The Circus

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I just loved Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus. I’d never heard of this film, but recently saw that The Criterion Collection had just released it on DVD. In this 1928 film, The woebegone Tramp mistakenly gets caught up in a police chase for inadvertently taking a man’s wallet. The crazy chase that ensues leads to the Tramp bringing down the house as an accidental clown act at a circus.

This circus is run by a nasty, hothead Rimgmaster who continually abuses his lovely, innocent step-daughter. The Tramp soon falls for her and tries to be her savior, but she soon falls for a dapper tightrope walker.

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Throughout the film we’re treated to marvelous scenes including a chase through a house of mirrors, accidental clown acts that have the audience laughing in the aisles, a scary standoff with a lion and a death-defying tightrope scene.

According to the commentary Chaplin didn’t like this film much because it was made at a time when his life was at a low point. His wife was divorcing him for his affair with the female lead, his mother was terribly sick. a storm destroyed most of his set and the tabloids where having a heyday gossiping about Chaplin’s personal life.

Nonetheless, The Circus is hilarious and often poignant. It entertains from start to finish. I’d say it deserves a place beside any of Chaplin’s classics from The Kid to City Lights.

Sweet Bean (An)

Though I can’t stand Japanese sweet bean paste, the movie Sweet Bean is another story.  Loner Senato runs a snack shop in Tokyo where he makes and sells pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste when one day Tokue, a cute old lady, comes along and begs for a job. She begs to for a job, but he’s sure at 76 she’s unable to do the lifting and hard work he needs.

When she comes by again bearing a batch of the most incredibly delicious sweet bean paste Sentaro has ever tasted, he relents and hires her. The next morning she’s there at 4 am to make the beans replacing the canned glop used before. Soon there’s a line around the block for the snacks.

Wakana, a student whose single mom wants her to stop studying and get a job, is drawn to this pair of loners. She shows how wonderful friendship is with someone much older. She shares her dreams and memories with Tokue and keeps Sentaro on the right path regarding sticking up for Tokue.

In the midst of the business’ success, the shop’s meddling owner pops in and insists  Sentaro fire Tokue because her knobbled hands are due to leporasy. She’s a health risk. She’s got to go.

The film goes into new territory and explores friendship, loyalty and isolation in a beautiful way. I loved this film. My only quibble is that I wanted to know what happens with Wakana. Even though I still can’t choke down a sweet bean pancake and highly recommend this movie.

Morning for the Osone Family

MORNING FOR THE OSONE FAMILY

Keisuke Kinoshita’s Morning for the Osone Family (1946) probably couldn’t get made today. It’s an anti-WWII film that exposes how the military and government squelched free speech and exploited citizens even when Japan was at a point when it was clear they were bound to lose.

Curiously, the film begins with the Osone family celebrating Christmas and singing “Silent Night.” After some chit chat, the eldest son is summoned by law enforcement and is soon imprisoned for writing an article that subtly questioned Japan’s militarism.

It’s a big hit for a family whose father died a while back. The mother has tried to live up to the father’s pacifist philosophy. She continues to support her second son, who’s a struggling artist, and her daughter who wants to marry for love, but now that her fiancé has been drafted, is getting pressured by her uncle to marry a scion he’s lined up.

The family unity continues to dissolve. The painter gets drafted and the daughter goes to work in an army support job. The uncle, who’s an officer and very pro-war moves into the family home with his haughty wife. Their presence, and particularly their lavish lifestyle enjoying black market goods, while most citizens starve, sickens the mother and daughter. The final straw is when the uncle urges the youngest son, who’s still in high school, to enlist in the army.

Morning for the Osone Family offers a beautiful, moving view of history. My hunch is few Japanese have seen this film, but they should. We should too. I’m glad I did.

Dodes’ka-den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

The Nights of Cabiria

I just loved this film! Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) begins with a man who shoves Cabiria into a river and grabs her purse and runs off never to return. Cabiria’s furious, but this attack, like all the other misfortune that Cabiria encounters won’t stop her.

Played by Giulietta Masina, who’s clearly inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, Cabiria is a streetwalker, usually picks up business in a park where her pals gather. On the surface, the gang seems happy-go-lucky, just as Cabiria is, but all of them lead vulnerable lives.

Proud and unstoppable, Cabiria winds up in the upper crust’s part of town, where she’s invited into a movie star’s apartment. He’s just argued with his platinum blonde girlfriend. This is the first of several unexpected encounters Cabiria experiences. It’s not all fun and games. Time and again we see Cabiria getting ditched or used and brushing herself off time after time winning us over.

Cabiria’s Odyssey takes us from upscale night clubs with exotic dancers, to religious shrines where miracle cures are purported to occur, to a Vaudeville like theater where a hypnotist shows Cabrira’s sweetest side, to the edge of a cliff.

Yet the end surprises and makes us wonder what will happen to Cabiria. Is she really unsinkable? I’ve thought about this film every day for a week and this character is one who’ll always stick with me.

City Lights

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I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.