(Here's the latest monthly column I've written for the Galesburg Register-Mail. Note that I have taken on the humble task of capturing all of world cinema in 1000 words or so. Where would I be if I didn't know everything? In a pickle, that's where. Of global proportions.)
On January 26, Knox College will hold its International Fair; I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the promise that, no matter the corner where we start, if we travel as curious and generous explorers, we may end up as friends.
The Asian Corner
Asian filmmakers appreciate the visual potential of cinema; from hyper-realized song-and-dance frenzies to austerely beautiful tableaux, from gun-fu standoffs to epic widescreen, one can almost forget the mundane elements of plot in surrender to aesthetics.
But the stories assert themselves amid the visual splendor. In Raise the Red Lantern (China, 1991), Zhang Yimou explores the walled-in palace of an old man who takes a fourth wife (the stunning Gong Li), who unwillingly enters the squabbles and maneuverings of the wives, trapped just as she is but determined to recreate the worst elements of the world outside. A red lantern is raised outside the quarters of the wife whom the lord will visit, and it becomes as much of a warning and curse as a sign of favor. Yimou’s camera looks down on the house as the seasons pass and invites us into secrets no one should have to keep.
One of the simplest stylists, Yasujiro Ozu is also one of the most profound. Tokyo Story’s (Japan, 1953) plot is barely there: Aged parents visit their children in the city, are patiently endured, then return home, where the wife dies and there is a funeral. But with these simple notes Ozu composes a remarkable symphony, contemplative and heartrending, in which love, loss and reconciliation find full voice.
Bridging all kinds of gaps, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (Japan, 1961) may dedicate itself to the beautiful compositions we expect from Japanese films, but in the foreground is his Samurai bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune), the original “man with no name” who strolls into a town populated almost exclusively by bad guys and plays one against the other, all for a “fistful of dollars” (well, yen) until he is the “last man standing.” Kurosawa gleefully borrows from hardboiled crime novels and Westerns—and, lucky for moviegoers, turnabout is fair play, from Clint Eastwood to Bruce Willis.
The European Corner
Like Ozu, Vittoria De Sica focused on the everyday, with epic results. The Bicycle Thief (Italy, 1949) has never lost its potency. In postwar Italy, a father stakes his family’s future on his bicycle, necessary for his job (ironically, posting Hollywood movie posters around town). The bicycle is immediately stolen, and the man and his young son embark on a city-wide search that manages to capture every facet of both their relationship and the larger world through which they roam, one as opposed to their success as any government bureaucracy.
As World War II faded, European cinema looked inward, particularly the French New Wave. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1959) follows his alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), as he wanders from his distant parents into the streets, petty crime, a juvenile detention center—and then famously to a beach, where, suspended between land and water, he turns and stares into the camera all his solemn sadness and hidden dreams. Truffaut would make four more Doinel films, but this one remains as the truest expression of a young artist on the run and left behind.
Speaking of running, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (Germany 1998) propels his heroine like a time-traveling bullet through a Berlin only an Xbox could’ve built. As Lola tries to save her bagman boyfriend from the mob, Tykwer tosses her, most of the city, and us like zero-gee pinballs, until it all ends in tragedy. Or does it? The movie ramps up again, and again, offering alternate-universe recreations of her run, and the power of narrative literally to make and break—and re-make.
The African Corner
Despite its own rich cinematic history, particularly since the mid-1960s, modern Africa is most often seen through Western eyes, from Out of Africa (1985) to Blood Diamond (2006); even an African film like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981) can’t get started until it practically bonks a Bushman on the head with a Coke bottle. One of the best films to reflect this dualistic/“filtered” view is Battle of Algiers (Algeria/Italy, 1966), which alternates between the French citizens/colonizers and the Algerian revolutionaries/terrorists. Presented in an unapologetic documentary style, the film explores the shared violence that sullies the colonial legacy.
Also facing an “African problem,” but with great compassion and beauty, even humor, is Moolaade (Senegal, 2004), directed by Ousmane Sembene. The title means “protection” or “sanctuary,” which a woman gives to four village girls who are about to undergo female circumcision. The film, though, is more than an exposé of a social concern; it interrogates the past, anticipates the future—with mingled hope and apprehension—and celebrates the undaunted courage of everyday people.
The American Corner
For a US film, I was tempted to discuss anything by Martin Scorsese, but the fervid hopes, wild humor, and dark despair one could say marks much of “American” cinema is captured perfectly in the Brazilian film City of God (2002). Imagine Goodfellas in a favela—or better yet, forget the Hollywood comparisons and brace yourself for a fiercely original and appallingly honest observation of life in its last extremes.
Which leads me to the States. If I will not indulge my Scorsese fixation, where can we go for some real deep-fried, quick-talkin', old-fashioned American mischief? I’m torn between two audacities: Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. For some reason Do the Right Thing (1989) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) seem to foot the same bill. Both are filled with music and dangerous curves, overblown egos and “startlements”—while bouncing along quite different American roads. Taken together, they lay out town and country with sly honesty and bittersweet affection.
Eventually, all roads lead—well, to all roads, as in Babel (2006), Alejandro Iñárritu’s continent-hopping exploration of the ties that bind. And they pain us, intertwining just about everything we worry about today—relationships, poverty, terrorism, loyalty, the search for home and safety, the fear of lost connections. Babel provides an opportunity to feel the sharpness of the four corners of the Earth and to remember what we all share.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Content copyright © 2005-2011 by Paul J. Marasa. No part of the written work displayed on this site may be reproduced, linked or distributed in any form without the author's express permission. All images, video, audio and other materials used are deliberately and solely for illustrative purposes connected with each article. Each accompanying element is intended as a research and reference tool with relation to each article. No challenge to pre-existing rights is implied. Aside from The Constant Viewer, the author claims no responsibility for websites which link to or from this website.