Blog Feed

WINGS (1966)

Wings (1966) | MUBI
photo courtesy of MUBI

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 3: WINGS

WINGS (1966)

Larisa Shepitko is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker that no one knows about. Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, Shepitko and her family were deeply affected by World War Two having to face hunger, poverty, and constantly moving to avoid the danger and violence. The War would certainly shape her films, especially her most popular film, The Ascent, which in 1977 won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shepitko had a reputation for pushing herself and her crew very hard, enduring very difficult conditions like the freezing Russian winter in The Ascent, or the sweltering heat that actually melted film stocks on her award winning student film, Heat. Shepitko was a student in Moscow of the legendary Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, even adopting his motto: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” Sadly, this would be prophetic of The Ascent as two years later in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at the age of 41.

Wings, from 1966, is an outstanding, emotional character study of a former Soviet fighter pilot. Nadya, a decorated fighter pilot, now 41 years old and the principal of a vocational college, finds herself struggling to connect with the changing society around her. From the opening scene we see that she is a very well respected, even powerful woman as she commands the men around her at the college. Her appearance is a brilliant move by Shepitko as Nadya is seen in a stiff business suit with very short, cropped hair. She almost appears to be a man even though we do see her having a relationship with a man who works at a museum and we find out that she has a daughter. The film uses classic Russian editing as Shepitko shot several point of view shots of Nadya’s face in close-up with reverse shots of her surroundings. Nadya wanders through the movie almost ghostlike as she really only gets noticed as her former self, “The ace female fighter pilot”, which only adds to the strain that she is facing: how does she move on from the War when it seems to be the only thing that defines her? It also seems to hold back her feminine qualities, as she seems very indifferent to the affections of her museum worker boyfriend, Pavel, as well as her clumsy and awkward interactions with her estranged daughter Tanya. When visiting Tanya and her new husband, Nadya comes off more like the stern “father of the bride” than the doting mother.

The film’s title is exploited with great precision by Shepitko. Breaks in the film come with aerial shots from planes ascending high into the sky and breaking through the clouds. The accompanying opera music adds another level of beauty to these already magnificent black and white shots. It certainly puts the viewer in a position of being not only inside the cockpit but also inside Nadya’s head and feeling, perhaps, the same freedom she felt in the skies as compared to her life as a stern principal.

For me, the most telling scene came when Nadya returns to the air field and visits her old squadron. Towards the end of the film, this is not her first visit to the air field but it will be different than all of the others. Nadya finds an old fighter plane unattended and climbs into the cockpit. Now in the cockpit, Nadya, shot in closeup, the emotions and the memory from the War consumes Nadya. She begins to weep before a group of airmen notice her and give her a ceremonial push around the field. The scene is surprisingly almost identical to the one with Dana Andrews in William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives, where Fred, a former bomber pilot from World War Two, also facing his own struggle in adapting to post war life back home, finds a graveyard of old Bombers. He climbs into the cockpit and in a brilliant shot by Wyler, is shot from outside the glass bubble. This gives him an the appearance of being captive as he is frozen with emotion, hearing the sounds of War blaring in his head. One cannot miss the irony of how two respected filmmakers from the United States and the Soviet Union chose identical ways to express the pain and sorrow of soldiers returning to normal life after the Second World War.

Wings from 1966 is an outstanding debut from Larisa Shepitko, one of Soviet cinema’s and World cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

Le bonheur
Photo courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/LE-BONHEUR-etn7h6

EPISODE 2: LE BONHEUR (1965): Agnes Varda’s exploration of marital “Happiness”

In the opening scene of Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, we are introduced to what appears to be a perfectly happy married couple and their children.  Despite Varda’s use of beautiful, bold colors and a score by Mozart, we eventually find out that this family is far from being happy or perfect.  We first meet Francois and Therese as they spend Father’s Day with their children having a picnic in the countryside.  A series of scenes follows where we see Francois working at his wood shop and Therese working at home as a seamstress as well as taking care of the children.  All seems normal until Francois meets Emilie, a receptionist at the post office.  Unbeknownst to Therese, the two quickly begin a love affair.  A month later while on another countryside picnic, Francois reveals the affair to Therese.  Tragically, Therese disappears while Francois is sleeping and drowns herself in the lake nearby their picnic.  After a few weeks of mourning Francois finds Emilie and convinces her to move in with him and the children.  Tragically, the film ends with a portrayal of Emilie as just an easy replacement for Therese.  The final shot underscores this as we see the family, once again on a countryside picnic with Emilie resembling Therese as the wife and mother.

The film is bursting with beautiful colors from the actors wardrobe to the large bouquets of flowers in certain scenes to the colorful dissolves that connect scene to scene.  I believe that Varda was intentionally using these bold warm colors in order to distract the audience from the dark subject matter of the plot.  One early scene in the film shows how Therese fits into the household.  We see Therese wearing a blue robe standing in front of a blue wall filling a vase with flowers.  Therese blends in with the wall so perfectly that she could almost be invisible.  As the film develops, especially when Francois gets closer with Emilie, we realize that Therese is in a way invisible.  She is there only to serve Francois and the children but not to be recognized by any of them.  When Francois first meets Emilie, she is at the post office working.  She is dressed in blue but behind the wooden desk and against the yellow walls there is no way she will blend in.  Varda clearly wanted Emilie to stand out as she flirted and smiled with Francois.  Later, after the couple have made love, they lay in bed talking.  Francois tells Emilie that although he loves Therese she is different than her. When comparing the two women he tells Emilie that his wife is like a “potted plant” and Emilie is like “an animal set free.”  This is a very harsh criticism of Therese and his marriage but Francois does not seem to care.  He truly believes that he can love both Therese and Emilie.

Therese and Emilie are portrayed to be the same in appearance but very different in substance. Therese is shown as the hardworking housewife.  She is always at home with the children. Sometimes we don’t even see Therese onscreen.  Varda shot scenes of Therese ironing, making bread, feeding the children but all of theses actions are just close-ups of Therese’s hands.  It tells the audience that she is not important only her hands that perform the domestic tasks for the husband and children.  Emilie however is portrayed with strength and independence.  We see her at work, which unlike Therese, is in a public space not at home.  We also see Emilie interacting with the public and helping customers at the post office.  The only time Therese gets to interact with the public at work is when a young woman, with a slight resemblance to both Therese and Emilie, asks her to make a wedding dress for her.  The woman specifically shows Therese the design of the dress from a popular magazine. This was Varda’s way of showing the impact popular magazines and advertising had on the housewife of the 1950’s and 60’s.  Advertising campaigns were always showing women in their ads not only performing domestic tasks, but looking happy while they did it.  Just like the magazine ads of the 50’s and 60’s this film is showing a warped sense of happiness. The only difference is that the film was intentionally distorting the idea of happiness.  Varda’s feminist message in this film was to say that domestic life was not a road to happiness for women. She was trying to show how women are expected to get married, have children, and then give up their lives to serve their families.  

The title of the film Le Bonhuer means Happiness but who in the film is actually happy?  The answer is Francois.  Francois has an extramarital affair and then when he tells Therese about it he tries to convince her that it is not a problem for their marriage.  He even has the audacity to tell Therese that the affair has made him a better husband and father.  The only time Francois shows any hint of unhappiness is when Therese commits suicide and at the funeral. Right after the funeral he immediately reconnects with Emilie.  The film ends with Emilie replacing Therese and being Francois housewife and although she smiles we as an audience can’t help but think that she may end up facing the same problem Therese did.  Another irony in the film is what becomes of Emilie at the end.  We have already seen Emilie as an independent single woman with a job and her own apartment.  Quite a contrast to the domesticated Therese.  In the end, however, she tells Francois that she wants to move in with him and the children.  She even goes as far as saying that his happiness is her happiness.  This is when Varda masterfully shows the transformation of Emilie by repeating several of the shots from earlier in the film of domestic chores performed by Therese.  This time they are performed by Emilie, smiling, and appearing happy in her new role.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 1: THE WOMAN’S FILM (1971): A ‘Consciousness Raising Group” on Film

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-WOMANS-FILM-ete2dj

The 1960’s was a watershed moment in the world of filmmaking. The emergence

of “cinema-verite” style documentary coupled with the advancement in filmmaking

technology gave filmmakers more independence when it came to making films. Richard

Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker have become synonymous with this period but what most

people overlook is how this era and movement inspired and produced exceptional women filmmakers.

Due to widespread revolution against the Vietnam war many women in the United

States began turning to film as a way of voicing their anti-war message. With the advent

of new equipment it was much easier for any filmmaker to get their hands on Hollywood

level filmmaking tools. After having success making these anti-war films, women,

mostly feminists, then turned their cameras toward the Feminist movement and its

struggle for gender equality. The Woman’s Film, directed by Louise Alaimo and Judy

Smith and produced by San Francisco Newsreel was one of the first feminist

documentaries that was made by an all female production crew. The film uses interviews

and conversations from an extremely diverse group of all women describing their

struggle and dissatisfaction with living in a patriarchal society.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with an Agnes Varda type montage of

women doing domestic tasks. We see several close up shots of women’s hands washing

dishes, cleaning sinks, and pushing a vacuum cleaner. The rest of the film is a collection

of different groups of women telling stories about their own problems. Shot mostly in the

“talking head” style, the women rarely address the camera. Mostly they address each

other as all scenes are shot in a room with a group of women gathered together. The

women talk about their dissatisfaction with being marginalized at home or at work. One

woman opens the film with a tragic story about how she was made to believe as a young

girl that marriage was her only way of being successful, or as she put is it “I was gonna

have it made when I got married.” The film however, does not just focus on middle-aged

married women. Another strong scene is that of a young girl who appears to be in her

20’s. She talks to her fellow women about the struggle she had as a woman in her

professional career. After dreaming of becoming a professional writer she got a job as a

typist at a publishing agency. Instead of climbing the ladder she eventually realized that

she was spending her time typing manuscripts written by men. She also explains how

because of her attractiveness her boss was using her to attract male writers to the agency.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the way the women are shown

talking to each other in groups. The idea of a “Consciousness-Raising Group” became

widespread among women in the late 1960’s. Through these groups women were finally

getting together and sharing their thoughts and opinions about how their lives could be

better. It acted as a support group for the Feminist movement to grow out of. Watching

the film, it almost appears it is one long meeting of a consciousness-raising group.

Throughout the film the audience eventually notices the different groups of women but

one can get the feeling that these women could all be in the same place. The woman who

opens the film talking in a close up shot with her children wandering around the room is

eventually joined at the end of the film by a group of women. It is in this scene where

she describes her own consciousness-raising group. I also that the most effective shots

pertaining to the group settings were not the close ups of women telling their stories but

the close ups of the women listening to those stories. Several times throughout the film

while a woman is talking there is a cut to a shot of another woman, maybe two women

just listening. The directors even went a step further with shots of women talking with

other women listening in the background or other women chiming in with words of

support for the woman speaking.

One of the most important consciousness-raising films ever made came after The

Woman’s Film in 1974. Where The Woman’s Film began as a collection of women

talking about their problems the film Self Health went a step further down the

consciousness-raising road. The film is a documentary about a group of women who get

together and explore their bodies. Tired of being told that their bodies belonged to male

doctors, women were educating themselves and each other about everything from minor

health issues to childbirth. The film was accused of being “pornographic” because it

showed women giving each other breast exams. This is the ultimate irony considering

the way women were and still are being objectified in popular culture.

The Woman’s Film not only paved the way for a new style of feminist documentary

but it also gave women the courage and inspiration to pick up a camera and point it at

what they felt was wrong with the world around them.

RIVER PHOENIX – 2 Scenes

Symposiums - Reverse Shot
photo courtesy of Reverseshot.org

The greatness of River Phoenix is only underscored by the tragedy that he has been gone for 27 years. Many artists have died without ever realizing their full potential. River Phoenix not only realized his full potential but soared past it in a way that made you think the possibilities of his talent were endless. Look at the career that Leonardo Dicaprio has had and try to imagine River Phoenix in those same roles or possibly the two megastars sharing the screen. And what about the outstanding career of his younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, and the thought that movie fans could’ve been watching them compete for awards while giving the audience unforgettable performance after another. Unfortunately, the world lost a beautiful soul when River Phoenix passed away but his performances and legacy will live on forever. Two films he made in 1991 are true classics in the portrayal of a lonely, sensitive, brooding outsider. A role that Phoenix perfected, maybe because it was so close to who he really was.

DOGFIGHT (1991)

River plays Eddie, a young Marine on the eve of his deployment to the simmering situation in Southeast Asia that would become the Vietnam War. The film’s title refers to the inciting incident of the film when Eddie and his fellow Marines scour the streets of San Francisco for dates to a “Dog Fight.” This is the crude title of a contest where whoever shows up with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie settles on Rose, a waitress and aspiring folk singer played by Lily Taylor. The two are perfect opposites as they wander the streets for a night with Eddie looking around every corner for a fight while Rose preaches about non violence and being more understanding of the people around you. Rose’s compassion wins over Eddie’s gung ho attitude and the night culminates with them making love and promising to write each other while Eddie is away at war.

The end has Eddie back where he was at the start of the film in San Francisco and limping around the same streets he and Rose had drifted through together. This is where River Phoenix’s brooding intensity shines as he stops into a bar, dressed in his fatigues, and orders a beer. The bartender and two patrons don’t know how to treat the returning veteran so they make an awkward attempt by buying him a beer. Eddie, noticeably limping, crosses the street and enters Rose’s cafe. In this scene, which runs over two minutes, the star of the film says two words: ‘Rose?’ and ‘Hi.’ River Phoenix could have said nothing in this scene because it is his eyes and face that do all of the talking. With his hair slightly messed up and pushed down on his forehead, he looks like a little boy, his face on the verge of crumbling. It is finally when Rose hugs Eddie that he lets go and allows her to comfort and love him. Alternating close ups show the emotion on both actors faces as they contemplate what this reunion means. Rose looks a little frightened where Eddie looks remorseful and grateful to be back in Rose’s arms after everything he has just gone through.

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

The role of ‘Scott’ in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho would be a courageous choice for an actor in 2020 let alone in 1991 when it was made. It amazes me how many courageous and challenging roles River Phoenix was able to squeeze in in such a short period of time but none more than this role where he plays a male prostitute who suffers from bouts of narcolepsy and memories of an abusive childhood. So many great wide landscape shots with only Phoenix on the screen show this man’s isolation from the world around around him. Phoenix drifts through these beautiful landscapes for the entire film, from Idaho all the way to Italy and back, as he says “this road will never end. It probably goes all around the world.”

This film is extraordinary in the brilliance of its subject matter coupled with some truly beautiful filmmaking. One scene that I believe makes the entire film was one that was actually written by Phoenix himself. The ‘Campfire’ scene. While not in the original script, Phoenix decided the character of Scott needed to tell Mike, played by Keanu Reeves, how much he loves him. Phoenix stares at the fire, a soft orange glow illuminating his face, and tells Mike that he knows his life has been hard due to trauma from his childhood. While Mike tries to brush off Scott’s advances with wisecracks, Phoenix digs in and tell him that he just wants someone he can love and he knows that someone is Mike. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Mike shoots down Scott and tells him he can’t be in love with another man. Knowing he has shattered Scott’s hopes and dreams of being in love, Mike invites him over to sit next to him. Phoenix, like a ghost, crawls into Mike’s arms and the two hug in the glow of the campfire. For Scott, this is an omen for the heartbreak and rejection that will continue to follow him for the rest of the film.

If you haven’t seen these two films or any of River Phoenix’s films in a long time, I recommend a retrospective. While we will never get another River Phoenix film, the performances he left are timeless.

UNIVERSAL HORROR: The Legacy of the original ‘Monster Movies’

Bela Lugosi will always live as Dracula
photo courtesy of syfy.com

‘Universal Horror’ was the very first shared franchise in film that ran successfully from the late 1920’s to the early 1950’s. The studio gave the world the visual embodiment of some of the greatest characters in literature with Bela Lugosi as ‘Count Dracula’ and Boris Karloff as the ‘Monster’ in Frankenstein. While theses two images stray somewhat dramatically from the original characters from the classic novels it has not stopped the public image that still exists of Lugosi and Karloff as ‘Monsters’, only proving how powerful the impact of ‘Universal Horror’ has been on the world. While these films are certainly classic and have stood the test of time on their own merits they clearly have been surpassed by contemporary horror films. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, considered by many to be the gold standard of horror movies owes much to its ‘original talkie’ predecessors.

Dracula and Frankenstein, both produced in 1931 are the most famous horror stories/films in the world. Based on two novels that also run high on the list of greatest novels ever written, the films were adapted for the screen by Universal Studios at the advent of the ‘Sound-era.’ It is crucial to understand the time period of when these films were made, along with The Mummy in 1932 to know their greatness and their flaws. In the 1920’s, German expressionism film was revolutionizing the movie industry. Films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu are only the tip of the iceberg for the style that thrived on abstract set designs and dark, moody lighting with more shadows than had ever been seen on screen to that point. One of the movements most famous members was Cinematographer/Director Karl Freund who had shot some German expressionism showcases like Metropolis, The Golem, and The Last Laugh. Freund was also credited with inventing the technique called ‘Unchained Camera’, which is basically a fluid camera, detached from a tripod, and really the forerunner to the modern ‘Steadicam’ used brilliantly by directors such as Martin Scorsese.

The marriage of German Expressionism with Universal Studios was one made in heaven. One of the signatures of ‘Universal Horror’ films is the ‘gothic’ style sets matched with shadows and light. The magic of Hollywood was able to give us the dramatic sets of ‘Dracula’s Castle’ and ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory’ with winding stone staircases and cobblestone alleys that in German films to that point were mostly paintings on a wall. Viewers at the time did not need to stretch their imagination too far because with the set design and cinematography, Universal transported you to the Carpathian mountains or the Bavarian hills. Makeup, most notably in Frankenstein was another signature of ‘Universal Horror.’ Boris Karloff is almost unrecognizable in his two most famous roles as the ‘Monster’ and as the title character of The Mummy in 1932. In the days of ‘CGI de-aging’ it is even more impressive that the original filmmakers and special effects artists were able to get it right “in camera.”

Fast forward to the late 1970’s, during a decade of true rebellion in filmmaking. Epic studio pictures with wider screens, larger sets, and exaggerated special effects had long ruled the previous two decades. When John Carpenter set out to make the independent horror film Halloween he had no more than a bundle of fake leaves, a ‘Captain Kirk’ costume mask, and a long kitchen knife. What Carpenter did have was the blueprint of how to make a great horror film straight out of the Universal playbook. Halloween employed a few of the classic horror film ‘tropes’ that go all the way back to the 1930’s. One of them being the ‘Monster escaped/unleashed.’ Michael Myers may sound like the boy next door but it is in the first scene that we are thrust into his homicidal past when he murders his sister on Halloween night. While he is a mental patient, confined to an institution for 15 years, as soon as he escapes the mental hospital he becomes no different than Dracula unleashed in London, Frankenstein’s Monster terrorizing the Bavarian countryside, or the Mummy roaming out of the museum.

Another lasting theme is that of the ‘Doctor’ as savior. Dracula and Frankenstein were both written at moment in history when science was seen as something mythical or supernatural. Therefore, when an ‘evil/unnatural being’ or creation was unleashed, only a scientist, such as ‘Dr. Van Helsing’, was able to capture and defeat the evil. The three classic Monster movies from ‘Universal Horror’ mentioned here even had the same actor, Edward Van Sloan, play the ‘Heroic Doctor’ in all 3 films. In Halloween this role belongs to the outstanding Donald Pleasance as ‘Dr. Sam Loomis.’ Pleasance reprised his character in several sequels, unfortunately watering down the intense ‘tour de force’ he gave in the original production where his maniacal pursuit of Michael Myers carries the whole film.

Lastly, while this ‘trope’ may seem minor, if you watch any horror film you are most likely to find it. It is the ‘Creepy Hand’ of the the monster. When Michael Myers escapes from the mental hospital at the start of Halloween he commandeers the nurses car in dramatic fashion. While parked waiting for Dr. Loomis to check out a strange scene outside the hospital gates, the Nurse hears a rumble on top of the car. When she rolls down the window to take a peak, a large hand creeps in through the window and grabs her hair. Without seeing his face, we already know who the hand belongs to. This technique is no different than the moment Dr. Frankenstein tries to reanimate the Monster with electricity and we are shown a close up of Boris Karloff’s large, rugged hand hanging off the table, fingers twitching. Or a coffin in the basement of Castle Dracula, whose lid slowly opens and a hand with long, wiry fingers creeps out from under the lid. And what about Boris Karloff again in The Mummy, at one moment, standing up in the coffin, arms folded, lifeless, to the next moment when his hand reaches out from behind the museum worker, and grabs the Egyptian scroll off of the desk, then escapes from the museum as the worker can only watch and scream in terror.

Very few films can still have an impact almost a century after they were made. In the case of ‘Universal Horror’, although these films may be more comical now than frightening, they laid the groundwork for the horror films that followed. The ones that haunt our dreams and make us want to sleep with the lights on.

Is McCabe & Mrs. Miller a film about Gentrification?

Photo courtesy of IMDb.com

Robert Altman’s classic film McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best anti-Hollywood, anti-hero pieces from the 1970’s, a decade which perfected the anti-hero genre. I believe, however, that the film may have been a foreshadowing of something that, almost 50 years later, is sweeping through the communities all over the world, displacing residents, and ruining small businesses. I’m talking about “gentrification.”

When we first meet John McCabe, he is a lone rider, stalking through the wilderness to the haunting sounds of Leonard Cohen on the guitar. Shrouded in mystery, the residents of the mining town are apprehensive when McCabe arrives and sets up shop, dealing poker at Pat Sheehans inn. It doesn’t take long before we realize that McCabe is a shrewd operator with his sights set on setting up shop in the town and making money. McCabe sets up a gambling saloon along with a makeshift brothel of tents. In a town full of men, miners, McCabe knows his customers wants and needs. For this reason, his business quickly takes off. At the same time, we see that John McCabe is not a cold hearted businessman looking for a quick score. With his business thriving he also contributes to his fellow townsfolk and the town starts to boom.

The arrival of Mrs. Miller, a beautiful & icy cold Julie Christie, throws a slight wrench into McCabe’s plans. Being a professional and successful ‘Madam’, Mrs. Miller immediately thrusts herself into McCabe’s operation and makes herself a partner. McCabe now has to cope with not only a strong and determined woman but one that he is very attracted to. The two small business tycoons end up falling for each other and for a short while they are blissfully in love and enjoying their booming business, albeit a very unsavory business, but this is the Wild West.

The film changes dramatically when two representatives from the ‘Sears’ company show up looking to buy out McCabe and take over his very successful business. It’s hard to watch this scene and not think of the thousands of small businesses around the world that have been bullied into selling or shutting down by big corporate entities. Wild West type bullying comes in the form of three assassins descending on the town to take care of John McCabe and it ends as you would imagine it but it still is relevant to today’s bullying of small business. The modern day John McCabe feels the passive-aggressive bullying from corporations & cannot stand up to them in a dramatic shoot out in the snow. Instead it’s just another ‘For Sale’ sign in the window where a small business that was vital to a community used to be.

TESLA: Ethan Hawke’s ‘Tragic Hero’ Tour de Force

Tesla movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
photo courtesy of rogerebert.com

If you’re looking for a biopic of Nikola Tesla that will tell you he was born, made some grand innovations in electricity that have shaped our own current world, and that he died alone then this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a biopic that is as imaginative, mysterious, and enigmatic as the title character himself, then Michael Almereyda’s Tesla is just what the doctor ordered. It is an abstract look at the personal and professional history of one of history’s most troubling and unfortunate figures. It is also just another performance on the long list of great performances by Ethan Hawke whose brooding stare gives a glimpse of the madness that cohabited with the genius inside of Nikola Tesla.

The film’s strongest aspect besides its solid cast is the mise en scene. Immediately the viewer is sucked in by the costumes and set design that literally transport you to the Gilded Age. It is in this first scene where we meet Tesla as he dreamily roller skates around a palatial parlor with some friends and a violin player, all dressed impeccably in their turn of the century best. We also meet the narrator played by Eve Hewson who not only tells us the story but captivates us with her natural beauty as Anne Morgan, the daughter of J. P. Morgan. It is Anne who tells us about Tesla’s first run in with electricity when he received a static shock as a young boy while stroking his cat’s back. She narrates that it is Tesla’s desire to “stroke nature’s back” just as he did to his cat. Many have complained about the narration as Anne breaks the fourth wall, tell’s the audience that some of what they are seeing “most likely never happened”, and speaks over black and white photos as though she were narrating a PBS special. I heartily disagree. Anne’s narration is the perfect foundation for sorting out the facts in between the dramatic scenes and struggles we see Hawke endure as the tortured and mostly exploited genius from Serbia.

Being a big movie star, it is incredible to watch Ethan Hawke play Tesla as someone who is merely a pawn being pushed around by not just Thomas Edison(Kyle MacLachlan) and George Westinghouse(Jim Gaffigan) but also by the money men of the time. The turn of the century was a time when everyone was trying to get rich at any cost. Sadly, the film shows you how investors would use Tesla, not to support his visionary and groundbreaking ideas that had the chance to change the course of history, but to profit off of his inventions and leave him broke because he was not business savvy. As mentioned earlier, there are several scenes where Hawke is left brooding and sulking after he is either just finding out he has been swindled by investors or being berated and publicly humiliated by his bitter rival, Edison. Hawke’s scenes with Jim Gaffigan, in an excellent portrayal of George Westinghouse, are exceptional with Gaffigan actually overshadowing Hawke at times.

Much of the talk around this film has been about the strange ‘karaoke’ performance toward the end by Ethan Hawke. This scene, even more so than “Edison’s iphone” and the “Google searches”, shatters the conventional historical biopic structure. Hawke steps up to a contemporary microphone and in front of a screen that continues to change colors, he croons the 1980’s Tears For Fears hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In his strange Serbian accent, this scene will certainly not bring Hawke any comparisons to Eve Hewson’s father but Hawke’s daring, sub-par singing is even more riveting. The audience is clearly forced to listen to the lyrics and see how they related to Nikola Tesla. ‘I can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision.’ In so many ways this could be a motto or epitaph for a man who the world disregarded during his living years and now owes so much to his legacy.

“LATE SPRING”: Quintessential Ozu

Three Reasons: Late Spring - YouTube
photo courtesy of Criterion Collection

          The opening scenes of Ozu’s “Late Spring” are not only full of his iconic filmmaking style but also hints at the culture clashes in Japan at the time the film was made.  This film is a perfect analysis of culture in post war Japan where some embraced the new modern society while others held on to the traditions of the past.

          The film opens in typical Ozu style with some “pillow shots” or shots that may be aesthetically appealing to the audience but really have nothing to do with the main plot of the film.  Ozu opens with three shots of the “Kitakakamakura Train Station” from three different angles.  We then see the exterior roof of a Japanese house before we enter the house and see characters.  The characters, a group of Japanese women dressed in traditional garments are all kneeling down having tea.  The composition, low angle(3 feet) long shot of a group, is another trademark of Ozu.  This scene is portrayed to be a traditional tea party with a group of Japanese women.  When Nori, the main actress enters the scene, Ozu gives the viewer subtle clues that she is someone who may not fully belong in such a traditional setting.

          Nori, a young Japanese woman who cares for her widowed father, enters the scene dressed in a traditional kimono.  She kneels down and bows respectfully to the group but when she gets up to change seats we see the first clue of Nori’s modernity.  When she stands up we see her pick up her purse and try to hide it under dress.  The purse looks very out of place at this almost “ancient” setting.  Then when Nori sits next to her Aunt Masa, Aunt Masa immediately adjusts Nori’s dress, indicating that she may not know how to properly wear such a traditional outfit.  Then Nori and Masa take part in a conversation about domestic duties which Nori seems to enjoy but already the audience can tell she is faking.  I believe this was a masterful job by Ozu to show in the first few minutes of the film that we are about to see a major culture clash between Nori, the young modern woman, and Japan, a country still clinging to its strict traditions.

          This dialogue between Nori and Masa in the opening scene is also another example of how Ozu’s style differs from the Hollywood model and remains effective.  The traditional Hollywood model of over the shoulder shots in dialogue or medium shot to close up never existed in Ozu’s world.  As in all of his films we often see characters, when speaking, looking directly into the camera.  This was something that was thought to be a cardinal error in among Hollywood filmmakers.  In the opening scene when Nori is talking to her Aunt Masa, she delivers all of her lines while looking directly into the camera.  I must admit that I found Ozu’s style a little jarring at first.  Seeing characters looking directly into the camera does not feel normal nor does an entire film of low angle shots with no movement appeal to most viewers.  Ozu, however, won me over.  His techniques, although different and far from mainstream Hollywood, do not get in the way of the dramatic and intimate stories that his films tell.  It is possible to think that his Medium shot direct address style gives the characters more depth and strength.

          Ozu used marriage in his films as a way of examining its perceived importance to Japanese society.  “Late Spring” is a very powerful look at the struggle a young woman in Japan went through for many years facing the choice of getting a job and being independent or getting married.  Nori is portrayed as someone who toes the line between a strong independent woman and a domestic woman.  She wants to marry a man who she truly loves not someone who’s been chosen for her.  Through Nori, Ozu shows how desperate a young woman in Japan would feel when the people around her were making the decisions about her future.