The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

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Stray Dog

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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.

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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:

Sherlock, Jr.

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This week’s old movie* is Sherlock, Jr. with Buster Keaton. Though I’d heard Keaton’s name, I’ve never seen any of his films. The story is simple, Keaton plays a shy, awkward man. As the movie opens, the hero is proposing to his sweetheart. It’s all very proper. The funniest part is when she needs a magnifying glass to see the diamond. Soon this woe-begone fellow is overshadowed by a slick guy who drops by and wants Keaton’s girl. This guy frames Keaton making it seem like he’s stolen the girl’s father’s watch to buy the ring.

Later at work as a movie projectionist, the hero starts daydreaming as he watches the film he’s showing about a couple having trouble with their relationship. The story is simple and it’s a silent film so the strength is Keaton’s physical humor. There were several preposterous, hilarious scenes that are timeless. It’s a short film that still entertains.

*This is part of my New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie a week.

Resolutions

January’s here again and it’s time to consider some resolutions. I don’t want to be cliché and go with exercise and diet, as much as some changes in those areas are good. A little creativity in the mix would be good. Resolutions needn’t only be about denial or working more.

So here’s what I resolve to do in 2014:

  • Watch one old movie a week. Something before 1950 or so. This week’s film is Gentlemen’s Agreement, which I’ll soon review. Old films can be so uplifting and challenging. Also they help me see that this era isn’t the epitome of time. I want to watch at least 48 films allowing for time off when I’ve got exams to grade.
  • Write. Yes, I state that every year. My immediate goal is to finish the novel I’ve started and rewrite a script.
  • Fast more. I’ve done some intermittent fasting after seeing the program Eat, Fast and Live. I do see better nutrition as essential to preventing chronic disease. I fasted on Tuesday and hope to do so on Tuesdays and Fridays, though I will allow some flexibility.

Word of 2013: Write

This is the Day is a radio show on Moody Radio that I sometimes listen to. As the New Year approaches they’re encouraging listeners not to come up with a resolution, since most people don’t live up to resolutions, but to choose a word to “live into.” Today listeners called in and shared their words. A few words were: trust, discipline, repent, pray, stop, peace and promise. There’s a website dedicated to this One Word approach to New Years.

My word’s going to be: Write. I have a few unfinished projects that need time. It’s so easy to do everything else on a To Do list and let my writing slide. Magic elves are not going to finish my book or script. I’m starting today and will have time this break to move ahead with these projects. The trick is not adding other projects that allow me to avoid writing.

I like this one word idea as one word can help people change in many areas of their lives, while still maintaining a focus. If you sign up on the One Word website, you can check a box that triggers a regular accountability program via email.

What do I have to lose?

What would your word be?