Ugetsu; Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi. 1953. 94mins.

Post-war Japanese cinema is noted generally for its prolific output and creative vision, and specifically for the way in which it obliquely but unmistakably dealt with the recent military cataclysm.  Mizoguchi’s stylistic gem predates Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai by a year and also recasts modern Japan’s difficult identity crisis in the setting of the war-torn 16th century.

The story centers around the families of two men bent on lifting themselves out of poverty and obscurity, one essentially a war profiteer and the other one on a foolish quest to become a samurai.  The film opens with Genjuro, a potter, convinced that only money can bring happiness, and so the risks associated with carrying on his trade in a conflict zone are invisible to him.  Tobei, a poor neighbor, assists him for a cut of the profits, but his real goal is to gain a fortune as a man of war.  Both men fail to heed the warnings of their sensible wives, which seem like prudent advice for anyone with a gambling problem.  The female element, unable to reign in male ambition, disappears briefly and returns in the form of Machiko Kyō (of Rashomon fame), portraying an otherworldly temptress who tests the limits of Genjuro’s depravity.

The scene in which both couples take a boat laden with pottery across a misty lake is reminiscent of the river Styx of Greek mythology.  The entire film pivots on this penumbral boundary between the real and the imagined.  In the former, pragmatism, caution, and devotion to home life are the basis for happiness, while the latter can, at best, offer fleeting thrills devoid of substance.  These lessons may seem a bit trite to contemporary viewers, but Mizoguchi’s slow pacing of scenes in the dream-world of ghosts and visions creates a psychic distance that jolts us when we must inevitably return to reality.

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Thank You for Smoking; Dir. Jason Reitman. 2005. 92mins. Aaron Eckhart, Cameron Bright, Katie Holmes, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott.

A glance at the trailer suggests this astute political farce may be a libertarian response to liberal muckraking flicks like SuperSize Me and the collected works of Michael Moore. Upon closer inspection, however, we can neatly categorize this satiric gem under Stephen Colbert’s spin-cycle, reality-bending genre of “truthiness.” Ruthless tobacco giants and the quixotic do-gooders who battle them are alike skewered, and thus for narrative direction and resolution the film relies upon the evolving relationship between divorced tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Eckhart) and his morally inquisitive son, Joey (Bright). Ethics, though, are quickly trumped by the sharp barbs of business-speak: when Joey’s stepfather asks if Nick is exposing his son to second-hand smoke, Nick deftly replies, “Look – I’m Joey’s father. You’re the guy who’s screwing his mom.” Reitman’s script, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, moves quickly from Washington DC to the Salem-Winston sanctuary of big tobacco’s julep-sipping “The Captain” (Duvall), to the Hollywood offices of Jeff Megall (Lowe), a zen-obsessed PR whiz who promises to deliver his client the mother of all product-placement: Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones in an on-screen, galactic post-coital smoke (an effort to return to the unrepentant smoky heyday of Bogie, Bacall, and Betty Davis). Katie Holmes plays the “Washington Probe” reporter Heather Holloway, who screws Nick (literally, then figuratively) to advance her career (could Ms. Holmes art, perchance, be imitating her life?…). This film can be seen as the Bush-era update of Michael Mann’s 1999 tobacco exposé The Insider. Back then, the truth set us free; now, we are free to choose from multiple truths, and the fabulous caricatures (William H. Macy as schoolmarmish Vermont Senator Finistirre, Sam Elliott as the ailing original Marlboro Man) can never completely hide the ominous undertone of the Enlightenment’s demise in contemporary American politics.

Sophie Scholl; Dir. Marc Rothemund. 2005. 120mins. Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs.

Finally, a solid WWII drama to answer the question, “Where were the good Germans?” In February of 1943, as news of devastating losses in Stalingrad sends shockwaves through Germany, a group of Munich students known as the White Rose clandestinely prints leaflets appealing to the conscience of their fellow citizens and predicting the ultimate demise of the Third Reich. Jentsch and Hinrichs portray siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl, whose utter guilelessness gets them apprehended rather early in the film. The interrogations and courtroom scenes which make up the bulk of the film are notable for the defendants’ unflagging ability to provoke moments of doubt in their hard-nosed bureaucratic Nazi captors, even if only shown as a twitch of the lip. Charges of “demoralizing the troops” have an unfortunate ring even today. Indeed, the central action of the state against a few dissidents is blown open into a struggle between competing views of the will of the German people – “total war” vs. peace and absolution. Jentsch seems to channel Joan of Arc, praying for divine guidance against all hope in her jail cell as air-raid sirens wail outside. Although parts of the script seem pulled from a high-school history lesson, Sophie’s compassionate appeals to the dignity of all life – whether Protestant, Jewish, mentally-handicapped or “normal” – seem to momentarily reverse the roles of prosecution and defense. A favorite Orwellian conceit in depictions of totalitarian societies is the chilling split of families when indoctrinated children report parents engaged in subversive activity. Here we have nothing less than the triumph of family bonds over the fear-mongering state, made all the more poignant as the exercise of this family’s values demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora); Dir. G. W. Pabst. 1929. 100mins. Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Gustav Diessl.

I had the privilege of listening to pianist/composer Steve Sterner accompany the Film Forum’s showing of this treasure from the end of the silent era. Shot in Berlin, the film is a dizzying allegory of the mayhem wrought by the over-the-top allure of a carefree young woman. As the film opens we see Lulu (Brooks) languidly throwing herself about a plush apartment with a revolving door of male admirers spanning three generations, each with a different plan for this bewitching chanteuse. Carl Goetz’s tipsy Schigolch aims to put her in a trapeze act, while the lovestruck Dr. Schön (Kortner) and his equally enchanted son Alwa (Lederer) cast her in a stage revue. The backstage antics of this scene are a hilarious stream of petulant foot-stamping, the frantic scurrying of a wide-eyed stage manager, and steamy dressing room seduction. More innocent and endearing than a Madame Bovary, and yet somehow more beguiling than a Sister Carrie, her morality is so compartmentalized as to be almost non-existent. We see her flipping through a catalog of decadent, racy flapper dresses, and she eventually gets to model, in turn, a bridal gown, mourning weeds, and the rags of an exiled fugitive gamine, though this latter sign of her demise cannot dampen the spirits of this ebullient party girl. Pabst’s camera deals with Brooks and her willowy beauty on her own flighty terms, without the suspended facial close-ups that treated her contemporary Greta Garbo as a porcelain icon rather than flesh-and-blood woman. Anyone who longs to see the screen equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s jazz-era gentlemen laid low by impossibly headstrong, demanding vixens should keep an eye out for screenings of this erotic classic.

Mystery Train; Dir. Jim Jarmusch. 1989. 113mins. Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinque Lee, Nicoletta Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi.

Die-hard Elvis fans might find this cooky-noir tribute to the King unsettling, but Jarmusch succeeds in capturing the simple, elegant seediness of Memphis in three droll, loosely-connected tales.  Centered around a cheap hotel run by a flamboyantly-dressed clerk (Hawkins), this film, more than any other I’m aware of, anticipates Tarantino’s ideas of cinematic cool, including sliced & diced chronology, cavalier gunplay, and the humorous skirting of racial and linguistic boundaries.  The art-house ethos thrives on this sort of a screenplay, devoid of strong leading characters and rigid plotlines, so that the mundane flavor of real life can be toyed with by a gallery of losers and budget travelers.  The initial vignette is in Japanese without subtitles, but if we pay attention we can pick out names like Carl Perkins and Elvis from the smoke-filled dialogue of Jun & Mitsuko (Nagase and Kudoh).  Jarmusch would go on to explore the theme of unlikely cross-cultural pollination in films like Ghost Dog.  Visually, the director excels in framing seemingly ordinary events (a purchase at a magazine stand, breaking glass, a guided tour in the tiny Sun Studios), and then stepping back and allowing their core absurdity to distill at it’s own pace.  The vintage Rock-a-billy soundtrack is the perfect complement to the gritty nostalgia of a decaying American city.  Star performances include Nicoletta Braschi as a slightly confused Italian widow, and Steve Buscemi in perhaps the first of many roles as the obligatory recipient of gruesome bodily harm.

Ladri di biciclette; Dir. Vittorio De Sica. 1948. Lamberto Maggiorani.

Most urban residents who have a bike stolen today have to treat it as a loathsome right of passage.  But to Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani), his bicycle is his meal ticket, and also a means of humble pride for a man trying to raise a small family.  Post-war Rome is seething with unemployed men and Antonio lands a job posting bills on walls.  When the inevitable crime occurs, he must endure a Joyce-like Odyssey through the city on foot, his young son at his side, trying in vain to pick out his bicycle from the dizzying array of thousands wheeling through the streets.  Indeed, his journey takes him to a brothel, an alms-house, and an unsympathetic police department, all unmistakable signs of a fractured, unruly urban space.  Much of the film is a stark tableau of isolation viewed from different angles.  Rain forces the protagonists to press up against a wall, the roar from a nearby soccer stadium emphasizes their exclusion from the realm of leisure, and even the foreign chatter of German religious pilgrims underscores their disconnection from the bustle of everyday city life.  Antonio’s stoic bearing gradually breaks down, his muscles visibly straining in his neck and jaw, as desperation severs him even from his son.  The great source of this film’s unresolved tension is a balance between the impotence of the protagonist and the cruelty of his circumstances; you can’t blame either one entirely, and so sympathy with Antonio is tenuous at best.  From the outset, when he is shown sitting apart from the bustle of the job queue, we’re shown that a taciturn character has little chance where survival of the fittest is the governing rule of life.  There is poignancy on the level of his marriage to a patiently suffering wife, and his tender efforts not to disappoint his son.  In his dealings with the system, though, where his fate is ultimately decided, it is the mob versus the outcast, and the ease with which he is brutally discarded from the current of life casts a chilling gloom over any sense of hope.

An Inconvenient Truth; Dir. Davis Guggenheim. 2006. 100mins.

Twelve years ago, who would’ve thought we’d ever be sitting in movie theaters getting a science lesson from Al Gore – and not falling asleep?  And yet, this is the Al Gore we could’ve seen back then had his campaign aides and the media not chosen to pass over his passion for climate change and focus instead on his hair and his lack of dramatic skills.  Let’s note the documentary’s shortcomings from the start: his lecture audiences are as adoring as any pre-screened Bush audience, and the reflections on his sister’s death from lung cancer seem intended more to imbue him with gravitas than to make any point about heeding scientific advice.  That said, what we get is a compelling scientific warning of human-caused climate change at a time in our history when the very Enlightenment seems under assault (the “debate” over evolution makes the fight against global warming seem an even more Herculean task).  The inevitable comparisons with Fahrenheit 911 are totally without merit, and seemed transparently designed to discredit the film by associating it with the far left.  Perhaps what some critics don’t care to admit is that the documentary genre has been quickly evolving unique new formats for framing issues, filling a sizeable niche left by a somnambulant press corps and out-of-touch government.  As for the Michael Crichtons and George Wills of the world, it is increasingly clear their continued mockery of this issue is all about an inability to admit error.  The film seeks to connect us in new ways to the world in which we live, as photos of the disappearing snows of Kilimanjaro, the breakup of Antarctic ice shelves the size of Rhode Island, and, of course, New Orleans, bring Gore’s slideshow charts to life.  More importantly, though, Gore’s presentation also builds a bridge to our remote past as humans, as samples of prehistoric ice give us a window into the less carbon-drenched climate of our ancestors.  The inevitable question arises: how will future generations judge our response to this mounting evidence?