Ugetsu (1953) and Carnival of Souls (1962)
Lately I’ve been choosing to watch my films based on what I’m reading and sometimes what I’m watching. For instance, I watched the 1929 version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney because I had just seen the 1937 remake, and, besides enjoying comparing two versions of films, I wanted to see if I agreed with the contemporary reviews.
I add past notes to Toronto Film Society’s website and besides adding the current screenings’ notes, recently I have chosen to post notes of films that TFS began screening in their Silent Series starting way back in 1954. The Silent Series began in their seventh season; TFS was created in 1948 and began with what they called their Main Series, which meant screening foreign film. Reading as I type about these silent films is interesting stuff and it only enforces the idea that I need to watch the films that in this day and age I am privileged to own, whether I’ve seen them before or not. So shown in Season 7, from TFS’s first silent series, I watched Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) and von Sternberg’s Salvation Hunters (1925). Sadly, the notes for Walsh’s What Price Glory (1927) are missing from that first silent season but I could watch that too despite having no notes to” spur” me on.
I read a lot of film-related books in no particular order except what is prevalent in my mind based on some tangent of something else that I saw or read. In the past several months I have read Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 and learned much more about the films from one of two of my most favourite eras, the second being Silent. This spurred me on (as if I needed an excuse to watch pre-Code) to view and write about films such as Van Dyke’s Eskimo (1933).
Next I read Richard Koszarski`s The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood which was an inspiring chronological filmography of the directed works of von Stroheim. This “forced” me to watch all of the von Stroheim films in my possession: Foolish Wives (1922), Merry-Go Round excerpts (1923), a beautiful five-and-a-half hour version aired by TCM of Greed (1924), The Merry Widow (1925), The Wedding March (1928), a glorious Kino DVD of Queen Kelly (1929) which included among other treasures a commentary by author Koszarski, and last but not least a poor quality print of The Great Gabbo (1929)—which is too bad because the vaudeville scenes would have been quite a delight if it had been a crisp print.
I read Scott Eyman`s superb Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille after watching two of three of his film versions of The Squaw Man (1914 and 1931) which urged me to watch his The Crusades (1935) and Union Pacific (1939) while building up my excitement to see This Day and Age (1933) at Cinevent this past June. I read Robert Matzen’s interesting Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 which had me watching and writing about one of Lombard’s beaux, Russ Columbo, in Wake Up and Dream (1934) as well as a very entertaining Lombard pre-Code, Fast and Loose (1930), which is really Miriam Hopkins’ film.
I read the disappointing biography Una Merkel: The Actress with Sassy Wit and Southern Charm by Larry Sean Kinder. I enjoy seeing Merkel in most any film. She’s cute and funny even when she’s whiney and although this bio didn’t have a lot of substance (perhaps there isn’t much research material available on Una—although certainly her psychology would have been very interesting if the author had dug more deeply into it) at least there were detailed descriptions of her films. I have seen many of them but this gave me the excuse I needed to watch one I hadn’t seen in eons, 42nd Street (1933).
Next I read the really magnificent biography by John Stangeland, Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. It was not only an interesting biography but there was much written about the history of William’s time making it quite a compelling read. I own A LOT of William’s films and besides having watched quite a number of them over the years, I took the opportunity while and after reading this book to watch Expensive Woman (1931) his second talking film; Dr. Monica (1934), which I had first seen in the 90s attending my one and only time (so far) Cinecon in LA; and The Wolf Man (1941).
The Wolf Man is the first of three films which I watched this past weekend that made me decide that I needed to do some writing. Recently I saw the documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood (2009), and The Wolf Man had a detailed mention when discussed in reference to Curt Siodmak who wrote the original screenplay. Many of the men mentioned in the documentary were either Jewish or political exiles escaping from German-controlled Europe. Made in 1941, The Wolf Man’s subliminal message has to do with Siodmak’s knowledge and experience there—a star as the sign that you are the next victim of the werewolf, and possibly, as my mother who watched it with me intellectualized, not having a choice but to be what someone or something else has decreed you should be. If the Nazis are the Werewolves, they certainly didn’t want the Jews or Gypsies to become one of them, but marking them and ruining their lives by the inability to control or even be aware of their own actions would be something totally desirable to the Germans of that time. So although the werewolf legend is centuries old, Siodmak was able to subliminally edit the legend to suit current times.
However, on Saturday I watched a double bill that at first I thought were films that were literally worlds apart. But as it turned out there was a very strong singular theme running through them both. I started with the Japanese film UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953), directed by Kenji Mizoguchi starring Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori, probably both most well-known for their roles in Rashomon. I had recently purchased this film and had the desire to watch it but it was film critic David Thomson who induced me. I don’t know too much of Mr. Thomson’s work, but after watching Salvation Hunters there was a short commentary by him which caused me to look him up online. There is a list of twenty-one of his favourite films and UGETSU is one of them.
Quite a number of years ago I read Akira Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography and ever since then have felt that the Japanese culture is so foreign to a westerner like me. Not their physicality, but their way of thinking. And that, I believe, is what makes Japanese films so fascinating to westerners. People sharing the same planet who could come from an entirely different world. Yes, of course we can relate, but there are esoteric nuances that come through the artists’ thoughts into their films and writing that are wonderfully different than our ideas. You just have to watch their films and read their books to see what I mean.
What I can’t help but notice in all film is the roles of men versus women. It’s always the same. For instance, in UGETSU and Orphans of the Storm I couldn’t help but be frustrated by the fact that it didn’t matter what the ideologies of the men in power were, whoever became the rulers—peasants or noblemen—they always molested their women. There are three main women in UGETSU and each has their vulnerable side, but it’s their survival side that is what’s interesting.
Pottery maker Genjurô (Masayuki Mori) is married to Miyage (Kinuyo Tanaka) and they have a young son Genichi (Ichisaburo Sawamura). They live in a small village and Genjurô’s brother Tôbei (Eitarô Ozawa) and his wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) live in the hut next door. The brothers are in business together selling Genjurô’s clay wares to the city folks. The only concern for them at the moment is with regards to the Civil Wars and how the havoc from them will affect the profit they will make. After all, war is good for business and as long as the men are not captured by the warring gangs and held as a slave labourer they are doing okay. Miyage is worried of course that this could happen to Genjurô while he is in the city. As well, she is worried about what will happen to her and her son if the village is attacked while her husband is gone. As for her sister-in-law Ohama, she too is worried but for slightly different reasons. She is the more intelligent half in her marriage and she worries that her foolish husband will lose his mind and attempt to become a samurai. Almost anything at all, other than skill, can trigger him in that direction.
On their first visit to town, the men do well and come back to their wives and homes with money, food and luxuries. During the making and baking of the next batch of pottery ware, the village is attacked and they, along with other villagers who haven’t been captured, hide out in the woods. Genjurô’s main concern is that the fire in the kiln will have died out before his creations, which took hours of hard work for both him and Miyage, are baked properly. He risks his life to check them out. Although the fire has died when he arrives, his wares are done and ready for the market. When the soldiers have left the area, the two families get the bowls and dishes ready to be taken to the city. After an ominous start, Miyage and Genichi are left behind. And this is where the tale turns to tragedy and the supernatural.
It is a visually beautiful film. The images are constant and hold your attention continually. If you look away, you miss something trivial and significant. This is definitely a film that has so much detail to take in that the larger the screen you have the opportunity to view it on, the better.
I followed UGETSU with CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962), directed by Herk Harvey. I thought that these two films would be oceans apart. Made by two different people from two very different cultures, in different decades, with stories taking place in different centuries, what could they have in common, other than both were filmed in black & white? And even that was different. No increments of black and white cinematography with CARNIVAL; more of a flat grey in comparison to UGETSU. And the story is told from one character’s point of view where in the former, the story is told from five points of view.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS feels like a precursor to Eraserhead made 15 years later. CARNIVAL has more action and dialogue (which isn’t hard) but Eraserhead is filmed with a sharper lens.
In CARNIVAL OF SOULS Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) is one of three young women in a car that is drag-racing across a bridge. She isn’t the driver but she is the only one to emerge from the sinking car. And from then on, she has a terrible time connecting with her world and the people in it.
The most amusing relationship in the film was with her neighbour John Linden (Sidney Berger) who was so stereotypical of a guy who has no idea that a female is a person. While Genjurô is a man of his time, he is still respectful and gracious to women. But John is insecure, needy, sweaty and sleazy. Repulsive and fascinating to watch in action.
But here’s where the similarity lies—they are both about ghosts who can’t leave their earthly forms. One is more aware of what she is, while the other is less. One’s feelings are heightened in death while the other is numb. Still, I was surprised at how CARNIVAL would remind me of something I just saw in UGETSU.
You never know what connections you are going to find when watching any double bill—and there’s always something—so I was more than pleased to discover what I did while spending three hours watching these diverse yet similar-themed films.