The Makioka Sisters and the Use of Color

Note: Japanese names are presented with family name first and given name last. 

Watching The Makioka Sisters recently at the new SIFF Film Center, I realized one of the problems with cinema today: most films are in color, but they don’t use color.  Seeing this film (and the newly restored Ben Hur last week) made me realize how rarely color is utilized in modern filmmaking.  When I rented Black Narcissus a few weeks back, not only were the colors bold and beautiful, but they underscored the psychological tension at play in the film.  For The Makioka Sisters, I am not sure that the gorgeous colors serve any psychological function (other than to make every scene look stunning), but then, beauty is its own reason for existing.

The movie follows four sisters through one year in wartime Japan (1938, to be exact). The film begins with spring and cherry blossom viewings; it ends with winter and snow. Tsuroko (Kishi Keiko) is the patriarch of the family and took care of the other sisters after their mother died. Sachiko (Sakuma Yoshiko) is the second oldest and has been housing Yukiko (Yoshinaga Sayuri) and Taeko (Kotegawa Yūko) since an incident five years before, when Taeko tried to run off and get married.  According to tradition, she must wait until Yukiko is married, yet Yukiko is very finicky about her suitors.

The story is about the past in conflict with the present, as well as the petty squabbles and situations that occur in all families.  Taeko is rebellious and modern-thinking, wishing to earn money through a doll shop so that she doesn’t have to be dependent on her family or their fortune, which was earned making kimonos.  The men who have married into the Makioka family, Tatsuo (Itami Jūzō) and Teinosuke (Ishizaka Kōji), have to put up with their wives’ family traditions, as well.  At one point, Tatsuo’s promotion is in peril because Tsuruko, his wife, does not wish to move from Ōsaka to Tōkyō, away from the family’s hometown.  And then there is Yukiko, whose rejection of suitor after suitor frustrates Sachiko, especially since she thinks her husband shows too much fondness for her (and with good reason).

This is a low-key film, and anyone looking for a film where the characters or situations change radically from beginning to end should look elsewhere.  Even Ozu’s films hold more drama (and more weight) than what happens here.  Like the seasons, the changes that come about are gentle affairs, and yet changes do occur.  There are outbursts of anger, but they give way to quieter moments.  Most of the time, we merely watch and contemplate the characters on the screen as they go about their lives and rituals, season after season.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, what make this such a joyous film to watch are the gorgeous cinematography and colors.  I was glad, in fact, that the plot wasn’t too complex, as it allowed me to appreciate each beautiful scene.  Watching from a gloriously restored 35 mm print, it made my reading of Ebert’s latest blog entry on the death of celluloid that much sadder.  Ben Hur was a digital projection and, despite its breathtaking colors, betrayed the fact that it wasn’t 65 mm in its lack of clarity.  The Makioka Sisters, with its strangely appropriate 80s synthesized music (it came out in 1983), betrayed its 35 mm quality in every shot, from cherry blossoms to kimonos, from the actors faces to leaves on the trees, from snow to sunlight.  Ichikawa Kon, the director, and Hasegawa Kiyoshi, the cinematographer, should be commended for making such a beautiful, breathtaking film, which was adapted from the novel by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (in Japan, the novel and film are known as Sasameyuki, or Fine Snow).  I can think of few films I would have rather seen on a rainy Wednesday evening.

The Makioka Sisters plays tonight at 7:15 at the SIFF Film Center in Seattle Center.

Night of the Living Dead: Horror Movie as Social Commentary

First, we see a car making its way up a road. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother, Johnny (uncredited, played by Russell Streiner) are driving to a cemetery in rural Pennsylvania in order to lay a memorial and flowers at the headstone of their grandfather.  As they get out of the car, the radio mysteriously turns on, then turns off. In the distance, Johnny sees a man approaching them.  He seems to be moving strangely.

And so begins George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which came out the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey.  While it was not the first zombie movie ever made, it defined the genre for years to come, and it did so by injecting social commentary into the horror movie format.

Now, all monster movies (in particular) have their roots in the societies that created them.  Whatever vampires were before Dracula, that book by Bram Stoker redefined them as a sexual fear, though you have to read between the lines to get the message.  Frankenstein was about the dangers science can unleash when it pretends to play God.  With Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies (or “living dead” movies, since traditional zombies are tied to witchcraft) connected themselves to social commentary.

In order to fully understand Night of the Living Dead, one has to understand the political and social landscape at the time the film was released.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that April, the anti-war movement reached its high point, and the women’s lib movement had just begun.  While the film, on the surface, is about a group of people having to defend themselves against a group of undead corpses, the ending deftly leaps from fictional horror to realistic horror, invoking the times in which it was made.

In the graveyard, Johnny argues with Barbra about having to come all the way out there, just to lay down the wreath.  He then begins to tease her, saying, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” in a creepy voice.  As the man approaches, he kids her that he is coming to get her, too, then runs away.  She walks by the man, but as she looks up at him, he grabs her.  She yells for help, and Johnny wrestles with the man until the man hits Johnny’s head against a tombstone, killing him.  Barbra runs to the car, being chased by the man.  She is only able to escape by releasing the emergency brake, and then running out of the car when she sideswipes a tree.  Seeing a farmhouse in the distance, she runs inside.  Except for some news bulletins on TV (where the film takes us to Washington, D.C., and other locations shown in the broadcasts), the rest of the film will not stray far from this house.

She is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), and here is our first hint that this will not be our typical horror film, for Ben is black.  We also have an interesting dynamic in the house: the young, blonde, fair-skinned (and scared speechless) Barbra, with the young, black Ben.  He can attack these creatures if there are only a few of them and has learned that they fear fire.  After killing three of the creatures, he begins boarding up the windows and doors, while listening to the radio to find out what is happening outside.

Eventually, Ben and Barbra realize that there are others hiding in the house. They include a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), and an older couple, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman).  The older couple’s daughter (Kyra Schon) is injured. The weakest moment in the film is probably during Tom and Judy’s “moment” upstairs, where they are preparing to get gas for Ben’s truck near the barn. She is way too dependent on him, and the moment, meant to be heartfelt, plays like melodrama (the music doesn’t help).

Everything else about this film, however, is excellent.  From the pacing of the broadcasts on radio (and later on TV), we only slowly come to understand what is happening (note to M. Night Shyamalan: THIS is how your newscasts should have been done in Signs). By focusing on the people inside the house, Romero makes a much more interesting film than if he had focused merely on the walking dead themselves.

As a horror film, the genius of this movie is that Romero will show us things that the characters don’t see, such as when the camera shows us one of the living dead walking through the front door in the background, while Barbra is in the foreground, watching Ben battle creatures out back.  In another scene, we see a door that Ben has forgotten to board up.  Therefore, the fear generated in this film does not come from the belief that something is going to pop out at us (especially since the creatures move so slowly), but rather from our awareness of the danger before the characters in the movie are, which made my movie-watching experience a nerve-wracking one.  This mood is helped by the camera angles used in the film: all looking up at faces from above, with light striking the middle of their faces, in many cases.  Also, the quiet.  Once Barbra enters the house, the pounding soundtrack stops.  Only twice does the music swell soon after, in both causes due to creepy discoveries.  And then we hear the zombies groan outside, in the silence, and it reminded me of the Resident Evil series, which uses some of the same techniques that Romero used in regards to camera placement and silence (except that, in those games, things do jump out at you).

[WARNING: HUGE SPOILER ALERT]

And then there’s the social commentary aspect of it. While everyone else is killed by the undead, Ben survives the night, only to be shot dead by a member of a police posse the next morning (seeing movement in the house, he mistakes him for one of the undead). The grainy newspaper photos at the end of the film, as well as the use of police dogs leading up to the shooting, remind one uncomfortably of race relations at the time, particularly between Southern police officers and young black men (and photos like this one), and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Interesting note: Romero himself has said that there was no significance in casting a black actor as his lead (go here to read more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Living_Dead) , yet to see Ben slap Barbra when she’s hysterical, or punch Harry after he dawdles in letting him in the house — not to mention shooting him when he goes for the gun — must have been shocking for white audiences.

[SPOILER ALERT ENDED]

Even if it hadn’t injected social commentary into the horror film format, Night of the Living Dead remains one of the most effective horror films ever made. Still as scary today as when it was released, it is on my short list of the greatest horror films ever made, alongside films like Halloween, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and King Kong. If you’ve never seen this movie before, now is a perfect time to watch it.

Here’s the entire film online:

Watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm, or Holy @%@!, This is Awesome!

The Cinerama in Seattle. Yes, there’s a screen behind those curtains.

Having received word that a company I was hoping to work for had rejected me without so much as an interview, I did what any sensible person would do: I booked a ticket to see Lawrence of Arabia at Cinerama, part of their the Big Screen 70 mm Film Festival (co-presented by SIFF Cinema).  I had decided earlier that week that if I didn’t have an interview the next day, I would go (the movie was playing on Tuesday from 8 pm-12 am).  With the doubly bad news that I wouldn’t be getting an interview at all with a job for which I had written one of my best resumés, it seemed an easy choice to make, only wondering if it was worth spending $12 of my limited funds to see a film that I had enjoyed when seen on TV (a 15″ or 17″ one), but had not thought a great film.

Oh, how silly of me.

So, to all of you out there who only watch movies on TV, a word of warning: movies like Lawrence of Arabia, which were MADE to be shown on a big screen, suffer greatly at the hands of TVs that, no matter how large, cannot capture the huge screen-filling majesty that said films were made to be shown on.  The desert in Lawrence of Arabia is meant to envelop the viewer with its vastness, something it fails to do at home.  Even on a huge Cinerama screen, I found myself leaning forward to capture movement at the corners of the screen, or (in one scene) to make out, tiny as the head of a needle (but clear, since we’re talking 70 mm here), a camel in the middle of a vast desert.

In particular, Lawrence of Arabia uses its imagery and cinematography (incredible night photography) to tell its story, much more than its dialog or characters (though I noticed just how good–and sparse–the dialog is in this film, surely heightened by my ability to appreciate the stunning visuals that much more).  As such, shrinking such images so as to fit a smaller screen is akin to shrinking the Mona Lisa so as to fit on a postage stamp.

Most of the visual fireworks come in the first half of this almost 4-hour film (and yes, there is an intermission).  There’s that camel scene, the many appearances of objects approaching in the distance (in the greatest of these, all one sees is a tiny black line on the horizon), and the scene where Prince Faisal’s (Alec Guinness) army, led by Lawrence, swarms through Aqaba.  And yet, in Part II, I distinctly remember the shot where, after Lawrence has ordered a massacre of Turkish troops, one can see his blues eyes glowing in the dark, while the rest of his face is hidden in shadow (but one can still make out his features, thanks, again, to the clarity of 70 mm).

But let me focus on, for me, the greatest scene in the film. It is when one of Lawrence’s party has fallen off of his camel in the part of the desert known as the Sun’s Anvil.  Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) tells Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) that he is going back for the man, even though Ali tells him the man will be dead in an hour.  We see the man walking in the desert (again, in some of those glorious long shots), removing belts and equipment as the sun continues to beat down on him.  Meanwhile, the two boys whom Lawrence has recruited as his servants wait with the army at camp for Lawrence to reappear.

The pacing of this scene is fantastic.  We see the man in the desert collapse under the heat.  We see the servants waiting and watching for Lawrence.  There is nothing on the horizon.  Then, that small vertical line appears.  The servants sit up and look harder.  Yes, there is definitely something out there.  Not until one of them yells out, “Lawrence!” and kicks his camel into action does Lean switch to show Lawrence on his camel, the man slumped over behind him, but alive.  Then the music swells (gloriously played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra), as Lawrence rides closer and closer to camp, and the camp reacts to his arrival.

I almost cried.  Not for the audacity of the deed, nor for the saving of a life.  I almost cried for the beauty of this scene–truly one of the most beautiful I have ever witnessed in a film.  Though the rest of the film is fantastic, it is this scene alone, so rightly pointed out by Roger Ebert in his Great Movies review of the film, that makes the film successful.  Emotionally, it is the climax of the film, regardless of what comes after.

Also, there is something to be said for the communal aspect of this movie, especially concerning the reactions to it playing in 2011, as opposed to 1962.  For example, when the American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) tells Prince Faisal that Americans always side with people who want their freedom, would audiences in 1962 have chuckled as did the audience I saw it with?  Likewise, would audiences have laughed at the blatant references to the real T.E. Lawrence’s homosexuality in gestures that O’Toole employs?

I only know for certain that audiences then, like audiences now, were enthralled by what they saw on the screen.  And to think that I almost didn’t go.  But, when Ebert, in that same Great Movies review, wrote that seeing this film in 70 mm on a big screen “is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film,” he wasn’t kidding.