Sunday, January 31, 2010

Musings of the Witching Hour

It's after midnight in Seattle.  Rainy but warm the past few days.  Still need a winter coat at night, but sometimes can get by with less during the day.  And here I sit, on a rare occasion when I have good connectivity with my WiFi, wondering what my place in the world is.

Recently, I've been reading The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, in addition to a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami entitled Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.  I remember the title story came out when I was in Japan.  I often feel that part of me is still over there, and can't find its way back, while the other part of me is stuck here, and can't find its way back to Japan.  As for the journals, they comfort me in the knowledge that such a talented writer had the same doubts that I have, and wondered some of the same things that I wonder.  Less comforting is the knowledge that Plath killed herself at the same age I am now, and did far more before that age--in terms of writing and publishing--than I have done.

I also finished a book on reflexology, which was another curiosity of mine while over in Japan.  I do miss those foot massages.  They are offered here in Seattle, but I don't have the paycheck in Seattle that I had in Japan.  In fact, at the moment, I have no paycheck.  I'm hoping that'll change soon.

What else can I muse about?  Oh right, my place in the world.  I am reminded of a quote I read by George Bernard Shaw.  If I remember correctly, it went like this: "Reasonable men conform to the world.  Unreasonable men have the world conform to them.  Therefore it is unreasonable men who change the world."  Unfortunately, I can't say that I am that unreasonable.  Maybe I will surprise myself in my writing.  Maybe I will become unreasonable there.

The most difficult fact about the future is that it's not the present.  I know what happens in the present.  I don't know what happens in the future.  All plans can go for nought, or something unexpected and better might come along.  Or I may meet someone who makes all of my future dreams meaningless without her.  Or I meet nobody like that, and trudge ahead on my lonely way.  Hemingway wrote, "Man can be destroyed, but not defeated."  I think I understand what he meant when he wrote those words.  I often feel crushed, broken, pounded into the dirt, yet I get up again, though my body be in fragments, and continue my quest, no matter how foolish it may be.  Perhaps all artists must be a little bit like Don Quixote, and dream things which are not there out of objects which are.  "To dream the impossible dream/ To fight the unbeatable foe...."  That foe is life.  That foe is death.  We never survive the one; we never escape the other.  Even Ozymandias crumbles and fades into memory, where he can no longer do any harm to the living.

One of my friends is trying to get me a government job as a technical writer/proposal writer/editor.  She says it's a tremendous opportunity.  I can't help thinking that, when the government of the U.S. is but a distant memory, when this administration has been consigned to ancient history books, my novels, poems, plays, short stories, essays, and the like will live on, much more important, and much more lasting, than any work done for any government.  Good for money, yes, but creative writing is the more tremendous opportunity, the more important task.

Friday, January 29, 2010

My Take on Kenji Mizoguchi and His Films

I can't remember the first Japanese movie that I saw, but the first director I heard of was Akira Kurosawa, and I saw The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Rashomon before seeing anything by Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.  Of these three masters, I saw Mizoguchi next (Sansho the Bailiff--based exclusively on Roger Ebert's strong praise for the film), then Ozu's Tokyo Story, which stunned me (I have still not seen anything like it--as if I was there, in Tokyo, with that family).  Next came Rashomon again, then A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds by Ozu (again due to Ebert's recommendation--as Floating Weeds is his favorite Ozu movie--and due to the effect that Tokyo Story had on me).

Of the three, I like Ozu the best and Kurosawa second.  Sansho the Bailiff has a beautiful melancholic ending (one of the best I've seen), but left me feeling nothing until that point--something that Kurosawa's movies and Ozu's movies never left me feeling.  I was willing, though, to give Mizoguchi another try, as Sansho the Bailiff is a difficult movie to like, even though it's an easy one to admire.  So much cruelty is in that story, but over such a long period of time that no one act of cruelty provokes a stronger reaction than another.  I felt no joy, no sadness as I watched this film, just a deep-seated hatred for the cruelty inherent in mankind.  If Kurosawa is the most cinematic of Japanese directors and Ozu the most universal in his themes, then Mizoguchi is the most willing to show us the cruelty that men inflict upon women.  Even in such early films as Sisters of the Gion (which I really think should be called Sisters of Gion), the cruelty shown to women, and the amazingly realistic portrayals of male/female relationships, are shocking.  And since I felt that I should give Mizoguchi another chance, I began with that film, and then moved on to Ugetsu.  Perhaps, some day, when I am older, I shall go back to Sansho the Bailiff, and be moved.  But, with Sisters of the Gion and Ugetsu, Mizoguchi showed me that his films can be loved as well as appreciated.  Indeed, since Mizoguchi's career is a series of highs and lows, I may come to prefer the masterpieces of his middle period over his late period, as Osaka Elegy (1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) and  A Woman of Osaka (1940) are still waiting to be seen.  Nor have I seen all of the great movies of his late period, as The Life of Oharu (1952) and Street of Shame (1956) still await.

So, having seen Sansho the Bailiff twice, Sisters of the Gion and Ugetsu once, and a number of features about Mizoguchi as a director (including Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director, which was released in 1975--21 years after his death), here is my take on Kenji Mizoguchi as an artist and a filmmaker:

That he is one of the greatest of all directors should be obvious to anyone who sees and studies his movies.  Of course, with Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, he also had one of the greatest of all cinematographers working with him: Kazuo Miyagawa, who also did Rashomon with Kurosawa and Floating Weeds with Ozu (and which is one of the most beautiful Ozu films ever, which is to say that it's one of the most beautiful ever).  In black and white, Sansho the Bailiff is his crowning achievement, just as Floating Weeds is his crowning achievement in color, though Ugetsu and Rashomon are also quite beautiful.

Mizoguchi's movies often center around fallen women (in Sansho the Bailiff, it's a bit more complicated), who are the way they are because of men.  This point is made explicitly in Sisters of the Gion, and again through the men's mistreatment of their wives in Ugetsu.  Mizoguchi himself loved to frequent brothels, and once was stabbed by a yatona (a prostitute who makes house calls) named Yuriko Ichijo.  In referring to the scar that it left, he once told Seeichiro Uchikawa, one of his assistant directors, that, "You can't understand women if you don't have one of these" (Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director).  It may well explain the violent relationships between men and women that appear in his films.

So, was Mizoguchi an early feminist?  No.  His empathy with the plight of women and their role in society was born out of guilt, guilt at having mistreated them himself, guilt at all men having mistreated women.  As Omocha exclaims at the end of Sisters of the Gion, "Why is there such a thing as geisha?"  The answer is: because there is such a thing as men.  In the end, Mizoguchi was not a feminist.  He was, simply, a humanist.

Note: I have since seen Street of Shame, and while I shall not furnish a review here, I enjoyed it as much, if not more, than Mizoguchi's period-specific movies.  His modern dramatizations seem more relaxed than Ugetsu or Sansho the Bailiff in tone and mood, as this movie and Sisters of the Gion proved.  Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff may be great masterpieces, but his "lesser" masterpieces may be easier to watch, and love.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Best Movies of the Decade

All right, folks, here we go!  But before I give you my list of the top ten films of the last ten years (2000-2009), let me share with you my philosophy concerning "best of" and "worst of" lists.  If you're reading this list because you want to know what were the ten best films of the last ten years, you should stop right now.  If, on the other hand, you are curious as to what I deem to be the ten best movies of the last ten years, read on.  See, I believe lists like these serve two functions: they make others aware of movies that they might like but have never heard of, and they tell you a lot about me.  For, in a sense, my movie choices reflect my personality as much as they highlight great films.  It's one reason why lists such as these never seem to agree much with other people's lists.  And if I seem to be forgetting some very important movies in this list, it is because 1.) I didn't see the movie, 2.) I saw it, but was less impressed by it than you were, or 3.) I saw it, but forgot how good it was (or forgot that it came out within the last ten years).  So, let's begin, starting with my Special Jury Prize:

Special Jury Prize: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

No movie event of the last ten years was as big as the three year ritual that was the Lord of the Rings.  Like the original Star Wars trilogy, these three movies set the standards for special effects, creating an entire world in which to place its characters.  No matter the flaws (and there were flaws), bringing Middle Earth to life is quite an achievement, and one that should not be overlooked when deciding where these films belong in the pantheon of great movies.  Plus, they were just plain fun, not only due to the films themselves, but also due to the atmosphere that surrounded them.  These movies were worth standing in line for on opening night.  In my limited movie experience, going to see The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King were the most fun I've ever had at a theater, and if some goofy dialogue and some departures from the book (and too much repetition of how the time of elves is waning--we get it!) prevents these movies from being in my decade list proper, they still serve as a great reason for purchasing a Blu-Ray player, a gigantic screen, and a state-of-the-art surround sound system.

10. Voices of a Distant Star/Hoshi no Koe (2003 U.S.; 2002 Japan)

In a decade when the biggest movie event was three movies totaling over nine hours of viewing time, my pick for number ten is less than a half hour long.  In a decade filled with big blockbusters, this movie never made it to a movie theater (in America, at least).  In a decade filled with big Hollywood productions, this movie was created on a home computer!  And yet its length and production values do not detract from its status as the finest sci-fi movie of the past decade, one that is very different from Wall-E, and yet just as good.

Voices of a Distant Star is about two friends, Mikako and Noboru.  Mikako joins in a battle raging among the stars against a race called the Tarsians.  Her only contact with Noboru is through text messages she sends him through her cell phone.  But, as she travels farther and farther away from earth, it takes longer and longer for the messages to reach Noboru.

Note: If you see this movie, opt for subtitles.  The English dubbing is atrocious.  Also, I wish that ADV films had added an option of seeing the film without any subtitles.  And, was it really necessary to include the lyrics to the final song in the subtitles, when the song is in English, and the lyrics come with the DVD?

9. The Dark Knight (2008)

The best superhero movie to date pits a maniacal Joker (the late, great Heath Ledger) against the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale), while the role of Rachel is upgraded from Katie Holmes to Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Aaron Eckhart comes on board as Harvey Dent, a new, tough, D.A.  The tension in this film is incredible.  In fact, this is the only superhero movie I know of where, up until the end, I was afraid that the Joker would win.   Kudos to the creepy musical score, too (by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer).

8. Kill Bill: Volume 1 and 2 (2003, 2004)

Really one movie split in half, with Volume 1 taking its inspiration from kung fu, samurai, and anime movies, and Volume 2 taking its inspiration from spaghetti westerns...and kung fu films.  The first movie has an Eastern feel to it; the second movie has a Western feel to it.  Both movies, however, are revenge pictures, with most of the pathos and humanity saved for Volume 2.  In fact, Kill Bill is a much more human film than Pulp Fiction, if less stylistically brilliant.  Great dialogue and monologues still abound, though, include Bill's (the late David Carradine's) discussion of the mythos of Superman.  Also worth getting a Blu-Ray player for, particularly in a scene in Volume 2 where the Bride (Uma Thurman) is trained by a kung fu master, shot using grainy film footage to match that of cheesy 70s kung fu films.  Those critics who said the films were too violent missed the point, as the violence was in homage to kung fu movies.  In fact, the only bad thing about these two films is that more people didn't see them.

7. Almost Famous (2000)

A great coming-of-age film about a high schooler (Patrick Fugit) given the opportunity to tour with an up-and-coming band--and write about them for Rolling Stone magazine.  Kate Hudson steals the show as Penny Lane, a "Band-Aid" in love with the lead singer (Billy Crudup).  In fact, she should stop making crappy comedies and make more films like this one.  Cameron Crowe, in this largely autobiographical film, gets all of the details right.  Plus, he has a hell of a cast working for him, including Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Lee, Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel, and even Jimmy Fallon (almost unrecognizable under a full beard).

6. Spirited Away/Sen to Chiro no Kamikakushi (2001)

I have not yet seen this movie in its original Japanese.  Not that there's a need to; Disney provided the voice talent for the English dubbing.  Plus, this movie is mainly on my list for the visuals, which are breathtaking.  They reminded me, when I watched the film for the first time, how much creativity is lacking in most modern films that I have watched, including animated fare.  Pixar might have great stories and interesting visuals, but how many of them would have created a sequence with a dragon being attacked by paper men, or have a witch turn her cape into bird wings, or have a train that runs over tracks submerged in water?  And while the story is strange (girl's parents turn into pigs), the life lessons that Miyazaki imparts in this movie aren't.  In fact, once you recognize that this is a movie about personal responsibility, it all makes sense.  And those visuals!  Only Up is close to challenging this movie as best animated movie of the decade, and even that movie can't challenge it visually.

5. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Say you're a Hollywood studio executive.  And say that one of your most talented directors has just told you that his next project is going to be almost entirely in Japanese, with a Japanese cast, showing the Battle of Iwo Jima from their eyes, following another movie he did about the Americans who hoisted up the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II.  What would you say?

In this case, the executives said "yes," and we can be glad that they did, as this is the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan.  The style used, though, is much different.  Here we spend lots of time with the men who will fight in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, and while the fighting takes up about half of the movie, we mostly hear the explosions from the underground tunnels that Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) ordered his soldiers to dig.  One part of the film, when the Japanese talk badly about Americans and Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) asks if they've ever met one, seems to be out-of-place at the point when he says it, but the rest of the movie--highlighting the futility of war and the dire situation of the Japanese on the island--is fantastic.  What made it even more special for me was that I saw it in a theater in Japan (with English subtitles), and while the Japanese are generally polite while watching films, I would've known if Eastwood had stepped wrong.  Instead, he made a film that could have been made by a Japanese director, but maybe--as an American--he was better able to sidestep the politics of the war, and focus more on the men who fought and died there.

4. Lost in Translation (2003)

Yet another film set in Japan, this time in the present era (and mostly in English).  Bill Murray plays a washed up comedian who meets a bored newlywed (Scarlett Johannson) while filming a commercial in Tokyo.  Great even if you don't know Japanese, better if you do (especially for a funny scene with the director of the commercial that Murray is set to star in).  Some gorgeous shots of Japan (particularly Kyoto), and moments where Sofia Coppola is content to have the visuals speak for themselves.  In doing so, she highlights the Zen-like atmosphere of Japan in some shots, while highlighting the goofiness (and busy-ness) of Japan in others.  And yes, when I crossed the large crosswalk in Shibuya, I thought, "I'm walking where Scarlett Johansson walked in the movie!"

3. Monster (2003)

Seeing this movie on Ebert's list of the top ten films of the decade made me think back to when I saw it in the theater, and while I really enjoyed Lost in Translation, I have to admit that this movie was a smidgeon better, mainly due to Charlize Theron's performance as Aileen Wuornos.  This is the best performance by an actress since Renee Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc.  Credit must also be given to Christina Ricci as Selby, and to first time director Patty Jenkins, who also wrote the script.  Not sure how she got that performance out of Theron, but she did.  The performance of the decade, for sure.  And who would think that a movie about a serial killer could make us feel sympathetic for the killer without condoning her behavior?

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Okay, so now it looks like I'm just copying off of other critics "best of" lists, but Charlie Kauffman, like Tarantino and Linklater, is a great writer (and now, like those two, he also directs).  I have not seen Synecdoche, New York yet, but out of all of his films that I have seen (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation being the other two), this one has the most heart, just like Kill Bill had more heart than Pulp Fiction did (for Tarantino).  With some great performances from Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey (yes, he can tone it down for dramas), plus a sidestory that I didn't see coming (and won't spoil for you here), this movie about a company that can erase one's memories of a former love never wavers in its creativity or its spontaneity.  What appears to be a gimmick ends up fueling a story about love, relationships, and fate.  And the ending...well, the ending is genius.

1. Nobody Knows/Dare mo Shiranai (2004)

Interesting, isn't it, that the two greatest movies came out the same year (and the two before that came out a year before)?  Also interesting how movies from Japan open and close my list.  Hirokazu Kore-eda is the heir apparent to Ozu (in fact, I became more eager to see Ozu after seeing this film).  He doesn't move his camera much (maybe not at all in this film, though I'd have to see it again to be sure), and his attention to detail is just as great.  I can still see Kyoko looking at her nail polish (you'll understand why this image stayed with me once you've seen the film).

When I saw this movie, I remember thinking, "Now this is the Japan that I know!"  Nobody Knows tells the story of four children left to fend for themselves in an apartment.  Their mother Keiko (the singer You, pronounced Yo with a long "o" sound), comes back after longer and longer absences to drop off money for the oldest child, Akira (Yuya Yagira), to spend on groceries and other necessities.  Eventually, she stops coming back.  The rest of the movie deals with how the children cope in her absence, particularly the two oldest siblings, Akira and Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura).

While one can be critical of the fact that none of the adults in this movie seem to realize that these children have been abandoned, even though (by the end of the film) the children live in squalor, keep in mind that it is based on an actual case, in which a mother left her children alone for SIX MONTHS without anyone knowing about it.  Besides, this movie is about the day-to-day existence of these children, not whether they are rescued or not.  Like Ozu, Kore-eda's film does not focus on melodramatic events, but on the everyday, and the muted reactions of the characters to their lives in the film increase, not decrease, one's emotional reaction to it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Updated Computer/Seattle Status

Before I get to the best movies of the decade (which I hope to post this weekend), I thought I should let everyone know what's going on in regards to my computer, this blog, and my life in Seattle.

First off, recently my parents sent my computer to me from Connecticut, as well as my printer.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that, while one of my housemates now has Internet access, he doesn't want to share his connection with anyone else, needing all of the bandwidth for himself.  Of course, I need very little, since I download almost nothing (the occasional Steam update notwithstanding).  You would think that my usage would barely cut into his speed, but whatever.  I should be getting a WiFi adapter for my computer soon, which I can use to search for a signal.  In the meantime, I'll be using library computers for Internet access.  Luckily, I found a different library near where I live with up-to-date Internet browsers (not so the library I was going to before), so now I can post AND leave comments on my blog.  Eventually, though, I hope to go in with several other people in my house to split the cost of Internet, so that I can post from home.  Unfortunately, that means I'll need to buy a router, but I believe there is a mail-in rebate that should cover most or all of its cost.

That brings me to my next point: I have no money coming in right now.  My seasonal job has ended, so, once again, I must search for a job out here in Seattle.  It is, in fact, what I should be doing right now, instead of posting this blog.  I also want to get back into teaching English to foreign students (and tutoring American students that need the help).  For that purpose, I have posted two or three fliers on campus offering my services for one-on-one lessons, and one of my housemates (who also teaches students, though usually in Spanish) has suggested posting in coffee shops, as well.  In addition, I ordered (and received) fifty business cards, so now I can pass them out not only to prospective students, but also to people in my meetup groups, hoping that one of them knows someone who is looking for someone like me to work for them.  I have also given a bunch of the cards to one of my housemates, who is Korean, and might know people looking for private English lessons.

Finally, during my down time I've been watching a lot of old movies and working on a short story--actually, more than one.  Once I finish the rough draft of the one that I'm currently working on, I hope to return to my novel (now that I have my printer, and bought some paper, editing it becomes possible).  The way I see it, I need to simultaneously job hunt and write, and in both cases, I need to put myself out there more and become more well known.  In politics, it's called "building the base."  In the arts, it's called "survival."

So, this coming weekend (the 23rd and 24th), I hope to post my best movies of the decade list on this blog, after which, my posts will have less to do with movies, and more to do with the thoughts inside of my head, my struggles within Seattle, and the people I hope to meet to make my literary dreams--and my permanent residency in Seattle--possible.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Best Movies of 2009

In the spirit of every movie critic who has put out a top ten list of the best movies of the year, I too shall put out a list of the best movies of the year.  Mine, however, will be different, as I only saw twelve movies this year (actually, as far as movies go, that's not too bad).  So, I will only be listing my top five, as well as two Honorable Mentions and a Special Jury Award.  My best of the decade list will follow (and to those who say that the decade ends at midnight on December 31, 2010, I say that's only if you follow a calendar with an arbitrary start date tied to a religion, in which case, that calendar is off by four years, anyway).  So, here we go!

Best Picture: Precious

Gabby Sibide and Mo'Nique give amazing performances in this gasp-inducing movie about a girl (Sibide), pregnant with her second child, living in poverty with her abusive mother (Mo'Nique).  Mariah Carey is also a standout as a social worker at the welfare office.  As the movie ended, I sat there, stunned.  To find a comparable experience in the theater, I'd have to go back to Shine--which came out in 1996.

Most Innovative: Sita Sings the Blues

The great thing about my pick for the second best movie of last year is that anyone with an Internet connection can see it for free, either streamed through the website (, or via youtube.  Another great thing is how good it is...and it was made by one woman on her home computer!  Nina Paley should be honored at the Oscars for her achievement in weaving together the Ramayana, the songs of Annette Hanshaw, and her own breakup into one gloriously animated feature film.  Instead, she will be ignored, as copyright laws prevent her from releasing the film commercially.  In some ways, this movie faces the same problems that faced Killer of Sheep.  In that case, at least, UCLA (or someone else?) eventually paid for the use of the copyrighted music.  Hopefully some big studio will do the same in this case.  Not that it matters to us, since we can pay for copies online.

Best Animated Film (in theaters): Up

Some critics thought Wall-E should have won the Oscar for best picture.  What, then, do they think of this film, which moved me almost as much as Precious did, and with animation?  As with Wall-E, there is a part of the movie that is dialogue-free, and while it's not as long a montage as that used in the former film, it is used just as effectively.  In fact, the most effective parts of this film (the tear-jerking scenes) use no words to make their point, and I have yet to see a scene in a movie where a young boy and a young girl meet told as honestly as the scene near the beginning of this movie, when Ellie and Carl meet for the first time.

Best Film About the Economy: Up in the Air

While not as good as Juno, Jason Reitman continues to prove that he is a great director and great at spotting good material with this movie about a man (George Clooney) who is paid to fly across the country and fire people.  Great acting from Clooney (as Ryan Bingham, a man who loves his job because it allows him to avoid any personal attachments), Vera Farmiga (as Alex Goran, his female foil and frequent flier fuck buddy), and Anna Kendrick (as Natalie Keener, a young and ambitious worker whose plans to save the company money run counter to Bingham's wishes), plus a nice turn by Jason Bateman as Bingham and Keener's boss.  One warning: while this movie is funny, it is also sad and poignant, so if you're expecting a feel-good movie, stick to It's a Wonderful Life.

Cutest Film: (500) Days of Summer

More uplifting than Up in the Air, but not all light and airy (it begins with a breakup).  Some interesting stylistic choices (I particulary like the song and dance routine after the first night Summer and Tom sleep together, and the split screen showing Tom's expectations versus reality when he is invited to a party by Summer late in the film) in a film that is not a love story (as the audience is informed at the beginning of this picture).  Rather, this is a movie about relationships, and why some work, and some don't--or, to be more accurate, the fact that some work, and some don't, and no rational explanation exists as to why.

Honorable Mentions: Me and Orson Welles, An Education

Both of these films feature standout performances.  In the case of the delightful Me and Orson Welles, it is the memorable Christian McKay as a young Orson Welles.  In equal measure, we are able to recognize two things about Welles: he was a genius, and he was a pain in the ass to work for.  Not an easy thing for an actor or a director to pull off, but McKay and the director, Richard Linklater, are more than up to the task.  In addition, this is a fine movie about the theater, and makes one wish he or she had been in the audience the night that Welles's version of Julius Caesar opened at the Mercury Theatre.

In An Education, we have a breakout performance from Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a British schoolgirl who enters into a relationship with a much older man.  Another treat in this movie is Alfred Molina as Jenny's father, stealing every scene he's in, while Mulligan steals every scene that he's not in.

Special Jury Award: Avatar

Let's admit, up front, that the dialogue is cliched, the (human) characters are, for the most part, stereotypes, and the story is nothing new in the world of science fiction (or in any movie where an oppressor decides to join forces with the oppressed).  I am giving Avatar the Special Jury Award because it looks so damn cool, and because James Cameron knows how to film an action sequence in which the special effects (including the 3D) enhance what is happening onscreen, rather than feeling like a gimmick.  Oh, and the 3D is superb, and used the way it should be used: to create the illusion of depth, instead of just using it so that objects pop out of the screen and scare people.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's a Wonderful Movie

While Citizen Kane is the most critically acclaimed of American movies, It's a Wonderful Life may be the most loved (yes, I hear you, Casablanca fans!).  On Christmas Day, I saw this ultimate "feel-good" movie in a nonprofit movie theater here in Seattle, where its strengths shine through even more clearly than they do on TV.

The movie starts with shots of Bedford Falls and voiceovers, praying for George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), including one from George himself.  We then travel to the heavens, where God and Joseph call in Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel who hasn't gotten his wings.  They tell him that an hour from then, George Bailey will commit suicide.  To help prepare him to save George, they show him (and us) important moments in George's life.  And then, soon after Clarence goes down to earth to save George from committing suicide, we are treated to the best use of deux ex machina on film, as George discovers what life would be like if he had never been born.

Since the focus of this movie tends to be on the brilliant, tear-jerking ending (this movie, and Saving Private Ryan, consistently make me cry), I wonder how many people notice the brilliant build-up to that ending, and the life lessons that Frank Capra, the director, wants to impart to us, the audience, through this film.  Remember, this movie was released in 1947, right after the ravages of WWII.  Stewart, in fact, wasn't sure if he still had his acting chops intact, but, as one excellent scene between him and Mary (Donna Reed) on the telephone prove, he needn't have worried.  In fact, one cannot imagine this movie without Jimmy Stewart in it as George, and even less so without Lionel Barrymore as the crusty, greedy Mr. Potter, one of the great villains in cinema history.  The struggle between Potter and George's father, and then between Potter and George himself, form the crux of the movie.

So, how are these two characters portrayed?  Mr. Potter is all about money and control, which leads to power.  He doesn't care about his tenants, who live in his slum houses, or anyone else in the town.  Human dignity, the dignity of owning a home, means nothing to him, since it doesn't translate into dollars and cents for himself.

George is different.  Like his father, he cares about the people he deals with.  He doesn't give them loans so that he can make money; he gives them loans so that they can afford a house for themselves and their families, for he understands that giving a man a house will allow him to ascend the ranks of society, which will benefit both society and the man.  While Potter is looking for short-term gain and long-term control,  George is looking for long-term gain and short-term control.  Mr. Potter invests in money; George Bailey invests in people.  And herein lies the difference in their characters.  At many points in the movie, George could have taken off and seen the world, or gone to college, or gone on his honeymoon, or taken a lucrative job working for Potter.  He doesn't do any of these things because then Potter would control the community, and all the people that George cares about, including himself, would be under Potter's oppressive thumb, drained of their human dignity.  Since there is an angel in the movie, one could very well believe that Potter is Capra's version of the devil.  The fact that George stands up to Potter, and that the community stands with George, prevents Potter from getting complete control of the town.  In fact, many of Potter's former tenants live in homes they can afford only due to loans made available to them by Bailey's Savings and Loans.

The problem nowadays is that we have too many Mr. Potters and too few George Baileys--too many willing to squeeze as much money as they can out of others, too many looking to line their pockets with money at the expense of others, rather then allow others to become profitable so that they can profit the whole community.  And that highlights another problem.  The few George Baileys that we have need communities to support them.  I don't doubt that this happens, on occasion, but when community members become as selfish about their possessions as Potter does his, they tend to abandon their George Baileys.  Even the original George Bailey has to quell the crowds when there's a run on the bank, sacrificing his honeymoon money to do so.

But, the title of this blog is "It's a Wonderful Movie," so why is this movie so wonderful?  I already mentioned the great use of deux ex machina, but there's more to it than that.  Certainly Mr. Potter is a cunning foe, a real life monster scarier than any to be found in horror movies.  On the opposite extreme, George Bailey is such a good person, always sacrificing for others, always on the verge of leaving Bedford Falls, but never succeeding, because he feels that he has a duty to protect the town from Potter's clutches.  If Atticus Finch is the pinnacle of human dignity on film, then George Bailey is a very close second.

To add to the movie's riches, we have a great supporting cast.  The film wouldn't have worked narly as well with lesser actors and actresses filling the roles of Mary, Clarence, Uncle Billy, and the rest.  And, unlike so many movies today, the dialog is funny, witty, and at times, profound (such as when Clarence says to George, "Strange, isn't it?  Each man's life touches so many other lives.  When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?").  Oh, and did I mention the ending?  As has happened on so many other occasions where I have had the privilege to watch this film, I cried multiple times, none bigger than when, at the end of the movie [WARNING: SPOILER TO FOLLOW], when all of the townspeople whom George has helped come out to help him, his brother Harry raises a glass and says, "A toast.  To my big brother George.  The richest man in town" (I am tearing up even as I write this).  Yes, Harry might be talking about the money that George has just received.  But that's not why I cry.  I cry because what Harry says is not just true at the end of the film.  It has been true for the entire movie.  Mr. Potter may have more money, but George Bailey has always been the richest man in Bedford Falls.