Monthly Archives: October 2014
John Patrick Shanley is such a generous writer. He loves his characters, and he wants to immerse us in their world. While at first glance they may seem petty, foolish, unreasonable, as we get to know them better we realize that they’re driven by the same desires, the same fears, as the rest of us. They may be flawed, but so is the rest of humanity.
Moonstruck is a richly detailed comedy about a woman approaching middle age, Loretta, who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother, Ronny. The premise is familiar, but Shanley takes us beyond the predictable complications of romantic comedy. He brings us into Loretta’s home to meet her mother and father, who have their own marital complications. We meet her grandfather, who walks his pack of dogs and worries that his family is unhappy. We sit down with everyone at the dinner table, where the in-laws tell stories about early courtship. Rather than just focussing on Loretta and Ronny, Shanley looks at the troubled relationships of the people around them. In most romantic comedies we take it for granted that the couple is in love, and the movie is about the hurdles they have to jump to be together. Moonstruck asks what love is, and the answer isn’t simple.
Nothing is simple in Moonstruck, least of all the families. Loretta’s fiancé Johnny is a mama’s boy, flying off to Italy to visit the woman who gave birth to him one last time. Loretta’s love for her father is tempered by the fact that he refused to give her away when she was first married. Ronny bears a burning grudge against his brother, believing that it’s Johnny’s fault he was maimed. The film shows how all these people are products of the relationships they have with their parents, their siblings, their children, both for good and for bad. In fact, the good and bad are inseparable. Loretta and Ronny can’t just ride off into the sunset together because they’re completely tangled in the complicated web that families weave.
Many of these people are driven by desire. The characters are either burning with it, or they’ve been burned by it. Loretta’s father, Cosmo, woos his mistress, trying to pretend he’s a young man again. His wife, Rose, lies in bed, frustrated that her husband won’t touch her. A college professor dates a string of young students, trying to rekindle his interest in life. And Loretta, who hasn’t been with a man since she was widowed, suddenly finds herself throwing caution to the wind and letting Ronny sweep her off her feet.
But desire is tempered by awareness of death. As he walks into the kitchen, Loretta’s father echoes Vicki Carr singing, “Or I will die….” The grandfather meets his ancient friends in a cemetery where they stand together over a grave. Ronny and Loretta go to the Met to see La Boheme, a story about lovers separated by death. As these people eat and drink, argue and make love, mortality is always standing in the background. When Loretta’s father criticizes her engagement ring, she responds by telling him it’s temporary. He shouts back at her, “Everything is temporary!”
Director Norman Jewison handles the intricate script with admirable assurance, breathing life into the people that Shanley has created. Jewison has an impressive grasp of the craft of filmmaking, but he’s more than just a craftsman. At his best he imbues his work with a vibrant energy and an exhilarating expansiveness that can carry you away. In Moonstruck the warmth of his images makes palpable Shanley’s love for his characters. And he makes New York glitter. Much of the film is shot on location, and the characters seem to really belong on these streets. Jewison took great pains to capture the community that the story takes place in. As an example, the director felt it was so important to have his actors experience the heat and the smell of a real bakery that he changed the last name of Ronny’s character to fit an actual bakery that he felt was perfect for the scene. While the film is part fairy tale, this insistence on rooting it in actual experience gives it weight and texture. Jewison is lucky to have the gifted David Watkin as cinematographer. His attention to light makes the streets, the shops, the homes all feel alive. Watkin’s work with the actors is even more impressive. He doesn’t just photograph faces, he photographs feelings.
The lovers end up together, but Shanley doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. Frustrated by Loretta’s resistance, Ronny tells her, “Love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything.” Shanley doesn’t believe that relationships are about looking for happy endings. Ronny goes on to say, “We are here to ruin ourselves, and to break our hearts.” And in the end, Loretta acquiesces. She accepts the messy, crazy chaos of life.
But at the end, the film doesn’t focus on the lovers. In the last scene everyone is gathered around the breakfast table, parents, siblings, in-laws, and they drink a toast to the family. In spite of all the pain, anger, guilt and shame that goes with those relationships, Shanley seems to be saying that the good outweighs the bad. He still embraces the family.
Antonia Bird had a long career as a director, but she only made a handful of theatrical features. As far as I can tell, none of them went anywhere commercially. I think in part this is because her films don’t play by the rules that mainstream audiences are used to. Her movies just don’t fall into the usual categories.
Take Ravenous. It tells the story of a young soldier posted to a remote fort in California who narrowly escapes being eaten by a cannibal, only to later find himself becoming a cannibal. Ravenous is not a comedy, though it has moments of very black comedy. It’s not a western, though it has many of the elements that characterize westerns. And it’s not a horror movie, though a number of scenes are truly horrifying. Really it’s a morality play. The crux of the film is the main character’s choice between right and wrong.
The script, by Ted Griffin, begins with a battle in the Mexican-American War. We see the young soldier, Boyd, as he receives a medal and a promotion for single-handedly seizing a command post behind enemy lines. Later we learn the full story, and it beomes clear that Boyd isn’t the hero he appears to be. In fact he’s severely traumatized, and his commanding officer sends him to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas.
This is where he encounters Calhoun, the only survivor of a party that tried to cross the Sierras in the dead of winter. At first it seems that Calhoun is the only member of the party that managed to escape when his companions turned to eating one another. But we soon find out that he’s the cannibal, and that he’s still hungry. We also learn that in eating his victims he acquires their strength and bravery. Calhoun tells Boyd of his transformation from a sickly, tubercular invalid to a healthy, virile predator. He plans to continue eating human flesh, and he invites Boyd to join him.
Calhoun’s character represents the savagery of nineteenth century American imperialism. He’s intelligent and cunning, and totally unapologetic about the fact that he eats human beings. In fact, he sees the practice as a sign of strength. Standing in a graveyard outside the fort, he speaks to Boyd of Manifest Destiny, explaining that this young, hungry nation must eat to grow. The first time we see Calhoun, he’s holding a small cross in his hand, and throughout the film he’s closely associated with this Christian symbol. For centuries, European nations had used evangelism as a pretext for slaughter and plunder, and the US continued that tradition in the nineteenth century. Christianity was perverted to justify war against the indigenous people who populated North America. At the film’s climax, Calhoun paints a cross on his forehead with blood. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.
The film’s design seems to have grown organically out of its themes. The story is mostly played out within the claustrophobic darkness of the fort or the enormous, snowy landscapes of the American West. Against this background of murky shadow and blinding white, we see the dull blue of the soldiers’ uniforms, the bright red of splattered blood, and occasionally the colors of the American flag as it curls in the breeze. This beautifully unified conception is the work of production designer Bryce Perrin. Using this visual framework, cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints a physical landscape that is overwhelmingly huge, while at the same time delineating a psychological landscape that is dark, cramped and terrifying. Sheena Napier’s costumes don’t just help define the characters, they also express the way the characters evolve as the story unfolds.
And these are unusual, challenging characters. Guy Pearce does an impressive job with Boyd, bringing us into his state of mind, allowing us to see these harrowing events through the eyes of this weak, scared, vulnerable man. But Pearce also makes clear that there’s a spark of strength in Boyd that allows him to take a stand against evil. As Calhoun, Robert Carlyle is both frightening and charismatic. This intelligent, articulate cannibal isn’t just a bloodthirsty monster. He believes in what he’s doing, and preaches eloquently on the subject. Sheila Tousey’s Martha speaks few lines of dialogue, but the actress imbues her character with a quiet, stoic strength. And Jeffrey Jones shows his consummate skill at playing offbeat roles, making the softspoken Col. Hart sympathetic, even when he becomes a cold-blooded killer. I can’t think of many actors who could handle the line, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”
The score is just as unusual as the rest of the movie, being credited to a young rock star and an established film composer. Damon Albarn uses traditional instruments to capture the psycho soul of these soldiers trudging through the vast isolation of the American wilderness. Michael Nyman’s orchestral cues are skilfully woven into the texture of the film, underlining the feeling of dread and paranoia.
Antonia Bird’s films didn’t follow the usual patterns, and didn’t offer comforting solutions. Her protagonists find themselves in difficult, overwhelming situations, and they don’t win easy victories, if it can be said they end up winning at all. And this is probably a large part of the reason why her theatrical features never found large audiences.
Bird died last October. She was a filmmaker who didn’t want to compromise, and she paid the price at the box office. It’s not easy to find her work, with some of her films being difficult or impossible to get hold of. This is a shame. She was a unique artist and a gifted director. Her films deserve to be seen.
No Blood Relation (1932)
Back in the first half of the twentieth century, Japan had a studio system that was comparable in many ways to Hollywood. And just like in Hollywood, the Japanese studios churned out genre films by the dozens. These were films based on formulas that had proven appeal, using melodramatic plot lines that generally followed well-worn patterns. They were meant to be predictable.
But just like in Hollywood, there were directors working within the system who would take this conventional framework and somehow manage to make something that undermined the conventions. One of these directors was Mikio Naruse. Over a period of four decades he turned out scores genre films, primarily women’s pictures and family dramas. But within what seems like a fairly narrow range of subject matter, he was able to tell stories with tremendous depth and subtlety.
No Blood Relation is basically a Shirley Temple movie.* It has the same melodramatic plot centered on a cute little moppet who is taken away from the woman she believes to be her mother. But the complexity of the relationships and the depth of feeling takes No Blood Relation way farther than any movie Shirley Temple ever made.
Naruse focussed on women throughout his career, and here it’s the women who are at the heart of the story. We have Tamae, who years ago left her husband and her child to become a movie star. At the beginning of the film she returns to Japan to reclaim her daughter, Shigeko. But Tamae’s ex-husband has remarried, and his wife, Masako, has formed an unbreakable bond of love with her stepdaughter.
It’s the tension between these two women that makes the film compelling and powerful. Masako is a simple, humble housewife who is completely devoted to her stepdaughter. The character could have been an awful drag, but Yukiko Tsukuba plays it with such simplicity and clarity that she seems completely real. We don’t doubt that Shigeko is the center of her world, and it’s wrenching to see the child taken away from her. At the other end of the spectrum is Tamae, the woman who left her family to become a glamorous movie star. Many filmmakers would have made her a villain. Naruse makes her a smart, confident, complicated woman who’s been haunted by her decision to abandon her daughter. Yoshiko Okada digs into the role, keeping us with her every step of the way as she desperately tries to win her daughter’s love.
Naruse’s visuals are surprisingly dynamic. You’d think for a domestic drama he’d keep the camerawork low key. Instead, he’s constantly tracking in, tracking out and panning from side to side. The editing is also unusually imaginative, with its surprising rhythms and unconventional transitions. Honestly I feel like the director overdoes it a bit, but the style never interferes with the drama. His first priority is always keeping us engaged with the characters and deepening our understanding of them. Like many filmmakers, Naruse started his career making movies that tested the bounds of cinematic form, but later settled into a more serene, fluid style.
The film is closely tied to the time it was made. Like much of the rest of the world, Japan’s economy was on the skids in the thirties. One of the plot complications here is that Shigeko’s father goes bankrupt and is sent to prison. The family loses their house and all their belongings, leaving the mother to work in a department store in order to make ends meet. The return of Tamae adds a layer of Depression-era fantasy to the film. Here is an ordinary woman who has become a movie star and travelled to Hollywood. She arrives in Japan on a massive ocean liner, and is greeted by reporters and photographers. Even if they disapproved of Tamae’s actions, I think it’s likely that many Japanese women would have envied this wealthy, independent actress who seems to be in complete control of her life.
“Seems” is the key word here. In the end, Tamae fails to reclaim her daughter, and returns to America. This ending is in line with the traditional morality that’s been an integral part of commercial films since the silent era. Money can’t buy you happiness. The only true happiness comes through embracing family and accepting your lot in life. But Naruse doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t use Tamae’s defeat as an opportunity to render judgment. When Shigeko is returned to her home, Masako realizes how painful the moment must be for Tamae. In the final scene, the family races to the dock to say farewell to the actress as her boat leaves. They arrive just in time. The ship is pulling away from the harbor, and the family runs to the dock to wave goodbye. A minute earlier Tamae was unhappy because she didn’t see the child in the crowd below. Now the pain of seeing her is too much to bear, and she turns away.
I don’t mean to imply that this film was intended to capitalize on Temple’s popularity. No Blood Relation was made around two years before the American child star hit the big time.