“Notorious” - Alfred Hitchcock (1946)

        Alicia:     “Say it again, it keeps me awake.”
        Dev:         “I love you.”
Those words near the memorable closing of Notorious (1946) represent Alfred Hitchcock’s most expressive screen moment and help make this film rank among the all-time best. The film is often described by reviewers as a noirish spy-thriller, with a compelling love story on the side. But actually the love story is the primary theme of this film – the suspense and adventure merely  provide narrative scaffolding around which this great love story unfolds.

The spy-thriller aspects of the story were about as contemporary as you could get. Shot in late 1945, fresh in the wake of World War II and the Hiroshima democide, the film concerns some post-war Nazi conspirators apparently seeking to build atomic weapons.  The story tells of a woman recruited by the US Secret Service to spy on these Nazi renegades, now operating clandestinely in Brazil.

Hitchcock liked one-word, evocative film titles, and this one refers to the tainted moral reputation of the main character – something that makes her a useful tool for the US Secret Service but damages her personal relations.  And throughout the watching of the film, the word ‘notorious’ hovers in the mind’s background.  Indeed the word relates in different ways to the film’s related themes of trust, duty, deception, and, of course, love.

The cast of principal characters for Notorious was ideal and one of Hitchcock’s most fortunate ensembles:
  • Ingrid Berman plays the role of Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a German spy convicted of treason, is sexually promiscuous and something of lush (as in virtually an alcoholic).
  • Cary Grant plays T. R. (“Dev”) Devlin, an upright and coolly confident operative for the U. S. Secret Service.
  • Claude Rains is Alex Sebastian, a wealthy German businessman living in Brazil and hosting the Nazi conspiracy meetings.  He is the one whom Alicia is assigned to seduce.
  • Leopoldine Konstantine is Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s dominating mother.

This combination of thespian talents was oddly perfect.  Ingrid Bergman, herself, was a unique combination – she was at once vigorous and sensuous, and at the same time sensitive, innocent, and vulnerable. She was one of the greatest and most captivating screen actresses, with many outstanding performances; but this one, in my opinion, was her very best. Cary Grant was also a complicated mixture  – here of sturdy masculinity and hesitant circumspection.  As the supposed villain Sebastian, Rains gives a nuanced and reflective performance that makes him almost a victim of circumstances. Leopoldine Konstantine was an apt choice for the role of the menacing mother.  Even though she was only two years older than Rains, she comes across naturally as a strict matron overseeing  the life of her aging “mama’s boy” son. It would be a recurring motif for Hitchcock to portray single men tormented long into adulthood by domineering mothers (e.g. Strangers on a Train, 1951; North by Northwest, 1959; Psycho, 1960; The Birds, 1963). The pairing of the 5'9" Bergman with the 5'7" Rains (and in stark contrast to the 6'2" Grant) was a further visual metaphor signifying Sebastians’s vulnerability.

As with some of Hitchcock’s best narratives, the story structure of Notorious has something of a twisting, serpentine character.  One might compare it to the mythology of the “Hero’s Journey”, as articulated by Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler [1], but I am not going to go down that path here.  We can say, though, that it rapidly weaves back and forth between the love story and the spy story – both of which are confounded by deception and mistrust.
1. Introducing Alicia
For the first fifteen minutes or so we are introduced to the somewhat dissolute life of a young German woman in the US, Alicia Huberman. The opening sequence shows her father being sentenced by a US court to 20 years in prison for treason as a Nazi spy. Later we see Alicia hosting a drunken gathering at her place that includes a mysterious, taciturn  party crasher, T. R. Devlin, to whom Alicia is physically attracted. We see from these early scenes that Alicia is wantonly promiscuous and a heavy, almost compulsive, drinker. When she wakes up the next morning with a severe hangover, her hair bun that has fallen onto her pillow symbolizes her lifestyle of superficiality and deception.

Devlin is a US Secret Service agent who has come to recruit her to spy on some Germans. He argues that if she does so, she can clear her disreputable (notorious) reputation as the daughter of a traitor by serving her country.  Since it just happens to be the case that Alicia is indeed a patriotic American, she immediately agrees to the mission, and soon she and “Dev” are flying down to Rio de Janeiro, where the planned espionage is to take place.

2. Madly in Love

Alicia and Dev rent an apartment in Rio, and the openly amorous Alicia challenges the hesitant Dev to respond, which he does pretty quickly. Though for Dev, Alicia is not a “respectable” woman, he cannot resist her sincere expressions of affection. Hitchcock is not really famous for his love scenes, but this sequence of a little more than ten minutes is truly exquisite  – particularly the memorable two-minutes-and-forty-five second kissing sequence. To get around the Motion Picture Code restriction that a kiss should not last longer than three seconds, Hitchcock had Bergman and Grant continually exchange passionate kisses and nibbles that collectively are much more erotic than a long, single kiss. Even when their kissing is interrupted by a phone call for Dev, they continue their amorous love play while Dev listens on the phone.

3. The Espionage Assignment
That phone call summoned Dev to the US government office to learn the specifics of Alicia’s spying mission: she has been assigned to sexually seduce her father’s former German former colleague, whose past amorous interest in Alicia make her ideal for this task. When Dev returns to their apartment and explains the assignment to Alicia, their relationship begins to unravel.  During this third part of the film, which lasts about thirty minutes, the spy story dominates, and the love story falls apart. 

Dev wants Alicia to refuse to prostitute herself, and Alicia is shocked that Dev raised no objections in front of his superiors to her being given such an assignment.  Each of the two is insecure and looking for commitment from the other – each wants the other to say, “no”.  When Devlin goes silent, Alicia is crushed by his cold reserve and pours herself a stiff drink.  Their relationship has come to a crashing halt.


By a contrivance, Sebastian meets Alicia and Devlin, and he is informed that they are just casual friends who met on the plane coming down to Rio. Thereafter Alicia dutifully takes up her role as a seductress and sets about charming the wealthy German (and secret Nazi), Alex Sebastian. At one dinner gathering of the German group of Nazis that is hosted by Sebastian, Alicia observes that one of the men, Hubka, makes an odd commotion about a wine bottle lying on top of a cabinet.  Hubka is quickly ushered from the room, and Alicia subsequently reports to Devlin at a clandestine meeting that there is apparently something important about that suspicious wine bottle. Alicia later learns that for this simple faux pas, Hubka was killed by his Nazi colleagues for potentially revealing one of their secrets.

Alicia and Devlin now occasionally arrange meetings at a public park bench so that they exchange information.  But they also use these occasions to trade sardonic accusatory barbs about each other’s faithlessness and disrespect.  Finally, Alicia reports that “you can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates” – just the kind of thing to sting Devlin. Soon thereafter Sebastian proposes marriage to Alicia, and they later depart on their honeymoon.  The Alicia-Dev relationship is finished.

4. The Party
But the espionage story goes on and is coming to a head [2].  Devlin wants to learn more about just what’s in Sebastian’s wine cellar, so he urges Alicia to get Sebastian to throw a party to which he can be invited and then sneak down to the cellar to see what’s there.  The large party is duly scheduled, but first Alicia has to steal Sebastian’s key to the cellar, which she manages to do.  On the night of the party, Hitchcock cinematically introduces the scene by employing a justly celebrated overhead crane shot of the party gathering – from its high overlooking position it then quickly tracks in and down to a closeup of Alicia’s closed hand clenching the stolen key.

Alicia then surreptitiously passes the key to Devlin, and the two of them steal their way down to the wine cellar and rummage around. Devlin discovers that some of the wine bottles there are full of granulated uranium ore – a revelation that would have meant nothing to audiences a couple of years earlier but one of ominous portent by 1946 [3].  Just as they are about to leave the cellar and head back upstairs, though, Alex Sebastian comes down to the cellar looking for wine and sees them from some distance away.  To cover their spying, Alex suddenly grabs Alicia and kisses her passionately, pretending that he had drawn Alicia downstairs in order to put the make on her. Though it is all pretense in order to divert Alex’s attention, Alicia responds passionately to the kiss and melts in Devlin’s arms, showing that she still really does love him.

When Alex confronts them, Devlin says that he tried to seduce Alicia, but failed and that Alicia is still faithful to Alex.  He says to Alex, “I knew her before you, loved her before you, but I wasn’t as lucky as you.” But although Alex seems to accept this statement of contrition, it should have been evident to him that it is a lie, since earlier Alicia had told Alex that she had only just met Devlin on the plane coming into Rio.  This is a continuation of the film’s theme of deception and authenticity. Devlin and Alicia, the protagonists in this tale, have continually lied to and deceived Alex, who, in contrast, comes off in this stage as relatively sincere and innocent.

5. The Reversal
But now Alex does become suspicious and begins to lie to Alicia. He figures out that Alicia and Devlin had snooped around in the wine cellar and correctly guesses that Alicia is a hired informant. Knowing that his Nazi comrades will kill him, like they killed Hubka, if they discover that he has married and hosted a US spy, he consults his coldly calculating mother for advice. She proposes that they kill Alicia slowly by secretly poisoning her coffee so that her death will appear natural and not attract attention.

Alicia quickly begins to weaken from the poisoning, and Dev can see her deterioration when they meet secretly at the public park bench.  But their exchanges are sill larded with nasty insinuations.  Finally, Alicia is bedridden and becomes a prisoner in the Sebastian mansion. When she doesn’t show up for her next appointment with Devlin, his worries about her intensify.

6.  The Rescue
Determined to find out what’s wrong with Alicia, Devlin visits the Sebastian mansion and is luckily admitted by the butler while Alex is busy meeting in a closed room with his Nazi colleagues. He makes his way to her room, where he sees her drugged to near unconsciousness in the bed, and there ensues their memorable romantic scene.  She smiles rapturously,
Alicia:  "I’m so glad you came.”
Dev:     “I had to. . .I couldn’t stand anymore waiting and
               worrying about you.” 
When he finally tells her what she has always wanted to hear – that he loves her – they have this exchange:
Alicia:  “You love me.  But why didn’t you tell me before.”
Dev:       “I know. but I couldn’t see straight or think straight. 
                   I was a fat-headed guy full of pain. 
                   It tore me up not having you.”
. . .
Alicia:  “Oh you love me.”
Dev:      “All the time, since the beginning.”   
He needs to get her out somehow and have her sufficiently awake so that she can walk.  So he  tells her to keep talking to stay wake.
Alicia:    “Say it again, it keeps me awake.”
Dev:        “I love you.”
Alicia:    “Don’t ever leave me.”
Dev:        “You’ll never get rid of me again”
Alicia:    “I never tried to.”
How they manage to get out of the mansion I will leave to your viewing, but I assure you that it is very dramatic.
Although there are not a lot of action sequences in Notorious, Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene and cinematic skill is in full evidence.
  • Rear-projection shots. Hitchcock employed rear-projection cinematography to a significant degree in this film. In fact all the scenery from Rio was obtained by a separate film crew that traveled to Brazil and shot background footage that was then used for rear-projection shots. The cast never left Los Angeles. Thus the outdoor scenes showing Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant always show them in the foreground with a scenic landscape in the background. 
  • Moving-camera shots. The rear-projection footage could have had the danger of making the film too stagy and static, but Hitchcock interspersed a number of effective moving-camera shots throughout.  I have already mentioned the moving-crane-shot that tracked in on Alicia’s hand holding the key at the party.  There were also frontal, medium-closeup tracking shots following Alicia and Dev around in the party scenes.  The best, of course, was the extended, near-three-minute kissing shot that I mentioned in connection with Section 2 (“Madly in Love”).
  • Music.  The background music, which can often be intrusive for films of this period, is excellent in Notorious.  Hitchcock wanted to have Bernard Herrmann score the film, but he wasn’t available, so the music was done by Roy Web.  The result was less dramatic, but moody and highly effective.
  • Iconic Artifacts.
    Hitchcock often has physical artefacts that seem to serve as axes around which the narrative revolves.  They are sometimes referred to as the “MacGuffin” for the film, and in this case there was more than one.  
    1. Dev’s scarf that he gives to Alicia when they meet in order to warm her bare midriff is one.  Later when their relationship crumbles, she returns his scarf to signify she is cleaning house. 
    2. The mysterious wine bottle that proves to contain uranium power is another artefact that commands our attention through much of the film.
    3. The key to the cellar, with the name “Unica” written on it, is a powerful visual symbol that provides the occasion for Alicia’s heroism and also her downfall.

To conclude, let me return to the main themes of deception, trust, and love. Alicia is a habitual deceiver who lies in order to charm people. This gets her into trouble when she wants to convince Dev that her love for him is sincere.  Later, she spends her time deceiving Sebastian. Dev, of course, is a professional spy and thus in the business of deception. So he is probably naturally distrustful of everyone else, particularly a “notorious” man-killer like Alicia. Curiously, the Nazi traitor Alex Sebastian seems to be, by comparison, innocent and trusting. But later, he reveals his perfidious nature when he agrees to have Alicia poisoned to death. Anyway, love is not dependent on trust; true love is a higher order that goes beyond trust.

So what brings Devlin back to the house to save Alicia? Does he suddenly trust the woman who went off and had yet another carnal relationship with a man he despised?  No, he realizes when he looked inside himself that he doesn’t have more trust for her – he loves her.  And that is all that really matters.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  2. In fact this point is what Vogler or Campbell would call “entering the inmost cave”.
  3. Our present-day blasé attitude about nuclear threats is more due to wilful ignorance than to acquired experience.

“Yojimbo” - Akira Kurosawa (1961)


Imagine an adult thug who comes upon a group of warring 12-year-olds who are split up into two rival gangs.  The thug can beat up anyone he chooses, so he decides to toy with the young upstarts by sadistically siding with one side and then the other in order to cause the most physical damage. You wouldn’t think that such a storyline would be material for a blockbuster film hit, but this is the underlying structure of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  Of course the setting is different – here it is Japan in the socially turbulent 1860s, the thug is a wandering ronin (masterless samurai), and the two warring factions are two rival gangs in a small town seeking to control the burgeoning gambling business.

The story was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and Kurosawa’s production company successfully sued the Italian producer and reaped 15% of the earnings of that film.  But actually, I think the connection with Leone’s film probably caused many people to go back and discover Yojimbo, and it ultimately increased its revenues, too. 

Much of the commentary on Yojimbo has centered around the film genre influences on the work – the degree to which the film owes its origins to American westerns (cowboy films), gangster films, or indeed whether it should be considered ultimately to be a side-splitting comedy.  The film does seem to have an eclectic set of historical influences on it, but I won’t enter into these issues.  What is of interest is the story as presented and how the tale is told.

The narrative of Yojimbo goes through five basic acts, and it has some interesting aspects to it.

1.  The Ronin Enters the Town
In the opening scenes, the wandering ronin Sanjuro (Toshiro Mifune) enters the town and quickly learns that there is a gang war between two rival factions that has much of the population hiding behind closed doors. There is a local town constable who is supposed to maintain order, but this slacker quickly reveals himself to be a corrupt opportunist who recommends that Sanjuro sell his samurai warrior services to the highest bidder (the Japanese word “yojimbo” means “bodyguard”).  Then Sanjuro enters a shuttered café, whose proprietor gives him, and us, an overview of the situation in the town  by describing the key players:
  • Seibei is one gang leader.  He used to run the gambling racket, but when he tried to retire and pass on his realm to his son, Yoichiro, his right-hand man, Ushi-Tora, rebelled and formed the rival gang.
  • Ushi-Tora is the rival leader
  • Yoichiro is Seibei’s timid son
  • Tazaemon is a wealthy but relatively impotent silk merchant who backs Seibei.
  • Tokuemon is the other wealthy entrepreneur in town – a sake brewer who backs the Ushi-Tora gang
  • Inokichi is Ushi-Tora’s somewhat clueless younger brother and chief henchman

The Seibei gang controls one end of the town, and the Ushi-Tora gang the other.  So the main street in between is something of a no-man’s land separating the two factions, whose fighting forces are mainly hired thugs.

After hearing this account, Sanjuro decides to stay and sell himself to the highest bidding gang.  To demonstrate his prowess, he walks over to the Ushi-Tora side and picks a fight with a few of the Ushi-Tora gang members.  In about six seconds of screen time, Sanjuro uses his sword to slay two men and cut of the arm of a third thug.  This will be a visual motif of the film – much of the screen time is spent slowly building up the suspense with planning and threats.  When the real action takes place, it is explosive and so fast that you can hardly see what’s happening.  Of course, this film was made before the advent of computer-assisted, wire-fu cinematics, but the overall effect on the viewer is no different.  We are astonished by the almost magical powers of the ronin’s swordsmanship. 

2.  The First Battle
Sanjuro negotiates with both sides in an attempt to get the best rate for his peerless services.  He, himself, is totally cynical – his goal is to see to it that as many of the combatants are killed as possible, while securing a handsome monetary return for himself.  He arranges for a battle in the main street, but it is interrupted before it can get started by the unexpected appearance of a government official who is making his rounds.   In fear of outside government intervention the battle is called off, much to Sanjuro’s and the combatants’ disgust.  In order to stir things up, Sanjuro captures two of Ushi-Tora’s assassins (they killed an official in another town) and delivers them to Seibei, who can then presumably expose Ushi-Tora to the government.  At this point we are about halfway through the film, and we expect more of the same manipulation on the part of Sanjuro in his attempt to generate the mutual annihilation of the two gangs.  But then something new shows up that changes everything.

3.  The Arrival of Unosuke
Unosuke, another younger brother of Ushi-Tora, shows up in town after a year’s absence, and it is his appearance that changes the narrative and makes things interesting.  Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) is an utterly satanic character with a chillingly duplicitous, angelic smile that makes your blood run cold.  In fact this character, who resembles nothing so much as an Elvis impersonator, is so self-confident because he possesses a lethal capability that goes well beyond Sanjuro’s awesome samurai prowess – a pistol.  With a perpetual smirk on his face, Unosuke demonstrates that he can kill any adversary at a distance, well removed from the threat of a sword or a knife.

Prior to the appearance of Unosuke, one could dismiss Sanjuro as the bad guy, but now the tables are turned.  Sanjuro in fact is shown to have a certain integrity to him, and he rescues the wife of a farmer who had been captured by Ushi-Tora’s men and forced into concubinage to serve the desires of their wealthy bankroller, Tokuemon. Sanjuro’s actions here are characteristically efficient: in the rescue operation he slays six of Ushi-Tora’s guards in about 15 seconds of screen time.

4.  Sanjuro’s Weakness
The malicious power of Unosuke now takes over, however, and he invokes in my mind the disturbingly eviscerating power of evil that Jack Nicholson evoked as the Joker in Batman (1989).  Soon Unoskue captures Sanjuro, and forthwith has his men beat Sanjuro to a pulp.  In keeping with the film’s aesthetics of staccato-like violence that interrupts long periods of tension, the actual beating of Sanjuro is not shown onscreen.  We just suddenly see a thrashed Sanjuro lying on the floor. Now for about the next twenty minutes of the film, Sanjuro is shown to be impotent and powerless in the face of Unosuke.  During this period there is further destruction in the town.  The sake brewery and silk factories are destroyed, and finally Ushi-Tora’s gang kills off all the members of Seibei’s gang.

5.  Sanjuro’s Recovery
But even in his beaten state, Sanjuro manages to escape with the help of the café owner and recuperate in a temple outside of town.  There is a final explosive “shootout” (lasting about 15 seconds) in the town’s main street between the lone Sanjuro with his sword on one side, and the ten men on the side – including the fire-armed Unosuke,  Ushi-Tora, and eight other swordsmen.  I will leave it to you to guess who wins this encounter.

The ludicrous despicableness of most all the characters in the first half of the film (an aspect which may make some viewers sympathetic to Sanjuro’s opinion that they all deserve to be killed) is so ridiculous that I suppose one might view this part of the film to be a comedy.   But it is the sinister appearance of Unosuke in the second half of the film that makes the story interesting – now it is a contest between implacable and highly contrasting foes.  Sanjuro is shown to still have some degree of honor, while Unosuke is a remorseless murderer – the embodiment of the kind of soulless terrorist and democidal maniac that has inflicted our modern world.

Kurosawa’s mise-en-scene is on full display in Yojimbo.  The cinemascopic frame (2:35 to 1 aspect ratio) is fully exploited by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa to show a panoramic view of the action (do not see a frame-cropped version of this film).  Kurosawa also employs, as he did in Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), the (studio-produced) “natural” effects of wind and rain to evoke human confinement and embedment in inextricable situations. 

With regard to the acting portrayals, the film acting features a number of characters who engage in exaggerated histrionics.  This actually makes Mifune’s relatively low-key (for him) performance more effective.  He still occupies a lot of screen space with his frequent ticks and body-scratching.  But he is rather more tame here than he was in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and he comes across as a self-possessed and reflective personage, in good contrast to Tatsuya Nakadai’s demonic Unosuke.

Unfortunately, Masaro Sato’s music  doesn’t go well with the visuals at all.  It is mostly modern (relatively speaking, that is – light jazz of that period) band music that is jarring and intrusive. You just have to put up with it as the musical cliche of films made during that period.

So is Yojimbo an anti-war film, or an anti-gangster film?  I would say no to both propositions, and I wouldn’t classify it as a black comedy, in the sense of Dr. Strangelove (1959), either.  But Sanjuro is the modern anti-hero who goes his own way.  In that sense the film is closer to the outlines of a film noir, only the setting is so far from the usual film noir circumstances that I would be reluctant to place the film squarely inside the strict sense of that category [1].   Still, it really is all about the lone character trying to exist in a decadent and unprincipled world driven by unseen forces.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. The film has indeed been linked to Dashiell Hammett's novels, particularly Red Harvest (1929), see http://eddieonfilm.blogspot.com/2010/09/i-get-paid-for-killing-and-this-town-is.html.

“Cloud Atlas” - Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012) is a science-fiction/fantasy epic based on the acclaimed 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Scripted and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, the film represents one of the more ambitious German attempts at a worldwide blockbuster. But despite some awesome dramatic and visual sequences, the conversion of the novel’s complicated narrative into film led to some problems that I believe were fatal to its ultimate success.

The film’s story actually comprises six separate, nested stories, and that construction presumably represents the fun that viewers have as they follow all six plots and piece them together in their minds. Although the six stories are loosely linked, each has a separate tale to tell and takes place during a separate period in human history:

  1. Pacific Islands, 1849.  This tells the story of Adam Ewing, an American who travels to the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific to take care of some business arrangements.  During his visit he encounters a Moriori slave, Autua, who saves his life at one point, which leads Ewing to advocate for Autua’s freedom.  Upon his return to America, Ewing vows to join the abolitionist movement to emancipate slaves in the US.  So this story is about the moral awakening of a young man concerning social oppression.
  2. Cambridge, 1936.  Robert Frobisher is a youthful composer involved in a gay relationship with fellow student Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher manages to gain employment as an amanuensis for a well-known elderly composer, Vyvyan Ayrs.  Ayrs recognizes Frobisher’s musical talents and manages to steal some of his ideas and claim them for his own.  This story is further complicated by the fact that Frobisher is actually bisexual and has an illicit relationship with Ayrs’s wife.  Eventually the frustrated Frobisher commits suicide.  So this story is about finding fulfilment in an uncaring world by means of personal expression.
  3. San Francisco, 1973.  An ambitious young investigative journalist, Luisa Rey, encounters by happenstance an older Rufus Sixsmith, who is a physicist and has documented information about unsafe new nuclear plants that is being suppressed by the always evil and extractive US energy industry.  Sixsmith is eventually killed by agents of the industry, as is another physicist.  Rey survives a further murder attempt by the US energy hitman and manages ultimately to reveal the evil doings.  Rey eventually publishes a murder mystery based on her experiences.
  4. London, 2012.  Timothy Cavendish is an elderly publisher who gets into trouble with gangsters when he published a novel by one of their own. When he appeals to his wealthy brother, Denholme, for help, the brother gets Timothy locked away in a nursing home. Timothy’s goal is to escape this prison, and he eventually succeeds, which experience he later turns into a successful screenplay, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”.
  5. Neo Seoul, 2144.  In the grim future, an oppressive corporate culture uses “fabricants”, genetically fabricated women who are used as slaves, “comfort women”, and (we later find out) for food.  Sonmi-451 is one such fabricant, and she is rescued from her captive world by a clandestine rebel commander, Hae-Joo Chang, who reveals to her the full horrors of the oppressive society.  She and Chang are free long enough for her to make  a dramatic public broadcast revealing the perfidy of the entire ruling coalition.
  6. The Big Isle, 106 winters after the Fall. Sometime in the still more distant future, there has been some horrible apocalypse (“the Fall”).  Zachery lives in a primitive hunter-gatherer society that is preyed upon by another clan, the Kona tribe, that is literally blood-thirsty. Into this setting comes Meronym, who is from a technically advanced society and is looking for some abandoned telecommunications center she believes is hidden in the mountains and which she wants to use to send messages to surviving colonies on other planets.  Suspicious at first, Zachery and Meronym gradually come to trust each other, fend of the predatory Konas, and make their way to safety on another planet.
Each story is presented in a different cinematic style that evokes a separate cinematic genre.  Stories 1, 5, and 6, having settings that are the most remote from own our circumstances, were directed by the Wachowski brothers; while stories 2, 3, and 4 that are closer to home were directed by Tom Tykwer. The Wachowski-directed stories are fantasy pieces – filled with violence and heavily dependent on their atmospheric settings. They are not so much stories as mood pieces, and that is where they are most effective. The Tykwer narratives, on the other hand, are more dramatic and more devoted to character establishment and development. Story 3 is like a murder mystery, and story 4 is essentially a comedy.

Each of the five stories that precede the last one produces some narrative document that is passed on to the next story.  In Story 1, Ewing produces an account of his experiences that is later read by Frobisher in Story 2.  Frobisher’s letters come into the hands of Liusa Rey in Story 3.  Rey’s novel based on her experiences comes into the hands of publisher Cavandish in Story 4, and the movie based on Cavendish’s experiences is watched by Sonmi-451 in Story 5.  Sonmi-451's famous broadcast in Story 5 becomes the basis of a mystical cult that is worshiped by Zachery’s clan in Story 6.

In addition, the principal characters in each of the stories has the same mysterious birthmark that is presumably supposed to provide some linkage between these characters.

These linkages may have worked well in Mitchell’s novel, but they are lost in the film and seem mysterious but come off as pointless red herrings. There are other commonalities, such as imprisonment and slavery (Stories 1, 4, and 5), as well as murder (all stories), but these are not explicitly linked in any meaningful way.

In fact the film directors made two structural modifications to what was in the original novelthat had ruinous consequences.  In Mitchell’s novel, the stories are told mostly sequentially up to just before the denouement of each.  Thus we have (most of) Story 1, followed by most of Story 2, etc.  Then the author goes back and covers the respective denouements in reverse (unwinding order).  There is a certain logic to this arrangement that might work.  In each of the concluding parts of the various stories, there is a rebellious act that represent liberation, and the unwinding of these respective heroic acts of self-sacrifice might have a cumulative impact.

But in the film presentation all the six stories are told in parallel, with constant cross cuttings between stories in mid-flight.  This might excite the viewer as the action jumps back and forth between all six stories – so the viewer may have fun trying to figure things out.  But the jumps are largely nonsensical and distract the viewer from whatever inner logic may exist in each story.  In fact there are disruptive jumps between stories even in the middle of important conversations and in the middle of dramatic shootouts.  It would have been much better to stick to Mitchell’s narrative structure.

Another problem, in my opinion, is the use of the same actors and actresses in each of the stories (clearly not an aspect of the written novel). Thus Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturges, Ben Whistlaw, and Doona Bae appear in multiple stories, sometimes as principal characters and otherwise as background characters.  And Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon have minor (and very unbecoming) roles in many of the stories, too.  The viewer may have fun picking them out in the various scenes, but there doesn’t seem to be any logic to this, either.  And the consequence is that one is further pulled out of involvement in the narrative. There are no characterological connections across the multiple roles played by any of the actors, and these multiple appearances are little more than visual distractions.

On top of all this, there is an awful lot of unmotivated killing, mainly in the Wachowski pieces. This is presumably made acceptable, because the antagonistic forces are so evil.  But these bad guys are so superficially and exaggeratedly evil as to be ludicrous.  And the ghostly demon, “Old Georgie”, who is visible only to Zachary in Story 6 makes no sense whatsoever, other than to depict another weird embodiment of evil.

Cloud Atlas does have some redeeming virtues, however.  The technical effects are sometimes breathtaking.  And indeed, even though I admire Tykwer’s work (notably Winter Sleepers, 1997, and Run Lola Run, 1998) more than the Wachowski’s (famous for the Matrix films), I most enjoyed the Wachowski-produced sci-fi imagery of Story 5. The haunting images of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) create a lasting, eerie mood to this story – as if we are watching some sort of iconic masque pageant with hidden meanings.  This effect is created by showing repeated images of Doona Bae’s expressionless face as she narrates the circumstances of her servitude and rebellion.

So chalk this one up as an interesting (and expensive) attempt that failed to deliver a coherent and meaningful experience.
★★½

“Rashomon” - Akira Kurosawa (1950)

Akira Kurowawa first came to widespread world attention with Rashomon (1950), which went on to win the Golden Lyon at the Venice Film Festival and a US Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Though Japanese critics seemed to believe that the film’s overseas popularity was due to Western fascination with Eastern exoticism, I think the real reason was quite the reverse. By raising universal issues concerning the narrative nature of truth in a mythic setting, Rashomon was able to appeal to a worldwide audience.

Kurosawa and co-screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto based the story of Rashomon on two short stories, “In a Grove” (1922) and “Rashoumon” (1915), by the renowned early 20th-century modernist author, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa [1,2].  In particular, it was “In a Grove” that contained the famous plot twist, where several characters who witnessed a murder give conflicting accounts of what happened. 

The setting for Rashomon is 11th century Japan, when the land was beset with natural disasters, plague, famine, and lawlessness [3]. It was natural for religious thinkers of the time (in this case Buddhist) to wonder whether the world was heading towards total annihilation.  It seemed to be reduced to a dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, with no trace of grace among the human inhabitants.

Kurosawa’s production of this story is fascinating, because it seems to be a combination of an atmospheric and situationally immersive cinematic environment combined with theatrical staging and histrionics.  There are only eight characters that appear in the film, and there are just three scene locations.

At the outset, we are at one of the locations, Rashomon, the ruined outer city gate of old Kyoto, where there is a heavy downpour (a gloomy atmospheric effect that Kurosawa would later use very effectively in Seven Samurai, 1954).  The appearance and aura around this city gate look utterly desolate, as if it signifies the dark recesses of human degeneration.  Two figures, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Buddhist priest (Minoru Chiaki), have huddled there from the rain and seem to be utterly baffled by something they have witnessed earlier that day.  They are joined by a rough-and-ready commoner (Kichijirô Ueda) who wants to know what so mystifies the other two.  Kurosawa draws out the tension here by taking his time to reveal just what it is that is so mysterious.  Eventually the Woodcutter is induced to tell his story.
1.  The Woodcutter’s Account
In flashback, the setting moves to the thickly foliated forest where the woodcutter had gone earlier that day to cut wood.  To get us into the setting which will be the key scene of the film’s action, Kurosawa spends two minutes of screen time tracking the woodcutter as he walks through the heavy undergrowth.  This evocation of a dense forest symbolizes the occluded nature of our lifeworld (or, similarly, Martin Heidegger’s “Being-in-the-world”).  As Heidegger pointed out, we are always engaged in finding “pathways through the woods” of murky existence.  Each trail is unique.  Of course we imagine that it is possible to build from these various pathways a common, objective map of the world that is independent of the individual point of view.  But all that we have in front of us, individually, is our own clouded and indeterminate perspectives in connection with our experiences.  From these we imaginatively construct our own dubitable narratives about the world and who we are.

Eventually, the woodcutter is surprised to come across several odd items at various locations along the way: a woman’s hat, a samurai’s cap, some pieces of rope, and an amulet on the ground.  Finally, he is shocked to see a corpse on the ground, and he runs back to report what he has seen to the authorities.

Still in flashback, we now move to the third setting, the magistrate’s courtyard where testimony is taken from summoned witnesses For this setting, we only see the people facing straight into the camera and giving their testimonies; we never see the authorities.  Thus the viewer is placed in the position of judge faced with the task of assessing what is true.

The woodcutter gives his testimony, and then the Buddhist priest tells how he encountered the dead man, a samurai (Masayuki Mori) who was escorting his wife (Machiko Kyô), earlier that day on the road.  Additional testimony is taken from a bounty hunter (Daisuke Katô) who has captured the notorious bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) in possession of the dead man’s horse and weapons.  Tajomaru (like the others witnesses, facing the camera) then gives his account of what happened when he encountered the dead man and his wife.

2.  The Bandit’s Story
The famous brigand, Tajomaru, is a swaggering ruffian who sees himself as a proud warrior. (Unfortunately, Mifune’s braggadocio performance here is, as it was with a similar portrayal of his in Seven Samurai, so over-the-top that it becomes ludicrous and off-putting.) Tajomaru straightforwardly confesses that he robbed the man, tied him up, and then forcefully seduced his wife, who succumbed to his masculine charms.  Unable to bear the shame of having sexually given in to the bandit, the wife then says that one of the two men must die.  So the two of them engage in a lengthy (three minutes of screen time) sword fight, and Tajomaru boastfully relates how he killed the man.  During their battle, the wife ran away into the woods and disappeared.
So at this point, the crime appears to have been solved.  A man has confessed to the crime and explained his motives.  When we return to the “present” at the Rashomon gate, though, and see the woodcutter’s continued consternation, it is clear that there are still unresolved aspects to this tale. 

3.  The Wife’s Story
It turns out that the slain samurai’s wife was found, and she gave her own version of what happened, as told here by the priest.  In her flashback account, she was raped, not seduced, by Tajomaru while her tied-up husband looked on. Tajomaru then departs without killing the husband.  Afterwards the wife goes to cut the ropes tying up her husband with her dagger and beg his forgiveness, but his cold look of rejection horrifies her.  The unbearable feeling of guilt causes her to faint.  When she wakes up she sees that her husband has been stabbed in the heart, and we are given to believe that she killed him.  Afterwards she tried to commit suicide in various ways to erase her guilt before she was found by the authorities.
But there is still another account to be told.

4.  The Samurai’s Story
Even though the samurai husband is dead, his testimony for the magistrate is obtained through a medium (memorably played by Noriko Honma). In this tale, the wife is easily seduced by the bandit, after which she urges Tajomaru to kill her husband. Tajomaru is appalled by her selfishly ruthless attitude and rejects her. The wife manages to run away from Tajomaru, who returns to the samurai and unties him before departing. The only honorable recourse left for the samurai is to commit suicide, which he does.  Before losing consciousness, however, he reports that “then someone silently approached me. . . that person gently withdrew the dagger from my heart.”
Back to the present at the Rashomon gate, the commoner wonders how the woodcutter could known certain things (in particular that the samurai was killed with the wife’s dagger rather than with Tajomaru’s sword) that he supposedly had not witnessed.  The woodcutter confesses that he in fact did witness the murderous encounter in the forest, but had avoided mentioning it in his testimony in order to avoid further involvement in the affair.  He then gives his account.

5.  The Woodcutter’s 2nd Story
In the woodcutter’s new version of what happened, Tajomaru is much more gentle to the wife and after their sexual coupling begs her to be his wife. But the wife scornfully dismisses the manliness of both her husband and the bandit, and she tells them they must fight it out to the death to see who is man enough to take her. The two men then timidly engage in a long clumsy scuffle (five-and-a-half minutes of screen time). By the time Tajomaru has almost accidentally killed the samurai, the wife has run away, and Tajomaru is too exhausted even to run after her.

Back to the present at the Rashomon gate, the three men ruminate over the three tales.  They all wonder if the world is only filled with people who perpetually lie to advance their own selfish desires. The commoner, who represents the voice of cynicism, says that the only time a person doesn’t lie is when he says he is going to lie.  Is there no innate decency embedded in the human soul?

They then encounter an abandoned baby wrapped in kimono with an amulet to ward off evil spirits that has been left at the gate.  The commoner wants to steal the kimono and amulet, but the other two men admonish him. When the woodcutter offers to take the baby to his home and care for him, the priest says that the act has restored his faith in human decency.  With that the woodcutter heads home carrying the baby and with a renewed faith in the world, as the film ends.


The way Kurosawa tells the entire story cinematically has some interesting elements in its own right  The three scene locations each has its signature visual stamp:
  • The Rashomon city gate setting is drenched in a heavy downpour, giving one a feeling of enclosure and helplessness in the face of powerful external forces.
  • The forest setting, with its heavy foliage, conveys a sense of entanglement and confusion, where each tale is a unique and obscure path through the woods.  Kurosawa’s editing further emphasizes confusion by repeatedly breaking the camera axis on successive editorial cuts.
  • The magistrate’s court, with its fixed camera location, gives one a feeling of openness, as if a light is shining down and attempting to expose the truth.
In contrast to this atmospheric environmental mise-en-scene, the acting is relatively stagy, particularly the overwrought theatrics of Toshiro Mifune, as the bandit, and Machiko Kyô, as the wife. In addition the background music of Fumio Hayasaka is noisy, intrusive, and does not harmonize well with the narrative.

But it is that narrative structure that most fascinates.  The three tales told by the bandit, the wife, and the samurai are all self-serving and all contradict with each other.  All three tales depict the narrator as principled and more or less heroic, whereas the woodcutter’s final tale depicts all three of the principals as weak and flawed.  So most people presume that the woodcutter’s tale represents the objective truth and corrects the earlier flawed stories. 

But is this true?  Actually the woodcutter’s tale is an addition of Kurosawa’s; Akutagawa’s original story, “In a Grove”, only had the earlier three accounts, none of which was clearly the truth.  But why should we accept the woodcutter’s final story as the objective truth?  After all, he is the only person in the story who has clearly lied to the magistrate (by saying he did not witness the crime).  And why would the dead samurai, speaking through the medium, have a reason to lie?  Shouldn’t his tale be true? 

One thing that is common to all the stories, and so is likely to be true, is that the wife wanted her husband to die.  Another truth we might conclude from the evidence is that the woodcutter stole the wife’s dagger from the scene of the crime and then concealed his theft (which casts further doubt on the veracity of his account).  When the woodcutter exclaimed that the samurai had not been killed by sword (as was claimed in the bandit’s story and the woodcutter’s own second account), the commoner inferred that the woodcutter must have been present at the scene and had subsequently stolen the wife’s jewel-handled dagger. And according to the samurai’s account, he felt someone approach and gently withdraw the dagger from his body as he was losing consciousness.  All of this suggests that the woodcutter has his own selfish motives and that his second account is not entirely accurate.

The larger question posed by Rashomon is whether it is possible to find the truth at all? Akutagawa’s original story suggests no, but Kurosawa’s relatively uplifting ad-on ending suggests yes. The cynical commoner doesn’t think so, but the idealistic priest resists letting go of his belief that there are some innate and inviolable values inside the human breast – and a commitment to the truth is one of them. 

Another issue, perhaps one even more important for the participants than truth, is that of honor.  Each storyteller is obsessed with honor, and tells a story that emphasizes his or her honor. 
  • For the bandit, Tajomaru, everyone in his story is heroic, and he sees himself as the greatest hero.  Painting a picture of himself surrounded by quasi-heroic figures enhances his own honor when he overcomes them.
  • For the wife, the issue is shame.  She feels so humiliated that she doesn’t want to live (or her husband to live).  She cannot bear to live in a world where people have contempt for her.
  • For the samurai, the emphasis is on personal honor and who has it.  He sees his wife as utterly dishonorable, in contrast to whom Tajomaru, the bandit/rapist, is depicted as having a certain degree of honor.
In 1950 for Japan, and for the rest of the world, too, not long after the devastations of world war, perhaps there was still too much of an obsession with honor and uncovering objective guilt.  Is honor an objective attribute or merely a social perception? Indeed the ultimately fruitless search for honor cannot be dissociated from the search for objective truth. So today we have a relentlessly advancing surveillance state that is attempting to scoop up all narrative information and build a “big data” knowledge base of objective truth in order to uncover objective guilt.  But this massive surveillance will only diminish the world in which we live and interfere with the authenticity of our personal interactions.

In fact the quest for both objective truth and honor are attempts to derive, from the individual narratives that we construct from our experiences, an ultimate and objective judgement that warrants our lives. But what really warrants our lives is love, which has virtually nothing to do with “objective” truth and honor. In loving encounters, it is a matter of our authentic interactions and how we make them true to ourselves and to our loved ones in those personal narratives, not to the outside world and its objective glare.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “In a Grove”, (1922), translated by Takashi Kojima, feedbooks, http://www.feedbooks.com/book/4205.pdf.
  2. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “Rashoumon” (1915), translated by René Malenfant, feedbooks, http://www.feedbooks.com/book/4254.pdf.
  3. Akira Kurosawa, “Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon”, The Criterion Collection, Novebmer 6, 2012, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/196-akira-kurosawa-on-rashomon.