Choose Me (1984)

Watched Choose Me again the other night. Still love it.

Alan Rudolph wrote and directed it. How I think it happened:

Alan is sitting in a bar in Hollywood, waiting for someone like me to show up and drink with him and talk shop. He draws a diagram on a bar napkin. Three men, say, and three women. Each man hooks up with a woman, then they switch around a couple of times, the couples. It happens mostly in a bar like the one Alan is sitting in. The rest of it happens in a house like his house. A Hollywood house with a classic 40s vibe. Alan is going upbeat, technicolor noir. Everybody smokes. If the cigarette still has length, stick it in the corner of the mouth; smoke it down to the fingernails.

There will be a deep ambiguity at the core of the movie, Alan decides, right up front. That’s key. Gravitas and the comic. The hero, the main guy, the lead – perfect for Keith Carradine, he was great in Nashville, Keith with his hair slicked back, what a mug – is either a crazy liar or a f**king hero – I’ll never say which for sure, Alan thinks. First the audience will assume crazy, then hero, then crazy, then hero, then… at the end, we’ll take thirty seconds to rub their collective nose in the ambiguity, so they’ll all go Who wrote that?

The other actors, Patrick Bauchau makes a good bad guy with his accent, John Larroquette makes a good schmoe. The women? Can’t get Sarandon, so cast Leslie Ann Warren as the first lead, and Genevieve Bujold as the second, and Rae Dawn Chong as the young one.

Now I just need Keith to “interact” with each of the women, and the bad guy deals with them too, but he only yells at them or cuffs them onscreen, doesn’t get to smooch them or worse. The schmoe interacts with the lead woman, but only so he can go all hangdog on her for the rest of the movie. Poor man’s Greek chorus, him and Rae Dawn.

Done plotting. No, wait. Keith and the bad guy have to fight at least once.

Now, the direction:

All six actors are reading my lines. I want those lines to stay mine, not become theirs, so they all have to do their readings word-by-word. First audience reaction to this? That none of the actors can act. But nah, that can’t be right, they’ll think. Rae Dawn gets dumped on by the critics sometimes, but the rest are blue-ribbon. It can’t be them. It must be the director pulling the strings. It must be that the movie is like a play, or a musical, or something. Those upbeat-noir colors. That street set. The coincidences. That guy noodling with his saxaphone all the way through. Teddy Pendergrass treating the movie like his own private music video.

And boom, Alan is done, just as I walk up and tell him that I’ll have what he’s having.

Only, I’m not complaining because Alan is a very smart dude and he throws a lot of style up there onto the screen, provides a smooth, hip trip. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for Bujold.

Major Barbara (1941)

Major Barbara (1941) – I sat down to watch this one mainly to see Wendy Hiller again. Wasn’t disappointed. Looks great in her Major uniform. Looks great in her modest rich-girl’s frock after abjuring the uniform. Shows chemistry with her squeeze here, Rex Harrison, just as with Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938) and Roger Livesey in “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945). In the opening scenes, I mistook the film for a romantic comedy. I forgot for a moment that I was watching a Shaw play, possibly because the opening scenes weren’t in the original play.

After being away from Shaw for a long time, I was looking for something to read on vacation the other day, and took along Man and Superman (which Shaw wrote two years before Major Barbara, in 1903). I had forgotten what an interesting blend of romantic comedy, conversation, politics, and religion some of Shaw’s plays present (he wrote more than sixty). Man and Superman scoots along as a comedy of manners, which we could use more of these days, as a change from rom com. Scoots along,  except for Act 3. This monster is often cut from the play and/or performed by itself and as I read it, I could not believe that any human being without an eidetic memory could regurgitate its dialog without a prompter of one kind or another supplying half the lines. Things to listen to before you die: the ’50s concert version of Act 3 with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander, and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. The play comes with a 58-page appendix. Shaw’s characters tell you what he thinks, during the play, and in case you weren’t paying attention, Shaw himself tells you what he thinks again, afterward, in print.

Or in the case of Major Barbara, he tells you in advance, in a preface, just so you don’t go into the play with any wrong ideas in your head about the points he’s about to make. Unfortunately, his performance of the preface, in the original movie, is not to be found on the DVD. Bummer.

Major Barbara, the play, was produced in 1905. Young penniless academic fellow (Harrison) falls hard for young Major in the Salvation Army (Hiller), who turns out to be a daughter of the world’s most successful (richest), but eccentric (so you’ll like him) maker of weapons (Robert Morley)  – as opposed to, in Pygmalion, not-so-young well-off academic fellow (Leslie Howard) falls hard for poor young flower-seller (Hiller). Major Barbara is a comedy of ideas, with romance included to provide a little oomph. The words flow and in the original play, which consists of three hours of nonstop talking, the actor playing Barbara’s dad had a lot of trouble remembering the lines in his speeches, to the author’s annoyance. I shouldn’t wonder, at the forgetting or the annoyance. The movie is cut to an hour and a half, with several lively scenes added (with Shaw’s approval) and a lot of speechifying removed. The result moves along nicely.

After the movie introduced me to the Salvation Army Major and her academic woo-er, and her rich siblings and her rich parents, I gradually came to see that the central issue in the movie/play was: How can Barbara best serve society? By helping the poor directly, or by moving among the rich and co-opting her father? While the ins and outs of this question played out, I kept asking myself how I was expected to react to Barbara’s father, and how the London audiences of 1941 reacted to him. He is clearly sympathetic, as he searches in vain for an heir amongst his children, an heir to whom he can leave his mega-company. In due course, his attention falls upon Barbara’s fiancee. This causes her to ask herself whether she is prepared, in essence, to take money from the devil to do good in the world. What interested me, however, was the fact that Shaw takes it as written that the world’s greatest weapons maker was fundamentally in the wrong, whereas the movie was shot during the Battle of Britain and the death and destruction from that period was fresh in the audence’s mind, even as the country braced for invasion by the Germans.  Cast and crew would run to the bomb shelters during filming in London, and then return to the set when the all-clear sounded. (Or the film was shot at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Or both.) Did the audience agree with Shaw about weapons barons, with Krupp in mind? Or did their thoughts turn  toward the U.S., which was not yet in the war, as a source for weapons with which to answer the Germans. Note to self: research this question on some rainy day; a twenty-year-old audience member of the time would be ninety now, so begin by calling around to retirement homes in the London area.

As for Shaw’s take on how to deal with the poor, I refer you to the movie. Shaw was a Fabian socialist. He articulates many of his ideas for the improvement of society via the speeches of dad the magnate in the movie’s final act.

I read a review of Major Barbara in which the critic opined that there was much to relish in the movie but that in the end, it just sort of sat there. Hmm. If you watch a Shaw play, you will be lectured; perhaps it was the critic himself who just sort of sat there while he took his medicine.

Movie notes:

– Deborah Kerr’s first movie.

– Major Barbara has a great deal of dialog in it that, it seems to me, would be of great interest to Kurosawa (who, like Shaw, had an abiding interest in the poor and what to do with/about them). Discussions of right behavior. I’ve got to Google Shaw and Kurosawa and see if there is any connection between them… Well, there is someone named Shaw Kurosawa.

– The producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, and Shaw met while swimming nude on the Riviera.

– Shaw especially liked Wendy Hiller, but, alas, there is no indication that he met her while swimming nude.

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Why are there kilts? They’re basically miniskirts to be worn in a country of raw weather. And that includes what they always say about kilts. Roger Livesey is called upon to don his on a day of fog and blustery winds. I didn’t notice whether he changed kilts from day to day. One presumes that even if he did, they’d all be made using the same clan plaid, so I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another.

Never mind. Although the movie is set on an island in the Hebrides, Livesey never left London, where he was also starring in a stage play during the shoot. A double did his exterior shots. You coulda fooled me.

It’s ironic that Livesey was never on the island set. The movie is a romantic comedy and a young James Mason was asked to be the male lead. When he heard about the island work and the cold and, one presumes, the kilts, he demanded a guarantee of first-class hotel accommodations, and Powell and Pressburger told him to forget it. Livesey wanted the part, but it was written for a dashing young twenty-something officer, and Livsey was 40 and in Colonel-Blimp shape. However, he lost weight and got the part and then, in the event, did all of his work indoors. So there, Mason.

Wendy Hiller reminds me of Glenda Jackson, both Wendy and Glenda worthy of a major crush. Although Dame Hiller was born one year before my mother, starred in this movie when I was still in diapers, and passed away several years ago, through the magic of cinema she lives on, just as accessible to the likes of me now as she probably would have been if she lived down the block right now. I last watched her in Pygmalion (1938) and notice that I have her Major Barbara (1941) sitting on my TV too. Bernard Shaw liked her.

This movie is beloved, in spite of having quotes and an exclamation point in its title. I was thinking about making a list of the ten most beloved films, but I realized that I’d put myself in the position of explaining why films eleven through fifteen were beloved but not beloved enough to make the cut.

Can a movie be beloved if most of those who loved it are deceased?

As they say in the movie, “Rùn do chridhe air do chuisle” (“May your pulse beat as your heart would wish.”)

One way to measure how good a romantic comedy is, is to see how quickly and how much you want the two protagonists to fall in love. In the case of ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, with Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller as the lovebirds, for me, the answers are: quickly and a lot.

It’s not a long movie, so the two can meet and some things can happen, and since he’s got to return to the war in eight days, there can be a whiff of suspense a la Brief Encounter (1945), and then, that’s it. Powell and Pressburger tossed it off while waiting for the Technicolor cameras being used by the Army, so that they could get A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (1946) under way. Well, maybe they didn’t toss it off; it’s full of effects and the crew did have to go out and rough it, with Powell lashed to the mast at one point, filming rough waters.

In addition to love, the movie’s got Gaelic, a wedding dress lost at sea, real Irish mist and fog, Maureen O’Hara’s sister, wolfhounds, scenery (the Isle of Mull), a laird, a trained eagle, and a great big whirlpool. Petula Clark is in the movie as a young girl, but I didn’t notice her, and anyway, I’m guessing that “Petula Clark” is no longer the household name that it was in the ’60s.

And lastly, can you name the following movie, which I remember watching when I was in high school? It came on TV late at night and seemed unlike anything that I’d seen before. It hinted to me that there was a lot more to movies than I yet knew. It was about a young fellow who sets out in Scotland to do something or other and must avoid the Cambells at all costs, and then ends up falling for a young female Cambell. Or something like that. A movie I loved but have forgotten lo these many years.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Having watched Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, I’m having a go at A Canterbury Tale (1944). So far: when you introduce an American character, a G.I., have him start every sentence with “say.” Say, that’s not a bad idea.

The American, John Sweet, wasn’t a professional actor; Powell saw him work in a production of Our Town in England (he was a G.I. over for WW II) and hired him for the movie; he never made another and now he’s a retired teacher in North Carolina. But anyway, I keep hearing John Wayne in Sweet’s voice, so I checked and the two were born within 280 miles of each other, 9 years apart, so I guess that explains the accent.

From the dialog, sounds like the movie was made before Pearl Harbor, during Lend-Lease. An interesting time in American/UK history, which we don’t often see onscreen. (Later: nope, it was made after Pearl Harbor, but to hear the actors talk about it, there were still a lot of isolationists in the U.S. after the Japanese attack. I should look it up. I’d say Pressburger got that wrong; maybe even after Pearl Harbor, the folks in England persisted for a while in thinking of the U.S. as a recalcitrant belligerent.)

The movie is a fable, a confection, a propaganda film, in part aimed at explaining to the U.S. what it was like to be at war in England (the English themselves didn’t have much use for the film at the time), a movie with four miraculous happy endings for the price of one. Everyone in it is so damned decent and honorable, with the young men preparing to ship out (the Normandy landings commenced on June 6, 1944), that I couldn’t help feeling moved, especially after being prepped by the explanation of England provided in Colonel Blimp. The heroic/sentimental English score didn’t hurt, either. There is a sequence of bombed-out buildings, followed by a quick shot of a blimp and contrails overhead, that alone is worth the price of admission for me. (Oh, and a jump cut from the 1300’s to now, in which a falcon transforms into a Spitfire.) The actors are all gone now, save for Sweet and Sheila Sim, and God bless them both. Criterion includes interviews with them, time (sixty years worth) robbing them of their youth but replacing it with the knowledge and wisdom provided by a lifetime’s experience… And speaking of sixty years, the Canterbury of the movie, one-third bombed out, is no longer to be seen, or even imagined, in the Kent of today. The bombs have been replaced by souvenir shops. Powell is a native of Kent. I’ve wondered a time or two in the film whether something autobiographical is creeping in.

It’s rare to find an actor or actress named Sim (my mother’s maiden name), at least of the English or Scottish variety, Sim also being an Asian name. Alastair Sim playing Scrooge might be the most famous… Did I mention that the movie is about a guy who sneaks out at night and, in some undescribed and undepicted way, projects a glob of glue into the hair of random young women? Sort of a weird call forward to Peeping Tom (1952).

Being a guy who just sits and watches, without thinking much about what exactly the director and cinematographer (Erwin Hillier, who did a lot of work, some of which I’ve heard of) are doing, I’m remaining mostly oblivious to Powell’s particular artistry here, wherein he experiments, taking a simple tale for his foundation and then continuing his filmaking evolution wrt the editing and camera techniques that he used to create what he later called “the composed film.” Lots of scenery and landscape shots that probably played with greater impact on the large screen; a cool blackout scene; the occasional dramatic  closeup of an actor, closeups like those no longer seen in movies, now that we’ve stretched the screen so far from portrait to landscape. Note to self: poll co-workers using iPhones and droids for their portrait-or-landscape preference. (Later: portrait predominates, but then, nobody around here is watching movies at work. Are they?)

The movie turns its back on any hope of commercial success: no stars, no romance, no serious mystery or conflict (the war remains out of sight). “Understated” is the word I’m looking for. Building to a finale in which soldiers, shipping out, sit in a church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” P and P have a message to share, but it’s hidden, to be winkled out by thought, I suppose. Lazy viewer that I am, I have not winkled it. The movie makes clear, repeatedly, that the message is there, just not what the message is. Turns out, though, that because the movie is the same age as me and because the disk contains interviews with two of the actors as they are now, I have learned something in spite of myself. Namely, that Life for me is not what I’m writing about, but about writing about it.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Watched Gunga Din (1939) the other night. It’s a Hollywood movie, made for fun, with Hollywood Englishmen and Hollywood Indians. Nothing wrong with that. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), though, reminds us that there are real Englishmen and that some of them, the upper upper class,  aren’t like you and me, unless you happen to be one of them – perhaps one like that fellow in Seven Up! (1964) who later in the series refused to return, but made an exception when he married a Bulgarian woman who was fostering a cause – in which case can you lend me 50 lbs till the weekend?

A lot of my movie-watching choices are inspired by film discussions that I listen to on podcasts such as /Filmcast, B-Movie Cast, Movies 101, Double Feature, etc. Such is the case with Colonel Blimp, featured on Filmspotting recently. First thing to impress me in the movie was its color. I wrote a review of  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and I remember reading about the care and trouble taken with the color in that movie. Some woman – I forget her name – was the great Technicolor expert. She’d come on set and… choose the colors? Tweak the lighting? Do something with the film or developing lab instructions? Whatever it was, the color jumps out at you in Hood and Blimp. Cinematographer Georges Perinal handled the color chores in  Blimp. He was lucky to find the color stock in 1943, at the height of the war. When Speed Racer (2008) came out, I remember a lot of chatter about the color in it (I liked the color, but not enough to finish the movie). We’re living in an age of greater subtlety in color palates now, and different taste, but it’s still a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on the richness of a Colonel Blimp. And what happened to the “r” in “colonel,” anyway?

The first startup company that I worked for encountered a rough patch and was acquired by the Arthur J. Rank company, which also made Colonel Blimp. Perhaps you’ve seen the big dude at the beginning of any Rank film, hitting the… the gong? Whatever that big cymbal thing is called… I never got to meet Mr. Rank, if he was in fact still living at the time of my company’s acquisition. Before I could, Rank Co.  turned around and sold us to some awful Texas conglomerate with a three-letter name, the first being D, the other two I don’t remember. DTS? DBT? But I was long-gone by then anyway. While Rank held us, though, young English engineers would trek over to the U.S. They always wore ties and sport coats, which in Silicon Valley made them seem even geekier than they were in the first place.

Colonel Blimp was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell, a team that made a number of great movies, including (1946), A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). Powell is the one who wrecked his career with Peeping Tom (1960) and then later came to Hollywood to do some work with Coppola and Scorsese and to marry, in his senior years, Scorsese’s brilliant young editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Blimp takes us briskly through the life of one soldier, comparing his ideas of decent behavior with those of England’s Boer, WW I German, and Nazi opponents. The movie surprised me with its temperance where the German people were concerned, considering that the movie was made in 1942/1943. Surprised me and enraged a great many in the English audience of the time, who were not in the mood to share Blimp’s readiness to forgive. Churchill tried to have the movie banned, and it was censored somewhat before its release. Blimp the cartoon character was created in 1934 and was meant to personify stupidity in its many forms; the movie’s Blimp character, however, is provided with a core of romantic sentiments and decency that cause us to understand that in evil times, “good” can seem like “stupid.”

One spot where the movie jarred me came with the arrival of World War I. Colonel Candy (the Blimp character) has spent years shooting big game in lieu of possessing his beloved, while continuing to serve in the army, and now, having left him onscreen moments ago as the young man bereft, we find him older, in 1918 toward the end of the Great War, behaving more as if it were 1914 at the war’s beginning, all polish and privilege, not after the years of horror that the army had endured by the end. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a better movie for aging a character from glowing youth to corpulent red-faced age. Roger Livesay in the role of a lifetime.

Dial 1119 (1952); The Phenix City Story (1955)

Michael Troutman at I Shoot the Pictures is watching all the movies on the 1000 Greatest Movies list. He rates those that he’s seen and I searched amongst the ones he has listed in his Highly Recommended category for something to watch. I chose Dial 9111 (1952) and ordered it from Netflix. It comes on a double-feature disk with The Phenix City Story (1955).

Troutman’s take on Dial 1119.

First and foremost: any connection between 1119 and the current emergency number 911? Not that I know of.

Second and nextmost: I’m always surprised when I find a good Hollywood movie that I haven’t heard of before, even though I should be used to that by now. There are plenty of good movies that I haven’t seen, of course, but not so many that I’ve never even heard of. I didn’t recognize any of the actors in Dial 1119, either, except for William Conrad, and he doesn’t stick around in the movie for long.

Thirdlymost: Checking out some of the other work by the actors in this movie, I’m reminded of all the great drama on TV in the 50s. Lux Video Theater, Front Row Center, Screen Directors Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, Playhouse 90, G. E. True Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Armstrong Circle Theater, and many more. Dial 9111 plays like a presentation on one of these shows; it runs 75 minutes, uses a couple of sets and a stable of contract players, gives us some drama, a couple of closeups, gunplay, an ice-cream truck pulling up to the crowd at a hostage situation, lots of 50s hats, one of those movie air ducts that a man can crawl through, and a satisfying climax (this being the 50s, there is not much doubt about what the denouement will be). Troutman mentions the lack of a score in the movie; another reason that it might have seemed like a 50s TV drama to me. This was back when a phone number in the big city required only 4 digits; where I lived, you picked up the phone and told the operator the number you wanted. I had several dvds competing for my attention, but this one kept me to itself all the way through.

Kudos to Troutman and the others who are watching the movies on these humongous lists of notable films, instead of or in addition to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009). I watched the IMDB Top 250 and it almost killed me. In fact, I quit with 9 left, all partially viewed; I couldn’t take it anymore. The good news is that by preying on Troutman’s list, I can now check off at least one of the great-film listees. And maybe by now, the 9 that I didn’t finish have dropped off the list, replaced by movies that I’ve seen. I see that Inception (2010) is presently ranked 4th-best movie of all time.

Anyway, so much for Dial 1119, the fun movie. The Phenix City Story, also on the disk, I was familiar with but had never watched. I grew up in the South and when I was ten or eleven I began hearing about Phenix City. Nothing good. It’s across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning, and back before it was cleaned up, it enjoyed at least 50 years of profitable vice in all its usual forms. But another 50 years, and in 2007 it was voted “most affordable suburb.” It’s also not far from Auburn University, which is a lot bigger now than it was then and which beat Clemson on the gridiron today as I write this; the cheerleaders for the game were dressed so as to make the old Phenix City proud.

When I moved to Phoenix for high school, “Phenix” just seemed plain weird.

The difference between Dial 9111 and The Phenix City Story is that in Dial 9111, Marshall Thompson plays an in-dramas-only mental case holding as hostage a collection of in-dramas-only bar customers, occasionally plugging one of them for our entertainment, whereas in The Phenix City Story, actors demonstrate the courage required of community members when they’re up against a corrupt city government and a criminal culture that treats murder like a public utility, for indiscriminate use against men, women, and children.

For example, the chief of police, speaking casually to a patrolman: “Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Sam Patterson’s front lawn. Go out there and have a look.”

The Production Code wanted the movie’s child murders and some of its other violence removed, but everything stayed in, probably because on one level, the film is a documentary. Don’t be put off by the twelve-minute intro, in which a real-life reporter interviews some of the real-life participants in the events depicted in the film; it’s the real thing, not B-movie posing.

The story centers on the murder of the Democratic nominee for State Attorney General, Albert Patterson, a long-time Phenix City lawyer. The movie was shot on location in Phenix City while the trial of his murderers was going on. John McIntire, who plays Patterson in the movie, wore the suit that Patterson was killed in, and the film was shot on 14th Street, the center of the sin part of “Sin City,” despite threats from the mobsters in charge there.

Movie notes:

Edward Andrews is the baddest of the bad guys and the most familiar face to me in the movie. He went on to play innumerable  parental and business guys in innumerable family movies, Disney and otherwise. He was Molly Ringwald’s grandpa in Sixteen Candles (1984). Lucky for him this film didn’t typecast him permanently as an evildoer.

The movie was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote Out of the Past (1947) and  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both also about small towns with problems. 

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) (Criterion)


My neighborhood used to be crisscrossed with open ditches that handled runoff during storms. When the rain was heavy, the ditches became dangerous, running fast and often overflowing into the streets. During the dry season, an occasional car would back into a ditch or run off the road into one. Then one day, fliers were posted and distributed throughout the neighborhood, announcing that the County would fill the ditches and install storm drains. Shortly thereafter, a couple of earnest souls appeared at my door, representing a neighborhood association that I didn’t know existed. The two explained to me in great detail why the drain project was a terrible idea. I don’t remember the specifics of their argument, but the couple was very convincing. Probably something to do with taxes and government and how the ditches added character to the area, how crocodiles infest drainpipes, so forth. I was presented with an anti-drain petition, which I declined to sign. The ditches were filled in, the storm drains were installed, the overflow flooding and dogs and babies swept away and cars backing over the edge ceased, and I never heard from the minions of the neighborhood association again.

Up until 1940 in the U.S., if you got old without a pension or children to support you, you were screwed. Because of the Democratic landslide in 1932, FDR was able to get a social security bill passed in 1935, over Republican cries of pain, hysterical screams, dire threats, and predictions of crocodiles in the drain pipes of Washington. Socialism! End of the U.S. as we now know it! Once again, poor prospects for the Washington Senators (finished 6th in the American League in 1935, 67-86). Etc. The new program began phasing in in 1937, but no payments were made to seniors until 1940. Before then, you were on your own. Sort of like Logan’s Run (1976), only you weren’t forced to retire at 30.

Leo McCarey successfully directed Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd in hit comedies. He was a big man at RKO. In 1937, McCarey’s father died and McCarey set out to make a movie to honor him. He chose as his subject the economic plight of the elderly in depressed times in this great nation of ours – specifically, how five grown children are to deal with their destitute mom and dad. His movie, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), is not a comedy. Studio execs, up to and including Adolf Zukor, visited Mcarey’s set and pleaded for a star or two in the cast, and especially for a happy, or happier, ending. McCarey would not provide either and MWFT tanked at the box office. Folks had enough to worry about without watching this downer. Even Umberto D. (1952) had an upbeat ending, in the sense that ***spoiler*** Umberto’s dog Napoleone didn’t get squished by the train at the end. Paramount did not renew McCarey’s contract; in effect, he was fired.

The critics loved this movie. Directors like Capra, Welles, Lubitsch, and Renoir praised it. McCarey received a warm letter from George Bernard Shaw. At the time, Harry Cohn was feuding with Frank Capra and asked McCarey to do a movie for Colombia. McCarey asked for a fortune and Cohn laughed at him, but the two spent some time together and McCarey ended up making the classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937), and winning an Oscar for it; he thanked the academy for the Oscar but famously noted that they gave it to him for the wrong movie. He went on in the 40s to make Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).  After first run, The Bells of Saint Mary’s was  RKO’s top grosser up to that date and Going My Way was the same for Paramount. McCarey had the top reported income in the nation in 1944. His name appeared above his movies, an honor accorded to few directors. MWFT remained his favorite film. So let that be a lesson to you. Do the right thing!

The movie concerns a couple, married for 50 years, who lose their house to the bank. They have five grown children who immediately offer to help, within their ability to do so, but it’s clear to us from the start that trouble is coming. In the case of my own family, my three sisters and I were faced with, and are still faced with, a similar challenge: how to help mother, who is no longer able to live independently even with assistance? The obvious solution: have her take a turn in each of our homes. This worked for a while and then stopped working. We’re talking about years and years here; my mom is 97. (The movie is based on a book, “The Years Are So Long.” Time flies when you’re having fun, but not when you’re arguing with your mother.) The problems that we encountered were not events of a moment. They stretched out over time. In the movie, the action is condensed into specific incidents in dramatic scenes.  These can play a little hokey, but anybody with a headstrong but incapacitated parent in the house will recognize what McCarey is getting at – the duty, the problems, and especially the guilt, no matter what you do. In the movie, the presenting issues are financial, in our case health-related – but the moral dilemma is the same and the final cost to the kids is in the time spent by all concerned. McCarey used improvisation to avoid contrivance, to keep the characterizations balanced. His mastery in this movie was to demonstrate the pain-in-the-neckedness of the parental behavior and then to turn on a dime and nail you with mom and pop’s humanity, jerking sudden tears out of nowhere.

In the film’s third act, the senior couple spends an afternoon and evening on foot in NYC, prior to their forced separation. Echoes of Sunrise (1927). The wife’s apparent equanimity at the prospect of separation from her husband put me in mind of those cultures that consign their elders to an ice floe when their teeth are too worn down to tear and chew blubber anymore, or of the tribes that leave the oldsters behind to await the wolves when the travois are packed up and dragged away. A generation of boomers can descry senility on the far horizon now, with few pensions in prospect for them. Be interesting to see how they make out, even if they’re spared the privatization of their social-security benefits. Thoughts like these were juxtaposed in my mind with the fact that in the movie, everyone whom the couple encounters during their city walkabout behaves in a pleasant, kind, thoughtful, respectful way toward them. I suppose I expected the two to be ignored, brushed past, invisible. Have them treated in so loving a way was a dramatic stroke of great power by McCarey.

If you happen to be watching Harry Brown (2009) at the same time as MWFT, you might ask yourself why the senior couple, in such extremis, doesn’t just acquire a brace of Sig 9s and start shooting. The answer: in 1937 the Sig 9 hadn’t been invented yet.

MWFT is said to be one of the greatest of unknown movies. Its full title would properly be “Make Way for Tomorrow by Dying When You Get Old, Instead of Lingering, to the Inconvenience (not to say Annoyance) of All.” This whole situation can be avoided in future if you all just remember not to get old. Don’t let it sneak up on you, because it ain’t pretty! McCarey handles the problem by hiring Beulah Bondi to play the old lady. Beulah was 49 at the time (nice makeup job).

13 Tzameti (2006)

Géla Babluani, Director.


The title in Georgian: “13 Thirteen”

Genre: Violence porn.

The director’s excuse: “I was raised in the 90s in Georgia when there were three civil wars. I was exposed to chaos. To violence. And that’s not even counting the TV shows I watched.”

The pitch: “Blood Sport” meets Texas Holdem meets “Deer Hunter” meets early Roman Polanski.

Reviewers’ suggested metaphors: “The inhumanity that comes with wealth and boredom, and desperate attempts to survive in a place that’s simultaneously culturally and geographically alien.” “An indictment of the futility and folly of putting too much metaphysical stock (belief in fate and destiny) in what is a fundamentally meaningless pursuit (sports).” So forth.

The lead actor’s excuse: “I had never done a movie before but my brother was the director, so…”

The director’s reward: Financing to remake the movie in Hollywood.

NRA rating: A+. Guns do not kill in this movie; actors kill.

Budget: The director filmed for 5 months over a 15-month period. Script calls for a castle but all he could line up was a big house, occasioning dialog such as “We used to do this in a castle.” (Doesn’t help the “rich getting richer” metaphor.)

First sign of silliness: Picture yourself on a tile roof, pulling off tiles. Somehow you manage to punch a hole in the roof (Rififi homage). Every time you walk by it, characters below are discussing plot points, which you can hear clearly.

Second sign of silliness: Vital papers blow out of the window and land where the hero can find them.

Third sign of silliness: He doesn’t give them back.

Hiding the silliness: The director did some filming to make the ceiling hole somehow more believable, but he wisely left this work in the Deleted Scenes section.

Subtlety: “There is an ax on the terrace,” says the woman. The ax is not used later in the film.

Music: Mostly silence w/ ambient sounds. The occasional quiet jazz nudge. Great.

Characterization: None to speak of.

Color: One sorehead opined that Babluani made the film in black and white because he didn’t want to deal with the problems and challenges of color. Babluani himself says that his first visions of the story were in black and white and so that’s the way he had to make it that way. Works for me, but I’m a lover of black and white.

David Lynch: In some alternate, parallel universe, the police play out their parts in full. In this movie, we can see only parts of that film, intermittantly.

The crowd: Part of the thrill of a public group performance is having a crowd watch it happen. Get lots of interesting faces and dress the actors in all sort of ways. In fact, have them dress at home and just show up. Feast for the eyes. Note that at least one reviewer will crab about this bunch no matter what they look like.

Handicapping: If you’re going to bet on a last-man-standing, mass suicide event, consider the following:

1. Try to bet directly with the men in the event. You’ll only have to pay off one of them.
2. The star of the movie will win.
3. Turns out, two other guys get to survive. One of them will be the really, really fat guy, because the director is not going to ask him to fall down. He might not be able to get up again.
4. The guy who looks like Russell Crowe can’t win, but he can be saintly because after winning three times already (no mean feat when the odds last time were 42-1), he recognizes innocence in his opponent and so doesn’t pull the trigger.
5. When three bullets are used in a six-bullet cylinder, does it matter whether there is a bullet in every other chamber or three bullets in three consecutive chambers? Experiment to find out.
6. Professional betting makes no sense to the amateur. Ditto movie betting.

The good parts: Some reviewers have suggested cutting out the first and last thirds of the movie. The guys who suggest this are the same guys who back in the day read only the good parts of Lady Chatterly. Probably don’t cuddle afterwards. Probably won’t finish reading this review.

The money shots: Ten or fifteen men stand in a circle. They load their guns. Heft and jiggle them. Spin the cylinders. Each man touches his gun to the head of the man in front of him. The goal is for all of them to shoot at once. The bulb lights up. As is often the case, all the participants don’t shoot at the same time. Also as is common, the experience is better for some than for others.

Sweat: The actors must act as if they are really going to be shot in the head. Because of safety issues, live ammunition, and standing there WITH A GUN TO YOUR HEAD, most of them weren’t acting.

Variations: Each round has to be different, or boredom sets in. (Some reviewers, who have seen too much of this kind of thing, will get bored no matter what you do, if you keep it tasteful.) One participant must have trouble loading his gun; one must be unable to pull the trigger; most must be able to perform only when drunk or drugged; etc.

Useful factoids from the film:

1. Morphine is the drug of choice
2. Stop signs in France say “Stop.”
3. Every French film contains the word “personne.”
4. Chief bad guy has same last name as my brother-in-law.
5. When does a Frenchman say “oui” and when does he say “si”?
6. Which country shows the countryside with fewer inhabitants, the U.S. or France?
7. Do European movies understate the bad guys a little for effect, or do U.S. movies overstate the bad guys for effect? Or both?
8. The protagonist has been up a ladder before. He is pretty nimble moving from ladder to roof and from roof to ladder.

Wondrous Oblivion (2003)

This is a feel-good family movie containing a w.i.i.i.i.d.e variety of social and personal issues. If you’re in the mood for something light, but with a heart, watching Wonderous Oblivion might be a pleasant way to spend 106 minutes. It was for me. South London in the early 60s never looked so Harry Potter.

Edit: Wait a minute. Everybody says that this is a feel-good family movie, but what about those multiple lingering tracking shots down Emily Woof’s spine and over her buttocks, just to make sure that we understand where Delroy is headed? And what about those Lindo/Woof lip-locks in the kitchen? Maybe the first one gets a family pass because it snuck up on the two of them, but the movie goes a little Mandingo with the second one, Delroy sweating in his wife-beater and Emily panting with passion, fade to black.

Full disclosure: I haven’t caught Paul Morrison’s commentary track and I can’t write a proper review without it. I don’t know if it’s even available in the U.S. If so, I haven’t been able to find it. Which means that I can only guess at his intentions in making this movie. I mean, his filmography is sparse and he’s no spring chicken, being born in ’44, so this isn’t just one of a dozen flicks he churned out over a period of time to put his kids through college. This one movie is a significant percentage of the man’s ouvre. Did he set out to go feather-light on purpose with this thing? It’s his script; he wrote it. No way this was just a payday for him. But without a phone number or email address for the guy, or that missing commentary track, I’ll never know.

I did spot Delroy Lindo in the Marina Safeway in San Francisco. (He lives in S.F.) My golden opportunity to ask him about working with Morrison!. But damn! I can never remember Lindo’s name. First or last. Delroy. Delroy. Delroy Lindo. Got to find a good mneumonic for Delroy Lindo. Can’t let this happen again. And after I memorize his name, I can take on the names of his wife and son, Neshormeh and Damiri in case I spot one of them in RiteAid instead. Delroy was over there handling the fruit but no way I could approach him without remembering his name. For one thing, he had that series of movies back in the 90s wherein he played various bad mf’s. Scary. Maybe he was all lovey dovey in MO, but when he does that crazy-eye thing that he does, kind of like Calvin in the comic strip when Calvin is going gack!!, I don’t want to be standing in front of the dude. He keeps it under control in MO – it just slips out once or twice, sort of sideways – but still. And speaking of MO, Delroy’s parents are Jamaican and he was born and raised in London, so he’s an excellent fit for his role in the movie. Even though he lives in San Francisco now, he still considers himself British.. I’m perfectly ok with engaging him right there in the produce department because he graduated from ACT in S.F and I consider him part of the community. But not without remembering his name. No way.

Anyway, I understand that Morrison’s commentary focuses on characterization and plot, rather than on making-of anecdotes, so he had his thinking cap on when he made the film, but this is a moviemaker who had to know that he was using a shovel and knee boots to load up his script with motifs that he could never do more than kiss in passing, to mix the metaphor. Was his editor out of town? Was his muse bipolar and running hyper that year? Was he trying to make up for lost time – making two or three movies at once? Or is autobiographical material running roughshod over him? It’s a bad sign, the reviewer wondering about the director’s life goals while watching his movie.

A guy I know gave me an email address that would supposedly get me to Stanley Townsend, who played the Jewish dad in the movie. My friend told me that the address was part of a press packet pimping The Nativity, in which Townsend plays Zechariah. So I wrote a 2000-word exegesis on the role of Jewish father in cuckold movies and got an intemperate two-word response from some sorehead named Townsend who sells Geico insurance in Pores, Nebraska.

Morrison’s previous film “Solomon and Gaenor” (1999) was a romantic tragedy about a Jewish man (Ioan Gruffudd in an early role) and a Welsh woman. Morrison wrote and directed, and filmed the movie in English, Welsh, and Yiddish. It won prizes and respect. Currently, now in his 60s, he’s making Little Ashes, with a script by Philippa Goslett. Set in Madrid in 1922, the movie deals with Salvador Dali at 18 and his friendship with Federico Garcia Lorca and Luis Bunel. Javier Beltran, Robert Pattinson, and Matthew McNulty star. Morrison also did an early movie about Degas and Pissarro. So the man makes movies that are about something.

But in between these efforts we have Wonderous Oblivion. The script runs smooth, fitting into the Billy Elliot, Bend It Like Beckham, predictable coming-of-age genre, but Morrison can’t help letting all of his dogs out of the kennel at once. No ending in scale could possibly put this thing to bed properly. Instead, for example, the movie depicts a black family being harassed, threatened, and partially burnt out of their home and this element/motif is addressed and resolved by restricting the anti-black feeling in the neighborhood to mild glowering and muttering amongst the denizens, but with every actual hostile act assigned to a single vacant-eyed teenage bad boy who can be easily neutralized when/if necessary to the plot. Likewise, when Judy shows up at David’s birthday party and he turns her away, boy loses girl, but since they’re only 11, an apology clears that up.

Let me recommend the first episode of the classic documentary series Seven Up! (1964) as a corrective to this Disneyland version of lower-middle-class England in the early 60s. Or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) for boy sport in that era.

I asked an agent I know if he could get me a five-minute interview with the Jewish mom in the movie, Emily Woof.. They say that when the time came for her to choose her screen surname, she looked over at her pet pit bull, who travels with her everywhere in spite of the lawsuits, raised her eyebrows, and when the dog barked, she picked Woof. Strange but true. “You have a dog?” she asked me on the phone and I told her that I didn’t like dogs, but that I had 11 cats. Why? Why did I have to tell her that? Stupid.

I will say that like the young protagonist in the movie, I spent a lot of time laying out bubblegum cards and having tussles between two sides – mostly Wings airplane cards, with the airplanes flying to the right fighting against those flying to the left, my favorites on both sides surviving the longest. The oldest cards were the most magical. But with my baseball cards no; they got laid out, team vs team, when Game of the Week came on the radio.

One thing that did bother me in the movie as I was watching was that to my eye the backyard wasn’t really deep enough to allow the bowling that, with some camera trickery, we are asked to accept. A cricket pitch is about 72 feet long, .plus the extra space needed to run up to the line… but wait. I get it. They’ve laid out a junior pitch . Don’t know how long a junior pitch is, but it could fit into a backyard, so never mind.

If you’ve ever seen top-level cricket, or even if you haven’t, it’s just as fast and violent as major league baseball is. Both sports lull with a pace that features lengthy gaps in the action, but then feature frantic, fast-moving moments. At Fenway Park one day, a British friend and I had a long conversation about pitching vs bowling. His contention was that since the bowler was allowed to run up toward the batsman and then optionally bounce the ball on its way toward the wicket, the ball would be harder to hit than a baseball pitched from a standing start and required to come in between neck and knees. Especially since the bowler can load up the ball and the pitcher isn’t supposed to. This seems to make sense, even though the bowler is required to come in overhand with a straight elbow and the striking surface of the cricket bat is much larger than that of a round baseball bat. The question is settled, however, for me at least, by the fact that a good batsman can remain up for many overs (an over is 6 consecutive bowled balls) – which is to say, can prevent the ball from hitting the wicket – as David did, to the annoyance of his teammates who wanted to be done for the day – whereas the best hitter in baseball will almost surely whiff at at least one good strike within, say, ten pitches.

To gather data on this question, I’ve arranged for a visit from pitcher Earl Scrotile of the AAA Sacramento River Cats and Mani Singh of the Northern California Cricket League to a meetup at the San Francisco Community Playing Fields, Gardens, and Homeless Shelter on Battery Street this Sunday, all welcome, where we will each stand in against Earl and Mani and see who is harder to hit. The event will be filmed as part of a new mumblecore movie called “Ouch! That’s My Elbow!”

Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) (2005)

In my capacity as a Spout Maven, I’ve reviewed a number of films distributed by Film Movement, including Mother of Mine, the movie under discussion here, A Peck on the Cheek, Be With Me, and Drifters. The promotional material included with the DVDs of these movies and the introductions on the disks themselves describe Film Movement as a film-of-the-month subscription club. Members receive award-winning foreign films in early release, by mail, “to keep,” once a month. The films can later be found at Netflix, Blockbuster, or your local library. A nifty idea for some few film buffs, but every time that I hear about this club, I worry about its health and survivability. What kind of market can there be for a little club like this? How long can a company like Film Movement survive, if it relies upon a subscription base that is bound to be relatively small?

Visiting the company’s website, I saw that Film Movement now also acts as a film distributor, with theatrical, institutional, television, DVD, rental, retail, wholesale, in-flight, and emerging-channel segments. Larry Meistrich, who founded the company as a film club in 2001, has since moved on. I contacted Film Movement to ask about their move into distribution and how it now compared, revenue-wise, with the subscription side of the business. After some back and forth, the president of the company, Adley Gartenstein, was kind enough to update me on Film Movement’s current direction. His response, in part: “The original plan was to be a DVD-of-the-month club. Now we pride ourselves on being a full-service North American distribution company with many creative and successful windows of exploitation. We still have a DVD of the month which gets an exclusive window, often before the theatrical. We think of it as a private preview club. But it is the smallest revenue generator for us. It is still important to us and we feel very devoted to our loyal members, but we have over the last two years put a lot of resources into building our theatrical distribution and our VOD channel. I am proud to say we have had our greatest box office success with our recent theatrical releases, and we launched a VOD channel called Film Festival on Demand which is available in approximately 9 million homes and we expect it to grow to 18 million during 2009.” So I can enjoy watching and reviewing their films without feeling concern for them.

Meanwhile, Äideistä parhain (Mother of Mine) is a well-made Finnish film that I enjoyed and that I can recommend. Solidly acted and beautifully shot around Turku, Finland and Ystad, Skåne, on the southern coast of Sweden, the movie tells the tale of a boy taken from his mother during World War II, who must adjust to a new family in a neutral country but then return home, fundamentally altered by his experience.

The boy Eero (Topi Majaniemi) is called upon to look concerned, angry, pensive, and occasionally to ask a question or blurt out a passionate protest, and does it all well. I watched Birth the other night and Cameron Bright, another ten-year-old actor, comports himself well in the same way, including his time in the bathtub with Nicole Kidman. The dialog in Mother of Mine is limited, the expressions heartfelt. Eero’s Swedish foster parents, Signe and Hjalmar (Maria Lundqvist and Michael Nyqvist) made me want to go live on the farm, too. I’ve got a soft spot for movie dads who stand up straight, square their shoulders, and with great sympathy say and do the right thing when it isn’t easy to. Atticus Finch comes to mind. In my younger days I had a good friend who was a farmer. He didn’t say much, but he was as solid as a rock and when he spoke, he meant what he said and he always made sense. Michael Nyqvist in this film reminds me of him.

Eero’s mom, Kirsti, played by Marjaana Maijala, provides the Finnish glamour. Esko Salminen and Aino-Maija Tikkanen, Eero and Kirsti in their twilight years, both seem sufficiently worn down by life to contrast dramatically with their younger selves. And what is it about Scandanavian husbands and wives arguing with each other? Have we been trained by Bergman to just settle back and enjoy it as the two of them go back and forth in that Scandanavian tongue while outside their mossy-roofed houses the wind bends the grass in waves on the förtöja?

It says here that the movie is quite different from the book it was based upon. Or does it say that? Sample Google translation to English of Swedish webpages on the subject:

“Härö not, in any case would like to condemn other people more closely than themselves. Haluaisin olla rmollisempi mutta toisaalta myös rohkeampi sanomaan stop silloin, kun tiedän, että jokin asia on väärin. “I would like to have Merciful but on the other bolder also say stop, when I know that one of asia is wrong. Haluaisin astua rohkeammin heikkojen puolelle.» I would like to enter braver the weak side.”

He’s just sayin. The director Härö is in his thirties, whereas the author of Äideistä parhain, Heikki Hietamies, was born in 1933 and would have been the age of Eero during the Russian/Finnish conflict. Hietamies is known to include considerable autobiographical material in his fiction.

And finally, this is a golden age for cinematographers. Having just admired Raúl Pérez Ureta’s work in Madeinusa, I got to feast my eyes on Jarkko T. Laineen’s Skåne. Some of these movies are so good-looking, it’s worth putting up with any other problems in them just to take in the views.

One question I did have: The boy goes from Finland to Sweden. He has to learn Swedish, which probably wasn’t easy, as Finish is not an Indo-European tongue and completely unrelated to Swedish. There is a great deal of correspondence by letter in the movie – writing letters, reading letters, reading the letters out loud, so forth, shots of the letters lying around. Did Kirsti write in Finnish? If so, how could Signe read them as she did (the movie made clear that she didn’t speak or understand Finish). Likewise with letters from Signe to Kirsti. I’m guessing that Härö skated over this one.

This concludes my review of Mother of Mine. In what follows, I speculate about why the director, Klaus Härö, made some of the choices that he did as he shot and cut together the movie.

Note: The movie features a busy flock of Skåne geese. These good-natured birds have lived in southern Sweden since the Stone Age and I was all awww at the sight of the notable fowl until while chatting with a relative from Ystad, I learned that, at least for him, the main function of the Skåne goose is to act as centerpiece at the family’s annual Martinmas dinner.

I was listening to a movie podcast the other day and one of the hosts on it opined in passing that there has never been a movie with bookends that wouldn’t have been better without them. (Bookends are single scenes at the beginning and end of a movie that together serve as a framing device for the narrative, providing context or serving a variety of other dramatic and esthetic purposes.) This caught my ear for two reasons: I had just watched Flawless, an ok though silly movie that uses bookends to first misdirect and then uplift the viewer, effectively, I thought; and Chaos Theory, the bookends for which just provide extra time to enjoy the happy ending; and somewhere recently I heard or read that Mother of Mine itself included bookends. As I listened to the podcast, I imagined myself on it, called upon to defend the Mother-of-Mine bookends. Later while actually watching the movie, I discovered that while bookends are present, I was interested in all of the movie’s non-sequential scenes, not just those at start and finish. I ended up noting all of Härö’s chronological editing choices and herewith speculate on why he made them – why he arranged scenes in the order that he did. Was he shuffling clips in time to mask a lack of dramatic material, or to reset expectations in the narrative arc, or infuse the film with artificial nostalgia, or perhaps gin up a little auteur before releasing his small Finnish film into the Eurocinema market?

*****SPOILERS ALERT: Various plot points are discussed below, in detail.*****

First, the bookends:

An onscreen notice informs us that during Finnish/Russian hostilities at the beginning of World War II, 70,000 children were sent from Finland to safety in non-combatant countries, most to Sweden. Then, the movie begins with Eero the boy standing in the woods, staring up at the stars at night. We hear him, voice over, now sixty, saying “Mother, do you still remember how it all began? How the war began?” Russian bombers approach and bombs fall. (At first impact the boy is startled and jumps so convincingly that the director might have fired off a gun right behind him on the set.) The boy runs to his mother and they cling to each other outside their home. Cut to present day for the opening bookend. Eero at sixty brings his mother a birthday present, late. It is clear that they are estranged and have been so for a long time. He tells her that he’s been to a woman’s funeral in Sweden. Quick cut back to his visit to a farm in Sweden for the funeral. We understand that he spent time there as a boy and that he had a strong bond to the woman who has died; his mother comments about this in voiceover. Härö, the director, is telling us immediately that war came, that mother and son survived it, but that something happened in Sweden to destroy the bond between them – the bond dramatized as they held each other during the bombing raid. Given the notice at the beginning about war children and this awkward moment between the two adults, the theme of the movie is announced: sending the children to safety was not to be all good. The leading bookend ends with a cut back to a time when mother, father, and boy were still together and happy.

The movie ends with a trailing bookend, again mother and son: the old Eero, touching his mother’s arm as he leaves her, signifying reestablished emotional contact after a lifetime, makes his way outside to look up again at the stars, and the scene fades into the original image of him as a boy looking up.

In my last review, I wondered why some movies are better the second time around. One reason, or so I supposed, was that in some cases on second viewing you aren’t waiting for something bad to happen when nothing bad is going to happen. You know what’s coming and what’s not coming and can spend your time enjoying the movie scene by scene, without, for example, worrying that someone is going to get killed at any moment. One way that a director can help the viewer get a leg up on such enjoyment the first time around rather than the second, is to serve notice up front of what to expect. Such might be the case with the director of Mother of Mine. Before the movie begins, he posts the notice about war children. Then he shows us the child of interest and informs us with the bookends that Eero and his mother both will survive the war and live out their lives. And so, with this introduction, we know in advance that the boy and his mother and his temporary alternate mother are all going to live through the war, that he will develop a bond with the alternate mother, and that he will become estranged from his mother. Perhaps this presages some trauma to him that will cause this fifty-year emotional separation from her. We do know that no resolution of their problems will come when he is young; whatever happened back then, it has taken the man fifty years to approach his mother with reconciliation in mind. In other words, the bookends are not entirely volitional for the director. He can start with a bookend or, at the end of the movie, he’s going to have to do a “fifty years later…” jump to get to this resolution. The other, untaken, option would have been for mother and son to settle up while they were both still young. But with the bookends, as viewers we are invited to experience the unfolding film as one instance of the lasting bad effects of war on a child. Or so we imagine.

And now, the other flashback and flashforward cuts in the movie and my speculations about them:

CUT: Back to Eero’s happy family time before the bombs fall. Having set the context, the director returns to the beginning of the story and the movie now proceeds sequentially in time. Father leaves to fight. Jump ahead to news that father is dead. Jump ahead from there to Eero being shipped out to Sweden. The movie moves forward steadily now in time, with no flashforwards and only three flashbacks to Finland that serve to emphasize how much Eero misses his mother and worries about her, and how hard it is to get a straight answer out of her about the dangers ahead. These come one-quarter, one-half, and three-quarters through the movie.

Up to this point, the movie has fleshed out its central thesis with a variety of dramatic incidents, that thesis being, again, that in the fog of war, the adults try to shield the children from physical and psychological harm, in this case by (a) removing them to a distant safe place and (b) refusing to share with them any meaningful details about the actual situation at hand. Kirsti (the boy Eero’s mom) and his dad (before his death) tell Eero only that everything will soon be fine and as before. However, children hear things. Eero hears of the Russian bombing of Helsinki. He hears that his mother is working for the Nazis. His overriding concern for his mother interferes with him forming any sort of connection with his new foster mother, Signe. The adults’ refusal to share information with him is only exacerbated by what he does manage to learn on his own.

A word on war children: The term can refer to children forced to serve in the army during a war (widespread in Somalia), children left behind when their soldier fathers go home (children of Viet Nam fathered by American soldiers; children of Finland fathered by Nazis), or children displaced by war, like those in England (the Narnia books), Finland, and Germany. The first of the Finnish children sent to safety in other countries (mostly to Sweden) left during the Winter War between Finland and Russia (30 November 1939 to 13 March 1940). At that time, most believed that Russia would easily invest Finland. Finnish parents feared the coming Russians and their mistreatment of women and children. In the event, Russia took Karelia and then the struggle bogged down and a truce was agreed. After an interim, Finland signed a pact with Germany, Great Britain declared war against Finland (but didn’t do much fighting there), and with Germany’s assistance, Finland took back Kerelia. This second phase of their war with Russia the Finns named the Continuation War (25 June 1941 to 19 September 1944). Russia and Germany saw it simply as part of the struggle against each other. Most of the children sent out of the country left as their parents returned to Karelia to rebuild. Finland later fought Germany in Lapland. Between 60,000 and 80,000 children were moved out of Finland during these periods of conflict, most during the Continuation War. (If the children were all as much trouble as Eero, 80,000 seems like an awful large number.) 20% never returned (about 15,000), because they had no family to return to, or because of concerns that Russia wasn’t finished with the country, or because the Finnish economy lay in ruins. Of those who did return, a large number went back to Sweden during Finland’s economic doldrums and Sweden’s hot economy of the 1950s and 1960s. Studies conducted later suggest that the children who stayed behind in Finland made out better than those who left, psychologically. There were 2,000 civilian casualties in Finland during the war, some of them children, but a much greater number of the war children struggled to adjust once the war ended, part of their problem being that the country was unaware of any such problem. There is a documentary, War Children (Sotalapset)(2003) on the subject. The movie seems a little casual about chronology, but we know for sure that Eero doesn’t arrive in Sweden before late 1942, because that’s the year on Signe’s daughter’s gravestone. Yet after Eero talks to his mother over the phone at Christmas dinner, we’re given a scene where the Russians bomb Helsinki and to me, the implication was that this was happening for the first time; that bombing occurred in December, 1939.

To this point, one hour into the movie, the director’s use of cuts to jump back and forth in time seem straightforward to me. He sets context at the outset by placing a scene in present time and he uses three flashbacks during his telling of Eero’s story to emphasize the impact of events in Skåne on Eero’s frame of mind. We have seen Eero grow increasingly concerned about his mother and her welfare, making two attempts to return to Finland, at the risk of his own life. As he tells Signe, he doesn’t want his mother to die. But the director now jumps forward into bookend territory again. Why? The immediate impression is that we’ve reached a point of inflection in the narrative and this jump lets us catch our breath and serves as a semicolon: the boy now will settle in at the farm. The old Eero says to his mother, “You did survive, but I wasn’t important to you.” Puzzling. Where does this come from? He was obviously important to her, in every scene so far. Or does he mean that she didn’t keep him adequately informed? “Do you want me to have a guilty conscience again?” she asks him. “No, Mother. That’s exactly what I don’t want.” “Why didn’t you ever talk about it?” his mother asks. Aha. So we now learn, in advance, that after he returns from Sweden, he won’t talk to his mother about his experiences there. “I tried but you didn’t listen,” he says. Hmm. So obviously we don’t know what’s going on here. The conversation is essentially a foreshadowing. “Not true,” Kirsti says. “I would’ve listened. I’m your mother.” “You just wanted everything to be all right. That’s what you wrote me and I never knew how you were doing.” “You were only a child. You must understand that. I couldn’t burden you with my worries. Why didn’t you talk when you came back home?” she asks. “Talk to you?” “Who else?” “Don’t you understand? You weren’t my mother anymore.” So. Foreshadowing. We’ve already seen that Eero is constantly frustrated in his need to know how his mother is doing back in Finland. Her failure to be forthcoming is the cause of what is to come, it seems. We’ll now see how his mother’s refusal to share her situation with him culminates in his rejecting her as his mother and taking Signe to replace her.

Why this jump to what seems to be bookmark 1b? Why foreshadow Eero’s apparently upcoming lifelong change of allegiance to Signe? Is this break in the nature of an intermission plus recapitulation? Or is the director unsure of his case and arguing for it in advance? Will Eero’s concerns for his mother simply ebb now? Has he maintained his relationship with Signe up to the present day? (Recall that he’s just come from her funeral.) Why come to his mother now to discuss this after fifty years of silence? Is Härö just reminding us that we’re vectored in the end to this elderly couple, so that we don’t come to the end of the movie and think “Oh, yeah, forgot about this part” when we get there? The answer is that Härö has a couple of revelations in store for us and needs more time to set them up than the end of the film allows, but watching the movie in real time, my reaction was “Huh?” All signs up till then pointed to a simple but powerful human drama, told without artifice. So that perhaps here Härö here is simply articulating what he has been showing heretofore – that Kirsti chose the wrong path in addressing the concerns of the child by not talking/sharing frankly enough with him. This should be the essence of the movie. Eero here implies that it is the essence, that because his mother would never share the truth with him, he finally transferred his emotional attachment to Signe (who, ironically, shared even less with him than his mother did, in the end). The director, however, did not trust this human truth enough to let it carry the movie, even though he showcases it here. Instead, in what follows he extends the lack of communication between adult and child into the realm of soap opera, ruining the film’s chances for emotional greatness. It turns out, as we come to see, that Eero isn’t talking as much about his mother’s refusal to share up until this point in the narrative, as about a misapprehension that he acquires later on. Given that fact, the dialog in this interlude was a real head-scratcher. Quite a bit of plot machinery, relatively speaking, will be required to resolve it while I, as a simple viewer watching it, was still back on the farm with Eero recovering from his frantic attempts to escape.

The movie proceeds, with Signe and Hjalmar learning that Kirsti has a German lover; Kirsti asks them to keep it a secret and raise her boy. Eero learns of this. After all his worry, he now learns that his mother doesn’t want him back. He is accepted into the Jönsson family. Flash forward to see him at Signe’s funeral; this cut is used in the same way as the three flashbacks in the first half of the movie – to accentuate his feelings and experiences when young, in this case by contrasting them with his grief at Signe’s death.Back to his happy life with his new family. Signe swears that she’ll never let him go. The war ends. A letter comes from Kirsti; she’s changed her mind. Signe doesn’t tell Eero. She struggles to keep him, but can’t. He returns to Finland, unhappily.

And so, now, one-and-a-half hours into the movie, in the final less-than-ten-minutes of the boy’s narrative, Härö has one last opportunity to dramatize the effect of the war and Eero’s separation from his mother. Eero arrives in Finland not knowing that his mother wants him back and not knowing that Signe only let him go because Kirsti did want him so badly. This information has been withheld from him. As far as he’s concerned, an indifferent mom ordered him back and a promise-breaking Signe made him go. If the director had trusted the simple power of the situation, he could have let Signe tell the boy that his mother wanted him, and then they could have both dealt with their conflicting emotions, and Eero and Kirsti could have done the same. Or Härö could have let Signe withhold that information but then let mother and son have it out in Finland, with all revealed and dealt with at that end. But such would lead to reconciliation and healing and would undermine the whole point of the movie: that war children in many cases concluded their escape from war in a permanently damaged condition. Thus, the boy must refuse to talk to his mother and she must dither and let him remain silent, even though most moms at this point would force the child to discuss the situation presenting us with the scene we want to see and deserve to see without having to wait for a fifty-year jump for it to arrive, drained of its power by the decrepitude of the protagonists – the scene that could raise this film above melodrama. Eero confronting his mother with the fact that he knows about her lover. How could she be unfaithful to the memory of his father like that? How could she ask Signe to keep him if she truly loved him? And how could Signe, who also claimed to love him, now unaccountably send him back like this? The rage and grief of a damaged young soul, bared.

But no. Härö goes so badly wrong from the moment that Eero steps off the boat, back in Finland, if not already by having Signe stay mum. Härö turns his back on a grand dramatic opportunity. Instead, he sticks with the machinery of melodrama, which dictates that there are things that Eero must know and other things that he must not know. In the course of the movie, he must learn that his mother is in Helsinki, not at home; that she’s with a German; that she doesn’t want him back; that Signe wants him desperately and swears never to give him up. He must not know that his mother gives up the German for him and tells Signe so.

The children descend from the boat into the arms of their loving parents, with only Eero left to wait on the dock, isolated, for his mother’s late arrival. None of the other children demonstrate any visible damage, as Eero does. Why his mother’s late arrival? No reason. It’s a cheap melodramatic) beat, not meant to show that she is uncaring or unloving or irresponsible, but to mislead Eero into thinking that she doesn’t care enough to show up on time. It also suggests to the viewer that the mother is feckless, whereas her real faults in the movie have been, first, to try and protect her son by reassuring him in the face of evidence and fears to the contrary that he has nothing to worry about, when instead she needed to share more with him a fault that many parents would naturally fall prey to, and which might be part of an argument for not separating the family in the first place – and second, to fall in love while he is away and briefly consider giving him up – something that she then completely abjures, sacrificing her love for Jurgen instead of that for her son. So Härö does her a great disservice in the return scene, having her hustle in late for the return of her son, so as to unnecessarily ratchet up Eero’s alienation another notch. (And by the way, the smooth return of the other children, with only Eero having a problem as a consequence of the knowledge denied him, undercuts the director’s focus on the general damage incurred by the children because of their government’s policies.)

At any rate, Eero has nothing to say to his mother on his return, but instead of staying with this while his mother pursues it, we jump ahead an unspecified number of days to a knock at their apartment door. A letter arrives from Sweden as his mother prepares for a job interview. Eero answers the door. The postman knocks to deliver this letter? Eero tells him that Kirsti doesn’t live there anymore. The postman is mildly surprised but takes the ten-year-old’s word for it and mosies off, letter in hand. “Who was it?” Eero’s mother asks. He doesn’t answer, so as not to spoil the plot. “Eero,” his mother says, conveniently letting that go. “All the bad things are over. Mother is here now.” So much for confrontation. We’re just riding along on the missing information here. The letter sent back, we learn later, contains an explanation from Signe of why she hadn’t told Eero that his mother wanted him back, plus his mother’s original letter saying how much she loved him and wanted him back. The rigors of world war and their lifelong impact on a mother and child have here been reduced to Eero answering the door instead of his mother and sending an acquiescent postman on his way. Did Signe try again? We presume not. Did Kirsti ever write to her? We presume not. Did the two exchange xmas cards? Guess not.

In the present, the old Eero says, “I could never believe what you said. I thought you’d disappear at any moment. I felt I could lose everything at any moment. This,” he shows her the letter he caused to be sent back, “Signe had always wanted to give me. She’d always hoped I’d get them. Or we. They came with the funeral invitation.” His mother has never known that Signe’s letter existed, or that Signe had never shown her (Kirsti’s) letter to Eero.

Now he’s back weeping in the Skåne graveyard. and he reads the two letters. (As I mentioned above, presumably one letter is in Finnish and the other in Swedish. How did that work? We get glimpses of the pages but I couldn’t tell if this was so. Signe didn’t speak Finnish and I don’t imagine she read it either. Did Kirsti have her letters translated before sending? Ditto Signe? Just wondering.) The director is cutting around here to mask the simplicity of his plotting.

Bear with me now as Härö makes his final, climatic run at our hearts. He’s locked in to the final cuts, forced to spin out the reveal. The cuts are dictated to him by his initial lack of confidence in the power of his basic story idea. To repeat myself: wanting to make his point that the trauma of relocation can have, and did have, a lifelong negative effect on many of the children “saved,” he’s got to pay for earlier turning to the shopworn and fundamentally dishonest device of denying his protagonist necessary knowledge, not once but many times throughout the movie, instead of relying on truth in life and film, to propel the narrative forward. So that, the true climatic moments of “Mother of Mine” having been passed by, their power unrealized, moments used as no more than plot highlights, Härö is constrained to juggle the elements of what is really just coda material as he winds up the clockwork that he hopes, unrealistically, will trigger that release of powerful emotion in our breasts that he… How many metaphors have I mixed here? Sorry, I lost control there for a second.

Or, even worse, he had these cuts in mind from the beginning – this is the payoff that he wants – and he employed his gimmicks specifically to get us here.


Eero stands weeping in the Skåne graveyard and reads Signe’s letter, as we see her standing, looking like she did back when she wrote it, staring out to sea, and as she tells his mom to show him her (Kirsti’s) letter, and that she (Signe) was wrong not to show it to him when it came (although actually he probably heard Signe and Hjalmar arguing about it, but pretended that he didn’t), but that she loved him and didn’t hink that Kirsti did, although later she came to her senses about that, after Eero was gone, and wrote this letter. Signe faces the camera. “Please, Kirsti, let him read your letter so he’ll know.” (We presume that she’s sent the letter back with her own.) “And give up any hope of an Oscar.”

In the graveyard Eero puts the letter away and reads his mother’s. “Dear Signe. There is peace now in Finland, which is a huge relief to us all. Hans-Jurgen returned to Germany without me.”

The elderly mother Kirsti, who wrote the all-important returned unshared letter, is now shown continuing to read it aloud as Eero listens. “The German loves me more than anything and I love him, but I have to ask myself whom I love the most?”

Cut to Eero a week earlier, back in Skåne, staring out to sea after having just read this himself. Kirsti continues, voice-over, “I must’ve been blind and insane. How could I even consider leaving my own child? I may have to carry this guilt for the rest of my life.”

Now she’s young again, looking out at us. “But I ask of you, thankful for all that you’ve done, to send me my beloved son as soon as possible. And you’re right. This sort of thing blasts any Oscar hopes for us both.”

Back to the old Kirsti, reading. She and Eero eye each other. “60 years. a lifetime.” “It sounds ridiculous, but somehow it feels that a part of us has been left there in Skåne. That’s where I decided never to miss you,” Eero says.

I’m sitting on the couch regretting that last toke as I try to keep all this straight.

“But you did,” Kirsti says. “I did, Mother,” Eero says. “Now I understand it.” Huh? Understands what? That as a child he had known the part about the German and Kirsti asking Signe to take care of him, but not the part about Kirsti asking Signe to please send him back, after which Signe made him go home even, as he thought, Kirsti didn’t want him? Kirsti, Signe, and Eero are all just culpable enough, in just the right order, to replace a world war’s blame with their own.

Onscreen, mother and son touch. They’re reconciled after fifty empty years, but I’m not. I’m still reeling from the sequence of rapid cuts, back then and now, images of the pensive trio, all perhaps wondering, like I was on the couch, HOW THEY AVOIDED TALKING ABOUT THIS FOR HALF A CENTURY. He never went back to Skåne? He never asked his mother why Signe sent him back if she, his mother, wanted to go with the German? But there is no point in asking questions like this because the whole narrative is artifice.

These is a deep irony in this movie. Two mothers, one blood and one surrogate, love Eero. As a consequence of their own weaknesses, their actions taken together rob him of the ability to trust either of them. Only at the age of 60 does he come to fully understand this. Thus love, rather than hate or indifference, wounds him worst in the war. Love and a clunky script. See, if THIS – the letters – caused the problem, then it’s no wonder all the other kids ran to their parents when they got off the boat in Finland. All this talk in Finland about alienated children – never happened – because the chain of events that we watch causing the problems is so unlikely. Perhaps the director did not trust himself to tell the basic story, with it’s raw simplicity. Perhaps he made up his mind early on that the boy, in later life, would finally come to terms with the traumas that he suffered as a child. Whatever the reason, to tell his story, he fell back on, or was made to use through lack of imagination, a number of tricks of the melodramatic trade that perforce weakened the movie – its narrative and its impact. So wrong. The point of the movie is to demonstrate why the strategy of moving kids from their homes and relocating them in a foreign country did as much harm as good, and here, this is why? Because a Desperate Housewife/Hollywood Romantic Comedy sidetracked a boy’s affections for his mother for fifty years? The obvious conclusion to be drawn by the viewer, then, is that it was a good idea to ship Eero out, if only Signe and Kristi had stepped up to their responsibilities as in real life they would have (or wouldn’t have, but for more quotidian reasons).

Eero leaves his mother now. Outside in the night, he looks up. He sees the stars. He smiles. Smile if you wish, oh Eero, but you’re sixty, your mother is in her eighties, and Signe has moved on to make another movie.

Segue fade to the young boy staring up at the night sky at the beginning of the movie. Back at the beginning. And this time, Härö, just tell the truth.