(25/09/07)

Of Mice and Men | Dir: Lewis Milestone (1939) | With Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Betty Field . Released by Arrow Films.

Nominated for four Oscars® when it was first released, this lean, stylish piece of cinematic theatre, an adaptation of John Steinback’s famous ‘play-novellete’, contains what American performing arts can offer at best: words that fly out like shards, sharp, innovative acting, an economical use of signs and classy technique.

The story develops around the theme of compassion and desperation. Two migrant workers in California during the Great Depression – the quick and short George Milton and the mentally handicapped Lennie Small, a giant of a man who George looks after – are on the road looking for work, having fled a previous job for some trouble that Lennie innocently got the pair into. Their dream is to have their own piece of land, where Lennie wants to have rabbits, fluffy pets being a recurring motif in the story as a symbol of the giant’s infantilism and fragility. George tries to keep Lennie out of trouble by threatening him with a prohibition to ‘tend them rabbits’.

An aging worker at the ranch they find new jobs at provides a glimmer of hope when in his desperate loneliness he opens up to the duo and says he’s willing to put in his few hundred dollars so they can buy a house and land. But an incident with the ranch’s owner’s wife puts a tragic end to their short-lived dream.

This harrowing and unique mixture of Americana and fatalism is a film treasure whose DVD release is a welcome move to increase its visibility. With not one scene too many or one wasted word, Of Mice and Men is as precise as a diamond cutter. For film and theatre lovers alike.

Eisenstein Collection, Vol. 1: Strike/Battleship Potemkin/October (1925, 1925, 1928) | Dir: Sergei Eisenstein | With Various . Released by Tartan Video.

Reviewing Eisenstein’s canonical films is almost like being a Christian and reviewing the altar of a church. There’s nothing much left to say about one of the pioneer film directors who helped define film language except that. That said, I personally prefer the work of Eisenstein’s Russian contemporary Dziga Vertov, who made the more freewheeling, exhilarating, propaganda-free Man With a Movie Camera (1929), the touchstone of experimental filmmaking and montage, non-narrative film.

Strike is the earliest piece in the volume. The added soundtrack sometimes gets in the way with its insistence on overemphasising the imagery, creating a kind of aural pleonasm. I like October best for its rhythm, décor, costumes, there seems to be a nicer fluidity about this film. Battleship Potemkin suffers slightly under its own weight as the anticipation to the famous Odessa Steps sequence overshadows the rest of the film. But still, these three films together are a crash course in cinema from, as I said, one of the inventors of film language.

The Ballad of Narayama (1958) | Dir: Keisuke Kinoshita | With Kinuyo Tanaka, Teiji Takahashi, Yûko Mochizuki. Released by Tartan Video.

Based on Shichiro Fukuzawa’s tales, the original version of The Ballad of Narayama (it was remade in 1983 by Shohei Imamura) is an illustration of human cruelty and indifference contrasted with rebellious tenderness here represented by filial love.

Shot in traditional Kabuki theatre style, more conspicuously so in the early part of the film, it features the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin, the old matron who is preparing to make her death pilgrimage to mount Narayama where the elderlies in her village are expected to go once they reach the age of 70. Despite the roots in Japanese folk culture, the social dynamics and interactions in the film are poignantly universal while its theatrical, colourful style adds lightness and quiet humour to the story.

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