2013 First-Time Viewings: September Week 1

LonesomeLonesome (1928)

Paul Fejos’ 1928 film Lonesome has quietly built up a reputation since its original release among those fortunate enough to see it, but it had never been made widely available for home viewing until a release by the Criterion Collection in 2012.  The release highlights a film that is simple in its intent but still holds a good deal of value. Essentially a straightforward romance, the film follows a man and a woman, both living alone in New York City, who individually decide to take a break from their daily work routines to spend an afternoon at Coney Island. Fejos sharply contrasts the daily drudgery of the New York work routine/adult lifestyle with the youthful energy of Coney Island, where responsible men and women can reclaim some of the carefree joy and exuberance of their childhood, if only for a short while (surprisingly, the filmmakers never shot any material in New York). For a film from the later years of the silent period, Lonesome feels a little ahead of its time, with the inclusion of some surprisingly-experimental flourishes. The early scenes unfold at a rapid pace, with the work routines of the two characters complementing each other, each of them bombarded by the monotony of their occupations (the film juxtaposes the woman, who works as a telephone operator, with the faces of the many people with whom she is communicating). Elsewhere, three dialogue scenes were added to capitalize on the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, and the film also includes brief splashes of color, done the old-fashioned way, by hand over individual frames. The Criterion release uses a later French print as its source, and while it will probably never be known whether the print was truly accurate to the filmmakers’ original intentions, what remains onscreen has a unique life of its own.

This will be the point where I reveal myself as something of a philistine regarding silent film. With only a few exceptions (mainly Chaplin), I’ve never been able to completely invest into a silent film. Instead, I tend to view them from a more detached perspective, usually more focused on the filmmaking details or the history of its making than the narrative or whatever emotions the filmmakers are attempting to evoke. Lonesome is one of the few silent films I’ve seen that bucks that trend. While there is a brief orientation period to the storytelling methods of silent cinema, the narrative quickly gets its hooks in you. It’s a simple story, but that’s not a problem when the story is told so well. When the two potential lovers break away from their daily work routines for an afternoon of entertainment and joviality, there is a palpable energy that rises up in the film.  When the couple is separated after a harrowing rollercoaster ride, there is genuine tension as to whether or not they will find each other again amidst the overwhelming crowds. And when the film starts to come to a close, there is a nice ironic twist that ends everything on an incredibly satisfying note. Lonesome shouldn’t be viewed as a relic of the silent times; it’s a film that still has the capacity to entertain and inspire, 85 years since its original release. 8/10.

Still WalkingStill Walking

Hirokazu Koreeda is a filmmaker I’ve been meaning to explore for quite some time now, but different circumstances have kept me away from his work.  It hasn’t been for a lack of trying; I’ve attempted to watch Maborosi and After Life, but the quality of the DVDs have rendered the films close to unwatchable. Fortunately, that was not a problem with the home release for this supposedly-autobiographical 2008 effort, which observes a son and a daughter as they return to their parents’ home on the anniversary of a past tragedy. The son, Ryoto, has distanced himself from his family in the years since the death of his brother. He’s recently-married to a widow with a young son, but is struggling to find work, a fact that he wants to keep a secret from his parents. The daughter, Yukari, has a friendly but shallow-headed husband and two young children, and harbors reservations about having to look after her mother and father as they continue to age. As soon as everyone is together, it is clear there are still unresolved issues between all of them.

The most obvious comparison to make with Koreeda’s work here is to Yasujiro Ozu, but it’s also an appropriate one. Like the films of that Japanese master, Koreeda prefers to keep the camera stationary,  letting the action speak for itself without the need for any overt visual distractions. The recurring motif of a train whistling its way through a quiet seaside town also can’t help but spark memories of Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds. But it’s in the film’s insights into family life, and specifically the different ways family members react to tragedy, where Still Walking really earns the comparison. There’s a lot of pain here, bubbling just underneath the surface, but Koreeda wisely resists any moments of big emotions. This family has drifted too far apart for there to be any hope of real reconciliation, and everyone seems to quietly acknowledge that fact. Instead, they all go through the motions. Nobody is this scenario is completely right or completely wrong, which might be why they all feel incredibly real. I recognize parts of myself and part of others in their thoughts and actions. That kind of recognition is not an easy thing to pull off, but Koreeda manages to make it seem effortless. 10/10.

Robinson Crusoe On MarsRobinson Crusoe On Mars

The most surprising thing about this 1964 science-fiction adventure from director Byron Haskin is how faithfully it adheres to the source material referenced in its title, the classic Daniel Defoe novel from 1719. Of course, the film has an extra hook, with everything happening on the Red Planet instead of on an uninhabited island. The film opens with two astronauts nearing their final destination of Mars, only to run afoul of a planet-orbiting asteroid that causes their ship to crash violently to the surface. Only one of the astronauts survives, and along with the ship’s flight-test monkey Mona, he sets about scrounging for what he needs to survive. Obviously, with a title like Robinson Crusoe On Mars, you’re not going into it with the expectation that you’ll be seeing an overly-serious production. The film seems to confirm its campy nature right away, when Adam West, two years before Batman, is the first person to pop up onscreen. Sadly though, his screentime is short-lived, and the film never completely recovers from his absence.

The first hour of the film is completely devoted to the astronaut’s struggles to survive by himself on the alien world, scrambling to find food, water, shelter, and oxygen. The pacing is very deliberate, almost excessively so, although there is a quiet kind of appeal in watching the astronaut methodically work through his problems. It’s disappointing though how he mostly stumbles into all he needs instead of working out  practical, intelligent solutions (at one point, he accepts his impending death and lays down to die, only to wake up later and discover the sponge-like rocks on the planet emit oxygen when set on fire). The arrival of Friday, an alien brought to Mars as a slave, breaks up some of the feelings of monotony, but the filmmakers strangely don’t bother with a final confrontation between the two men and the slavers, despite some foreshadowing early on that that’s where everything is heading (at least the slavers inspire the best special effect, with their ships zipping around the screen at hilariously disorientating speeds). It’s a little odd to see a film like this battle with itself, attempting to exist both as a campy escapade of ridiculousness and a more serious-minded science-fiction adventure. As it stands, there is a certain amount of hokey charm to be had here, but the attempts at seriousness make the film an uneven and less compelling experience than it would have been had it gone full-tilt into the realms of lunacy. 5/10.

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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