide off the green blinds down the siding.

The boy Alexander dreams of Napoleon in John C. Abbott’s history, Napoleon the grand and lonely man wronged, Napoleon in his life wronged and in his memory wronged.
The boy Alexander dreams of the cat Alice saw, the cat fading off into the dark and leaving the teeth of its Cheshire smile lighting the gloom.

Buffaloes, blizzards, way down in Texas, in the panhandle of Texas snuggling close to New Mexico,
These creep into Alexander’s dreaming by the window when his father talks with strange men about land down in Deaf Smith County.
Alexander’s father tells the strange men: Five years ago we ran a Ford out on the prairie and chased antelopes.

Only once or twice in a long while has Alexander heard his father say ‘my first wife’ so-and-so and such-and-such.
A few times softly the father has told Alexander, ‘Your mother . . . was a beautiful woman . . . but we won’t talk about her.’
Always Alexander listens with a keen listen when he hears his father mention ‘my first wife’ or ‘Alexander’s mother.’

Alexander’s father smokes a cigar and the Episcopal rector smokes a cigar, and the words come often: mystery of life, mystery of life.
These two come into Alexander’s head blurry and grey while the rain beats on the windows and the raindrops run down the window glass and the raindrops slide off the green blinds and down the siding.
These and: There is a God, there must be a God, how can there be rain or sun unless there is a God?

So from the wrongs of Napoleon and the Cheshire cat smile on to the buffaloes and blizzards of Texas and on to his mother and to God, so the blurry grey rain dreams of Alexander have gone on five minutes, maybe ten, keeping slow easy time to the raindrops on the window glass and the raindrops sliding off the green blinds and down the siding.

Advertisements

Our Little Sister

The Japanese film Our Little Sister is about three sisters, whose half sister comes to live with them after he dies. The older sisters are all out of school and working. The eldest, Sachi, is a nurse and the mother hen. She seems the most upright, but she’s got a secret romance with a married doctor. Next is the more sociable Yoshino, who works at a bank and has romance after romance. She’s the sort who gets too involved to fast. The third of the sisters is Chika, who’s very whimsical and happy go lucky. She’s all sunshine and smiles and she works at a store selling athletic shoes.

At their father’s funeral, the trio decides to bring Suzu, their half sister who’s in middle school to their family home. Suzu’s mother has died and her stepmother is really a non-entity. The film is a slice of life about the four sisters and the first three’s mother who deserted them but comes back to town briefly for her mother’s ceremony for the anniversary of her death. Along the way we get a natural look at a family that’s had plenty of difficulties and still has some struggles, but they manage to survive and thrive. The house is charming as the the warmth between these characters.

Watching the film feels like floating down a river. The pace is just right. The characters are insightful and perceptive. I loved my time with this family.

Mr. Six

Mr. Six (left), his pal (right)

Mr. Six (left), his pal (right)

At a hotel, I asked a concierge for a list of good Chinese movies and Mr. Six was among them–and wow did it belong there.

I found it on a Singapore Air flight and this tale of the clash of the old and poor Beijingers with the rich and young blew me away. The film opens in the hutongs of Beijing where an old time gangster, nicknamed Mr. Six, lives and rules dispensing justice as he threatens pickpockets and intervenes between the police and a poor vendor. Mr Six, a widower, hasn’t even heard from his twenty-something son in six months. He knows the kid doesn’t care about him. He soon hears that his son’s been kidnapped as vengeance for sleeping with a super-rich kid’s girlfriend and then keying that guy’s Ferrari.

Mr. Six knows his son was in the wrong and tracks down the gang of rich car racers, who might as well come from another world. Their culture and mores have little in common with this old geezer who has a very clear, almost eye-for-an-eye view of justice.

Rich kid with blond hair and scratched Ferrari

Rich kid with blond hair and scratched Ferrari

Mr. Six shocks and impresses the kid his son wronged in a curious way. He’s given 48 hours to come up with 20,000 to pay for the car’s paint job. Mr. Six then proceeds to make the rounds of his old pals, some who’re squeaking by and others who’ve become wealthy to get the money. The film is a good look into China’s culture today. The young are (in some regions more than others) not buying into the old ethos. Materialism is on the rise and taking its toll in the form of souls. Mr. Six has the old justice system down, and it differs from Western ways so he surprised me again and again.

Also the film itself takes some interesting turns that wouldn’t come up in an American film. At one point the young, spoiled kids agree to meet Mr Six and his cronies to resolve the matter with a big fight. The old guys show up, but the young ones don’t. I can’t remember a no-show like that in a Western film. Returning home, Mr. Six gets surrounded by henchmen sent by the rich kid’s dad. They proceed to threaten and beat him.

The film captivates and has stayed with me and will for quite some time.

Warning: Mr. Six will strangle and fight anyone who’s treating his son unjustly. It’s not as violent as The Godfather but there’s a lot of fighting and some blood.

10,000 Marks

My old employer, DDB has an office in China. Last month I showed my students a couple of their commercials. I just discovered this one. It’s thought provoking for this culture, where mothers tend to view their children critically so they have room to improve. DDB wondered whether they could change this behavior with an ad.

It’s gotten 40 million views and counting in China.

I found this moving, but also wondered about making women feel guilty while televised. I suppose if they felt willing to criticize their kids in front of a camera, they perhaps opened themselves up to this, but then again they were following a cultural norm.

What do you think?

Is this Presidential?

I’m thoroughly enjoying my Government Documents class. Last week we looked at Presidents and I found out about a fight between Harry Truman and a music critic, Paul Hume. Hume wrote a very negative review about Truman’s daughter’s singing saying, Margaret Truman was “extremely attractive on the stage… [but] cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.”

Her protective presidential father fired back with this letter which was on White House stationery:

Truman to Hume

There Was a Father

there-was-a-father-2

R – Chishu Ryu as the father; L – Takashi Sakamoto as the vice principal

Directed by Ozu, one of my favourite directors, There Was a Father is an intimate look at a widower raising his one son before WWII. This  conscientious father quits teaching when a boy dies on a school trip. It wasn’t the father’s fault. He wasn’t the only teacher on the trip and he had told the boys not to go on the lake (though Western teachers would have run out to the pier when they saw the boys get in the books rather than continuing with their meal, I think).

After quitting teaching because of his feelings of guilt, the father takes a job in a factory and sends his son who’s about 9 to a boarding school. Like all Ozu films, the story is simple and concentrates on the quieter aspects of familial relationships. Ozu’s very observant like a nature photographer who creeps up on his subjects so as not to disturb them and thereby captures how they really are when they aren’t aware of being observed.

At different points the boy presents his case for coming home. He sees family as most important. However the father exhorts his son to work hard. That’s every Japanese person’s duty, to put aside personal desires, however good, to work hard as their greater duty.

There Was a Father was a pre-war movie that complied with the government’s orders for filmmakers to put out films that lined up with their propaganda efforts. Ozu makes the duty theme clear, yet elegant. The film’s a touching look at Japan and family life during hard times.

 

Eugenie Grandet

By Honoré Balzac, Eugenie Grandet had a plot that surprised me. A friend suggested reading and discussing this novel online and I’m glad he did. For most of the book I wondered why it was entitled Eugenie Grandet because for 85-90% of the book is dominated by her father’s character.

Set in the provinces, early on readers meet Monsieur Grandet a miser who counts every egg and sugar cube in his pantry. He’s a shrewd businessman who constantly cries poor constantly. His neighbours distrust and dislike him and pit his wife, daughter Eugenie and servant Nanon, who live like peasants in a cold, dark house eating meagre rations and going along without complaint as justified as it would be.

Since Eugenie is of marriageable age, and clearly would inherit father’s fortune, two families compete so their son will win her hand — and possibly heart. The marriage race is neck and neck and Papa Grandet enjoys the futile race, which he knows no one can win since he has no plans to agree with either proposal.

When a rich Parisian cousin Charles comes to visit, Eugenie falls in love and her father wonders how the Parisian social status can help him. When papa gets a letter from his Parisian brother admitting that he’s lost all his money and since he’s bankrupt will commit suicide, the Grandet’s household is turned upside down. Eugenie, whose grown up more or less in seclusion sympathises and falls for her cousin (marrying cousins was okay back then). Though he’s got a high class love back in Paris, he’s struck by Eugenie’s pure love. Still Charles must go to the New World to earn some money and restore his father’s reputation.

Balzac gives us a witty insider’s view of each character taking us down an original story path. Monsieur Grandet dominates the story and his daughter’s life even after he’s dead.

Though Papa Grandet is a one dimensional character, the story is witty and absorbing, well worth reading.

A Few Favorite Quotations:

“Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.”

“The grain of gold dropped by his mother into his heart was beaten thin in the smithy of Parisian society; he had spread it superficially, and it was worn away by the friction of life” (About Charles)

“It is part of the French nature to grow enthusiastic, or angry, or fervent about some meteor of the moment. Can it be that collective beings, nationalities, peoples, are devoid of memory?”

The Only Son

The Only Son

An Only Son

My guess is Ozu can’t make a bad film. Though I’ve only seen a handful, from what I’ve read and seen, I think it’s impossible.

The Only Son (1936) tells the story of a poor boy who’s widowed mother doesn’t have enough money to send him to middle school. Only 9 boys in the class are planning to go. When the boy’s teacher obliquely urges her to see that her gifted son goes on to school, she finds a way to do so.

The film then jumps ahead to the boy’s adulthood. After college, he’s living in Tokyo. His mother surprises him with a visit and he surprises her with a wife and baby he never mentioned. In Japan this is quite a disgrace. Why wouldn’t you tell your mother you’d married? It makes her look like a bad mother. (And in the US it’s also not done.) She accepts her new daughter-in-law and dotes on her grandson.

Though he tries to hide it, his life has not worked out. He lives on the outskirts of pre-WWII Tokyo in a desolate area beside a factory. He’s scraping by teaching math classes at night. He can’t get a good job and has to ask his boss for an advance so he’ll have money to make sure his mother has a good trip.

What was all her deprivation for? Her son’s not even happy. The promise that education will lead to a good job, to security or prosperity, has not proven true. She brings this up to her son as they sit in a field of dried grass. He’s frustrated by the situation himself. He can’t and doesn’t argue with her. He has little hope and little motivation to succeed.

Yet a heroic act for a neighbor shows the mother that all isn’t lost and that her son, while he may never be rich, has a stellar character.

The film is stark and beautiful. The environment captures the characters’ plights. While the ending isn’t one you’d find in a fairytale, it’s authentic and powerful.

Passing Fancy

Kahichi and son Tomio

Kahichi and son Tomio

Yasujiro Ozu’s Passing Fancy (1933) takes us into the shitamachi, i.e. tenement neighborhood of Tokyo where factory worker Kihachi, a widower, lives with his young son, Tomio. The film opens with Kihachi watching a storyteller with his neighbors. The scene with Kihachi battling a fly are comedic. After the show, Kihachi meets Harue, a young, pretty woman who’s just last her job and has no where to go.

Not only is Kihachi moved, he’s smitten. His young neighbor Jiro kids Kihachi urging him not to get his hopes up. A lazy, uneducated jokester, Kihachi’s amusing, but you know he’ll never get ahead. Moreover, you know he’ll never get the girl. His hopes die hard. He’s unaware of Harue’s soft spot for Jiro, who rebuffs her advances. Still her continued love for Jiro means she’s never going to fall for Kihachi.

Tomio’s a good student and impudent son. His classmates taunt him and in turn, Tomio puts down his father for his illiteracy and lazy ways. The argument escalates, but Kihachi realizes his son’s situation and gives a lot of money to spend as he wishes. He hopes the windfall will alleviate the pains of their poverty however briefly. But Tomio, who’s about 9 or 10, gorges himself on sweets, which results in a critical illness. With Tomio in the hospital Kihachi, Jiro, Harue and another neighbor are brought together.

It's never explained why Tomio's got the eye patch

It’s never explained why Tomio’s got the eye patch

The silent film moves slowly by modern standards, but is full of touching scenes that will reward patient viewers. Ozu’s characters are engaging. I particularly liked that the boy was sometimes the model son, who has to make his drunken father get up for work, sometimes a victim and sometimes a brat. It isn’t often that children are so multi-dimensional in film.

Related

His Second Wife

Ernest Poole’s His Second Wife follows Ethel  as she leaves small town Ohio after her father’s death. She goes to New York to live with her sister, Amy, a socialite and shopper, and Amy’s husband Joe and daughter. Ethel tries to fit in to the shallow scene Amy relishes, but just can’t. The superficial and materialism don’t appeal at all.

She’s after the new and exciting ideals, art and politics New York is supposed to offer. After Amy’s sudden death, Ethel stays to help Joe, but struggles to avoid getting trapped living her sister’s life.

Poole creates an original dilemma that rings true. Ethel isn’t the polar opposite of Amy as a lesser writer would have made her. She doesn’t hate shopping or all of bourgeois life, she just wants more. The novel recounts her struggle to find friends and to find her own identity, while evading Amy’s more manipulative friends who want to control Joe after he’s married Ethel. An original, compelling story, worth getting from Amazon, which offers it for free on Kindle.

Previous Older Entries

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
%d bloggers like this: