Two Old-Fashioneds, For Two Old-Fashioned People: Make Way For Tomorrow (1937)

I realized as today rolled in that I had all but failed to blog this month, which I am constantly apologizing for during this semester.  It might get better in the upcoming weeks, but as it looks there is hardly any end in sight.  I even had big plans to do a Zatoichi marathon this month and that has managed to fall to the wayside.  My busy status is wholly revolving around things that I enjoy thoroughly though so it is far from a complaint and merely a reality, so for me to report back on the movies I am encountering necessitates two things to work simultaneously.  First, I have to be deeply moved in a way by such an encounter as to be determined to set aside time to write a blog about the film in question.  Second, this being profoundly moved by a film also has to occur at a time when I could still manage to set down for more than a few minutes and compose valid thoughts on the subject.  Since writing nearly half a month ago about Lilies of the Field I have seen some great stuff (Nanook of the North, Stalker and Love Jones) and I also saw some atrocities (Arcade and Broken Arrow).  I wanted to write at great length, but alas time did not allow.  In fact, Broken Arrow took me four miserable late nights to finish.  What I come to write about today is something so off the radar that had I not been fortunate to be a member of The POV Cineclub, I would likely have never encountered the work.  The film in question is Leo McCrary's Make Way For Tomorrow, a little film from 1937 that just happens to fit so delicately in the cracks between the classics of the silent era and the wonderful works of World War II America.  Were the movements altered in even the slightest of ways, this film would be completely overlooked.  While the subject matter is hardly related, I would not hesitate to assert that this has the same sort of rediscovered classic status that is afforded to The Night of the Hunter, here, however, the sentimentality runs thick only to dry up by the end and the narrative is not something that causes a viewer heart to begin racing, but, instead; to wrench in the most jarring of manners.  The open acknowledgement on the part of Yasujiro Ozu that this film was one of his major influences is no surprise, particularly given the staging and angles incorporated in this shot, never mind it possessing what might be one of the most curious breakings of the fourth wall ever committed to celluloid.

Make Way For Tomorrow centers around the Cooper family, more specifically the parents of the children who are now grown and living on their own at various locations within the United States.  The father George Cooper (Thomas Mitchell) is facing a reality wherein his old age and failing vision have led to his being less successful at bookkeeping and subsequently retiring.  Alongside George is his loving wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi) who is also dealing with aging and the inability to take care of major chores in their home, one that in the past had housed their four children, centering specifically on their oldest son Barkley (Victor Moore).  With the impending mortgage on their house becoming due George and Lucy are threatened with eviction, calling all of their children home to deliver the rather unfortunate news.  When it becomes clear that staying in the home is not an option, the two parents ask for help from their children, minus one who cannot extract herself from life in California.  While the children all attempt to save face, while also side stepping the burden of taking care of their children, Lucy ends up moving in with Barkley and his wife and daughter, while George moves in with the considerably disgruntled but nonetheless accepting daughter Anita (Fay Bainter).  While the two parents prove to throw off the tense infrastructure of the various spaces they occupy, they seem to want nothing more than to live under the same roof again, George hoping to find a job and have Lucy move in with him again, whereas Lucy attempts to be as amiable as possible to Barkley, even going so far as to help her granddaughter Rhoda (Barbara Reed) hide a burgeoning romance from her mother.  Yet, when these tense structures fall apart, it is the parents who are deemed the problem and Berkley succumbs to the reality wherein he must send his mother to a nursing home, while the family agrees that it is best for George to head to California.  Given then only a few hours of time together before what will likely be their last time together, George and Lucy spend the evening as thought it were their honeymoon all over again, completely overlooking the dinner they had planned with their children.  In the closing moments, the aged couple share a kiss and a goodbye that could give Casablanca or Brief Encounters a run for their money in melodramatic despair.

One might be a bit curious as to how a seemingly innocuous and overlooked romance/drama film from the 1930's could even begin to reflect the ideal film for this genre, but I will gladly put this in the same framework as Brokeback Mountain or Her, wherein it requires viewers to renavigate their understandings on how love works in film and who is allowed to be depicted in such engagements cinematically.  Indeed, if their is a more heartfelt couple in cinema than this, it is only in gradations, because where other romantic films are wrought with melodramatic sacrifice or one-sided desire, this is as intense a shared love as any and one that is delivered with such earnestness from Mitchell and Bondi respectively.  A 1930's romantic film is usually signified by its over-the-top performative elements, but the subtlety and simplicity at play here work wonders for the narrative arch as a whole.  The struggle here is not one of unseen forces (sickness, war or Shakespearean rivalries) which create an insurmountable barrier, but a unwillingness on the part of a few children to return the care and love their parents directed at them, assuming this entitlement to go on forever.  Indeed, as George carefully observes, it is at after the age in which it is alright to tuck them into bed that things get complicated, because while they still expect that sort of guidance, care and aid, their gratefulness will have either manifested itself or completely gone to the wayside, and in the case of the Cooper children it is decidedly the latter.  Even Rhoda who is capable of exploring the world of romance, is only able to do so out of the kindness of her grandmother, who is later exploited and blamed when Rhoda attempts to elope with an older man.  As such, when the two elderly parents are finally able to enjoy their last day together, the romance swells and the world suddenly seems wholly in their favor, between car rides and free cocktails the two receive more than they had hoped for and certainly everything the viewers had desired for the couple, making the fourth wall moment all the more curious, because it is as though the viewer is willing that kiss and George and Lucy break the fourth wall to remind viewers that it is their story.  It takes Linda Williams's notion of genre, gender and excess to its most...excessive, all the while blowing the lid off of presumptions about cinema of the particular era.

Key Scene:  The almost kiss and the turn to camera is so unusual that it takes the best scene, although Lucy on the phone during the bridge game is also quite good.

The Criterion disc looks about as well as a film from 1937 could hope to and frankly it is so overlooked that any love directed towards it could only aid a better transfer in the future.  Buy it accordingly.


To Do Good Work, You Gotta Have Good Tools: Lilies Of The Field (1963)

Popping in to post a blog as it is yet another snow day here in Columbia, South Carolina.  Apparently these things are rather rare in a decade, but we have somehow managed to have two in the same month.  I knew last night that I would sit some time aside to throw together a blog, but was rather uncertain as to what film I would discuss, as my viewing has still been predominantly directed at all things related to Godzilla.  Indeed, I watched the marvelous Point Blank last night and was rather certain that it would prove the point of discussion, but earlier this morning, amidst my inability to justify being productive despite being given a full day to myself, I finally caught up with Lilies of the Field, a classic in cinema that I had long been meaning to view.  While I expected a few things going into the film, particularly a great performance by Sidney Poitier and some heavy handedness in terms of religious allegories, what I did not expect was to discover a deeply engaging and outright evocative look into the nature of humanity, when social connections and a desire to prove communal worth take on transcendent levels.  Indeed, if read at a very face value level, Lilies of the Field will come across as an idyllic look at persons from non-hegemonic groups coming together in the name of a collective vision and this reading is not of base at all, because that is what the narrative emphasizes.  I would tough contest that it is this and so much more, looking specifically at how individuals are willing to reappropriate and rationalize their own world views either in grand or simple ways to fit with a larger idea, one that might at first seem wholly abstract or completely built on faith, but if the work of anthropologist Anne Fadiman is any indication, eventually in these spaces the spirit will catch you, and you will fall down, although in a far less violent or physical way.  Here the falling down is more of a social realization, one that notes diversity and barriers as things that can and should be transgressed and perhaps the most frustrating blockades to unity are those we build around ourselves.  If all this can occur within the space of a rather succinct modernization of the Tower of Babel tale, I would call Lilies of the Field a rousing success.

Lilies of the Field begins with the arrival of Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) to an unmarked nunnery, wherein he hopes to merely borrow water from the women there, in order to jumpstart his overheated engine and be on his way traveling.  This simple plan is quickly altered when the nunnery's head sister Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) asserts that the arrival of Homer is an answer to her prayers.  While Homer is noticeably and verbally reluctant to help, the insistence of Maria and the other nun's lead to him agreeing to fix a hole in the roof of the nunnery.  Assuming that this will suffice his duty and allow him to leave, Maria ends up convincing Homer that he must stay for dinner, a task that expands in to her blatant refusal to acknowledge his requests to be on his way.  Bizarrely intrigued by the constant insistence of Maria that he should stay, Homer decides to keep in residence at the nunnery, while also beginning work laying road for a local contractor.  During Sunday's Homer also serves as a chauffeur for the nun's to a local truck based Catholic church, run by the well-meaning but constantly intoxicated Father Murphy (Dan Frazer).  Refusing to be involved with the mass, as he identifies as a Baptist, Homer spends the time in a local tavern eating large amounts of food to make up for the minimalist breakfasts and dinners at the nunnery.  When Homer yet again attempts to leave, he is ignored the request by Maria, somehow becoming, instead, roped into working on building a church for the people of the area, including immigrants with little or no English skills.  Taking this task as a building of his own self-character, Homer pours his heart and soul into the endeavor, only to become roadblocked when he runs out of materials.  However, the desire of the community to see the church into fruitions results in communal donations of the materials required, a process that causes the group to learn to talk in a collective language and navigate their own understandings of spiritual endeavors. While Homer is offered a steady job in the process, upon completion of the church, he decides he must leave, although the town and the nunnery he has stayed with will be changed in noted ways, but clearly it is Homer who has advanced in the most considerable manner.

Building structures and creating faith are two endeavors that seem to involve similar rhetoric and it is little to no surprise that the filmmaker and the author of the original text are fixated on overlaying the themes within this film.  However, while this is key to the text, I am far more intrigued by the manner in which this film focuses on the troubles and benefits that emerge from creating semiotic understandings, or, more in-line with the previous sentence, language structures.  Lilies of the Field seems to be a film about the constant navigation of similarities and differences as they relate to talking and positively working in a collective manner.  Indeed, this is most telling in the initial engagement between Homer and the women of the nunnery at which he stays.  Whilst trying to teach the women proper English composition, he starts with a series of labeling of very subjective ideas, noting items in the room such as a phonograph and a record and suggesting them to be singularly of an item.  Yet when he moves out to explain the difference between his skin color as black and their whiteness, things become more complex as they repeat his statement, claiming themselves to be white.  In this rather humorous exchange, one begins to understand that the idea of blackness, or "schwarz"ness as it were to the nuns, only holds value when the language agrees upon a social ascribed implication.  Essentially, Homer's blackness holds no value in terms of language, when the women do not understand its societal implications and even when they do realize what he is suggesting it does lack a layer of societal problems that would emerge in other situations.  As fascinating as this exchange does prove to be, it seems a bit curious that the filmmaker does not navigate a similar language issue in regards to gender, but that already seems well established in the segregated space of the nunnery from the onset.  This language issue becomes even more intriguing when the building of the church becomes communal and the pictorial and gestural elements of communication take precedence over verbal suggestions, particularly ones of ideas, as the immigrant works listen to not Mother Maria, but Homer and his use of drawings and motions to complete the task.  Intriguingly, this reworking of language allows the group to build the space without the necessity of capitalist endeavors, denying the use of high quality bricks in favor of the adobe that had sufficed up until this point. Money holds far less value because their language in the space is barter and trade based, the bricks becoming removed from the term 'valuable' thus only being seen as fodder for a gravel walkway.

Key Scene:  The Amen song that becomes the point of bonding between the nuns and Homer is something I was aware of prior to viewing this film, however, it was far more engaging and delightful than I could have imagined.

I lucked out and obtained this as part of a large collection of DVD's.  It is currently rather pricy on Amazon and considering this I would suggesting renting it before making a commitment to dropping that much money on it, although it is certainly worth its price.


Tread Softly, Because You Tread On My Dreams: Equilibrium (2002)

As predicted, my involvement here on the blog is taking a step back as I am increasingly overwhelmed with my studies.  Indeed, I have even made the foolish choice of submitting to present at yet another conference with the blind hope that I will be accepted (it is in Montana!).  Yet, I am retaining some semblance of a film viewing regiment, although that is proving increasingly difficult.  The only things I seem to have time to watch at the moment are a deluge of wacky and delightful Godzilla movies for research and my obligatory #cyberpunksaturday viewing.  It is this recent viewing that I have come back with a blogging vengeance.  Equilibrium, which marketed itself as 2002's answer to The Matrix appears to have all but fallen to they wayside when it was faced up against the likes of the impressively epic Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (my favorite film of the year) and now established contemporary classics like Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can.  In any other year, Equilibrium would have blown competition out of the water and much like Alex Proyas's Dark City, it has become a film that is adored in small circles and continually grows wider in its appreciation.  I am actually quite astonished that the mainstream filmgoer has not better latched onto this film, because frankly it has all the visual cues and elements to make it an ideal piece of popular cinema.  I cannot fathom how it did not fare better, aside from bad advertising or misinterpretation of its winding and precise plot, but it is absolutely worth even the most hardened of cinephiles time.  Both a visionary work in the realm of science fiction, as well as a love letter to its cyberpunk predecessors, Equilibrium does not ask to be viewed, but uses its hyper-sleek styling and techno-beat pacing to authoritatively demand that one watches it.  While it does not expressly set itself up as an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, it does have all the signs and symbols of the dystopian masterpiece.  Here, however, the sense of disillusionment takes on a prescribed and potent level, no moment lacking from a perfect crafting.  Indeed, the comparisons to The Matrix are suitable, because in terms of world creating, Kurt Wimmer's film is almost on the level of The Wachowski's work.  It is a surprise, and admitted curiosity that this director also made Ultraviolet.  It is almost enough to make me watch that generally reviled film.

Equilibrium focus in on the hyper dystopia world of Libria, a world where all forms of emotional response have been deemed illegal and any materials which could result in such affect are either burned or kept in lock down far from the citizens access.  All persons inhabiting Libria are also subject to shots of Prozium which help to stave off any feelings or emotions, by creating disaffected citizens who move through the space of Libria like robots.  In opposition to Libria are the occupants of the "Nether" a space where humanity strives to continually claim a world of emotion and learning, even at the cost of continual attacks by the soldiers of Libria.  These soldiers are headed by individuals known as Grammaton Clerics, whose skills in gun kata and noted lack of emotions make them particularly skilled at taking down Nether rebels.  One such cleric, John Preston (Christian Bale) takes it upon himself to be outdo other members in his elite group, even betraying his former partner when he finds him suspect to harboring EC-10 materials (anything relating to evoking emotional content).  When John 'accidentally' misses one of his shots of Prozium things change considerably, becoming aware of his surroundings in a new way, John begins to make egregious errors in front of his new partner Brandt (Taye Diggs) as well as falling for one of the EC-10 violators named Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson) when he finds her to eerily resemble his dead wife.  Attempting to perform disaffection, John now navigates the world of Libria, hyperaware of the ways in which the society is hyper oppressive and indeed quite violent, proving unable to stand his place as a cleric any longer after he is forced to watch a group of soldiers gun down puppies.  When the resistance comes to realize that he is removed from the performance, they recruit him to assassinate the figure of Father (Sean Pertwee) the panoptic figure who is constantly overseeing the state of Libria.  After layers of trickery and help from unexpected sources, John is able to get to the inner space of Libria and find the veritable man behind the curtain, coming to destroy him and the entire system of propaganda spreading in the process. While it implies that this change will move to a new world, the certainty of this endeavor is left open-ended.

The major criticism mounted against this film appears to be that it is a mash-up of perviously executed films on the subject of dystopian future spaces, borrowing heavily from the works of cyberpunk fiction, Huxley visions of the future and enough 80's future cinema to not justify its own existence.  I would argue that this is true to a degree, but it would be a different story if the narrative were doing so merely to appropriate its own self-righteous ideals.  Instead, Equilibrium knowingly and purposefully incorporates pasts films in a pastiche that works wonderfully, not pretending to be revolutionary in its narrative, but instead adding a new voice to a dialogue that has been occurring well before the film came along.  Indeed, choosing to situate the film in settings from thirties era Berlin works two-fold to legitimately incorporate the hyper-fascist elements of many dystopian spaces, while also paying homage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis a film whose structure and look are clearly an influence upon Equilibrium.  Indeed, nothing about Equilibrium is hokey or misguided, but displays nothing short of honest craft from a director who openly admits to making films with the audiences interests in mind.  Indeed, when I hear directors make such assertions I am often immediately dismissive, because this makes me think of Michael Bay or the works of the Fast and Furious franchise.  Here, however, Wimmer is suggesting that not only is an audience capable of engaging with a relatively complex and open-ended plot, but that they are also more filmically versed than most major blockbuster films might suggest.   I would be hard pressed to find a similar critical attack being mounted against Quentin Tarantino who is essentially doing the exact same thing with every single one of his films and in the past few attempts they have been less than stellar in their result, returning to marked territory, not by former directors, but by Tarantino himself.  While I have soured on Pulp Fiction over the years, I can admit to the genuine success of its post-moderning mining of genre, I would argue that Equilibrium works to the same success and in many ways is far superior in its result.  This is not The Matrix by any means, but it certainly stands in a realm of audacious force that should be supported and promoted in filmmaking, not chastised.

Key Scene:  The discovery of Beethoven is one of the more low key sequences in the film, but it is absolutely the crux of the film and played as such.

This film demands your viewing.  There are apparently some issues with the bluray transfers available, so it might be (in the rare occasion) safer to go with the DVD.