Inside Llewyn Davis, Bob Dylan, and Folk Music

No Direction Home

Earlier this year I had the fortune of watching Martin Scorsese’s wonderfully entertaining and revelatory documentary “No Direction Home.” It provides an in depth look into the life of Bob Dylan from his youth growing up as Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minnesota, up until his transition to rock music in the mid-1960’s. Part of the American Masters series on PBS, which is always awe-inspiring in its ability not only capture the heart and soul of their subjects but somehow decipher their mercurial essence, it paints a comprehensive portrait of a young man thrust upon events as if ordained. Born thirty years after the Greenwich Village scene, I was surprised to see just how young he really was. The image of a grand scale social movement deriving from hauntingly profound lyrics were written by a small, wiry-haired twenty year old with a terribly shy and nervous demeanor. He existed as the walking riddle that spurned his songs.

But what I found equally rewarding in the documentary was the detailed coverage addressing the folk movement thriving at that time. I knew little to nothing about folk music, so to discover the names of iconic figures such as Pete Seeger was a treasure I hold dear today. Still green with knowledge, I’ve learned about the wonderful musicians that paved the way and influenced the artists I have admired as their folk-rock successors.

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And yet, there was something else happening in the documentary as seen through the nameless photographed faces of youngsters and their guitars. Bob Dylan was no doubt one of hundreds, if not thousands of musicians living the life of the bohemian/beat that Ginsberg so passionately praised. They must have been individuals that carried their real estate in their hand, going from place to place each night in hopes of finding warm shelter. They suffered and sang while the freezing cold nights and lonely vagabond days fueled their music. So there’s a beauty to their sadness when they’re discovered and appreciated. But what a tragedy for the countless number that get cast away into the shadows of the alleys. Not surprisingly, it reminds me of a folk song that they must have played some nights at a bar or joint where others like them gathered together. “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song.” And no doubt, it takes a sad man to sing a sad song. It requires digging deep into the dark places of your soul in order for the emotions to rise. Folk music is timely because of that authenticity. So when hundreds come and ago for one Bob Dylan to succeed, the music world loses more than a voice. A torched spirit lit by melancholy dissipates into the recesses of the darkness it channeled, like swallowing a black abyss that knots in your throat. And yet, it spirit finds its way into the music of others. The genre grows with every unsung chord hit and every melody fading into obscurity. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” It’s a sad life for Llewyn Davis because a talent and potential goes unrecognized. And the tragedy is definitely palpable. But what he leaves behind makes folk music richer and a movie steeped in sadness gleam with hope for the hundreds that will follow down his path and the handful that will become a vessel to them all.

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Here’s a link to the Kingston Trio’s rendition of “A Worried Man:”

Two from Hitchcock

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It was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday last week and I thought this would be a great opportunity to recommend two titles from his incredibly prolific body of work. Apart from the standards (i.e. Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho), Alfred Hitchcock also had a rich oeuvre of underrated and seemingly forgotten movies whose dues are criminally neglected.

Personally, I’m particularly fond of his 1940’s period. His more polished latter work, which is what audiences are most familiar with today, lose a simplicity and roughness that made his earlier films feel more unguarded and intimate. His movies in the 50’s generally become lighter too. They’re so emerged in the style of the time that they can’t help but represent it. I’d like to think of them as “Metropolitan Hitchcock.”

To me, his films in the 40’s feel more raw and fatalistic. Like the black smoke cloud that blocks out the sky when Uncle Charlie arrives at Santa Rosa in Shadow of A Doubt, his films at this time have an impending sense of doom that constantly hover above the movies, even when there’s a happy ending. Because the majority of them are also shot in black and white, they encompass their own separate and individualistic worlds, outside the vividly colored and all too familiar busy urban streets of say North by Northwest. Strangers on a Train (1951), I, Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) would have been a continuation of his 40’s theme had he remained more focused in that vein. But Hitchcock is Hitchcock no matter what.

1. Suspicion (1941)
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Released by RKO pictures in 1941, Suspicion is the only film where Hitchcock directed an actor to an Academy Award winning performance. Joan Fontaine, who had just come off of playing the lead in another Hitchcock landmark, Rebecca, stars as Linda McLaidlaw (a name in the typical ‘Hitchcockian’ fashion), a dowdy and submissive wealthy young lady on a steadfast pace towards spinsterhood – a role Fontaine more or less reprised from her previous collaboration with Hitch. Cary Grant, who plays a charismatic and handsome playboy, swoons her off her feet and out of those buckled shoes chafing with sexual repression. His financial recklessness becomes a small price to pay for the life he has saved her from. But when she begins to suspect that he solely married her for her money, paranoia sets in.

Hitchcock is a master at setting up romance as an ironic mental chuckle – predating Sirk’s glossy melodramas by a decade. You sense his urgency to get to the action, in this case Fontaine’s psychological deterioration, where the suspense really takes place. Unlike Rebecca, Suspicion also has less David O. Selznick in it, which means it becomes less of a literary adaptation that gets weighed down by its own self-importance and more of an experimentation in film techniques that draw out the best they can from the story. “Pure cinema” as the tagline goes. And if Psycho made audiences afraid to take a shower, one can’t help but think what Suspicion would have done to milk prices had the film been just as influential. 

2. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
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One of his more popular films from the decade, but still arguably unknown, is this disturbing family drama co-written by Thornton Wilder. Known particularly for the success of the stage play Our Town, which depicts the life of a small town community with all its charming simplicities and foibles, Wilder’s involvement is exactly what makes Shadow of a Doubt all the more fascinating. Joseph Cotten plays Uncle Charlie, a vicious serial killer known as the “Merry Widow Strangler,” a murderer who contemptuously seeks out rich widows he charms and kills, taking their money and vanishing on to his next victim. On the run from the police, who inch their way closer and closer in capturing him, Uncle Charlie returns to his suburban childhood neighborhood, desperate to hide-out. His sister and her family are more than hospitable in his visit, especially his niece who idolizes him and is even named Charlie herself. The film becomes a bout between the two Charlie’s, as the niece slowly discovers the monster her uncle really is.

Despite the film’s eccentricities and absurd plot details, Shadow of a Doubt works because of Hitchcock’s mastery of film language. Like the majority of his movies, this one is a classic textbook example on how to create suspense and execute it to its fullest potential. Add to it the irony behind Wilder’s influence and you get a film that is truly disturbing and dark. A pathological and relentless man, who looks like any other ordinary civilian, enters the most ideal and pure of American institutions, the family. Evil sets foot onto wholesome provincial neighborhoods, where the traffic guards know pedestrians by name and everyone goes to church on Sunday. The fact that the film emphasizes Uncle Charlie as being a part of his niece indicts Wilder’s original belief and image about the “town” and its people as pure romantic fabrication.

Film Review: The Life of Oharu (1952)

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After previous attempts at unsuccessfully enduring a series of flawed prints that I feared would scar my early impressions of the movie, The Life of Oharu has finally been released in a restored high definition digital transfer by the Criterion Collection, that godsend of the DVD/Blu-ray deities whom I so welcomingly pay pilgrimage to every 15th of the month by offering whatever remains I have left in my wallet. And what a wonderful investment that was.

The only time that I can recount a movie ever making me cry in my adult life was when I first watched a Kenji Mizoguchi film, so I knew I had to stock up on tissues and a self-motivation book that assured me of my masculinity when I popped this one into the blu-ray player. Bambi, on the other hand, is a different story.

Kenji Mizoguchi, often considered one of Japan’s top three film directors – along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu – was at a turning point in his career when he began production on Oharu. Scathed by many critics at the time for becoming “old fashioned,” Oharu would initiate Mizoguchi on a momentum of critical hits that would eventually include the ethereal ghost story Ugetsu Monogatari and the devastating family drama Sansho the Bailiff. The latter two would also garner him consecutive wins for the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But it was The Life of Oharu which first won Mizoguchi international recognition, as well as becoming the film he considered his best in a career that spanned over thirty years.

Based on The Life of an Amorous Woman, a 17th century novel by famed Japanese writer Ihara Saikaku, a novel film scholar Dudley Andrews argues is the equivalent in cultural significance in Japanese literature as Cervantes’ Don Quixote is to the western world, Mizoguchi would mold his adaptation into a tragic tale of a respectable lady of the court’s relentless fall from grace, eventually becoming an aged prostitute. But unlike the original source, which mainly depicts its protagonist in a bawdy and satirical manner, Mizoguchi’s Oharu is anything but comedic. Her story, set in flashback, depicts the countless tragedies that hurtle Oharu down a path of social descent. A comment about the role of women in Japanese feudal times, and really about the role of women in Japanese society throughout most of its history, Oharu’s fate is dictated by the men in her life. Compromising hers and her family’s status by falling in love with a young page of a lower social rank (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune), her exile propels her endless misfortunes with the men she would encounter. The enigmatic Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays Oharu in a composed and stoic manner, beautifully embodies the image of repression. In fact, when she bursts into episodes of grief, it becomes as much of a cathartic experience for the viewer as it does for Oharu. I personally found myself challenged by the amount of affliction I could take in as a witness to her decline.

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But that was the talent that has made Mizoguchi a lasting symbol of artistic endurance. His films often focused on the lives of women who by some misfortunate means end up becoming prostitutes or social outcasts. But always, they posses a miraculous perseverance that transcends the limitations their societies impose on them. They radiate with a spirituality not confined to a specific faith and because of that his films feel like a religion unto themselves. The fact that Mizoguchi’s own father was abusive towards his mother and sister, eventually selling his sister as a geisha, adds poignancy in his work that is empathetically unparalleled. His women are an ode to them, and they exuberant with an honesty that’s almost unbearable.

What makes The Life of Oharu a good film is the impeccable detail in craftsmanship that Mizoguchi laboriously slaved over. The composition and camera work alone are inspiring. What makes The Life of Oharu a great film is the story’s accessibility into the life of a woman who we come to sympathize even though the world around her only sees her through a surface. But what makes The Life of Oharu a revelation, and what has and will make it stand the test of time, is Oharu herself. Mizoguchi would often visit brothels just to speak to the women working there, perhaps attempting to understand his own past through them. Because of that you get the sense that a little bit of all of them are in Oharu, just like his mom and sister. Her story is the story of many, and there’s a truth in her inconceivable fate that makes her universal, encompassing centuries of oppression into a single individual. This makes her all the more enigmatic but at the same time all the more human.

You can find a comprehensive analysis praising the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release here:
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreview2/lifeofoharu.htm