Saturday, November 25, 2006

Poster for the re-release and DVD. Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

Gojira Revealed, Finally

It took 50 years (and more than 25 sequels) to reach a few U.S. movie theatres, and another two years to become widely available on DVD, but now we can all see the original Japanese film, Gojira, made in 1954. Instead of just a barely coherent monster flick, this film is revealed to be a classic example of "the science fiction of consciousness," (my phrase)dealing with real world issues through story that is science fiction, symbol or allegory, and an action adventure film all at once.

Until now, all we’ve seen of this movie are the scenes that remained when some 40 minutes of the original were cut and replaced with 20 minutes of new scenes starring Raymond Burr. This amalgamation opened in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and became an international sensation.That the Japanese original was never released in the U.S. might seem to suggest it was an inferior film. Now we have the evidence that this simply isn’t true. All of the special effects sequences are the same as in the U.S. version, but what surrounds them makes the difference.

It’s understandable to some extent why a 1954 U.S. audience might not appreciate Gojira. It is really a Japanese film, and most Americans weren’t even seeing foreign language films from Europe yet. The differences of course extend beyond language, to culture and styles of storytelling, and the use of the filmmaking vocabulary. Even today, it probably helps to have seen a few Japanese films of the period, like those of the acknowledged master, Akira Kurosawa, to fully appreciate Gojira. (Anime may be relevant in other ways, but not historically.) The DVD commentary on Gojira does help a lot on cultural interpretations, though—it explains why family is so important, why one character is so ashamed to have divulged a secret, and so on.

In the mid-50s, it was probably considered still a bit risky to even adapt a Japanese film that showed Japanese on screen--not only did U.S. films have a history of depicting Japanese in subservient and racially cliched roles, but there was still substantial hangover of feeling from the virilently anti-Japanese war propaganda from World War II just 9 years before, which attacked Japanese as people (racially) and as a culture as well as an enemy nation. But the U.S. had occupied Japan until 1952, so more Americans had been there, and Hollywood had made a few films set in Japan.

As for the movie itself, pace isn’t really the problem. Although the story in Gojira is more centered on the characters, and some of the dialogue runs a little long, it actually moves faster than the tedious beginning of the U.S. film (which I suspect has been cut a lot in the TV versions most people have seen, getting it to the monster faster but making the basic story even more rudimentary, if not confusing.)

But the original Gojira is a powerful film, in its story, dialogue, acting, musical score and especially its images. Even without knowing the specific history that saturates this film, its authenticity is unmistakable just from seeing it. Perhaps it takes some small familiarity with Japanese music to fully appreciate the score (by Akira Ifkube), but I’m guessing that most viewers will feel how much more powerful it is in the original.

[text continues after photos]

The U.S. version poster. Posted by Picasa
That history, however, is important. The film history is simple: A recent internationally successful re-release of the original King Kong was an inspiration for the Japanese film industry, which had not yet done a full scale monster movie in 1954. More directly, Gojira adapts the basic plot of an American film released the year before, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, which was the first movie monster to be unleashed by atomic bomb explosions, as well as the first of the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation monster flicks. (It was adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury; the script writer receiving first credit is Fred Freiberger, later a Star Trek original series producer.)

But the place of Gojira in the larger history is what distinguishes it. This movie was released only 9 years after World War II ended, and barely two years after the U.S. officially ended its occupation of Japan, though it maintained many military bases for decades (some are still there.) It was one of the first postwar Japanese films that didn’t have to pass through U.S. censors.

The war in the Pacific had been fought principally between Japan and the U.S., and it had been savage. Especially after the surprise attack on the U.S fleet in Pearl Harbor, Japan had naval superiority, highly trained warriors and master tacticians. They won most early battles. The war against Hitler in Europe had priority for the U.S., and for awhile mostly old aircraft and weaponry could be spared for the Pacific.

Japan had taken island after island and was about to take Australia, when the Allies stopped their momentum. America began to send new ships, planes and weapons, until the Allies had superiority. Then fighting for those islands, like Guadacanal and Iwo Jima, became intense and bloody. Even when outnumbered, the Japanese army used caves and underground bunkers to prolong the killing. But the Allies prevailed, and were in striking distance of Japan itself. A bombing campaign decimated some 80 Japanese cities. In a single raid on Tokyo in March 1945, American bombers killed upwards of a hundred thousand people, and left the city burning. How close Japan was to its unconditional surrender (in August 1945) before the Bombs were dropped is still debated, but the atomic bombs were dropped on human beings for the first time, in Japan.

A single Bomb each destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire. Five years later, radiation effects more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. The vast majority of those who died from the Nagasaki bomb were from radiation, months and years later. Some effects of radiation were apparent within days and weeks, which included very ugly and painful immediate illnesses, as people decayed from the inside. Other effects, principally cancers, took years. American officials denied these first immediate radiation effects were real, claiming the reports were Japanese propaganda.

They were still denying that radiation posed substantial threats when the first U.S. hydrogen bombs were being exploded in the Pacific. In March 1954, the U.S. tested an H-Bomb that was 750 to 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific near Japan. Although ships in the area were warned, when winds changed the test was held anyway, and 85 miles away, a Japanese fishing boat with a crew of 23—the Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon—were close enough to see the explosion, and to feel the radioactive ash falling on them. The crew became ill by the time they reached port, one crew member soon died, and there was a panic in Japan over contaminated fish from other boats.

Everyone in Japan knew of these events, of course. And many of them found their way into Gojira.

Gojira, in a train-chewing scene reminicent of King Kong. Posted by Picasa
Ishiro Honda was a young director, a friend of the great Kurosawa, who had been drafted into the Japanese military, and was a prisoner of war in China. Returning to Japan after the war, he passed through the devastated Hiroshima.

Honda admitted openly, then and years later, that he intended Gogira to raise the issue of the danger to humankind of nuclear testing and nuclear weapons themselves. The U.S. version makes but one reference to Godzilla being a prehistoric beast resurrected by H-Bomb testing--by 1956, lots of “bug-eyed monsters” were hitting U.S. drive-ins, all created by atomic bombs, so that much wasn’t unusual. But not only were the H-Bomb tests discussed several times, and Nagasaki mentioned, the whole story and whole mood of the original Gogira was integrated with these events and these issues that the Bomb and modern warfare raise, as Japanese audiences would clearly understand, and as any of us can see—and especially feel—today.

Gojira begins with a strange event at sea: the crew of a fishing boat is relaxing on deck, when they see a sudden white flash and explosion in the sea, which then sinks their boat. How this relates to the prehistoric monster is not explained (although according to the commentary it was in the script, but budget forced changes.)In fact, it is very close to how one of the crew of the Lucky Dragon #5 described the H-Bomb blast: “Suddenly the skies in the west lighted up and a great flare of whitish yellow light splashed against the clouds and illuminated the water.” The witness even remembers one of his crewmates humming a song, and in the film they are all singing as someone plays a guitar (by the looks of it, an American one.) None of this was coincidence. Honda even has the #5 displayed on a life preserver, identifying this fishing boat with the Lucky Dragon.

Is this the face that launched 28 sequels and counting? Yes, it is. Posted by Picasa
As monster movies, Gojira and Godzilla share an unusual quality: neither has a real action hero. The hero who sacrifices his life to destroy the monster is a scientist, and he has a relatively minor part in the film. The central human figure in Gogira is another scientist—the elder, Professor Yamane, played by one of Japan’s most distinguished actors, Takashi Shimura. He would play the lead in another 1954 release, one of the first Japanese film to become widely known in the U.S.—Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (known to filmmakers first, as it became the basis for the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven, and years later, one of the models for Star Trek: Insurrection.)

Professor Yamane leads an expedition to investigate other ship disappearances, and to a small island where villagers believe the “mythical” sea beast they call Gojira is responsible. Gojira comes ashore, preceded by a violent storm—again, it’s an inexplicable event that doesn’t occur when Gojira appears later, but it is clearly reminiscent of an atomic blast. But it is also like a typhoon, which (along with the ancient monster story) relates to a sub-theme of this and some other atomic monster movies: with the atomic bomb in particular but with a lot of modern technology in general, humankind was deforming nature, and playing with forces within nature that we may not be able to control.

The theme of humanity deforming nature with technology, and taking power into human hands that humans may not be capable of controlling, is at the center of what many consider the very first science fiction story---Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s a theme throughout science fiction ever since. This theme is carried forward in Gojira on these two tracks: the human ability to control nature (in for instance the lingering shots of birds in cages, fish in tanks) and the consequences of nature’s power unleashed (symbolized by the monster from the deep and from the deep past), as well as the consequences of deforming nature. That’s the role of radiation in atomic films, and in this one in particular. For while investigating on this island, Professor Yamane finds Gojira’s huge footprint. And the water and soil in it are radioactive.

According to the commentary, the design of Gojira was meant to reflect a beast disfigured by radiation. Tanabe immediately wonders how it survived —and surmises that because it did, Gojira would be even more dangerous.

Photos of Bomb victims in Hiroshima disfigured by blast, burns and radiation had been widely circulated, even in the U.S., by the mid 1950s. The effect of radiation in creating mutations in the children of those exposed was also well-known, although U.S. officials continued to deny this. So the idea of disfiguring mutation was a starkly frightening part of atomic lore, expressed symbolically, mostly in these atomic monster movies.

Mutation would be an even greater source of anxiety in Japan, because that’s where some of the first evidence emerged, not only as a result of Hiroshima, but of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. The U.S. physician and writer, Dr. David Bradley, re-published his best-selling book on the 1946 postwar atom bomb tests, No Place to Hide, and included new information, such as the results of a study of 406 Pacific islanders (probably similar to those depicted in Gojira) who were exposed to H-Bomb fallout in 1954: nine children were born retarded, ten more with other abnormalities, and three were stillborn, including one reported to be "not recognizable as human."

These were recognizable buildings in the real Tokyo of 1954. Posted by Picasa

Tokyo on fire, again. Posted by Picasa
Gojira’s greatest mutation was yet to be revealed, however. This film uses the slow reveal that characterized some monster movies of this era (like the U.S. atomic “giant ants” classic, Them!, also released in 1954.) At first we see only Gojira’s foot as he comes ashore accompanied by the storm. Then above the rim of a hill outside the village, his head. While the tension builds, preliminary to Gojira’s major appearance, we’re already seeing the destruction and effects on individuals, families and communities is depicted in some detail.We’re also seeing postwar Japanese life, and the crosscurrents of western and Japanese culture, of the modern world and tradition, in the story of Yamane, his daughter Emiko, her boyfriend Ogata, and the young scientist to whom she has been betrothed since childhood, Dr. Serizawa. All of this is very important to the power of this film, and most of it is missing from the U.S. version.

The central scenes of this movie, preserved for the most part in the U.S. versions, are Gojira/Godzilla attacking Tokyo. The U.S. version cuts an implausible sequence of the attempt to secure the city by erecting high tension towers and wires overnight; it explains that the city is ringed with these towers to begin with. The U.S. version also cuts some of the scenes that deal with the victims, including one that was especially meaningful to the Japanese: a trapped mother and child huddle in a doorway, awaiting their destruction, as the mother tells the child they’ll soon be joining her father—a reference to a soldier or someone else killed in the war.

What U.S. audiences don’t know about these scenes is that the filmmakers paid a great deal of attention to meticulously creating models of the real Tokyo, so that buildings Gojira destroys were as recognizable to Japanese audiences as the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty would be to Americans. (The filmmakers actually got in trouble with authorities, the commentary says, when they were overheard in downtown Tokyo discussing how they were going to “destroy” various buildings.)

The most dramatic moment of these sequences is when Gojira/Godzilla demonstrates a power for the first time—he has a “heat ray” breath that sets buildings aflame. In the U.S. version, this is just another special effect. But after all the references to nuclear weapons and radiation in the Japanese version, it’s clear that this monster has not only been created by atomic power, he has become a walking atom bomb.

The shots of the city aflame had to be a specific reminder of the destruction of Tokyo by U.S. bombs just 9 years before, and the smoldering ruins were very similar to widely published photos of Hiroshima. So, too, the concentration on victims, on the rows of wounded, emphasized the human cost.

Gojira, a postwar expression of nature deformed and unleashed by technology. Also a guy in a rubber suit, and a hand puppet. Posted by Picasa
But these evocative scenes (their power not limited to Japanese audiences) also contributed to the central dilemma of the story. Earlier, Dr. Serizawa (a haunted figure, wearing an eyepatch because of war wounds) showed Emiko the accidental results of his research on oxygen: an “oxygen destroyer” weapon, which, released in water, would destroy all the oxygen and kill everything. He swore her to secrecy, because he didn’t want others to take his research and use it to make weapons that would be (he said at some point) as powerful as atomic bombs.

It was the central problem of science in the technological era, especially in the development of the atomic bomb. Many of the scientists who worked on it were absorbed in the thrill of discovery, and even many of those who realized they were in a race to make this weapon before Nazi Germany did, believed that the Bomb should never be used in war. They especially felt this after Germany surrendered, and many signed a letter pleading with the President not to use the Bomb against Japan, not only because of moral issues, but because they feared it would start an international arms race that would become catastrophic for the entire world.

By 1954, much of this was public knowledge, as was the case of Robert Oppenheimer, who managed the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, then made his horror of what they had created public, after which he was accused of being a security risk, and his scientific career was ruined.After Gojira’s attack, Emiko betrays the confidence of her betrothed, Dr. Serizawa, because of her compassion for the victims. She and Ogata try to persuade Serizawa to use the oxygen destroyer against Gojira, but he resists, believing that as long as he is alive he could be forced to yield its secrets to those who would use it for warfare.

Then they see on television a broadcast of schoolgirls singing a song pleading for peace—much as schoolchildren have done every year since 1945 on the anniversary of Hiroshima. This causes Serizawa to relent. We see him burning his notes, but we know (even if Emiko and Ogata haven’t figured it out) that he believes this won’t be enough.In diving suits, Serizawa and Ogata release the oxygen destroyer weapon, and after Ogata returns to the ship, Dr. Serizawa cuts his line and sacrifices himself—not because it is necessary to kill Gojira, but because it is necessary to keep the world free of a weapon “as powerful as the atom bomb.”

That’s the message that isn’t at all clear in the U.S. version. We also saw earlier how upset Professor Yamane was about the plans to kill Gojira, before it could be scientifically studied. But this wasn’t the usual na├»ve scientist riff—he wanted to know how Gojira survived all that radiation, and how it changed him. The movie ends with his warning, that other Gojiras were possible, and they still did not know how and why this beast survived the H-Bomb, so if nuclear tests continued, the world was in even greater danger.

Gojira became such an icon in Japan that he was used in advertising, in this case to sell tires. Posted by Picasa
There are other differences in the original—especially the evocative sound of Gojira's footsteps and more use of the Ifkube’s great theme, which has since become the signature Godzilla music. But these are the major ones: the human stories that reveal much about Japanese culture and the postwar period, and especially the theme of the Bomb and the role of science. These are what makes this science fiction of consciousness. It responded to current issues of great importance, of life and death for civilizations and for the future. It did so both in a science fiction adventure and with metaphor and symbolism. It represented the thinking and feeling of its own time. In this case, the complex feelings of postwar Japan, which had depended on military conquest and technology, seen millions of its people killed and its cities destroyed, become the only country so far to suffer nuclear devastation and its long-term effects, only to be victimized by continued nuclear weapons testing.

And after the war, in the years of U.S. occupation, the Japanese saw its governmental institutions, its economy and its relationship to the world all change, largely beyond its control. A recent article I chanced to come across as I wrote this maintains that the Japanese have still not fully come to terms with the transformations of the occupation period.In a piece in the American Prospect called “Goodbye Godzilla, Hello Kitty,” Norihiro Kato writes about the sorrow and the guilt of World War II destruction unleashed by the images in Gojira. He speculates then on why Godzilla became such a popular figure, leading to so many sequels, and a transformation from destructive monster to defender to a kind of cute superpet. He concludes that it was part of a long process of “sanitizing” the war dead. For him, it seems, the “cutifying” of Japanese popular culture as it creates worldwide symbols such as Hello Kitty, is part of a process of displacement and denial by means of consumer culture rather than really confronting the meanings of the war or the Occupation.

But that is not true of the original Gojira film—it does express the feelings and confronts the issues, using the distancing and symbolisms of science fiction, the mythology of the technological age.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An early scene in Frank Capra's"Lost Horizon" (1937). Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movie Hall of Fame

Finding the Lost Horizons

What is a film made in 1937 doing in the Boomer Hall of Fame? First, the idealism of Frank Capra, often specifically American but also as universal as the Bill of Rights and the other foundation documents, was part of the 60s spirit. Many of his films were revived in the early 70s and afterwards, but not so much this one--the most universal of them all. Now at last it can take its rightful place, and we can hear the remarkable speech that links it so strongly to the aspirations of the 60s.

Lost Horizon is a famous film I hadn't seen since I was very young, and then only on television. I had only a hazy memory of it, as somewhat mystical but mostly confusing. After that, I don't recall it being mentioned much in the company of classic films, or even in references to Capra, his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and the Oscar winning It Happened One Night being the ones usually cited.

So I rented the DVD, which turned out to be a restored version from 1999. The history of this movie would be bizarre even if it wasn't shared with a lot of less remembered films. Capra was the producer as well as director of this epic attempt to film the best selling novel by James Hilton. His rough cut was something like 5 hours long. The first version tested with an audience in Santa Barbara was 3 hours, and was considered a disaster.

With lots of cuts, some reshaping of the narrative and even new scenes shot, the movie was released in Los Angeles and other big cities in 1937 with a running time of 132 minutes. But the version that went out to theatres across the country was considerably shorter, by about 25 minutes. Even at that it was longer than the usual 90 minute movie, and individual theatres cut even more of it.

Then thanks to an offhand reference to Shangri-la by President Roosevelt, it was re-released during World War II, with more cuts for content reasons-taking out questionable references to allies, and too much of that pacifist stuff. (It is rather remarkable that it was made by the director who would soon be fashioning the Why We Fight "documentaries" ---they were actually mostly composed of pieces of Hollywood films---but then these Capra productions probably saved a lot of Italian Americans from internment camps.) By the time the movie got to television in the 50s, which is probably when I saw it, it was pretty much an incomprehensible mess. A plane wreck, snow, Shangri-la, escape, more snow, an avalanche, and a young woman suddenly becoming old. That was about it.

By the early 1970s, there wasn't a good intact negative of any version of the film anywhere. The American Film Institute, and later the UCLA film preservation project, began a series of restorations. The major finds that made the 1999 restoration possible in particular was an intact 132 minute soundtrack, discovered in British film archives. Several prints and dupe negatives of varying length and quality were located and though they were all shorter than 132 minutes (some considerably shorter), they were missing different scenes, and some had scenes the others didn't.

Two versions were particularly notable: a British dupe, shorter than even the 108 minute version but containing scenes no other version had, and a knarly print cut for Canadian TV, dubbed in French. This version had key moments missing from the others, usually within scenes.The restorers even used some outtakes preserved on a reel shown to film exhibitors at a convention in Ohio before the film's release---in fact, before Capra had finished shooting the movie. With all that put together, they still lacked about seven minutes, but the 1999 restoration uses the complete soundtrack, so still photos are substituted for these minutes (using photos of the scenes where possible.)

Another remarkable fact about this restoration is that in 1999, digital enhancement and repair was still prohibitively expensive, so only a few scenes were given the full digital treatment. Most repair was done by "wet-printing," a technique then new that fills in film scratches with liquid so they fade from the print.

Given all the versions Capra assembled, and the cuts he made at the studio's insistence, it's fruitless to try to establish a definitive version, but this is as close as 25 years of restoration work could come to reproducing "Lost Horizon" as it was seen at its Los Angeles premiere in 1937.

Though not quite the clarification that the restored "Metropolis" was a few years ago, it is still quite a revelation.The film's flaws are perhaps even more clearly exposed. American action actor John Howard was obviously miscast as Ronald Colman's mercurial, weak and prejudiced brother (David Niven was said to be the favorite, but Howard was cast just days before shooting began.) The minor characters, while well acted for the most part, have a certain charm but don't quite jell. This isn't Capra at his characteristic best. Yet at this remove, even these flaws say something memorable.

Today the sight of Shangri-la is not quite as awe-inspiring as it was supposed to be, since it resembles a jumble of Frank Lloyd Wright and a half dozen other styles in a complex that looks like a World's Fair exhibit, or maybe a 1960s housing development crossed with a corporate campus. Some of the doorways and interiors seem borrowed from a Flash Gordon serial.The idea that the heathens of Tibet need to be taught civilization by a European priest, whose natural superiority they recognize by making him their High Lama, is laughable. Yet none of these flaws, not even Capra's uneasy sentimentality about the idea of Shangri-la, completely distort the timeless power of this film, revealed especially and in some ways, for almost the first time, in this restoration.

The heart of the film is in Colman's wonderful performance, but its soul is in Sam Jaffe's haunting speeches as the High Lama. This was the most controversial part of this movie even while it was being made. Columbia Studios demanded Jaffe be replaced, and his scenes were shot with another actor, before test audiences affirmed Capra's choice of Jaffe's portrayal. Then much of the key scene was shortened and reshot again, after the Santa Barbara preview. (Another character was given some of its exposition, which required more shooting.)

Frank Capra monitored the restoration until his death, and requested that in particular the Lama's scenes be restored. This is in fact this version's great gift. It's remarkable how much of it was cut out in the various versions. Some of the most important lines have no existing footage at all, others only the grainy remains of the Canadian TV dupe.

The view of the world expressed here can be understood as coming from the Great Depression era and after the Great War, during the obvious prelude to another World War, just as the censoring of these scenes would be a product of World War II and the Cold War. But in another sense they are, if not timeless, then of our time as well as theirs.This is a film worth seeing. If you've seen it in earlier versions, you probably haven't seen the lovely scenes with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt inexplicably cut from most versions---and without them the movie really doesn't make that much sense. It's worth seeing for Ronald Colman--"beautiful of face and soul, sensitive to the fragile and gentle, responsive to poetic visions and hard intellect," as Frank Capra describes both the character and the actor in his autobiography.

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Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in "Lost Horizon" Posted by Picasa
But if you don't get around to it, here is the best transcription I can offer of the High Lama talking about the meaning and purpose of Shangri-la:

It could have been delivered yesterday, or tomorrow.It came to me in a vision long long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time in which man exalting in the technique of murder would rage so hotly over the world that every book, every treasure will be doomed to destruction.

This vision was so vivid and so real that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing.Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword.

Against that time is why I avoided death...When that day comes the world may begin to look for a new life. It is my hope they will find it here. Their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: be kind. When that day comes, it is our home that the brotherly love of Shangri la will spread throughout the world. When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic will at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Victor Sjostrom and and Bibi Anderssen in"Wild Strawberries" Posted by Picasa


Ingmar Bergman

The 60s generation was in many ways the film generation. We enthusiastically endorsed the discovery of foreign filmmakers, and of film as an art form. One of the most important directors in world cinema we watched was Ingmar Bergman.

Though he was a young man when he started making films, Ingmar Bergman has always been the trademark filmmaker of mortality. The epic battle on the beach with the devil in "The Seventh Seal" is famous enough to be routinely parodied, and the intense beauty of Cries and Whispers is framed in pain and fatality. Even the child in "'Through A Glass Darkly" seems to be glimpsing mortal lessons as the adults around him pose and flail on their train trip to the end of the line.

But oddly perhaps, his early film concerning old age is among his most gentle. The Criterion Collection DVD of Wild Strawberries includes an extended interview with Bergman when he had just passed the age of that film's protagonist. (Described below.) He was a sharp and physically graceful 80 (and this was in 1998. He's gone back to making films since---his latest release was 2003.)

Both the movie and the interview turn out to be rather encouraging. Ingmar Bergman's films were the closest thing to holy writ I can remember from my college days through the early 70s, when I was editing Janet Maslin's review of "Cries and Whispers" for the Boston Phoenix. Because I hadn't seen a "foreign film" until college, I was learning the cinematic vocabulary and syntax by osmosis mostly, and mostly by watching the French New Wave filmmakers, the Italian giants, and Bergman. Partly because the experience of watching Bergman had been conditioned by his reputation as being deep and depressing, I've seldom gone back to those films. But curiosity for what Bergman can tell me now, inspired me to take a look at this DVD of "Wild Strawberries."

"Wild Strawberries" is the story of an eminent 79 year old doctor, who lives alone with his housekeeper, on the day he is to receive a prestigious honorary degree in another city. It opens with a dream and contains several reveries---the kind of thing that became pretty standard on television dramas like "Thirty-something," but was disconcerting in 1957. Even with all these copycats, these scenes in this movie retain their power: they are economical, with not an extra image or a sound, and elegant.

The doctor wakes up from his unusual dream and suddenly decides instead of taking a plane as was planned, he will drive to the ceremony. Then his daughter-in-law appears; she's been staying with him, and asks to come along, since he'll be driving to the city where she lives. Why is she going back to her husband now? Why has she left?

They pick up three young hitchhikers---including the radiant young Bibi Anderssen, who reminds him of a lost love (who she also plays in his reverie). They get involved in a traffic accident, a bickering couple piles into the car, and suddenly we're in another prototype: the road movie.The group covers a lot of ground in the past and present, and so does the movie, in a compact ninety minutes. But then, it was his 19th film. And he wasn't half done.)

In one of his essays on Bergman, Truffaut comments that Bergman's women are "infinitely subtle," while his men "are mere conventions." This film is a rarity in focusing on a male character, played by Victor Sjostrom, a giant of Swedish theater and film who was all but forgotten by the time this movie was made, and he came out of retirement to act in it. Bergman said he did more than that---he took it over. The character was originally based (at least physically) on his father, but the film ceased being Bergman's, he said, and became Sjostrom's.

If he meant through the subtle performance and the life he brought to the character, then it was all to the good.This is an enjoyable film to watch, and there's extra enjoyment in watching it again with the commentary of film scholar Peter Cowie. His commentary has just the right mixture of preparation and spontaneity (as when he comments on how good a particular scene looks on DVD---the film is in glorious black and white.) When Cowie explains how precious the summers are in Sweden, just a few weeks of warmth and sunshine, it helps you feel the power of the imagery, in the professor's recollections of family summers by the sea.

Ingmar Bergman at 86, directing "Saraband" (2005). Posted by Picasa
Bergman at 80

In a greenish patterned shirt with a black sweater vest, Bergman at 80 sat and talked easily with a friend and fellow filmmaker and writer, Jorn Donner, for a 90 minute interview made for Swedish television, and widely available for the first time here on the DVD of Wild Strawberries.

He spoke about the relationship of his life to his work, elements of his autobiography (especially his exile from Sweden when he felt he was being persecuted by authorities on tax evasion charges that later proved groundless), and about his work habits, and his beliefs.Harsh parental discipline and formality felt as coldness dominated Bergman's experience of his childhood, as he portrayed in several films.

While his older brother survived it through aggressive assertion, he said, he survived it by adopting a persona pleasing to his parents, and by being a liar. "I lied freely and without restraint."It's remarkably close to what Truffaut said about his own childhood survival technique. "I see life as very hard; I believe one should have a very simple, very crude and very strong moral system," Truffaut said in an interview. " One should say, 'yes, yes,' and do exactly as one pleases. This is why there can't be any direct violence in my films. Already in The 400 Blows, Antoine is a child who never rebels openly. His moral system is more subtle than that. Like me, Antoine is against violence because it signifies confrontation. Violence is replaced by escape, not escape from what is essential, but escape in order to achieve the essential. "

Bergman affirms his continuing relationship to his childhood, which is central to "Wild Strawberries." "The whole of my creativity is finally childish," he says, at age 80. "I can, in a second, go back to my childhood...Anything I've done that's of value [is] a dialogue with my childhood."It was his fear of death, strongest in his teen years, that led him to write and film "The Seventh Seal," released just before "Wild Strawberries," and which he says exorcised that particular demon.

Bergman writes by hand, on the same kind of thick square yellow pads that were standard issue for screenwriters in Sweden when he started in 1942, but which in later years he had to have specially made. His only concession to change is that he's switched from a fountain pen to a ball-point.He always begins with notes in workbooks.

He fills many for each project. "Workbooks are fun!" By the time he starts writing the script itself, he knows exactly what he wants to do. "It goes quickly, but it's so boring. It goes quickly because it's so boring...The workbooks are the creative process. Scripts are the process of putting it in order."

He adheres to a strict schedule: three hours a day, in 45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks. This is as much ritual as routine, he agrees.Bergman's tumultuous private life, which got translated into his domestic relationship films, is well known. But his last long marriage of 24 years ended with his wife's death, and he says he survived only by strictly scheduling his day, and finally by forcing himself to write. He has lived alone since, and though he enjoys talking on the telephone, he is comfortable in solitude.

He says he's not religious but is aware of "the possibilities of bigger patterns...I have a lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I also have the feeling that we're part of an infinitely large pattern, that we never analyze [or] understand. You can feel that sometimes."But he is sternly practical about his work, which at the time of his interview was mostly as a theatre director (though he'd had a decade of writing many scripts and stories.) Fame doesn't help the next day's work, he says, when he goes to rehearsals with the same prayer: "Let this day go well. Let it be meaningful and let it be alive.""Let the work be meaningful for those who do it and then also be alive, so that it will live its own life. That's the only thing I'm afraid of---that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving will be taken away from me. I'll no longer know how to do it."He has that anxiety every time, "the anxiety that what I do won't live."

There are many stone dead days, he says, it's the most terrible thing there is. "This is my recurring nightmare.""I'm a craftsman, and I make a good product. I make a product to be used. I'll be terribly upset if nobody wants to use my product."

The documentary ends with Bergman walking down the beach of his island of Faro, where he lives and the only place he writes. With his walking stick carried more like a sword, his stride is quick and sure, fluid, elegant and full of authority, like Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence or the King of England.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

James Garner & Julie Andrews in "The Americanization of Emily" (1964) Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

The Americanization of Emily

Of all the movies he made, James Garner said this was his favorite. So did Julie Andrews, his co-star. So did James Coburn, who had a more prominent role in many other films than he did in this one.

It was producer Martin Ransohoff's favorite of his movies, and Arthur Hiller's favorite of the many movies he directed. Script writer Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote several classics and an Academy Award winner, said this was one of his two favorite films.

Yet until the DVD release, The Americanization of Emily had all but disappeared. Perhaps because in many ways it was unclassifiable: a romantic comedy, a war movie, an anti-war movie, or as director Hiller insists, "an anti-the-glorification-of-war movie."Made in 1964 in black and white, it may have become overshadowed by other more famous films of that era and that style on something like that theme: "Dr. Strangelove," perhaps even "Fail-Safe."

Set in World War II, it was more distanced and with a dryer wit than the anti-war war novel of that time, "Catch-22."But the new DVD reveals its considerable virtues: the eloquent and characteristically Chayevsky script, the fine, committed performances by Garner, Andrews, Coburn and Melvyn Douglas, among others. The rhythms and fluid camera of Arthur Hiller's first major directing job, that managed to make a single movie out of a unique combination of elements.

Hiller's DVD commentary is a great bonus. Producer Ransohoff bought the William Bradford Huie novel of the same title, which was a pretty straightforward romance about an English girl falling in love with an American soldier stationed in England during World War II. At some point he got the idea of asking Chayevsky to write it. Chayevsky flew from New York to Hollywood, and told Ransohoff it really wasn't for him. But on his flight back he thought of a way to do it, and called Ransohoff, explained this very different approach of making the hero a selfish sensualist who despises wartime heroics, but winds up being an accidental hero himself. For some reason, Ransohoff liked it.

Various directors and actors were attached to the project---at one point William Holden was the lead, and James Garner was to play his friend. When Holden dropped out, Garner moved up, and Coburn was added (possibly at the behest of Garner.)Julie Andrews hadn't done a major movie yet---but she went from this one directly to making "Mary Poppins."Arthur Hiller was a young and untested director, who got the job when better known directors turned it down.

He was pretty nervy for a kid. He insisted on making it in black and white, which the studio opposed, since color films made more money. He set up shots so they were done without cuts, so the studio could slice and dice his film.

Later, Hiller recounts, Ted Turner bought the TV rights and colorized it. Hiller protested loud and long, as did other directors and film buffs. Eventually Turner listened and not only stopped colorizing, he joined Hiller in leading new efforts to preserve America's movie heritage by restoring and preserving endangered films.

This film was released when the Cold War was foremost in public consciousness and concern, but it's fairly brutal take on war, and very different take on what constitutes courage and cowardice, became more relevant to the Vietnam war than some of the other similiar films of the early to mid 1960s.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Born June 30: Lena Horne, Czeslaw Milosz (Polish/American writer), Florence Ballard (of the Supremes.) Posted by Picasa

Gandhi Posted by Picasa

This Day in Boomer History

1914- Gandhi's first civil disobedience arrest, advocating Indian rights in South Africa.

1946-Operation Crossroads, first postwar U.S. atom bomb test, begins in South Pacific.

1948- Southpaw Bob Feller pitches a no-hitter.

1951- NAACP begins attack on segregation and racial discrimination

1960- Congo becomes independent from Belguim

1962- Rwanda and Burundi become independent.
Southpaw Sandy Koufax pitches no-hitter.

1966- Beatles begin tour of Japan.

1971- Ohio becomes 38th state to ratify 26th amendment, thus lowering
U.S. voting age to 18.

Also born June 30: Olympic champion and Native American activist, Billy Mills; Susan Hayward and bassist Stanley Clarke. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Publicity still with Julie Adams from
Creature From the Black Lagoon Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

The Gill-Man: From the Depths of the Fifties

Orson Welles hosted a dinner party sometime in the 40s—maybe during the making of Citizen Kane. Present were his then-girlfriend, actor Delores Del Rio; Gabriel Figueroa, the Mexican cinematographer who shot “Night of the Inguana” and Bunuel’s Mexican films; and William Alland, member of Welles’ Mercury Theatre and participant in the famed radio “panic broadcast” of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Figueroa told what he said was a true story about a half-man, half-fish who lived outside a village in the Amazon. The Creature left the villagers alone except for once a year, when he took one of the village maidens. When others laughed at him, he became indignant, claiming he’d even seen a photograph.

Alland didn’t laugh: he remembered. As a movie producer in the early 1950s, he came up with the idea for a film that became “It Came from Outer Space,” and passed it off to Ray Bradbury to develop, so he could concentrate on writing the story of the half-man, half-fish he called “The Sea Creature.” His treatment eventually led to three movies, made back to back and released in 1954, ‘55 and ‘56.

The first was “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Universal seemed intent on a sequel even before it was released, but its box office success led to more location shooting for “Revenge of the Creature.” But the budget was cut way back for the third, “The Creature Walks Among Us,” and it shows. Nevertheless, these black and white films were thrilling to see on the big screen, especially if you were a boy between 9 and 11. I saw them all several times, including at least one in 3-D. But the projection at my hometown theatre was bad, and only a few of the 3-D effects really worked. Now all three films (non-3-D) are available on a two DVD set in Universal’s “Monster Legacy” series, along with commentaries and a documentary.

The Gill-Man was the most original and most memorable of the 1950s creatures. He had an alien (that is, animal) appearance, but fluid movements, and I remember we all imitated the way he waved his fingers in front of his face in the water.

These movies were memorable also for the underwater photography, and the creature’s interactions with The Girl. In the first one, it’s dark-haired Julie Adams. Universal execs believed she had the best legs of any actress they had under contract and kept looking for a role where she could wear a bathing suit. They found this one. “Creature From the Black Lagoon” is famous for the scene of her swimming with the Creature watching her and swimming along far underneath her in the deep water. This humanized the gill-man, and certainly interested the boys in the audience. (John Muzulla’s comments at the Internet Database site for this film are terrific on this point.) I actually saw “Revenge of the Creature” first, and blond Lori Nelson was pretty interesting, too.

Lori Nelson in Revenge of the Creature Posted by Picasa
As young boys we were also dealing with our aggressive energies and the feelings that often ran counter to them, including empathy. These were tested by relationships with girls (though we typically had as little as possible to do with real girls) and with animals, which were often more a part of our lives. These films gave us several points of view on both.

Though the female leads were beautiful and screamed a lot, they were also often scientists themselves, and their relationships with the men around them were part of the story (especially in the last film.) And issues of humans v. nature (and what later gets called environmentalism), cruelty to animals and what separates humans from animals were all explored. The fright effects heightened emotional attention, and we were exploring other feelings, too. We learned behaviors and their consequences, in these vicarious experiences, and through identifying with characters (including the gill-man.)

These Creature films were science fiction in a very specific sense: the stories featured scientists, sometimes as heroes and sometimes as villains, and the pressures on them from various quarters were part of the drama. The stories were basically variations on King Kong (and its variation on Beauty and the Beast), but instead of Kong being captured for show business, the Creature was captured for science, including experimentation.

The role of scientist is one aspect that ties these films to others in the 1950s “bug-eyed monster” explosion, all very much inspired and commenting upon the atomic age. Though not directly related to the nuclear bomb theme of so many 50s monsters—he wasn’t created by radiation or unearthed by an atomic bomb or an invader from space—the Gill-Man was certainly part of the mood. (How could he not be? In the DVD docu, a theatre marquee for Creature From the Black Lagoon also announces “First Pictures of a Hydrogen Bomb Explosion!”)

All monster movies touched upon the Cold War theme of the Other—demonizing the different, the balance of real danger and imagined danger, of justifiable fear and manufactured panic. Also, most 50s monsters were versions of creatures in nature, and touched upon the sense of human’s twisting and violating nature by inventing and exploding the Bomb, which uses a secret potential of a natural force. Scientists were made more prominent by the Bomb, and the public saw them sometimes as admirable, and sometimes as violators of the natural order for daring to undercover these secrets. There was a sense that through them humans had taken on more power than humanity was equipped to deal with, and perhaps was ever meant to have.

poster for Revenge of the Creature Posted by Picasa
We were fortunate that at least some of the films we saw at this impressionable age were made by intelligent and conscientious filmmakers. Jack Arnold was perhaps foremost among them. Though he spent most of his later career making nondescript TV episodes, he had a period between 1953 and 1957 when he made several of the most memorable of these kinds of movies, beginning with “It Came From Outer Space,” and ending with one of his best and least known, “The Space Children.” His recognized classics include “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and the first two gill-man films. (He also did reshoots on another of my favorites, “This Island Earth.” He later showed a comic touch with another late 50s classic, “The Mouse That Roared.” )

Richard Carlson played a scientist in Arnold’s “It Came From Outer Space” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” and in other films and TV shows of the era as well, like Science Fiction Theatre (Arnold also directed a few episodes.) We also knew him from the TV show, “I Led Three Lives.” He added an air of intelligence and conscience. And he got the Girl. Apparently kind of a jerk on the set, he was a role model on screen.

The DVD commentaries are uneven. Film historian Paul Jensen does one alone for “Black Lagoon,” and its full of information, much of it interesting. There’s a lot less of substance in the other two. But you get a sense of how the films were made, and who did what (different men playing the Creature in the water and out of it; aquatic dancer Ginger Stanley is actually the woman we see in the underwater scenes for Julie Adams). The very effective musical score was the work of several composers, including Henry Mancini. Much of the music was original, but some recycled from other films, including westerns.

Jensen quotes Jack Arnold as commenting that he had polemical intentions to say something about human progress in accepting differences, but that he had to mask it for entertainment purposes, and also so it wouldn’t be “under investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee,” which suggests another aspect of the era, and why a lot of commentary and point of view was given symbolic expression in the 50s and 60s. Forced to express meaning through monster B-movies, moviemakers like Arnold wound up making enduring myths.

This wasn’t lost on others involved either. I think it was Julie Adams who said somewhere on these DVDs that “in the real classics there’s always that compassion for the monsters. I think it says something about ourselves—maybe the darker part of ourselves that longs to be loved and thinks they really never can be loved---it strikes a chord in us. That’s what Creature From the Black Lagoon did.”

Another major message from these films came at the end of the third one. Commenting on human overreaction to the Creature, one scientist says, “We’re not so far from the jungle after all.” Rex Reason, playing the good scientist hero (as he did in other 50s s/f) responds, “We’re not so far from the stars, either. The way we go depends upon what we’re willing to understand about ourselves.”

Monday, May 22, 2006

Beatles "Ticket to Ride" sequence in 1965 film, "Help!" Posted by Picasa

This Day in Boomer History

1906- Wright Brothers patent airplane
1943- first jet fighter tested
1947- first ballistic missile
1954- In Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman's Bar Mitzvah
1956- "The Bob Hope Show" ends on NBC
1964- LBJ unveils The Great Society
1965- The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" hits #1
1967 Mr. Rogers Neighborhood debuts on national public TV
1968- Pittsburgh Pirate Willie Stargell hits 3 home runs, a double and a single.
1973- Nixon confesses to his role in Watergate coverup
1982- Johnny Carson's last appearance on "The Tonight Show."

Born on this day: Arthur Conan Doyle, Vance Packard ("Hidden Persuaders,") Charles Asnavour, Richard Benjamin, and Laurence Olivier, seen here in his first film, Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 15, 2006

Born on this date: filmmaker Jean Renoir (second from left, from his film, Rules of the Game), James Mason, Erroll Garner, Richard Avedon, Anthony ("Slueth") and Peter ("Equus") Shaeffer, Jasper Johns, Trini Lopez, Paul Zindel, Brian Eno. Posted by Picasa

Hydrogen bomb explosion Posted by Picasa

This Day in Boomer History

1955- U.S. nuclear test in Nevada

1957- First British hydrogen bomb explosion

1958- Sputnik III launches

1963- Peter, Paul and Mary get their first Grammy

1964- U.S. nuclear test in Nevada

1968- John Lennon and Paul McCartney appear on the Tonight Show
to announce Apple Corps. "Wonderwall" premieres at Cannes,
with music by George Harrison (Apple Records.)

1970- "Let It Be," last Beatles album to be released, is released.

1981- George Harrison releases "All Those Years Ago.

Wonderwall sound track. Do you have this one? I do. Posted by Picasa

George Harrison--All Those Years Ago... Posted by Picasa