High and Low

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Details:
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eljirô Hisaita, & Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura
Studio: Toho Company
Year: 1963

Why I DVRed This: As big a fan of classic movies as I am, I have some embarrassing gaps. Example: Prior to High and Low, I actually had never seen a Kurosawa film. I really don’t know why I hadn’t… I guess I just never had one presented to me in a way that required almost no work. They’re not often on TV (since subtitled black-and-white Japanese movies don’t tend to get the ratings that Just One of the Guys must have gotten on Comedy Central fifteen years ago), and I never motivated myself to see any of his films at any of the repertory theaters. So, when TCM offered a month’s worth of Kurosawa films for his birthday, I decided to rectify my Kurosawa gap.

How I picked High and Low over the other films offered, I can’t exactly say. Many of the other films TCM offered were (of course) samurai films, and I just couldn’t see myself being that interested in any of them (I know…). High and Low was a film I’d never heard of, and it’s plot sounded fun, so, I figured, why not? After I DVRed it, I also saw that it was listed on the 1000 Greatest Films list over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (it’s listed as the sixth best Kurosawa film behind the usual suspects—Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, Ran, Throne of Blood), so I guess it was a good choice too… (And spoiler alert, it was!).

Presentation on TCM
: As stated above, High and Low was shown as part of TCM’s celebration of Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday. On Tuesdays in March, TCM showed his best films, and High and Low was among the choices. TCM offered no special introduction or presentation for the film, though.

Pink Smoke
In one of the more celebrated shots in High and Low, the detectives take advantage of their view from atop the hill. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: As National Shoe Company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) makes a bold plan to sell everything he has in order to wrest control of the company from rival executives, his son is kidnapped for thirty million yen. Only the kidnapper has made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffer’s son! Gondo has to choose between saving the child and saving his financial future, while the police hunt for the kidnapper in the hellscape of Yokohama’s Chinatown.

Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is absolutely terrific. It is immensely and diversely suspenseful, melding a cornucopia of genres and moods. High and Low is one part corporate intrigue, one part moral dilemma, (at least) one part taut police procedural, and one part examination of social problems. Structurally, High and Low is like two mini-movies. The first half follows the kidnapping and culminates with a thrilling money drop sequence; the second half follows the police investigation/hunt for the kidnapper and culminates with a longer and more thrilling chase through the underworld of Yokohama. Indeed, the film’s title provides descriptions of these worlds, the world of high society and low life (the film’s Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, is closer in translation to Heaven and Hell, and that makes even more sense), and a clue to the structural conceit of two separate though related actions.

Circle Cast
The staging in scenes in the house shows conflict. Here, everyone sits or stands reacting to Gondo’s refusal to pay the ransom. His chauffeur bows, his wife cries, and the detectives look disgusted across the flat surfaces. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

That structure makes for a unique viewing experience. Like Psycho, the film changes genres midway through, and yet, again as in Psycho, the viewer barely notices the jolt—everything seams together perfectly. However, High and Low is unlike Psycho in that the genre splicing provides a more layered look at one character, rather than killing the protagonist off. One of the most rewarding parts of viewing High and Low is that the two parts of the film offer wildly juxtaposed perceptions of Gondo—this is mostly interesting because of just how little we actually see Gondo in the second half. He moves from being the protagonist to being more of a background figure, yet, as a background figure, he seems far more likable. The Gondo of the first half is a cruel figure who lords over his kingdom through meanness and machinations. He has been surreptitiously buying stock to take over the company he works for, and he tells his son that winning is all that matters. He treats everyone around him with a certain scorn, even the police who have come to help him after his chauffeur’s son has been kidnapped. The police tell him he cannot open his curtains, and he seems almost trapped by this—his house sits atop a hill and overlooks all of Yokohama and the harbor. This is his kingdom, and he is pained by the fact that he cannot look out at it and lord over it. For the Gondo of the first half of the film, power is everything, and he is pained at losing it.

However, Gondo is transformed from heinous to heroic after making the decision to do the right thing and pay the kidnapper. He becomes gentler and softer at home, even being almost subservient to the detectives investigating the case. To the people of Japan, he becomes a cause célèbre and a national hero—the detectives even ask the newspaper reporters to get the word out that Gondo is being screwed over by the National Shoe Company—and though he loses everything, he seems heroic to the viewer too. There is a terrific scene in which he mows his lawn, his shirt stained with sweat, while the detectives leave the house. He has been reduced to doing his own work—he has lost his job at National Shoes and is soon to lose his property—but for now he is determined to keep up the lawn he once worked so hard to be able to afford. There is a quiet courage and pride in the scene, and it encapsulates the new Gondo perfectly, a Gondo that even the detectives admit to now “being all right,” despite not liking him at first.

Dark Background
Kurosawa shows many scenes with clever edits that expand the same staging to add depth. Here, we see Gondo alone in darkness in the background, the detectives connected to each other by straight lines but cut off from Gondo… © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

More Spacing
…But the scene expands to show the same detectives cut off from the other police officers and the bowing chauffeur while Gondo sits alone, an island of darkness in a room of light. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

There’s another point about Gondo that is important—he is rich at the beginning of the film, but he was not always rich. He managed to make his fortune at a time when Japan was experiencing a boom, but he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as his wife was. Thus, the reveal, that the kidnapper has kidnapped the child because of class-based jealousy, is a bit ironic. The kidnapper has chosen to kidnap not the son of a rich king but the son of a self-made man (and, of course, it’s doubly ironic that he actually kidnaps a chauffeur’s son). It is the wife’s money the kidnapper is primarily stealing, and, remember, even the beginning-of-the-film Gondo wants primarily to make quality shoes for everyone to wear, not poor-made shoes to rip off the working class. Gondo is really not a bad guy at all, even though he has learned to be gruff and cruel in business dealings. He contains layers.

Contrast that with the hipster medical intern and would-be criminal mastermind. There is virtually nothing redeemable about Ginjirō Takeuchi (Yamazaki)—he kidnaps a child, stores him at a house rented by heroin addicts he once treated as a doctor, kills them with very pure heroin, and then begs Gondo to hate him at film’s end. But Gondo won’t. The intern tells him that he is “not interested in self-analysis” as he explains the motives for his crime: that his “room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer” that he “couldn’t sleep” and that Gondo’s “house looked like heaven, high up there.” That, he tells Gondo, is how he “began to hate [Gondo].”

Killer in the Bushes
Hipster kidnapper in the bushes. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, his motivation is little more than jealousy and class resentment. The film, however, does a good job of making us at least partially sympathetic to that idea. Gondo, remember, is an asshole in the first half of the film. Even the detectives think so, and they also seem to resent the house. While investigating phones the kidnapper might have used, one police officer says, “The kidnapper’s right. That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us.” However, by the time we have Ginjirō’s motive announced, Gondo has been redeemed and the motive seems cruel. And Ginjirō’s actions have only appeared worse—no class resentment could be rectified by him—and, of course, we’ve seen his actual life—it’s not all that bad. His apartment is tiny and his world wild (filled with drunken American sailors, junkies, and mixed-race couples), but he’s a cool guy who could probably go out and have a good time in those cool clubs he leads detectives through later. Sure, the heroin den he enters looks awful, but what kind of non-heroin addict would enter it? The world of Yokohama has a high and a low, but so does life itself! While we might be partial to Ginjirō’s motives at one point, who can justify the crime? And who could possibly want to see the benevolent Gondo of the film’s end suffer?

Drug Den
In the heroin den, we see Ginjirō’s sunglasses reflecting back something that almost looks like the fire he experiences in his hellish life. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Kurosawa does a terrific job, thus, of making us change allegiances throughout the film. But on top of plot points and character analysis, the film also offers wonderful shots and scenes. Most scenes make use of depth staging to great effect. While the tense chase through the hipster hell of lower Yokohama features more interesting and varied shot composition, I was personally fascinated by the depth Kurosawa managed to get in Gondo’s house. Everything is widescreen and flat, even though the scenes in the house are all, well, in the house—they don’t need to be widescreen in order for us to see everything. But the staging offers us a form of character development: It gives us distance between characters so that, even in tight spaces, the characters are separated by huge distances on screen. Additionally, the characters also often stand in circles with their backs to each other. Thus, we have a spacing that shows disagreement and discord between what everyone wants Gondo to do and what he wants to do. Yet, the house also offers an interesting setting, as everything is modernist—straight lines are everywhere—in the furniture, in the windows, in bridge walkways—and when the characters stand in front of those backdrops, we see that everyone is still connected, even with immense distance between them. And these horizontal visuals also contrast with the vertical goals of the kidnapping plot—we always see layers of straight lines that remind us what level people are on.

Kurosawa also makes great use of the moving camera. These movements help show us what to look at of course, but the depth staging also gives us choices. We can watch the faces of others as the chauffeur bows deeply to Gondo to beg him to save his son. Or we can watch the detectives’ faces as they listen to the kidnapper talk. That’s an interesting scene too: Kurosawa cuts on motion to show the first phone call from the kidnapper after the police are there—we see Gondo answer the phone in one room then see the detectives listen to him answer the phone in the other. This gives us the choice of perspectives and implies a stacked existence to the filmic structure (as is, again, hinted at by the title).

So much layering exists in High and Low, and most composed shots are quite crowded and active. This is especially true of the parts of the film that take place in public, such as the train scene and the chase through Yokohama’s Chinatown. Each of these shots are intricately composed with deep focus, allowing us to see the elements of narrative and realness added to each of them. For example, there are shots in the beginning of the movie that show detectives in the foreground and Gondo sitting alone in the dark—this shows two perspectives of the same story. Or the shot over the shoulder of Ginjirō in the bar—we see his reflection in the mirror and also that of the heroin dealer, but the mirror also bounces back the reflection from his sunglasses, suggesting that he is deep within a flawed vantage point from which he can’t ever see reality.

Other shots show us the real world Ginjirō cannot see, and it’s a testament to Kurosawa’s directing that so many different actions and stagings do not seem staged at all. Indeed, it’s amazing to see every actor in every shot having seemingly different stage directions—it composes a verisimilitude that suggests the story and the main action (e.g., the police pursuit of the hipster kidnapper on his heroin buy) exist in a real world that goes on in spite of the tension of our focal point. But of course everything is composed too, especially the “hipster” chase scene. The intern/kidnapper wears cool shades, navigates cool clubs (like in a Godard movie), and even is arrested while a cool version of the Elvis song “It’s Now or Never” plays, a hipster Virgil circling the nine layers of his personal hellscape, a setting that should seem fake but comes across as authentic. What a cool dude, too!

 

In the end, though, his coolness gets him nowhere. Gondo, the all-around better man, tells him he bears no ill will while Ginjirō begs to be hated. His crime seems to have been for naught, as he can’t even make a powerful man lose his cool. The hipster Ginjirō may have made good points about class structure, but in the end he is both morally and socially low. While Gondo and Ginjirō are finally in the same horizontal shot (and connected by a straight line again), a vertical wall still separates them. While  Gondo is socially low again, his morals remain high, and he is not truly as low as Ginjirō has ever been or ever will be. More important, we are comfortable in assuming he will once again have his mansion on the hill, while Ginjirō writhes in torment at Gondo’s coolness while proclaiming he is not afraid of Hell. In a way, then, since Gondo may end up losing nothing, he might want to thank Ginjirō, for his caper turned Gondo’s moral compass around and gave him back a soul fit to occupy the heaven on high of the film’s Japanese and English titles.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, this was a delight. I mostly focused on the relationship between Gondo and Ginjirō in my analysis above, but it’s worth mentioning how much fun the police procedural aspects of the film are. It’s rare to see a film that spends so much time covering the work of police building a case, but High and Low does just that. We see the police announce their investigatory strategies and we see them doing the grunt work of police work, the likes of which I’ve only seen on The Wire (and not even there that often). High and Low is a rare movie that seems like it should be so disjointed with multiple mini-movies happening at once, but with a director as skilled as Kurosawa, it all works. Watching High and Low makes me realize just how much better all crime stories and police movies could be. Kurosawa managed to imbue into a simple crime movie questions of class, morality, and power, while also making a film that is fun to watch.

Incidentally, and completely as a last aside, the movie was so successful that it actually inspired a wave of kidnapping throughout Japan. That’s a (morbid) testament to its quality.

 

 

Hiroshima, mon amour

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Details:
Director: Alain Resnais
Producers: Anatole Dauman and Samy Halfon
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Studio: Argos Films
Year: 1959

Why I DVRed This: Over Christmas, I went to Tokyo with my beautiful wife for our honeymoon. It was my first trip to Japan, and since then, I have been (almost) completely obsessed with all things Japan (not like I’m wearing a kimono or anything like that—more like I just keep trying to eat Japanese food and drink tea). When we got back home, I noticed Hiroshima, mon amour on TCM’s schedule for January 4 (I got back to the US on January 1), and it seemed like fate smiling at me. It was A) a film I’d always wanted to see (especially given the 17-year old me’s obsession with this Ultravox! song) and B) about Japan. Then, I had this genius idea to write one post about December 7th and follow it up with a post about Hiroshima, mon amour. See, because one film is about the beginning of World War II and one about the end of it and the repercussions thereof, they would make good bookends. I thought it was kind of cute but in a horrifying way. And then it took me way too long to write this post, but that’s another story.

Presentation on TCM: Ben Mankiewicz introduced it, but my DVR did not start recording until he was just finishing up his spiel. Apparently, TCM wanted the film to fit in 90 minutes, so it introduced the film during the end of whatever movie was playing before. My DVR also cut out the last thirty seconds of the film, but I was able to find the whole scene on YouTube. This was the first time I’ve been mad at the relationship between my DVR and TCM, although I’m inclined to blame my DVR more than TCM (because, when in doubt, blame Time Warner, right?).

Synopsis: In present-day (1959) Hiroshima, two lovers, Elle and Lui (him and her in French), have a series of deeply personal conversations about love, their lives, and each other. Elle (Riva) is a French actress filming a movie about peace, and Lui (Okada) is a Japanese architect who lost his family in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. She recounts her young love affair with a German soldier in Nevers, France, during World War II. Both are married to others, and though their attachment to each other appears distant and undefined, they seem to linger with each other.

Analysis (contains spoilers): I adored this film. Absolutely adored it. It was beautifully shot, intellectually challenging and stimulating, well acted, and emotionally resonant. I have been thinking about it since I finished watching it over a month ago, and my opinions of it have not been diminished since then.

Hiroshima, mon amour is a film that could be discussed on so many levels, but my own interests led me to view it for what it was about and how the director, Alain Resnais, got that message across. The film was Resnais’ first feature, and he was originally commissioned to film a documentary about the atomic bomb (due to his successful documentaries about the concentration camps—apparently Resnais specialized in human atrocities), but Resnais declined the offer. Instead, he realized through conversations with Marguerite Duras (who would end up writing the screenplay), that he could make a film that combined fact and fiction around one central tenet: that talking about Hiroshima necessarily means confronting the reality that we cannot really speak about it.

The Couple
Elle and Lui start one of their personal conversations about seeing. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This view is made explicit in the opening scene of the film. Elle and Lui are in bed, and we see his arms transform from those of a burn victim to those of Lui. Then, Elle and Lui discuss what she has seen in Hiroshima. She tells him she has seen so much, essentially, while he keeps telling her she has seen nothing. And while there is a bit of patriarchal condescension in his part, the film makes clear that she is in the wrong, for she did not experience Hiroshima. He didn’t either, of course, but family members of his died there. During this exchange, the film cuts between footage of what Elle has seen and their arms. She says she saw the hospital and the museum, and we see quick-cuts of images of the hospital and the museum of the bombing, the same images she saw. Lui repeats: You saw nothing at the hospital. You saw nothing at the museum. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

I Saw Everything
Elle says this over and over. In a way, she is right. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

You Saw Nothing
Lui says this over and over again. In a way, he is right too. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

From this, the film makes clear that seeing and knowing are not the same things, especially when what is being seen is curated or filtered. Seeing anything in a museum renders the sight different from seeing it in real life. When an object is placed in a museum, it becomes an artifact, and its meaning becomes demarcated. Interpretation, truth itself, becomes proscribed, for the curator has already defined the meaning of the object. The film also implies that the very nature of film has this same power and, by extension, this same detraction. Resnais uses a combination of documentary and fiction that implies that supposedly “objective” texts (museums, newsreels) are themselves subjective, so when we see real footage of burn victims or the hospitals (or when we see smiling tour guides), we should remember that these are what we have been allowed to see. More to the point, the suggestion is that the act of narration fundamentally alters the truth.

It’s all a bit heavy. This is not a propaganda piece like December 7th. Nor is it a mere examination of the results of history. Instead, Hiroshima, mon amour is an art film and all that the label connotes. David Bordwell (who is among my favorite film scholars out there) has described the art film as a genre with conventions like any other genre of film, and Hiroshima, mon amour certainly agrees with his definitions. It feels ambiguous at times, has a clear authorial voice, suggests a higher meaning, uses classical sets but untraditional narrative strategies, and employs a clear style. Thus, Hiroshima, mon amour should first and foremost be viewed primarily as art cinema, a point I make only to excuse myself for sounding overly philosophical and turgid at times in this analysis. So, without further ado (see how grandiloquent I can be!), let’s return to the meaning of Hiroshima, mon amour

The main point that narration distorts truth comes across most clearly not in Lui’s insistence that Elle saw nothing in Hiroshima but, rather, in her recounting of a previous love affair in Nevers, her hometown. During World War II, she was young and fell in love with a German soldier occupying her town. She recounts the love to Lui over a few scenes, but the bulk of it is told over beers at a café. Her words reveal part of the story, just the bare minimum. He thinks he gets it and shrieks in delight later at being told that he alone knows this story. But, of course, he doesn’t, not really. The images that we in the audience see, the ones that accompany her spartan descriptions show so much more. We see her sacrificial haircut (a punishment from her townsmen that makes her look like Joan of Arc), the hatred inflicted upon her by other Frenchmen, the tortured look of finding her soldier lover dead, the delight in experiencing his embrace, the bucolic beauty of Nevers during the war, the isolation of her and her lover in the cave, the isolation of her in solitude and punishment after her affair is discovered.

Of this story, Lui only hears words, secondhand descriptions of her life. Just as the experience of seeing the effects of a bomb in a museum is nowhere close to the experience of feeling it firsthand, so too is the experience of talking about love different from the reality of feeling it. We know she is holding back in her descriptions, because we see everything. But, then again, of course we do not. We see only filmed images of love—they are closer to reality but then just by an inch or two. And, in any case, the “narrative” of love, the telling of it, changes the experience too. We see Elle grow more distant from Lui as a result, less willing, perhaps, to uproot her current life and husband and stay with him. This might be because she feels like she’s given too much to Lui already, or it might be, as some critics have suggested (and critics and scholars have suggested almost every reading of this film—here‘s an interesting one about mapping the film), because the experience of forming the narrative of her love affair and sharing it has healed her. In this reading, she comes out of the experience less interested in Lui because she’s finally realized herself fully. In a different reading, she feels different about Lui because she realizes that telling him about the soldier has corrupted her reality of him. The film, as I said, has some ambiguities, and it’s never quite clear how Elle feels about Lui or how she feels about sharing her story with him.

German Lover
The film only shows the audience Elle’s love for her German soldier; Lui only gets to hear of it. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Prison Elle
And only the audience gets to see her punishment, as she learns to suppress her love. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Interestingly, any of the meaning we get in the film is revealed largely through images Lui cannot see: flashbacks of both what Elle has seen in Hiroshima and of the aforementioned love affair. Aside from exposing new layers to Elle’s subjective narrative, they also puncture the traditional narrative structure of film as a whole. Instead of moving the story forward, the flashbacks actually anchor the film in the past. They make it clear that Liu and Elle’s stories are really about the effects of the past on the present, not about the lives they are living. Elle refers to knowing what it “is to forget” in the film, but the flashbacks remind us that the story’s main action occurs in the past. Incidentally, the film is interesting too because the flashbacks only privilege Elle, the woman (or I guess you could say the Frenchwoman, suggesting a Western bias, but let’s pretend that’s not the case here). In her flashback to love in Nevers, she recalls being imprisoned until she’s willing to contain her feelings, but in Hiroshima, she is able to let out her feelings fully in flashback form (unlike in real life when Lui slaps her at the café in order to keep her feelings in check). So the flashbacks, which are of course subjective and make us connect fully with Elle, allow her to be a full human fully experiencing the fullness of love and life.

Mirror Elle
The experience of remembering is too much for Elle to handle, and she apologizes to her German boyfriend for corrupting their love by sharing the story. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film is, thus, about “seeing” and “knowing” and what memory can do for us or to us. But the film also implies that words themselves change the truth. In addition to shaping memories into shared words, changing the reality of the story, we also know that words sometimes can have two meanings (not to quote Robert Plant…). For instance, Lui asks her if Nevers has any additional meaning in French, and she says no, but, of course the name has a very clear meaning in English. Her town suggests that the love she describes never happened, because the story itself is not the truth. It also suggests that she may never love again. And, of course, it implies that we as a society need to ensure that Hiroshima never happens again.

Place names are also significant here because they provide our understanding of who these characters are. At the end of the film, Elle and Lui announce that their names are their locations:

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.
Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

But these locations mean much more than their identities. She is simply French. He is simply Hiroshima. And Hiroshima carries with it so many signifiers. But at it’ root, what we know of Hiroshima is simply what happened there. The first thing virtually anyone in the world conjures up when the name is heard is the image of Big Boy being dropped from the Enola Gay, destroying everything below, creating damage lasting decades (or more), and bringing with it a new atomic age. I struggle to think of another place that has become synonymous with destruction or tragedy (maybe Chernobyl? Pompeii? Nagasaki suffered the same fate as Hiroshima, but the name does not endure as much…), and I struggle even more so to understand what it would mean to be from such a place. Most places that embody tragedy to the point of synecdoche are far more localized places that no one truly comes from: Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor, Three Mile Island. But to be from Hiroshima is to be from tragedy. Elle and Lui at least have the experience of love there, but it is a love that is fleeting. There can, perhaps, be nothing more.

Elle ponders this throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, she states that one of the lessons she’s learned through her visit to Hiroshima is that life goes on, but she immediately brings up the horrors societies and races commit on others. World War II, in particular, has impacted her and Lui’s life immensely. She has lost the respect of her family and the life of her first love; he has seen death firsthand (presumably) as a Japanese soldier and experienced the loss of family at Hiroshima. The war continues to impact their present, too, a decade and a half after its conclusion. They would not meet—and, thus, we would not meet them—if not for the war, for she would not be filming a peace movie in Hiroshima.

This is all getting too long. As you can probably see, this is a complex film. One could write an excellent PhD thesis on the film and its meaning (as indeed several have), but I should cut off my own analysis a bit before that. The last thing I wanted to bring up is the parallels I noted between Hiroshima, mon amour and two other films. First, there is the connection to Casablanca that other critics (namely James Monaco in his book on Resnais) have pointed out. Both are stories of two transnational illicit lovers having an affair brought about by wartime, and, in both, the central question is whether the affair can continue past the time allotted. Resnais even makes this parallel explicit by having the two lovers meet at the Casablanca toward the end of the film, although the scene there is far less melodramatic than any scene in Casablanca is. Elle sits at a table, alone, while a Japanese man tries to pick her up. Lui sits in a different table, watching. The two end up together at her hotel, but there is no romance at the Casablanca (perhaps because the romance of Casablanca is not possible in a world marred by tragedy).

Secondly, I noted parallels between Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation. This was probably heightened by the fact that I watched the latter film twice in the weeks before I saw Hiroshima. On my trip to Japan, my wife and I stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, so it seemed necessary to view Lost in Translation ahead of time. Then, it was also an on-demand choice on my TV on my flight home, so I watched it again because A) I had a twelve-hour flight, and B) I wanted to be able to point and say “I used that pool,” or “I sat at that bar,” and so forth. Anyway, both Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation open on a semi-clothed woman in a hotel bed in Japan; both involve illicit romances between mismatched foreigners in Japan; both are structured primarily as a series of personal conversations and deal with weighty issues; both primarily take place in hotels that look ridiculously awesome; and both have great soundtracks. Sophia Coppola has denied the influence of Hiroshima on Lost in Translation, saying that she “love[s] the title” but has “never seen it.” I  guess staying in ridiculously nice Japanese hotels just inspires a certain kind of film!

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, duh. I fucking adored this movie, and it’s been one of the best I’ve seen as part of this project (the others I’ve liked almost as much have been The Night of the Hunter, Peeping Tom, Mildred Pierce, and Monsieur Verdoux). I would watch this again in a heartbeat, and I’d also go to Japan again in a heartbeat, not that those are that related to each other…

Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny_lake_is_missing_(1965) Details:
Director: Otto Preminger         Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey, Noël Coward, the Zombies
Studio: Columbia Pictures      Year: 1965

Why I DVRed It: There were two things that drew me to this movie. First was the Zombies, one of my favorite (that means top 100 or so, not like top five) bands of all time. The group appears on camera and contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack. The second thing that drew me to the movie was a love of Laurence Olivier. I am especially fond of Olivier in movies that are pretty dumb (like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man), and this movie’s premise promised that it would be a fairly dumb movie.

Presentation on TCM: Well, once again, TCM plopped the film down with no introduction. I could not figure out why it was on either, although I know it was on during the late afternoon on a Monday. So far, since starting this website, I am 0 for 5 on movies that have any sort of introduction from a TCM person, and I have to say I’m disappointed and dispirited about it.

Synopsis: A recent emigre to England, Ann Lake (Lynley) goes to retrieve her kid, the titular Bunny Lake, from her fist day of school only to find out that (as might be gleaned from the title) she is missing. But no one at the school seems to remember her at all, and the Scotland Yard investigator called in to investigate, Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier), begins to suspect Bunny may not exist. Ann’s brother, Steven (Dullea), a reporter, tries to prove otherwise.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Bunny Lake is Missing is better titled than most movies (especially if you add an exclamation point when you say it aloud), but the film does not live up to the promise or excitement of the title. In fact, this is the first movie I’ve written about for this site that I just downright didn’t like. The movie is dull and lifeless, the acting mismatched (the heavy actors are great, the actual young stars awful), the plot twist at once obvious and too convoluted to be believed, and the film as a whole just meh, very very meh. But, bad aside, there’s still a little bit interesting in the film… just barely.

For one, the film opens with one of the better credit sequences I remember. A hand rips off pieces of paper to reveal the credits one by one, replacing the pieces again, like a person disassembling and reassembling a puzzle. Finally, the camera cuts away the final paper to reveal an English garden. The sequence (designed by Saul Bass, who also did credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, and West Side Story) is fun, and the score that plays over it (which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film) is catchy.

The look of the film as a whole is good too, with Preminger and the cinematographer, Denys Coop, making effective use of the deep focus lens. Everything is wide, bright, and strangely flat.

Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann's conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann’s conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I say “strangely flat” because so many of the shots show corners, and the camera seems to never come on a subject head-on—it’s nearly always askew. Yet the depth of field makes each shot simply look like a 2-d shot cut in half, creating a splintered effect (perhaps to show the splintered personalities of Steven). Preminger also makes use of long tracking shots which provide an almost voyeuristic effect on the audience, as though we are creeping around the edges of the truth. This effect was especially strong on the sequence in which the creepy old man landlord (played wonderfully by Coward) watches Superintendent Newhouse drive away from Ann’s house.

So, the look of the film is good, and the music is also good. The Zombies songs on the soundtrack are all good, though they are not as good as anything from Odyssey & Oracle or some of the awesome singles (like my personal favorite, “She’s Coming Home”), but they contribute nicely to an important aspect of the film: its setting in “Swinging London.” The Zombies are not active characters in the movie by any means—they merely appear on the television twice as the band guest on a variety show—but they remind the audience that the movie is a 60s movie, even if so much of it is more like a traditional thriller of the 40s and 50s.

There are a number of movies set in that London, of course, but, while watching Bunny Lake, I found myself thinking fondly of Blow Up, a movie I have never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to like (because it’s critically acclaimed and super Mod, and people like me always are supposed to be super into Mod culture, and I like British Invasion groups and so on, I feel like I should love Blow Up, but I always just kind of thought it was ok). Blow Up was made just a year after Bunny Lake and has the same setting and similar stylistic elements (and they’re both kinda thrillers), so I don’t think my thought process was that strained; however, the movies are radically different, and, as I said, I found myself liking one in absentia a lot better than the one I was watching, probably because of those radical differences.

Part of the difference seems to stem from the dilettantism Preminger put into Bunny Lake is Missing. It is a movie about a specific time and place (London in the present of 1965), but it barely uses anything unique about London in 1965 as a setting, even though Preminger chose to change the setting of the book from the USA to London. The film references 60s era topics such as protests—Stephen mentions covering a student demonstration at the airport as part of his job as a journalist—and it has some rock and roll in the diegetic soundtrack, but largely the film is out of time. It shows a group of middle class Americans who are new to England but uninterested in exploring the world or really introducing the world to the American film audience. Despite their newness to the nation, Ann and Stephen seem surprisingly adept at navigating London until the unthinkable happens. But even then, they manage. They impress the antiquated detective enough to keep him interested in the case, and he shows Carol (and by extension the audience) a “traditional English pub,” but no one ventures past the superficial elements of England.

The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience.  © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preminger chose to set the film in England largely so he could make use of some of his favorite London settings—including the creepy as Hell “doll hospital” at which Stephen is revealed as a villain—and these settings definitely contribute to the atmospherics of the film, but they are not places that only exist in 60s London. Rather, they could exist anywhere theoretically. Thrillers like this tend to be set in “no place” because the audience is scared that the plot could happen anywhere—including next door!— but it seems that a movie that uses a weirdly specific setting ought to more fully utilize that setting. The film should more clearly feel like it’s part of London in the 60s. But, of course, that’s not the point of this movie. Instead, it halfheartedly puts elements of the youth culture in it but does not embrace them (hence the Zombies merely being TV noise). The world of Bunny Lake may be transitioning into the 1960s, but the world shown is still pretty much the same it always was and will remain the same for the characters of the movie, aside from Stephen who will presumably be committed, of course. The setting is secondary to the story here, but if the film had embraced the setting a bit more, it all might have left a better finished product.

Blow Up, on the other hand, shows a bizarro world, following a fashion photographer as he shiftlessly investigates a crime through the swingingest parts of London (the plot is weird; I described it to my girlfriend once as an episode of Hart to Hart without Robert Wagner). The scene featuring the Yardbirds (themselves a more aggressive form of the Zombies) is prominent in the film, and the film shows rather than merely talks about protesters. It is an element of the 60s, a film that preserves the time period and serves as an artifact from it. Bunny Lake is simply a movie from the same era and a largely forgettable one at that.

And that’s fine. I’m not trying to suggest that Bunny Lake has the same aim as Blow Up. The former is a mass-market big studio thriller, the latter an art-house picture.

It’s just that both films do largely the same things (thrillers with oddly specific settings featuring rock bands), but Bunny Lake does it so halfheartedly and disinterestedly. I suppose one could say that shows something about how much the world changed between 1965 and 1966, but that seems a bit strained. Really, Blow Up is just a more competent film, and Bunny Lake is kinda shitty.

One lesson to draw from Bunny Lake is how important subtlety is to a good horror movie or thriller. Olivier’s presence reminded me of Rebecca, a film that feels creepy throughout and makes better use of its atmospherics (to see the atmospherics, here’s the opening to that film in Spanish). Bunny Lake makes use of extreme atmospherics and creepiness, but it never gets creepy.

This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The doll hospital is creepy in a carnival-haunted-house-ride way, and the room the founder of Bunny’s school, Ada Ford (Hunt) (who sits in an attic-type room and writes down and listens to audio tapes of children’s nightmares), sits in is frightening too. The atmospherics though don’t contribute anything to the final product besides a general creepiness, because they are so overdone. And, of course, because the plot is just so stupid.

And the stupidest part of the plot is the twist that Ann’s brother is a schizophrenic. This is meant to be as terrifying as the setting (who knows what kind of evil lurks in your loved ones!), but it never gets interesting, nor is it a terrifying twist. The twist in Rebecca, however, is surprising and unsettling, in part because the film as whole is just plain better than Bunny Lake but in part because the atmospherics are more subtle and better done (even in spite of the hammy cousin and some of the more bizarre elements of Manderley). The psychological thriller component of Bunny Lake just ends up being dull and stupid.

Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The result is a tired and uneven movie that has elements that should make it good (60s London, scene-stealing acting from Olivier/Coward/Hunt, a nice look, a fun sequence in a doll shop) but that largely just dress up a tedious swine in some Mod pearls.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: No, probably not. I didn’t like this movie, and it felt like a waste of time. I guess I liked seeing the Zombies in small doses, but I never got that interested in this film. Maybe if I saw it in the theater, it would’ve been better, but it definitely did not play well in my living room, off of DVR.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis movie poster. Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.
Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Details:
Director: Vincente Minnelli        Producer: Arthur Freed
Writers: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake
Studio: MGM   Year: 1944

Why I DVRed It: A lifetime ago, I won a part in a staged production of Meet Me in St. Louis. After a grueling audition process, I won the highly coveted roles of both a nameless chorus member and an anonymous square dancer in a junior high production of the musicial in suburban Minneapolis. It was my first and last foray into the world of the theater, musical or otherwise. In fact, the experience was so unpleasant (believe it or not, middle school students are not nice to each other) that I was forever turned off by musicals (which I also wasn’t enamored of before learning all the words to “The Trolley Song”). Since then, of course, I’ve halfway come around to them. That is, I don’t seek them out typically, but I’ll go to a live one if someone else wants to go, or I’ll watch a movie musical if it’s supposed to be really good or at least doesn’t look awful. That has led me to see some good and some not so good films. Singing in the Rain was, of course, a delight, but even a fascination in all things Elvis could not make me stomach Bye Bye BirdieMeet Me in St. Louis is generally lumped (along with Singing in the Rain) into that category of “critically acclaimed musicals,” so I figured it couldn’t be terrible.

Additionally, I was looking to watch something that didn’t seem too intense. I’ve been watching and reading too many crime stories lately, and I wanted something saccharine—this movie seemed about as sappy as I could get.

Presentation on TCM: This was on at 4 in the morning, a time when TCM does not seem to bring out the big guns (Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz). I have no idea why it was on at 4 in the morning, either—that is, there was no theme I could discern from that evening/morning’s lineup. I guess the mindset was that the type of people up at 4 in the morning (the elderly, laborers, insomniacs, hard partiers, and lunatics) would be the type most likely to watch a Minnelli musical in Technicolor.

Louisiana purchase centennial, World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).
Louisiana Purchase Centennial, World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).

Synopsis: This is a musical in which the plot seems secondary in import to having ample opportunity for song and dance numbers. The year is 1903, and everyone in St. Louis is ridiculously excited for the World’s Fair the city will host the following year, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In the Smith household, Esther (Garland) has a crush on the next-door neighbor, John Truett (Drake), and Rose (Bremer) pines for her boyfriend in New York to propose. Meanwhile, the youngest child, the doted-upon Tootie (O’Brien) has a morbid sense of humor, and the father, Alonso (Ames), decides to uproot everyone to New York—even though St. Louis is where the World’s Fair is going to be!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Meet Me in St. Louis is often regarded as one of the best of the big Hollywood musicals. In 1944, it was an instant hit and further cemented Judy Garland’s star. It was the first collaboration between her and director Vincente Minneli, her eventual husband. Garland was originally very uninterested in the film, both because it exacerbated her already overstrained schedule and because the film did not appear to have much potential. Indeed, the film was known around MGM as “Freed’s Folly” while it was being filmed. The choice of an unproven Minnelli did not help, and filming was difficult for all on the set. (For a great breakdown of the creation of the film, please visit The Judy Room.) Nevertheless, all were happy with the finished product, which raked in millions nationwide and had a profound impact on the morale of American theatergoers during the third year of World War II. Indeed, the film became something of a national treasure.

And it’s easy to see why: It shows America as the audience wants it to be, not as it is. I can’t say I particularly liked the film, but I didn’t not like it either. I just couldn’t get past a lot of the problems I have with musicals in general. The plot is quite thin (as was probably gleaned from my synopsis), and the music here pretty much never furthers the plot. All of the songs are performance pieces for characters in the movie (i.e., the characters sing standalone songs for each other’s amusement, rather than for the purpose of plot), and they could just as easily be cut for one to follow the story, not unlike the sex scenes in a porno. But, of course, the audience of St. Louis is primarily watching the movie to see Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, et al, sing, so cutting the songs would make as much sense as cutting the sex from a porno. If I were more inclined to liking musicals, I might think better of the film, but I’m not, and I don’t.

The song numbers, true, are very good. I’m far from the first person in the history of the world to note this, but Judy Garland’s got quite the voice on her. And her acting (along with that of O’Brien and Astor) makes up for rather mediocre acting from most others in the cast. I did rather like the look of the film: Set designers clearly played up and utilized all that Technicolor offered. The house, for instance, which is basically the only set for the entire movie, is quite richly decorated with lush tapestries and colorful furniture, and all of the characters wear beautiful costumes that create a variegated look to each scene.

Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

MGM spared no expense on this movie (remember, film stock—especially color film stock—and lighting were extremely expensive in the war years), and audiences certainly appreciated it. In truth, the look of the film makes up for a lot of its problems. The songs are all well sung but sparsely choreographed, leaving very little to focus on if not the colors. And Minnelli’s framing device, opening each season with a color postcard that turns into a live-action shot of the house, is clever for setting up the plot. I just couldn’t get past the thinness of said plot and the fact that I never really cared about the Smith family or their exploits.

What little plot there is centers around 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair that is today as forgotten as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 is celebrated. It was a big deal in 1904, of course, but today it is known only for its controversial displays of newly conquered “primitive Americans” (from Guam and the Philippines) and for being the place that popularized cotton candy, waffle cones, peanut butter, and other foods. In fact, the 1904 World’s Fair is probably best remembered today as the setting for Meet Me in St. Louis (even though the film only has one scene actually at the fair…). It is, however, the lack of historical import of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that makes the fair such a perfect setting for a film that celebrates an idealized portrayal of American life; after all, few could challenge the veracity of the film’s portrayal of a fair about which few had much knowledge. The fair’s themes also underscore the idealized patriotic themes of the film. A decade after the “closing of the frontier,” the fair celebrated American expansionism (quite literally, it celebrated the centennial of the doubling of America), and, in 1944, the height of World War II, the setting of a fair celebrating world peace clearly harkens to an era of innocence. And this innocence appears permanent in the diegetic St. Louis of the film, rather than (as in the case of soooooooo many films about the 1960s for instance) as something just on the cusp of passing. If the film were set during the Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, world peace would still be on display, but so too would change—in the form of electricity. The St. Louis World’s Fair, though, just celebrated “nice things” and optimism about the future.

Of course, such innocence never truly existed, but that is exactly the point of the film. Meet Me in St. Louis showcased the idealized American life later (and concurrently) embodied by Norman Rockwell paintings, It’s a Wonderful Life (two years later), and Walt Disney. In fact, Disney’s theme parks much resemble the look and feel of the film, with the parks’ Main Street, USA showcasing the same Midwest of the early 20th century of Meet Me in St. Louis. Disney World’s Carousel of Progress, especially, bares striking resemblance to the film. In that attraction, the audience watches an animatronic old man describe all the great things technology has wrought and describes the story of America in the 20th century teleologically. The audience learns that technology is improving the quality of life for everyone while the narrator omits some of the events that actually brought about those changes (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, the 60s). But, of course, no one wants to go to an amusement park and be bummed out about war and stuff. And that’s exactly the purpose Meet Me in St. Louis served. It offered an escape (it still offers an escape) from what was really going on in the world. The America of the film was simply a nice place in which everyone had enough of everything, including money, opportunity, love, family, and optimism.

Even the Smith's house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized
Even the Smith’s house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized “typical American” house. In reality, it is clearly the house of a wealthy family, but the world of Meet Me in St. Louis is classless, in that we never see anyone of another class (other than the family maid, but she’s sassy and a member of the family). © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The film almost overtly projects certain ideals of American life. For one, it offers a very mawkish and romantic vision of American family life. The Smiths are meant to be an every family (even the name Smith is as generic as can be), and their middle class Victorianism is meant to look appealing to the audience. Indeed, the family is loving and affectionate to each other. Even after the father decides completely by himself and out of nowhere to uproot the family to New York (as is his right as the male in a Victorian family) and tears are shed, the family reunites over the piano to join in a popular song. Love unites the family, and music is the language of love (at least according to Shakespeare).

The film also offers the idea that the true center of American family life is out there, away from the corrupt cities of the East. St. Louis is where it’s at, and it’s where true families want to live. Tootie, a child strangely obsessed with death and disease (for more on that subject, read See St. Louis and Die) is particularly upset about the move to New York, and Esther tries to calm her by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (yes, Meet Me in St. Louis is the source of that cherished holiday classic), but Tootie runs out to destroy the snowmen she and the rest of the family created in a schmaltzy sequence earlier in the film. In typical 40s movie fashion, Alonso watches from a window as Esther tries to stop Tootie from destroying the snow family:

Tootie: Nobody’s going to have [the snowmen], not if we can’t take them to New York! I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them with us!
Esther: Oh, Tootie, don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s all right. You can build other snow people in New York.
Tootie: No, you can’t! You can’t do any of the things that I can do in St. Louis!
Esther: No, no, Tootie, you’re wrong. New York is a wonderful town. Everybody dreams about going there, but we’re luckier than lots of families because we’re really going… Thats’s what really counts. We could be happy anywhere as long as we’re together. 

Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavyhanded representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can. . © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavy-handed representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can.  © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

After watching this, Alonso reverses course and decides to stay in St. Louis. Interestingly, New York is the “desired place” but not the place the family is supposed to end up. The film makes a startling cry for suburban/rural domesticity and middle class values. (As someone who has been in New York too long, I guess I can agree with that sentiment—New York in July is a garbage city that smells like garbage, the same garbage that lines the garbage streets I have to walk to get to the subway overcrowded with assholes and maniacs, but I digress.) St. Louis has enough, apparently, for Tootie, whose happiness is utmost. Children were, of course, the most important aspect of any Victorian family, and Alonso knows better than to want more than what he needs: Though New York probably would allow him to get richer, he is rich enough with his gigantic house, servant, and loving children (plus, logically, the St. Louis hosting both the World’s Fair and the Olympics would probably have some ways for him to get more money if he really wanted it).

Morals do not come up in this film because no one is immoral, but they just as easily could. St. Louis is pure (note that the scene described above takes place in the driven snow), and Tootie implies that family itself will die once the family is away from America’s heartland. She will kill them all (as she kills the snowmen) if New York doesn’t kill the family first.  Finally, though, it is not the ills of New York that prevent him from moving the family; rather, it’s the joys of St. Louis. Alonso states that “New York hasn’t got opportunity copyrighted. St. Louis is headed for a boom.”

Indeed, the film ends on an even stronger pronouncement of that sentiment. As the newly engaged Esther and John gaze at the Grand Lagoon at the center of the World’s Fair, she looks right at the camera and says, of the fair, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live, right here in St. Louis.” The film ends implying that the world is now coming to the United States, making the United States the center of the world. As World War II came to and end, this would be true, and the middle class values of Meet Me in St. Louis demonstrated just what the world should look like at war’s end (should, not would).

The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

It doesn’t matter that such innocence and optimism lack verisimilitude. Minnelli, in fact, makes it clear throughout that the film is a fiction and not realistic (for example, the framing device of announcing the seasons seems to suggest that the film shows an imagined story about what could happen in a picture postcard world). Instead, Meet Me in St. Louis provides exactly what musicals espouse: a world for us to aspire to and dream about, something, as Esther puts it of her first encounter with John, “strange and romantic.”

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t particularly like the film, but that’s just because I’m a misanthrope and cynic. It was well done, and it certainly provided me with something to think about (even if I only thought about it misanthropically and cynically). I think it’s important to at least occasionally watch movies that I might not normally pick (and to try new foods and listen to new bands, and all that “variety is the spice of life” shit), and I’m glad I made myself watch this one. I probably won’t watch it again, of course, but I might occasionally accidentally hum “meet me in St. Louis, Louis” or “clang clang clang went the trolley…”