Benedikt Erlingsson

Films of Benedikt Erlingsson:

“Woman at War” - Benedikt Erlingsson (2018)

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, 2018) is a satirical drama from Iceland that deftly showcases a number of philosophical and sociopolitical issues in an offbeat fashion [1,2,3].  It does this by considering everything from the perspective of a lone, middle-aged woman whose life is driven by her idealistic social goals.

Halla (wonderfully played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a 49-year-old choir director in Iceland, who is well-like and admired by all those who come in contact with her.  But unbeknownst to everyone else, she is also a vigorous eco-activist, who engages in lone acts of sabotage out in the wild to further her environmentalist aims.  Halla is shown early on bringing down electric power lines and pylons that supply energy to the Rio Tinto company’s aluminium operations, which are condemned by environmentalists.  To carry out her single-handed acts of sabotage, she bravely and expertly uses compact tools, such as a collapsible bow-and-arrow kit and a portable power saw – activities that would normally be considered to be beyond the range of most blue-collar men, not to mention that of a cultured, middle-aged woman like Halla.

This film about Halla’s eccentric adventures was innovatively directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and scripted by Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, and it won the SACD (Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques) Award for the best screenplay during the International Critics' Week at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.  However, because of the film’s out-of-the-ordinary material and style, the viewer may be skeptical watching the early stages.  But as the film progresses and the viewer gets more in tune with its rhythms, he or she is likely to succumb to its charms.

One standout element of the film is the way its offbeat musical score, composed by Davíð Þór Jónsson, is employed.  On the one hand it works as background theme music that reflects the mood of what is shown.  But on the other hand the performance of the music by an oddball trio  – consisting of keyboardist (Davíð Þór Jónsson), a drummer, and a sousaphone player – is inserted directly into the diegetic action in shots where it makes no sense to see a band trio appear.  The same bizarre trio pops up in the background all over the place in this film.  Later on another such musical trio, this time a vocal trio of Ukrainian women, plays a similar insertive role in the film.  In some ways we could view these diegetic musical insertions as playing the role of a musical Greek chorus for the drama.  Since the musical insertions are injecting mood, not commentary, into the presentation, we could also view this aspect of Erlingsson’s mise-en-scene to be an instrument of expressionism [4]. 

As the story progresses and Halla’s acts of “eco-terrorism” continue, the government becomes alarmed.  Halla’s activities are threatening the continuance of a big deal between the Icelandic and Chinese governments concerning the extraction of raw materials from Iceland’s pristine natural environment.  So the government resolutely tries to hunt down this unknown saboteur (whom the media call the “The Mountain Woman”) with helicopters and aerial drones.  And we see Halla just barely managing to escape her predators by running across the wild terrain and athletically scrambling into small burrows to hide [5].

In the course of these pursuits, there is something of a running gag in the film.  Wherever the government authorities think an act of “eco-terrorism” has taken place or is about to take place, they arrest the same innocent bystander (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) simply because, as a Latin American, he looks like a foreigner and is therefore suspicious.  They never suspect that a dignified choir director could be the source of their problems.

We also see Halla interact with her identical twin sister, Asa (also played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who is a yoga teacher and more focused on spiritual matters.  The scenes showing Halla and Asa together in one shot are amazingly and seamlessly crafted, and I couldn’t help wondering how they were accomplished.

In addition, Halla is sometimes seen with her timid co-conspirator, Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), who works in a government ministry and who occasionally supplies Halla with useful government information. 

Midway through all this, though, comes a piece of information that disrupts all of Halla’s plans.  She gets a letter that her long-forgotten application to adopt an orphan has been finally granted.  She is now presumably supposed to desist from her acts of sabotage against Rio Tinto, just when things were coming to a head, and instead travel to Ukraine, where she is to pickup the four-year-old girl she has been assigned to adopt.  Halla had always longed to be a mother, and this appears to be her last chance.  So now Halla faces a difficult choice: either continue to engage in her idealistic endeavors in support of wider humanity or focus her efforts on her smaller, personal sphere.

All the way along in this story, there is an overlapping set of issues and divides that keep coming to the viewer’s attention:
  • Collective Welfare vs. Selfish Advancement 
    We live in an era where common-pool resources, both human-made (e.g. irrigation systems, harbors, highways, etc.) and natural systems (e.g. atmosphere, water, information, etc.) need to be preserved and maintained for the common good [6].  However, these common-pool resources are increasingly threatened by privatization efforts that, under the guise of simplified libertarian ideals,  look to extract profits from these resources for short-term gains.  Halla in this story is clearly on the side of collective welfare and preserving her society’s common resources from exploitative extraction on the part of private property holders.  In this respect Halla would likely to be generally on the side of communal and government institutions that seek to protect common-pool resources from rapacious business interests [7].
  • Individual vs. System 
    But Halla is also a lone individual combating the “system”, i.e. the current governing authorities.  In this sense she is following the dictates of her own conscience, even when her conscience pushes her to violate existing law.  But, of course, she is not just an instinctive rebel, and she would presumably embrace a wider social system that reflected the inclusive values that she is seeking.
  • Femininity vs. Masculinity 
    The societal distinctions between masculine and feminine roles come to mind throughout the film.  Halla is generally ladylike, but she carries out her sabotages with machismo.  And in contrast, her male co-conspirator, Baldvin, is so cautious as to be almost unmanly, in the conventional sense.  But Halla’s innate femininity comes to the fore when her maternal instincts are aroused in connection with her plans to adopt the little girl.  So at various times Halla embodies both of these notions.
  • Outer Salvation vs. Inner Salvation 
    Halla’s acts of courageous eco-activism represent her efforts to save the world for all mankind.  Her twin sister Asa, on the other hand, seeks her own inner peace by pursuing a path of meditation: In fact it is her intention to go on a two-year retreat to India, where she will engage in round-the-clock meditation. In this regard Asa, who could be seen as Halla’s alter ego, remarks to her sister that they are both seeking salvation, with Halla following and outer path and Asa following an inner path. 
The film presents all four of these thematic bipolarities as they manifest themselves in different forms, and it shows through the character of its protagonist, Halla, how they may be bridged and ameliorated.

Near the end of this story Halla has finally been captured and exposed by authorities.  But there are still a few cards to be played, surprisingly by Asa and others, that make for an interesting denouement.  I will leave it to you to find out what happens.

Overall and despite some unsteady hand-held camera work along the way that obtrudes slightly on one’s enjoyment, I would say that Woman at War is well-crafted and thought-provoking. It is a quirky and interesting film that is well worth seeing. 

  1. Wendy Ide, “'Woman At War': Cannes Review”, Screen Daily, (13 May 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Woman at War review – pylon-slayer faces adoption challenge in quirky Icelandic eco-drama”, The Guardian, (12 May 2018).   
  3. Jay Weissberg, “Film Review: ‘Woman at War’”, Variety,  (13 May 2018).   
  4. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  5. Actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir was, herself, 49-years-old at the time of shooting, and she performs these scenes admirably.
  6. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, (1990).  
  7. Elizabeth Warren, “Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders”, The Wall Street Journal, (14 August 2018). 

“Shoplifters” - Hirokazu Koreeda (2018)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film, Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018), has so far received  unanimous acclaim from film critics the world over [1,2,3 ], and it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Koreeda is a well-established Japanese film auteur who has written, directed, and edited many of his best works (e..g. Nobody Knows, 2004; Still Walking, 2008; Like Father, Like Son, 2013; and After the Storm, 2016).  His films often center around multiple generational aspects of Japanese families, and in fact they often involve a deeper exploration of what it means to be the member of a family.  This is particularly the case with Shoplifters

Because of this general focus on familial contexts, Koreeda has often been compared to Japanese film icon Yasujiro Ozu.  And this comparison is reinforced by the fact that Koreeda often employed, like Ozu, straight-on closeups, with the subject looking straight into and speaking directly to the camera.  However, despite these similarities in style and content, Koreeda’s earthy and dynamic presentation conveys, for me, quite a different feeling than Ozu’s more detached and contemplative approach.  Part of this overall mood difference could be attributed to differences in the social milieus considered – the social circumstance of Shoplifters are at the gritty and chaotic lowest economic level, while the social circumstances of most Ozu films are in the more customized middle classes.

The story of Shoplifters revolves around a bottom-class “family” in Tokyo, who somehow manage to get along congenially despite their constant shortage of money to live on.  At the outset of the film, two of the family members come across a little girl on the street who they suspect is the victim of child abuse.  So they decide to take the girl into their home and informally adopt her as a new member of their family.  As we follow the family members about their various mundane activities, we gradually learn, by slow disclosure, more about the makeup of this family.  As far as we can tell early on, the family consists of
  • Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky).  He is the father, and he works as a construction worker whenever he can find a contractor who will hire him for a short-term assignment.  But in general he seems to show more diligence in shoplifting than in construction working.
  • Nobuyo (Sakura Ando).  She is Osamu’s wife, and she works in an industrial laundry.  One gets the feeling that it is her warm and expansive personality that holds this family together.
  • Shota (Kairi Jo).  He is the early teenage son who participates in almost daily shoplifting excursions with his father, Osamu.
  • Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).   She is a pretty, twentyish young woman who appears at first to be a daughter of Osamu and Nobuyo, but later turns out to be Nobuyo’s half-sister.  At any rate she is definitely a core member of this family.  She works as a stripper at a porno gallery, where individual clients can view her lewd performance through a two-way mirror (differing levels of room illumination mean that the glass partition works as a window in one direction and as a mirror in the opposite direction).
  • Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  She is the five- or six-year-old girl who is discovered on the street  by Osamu and Shota coming home from a shoplifting operation, and she is ultimately adopted by the Shibata family.
  • Hatsue (Kirin Kiki).   She is the grandmother and a key member of the family, because  they all live together in her cramped home, and the government pension of her late ex-husband is a principal source of the family’s income. 
There is no single star or protagonist of this film; and there is focalization at times on all of these family members at various points.  The viewer may at times suspect that the film’s narrative focus is on Osamu or Nobuyo, but at other times and towards the end, the narrative focus seems to have shifted to Shota and Yuri.  Overall, we could say that the narrative focus is on the “family” as a whole, as seen through its individual members.

Perhaps what makes Shoplifters an interesting film are its various social themes, which it presents in a lighthearted fashion.  One of those themes concerns honesty and authenticity.  None of the family members is who he or she claims to be, and they all seem to have multiple identities.  Indeed, they are not truly connected by family relationships, as the word ‘family’ is normally understood.  This is all revealed at the end of the film, when one of Shota’s shoplifting acts (perhaps intentionally) goes awry.  At that point they are remanded by the authorities, and the “family” becomes unraveled when their original identities are revealed.

So they are all liars to the outside world, and yet to each other, they are warm and authentic.  They (and perhaps the viewer, too) feel that bad luck and dysfunctional social norms have forced them into lives of petty thievery.  But “reclaiming” basic commodities from big companies in order to have a basic life is, to them, just a matter of getting some basic things that should have been accorded to them anyway.  And to each other, the family members are honest and mutually supportive. 

Another theme concerns what it means to be a family.  Although our “family” in this film is a fraud, they have all chosen to be members of this family.  And it seems that Shota and Yuri get more parental love and concern in this false family than they did in their original families [4]. The film rhetorically asks the question why the government shouldn’t recognize the authenticity and the legality of this kind of family, too?

And a further question also comes to mind.  How is it morally acceptable in a relatively wealthy country that the governing authorities can allow such conditions to exist that even people with ordinary jobs feel compelled to engage in shoplifting?  This is a question that can be asked in many world societies.

This is not to suggest that thievery is actually the right thing to do.  The family members are not fighting off starvation. And indeed children Shota and Yuri seem to have been welcomed into the family by Osamu in part because the two kids can serve as innocent props in connection with his shoplifting capers.  But the family members are not truly bad people, either.  They are just ordinary people looking for ordinary happiness.  But they have slipped into mildly unlawful behavior, because this is what some ordinary people on the lower rungs of society do sometimes.  It is Shota who begins to have moral qualms about his and his family’s behavior.  He perhaps precipitates his family’s downfall in the end because of his burgeoning moral concerns.

In the end, we can perhaps empathize with, if not entirely condone, all the members of the Shibata family and their varying perspectives, which is a strength of Koreeda’s production.  All the acting performances are quite good and natural, particularly that of Sakura Ando as Nobuyo Shibata.  It is she who carries the vital spirit of Shoplifters and its underlying messages.

  1. Maggie Lee, “Cannes Film Review: ‘Shoplifters’ (Manbiki Kazoku)”, Variety, (14 May 2018).   
  2. Mark Schilling, “‘Shoplifters’: Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner is an eloquent look at the human condition”, The Japan Times, (13 June 2018).   
  3. Jessica Kiang, “Cannes first look: Shoplifters – a wonky family lament that weaponises Koreeda’s compassion”, Sight & Sound, (19 May 2018).   
  4. Although at one point it seems that the self-indulgent Osamu was ready to betray his “son”, Shota.

“Tokyo Story” - Yasujiro Ozu (1953)

Yasujiro Ozu, the much-admired and revered Japanese filmmaker who flourished from the end of World War II until his death in 1963, was renowned both for his characteristic focus on Japanese middle-class family culture and his distinctive mise-en-scene.  Accordingly, he is often ranked, with Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, at the top of the list of great Japanese filmmakers. However, it took some time before Ozu’s greatness was generally recognized in the West.  His work was thought to be too “Japanese” for export overseas.  It was not until 1972, when what is often considered to be his masterwork, Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, 1953), was reopened in New York and Paul Schrader’s influential treatise Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer [1] was published, that Ozu’s work began to receive the attention in the West that it deserved.

Since then Ozu’s reputation among cineastes has only increased, and Tokyo Story has played a major role in this advancement [2,3,4].  In support of this assessment, we note that every ten years the British Film Institute conducts two separate polls – one of international film directors and one of international film critics – to rank the greatest film’s of all time.  And in the most recent BFI polling (2012), Tokyo Story was ranked as the greatest film of all time on the director’s poll [5] and as the third greatest film of all time on the critic’s poll [6]. 

As mentioned, what immediately distinguishes Ozu’s filmmaking is his unique style of presentation.  I discussed his distinctive cinematic style in my review of his film Early Spring (1956) [7]:
Ozu’s Cinematography
Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of cutting on action, which evokes the idea of the camera representing the “invisible” witness whose focus of attention changes naturally with an action cut.  Sometimes, at dramatically significant moments in the story, there is a straight-on camera shot, with the principal character speaking directly to the camera, which places the invisible witness directly in the middle of the interaction, empathetically assuming the role of the recipient of the speaker’s words.

For scene transitions, Ozu often shows static cityscape images that are empty of human content.  Sometimes these scene transitions elliptically pass over a significant piece of action that must be inferred by the viewer.  Altogether these effects create their own special cinematic atmosphere  that seems to place the viewer in an intimate position to witness the scene, and yet not always privy to everything that is going on.
Thus we often see shot transitions that “cross the axis” and also jump cuts in Ozu’s work that violate customary filmmaking standards, but this can partly be accounted for by Ozu’s different take on focalization.  Rather than focalize on a particular character in a scene, whereby the viewer sees things from that character’s perspective, Ozu often focalizes on a static setting, which orients things around the external contexts of what is happening.  These static settings are returned to again and again, and they become “familiar images” with respect to the narrative evolution of the story.  (Further, more detailed, discussion of Ozu’s distinctive mise-en-scene has been given by David Bordwell [8]).

Tokyo Story offers a good example of Ozu’s often said to be “Zen-like” stylistics, even though the film’s story was inspired by an older American film.  Co-screenwriter (along with Ozu) Kogo Noda had seen Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and suggested to Ozu that they fashion a film together based on its plot elements, which concern an older couple making a journey in order to deal with family issues concerning their grownup children.  The film Ozu and Noda constructed does feature a journey (several, actually), and that always interesting narrative metaphor may partly account for Tokyo Story’s special appeal. But the journey aspect is not emphasized in Ozu’s film, and Tokyo Story’s attractiveness comes from other quarters – its themes concerning mainly life’s bittersweet nature and the unstoppable passage of time.

In fact we can identify a number of overlapping themes in Tokyo Story.  Many of these themes are universal and apply across all social stripes worldwide:
  • Resignation concerning the inescapable effects of the passage of time.  There is nothing we can do to ward off the inevitability of ultimate decline and death, and we must face our fates with resignation.
  • Social protocols.  The various social protocols in family life and social life, in general, are intended to regulate social interactions smoothly, but they can be seen as burdensome and insincere, especially if they are rigidly imposed.  In this context the oriental custom of always smiling during conversations may play a special role.
  • Men vs. women.  The different roles that men and women have in family life, and the different expectations to which they are held was always a fascination of Ozu’s, and they are an important consideration in this film.  Japan was undergoing rapid social change at this time, in the wake of catastrophic wars and forced westernization, and the roles of women, in particular, were in a state of flux.
  • Parents separation from children.  It is inevitable that as children grow up, they change and become engrossed in their own affairs.  Gradually they (usually) lose touch with and interest in their parents, whom they have left behind. How both parents and their children deal with this inevitable progression is a focus in this film.
Tokyo Story’s narrative concerns an elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, who have raised five children and who make the long, several hundred mile, train trip from their home in Onomichi in southwest Japan to visit some of them in Tokyo.  The role of the old father, Shukichi, is played by Ozu favorite Chishu Ryu, who played in 52 of Ozu’s 54 films, including all of his postwar films.  Ryu usually plays the role of a thoughtful, contemplative person, and as such, he is a person with whom the audience can empathize, even when he is not saying  much.  In this film Ryu, who was 49-years-old at the time, very effectively plays the role of a man  who is 72-years-old.

Shukichi and Tomi (played by Chieko Higashiyama) are very much interested in catching up with their children, whom they haven’t seen for a number of years.  They also want to visit the widow of their deceased son on their trip.  Their five children, four of whom are still living, are
  • Koichi (So Yamamura), a doctor running a pediatric clinic out of his own home in a Tokyo suburb, is married and has two children.  He is sober, unemotional, and dedicated to his professional work.  He, somewhat guiltily, sees his parents’ visit as an unwanted intrusion into his busy life.
  • Shige Kaneko (Haruko Sugimura) is married and runs a beauty parlor connected with her home in Tokyo.  Although she wears traditional (non-Western) dress, Shige is not a traditional graciously self-deprecating lady; she is an aggressive and assertive woman.  And in fact she is shown to be bossy, manipulative, and selfish.  She, too, finds her parents’ visit to be an imposition.  Her husband Kurazo is more mild and takes a back seat in their social interactions.
  • Shoji, the second son, was a Japanese soldier who went missing in 1945 and is presumed dead.  His widow, Noriko (Setsuko Hara), is a gracious and caring woman who goes out of her way to accommodate her parents-in-law.  Setsuko Hara, who played the role of Noriko, was, like Chishu Ryu, a favorite of Ozu’s, and she appeared in six of Ozu’s best films.  In the first three of her Ozu films (Late Spring, 1949; Early Summer, 1951; and Tokyo Story1953), Setsuko Hara played a significant character named Noriko.  Even though the plots of these three films have no connection with each other, the three films are sometimes referred to as Ozu’s “Noriko Trilogy”, thanks to the glowing presence of   Setsuko Hara.
  • Keizo (Shiro Osaka) is the unmarried third son who works for a trading company in Osaka.  He is well-meaning but preoccupied with his own affairs.
  • Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), the youngest child, is their unmarried daughter.  She still lives with her parents in Onomichi and works as a schoolteacher.
The story of Tokyo Story passes through four approximate stages.

1.  Visiting Koichi and Shige
The elderly couple, Shukichi and Tomi, first visit the home of their eldest child, Koichi, for a few  days.  But Koichi is so occupied with his own pediatrics affairs (he doesn’t even appear to have much time to discipline his own obstreperous son) that he has no time to entertain his guests.  So Shukichi and Tomi shift over to their daughter Shige’s residence. 

But Shige is even more too selfishly preoccupied to have the time to entertain her parents.  So she asks her sister-in-law Noriko to take up the task.  Though of much more modest means than her siblings-in-law, Noriko graciously takes a day off from her job to take Shukichi and Tomi  out on the town and show them the wonders of Tokyo.

2.  Atami Hot Springs
After a week or so, Shige and Dr. Koichi finally hit on a plan to relieve them of their social obligations to their parents: send the neglected couple off alone for awhile to the Atami Hot Springs resort on the coast.  However, when  Shukichi and Tomi arrive at the resort, they find little of interest for them to do, and the noisy atmosphere of the pleasure-seeking vacationers in attendance there merely keeps the elderly couple up at night.  So they decide to return early to their kids in Tokyo.  Before they depart from Atami, though, Tomi experience a dizzy spell that reveals that her health is frail.

3.  Return to Tokyo
Upon returning to Tokyo, Shukichi and Tomi discover that because they had come back earlier than expected, their room in Shige’s apartment was already “booked” by Shige for a social event for her beautician colleagues.  So Shukichi and Tomi obligingly decide to find their own sleeping quarters for the night.  Tomi decides to spend the night with Noriko in her cramped apartment, while Shukichi choose to spend the night with an old friend from Onomichi who now lives in Tokyo.

That evening Shukichi goes out drinking with old friends from Onomichi, and he and his friends get thoroughly plastered, in one of the more interesting sequences of the film.  With the effects   of alcohol lowering the veil of customary Japanese courteousness, the men lament to each other how disappointed they are with how their children have turned out.  In particular, they are sad that they cannot take more pride in what their children have become.  We later learn that Shukichi had once been a heavy drinker, which put a severe strain on his relationship with his wife; but he had sworn off alcohol when his daughter Kyoko had been born.

At the same time Tomi is with Noriko, and the old woman urges her daughter-in-law not to abide by old-fashioned social protocols and to find another man so that she can remarry and start a family.

Now with nothing more to do and not wishing to wear out their dubious welcome, Shukichi and Tomi decide to return to Onomichi.  On the way home, though, during a stopover in Osaka to see Keizo, Tomi suffers a stroke and is taken back to Onomichi critically ill and in a coma.

4.  Onomichi Nightfall
More mindful than ever of social protocols, the children and Noriko rush to Onomichi to be at Tomi’s side.  And always attending to her practical concerns, Shige reminds the others to bring their funeral garments.  But when Shige hears the ever-analytical Dr. Koichi’s grim assessment that Tomi will not survive the night, she bursts into tears.  Thus we see that underneath Shige’s personal traits of selfish social manipulation, there is a substratum of genuine feminine feeling that is usually covered up.  Later, though, we see Shige returning to her usual intemperance when she complains about Keizo’s late arrival just after Tomi’s death.  Although Tomi was unconscious and unaware of any of the children when they arrived, Keizo’s late arrival was an unforgivable violation of protocol in Shige’s eyes.

After the funeral when the family has lunch together, Shige again makes self-centered remarks, for example eagerly asking Kyoko to give her some of Tomi’s old dresses. Then Shige, Koichi, and Keizo immediately head back to Tokyo, while Noriko chooses to stay another day with Shukichi. 

The next morning Noriko and Kyoko talk, and the young daughter tearfully criticizes her older siblings for their relentless selfishness.  But the ever-compassionate Noriko defends the others to Noriko.  She says that all children inevitably get involved in their own narratives and can’t help from drifting away from their parents.  Kyoko responds to this wisdom by saying, “Isn’t life disappointing!”  And Noriko can only smile and say, “Yes, it is.”

Later Shukichi and Noriko talk, and he repeats Tomi’s urgings that she should forget about his dead son and start a new life by remarrying.  Then he gives her as a departing gift Tomi’s old wristwatch that she had worn all her life.

The final shots show Noriko, on the train gazing at the keepsake watch she has been given, and Shukichi, sitting alone at home, both separately contemplating life’s lonely, existential mysteries.

Tokyo Story ends on a note of sadness and resignation concerning the inevitability of time passing and things coming to an end.  It also dwells on the limitations of social protocols if the participants don’t engage in them with sincerity.  This is not to suggest that social protocols don’t have their value.  They can encourage and provide the scaffolding for positive social interactions if one’s participation in them is genuine.  Thus Noriko’s habitually smiling demeanor was a customary posture that may well have assisted and triggered her perpetually compassionate nature. 

Overall, we could say that the principal characters of Tokyo Story offer somewhat different responses to the quizzical nature of time passing and the inevitability of decay.  Shukichi represents benign resignation to life’s mysteries, but he also embodies a generally positive posture of engagement.  Koichi, Shige, Keizo represent common character type responses that we can all recognize, both in the people we meet and in ourselves, too.  They are not really bad people.  They are basically well-meaning people who are distracted by their everyday narrative circumstances and lose sight of more important interpersonal considerations.

It is Noriko, though, who is the special one.  She at first seems simply reflexively ingratiating in an automatic sort of way, but gradually the depth of her character is revealed.  Eventually we discern that she is the real star of this tale.  She knows that she is not perfect and all-knowing, but she continually strives to be understanding and all-loving.

  1. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972). 
  2. David Bordwell, “Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment”, The Criterion Collection, (18 November 2013).    
  3. Roger Ebert, “Tokyo Story”, Great Movie,, (9 November 2003).    
  4. “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).    
  5. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  6. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Early Spring’ - Yasujiro Ozu (1956)”, The Film Sufi, (23 July 2014).   
  8. David Bordwell, “Ozu”, The St. James World Film Directors Encyclopedia, Andrew Sarris (ed.), Visible Ink, Detroit (1998), quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Yasujiro Ozu, TOKYO STORY (1953) 136 mins”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XXXVI:4), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (6 October 2009).    

“Nashville” - Robert Altman (1975)

Robert Altman’s masterful Nashville (1975) is generally considered to be his finest work, but the film’s diffuse narrative structure makes it hard to pinpoint just what the film is about.  It covers, over a period of five days, events in the lives of some two dozen disparate people who have come to the capital of American country and western music, Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue their various ambitions and dreams.  So there are many little overlapping and intersecting stories told, but there is no high-level, overriding narrative that guides the flow of action. Instead, we just have these crisscrossing narrative fragments, and it is up to the viewer to make some thematic sense to them. 

Indeed, the film’s crisscrossing narrative structure is fascinating, since there are many intersections of these individual narrative fragments along the way; and credit must be given to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury (she was also the principal scriptwriter for Altman’s earlier Thieves Like Us).  However, there is a degree of spontaneity to these interactions, and it is known that much of the film’s detail was made up extemporaneously on the production set  (the film was shot in Nashville in order to derive inspiration from the setting) [1].  One might therefore think that the film’s diffuse, almost chaotic, mosaic structure might have been something of an obstacle for critical success, but Nashville was a big hit with the public, and it was nominated for five Oscars and a record eleven Golden Globes.

We could say that one overriding theme of Nashville is the American Dream, which was a thematic background element to some of Altman’s earlier films, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Thieves Like Us (1974), but here the American Dream takes center stage. And it turns out that the city of Nashville is the perfect setting for such a topic.  Actually, one might at first think that Hollywood, which is considered to be the American “dream factory”, would be the appropriate venue for such material; but the scope of Hollywood’s coverage is more global, while the scope of Nashville’s country themes is more personal and more specifically “American”, which makes that city more appropriate as a setting for a drama about the American Dream.  Anyone who can sing might be lured to Nashville (the city calls itself “Music City”) to try and fulfill their dream of making a name for themselves and seeing if they can take on some of the city’s romantic glamor.

One stream of American Dream expression is on the political level, where political candidates promise that there proposed government policies will directly lead to American Dream wish-fulfillment.  And such a stream is strongly present in Nashville, where two of the characters in the film, John Triplette (played by Michael Murphy) and Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are shown to be working for a populist third-party Presidential candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, whose anti-establishment policies, expressed in the form of terse homilies, are supposed to make America great again.  The intention of Triplette and Reese is to stage a political rally for Walker at the Nashville Parthenon that will feature music performed by leading country music singers.

Of course another thematic strain is that associated with romantic attitudes characterizing Nashville music, and a number of principal characters are singers. These include:
  • Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), the leading and beloved, but fragile, Nashville singer.
  • Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime Nashville country favorite.
  • Connie White (Karen Black), a prominent country singer who competes with Barbara Jean.
  • Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown), an African-American country singer who performs, like other leading figures, at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
  • Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), and Mary (Cristina Raines), a folk-singing group who have come to make a new start in Nashville. 
  • Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), the wife of Delbert Reese and a caring mother of two deaf children, sings with a black gospel music group.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, (Barbara Harris), wannabe country singer who runs away from her ornery husband to pursue her career ambitions.
  • Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), a tone-deaf wannabe singer whose body is the only item of interest to the local male audiences.
Interestingly, although Altman wanted to evoke the Nashville “sound” in the film and the performed songs do make up about an hour of the film’s running time, he did not incorporate many well-known songs from the Nashville community, itself, into the film.  Instead, almost all of the main songs performed were written by youthful composer Richard Baskin or by performers Keith Carradine and Ronee Blakley (actors Karen Black, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, and David Peel also participated in some of the film music composition).

Note however, that in addition to those above-mentioned thematic elements, I think that one of the most important thematic undercurrents in the film is associated specifically with women and how their vulnerability and courageousness play out in modern American society.  In this respect there are a number of female principals with hopeful dreams who are part of this focus.
  • Barbara Jean, of course, is a major element of this concern.  Her romantic fragility is worsened by her insensitive and domineering husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), who seems mostly only concerned with her business success.
  • Mary, the member of the folk-singing trio, is the wife of Bill, but she is having an illicit affair with trio partner Tom, with whom she is madly in love.  However, Tom is amiably self-centered and eager to seduce any attractive lady.  In fact in this film we see him having intimate relations with four different women: Mary, Opal, L.A. Joan, and Linnea.
  • Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) is an ambitious young outsider from the UK who claims to be working on a documentary for the BBC.  Seeing herself as a worthy intellectual observer, she is wrapped up in her own self-centered fantasies about Nashville and American culture.
  • L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) is a young California girl on the make.  Although she has ostensibly come to Nashville to visit her ill aunt in the hospital, her real aims are to hookup romantically with male Nashville musicians.
  • Linnea is the sensitive mother of two deaf children, but her marriage to Del Reese has gone stale, and she is susceptible to the romantic advances of Tom Frank.
  • Sueleen is a local waitress with dreams of becoming a Nashville singing star.  She tries to take advantage of her sensual physical assets, but she doesn’t realize that her inability to carry a tune means that her dreams of stardom are doomed to failure and that men will just look at her as a cheap prostitute.
  • Winifred, aka Albuquerque, is another plucky young woman with dreams of stardom.  But she does have some talent, and at the tragic end of the film at the Nashville Parthenon, she gets her opportunity.
All these women harbor romantic and largely innocent dreams, but at various points in the film they are all exploited by obsessively self-interested males and their vulnerabilities are exposed.  The freedom of American culture has offered these women opportunities, but the fulfillment of their fantasies has not been forthcoming.

We could identify still another theme at the end of the film, and that concerns the tendency of American culture to trivialize matters of importance.  There are two significant songs in the film that explicitly express this trivialization – "Keep A-Goin'" (written by Richard Baskin and  performed by Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton) and "It Don't Worry Me" (written by Keith Carradine and performed by Barbara Harris as Albuquerque).  These two songs offer the counsel that you shouldn’t take anything very seriously and that you should just keep plugging along no matter what happens.  Perhaps Altman is suggesting to us that this is both a strength and a weakness of American culture.

Apart from any speculation on the film’s themes concerning American culture, though, we can still identify some beautiful moments in the film that stand out on their own special merit.  For me there were two such moments.  One was Keith Carradine’s performance in a nightclub singing his own composition, “I’m Easy”, while four of his mistresses in the audience innocently look on and assume his words only concern their own specific relationships.  This is a memorably filmed sequence of concurrent emotions, and it helped the song win both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.

Another special moment in the film was Ronee Blakley’s singing of her composition, “Dues” [2].  To me this is the film’s highlight, and her words resonate with feeling and resigned heartbreak:
"It's that careless disrespect
I can't take no more, baby
It's the way that you don't love me
When you say that you do, baby

It hurts so bad, it gets me down, down, down
I want to walk away from this battleground
This hurtin' life, it ain't no good
I'd give a lot to love you the way I used to do
Wish I could..."
Those sad words cast a melancholic shadow over my memories of this soulful film.

  1. Austin Trunick, “Ronee Blakley, star of Robert Altman’s Nashville, Nashville’s Barbara Jean Speaks About Her Famous Role and Current Projects”, Under The Radar, (13 December 2013).    
  2. Ronee Blakley, “Ronee Blakley – Dues”, YouTube, (24 October 2010).