Saturday, February 12, 2011

At the Movies

This week, Readers Mine, let me start out with a bit of advice: never watch two cinematic masterpieces during the course of a week, and then follow them with James Cameron’s Avatar on the weekend. The latter’s weaknesses, already quite visible, become glaring. That being said, it is hard to imagine a film that would stand up well against Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Ikiru is the story of a 30-year career bureaucrat, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and realizes that, despite being an old man, he has never lived. In Japanese, “ikiru” means “to live,” and the remainder of the film is devoted to Watanabe’s search for a way to give meaning to his life in the six months he has to live. I scooped up the Criterion Collection edition of the film on DVD as a late birthday present, so I got all sorts of extra goodies with the film, including a nice little booklet in which a noted historian and biographer of Kurosawa proceeded to misinterpret the film as a modern existentialist statement. Instead of a negation of meaning, however, Ikiru beautifully renders what is a core tenant of humanism: that the meanings of our lives are found in what we do with them, in the meanings we choose to imbue them with. As the inimitable Joss Whedon would have it, “if nothing that we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.” As Mockingbird pointed out to me, the first half of that line is existentialism, the second, and dominant, half is humanism. Watanabe does indeed imbue his life with meaning in a mere six months, even as his cancer kills him, and gives the film its soul in the wonderful line:
“I can’t afford to hate anyone. I haven’t got that kind of time.”
If you should get a chance, see this wonderful film, made by perhaps the greatest film auteur of the 20th century. Personally, I still see Red Beard as his humanist masterwork, but Ikiru is a thing of beauty to light the modern soul with hope, and how can you not fall in love with such a film?

Next we turn to a film which I’m ashamed to say I’d never seen until this week, Vertigo. One of the ways Mockingbird and I are dealing with our Commuter Marriage is to try, once a week, to watch the same movie on the same night in our separate digs, so we have a kind of date night and something to talk about in the following days besides work and school. We’re trying to go through the films neither one of us has seen but for one reason or another think we want to or ought to. (Avatar was part of this too, and now that we’ve seen it, we never have to see it again.) So this week was Hitchcock’s disturbing masterwork Vertigo.
I always like it when a film that is billed as disturbing really disturbs me. The ability to make me actively uncomfortable is a sign of great narrative filmmaking, and Vertigo does this in spades. The film tells the story of a retired police detective (James Stewart), who is hired by an old college buddy to follow his psychologically unstable wife (Kim Novak). Hitchcock leads us gently along the garden path with his easy pacing for the first half of the film and then throws us into a house of mirrors-maze and locks the exits for the second. It becomes a frighteningly intimate portrait of a shared descent into madness, obsession, and control that had me squirming in my seat, not least because of what Jeff Bussolini has called the “intertextuality of character” inherent in Jimmy Stewart, who is far afield from his normal, lovable, aw-shucks-merry-Christmas-everybody characters, and into deep, dark waters indeed. Plus, Hitchcock actually manages to make Kim Novak over into a cheap, frowzy broad with some hair-color, bangs, and exaggerated eyebrow-penciling, while Novak herself shows some serious acting chops as she moves from personality to personality throughout the film.
Perhaps the most striking thing to my eye, however, was Hitchcock’s use of color, and particularly the capabilities of Technicolor, where you can get not just blue, but !!!BLUE!!! Hitchcock uses the technology with tremendous artistry, keeping the colors muted and realistic for most scenes but using the full glory of Technicolor with the surety of a Fauvist master. A bed of red flowers there, emerald cocktail dress here, a sticky day-glow neon green from a neon sign there, until the color itself becomes a character in the film, wrapping you round and drawing you into an uncomfortable intimacy of creeping insanity. This is a creepy, creepy film, and if you’ve never seen it, you are really missing one of the highlights of American Cinema.
So now I’ve done some quickie film reviews here, which full-well count as scribblings, and was a lot of fun to boot. Mock’ and I have a bunch more movies coming this semester, so maybe there’ll be more of these in future. Until next time, be well.

1 comment:

  1. Vertigo creeped me out and I had to cut it in half and view it over two nights this week! Avatar - super pretty, but the color didn't MEAN anything (and yes, I know not everything has to mean something, but it's sort of what I look for. Meaning, that is.) Thanks for the review - and I really have to see more Kurosawa than I have!