Finishing Blindspot 2016 #8: Harlan County USA
Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976)
The place is southeastern Kentucky, bordering Virginia. The time is the early ’70s, an era when there was turmoil to spare in the United States. The story is simultaneously specific and one that has been told time and time again. Since there was wealth to be had and labor to take advantage of it, the rich have exploited the poor. In Harlan County, USA, the poor are coal miners hoping to unionize, while the executives of the mining company they work for are willing to resort to increasingly brazen violence to stop them.
Barbara Kopple was just 27 years old when she lead her camera crew to Kentucky to cover the strike by miners at Brookside Mine, who were hoping for better wages, safer conditions, and benefits. They sign a contract to join the United Mine Workers of America. The Duke Power Company, which owns the mine, nixes the contract, triggering the strike.
Simply as an account of the chaotic events of the strike, Harlan County, USA is electric. Some of the footage Kopple gets is astonishing. The cameras sometimes pick up shouted threats from armed mercenaries and police, ordering her to stop filming. The methods used by strikebreakers, hired by Duke to manhandle the picketers and shuttle scab workers into the mines, grow increasingly violent. Kopple doesn’t provide a lot of names, but we grow accustomed to and even attached to a lot of faces. The wives and mothers of the miners are the primary force of the picket lines, defiantly standing up to guards who start by dragging them out of the lines and into jail cells into the dark, escalating to gunfire.
Kopple makes no attempt to remain detached. This is full-throated activist filmmaking, but unlike the work of Michael Moore, which can often turn into overwrought and didactic, Kopple keeps the cameras swiveling around, documenting whatever they can. One remarkable shot captures an infamous strikebreaker pointing his gun at the crowd. The shot ends up being evidence that forces the county sheriff to arrest the man, something he clearly has no desire to do.
Harlan County, USA is a reminder that progress has only ever been achieved through relentless effort, often in the face of seemingly overwhelming force and institutions uninterested in holding the powerful accountable. At one point, a miner at a demonstration in New York City (where they hope to tank Duke Power Company’s stock value) has a conversation with a cop, who is aghast at the conditions the miners face. The cop’s basic benefits and wages are modest, basic but compared to the miner, it sounds like a bounty.
The films ends with a mix of sadness, hope, and ambiguity. The miners get a contract, but only after one of the strikers is murdered on the picket line. They’re pleased, but one of the older miners point out that it doesn’t help those whose careers don’t have much time left to reap the benefits. And within a year, another conflict arises, putting the contract in jeopardy. The fight continues on, as it always has, as it always will.
Blindspot 2016 #3: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
There were always two. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Two masters with wildly different approaches to their art. Together they created one of the greatest empires of artistic expression in movie history, but it’s been Miyazaki who has garnered much more attention. It’s not for lack of merit; by my estimation Miyazaki has made several classics without a single bad film to his name. His films have numerous entry points to viewers of any age. His stories tend to have the sweep of fairy tales and epics; they are compulsively watchable and easily accessible without any dilution of his vision. His films are international box office hits that have garnered him roomfuls of awards.
Takahata? He’s more of an enigma. The same year Miyazaki debuted My Neighbor Totoro, perhaps his first film to achieve significant global recognition, Takahata gave us Grave of the Fireflies. The films could not be much more different, save for being about young siblings. Totoro is a delightful family fantasy that occasionally dips into moments of sadness that anyone can relate to. Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing, headlong plunge into the despair of war. It flaunts the conventional wisdom that animated films shouldn’t tell realistic stories. Takahata still imbued the film with a touch all his own. His sense of pacing is impeccable; he gives the story room to breathe around the tragedy. We cry out of empathy, but we don’t feel pummeled with nihilism, as can happen with films this bleak. He was absolutely the right director for this story; he just happens to be an animator.
As Miyazaki continued to make inventive fantasies, Takahata seemed to do… whatever he wanted to do, without much rhyme or reason. His next film was perhaps his best: the plaintive, bittersweet Only Yesterday, about a woman in her late 20s who reminisces about her childhood as she casts an uncertain eye toward the future. His follow up films, Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas were zanier, more comedic fare; I haven’t seen them yet, but from what I know about them they are a massive departure from Grave of the Fireflies. His style is famously deliberate; he finishes films when he wants to, at his pace. In the essential documentary Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki- a relentlessly hard worker0- openly complains about Takahata’s slow pace of filmmaking. Again, these two men seem to differ in every aspect of their approach.
Here, then, is something of a surprise: after all these years, Takahata has made a fairy tale. And what a tale it is. The Tale of Princess Kaguya has some of the hallmarks of Takahata’s other films. The constant tone of bittersweetness. A theme of a central character trying and failing to find a place that can be her home. But there is a deep feeling of ancientness to this tale, a sense that Takahata is lovingly rendering a tale that has been passed along for centuries. Indeed, the story the film is based on originated in the 10th century. The Tale of Princess Kaguya doesn’t simply feel timeless; it feels suspended in time.
The film opens with a bamboo cutter finding a tiny girl inside a bamboo stalk. The girl turns into regular-sized human baby, and he and his wife decide to raise her. The girl grows quickly, and the man wonders if his adopted daughter is fated to live a greater life than he can provide cutting bamboo. When the same bamboo stalk that birthed her spills gold and fancy robes, he takes that as a sign from heaven. He moves the family into the city; with his new riches he tries to have his daughter embrace nobility and find a rich husband. She takes on the name Princess Kaguya.
Studio Ghibli’s trademark has long been an astonishing attention to detail, no matter who is directing. At first, The Tale of Princess Kaguya looks like a departure from that trend. The edges of the screen are often unfilled; at times there is more negative space on the frame than ink. It’s jarring at first, but it’s also in keeping with the concept of ma, so essential in Japanese art. Miyazaki once described ma as the moment in between two hand claps. Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps the greatest Japanese filmmaker, regularly included silent shots- a tree, or clothes hanging from a line- in between scenes (Roger Ebert loved to call these “pillow shots”). Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday are both quite spacious in their narratives, taking the time to look at the world around the characters before moving on with the story. Fairy tales like Princess Kaguya don’t usually have the luxury of that sort of patient storytelling. Almost every scene in Princess Kaguya advances the narrative to some degree. It’s a surprisingly rich tale, and its 2 hour and 18 minute runtime flows by unnoticed.
My point; the negative space of the film’s opening is Takahata’s hook for the audience. Once we grow used to it, he can manipulate space to fit his narrative needs throughout the film. There is an incredible scene about halfway through the movie where Kaguya, overhearing a conversation where a group of men crassly demand to see her, grows overwhelmed and bolts from her new palace home. In the palace, every corner of the screen is filled and detailed the way we expect from a Ghibli and Takahata movie. And it’s suffocating. Kaguya sheds her robes and explodes down the road outside,and the world opens up again. By the time she reaches the woods, the art style becomes sketchy, aggressively spare, and the effect is liberating. Back in her visual element, Kaguya can be free, if only for a moment.
This is not the sort of film where further explanation of the plot would do anyone any good. It’d be like trying to tell a campfire scare story at breakfast before anyone has had any coffee. The visuals here aren’t simply style for its own sake; they are an essential aspect of taking in this story. And, well, they are gorgeous in their own right. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a fitting cap to Takahata’s enigmatic career. For his last film he reached back in history and folklore and found a story he could tell better than anyone had before. Yes, it’s been told for centuries. But it was always meant to be told like this.
Blindspot 2016: The Rules of the Game (1939)
The arbitrary rules of high society have long provided ample fuel for artists. The people who have the most, who have the most influence in the world, can exist in bubbles labyrinthine in construct.
The Rules of the Game is a fitting title for this film, which was directed by the legendary Jean Renoir. It’s about people who cannot, or will not, sort out their feelings about one another healthily. By the end of the movie, no one his happy and someone is dead. Why? Because everyone is playing by the rules.
Two sets of rules, really. The aristocrats, who go to absurd lengths to maintain a sense of decorum at all times, and their servants, who are more open and honest among each other but who adhere to a rough facsimile of their bosses’ behavior.
Similarly to my last Blindspot film, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Rules of the Game is primarily about jealousy, and how people handle jealousy when they can’t express such emotions openly. Like the best comedies of manners, it assembles a large cast of characters and lets them loose with one another. This is an energetic film, and Renoir’s confidence in his narrative in infectious.
The first act is dedicated to letting us get to know the cast. The film opens as Andre (Roland Toutain), a pilot, arrives in France to a hero’s welcome after beating Charles Lindbergh’s record time in flying across the Atlantic. He is greeted by his friend Octave (Renoir) who informs him that the woman his former lover, Christine (Nora Gregor), is not present to witness his arrival. Andre is dejected, and given the chance to make a statement about his achievement on radio, he all but cries into the microphone like a boy spurned by a prom date. Christine is married to Robert (Marcel Dalio), a wealthy noble. Robert knows about Christine’s previous affair with Andre and her friendship with Octave that teeters on the edge of platonic. He doesn’t seem to mind, perhaps because he is sleeping with Geneviève (Mila Parély). They live on a large estate, and are tended to by a large host of servants. Most prominent in the story are the married couple Lisette (Paulette Dubost) and Schumacher (Gaston Modot). Lisette tends dotingly upon Christine, and it’s more than hinted that she loves Christine more than her husband.
I think that’s everyone? Good. After this long sequence of introduction, everyone listed above gathers at Robert and Christine’s estate for a weekend of hunting, drinking, singing, and dancing. The party is a mammoth work of brilliance by Renoir. From a bird’s eye view, you could easily think that not much happens over the two days we spend at the manor. The characters hunt, drink, sing, and dance. But Renoir’s camera is far more a snake than a bird. It wriggles through the crowd and shows the characters at their weakest moments, when they still can’t say how they feel but betray themselves in ways that a less delicate eye than Renoir’s might miss. In on scene, Robert unveils a new toy of his, an enormous music box. As the music plays, the camera pans across the music box to Robert’s face, which is overjoyed. It’s an extraordinary shot, highlighting the both the absurdity of his lifestyle and, well, how infectious any sort of childish joy is.
The Rules of the Game tells its story like that, in flashes where characters let their guards down and reveal more to Renoir’s camera than they ever would dare if they knew we could see them. Not that it matters; the party’s guests are at times so absorbed with the goings on that they wouldn’t know or care otherwise. At one point, a jealous husband chases a man who has been flirting with his wife through the manor with a gun. Even as he fires shots most of the guests are too busy with their drinks and music to notice.
This is a fascinating, funny, deeply engaging movie that I want to see again. Renoir packs so many details into every shot that I want to see it with my eye on the background. The Rules of the Game is one of those titanic films whose reputation as one of the all-time greats precedes it to a daunting degree. I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to its reputation.
Blindspot 2016 #1: Smiles of a Summer Night
I admit that writing about movies hasn’t been at my mind’s forefront recently, but I’ve decided to push through that. My grandmother would want me to keep up my writing.
Last week I watched the first film on my Blindspot list: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.
What’s that, you say? Romantic comedy? Bergman?
Yes, indeed, that is what we have here. And it is wonderful.
Smiles of a Summer Night is warm but not sentimental, insightful but not cynical. The warmth is delivers stems from Bergman’s deep understanding of these characters and his willingness to let them interact and talk like real people. Much is said in this film, most of it deeply felt, most of it only partially understood by those listening.
The film feels alive like a good play does*. When a play opens you always feel like you’re walking into someone’s life. In Smiles of a Summer Night, the life we intrude upon is that of Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer with a grown son and a young wife about his son’s age. He had been married for a long time. His wife died, and he spent some time coping by bedding as many pretty women as he could. One, a beautiful thirty-something actress named Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), he actually had feelings for. However, he called it off with her and instead married Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is not yet 20 when the film begins. They haven’t yet consummated their marriage, and he has no desire to pressure her to do so. He still fantasizes about Desiree, and visits her. Not for sex, but for emotional intimacy and understanding. “You are my only friend, the only person to whom I can show myself”, he says in a moment of vulnerability.
*This story did end up on Broadway; Stephen Sondheim adapted it into his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music”.
Certainly his son is incapable of providing any emotional support. Young Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is studying to be a clergyman, and pontificates about morality, most likely because he is terrified of women. Fredrik’s maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), plays him like a fiddle and lures him to bed. Petra is extremely close with Anne and tries to offer advice for when the time comes for her to lose her virginity. We sense that the two are more earnestly attracted to one another than to anyone else in the movie.
One reason Desiree and Fredrik’s relationship is now platonic is that Desiree’s current paramour, a soldier named Magnus (Jarl Kulle), is both absurdly jealous and willing to duel at a moment’s notice. A scene where Magnus finds Fredrik alone with Desiree is both very tense and very funny. Magnus is married to Anne’s friend Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), and the two converse quite openly about their affairs. Neither is all that happy about the others’ infidelity. Their affairs have become a sport that neither can win.
For no apparent reason other than “this will be fun for the movie to do”, all the characters assemble for dinner at the home of Desiree’s mother, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand). The old woman knows full well what she’s getting into inviting all these desperately concupiscent people under one roof, on the longest day of the year. The characters celebrate the solstice by staying up all night, talking, brooding, plotting, dreaming, about sex, romance, and fidelity. Amid the chatter there is barely any time for them to act on what they talk about.
There is such richness to this film’s dialogue. Most scenes consist simply of one on one conversations. These conversations don’t simply move the plot along. Every one is rich and revealing. Fredrik confides his anxieties about his marriage to Desiree as she undresses after she performs a play; their mutual comfort effortlessly conveys their familiarity. Anne and Petra talk frankly about sex; Anne is full of questions for Petra, who is happy to share her insights. Magnus tells Desiree that he doesn’t mind if Charlotte cheats on him. He then tells Charlotte the same, only about Desiree. There’s little doubt he minds very much in both cases. Fredrik toils in the background, desperately reading scripture amid the ribaldry.
When they all arrive and Mrs. Arnfeldt’s house, she sits back over the proceedings almost contentedly. She presides over their dinner table conversation like a referee, guiding the action but showing no desire to dictate any terms. The topic of choice? Charlotte’s bet with her husband that she can seduce Fredrik in fifteen minutes. He takes the bet and they all take a drink of wine. It’s going to be that kind of night.
Amid the conniving and bickering, Andersson gives my favorite performance in the film. Her Petra is the film’s heartbeat, radiating joy and a lust for life. While everyone else is slowly working themselves to a boil inside Mrs. Armfeldt’s manor, Petra is getting hers with Frid (Åke Fridell), a portly servant whose jolly hedonism matches Petra’s.
Who ends up happy and who doesn’t isn’t really the point of this film. Bergman’s far too perceptive a filmmaker to fixate on happy endings. He crafts a terrific ensemble of characters and traps them under one roof together. So much of the film’s sense of fun is simply seeing a new pairing of characters talking on screen. Their conversations are so alive. We have no idea where they’ll go. At one point Anne and Petra suddenly burst into giggles during a chat and throw themselves onto a bed, rolling in delight. It’s such a spontaneously delightful moment. In another scene, Anne is discussing marriage with Charlotte, who suddenly delivers a monologue about her troubles with her husband and with men in general. It’s a burst of despair, and Margit Calqvit’s eyes are focused just barely off the camera. She’s not talking to us; we’re right there and she can’t see us, and the effect is alarming.
Smiles of a Summer Night doesn’t shrink from its characters’ sadness, but its overarching tone is warm and, surprisingly, optimistic. Some characters remain paired with the person they began the film with, others run off on whims, and still others don’t seem to give a damn so long as they get a roll in the hay before the sunrise. The shortest night of the summer works its spell on everyone. They don’t all true love, but that’s a lot to ask for in one night. Sometimes, understanding yourself and everyone around you a bit better will do just fine.
My 2016 Blindspot Films
No matter how one tries, there are always more movies to see, an ever-growing backlog of classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet. I learned of one great way of tackling this list from Anna of Film Grimoire (please go follow her blog if you don’t already).
The idea is simple: at the start of the year, give yourself 12 films you will finally get to. Once a month, you watch and review a film on your list. I look forward to participating in it for the first time this year.
Without further ado, here are my Blindspot 2016 films: