Friday, May 16, 2008

Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru

Last night, my husband and I watched the first half of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru. His (my husband's) back hurts by the end of the day and the movie is 143 minutes long. I am a big fan of Kurosawa's films, many of which I have seen via Netflix, one of the main reasons I am a member. How could I see these old films any other way?

Ikiru is what my husband would call a "slow" film, lots of dialogue, not much violence and little fast action filmography. But that is one reason Kurosawa is so great. Every frame in each of his movies is a fascinating composition of light and shadow. In Ikiru, the plot unfolds in large part through many conversations between only two characters. The intensity of the main character's emotion is portrayed as much by the camera shots as it is through the actor's facial expressions and movements.

The story itself -- Kurosawa is screenwriter as well as director-- is as much an indictment of bureaucracy and the rationalization of everyday existence as it is a celebration of life. There is such an intensity here, the feel of a Dostoevsky novel, the passionate struggle of life to escape the bonds, internal and external, personal and social, of existence. And all this from the point of view of a boring and bored public official who has just learned of his eminent death from stomach cancer.

But it is his death sentence that brings this character to life. And the film is a chronicle of the unfolding of this, one of life's blossoms in slow motion, close-up photography.

This sacred process begins in a bar, smaller and far more intimate than the one in the television series Cheers, where the hero goes to drown his sorrows and physical pain in saki. He tries to pay a drinking companion to show him what life is about. His new friend refuses the payment but does agree to take him out for a night on the town. The pilgrimage begins with a tour of jazz bars and includes a confrontation with a haughty streetwalker who grabs the old man's hat. He buys another at his friend's insistence, in honor of his "new self." Towards evening's end they visit a club where the dying bureaucrat sees his first striptease act. This scene reveals no flesh but is exquisitely and seductively filmed. Despite its tawdry setting, it represents the turning point in our hero's journey from a living death to living life.

One of the most intriguing things about Ikiru is its post WWII setting. Scenes of family life -- the bureaucrat is a widower living with his son and daughter-in-law -- reflect the influence of the West on Japanese traditions. But the scenes of night life could have been scenes of Harlem or Los Angeles with adjustments for skin color and accents of speech. This set me to thinking about the war's end: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the post-war U.S. occupation, about this chapter of Japan's national experience. The film came out in 1952, just seven years after the end of World War II. It is a study in human consciousness from the hand (and eye) of a master filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa.

Have I left you hanging? You should see this movie!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mama, oh Mama

Right before she died, Mama turned to the nurse who was taking care of her and said, "You know, my husband was a most unusual man." At least that's what my sister says happened. I was at work at the regional library about 25 miles up the road from the little town where my mother was born, grew up and was then dying. We had brought her home from the hospital in Atlanta because her doctor cousin, Levering, had said there was nothing more to be done. That had been just a couple of days ago. She had a fungal infection of the lungs, rare in the days before AIDs, and it scarred her lung tissue and kept her from taking in oxygen when she breathed. She was drowning in the air. It had taken a while for her to get this bad. For a year or two she would get out-of-breath and tire easily. But right before she died she was on oxygen all the time. Finally, even that wasn't enough. The scarring was too extensive.

Mama had huge hazel eyes that caught the light when she looked around the room. This gave her an expression of alarm unless she was laughing or smiling. She probably wasn't smiling when she said that about Daddy. I imagine that she was reliving her life there on her deathbed and thinking how he had totally changed her life in ways she could not have imagined in the years before she met him.

My father had died barely two and a half years earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage. They were living out in the country then on the farm land Mama had inherited from her own mother. They raised a few cattle and grew hay to feed them. I figured she got the fungal infection from messing with the hay; she'd go into the barn with someone she'd hired and get hay for the cows in the winter. In damp dark places hay can get moldy. My sister thinks her lungs were ruined when she was young because her town sprayed for mosquitoes during the summer with a chemical that is now outlawed. Whatever the cause of her infection there was no cure for it then. She died a horrible death, drowning on land.Her name was Mary, but Daddy pronounced it May or May ry.
She was 11 years older than my father and when she married him it scandalized the good people in the little southern town were she was a schoolteacher. He was a good looking stranger dragged to family dinner by my namesake Aunt Annie during the Christmas holidays.

Pearl Harbor was bombed a year before I was born. Daddy was rejected by the military because of an abcess in his thigh bone from a badly healed break. He was a geologist though and worked for a company that manufactured aluminum, a much needed metal during WWII. He was prospecting for bauxite in the Dominican Republic right after my brother and sister were born. Then he was sent to Oregon. Mama had to travel from Georgia to Oregon by train alone with me, a two-year-old, and baby twins. She carried them in a big basket where they faced one another. She always said she couldn't have made it without all the soldiers on the train who helped her take care of us.
Mama was a fabulous cook and an accomplished hostess, an asset to my father who kept moving up in the corporation after the war. She had Bette Davis eyes and a wonderful laugh that made others laugh involuntarily. She had auburn hair when she was young and made the best strawberry shortcake I've ever had. When I went away to college she started writing me letters and kept it up until I moved closer to her towards the end.

Daddy, her handsome and brilliant husband, turned out to be an alcoholic. Alcoholism gets worse as time goes on and eventually he lost his job as an executive at company headquarters in Pittsburgh. That same summer I got pregnant while working at a beach resort. My parents talked me into going to a "home for unwed mothers" in another state. I had a red haired daughter whom I gave up for adoption.
My parents sold their house and moved to Mama's farm in Georgia. Daddy became a geological consultant and Mama returned to teaching. She loved her students and they loved her.

But bad things kept happening. My brother was killed by his girlfriend in an Atlanta hotel. He was 23. My sister and her husband divorced and she returned with her daughter to live with them. Daddy got TB and gave it to my niece. They were quarantined in a hospital 30 miles away until they got well. Almost a year. Still, Mama was living near the town where she had grown up. She had family, including two sisters and a brother, living close by and I know they were a comfort to her. After she retired she would drive to town in the big Buick and meet her sisters for lunch at the Greyhound Bus Station cafeteria. Meanwhile, I quit my job at a newspaper in the state where my daughter had been born. Attracted by the "counterculture" I protested the Vietnam War and joined the women's liberation movement. Sometime later I went out West, took acid and had a very bad trip which shattered my self confidence. Back East, I sort of fell apart at the end of the Vietnam War.

Mama didn't know what to do but she kept writing me her cute letters talking about life on the farm. They lived in a dry county so Daddy never got drunk unless he had occasion to drive to a "wet" county for something. I got involved with Al-Anon and was working in a shoe store when fell in love with a Mexican American engineer on assignment in the area. After he left I followed him to Los Angeles. Things didn't work out between us. I was working in a restaurant in Santa Monica when Daddy had surgery for cancer of the larynx. He refused to let the surgeon remove his voice box and was really sick. I was going to fly home to see him. But then some cops saw a marijuana plant on my back porch. Pot was legal in LA at the time. Growing it was not but I didn't know that. A friend had just given me the plant before he left town.

I was a grown woman but when they handcuffed my hands behind my back, I started sobbing and calling out to my mother. "Mama, oh Mama," I kept crying. Daddy sent money for bail but the charges were dismissed after I attended drug education classes. Then Daddy died and I flew home to attend his funeral. Mama was so happy to see me. She was always happy to see me. We buried Daddy on the farm next to where my brother had been buried.

I went back to LA to get my Volkswagen bug, packed it with everything that would fit and moved to Georgia to stay. with Mama. I got a job in town but after a year took the library job and moved there. Soon after, Mama's health started to fade. When she died, my sister and I arranged for a blanket of shasta daisies to cover her casket. She loved flowers and shasta daisies had become favorites. Later we learned that the ladies of the Episcopal Church altar guild disapproved. White flowers were for priests and bishops, not for lay people. But they didn't see them until the funeral and by then it was too late. They were beautiful, happy looking flowers and Mama had loved them. Mama, oh Mama, I love them, too.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Which is worse? Cyclone Nargi or Burma's military regime?

While here in the U.S. we're worrying about the price of gasoline or perhaps, less selfishly, concerned about how U.S. biofuels are putting upward pressure on the price of food throughout the world, the people of Burma (Myanmar) are struggling to survive the assault of a natural disaster that appears to be record breaking, the worst in Burma's history.

And because of shortsightedness and fear of losing their authoritarian control of Burma's people, the country's repressive rulers are refusing to allow rescue and aid agencies from throughout the world to enter the country. At this writing, the U.S. Secretary of Defense was weighing the possibility of air drops of essential medical supplies and water and France's ambassador to the U.N. had complained that two Security Council members have shut the door on a Security Council discussion of Burma's plight. Meanwhile, Burma's rulers appear to be more concerned with the fake elections scheduled for this week.

All this is adding to the embarrassment of China surrounding the upcoming Olympic games. Supporters of a Free Tibet are calling for a boycott of the games and the U.S. Campaign for Burma is calling for a boycott in support of the people of Burma. China which deals with Burma's generals to secure oil and natural gas supplies from that country has been reluctant to pressure them on human rights issues.

As a U.S. citizen it is hard for me to point the finger at China for doing what the U.S. has done throughout its history: support dictators who made it easy for U.S. corporations to get what they wanted whether it was oil or bananas. But I'm boycotting the Olympics. Not to pressure China but to let all those U.S. corporations know that I'm sick of their role in oppressing poor people all over the world.

In fact, why doesn't Chevron, the one U.S. company still allowed to do business with the generals, start pressuring them to open Burma's borders to those agencies and countries who are able to help the Burmese people in this hour of their need.

If you wish to find out more about the boycott and other ways to help Burma's people the U.S. Project for Burma is a good place to start:

For information about current events in Burma related to the cyclone, the generals' response to the peaceful protest led by Burma's monks last year and links to other Burma websites go to Takizen's Burma World:

If you want visual testimony to the cruelty of Burma's current regime, please visit the Flickr account of Burma Friend: