This is one of the films that film-history majors watch, and pretty much nobody else (at least not anymore), but it’s actually a little bit fascinating.
This silent film is a non-patronizing look at life among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes — set in a time before they were herded into reservations and their previous way of life forcibly taken away from them, but acted by people this had happened to some 50 years earlier.
The story is a pretty straightforward “love triangle” story, but what’s amazing about this silent film is that the entire cast, without exception, is portrayed by Native Americans (some 300 all together), and featuring authentic outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes.
The acting is of course variable, but convincing enough to impart the story of one brave who feels he “deserves” the chief’s daughter and attempts to force her into marriage, while the young girl has already fallen for another brave. True love wins out, which itself is something of a radical idea given the time when the film came out.
The portrayal of the women of the tribes is surprisingly much less patronising than expected; the villain of the piece Black Wolf does have another who pines for him (Red Wing), but he callously ignores her in favor of the Daughter of Dawn (yes, that’s her name). He spends most of the movie creeping around and observing from a distance in the standard silent-movie way, helping us uncover developments, whereupon he discovers his rival While Eagle and plots his downfall.
The simple story is kind of excuse to recreate something like pre-reservation life among two tribes, including great landscape shots of the plains (the film was made in Oklahoma), hunting scenes featuring actual wild buffalo, daring stunts, and some time spent on the day-to-day life of the people. Director Norbert Myles seems to have wanted to a documentary-style drama rather than stigmatize the “savages” as was more the style for the time.
On a story level, this wasn’t that far removed from The Searchers (1954), but apart from the interesting historical context and backstory of the film itself — it was presumed lost for almost 90 years before mysteriously resurfacing in 2012 — it’s not a film most non-native people would seek out.
It’s pretty well-made and sympathetic for a 1920 silent film, and benefits strongly from an authentic Native American cast. The plot is very well-worn nowadays, but I would imagine it captured audiences’ imaginations — and maybe won over a few “paleface” hearts and minds — in its day.
I’ve been saving this film since it came out since the trailer alone told me what I needed to know about it — neo-expressionist, Escher-influenced, exceptionally-sharp B&W mixing stagecraft and filmcraft (and witchcraft) with stunning performances and visuals that I would eat up like candy.
At just over an hour and 40 minutes, this might be seen by some as an attempt to get theatre-resistant souls to give this major Shakespearean outing a fair shake —
but the substantial trimming of the text is so skillfully done that the stark and incredible visuals fill in what’s not there with great artistry. The speeches that I recalled most vividly from the many productions I have seen in theatres were still there.
About the only bad thing I can say about this is an unfair complaint: I never find Shakespeare’s lines quite as musical when they are done by American voices. That is not to, in the least, denigrate the performances of the leads — Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth (stunningly well portrayed) and Denzel Washington as MacBeth himself, though he failed to connect with me quite as much as some of his predecessors in the part.
I liked the variations, sincerity, and styling Washington gave to his speeches, and he joins a company of fine actors, from Bertie Carvel (in a very fine turn as Banquo), to Alex Hassel as the impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, impossibly expressive Ross, to Harry Melling as Malcolm (another good turn from this maturing actor). This being filmed entirely on a soundstage (in California, sadly) gave it a beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere, even when scenes were set outdoors. A triumph of cinematography, this.
Visually, pacing-wise, and performance-wise, this version punches all of my buttons and while I have seen a handful of filmed MacBeths before, this one is far and away my favourite. It’s like no version of the show seen before, and combined with some sparing but incredibly clever effects to enhance the witch(es) — with a nod of awe to Kathryn Hunter for her stellar performance — it is as riveting to watch as any of Laurence Olivier’s Technicolour (or B&W) Shakespearean movies (one of which actually has Melling’s grandfather in a notable role).
A mention must be made of Carter Burwell’s musical score, which is minimal and rarely calls attention to itself but which is yet another element setting the mood, which is what Coen has really brought to this production (other than some well-placed scissors to the script). Although there were a few fleeting moments when I wished a line or an actor’s look had been done a bit differently, or if a scene had lingered just a bit more, these were but quickly drowned by the glory of the effects, the sets, the cinematography, the lighting, and all the other elements.
Finally, I am not yet settled on Coen’s main addition to the tale, that being some staging that suggests a non-traditional interpretation of the third murderer. But perhaps I will drink in this sweet wine of a film again and ponder on it. This unconventional movie took some risks, and for me most of them paid off handsomely.
It’s anniversary time for David Bowie’s Low album. I’ve commented on it before, but certain elements of it are worth repeating.
For me it started with a phone call from Switzerland, where David was living at the time. He said that he and Brian Eno were working on a certain concept for a radically new album idea (and it was about time somebody did that). He briefly described the minimalist approach and plans for instrumental tracks, a first for him, but relying heavily on Brian’s great sonic landscape compositions. He asked me to join them in the ‘Honky Chateau’ in the outskirts of Paris, France, and cautioned that as it was experimental I might be wasting a month of my life for nothing.
I replied that spending a month of my life with you and Eno was worth it!!!
We sequestered ourselves for the first two weeks. I ended up not shaving or wearing shoes as my life consisted of dining room three times a day and studio most of the day, then the ‘haunted’ bedroom at night (but that’s another story).
Amazingly all of the tracking was done in two weeks, first with the band of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. In the second week Brian and David laid down the bed of the ‘ambient music’ tracks. My new fangled Eventide Harmonizer 910 had a lot to do with the sonic nature of the tracks, not only the snare drum sound, but in the instrumental compositions too. David and I spent two more weeks with the overdubbing and mixing.
On the day of the final mix David asked for a cassette of all the mixes. He had quite a lot to drink. When I handed the cassette to him he waved it in the air and exclaimed, “We have an album,” considering we were never sure we did have an album until the final days of mixing.
David left the control room very excited, but we quickly heard a rumbling sound immediately afterwards and ran to the staircase. David had fallen down and was lying at the bottom in pain, but holding the cassette over his head. He was fine the next morning.
We never wavered from the decisions to make the album as radical as it sounded, even though critics panned it for the most part. Okay, so it wasn’t Ziggy Stardust II, but the influence it had on musicians, to open up more, gave birth to new genres and Pop music as an Art form.
The late 1940s and much of the 1950s was an interesting time for the film world, particularly in the West. In addition to filmmaking advances from other countries, interest in ”foreign” films and styles of filmmaking/storytelling grew at international competitions, increasing diversity and influencing North American and European filmmakers for decades afterwards.
This movie, usually shortened to just Ugetsu, is an interesting film because it weaves some timeless story ideas together: a clever allegorical tale of the delusions of men — and the subsequent wartime suffering of their wives and children, shown in a almost-feminist sympathetic light — alongside a more traditional Japanese ghost story, offering up a meaningful anti-war theme based on the lives of the innocent victims of war.
The story is based on tales from a book written in 1776 (when another more famous war was going on), and is set during Japan’s prolonged civil war, which finally ended in 1600.
We focus on a small family: the potter Genjūrō, his wife Miyagi, and their young son Genichi. The other two main characters are Genjūrō’s brother-in-law Tōbei and his wife, Ohama. Both of the two men have big dreams: Genjūrō dreams of having money by selling his pottery in larger towns, while Tōbei is almost feverish with a desire to become a samurai.
Genjūrō’s more modest and achievable aims at least are rewarded; Tōbei’s goal is sort-of achieved in a rather comical way, but their visions of success both drive them to leave behind their families to seek their fortunes, causing mostly suffering compared to the poor-but-happy lives they already had.
Tōbei, as is his habit, stumbles into enough dumb luck to finally get rewarded as a samurai general, complete with armor, horse, and retinue.
Genjūrō, in town to spend all his money on gifts for his new wife, slowly discovers that she and the villa don’t actually exist any longer; he has been seduced by a ghost, and living in a dream world that makes him forget his real wife and son. A priest he bumps into gives him a reality check, and paints prayers upon his body to help dispel the ghost and the dream-world.
The backdrop of all this is the civil war. Miyagi and Genichi, left behind by Genjūrō in his quest for larger towns to sell to, are forced from their village, with Miyagi robbed and stabbed by soldiers. Ohama, who loses Tōbei in the crowd of the city, must fend for herself and is eventually turned into a prostitute.
Tōbei, who finally has a little money from selling Genjūrō’s pottery, blows it on armour and tries to get into a samurai camp, only to be rejected.
Meanwhile, Genjūrō has had an encounter with lady of royalty who seduces him back to her villa, and uses her sensual regalness to trick him into marriage.
The triumphant Tōbei wants to return to his village to show his wife his new hero status, but his men persuade him to stop by a brothel for the evening first — where he finds his wife Ohama as one of the working women there. He is shocked back to reality by the discovery, and promises to give up his status in order to buy back her honour.
Genjūrō returns to the now ruined village and finds Miyagi and his son in their former house, relieved that at least his kiln has survived the soldiers’ devastation. He takes some food from the joyful Miyagi, who refuses to let him confess his sins, and quickly falls asleep beside his son.
In the morning, he awakes to find only Genichi still with him. A village elder discovers them and tells Genjūrō that Miyagi died from her injuries some time back, and is buried outside. The elder has been taking care of Genichi since.
Genjūrō and Tōbei reunite in the village, and promise to work hard for the benefit of Genichi and Ohana, who has had her honor restored via Tōbei’s giving up on his false success.
The film is shot with interesting lighting, camera angles (extensive use of crane shots, allowing for a mythical look), and extensive use of both traditional western soundtrack and spotlighting ancient Japanese music.
Although Ugetsu is mostly of interest to film history students these days, the movie is nonetheless a still-compelling tale of morality woven with supernatural elements. The clues that Lady Wakasa is not who she seems start with her Noh-theatre style and hikimayu-style “eyebrows,” while Tōbei’s story is told in traditional Japanese comic-underdog style.
The skill in the filmmaking blends these oddly-compatible journeys together well, and (surprisingly for the time) does not shirk from showing how their families suffer because of the mens’ chasing of dreams.
As an introduction to director Mizoguchi, it makes me want to check out his other international hit, Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Because of its towering international achievements in awards and screenings outside Japan, the film has consistently placed in many “all time greatest films” lists — and is still on the revered Sight&Sound top-100 list, having resided there at different rankings since the first such list in 1962.
On a suggestion from Jason A. Miller and inspired further by Drew Meyer, I’ve joined a little social challenge to watch 52 movies in 2023, at least one per week. I may or may not binge a few during relaxed periods like this one in case I can’t fulfill a given week’s goal. I’ll try to avoid any “spoilers” in my comments on them, and try instead to persuade people to look up (or avoid) the film.
First up: Battleship Potemkin (1925) by a 27-year-old (!) Sergei Eisenstein.
Although very basic and propagandistic by today’s standards, this is a masterpiece of early Russian cinema and brought the now-familiar technique of “montages” into the vocabulary of silent film, a way to show a number of shots as a summation of what was going on. Oddly, I had not actually seen the entire film previously.
It is based on the true story of the ship, which in 1905 helped kick off a revolution against the authoritarian Tsar’s government and military after a mutiny caused by the Tsarist officers’ cruelty and indifference to the suffering of the crew. The film is also noted for being among the very few that portrayed graphic violence and some gore on-screen (rather than cutting away or minimizing it) at the time.
Modern viewers may find its points laboured and the editing disruptive at times, but as a piece of military history and for the remarkable “Odessa Steps” sequence that represents the cruelty and tyranny of the Tsar’s forces, it remains an interesting look at some of the events that shaped Russia for generations. At less than 1h20m, it’s a pretty easy watch if you enjoy long-form silent movies (the score on the version I saw featured lots of Shostakovich).