Sunday, May 20, 2018

THE STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS (1939, CHINA)

The world's a stage
in The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums

For (Director Kenji) Mizoguchi, the business of the artist is the conversion of life into the perfection and precision of art, and the business of cinema is both the conversion of life into art and the reverse conversion of art into the "living" vitality of cinema-Gerald Mast, A Short History of Movies

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Synopsis: Kiku isn't that hot as an actor, though he gives it is best. It's tough having a famous actor father and trying to follow in his footsteps (see the career of John Wilkes Booth). However, the family won't come right out and say to him that his acting is really not too good. Otuku, the wet nurse for the family is the one person who levels to Kiku about his thespian deficiencies. Otuku is quickly forced to leave the family when it is discovered she let the cat out of the bag, but a grateful Kiku tracks her down and wishes to marry her largely because she's the only one that has been honest with him. (This situation reminds me of the time in Gomer Pyle, USMC, when Gomer Pyle is the only one to to tell pretty Lou Ann Poovie that she can't sing, and Luann eventually falls for Gomer for his honesty...but I digress.)

Otuku and Kiku eventually wind up together, but experience their share of problems...emotional and financial. The couple are forced to part...but Kiku rejoins his family troupe (with the secret intervention of Otuku) and becomes a good and respected Kabuki actor!

Kiku and Otuku are finally given permission to marry with the blessing of the family, only it is now too late. Otuku is about to die and Kiku's moment of artistic triumph is scarred by heartbreak.

A tragic story whose highlight to me is the inner working and turmoil of the traveling acting troupe. (See also In the Bleak Midwinter, Children of Paradise or The Seventh Seal or many versions of Hamlet for other films with acting troupe stories within the main story).

Lou Ann Poovie is shocked when Gomer Pyle
tells her she can't sing!

But she falls for the big lug anyway

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

THE GODDESS (1934, CHINA)

Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess

The plot of this stark, sad film involves a young mother (and prostitute) who tries to do whatever she can for her young child. She is met with opposition from all corners, including her possessive pimp and an education system that rejects the child because of his mother's reputation.

It is a good film and one that at least offers a glimmer of hope at the end, but is still a largely sad ride to go on.

I try to judge films without overthinking about the actual life of one of the film's participants, but that's a little hard to do in The Goddess and the star Ruan Lingyu, who plays the mother in the film. Lingyu was one of the most popular stars of China during this time, but her life was ultimately as tragic as the heroine in the film, as Ruan committed suicide in 1935 at the age of twenty-four.

Her story was recounted in the 1992 Stanley Kwan film Center Stage (another 1001 Films entry), which I will try to get to soon.

Ruan Lingyu

Thursday, May 10, 2018

LA ROUE (1923, FRANCE)

"With his silent productions, J'Accuse, La Roue, and Napoleon, he (Abel Gance) made a fuller use of the medium than anyone else."-Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By

"What is marvelous about Napoleon and La Roue is the narrative enthusiasm, the sweeping exposition of events, and the way the images reveal interior feelings through dynamic editing."-David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film
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I knew about Abel Gance's Napoleon, but I had no knowledge of his epic drama La Roue (The Wheel).

But it really is a masterpiece of early cinema...the production design, the use of editing and dramatic storytelling.

And plotwise, it features a doomed romance...make that two doomed romances...make that three.

Of course, the fact that the plot borders on incest may be a little uncomfortable for some...


But there are trains...Lots and lots of trains!


And what about Severin-Mars, the star of the movie who is listed as dying in 1921...two years before the release of La Roue? Not even a Wikipedia article about the man?

I think he should at least warrant a Wikipedia article....Maybe I'll write one.

And a special mention to the engineer's loyal dog Toby. I had to at least mention Toby.

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go-Watching the Wheels, John Lennon

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A THROW OF DICE (1929)

Seeta Devi loves a man with an addiction
in A Throw of Dice
"Beautiful though the scenes of India are in Throw of Dice, a Hindu silent film now at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, this present offering is not comparable with that fine pictorial achievement Shiraz, the poetic tale of the Taj Mahal." -New York Times Review, January 6, 1930.
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I had never heard of the movie Shiraz mentioned in the above review, but by the rave Shiraz received there and the fact that the British film Institute recently restored it made me think that the 1001 list may have chosen the wrong Franz Osten film.

That being said, it was interesting to see A Throw of Dice. It has great costumes, a cast of hundreds and lots of elephants. It is interesting that such a grand setting is basically wrapped around the simple story of two kings vying for the love of a beautiful woman. One of the kings is ruthless and the other has a gambling problem that the other king is willing to exploit for his own end. The fact that this silent epic was released after talking pictures had been established may have prevented it from being a greater success. -C. Cox, 1001: A Film Odyssey

Fast foward to 2008 after, A Thrown of Dice-
“There’s hardly a frame in the 1929 film  A Throw of Dice  that doesn’t provide a surge of visual pleasure. Produced by the German director Franz Osten and the Bengali lawyer and crusading nationalist Himansu Rai, the movie itself seems poised between two cultures, balancing the highly developed technique of German silent filmmaking and the rich iconography of Indian tradition. Jungles and palaces, elephants and tigers, princes in silk and servants in rags were photographed on location in Rajasthan and presented with the meticulous lighting, enveloping depth effects and rhythmic editing patterns of the Weimar cinema at its height.”-Dave Kehr, New York Times, July 15, 2008

Well, it only took about eighty years, but it looks like The Times finally got around to giving the movie a positive review! 

And next time I'm in New York, I definitely got to see see what is playing at The Fifty-Fifth Street Playhouse!