Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

The Hawks and the Sparrows: a rambling road movie enquiry into the social and political conflicts of Italian society in the 1960s

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Hawks and the Sparrows / Uccellacci e Uccellini” (1966)

A bit confusing and rambling, this road movie about a father and his son roaming aimlessly through Italy is an investigation of the social and political conflicts that threaten to pull 1960s-period Italian society apart, in particular the conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and modern secular society at the time, and the conflicts between landowners and working-class rural folk. The Italian comedian Toto and Ninetto Davoli play the father Innocenti Toto and son Ninetto who have several unusual adventures on their walking journey. Along the way they are joined by a talking raven (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) who represents a left-wing intellectual tradition strong on rational thinking and who comments on the men’s backgrounds and the adventures they have taken or are about to take.

First up, the raven tells the men a fable about two mediaeval monks (Toto and Davoli) sent out by St Francis of Assisi to convince hawks and sparrows to accept God in their lives and live with love. This requires an extreme ascetic life-style lasting well over a year but finally the two monks master the languages of the birds and broadcast the Gospel among them. Yet no matter how earnestly they teach the birds, the birds are still at the mercy of their instincts and habits, the hawk still kills the sparrow for food, and St Francis pressures the two monks to try harder to convince the birds to overcome their natures and live in peace.

The fable takes up about half the film’s running time and the other stories that follow are not nearly so deep or complex. In two scenes, Toto and Ninetto threaten to evict a poverty-stricken family from their farmhouse if the money the mother owes the two men is not forthcoming, and Toto and Ninetto themselves are threatened when they appeal to their landlord to have mercy and waive their debts and the landlord refuses. The duo also meet a travelling troupe of actors representing minority groups in Italy and watch the troupe perform a play that is forced to end when one of the actors goes into labour and must deliver her baby. Not long after Toto and Ninetto witness the baby’s birth, they are caught up in crowds following the cofin of a local Italian celebrity figure. Later the two men take turns dallying with a prostitute (Femi Benussi) before being overcome by hunger and greed while looking at the raven …

The film is in neo-realist style, using non-actors to play most roles, and with some very stunning cinematography work showing off landscapes and featuring close-ups of people’s rugged faces. Toto and Davoli are fine actors just as much at home with Marxist notions on the nature of class-based struggle and the clash of Marxist ideology, Roman Catholic dogma and human nature, as they are with slapstick humour that owes a debt to old Charlie Chaplin silent films. The film flows smoothly and well, with each skit blending seamlessly into the next with no break in pace, mood or character.

It does try to say a lot within its 88 minutes, maybe too much for its length and road-movie fantasy narrative. Most contemporary Western viewers would be confused by the way Pasolini sets out the Marxist premise only to subvert it with examples of human greed. Pasolini fails to appreciate that much human greed is itself culturally shaped by societies and cultures that exalt greed, individual competition or low animal cunning that takes advantage of others or manipulates them as worthwhile values. The adventures of Toto and Ninetto might best have been served in a mini-series format that could have explored and explained in more depth and detail, at a level and pace suited to mainstream audiences, Marxist philosophy and its aims, and how it might adapt to or change the Italian society and culture of Pasolini’s times.

Anomalisa: an incompletely developed film on alienation and the struggle to live in an oppressive conformist society

Charlie Kaufmann and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” (2015)

Not often does a film come along that encapsulates in its appearance and format its themes of human alienation, rootlessness, loss of identity and individuality and fear of the same, and the lack of authenticity in modern Western civilisation. By telling its story through animation and the use of three voice actors, two to voice individual characters and the third actor (Tom Noonan) to voice all other characters, “Anomalisa” says something about how modern society has robbed people of their uniqueness and crushes them with a banal, insincere culture through a particular if rather biased and narrow point of view, that being of its main character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who himself embodies much of what is trite and troubling about the society he lives in.

British expat Stone is a motivational speaker and author based in Los Angeles whose recent book on customer service has become a best-seller and who has been invited to speak at a conference in Cincinnati, a city in the industrial rust-bucket Midwest region of the US. On the plane there, he re-reads a 10-year-old letter sent him by his old girlfriend Bella who happens to live in his destination city. After landing at the airport in the evening, he endures vapid chatter from the taxi driver who takes him from the airport to the four-star Hotel Fregoli (the name is taken from a mental disorder in which the sufferer imagines everyone to look and sound the same) whose stodgy interiors and furnishings resemble those of a prison, albeit a comfortable one. He calls his wife and son and engages in dull stereotyped conversation with them. He contacts Bella and they meet in the hotel bar – for the first time in over 10 years – but she is still upset over their break-up and she carries considerable psychological baggage from her recent relationship which has also broken up and the two former lovers separate in anger and distress. Michael then saunters off to find the toy-shop the taxi driver had told him about – and which turns out to be a toy-shop for adults – to buy a present for his son.

Back at the hotel and feeling depressed – it’s late at night by now – Michael meets two young women who have travelled all the way by car from their small-town call-centre jobs to see and hear him speak at the conference. Emily is just like everyone else he meets but her companion Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is another thing altogether: her face a bit disfigured and hidden under a thick irregularly shaped mop of hair, having had a limited education and suffering from low self-esteem, Lisa is not at all what Michael has come to expect of Americans in all their commonplace conformity. She speaks what’s on her mind (out of nervousness perhaps), admits that she likes Cyndi Lauper and, after some persuasion from Michael, sings Lauper’s biggest hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” right off the bat. The older man is smitten with Lisa’s charm and after drinks with the two girls, manages to persuade her to come back to his room with him. One thing leads to another and next thing you know – after a brief detour into a dream scene that might riff on current American fears about pervasive surveillance and the possibility of being blackmailed or arrested for associating with people different from yourself – Michael and Lisa are having breakfast together. At this point, Michael looks at Lisa anew … and the day ahead (the conference, the return home, family reunion) starts to unravel.

The film moves at a fair clip covering what is basically mundane material – a jaded and depressed middle-aged man goes on a business trip, preys on a young woman and has a one-night stand with her – which it uses to explore its themes of alienation and trying to survive as an authentic being in a society of stifling conformity. The audience comes to realise that Michael’s depression and alienation are as much a result of past refusal to take personal responsibility and an unwillingness to listen to and connect with others, as demonstrated early on in his failed reunion with the fragile Bella, as it is of the machine-like soulless corporate nature of American society. A couple of scenes in the film in which his identity appears to be fragmenting and falling apart to reveal the robot beneath highlight the depth of his depression and the fragility of the identity that he has. The fact that Michael is not American-born might give a hint of his rootlessness which might lie at the bottom of his feelings of alienation; one would like to know something of his childhood and youth that led him to flee Britain and go to Los Angeles, that citadel of reinvention and manufactured identity.

For all his search for authenticity, as represented by Lisa, Michael’s reaction to it turns out to be depressingly selfish and banal: he tries to possess it and Lisa through sex and fantasises about leaving his wife and son and shacking up with Lisa. The breakfast scene is significant in that signs of incompatibility between Michael and Lisa appear as Michael starts picking on Lisa’s eating habits and Lisa’s voice increasingly changes to those of everyone else around Michael. The scene breaks off midway through and the audience does not see what happens next, which some viewers may consider a major weakness of the film, but it should not be hard to guess that Michael and Lisa start arguing and break up in almost the same way that he broke up with Bella all those years ago. Fortunately, for all her hang-ups about her appearance and her lack of confidence, Lisa is not as fragile as Bella and treasures the evening she spent with Michael. For his part, Michael returns to the existential hell that he in part has made for himself.

The film dwells very little on why US society has become so oppressively conformist although Kaufmann and Johnson do include one remarkable moment in which a confused and disoriented Michael, giving his address to the conference, goes off script and starts railing against the US government and its foreign policy, and declares that the world “is falling apart”, at which point his audience begins booing. This can only further alienate Michael from the people and country that he calls home, and this is as daring as Kaufmann and Johnson come in suggesting that the entire US nation is living in an alternative universe far removed from authenticity and reality. Michael later dutifully returns to his wife who has put on a home-warming celebration but to him everybody there is a robot looking exactly the same as all the other robots he knows.

The film’s narrative does appear incomplete at times and the action can appear forced. It is odd that Emily allows her sexually inexperienced friend to go off with a much older man and the brief affair is rather creepy. The breakfast and conference address sequences are woefully incomplete and we do not know whether Michael’s woozy performance of a speech (which he has probably delivered hundreds of times before) has ruined his career as a motivational speaker and writer. The film gives no sense of closure as the characters return to their everyday lives and routines, perhaps never to meet again. Given the themes though, the incomplete nature of the plot and underdeveloped ideas might be considered part and parcel of what the film aims to achieve: how to cope and survive in a society whose true horrific nature we have only a fragmented knowledge of, with not much in our arsenal save force of habit, our self-centredness, desire for immediate gratification, and the need to please and to conform as our weapons against evil.

Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clément play their parts well: in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clément are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with him, is inexplicably passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy: all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert. How this voluntary return to isolation is going to aid Travis in further self-discovery and maturation – it could also put him in danger of regression into amnesia – Wenders is unable to say and the conclusion seems half-hearted to the point of defeatism.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

Becoming a legend through humility and earning grace in “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island”

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island” (1956)

Inagaki’s third and last installment in the historical fiction drama series on the life and times of master swordsman Musashi Miyamoto is a mellow and almost wistful study of the samurai’s spiritual and mental evolution as he prepares for the fight of his life against an evil challenger. At the end of the second film in the series, the samurai Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta) vows to seek out and fight Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and this determination becomes the main focus of the third film as the two characters warily circle each other on their respective journeys through life, knowing that once they have decided to fight one another, they can’t avoid their fate. To this end, Miyamoto requests of Sasaki that he be allowed to spend a year to prepare for the fight, during which time he rejects an offer from the Shogun to train warriors and travels to a village where he devotes his life to farming and defending the villagers against feared bandits. The bandits rope in Akemi (Mariko Okada), one of Miyamoto’s rivals for his affections, to lead them to the village. Akemi’s rival, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), tracks down Miyamoto herself and joins him on his farm. This means that in addition to preparing himself psychologically for the showdown with Sasaki, Miyamoto must fight off the brigands and deal with two women jealous of one another and reconcile with Otsu. What’s an ascetic samurai to do under such circumstances? In the meantime, Sasaki lives a life of ease and easy pleasures, visiting courtesans and courting the young daughter of a noble family at Kokura.

Like its predecessors, the film includes nature as a significant character in the narrative: scenes of flowing water reflect the plot’s concern with the passage of time and past memory and hint at emotions within Miyamoto and Otsu that they are afraid to admit to themselves, much less each other. To be frank, I found the romantic sub-plot and the rivalry between Akemi and Otsu uninteresting: the two characters are too stereotyped as one-dimensional scheming bitch and helpless no-brain damsel respectively to generate any real tension. The film’s attempt to contrast Miyamoto and Sasaki through their life-styles and activities is laudable, and demonstrates Miyamoto’s down-to-earth integrity and maturity – he had formerly spurned the life of a farmer as he admits to Otsu – compared to Sasaki’s glide through fun and luxurious living.

Made for the general public, the film brushes over how and why Miyamoto adopts a more humble attitude to life. The priest who helped Otsu in the earlier films has gone and the film makes no attempt to explain any Buddhist principles that might be relevant to Miyamoto’s inner quest. We see Miyamoto being quite reluctant to fight the brigand leader and various others but the film does not explain his change of attitude from his early eagerness to prove himself. He avoids fame and celebrity but the film does not show how this desire came about. In short, if viewers want to learn something of Buddhist philosophy and what aspects of it influenced Miyamoto’s life, they will not find anything useful in the film to help.

The main glory of the film is the final battle scene between Sasaki and Miyamoto on the beach at sunrise. Framed between two trees and their canopies and branches, the fight is surprisingly swift and brisk. The end when it comes is unexpected and the victor, overcome by the momentous nature of the fight, is saddened at a life’s brief duration, cut off in its prime. Is he also sorrowful that the fight did not need to take place at all, that because of pride and an obsession with fame, a man has died unnecessarily?

The film does flow better than its predecessors and is much more focused due to its plot. Loose ends are tidied up and there is a definite sense of release and freedom at the end of the film. Miyamoto’s life quest is complete and he earns undying fame: the lesson he had to learn to become a legendary samurai was to become humble and to think of others and care for them before caring about himself and his reputation. There might be a lesson there for Japan and other nations to learn.

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple – bridging two films capably with character and thematic developments

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple” (1955)

Its predecessor in the Musashi Miyamoto trilogy might have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 1954, but this second installment is a superior film in its characterisation, plotting and cinematography. The plot makes greater demands on its audience’s attention and understanding of pre-Meiji Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy in amongst the clashing of swords in combat and a sappy love triangle. While the conventions of the American Western film genre are followed in the detail of the lone itinerant fighting hero who forswears love and a normal life in his quest for self-knowledge and understanding, these conventions are extended to embrace and illuminate Buddhist values and beliefs and to impart a message that toughness and stoicism need to be tempered with compassion and love and respect for others, especially those who are weaker than oneself.

Our man Takezo aka Miyamoto (Toshiro Mifune) challenges a swordfighting school led by Seijuro Yoshioka to a fight to demonstrate his skill and underline his reputation as a swordsman. The coming showdown anchors the film and focuses attention. In-between skirmishes with members of the school, keen to set an ambush for him and wear him down before he meets Seijuro, Takezo is pursued by the women Akemi and Otsu, both of whom were betrayed by Takezo’s former friend Matahachi. Takezo’s encounters with the ill-fated women and his feelings for them both are as much a battleground for him as the marshy grounds surrounding Ichijoji Temple. The biggest battlefield though turns out to be his own ego as Takezo slowly comes to realise that his pride, stubbornness and fixation with his reputation as a fighter are a cover for various inadequacies which he must deal with before he can truly be called great.

In real life, Miyamoto probably never had to contend with 80 seasoned fighters at the crack of dawn over fields of swamp but let’s not allow reality to intrude upon gritty and brutal fighting through mud and slush. As expected, Mifune performs capably as the cynical gunfighter … err, swordsman, with not too much required of his acting skills at least until a scene near the end where without words Takezo is overcome by his desire for Otsu. The supporting cast play their roles, stereotyped and one-dimensional as they are, well for the most part; an unexpected and droll little twist is provided by a courtesan’s young assistant with a breathy little girl’s voice.

The countryside becomes a significant character in the film as well with the main battle taking place in swampy, muddy territory during the dying hours of night. Scenes of nature feature throughout the film and perhaps the best use of nature comes near the end where shots of flowing water are interspersed with shots of Takezo and Otsu together, with no dialogue but the camera focused on their faces. The water alludes to the growing affections they feel for one another.

Although the movie falls far short of what the great Akira Kurosawa did with his samurai films – there’s too much melodrama, characters are flat for the most part and the various sub-plots are not handled too well with some minor characters appearing for no other reason than that they appeared in the first movie so we’d better not forget them – “… Ichijoji Temple” performs adequately as a second installment that builds on what the first film established and sets up the framework for the third movie, in which Takezo must meet and fight a swordsman who not only is his equal in skill but may even be superior to him in fighting tactics.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto – the early days of a famous swordsman celebrated with ambition and energy

Hiroshi Inagaki, “Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto” (1954)

One of the most famous people in Japanese culture is the swordsman and mystic Musashi Miyamoto, author of “Gorin no sho / The Book of Five Rings”, and one imagines that in a culture that reveres martial stereotypes of the samurai and the ninja, and the sport of kendo, Miyamoto’s life should be well documented. The fact though is that records of his life seem to be very spotty and he has been the subject of many tall tales. This did not bother director Hiroshi Inagaki who undertook to make a trilogy of movies detailing an imagined life of Miyamoto from his early years to his battle with Sasaki Kojiro at Ganryujima. The films star the notable Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s samurai answer to Hollywood’s cowboy heroes of the same time, as Miyamoto.

The first film of the trilogy, subtitled simply “Musashi Miyamoto”, presents Miyamoto as a young and impetuous village youth, known to his family and community as Takezo. Takezo and friend Matahachi eagerly participate in a civil war (the period is the year 1600, just before Ieyasu Tokugawa became shogun and initiated a long peace of some 267 years) but their side loses badly and the two try to return home. They fall in with two women, Oko and Akemi, who make a living by robbing dead samurai of their arms and money. Akemi tends to Matahachi’s wound and Oko tries to seduce Takezo after seeing him fight off a bunch of thugs single-handedly. Takezo runs away and the women and Matahachi later desert him. Takezo returns to his and Matahachi’s home village to tell Matahachi’s mother and his fiancee Otsu that Matahachi is still alive. Takezo is accused of giving up Matahachi for dead and the village elders order his arrest. Takezo becomes a fugitive but the local Buddhist priest Takuan traps him. Takuan intends to take Takezo under his wing and train him to be a moral man. With the help of Matahachi’s fiancee Otsu (who learns that Matahachi has forsaken her for Oko), Takezo escapes for a time but again Takuan tricks him and imprisons him in Himeji Castle. Here for a number of years Takezo undergoes spiritual and moral training, and starts on the long road to becoming a proper samurai.

The film borrows many plot and style elements from the Western genre including the idea of the main character as a strong, silent lone-wolf figure who will travel from one place to the next taking on various villains and learning through his adventures what it means to be a true and virtuous samurai, and that life, being impermanent, must be cherished and respected. The film may lack the grace and choreography that a Kurosawa might have brought to it but this means that action sequences look all the more realistic and savage. Characters are very stereotyped and what character development exists is extremely limited. The acting is not especially skillful and Toshiro Mifune’s portrayal of Takezo seems rather wooden. (He was a thirtysomething actor playing a character who was supposed to be in his late teens after all.) Takezo’s early transformation from wild and restless youngster to serious young man trained in proper samuari skills and Buddhist philosophy occurs off-screen in a matter of minutes in a 100-minute film; Inagaki figured that constant chanting of sutras, daily practice with wooden swords and long hours in meditation atop mountains in the middle of winter might not go down well with audiences thirsting for the quick and decisive actions of Hollywood gangster and cowboy films.

The film seems a little uneven given its plot – there’s no great sword-fight at the end and the climax comes from the romantic sub-plot – and there are great leaps from one sub-plot to the next. Matahachi and his women disappear from the film for a long stretch and are brought back near the end. Inagaki manages to pull the different stories together and the film marches resolutely to its finale with its focus firmly on Takezo.

In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat by the US and its allies in 1945, the film’s themes revolve around identity, redemption, rebirth and finding one’s goals and true purpose in life. The general thrust of the film is to show how Takezo comes to take responsibility for his actions and understand their consequences; he becomes less ego-driven and more aware of what others do for him and to use his strengths to defend others without thought for himself. Compared to other samurai films (and especially those of Akira Kurosawa) that I have seen, this movie might not be great technically but it certainly has ambition and energy befitting its main character.

Crimea for Dummies: entertaining travelogue, history lesson and Western media propaganda critique rolled into one

Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” (RT Documentary, 2014)

A unique and interesting film by Los Angeles film school graduate Miguel Francis Santiago, “Crimea for Dummies” is at once a personal film travelogue, history lesson and critique of the Western news media portrayal of recent events in Crimea. MFS sets out to discover how much the global view reflects the actual situation in the peninsula. The Western opinion is that Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean peninsula after the Crimean parliament held an illegal referendum that delivered suspect results. The opinion of the Crimeans themselves, as MFS was to discover, is that the referendum not only was legitimate but it reflected majority opinion of Russian voters (and quite a lot of Crimean Tatars who defied their Majlis order not to participate in the referendum) who did not like what was happening in Ukraine and who wanted to secede and rejoin Russia.

MFS visits Crimea to interview people about what they think of Russia and what their lives are now like under Russian rule. Nearly everyone is happy to be living in Russia because among other things people can now apply for free medical insurance which they could not get in Ukraine. According to what he heard in the news in the US, there were food shortages in Crimea after Russian reunification so he visits food shops and finds food in abundance at affordable prices.

Puzzled that the vast majority of people he meets identify with Russia rather than Ukraine, MFS sets out to learn the history of Crimea and how with its mostly Russian-speaking population it ended up as part of Ukraine. He learns that Crimea was incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783 – so its association with Russia began only a few years after the United States declared its independence in 1776. He visits memorials dedicated to those members of the Russian military forces who died defending Sevastopol and Crimea from invasion, first in the 1850s against forces from Britain, France, Turkey and Italy, and then second during the Second World War against Germany. Puzzled that none of these memorials mention Ukraine or Ukrainians, MFS consults a historian about how Crimea became part of Ukraine and she informs him that in 1956 the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine because the leader had spent part of his boyhood in Ukraine and he needed Ukrainian support in the various byzantine machinations in Moscow politics at the time. One interesting tidbit is that MFS learns Ukraine had once offered a military base to the US but since it faced Turkey rather than Russia, the Americans turned down the offer.

The documentary works as both history and travelogue: through Francis’s eyes and experiences, viewers see the kind of sunny, tourist-oriented place Crimea (and more specifically Sevastopol and Yalta) could be with opportunities for sight-seeing, walking tours, swimming and boat trips. In his interviews with the local people, MFS apparently does not meet any non-Russian individuals (like Crimean Tatars for example) who might offer a point of view at odds with the majority opinion that Crimea is and always has been a part of Russia since 1783. Crimean history since that year is rich in associations with Russian history and culture – the famous writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov spent part of his life here – and MFS learns to his consternation that from 1991 to 2014, the Ukrainian government actively sought to suppress this rich history and other expressions of Russian identity among the Crimeans.

Playing a wide-eyed tourist naif enables MFS to come close to people who speak more frankly than they might have done otherwise had he come as an investigator or journalist. Plenty of close-ups feature and MFS’s clowning about gives the film the air of a home-made production.

Propaganda this film may be – there is no way of telling what might have been omitted from the film’s final version and how much – though it is very entertaining and informative. I might say at this point that the woman historian MFS consults was incorrect in saying that Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1956: the year of transfer was actually 1954, the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which Ukrainian cossacks joined with Russia in an alliance against the Crimean Tatar khanate and its allies, and that one reason for the transfer may have been easier administration of a pipeline transporting water for public consumption from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Crimea. The transfer was made quite arbitrarily with no consultation with the Soviet parliament at the time, as should have been done according to the Soviet constitution. Another reason possibly may have been to sway Ukrainians away from supporting nationalist Ukrainian groups agitating for Ukraine to break away from the Soviet Union at the time.

Whether you view the film as propaganda or not, it is nevertheless a good introduction to a small territory in the Black Sea that for centuries has been coveted as prime real estate by great powers past and present.