Movie: Trash Dance (2012)

TrashDancePoster_28x40_Rev04-04-2013_revFINAL-LOCKEDcw1 copyThis documentary is beautiful and very heartwarming, and I deeply appreciate the sentiments of the movie. This movie impressively combines two seemingly incompatible things: trash and dance. These, oddly, happen to be two of my interests, so watching this movie was a no-brainer for me. For anyone who cannot believe how those two things can go together, or how this movie could be heartwarming, I hope to convince you that this movie is definitely worth watching. The artistic visions of both the director of the film and the choreographer of the dance piece were very impressive. In short, the choreographer is able to appreciate a beauty in the routine movements of collecting trash and, more importantly, spread her appreciation of the work of invisible laborers.

directorIn this movie, the choreographer shadows trash and recycling workers in Austin, Texas for a year and designs a dance piece using the motions of the workers and their vehicles. The choreographer—as a Caucasian woman working in the arts—is definitely looked on suspiciously as an outsider when she enters a workforce that is primarily black and Hispanic men. You can see the cynicism and disinterest of the workers at first, but slowly the workers warm up to her and her vision. To the workers’ surprise, the choreographer learns about all the different departments and incorporates the unique aspects of each in the dance piece. Her genuine interest in their jobs and them as individuals is able to convince them to spend extra time for rehearsals for the dance piece. The choreographer also calls upon the unique talents of individuals (breakdancing, harmonica, rapping, etc.), making the dance for the workers, not just for herself. It means a lot to be appreciated for the hard work you do every day, as well as for the parts outside of work that you are proud of, and the viewers can see how excited the workers are to be seen as individuals. It is wonderful seeing the light and excitement in the eyes of these underappreciated workers when they talk about how it felt to perform in front of their families and thousands of other people.

This movie also highlights the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality regarding trash our society has. People view trash as gross and to be avoided. Trash collectors are looked down upon by many because their work is thought to be dirty, mindless, dead-end work, but trash collectors are actually doing tough physical labor—often at odd hours and with stuff most people don’t want to go near—and our society relies on these workers to keep our streets and homes clean. I have often heard people use jobs such as trash collectors, janitors, or burger flippers as the ultimate failure to achieve the glamorous American Dream. It is dangerous to equate these “bottom-rung” jobs to failure, though, as it can make us falsely believe that these people—these real people working these jobs—are lazy or uneducated. Through this movie, we are reminded how incredibly hardworking these people are. Many of them work two or more jobs just to make ends meet and support their children. The most heartbreaking moment in the movie is when a father says that his little girl loves to see his trash truck because it is so big, but he knows that someday she’ll be embarrassed by it and its smells once she understands the place trash holds in society. This hardworking father should not be made to feel embarrassed about his work. Instead, we should be thankful whenever others do important work that we wouldn’t want to do—whether that be fighting fires, performing surgeries, or picking up trash.

curtaincallThrough the dance piece, there is an appreciation for the anonymous blue collar workers that keep our society running, as well as a beauty given to a profession that is looked upon with disdain and disgust. The choreographer says her main intention of this project and her dance piece is to make people feel a connection with the people around them that may cross paths with but never know. Thousands of people showed up in the rain to watch this show live, and I think they left with that feeling. The director of the movie also deserves recognition for being able to capture the charming personalities of the different workers. I could not help but be drawn into their stories.

I think the sentiments of this movie are particularly relevant today in the United States where there is a huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and extremely hard-working people can stay stuck in poverty. I also think we can’t continue avoiding the trash we are producing by having poorer people deal with it. Personally, it is hard for me to speak of these things without some anger. The truly great thing about this genuine and artistic documentary, though, is that it is not angry or heavy-handed. Instead, this movie touches on these ideas by simply giving life to ordinary people you might not initially find relatable.


Movie: Boyhood (2014)

masonjrThis movie has a very interesting concept: a coming-of-age story filmed with the same actors over the course of 12 years in order to actually show a boy growing up. The movie tells the story of Mason Jr. growing up from the age of 6 to the age of 18. It is a fictional story, but all of the same actors are used for the characters, and footage across this 12 year period of the boy actually growing older is pieced together to make this movie, Boyhood.

It is a very interesting approach to film, and I respect the director (Richard Linklater) for his patience and commitment to this idea. It is said that his idea for this movie was to try to capture all the little moments over the years that happen that allow a boy to grow up, rather than a few dramatic moments that happen years apart. The film was very well-received, nominated for five Golden Globes (winning Best Motion Picture in Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress) and for six Academy Awards (winning Best Supporting Actress); Linklater also won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. I imagine Linklater must have taken many, many hours of footage over the years that had to be shaved down to the two and a half hour film. Also, while editing, the director would not be able to go back in time to re-film or film additional scenes with the actors at the right age. Given these challenges, I have respect for this movie and the director.

However, overall, I found this movie to be disappointing.

patricia-arquette-boyhoodThe most disappointing part of the movie was the portrayal of the mother at the end of the movie. The mother is a young, single mother who goes back to school to pursue and achieve a career that can support her children. She also has the strength to leave an abusive relationship and start over somewhere else. This is very admirable and shows how much children mean to a mother. The movie, however, goes on to have her soon marry and divorce another mean man, and ends with her having a breakdown in front of her son about how little she has done with her life and how alone she is. I realize this movie titled “Boyhood” is about the boy Mason Jr. growing up, but I would’ve liked to have seen a sense of self-worth from the mother who has a lot to be proud of at the end of the film. patricia-arquette-boyhood2In an interview with the actors, Patricia Arquette (Mason Jr.’s mother, and winner of a Golden Globe and Academy Award for this film) reveals that she was also a young, single mother, so I am even more confused why the director chose to end the mother’s story arc with her weak and feeling like she needs a man in her life, rather than strong and proud of what she has accomplished for herself and provided for her children. In contrast, the father is portrayed as cool, caring, and the emotionally supportive parent who teaches the kids about life and love while the mother is too busy worrying about money. (Of course, as a responsible single mother, she is worried about money!) The father seems to pay a bit of child support and he offers one time to chip in for the son’s large graduation party, but then doesn’t actually because he doesn’t have any cash on him.

My other criticism of the film is that it ambitiously tries to cover 12 years of a family’s life, so a lot is included in the movie that may not be followed up on. For example, there is one scene of Mason Jr. being bullied, some scenes of random girls talking to him at parties, and one scene of 15-year-old Mason Jr. coming home high and drunk. I suppose these scenes are experiences that may happen during adolescence, but since we don’t see how the characters respond to these situations, I don’t know what significance or growth any of the characters gain from them. Also, what happens to the other children of the abusive man? I hope they are able to find a good home since they are never mentioned again. Throughout the movie, the audience may also wonder where the movie is going. boyhood-1Various somewhat non-dramatic events happen one after another and seem to build up to the drug-induced musings of an adolescent boy, which seems like a weird way to end a coming-of-age story. Coming-of-age stories normally have the main character maturing or finding themselves; however, Mason Jr. seems pretty lost and restless still at the end of the movie (regarding his career choice in photography, his sexuality and view of love, or what responsibilities he has) and I am sure his personal growth in his next few years in college and after graduating will be even greater than the 12 years shown in the movie. Given today’s society, many adolescents don’t enter “the real world” as young adults until after they graduate from college or are able to find a job that allows them to be independent from their parents.

As a side note, President Obama revealed in an interview that Boyhood was his favorite movie of 2014. The scenes in the middle of the movie showing strong support for Obama during the 2008 elections might be why!


Movie: Inside Out (2015)

The Destigmatization of Sadness in Inside Out

I’m giving Disney/Pixar an A in mental health awareness for their recent work. It seems like this is their pet topic these days, with Inside Out being the third movie running to tackle emotional health issues. First, in Disney’s Frozen, Elsa’s emotional issues and repression struck chords with people suffering from a wide variety of mental ails, such as depression, bipolar, and anxiety. Then in Disney’s Big Hero 6, Baymax makes it clear that his job as a healthcare robot is to attend to injuries both physical AND mental (the latter being the case with Hiro), and Pixar continues this pattern with Inside Out. Following the perspective of the well-meaning but unwise Joy, Inside Out contains a message about mental health that hinges on destigmatizing sadness and learning to appreciate its indispensable role in life.

I think my first impression of this movie is a representative starting place: When I first saw the Emotions introduced in the trailer — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust — my thought was that it was strange that there was only one positive emotion out of the bunch. “Weird,” I thought. “I wonder why these are predominantly (4 out of 5) negative emotions.”1 In a sense, my first thought that these are negative emotions was right — the other four emotions deal with / react to negative, unpleasant things in the environment (annoying things, scary things, disgusting things, etc.), and so we would just prefer to go through life not feeling them if given the choice.

However, the idea of the emotions other than Joy being negative is the exact myth that the movie aims to dispel. The beginning of the movie immediately gives them all a positive spin after each emotion is introduced. Anger helps Riley assert her space, rights, preferences. Fear keeps Riley safe from danger. Disgust keeps Riley from being poisoned, either physically or socially (i.e. keeps her away from low-quality things). It is only Sadness that the movie’s protagonist, Joy, has trouble understanding the positive side of.

Over the course of the movie, the lessons Joy learns about Sadness are ones the audience would do well to take to heart as well.

Lesson #1: There is a rational dimension to all emotions

Inside Out

One of the best scenes in the movie for me was the one in which Riley’s mother is able to change Riley’s mood by framing the current situation in a way where Riley’s perseverance through the difficult moving process makes the situation much more bearable for the parents, and how much they appreciate it. Before this moment, the “negative” emotions (Anger, Disgust, and Fear), like malcontent mutineers aboard Joy’s Happy Ship, were threatening to seize control from Joy, as there was just no way it was appropriate for Riley to look past all the disappointing, unpleasant, and awful recent experiences to continue to be cheerful (as she would if Joy were to have her way). However, upon hearing this speech, the three willingly give control back to Joy, saying, “Well, you can’t argue with Mom!”

As someone who has had a foul mood completely turned around by a little gesture of appreciation or a random act of kindness, I really liked this depiction of moods being able to suddenly shift despite an overwhelming amount of stress. Aside from that, though, I liked this depiction of emotions as responding to new information in the external world and able to be swayed by reason. Sometimes people depict emotion as the opposite of rationality, possibly because when we are overwhelmed by emotion, it’s hard to reason calmly. However, this is a false dichotomy because emotions not only (usually) have reasons behind them, but emotions are also influenced by the rational thoughts we think and how we conceive of the emotion. Rationality is present in emotions of all kinds.

In Riley’s mind, there is only one emotion shut out of the mood control process, and whose function Joy is not able to understand, and who does random “destructive” acts to Riley’s memories without being able to explain why she felt compelled to do so: Sadness. To all the emotions, Sadness’s actions — turning a happy memory suddenly sad, stepping up to the control panel without warning — seem random, intrusive, unwanted. But to the audience, it’s obvious what’s going on. Feeling down, Riley looks back on her happy memories, and finds (with some horror) that they’re suddenly tinged with sadness. And Sadness keeps absent-mindedly trying to take control because she senses on some level that she is needed, that her emotion is the one that makes the most sense for Riley at that moment — like sadness creeping in on the edges of someone who doesn’t want to admit that they’re sad.

This depiction of the “irrationality” of Sadness’s actions is a huge and important part of the film. When an observer (like Joy) cannot see, understand, or recognize the function/purpose/usefulness/role/reason behind the emotion of sadness, the state of being sad becomes frighteningly irrational/unreasonable/gratuitous/inscrutable/intrusive.

It is critical for Riley that Joy, over the course of the movie, realizes that Sadness has strengths and functions that make her indispensable, and reasons for her actions. The first lesson being…

Lesson #2a: Sadness is needed for empathizing
Lesson #2b: Sadness helps people move on

Inside Out

When Bing Bong loses his wagon, Joy tries to get him to power through or be diverted from his sadness using the techniques she knows — cheer-based techniques like pep talks, wheedling, optimism, amusement. She knows from experience that sometimes these techniques work (like in the above-mentioned scene), but this time it doesn’t. Sadness, however, empathizes with him and gets him to talk through what he’s feeling.

I like this very short video on the difference between sympathy and empathy, which almost reads like an explanation of the difference between Joy and Sadness’s technique:

Similar to what this short talk illustrates, sometimes it’s more meaningful or more helpful to someone not to offer humor, levity, or positive-thinking (or solutions), but to instead acknowledge their sadness or pain by getting on their level instead. This is one function of Sadness (and other emotions) in the movie — the ability to connect with the sadness that someone is experiencing. Each emotion can do this with their own emotion, but (for example) Joy cannot do it with other people’s sadness.

In addition, this scene hints at another function or purpose for sadness. Only after talking about his sadness is Bing Bong able to get over the loss of the wagon and move on to the next things.

I think this is also true to life. Having kept a diary since high school, the good that journaling has done me is very obvious to me. Writing an entry would let me organize my thoughts and get to the bottom of what exactly made me so upset in various situations, and after the painful experience of poking into all that was done (which pretty much involved an hour or two of crying), the productive next steps always became so clear to me. It’s difficult to figure out what course of action to take next when you don’t fully understand what’s upsetting you, so cutting that sadness short would have made it much harder to arrive at the point of clarity.

Small amounts of sadness or stress can be powered through without needing any closure, but sometimes you need to examine a sad event closely and deal with it before you feel okay with leaving it behind / moving past it / forgiving and forgetting. Suppressing it makes it smaller and less weighty, but means you still carry it everywhere.

Lesson #3a: Sadness is a plea for help
Lesson #3b: The suppression of sadness can cause mental harm

Inside Out

This is the biggest and final realization that Joy has about the function of Sadness.

In the pivotal scene of the movie, Joy discovers that a memory that she “won” (is joyful / yellow-colored) actually started out blue and sad. The way it was converted to a happy memory was by Riley’s parents and friends showing up to cheer her up after a failed game. Joy finally understands that Sadness’s main function is to signal to the external world that Riley needs something, that she needs support and help, that she can’t solve her problems by herself. That’s important because seeking help IS a good and sensible response to sadness and depression, and that connection (sadness -> seek help) is a good one for people to keep in mind. Pushing sadness down or trying to power through it means that you erase the external, detectable signals that you need help.

Aside from the suppression of sadness, the other issue related to the expression of sadness is that sometimes people DO express sadness, but they don’t receive support. They are dismissed, told they shouldn’t be sad, told their sadness is annoying or burdensome for other people, and so on.

And it’s true, dealing with someone else’s sadness is mentally/emotionally taxing. It very much CAN be a burden. Sometimes there’s just nothing that a particular person can do to help. People have limits. In such cases, it might be tempting to minimize or attempt to erase someone’s sadness in a lazier way by simply saying it doesn’t exist. However, this does not help the person at all, and instead makes it so they form a different connections about sadness instead — (sadness -> don’t seek help, because you won’t get it), or (sadness -> don’t be sad) — in their mind.

One thing that’s a bit odd about the Emotions in Inside Out is that it’s not clear if they are a part of Riley herself or if they have a caretaker relationship to her similar to that of a parent. Supporting the idea of emotions as sometimes-parents, Joy sometimes shows a sense of pride in Riley’s accomplishments or, when she replays a favorite memory, a nostalgic fondness for time spent “watching Riley grow up” — much closer to a parent than an ego. And like a parent/caretaker/someone who cares deeply for Riley’s wellbeing, Joy (and the other Emotions, even Sadness) hate seeing Riley sad. But it’s this (well-meaning) reluctance or determined resistance toward the idea of seeing someone you love sad that causes damage to that person.

I think that’s an important message — the attitude you hold towards emotions affects mental states. Many mental wellness handbooks start with the important step of learning to validate (acknowledge, non-judgmentally, the presence of) “negative” emotions, like sadness, embarrassment, hatred, jealousy, etc. If we can’t do this, we pathologically disrupt the function and role of sadness.

In conclusion, Inside Out contains an important message about the importance and value of the emotion sadness, by following the viewpoint and mistakes of the main character, Joy, who, with the best of intentions, tries to protect her human Riley from unhappiness, disappointment, or failure. The result of her mistreatment of Sadness, though, is Riley undergoing a severe mental breakdown. Even some of the reactions to this movie indicate a continued assumption that sadness is a “bad” emotion. Hopefully, sadness will continue to be destigmatized and be recognized as a health-promoting emotion.

[1] Of course, they’re based on Ekman’s basic six universal emotions, minus Surprise, so that’s at least one reason behind the choices… but that’s beside the point about how it’s important to question whether these emotions are actually negative!

Movie: The Temptations (1998)

classic5This TV miniseries about the musical group The Temptations premiered on NBC in 1998; it was made based on the autobiography of Otis Williams, who is the lone surviving member of the original Temptations and considered to be the leader of the group (though was never the lead vocal). The Temptations, a black vocals group from Detroit, Michigan, successfully rocketed to the top of the Billboards with Motown Records during the 1960s and 70s. They are known for their sweet harmonies, soulful vocals, and smooth dance steps, and the group earned the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. This miniseries The Temptations tells the story (from the viewpoint of Otis Williams) of the group from the early days until the deaths of all of the other core members; it was produced by Otis Williams and The Temptations’ manager of many years, Shelley Berger.

temptationsFor as long as I can remember, I have loved The Temptations for their feel-good and heartfelt tunes, as well as their great group performances. I had always assumed, though, that the five sharply-dressed members that danced and sang wonderfully together in videos I had seen got along with each other as well as they harmonized, and that those five people always equaled The Temptations. However, as shown by this TV miniseries that provides an overview of The Temptations over nearly 50 years, the group members changed a lot over the years and there were tensions along their journey to the Hall of Fame.

Back in the 1950s, The Temptations were formed from two local groups that were struggling to get their names out—“Otis Williams and the Distants” and one of their rivals, “The Primes.” The combination of the two groups was important; The Primes added the dancing component (Paul Williams was the choreographer for many of their performances) as well as Edie Kendricks’s strong tenor voice featured in many of their early tracks, while The Distants had the bassline and Otis Williams was the organizer needed to establish them as a group. The five original voices of The Temptations harmonized beautifully, but they still didn’t see success on the Billboards, and even became known as “The Hitless Temptations.” Frustrated, one of the members, Al Bryant, quit in the 60s and was replaced by David Ruffin, an aspiring singer and a fan of The Temptations. Now with Ruffin, The Temptations released their first Top 20 hit (“The Way You Do the Things You Do”), and later their number-one hit “My Girl” featuring Ruffin’s vocals. These five members are considered the “Classic Five” (the five I had associated with The Temptations). Throughout the 1960s, The Temptations released hit after hit and became internationally known, mainly with David Ruffin as the lead singer.

ruffinHowever, David Ruffin expected more money, wanted the group name to be changed to “David Ruffin & The Temptations” (much like “Diana Ross & The Supremes” or “Smokey Robinson & The Miracles”), increasingly used cocaine, and began missing practices and even some performances. Ruffin was fired in 1968 and replaced with Dennis Edwards. However, on multiple occasions, Ruffin snuck into their performances and hijacked the microphone from Edwards, pleasantly surprising avid fans of the Classic Five who were critical of the new Edwards. It is said that, due to the still strong popularity of David Ruffin, Otis Williams wanted to fire Edwards and bring Ruffin back in, but due to Ruffin’s continued unreliability, Edwards was kept on. Finally, with their Top 10 hit single “Cloud Nine”—which won a Grammy—featuring lead vocals by Dennis Edwards, Edwards was beginning to be accepted as part of The Temptations. In 1989, The Temptations—the Classic Five plus Dennis Edwards—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the 1970s, two more of the Classic Five—Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks—were also replaced. Paul Williams’s health was declining so was forced to resign, while Eddie Kendricks—unhappy with the direction of The Temptations, his best friend Paul being out of the group, and the control of Otis Williams—decided to go solo. Dennis Edwards, who had replaced David Ruffin, also had ongoing tensions with Otis Williams, and was also replaced in 1976. (This miniseries shows very little about Edwards and his on-and-off participation in The Temptations). Regarding many of their hits from the 1970s, leader Otis Williams commented, “While you hear our voices weaving together so smoothly, we were actually fragmenting.” In the 1980s, The Temptations did a “reunion album,” that featured the more “classic” sound of The Temptations and brought back Ruffin, Kendricks, and Edwards. These three later did their own tour titled “Former Leads of The Temptations.”

When looking at the incredibly talented and influential Temptations over the years, there are a few interesting things I wish to highlight.

ballofconfusionFirst, the adaptation of the group to changing times. The Temptations—initially with a doo-wop, classical Motown sound that mainly sang about love—started incorporating more funk in the late 1960s and early 70s, such as the electronic wah-wah sound featured in “Cloud Nine” and “psychedelic” rhythms. Also, the lyrics began to incorporate the social and political changes that were erupting in the turbulent times of the 1970s, in contrast to their earlier characteristic love ballads. For example, their song “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” was about the unknown future and brings up issues such as violence and segregation. This change is also seen with other Motown hits such as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”which addresses the Vietnam War over a funky beat. 1990Since then to the present, the contemporary Temptations have incorporated a Eurodance beat characteristic of the 80s, the slow and simple R&B beats of the 90s, and even auto-tunes—which dominates pop music today—in their most recent album. Regarding this adaptation, leader Otis Williams says that the group has to “live in the present while respecting the past.” Also, as an undercurrent in this miniseries, we see the tough transition from segregated America—where The Temptations are considered for “black audiences only”—to integrated America—where black and white people stand together in the crowds.

Second, the tragically young deaths of many of the members. Of the Classic Five, Paul Williams suffered from health issues and alcoholism, and committed suicide at the age of 34; David Ruffin died at the age of 50 from a cocaine overdose; Eddie Kendricks died at the age of 52 due to lung cancer; and Melvin Franklin—the bassist who stayed in The Temptations until right before his death—suffered from many health problems, and died at the age of 52 after a series of seizures. Al Bryant of the original five died at the age of 36 from a liver disease. Otis Williams (74 years old now) is the only surviving member of the original or Classic Five. Also, Roger Penzabene, the songwriter who wrote their hits “I Wish It Would Rain” and “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You)” based on his own heartbreak, committed suicide. Life as an artist can be mentally and physically exhausting, and so many incredibly talented people die young. (27 Club)

Lastly, what really makes “The Temptations”? There is a musical group called The Temptations that is still active today, and it is still led by Otis Williams—who never had lead or distinctive vocals in any of The Temptations’ many hits. The tagline of The Temptations today is “55 Years & Still Going Strong,” and Otis Williams says that “reinvention is the name of the game.” The lineup has changed several more times over the years, and even some of these newer members have gone off and created their own Temptations splinter groups. Dennis Edwards—the original replacement for David Ruffin of the Classic Five, and the only other surviving of the six members that were inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—has his own group, The Temptations Revue. Over the years, there have been 24 people who were at least for some time considered a Temptation. As Eddie Kendricks aptly says in the dramatized miniseries when he quits The Temptations, “There’s getting to be more ex-Temptations than Temptations.” Interestingly, with the members being replaced one after another, none of the current members of The Temptations have worked with any of the original Temptations other than Otis Williams. Because of this and the gradual change in sound over the years, the original name of “Otis Williams and The Distants” seems more appropriate now. It seems that Otis Williams is clinging onto the name because of all of the respect there is for The Temptations.

Since this miniseries is based on Otis Williams’s autobiography, it is certainly biased, especially regarding the positive leadership of Otis Williams and the tensions between group members. Several people, including Otis Williams’s ex-wife and David Ruffin’s family, filed lawsuits against the miniseries for the negative and biased representation of characters, but the court ruled in favor of the defendants. Otis Williams also claimed that, although it was based on his autobiography and he is considered to be a producer, he did not have much say on how things were presented.

standing-in-the-shadow-of-motownThis miniseries, though biased, gives a good overview of the fascinating, yet turbulent history of the incredible musical group The Temptations. Watching this miniseries in combination with Standing in the Shadows of Motown—a documentary that sheds light on the Funk Brothers, the incredibly talented, but overlooked back band of many of The Temptations’ hits as well as many other Motown classics—and Get Ready: Definitive Performances—which is a collection of recordings of live performances by The Temptations during the 1960s and 70s that shows the charm of their actual dancing and stylish suits—is truly inspiring as well as informative regarding the amazing impact these musicians had on modern music.


Movie: Another Year (2010)

In honor of the New Year, this entry is about British director Mike Leigh’s Another Year.

another-year-cover-700-h-283x400I found Another Year—despite being a movie about people of a different generation and living in a different country than myself—to be very relevant and relatable. This movie depicts the absolute normalcy of both happiness and unhappiness. The movie begins with a depressed elderly woman in a doctor’s office asking for medication to help her with her insomnia—one of the many parts of her life that seems to be making her miserable. When we see this depressed woman (who says she is 1 out of 10 on the scale of happiness!), we wonder, “How in the world did she end up like this?? What terrible things have happened in her life?” But I believe this movie gently suggests that the difference between a happy life and a miserable one is more subtle.

In this movie, we follow the lives of two women—Gerri and Mary—over the course of a year. At the beginning, they don’t seem too different—middle-aged, working stable jobs in the same health center, often sharing a casual drink or meal together. However, over the year, it becomes clear that the two are in very different places in their lives.

another-year-2Gerri is happily married to a loving husband. Their love is apparent, though never dramatically so—a nice passing compliment, or enjoying a warm cup of tea after a day in the garden together. Most evenings are spent quietly sharing their days over a nice meal, listening to music, or reading in bed next to each other. Gerri also has a sweet son who visits regularly, works out in the garden with his parents at times, and one day brings home a nice girlfriend.

Mary, on the other hand, is single and seems to be trying to pick herself up from a recent relationship she unfortunately had with a married man. She is a pretty woman, but she says that men are disappointed when they find out she is older than they thought. She drinks and smokes a little too much when she is stressed—such as when she is reminded of her singleness or has difficulties with her new car—which of course causes her to be more sad and desperate. She seems to just be realizing that she is getting old, doesn’t like where her life is now, and is becoming increasingly discouraged by her prospects. She is simultaneously comforted by the supportiveness of Gerri as a friend and sadly reminded of her own loneliness when she sees Gerri happily with her husband and son.

Both Gerri’s happiness and Mary’s unhappiness were reached by a series of small steps. Gerri appears to have embarked on a good path years ago that led her to a happy life, while Mary’s choices appear to have led her down a path of unhappiness. Perhaps when Gerri married a man who she would be pleasantly sharing a meal with 30 or so years later, Mary got involved with a man who would later devastate her. While Gerri spends her time enjoying hobbies she was able to develop with her husband, Mary impulsively buys a car in hopes that it will empower her and make her feel less unhappy, only to find that it causes her all sorts of grief. The sad elderly woman in the first scene could be Mary in a couple of decades if Mary is not able to turn her life around and find happiness.

2010_another_year_004I fear that Mary will not be able to. Why? It is not only what choices we make—because there is no way for anyone to really predict how their choices might play out in 5, 10, 30 years—but also how we deal with what happens in life. Depression is a very dangerous and trapping cycle where every little defeat is discouraging, and that discouragement only sets one up for another defeat. For example, Mary drinks when she is upset, acts pitifully when drunk, and then is embarrassed by her actions. Also, she is disheartened by perceived failures from non-attempts, such as when the man she is eying across the bar ends up having a wife or when Gerri’s son brings home a girlfriend; neither man was actually rejecting her, but she will take it that way. On the other hand, when a clumsy and overweight friend of Gerri’s attempts to flirt with Mary, she is upset, not flattered, by this, likely because she is reminded of her own age and singleness. Mary is also quite harsh on herself, calling herself stupid and getting hung up on little mistakes she makes. This tendency to focus on failures and perceive everything negatively makes it very challenging to be happy with what happens in life. Just like happiness is found in all those ordinary moments we see in Gerri’s life, misery can also just be an accumulation of ordinary moments perceived through a negative filter.

This easily discouraged mindset is very hard to break free from and unfortunately many people today are stuck in it. When people can only think of the negative parts of life, they lose hope for their future and become detached from the people and moments around them. In the most extreme situation, this could result in suicide. Because of Mary’s focus on the negative, it seems that she does not know how to be happy with herself, and therefore seeks out external sources of happiness—such as a man or a new car. This movie also seems to critique the use of drugs as a quick-fix to unhappiness in the first scene when the depressed woman demands medication. Mary needs to figure out what she wants, have the confidence that she can achieve it, and find satisfaction with what she has. This change is challenging for depressed youths who still have most of their life ahead of them to work towards getting what they want out of life, but even more challenging for a middle-aged woman who still has very little figured out, especially compared to her happy friend next to her.

I think the title “Another Year” carries a similar meaning as discussed in “The Sun Also Rises.” On one hand, it can be an appreciation of all of the little moments that happened over the last year, and an optimism toward what the next year might bring. On the other hand, it can be a ticking clock for someone like Mary who feels her age more and more every year.


Movie: Amour (2012)

Amour-poster-frenchThis movie is director Michael Haneke’s newest work; it is beautiful and incredibly sad, both touching and crushing my heart. An elderly couple of retired musicians—Anne and Geroges—love each other dearly and still enjoy music. One day, Anne, who seemed perfectly healthy before, suddenly suffers from a stroke. A supposedly simple surgery to reduce her future risks goes badly, and Anne is left with half of her body paralyzed. This movie is about how this change in her health affects Anne and the people around her. This incredibly sad and well-made movie won many international film awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palm d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, in 2012.

I actually wish to talk about how poorly made the official trailer is. The trailer seems to try to twist this wonderful movie into something that is not—a suspenseful thriller, with a strong mystery-solving element. It is true that, typical of Haneke’s style, this movie doesn’t give you all of the answers of what exactly happens or what exactly to think. However, I believe this movie is first and foremost a story about love, and how people deal with that love in hard situations. The trailer focuses on images of the husband Georges (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) panicking, the door being knocked down, and the daughter being upset, and it shows very little of the wife Anne (played by Emmanuelle Riva). It gives no indication of the core element of this movie: Anne suffering from a stroke, and how she and Georges—who love each other deeply—deal with the change.

amour-03The most beautiful part of this movie is the very convincing and heart-warming love Anne and Georges have for each other, even in their old days. They enjoy going to piano concerts together, fondly reminisce over shared meals, and playfully tease each other with obvious love. However, Anne is increasingly frustrated and embarrassed by her deteriorating physically state, and this pains Georges deeply. Both pains are very understandable and heart-breaking.

There is also an interesting contrast between the daughter’s and mother’s views on hospitals. Anne does not like going to the doctor, and only sees one after her stroke upon the urging of her husband Georges; the last thing Anne wants to do is spend her last days in an uncomfortable and foreign hospital, especially after a failed operation. The daughter, on the other hand, wants the best possible treatment money can buy in a hospital and does not understand why her mother refuses. The daughter’s reaction is very reasonable for a modern person with a lot of faith in the modern healthcare system, and for a daughter who deeply wishes for her mother to recover.

The fact that all of the characters’ emotions are completely normal and relatable is what makes this movie so beautiful and sad. It does not need more drama, as the trailer tries to suggest. All of the characters are very relatable to anyone who has ever experienced loss.

2012-amour-french-film-stillAs clear by the sensitive understanding of a loved one suffering presented in this movie, director Haneke was inspired to make this movie from his personal experience with his aunt’s death. He wished to address the issue of, “How do you manage the suffering of someone you love?” It is said that director and screenwriter Haneke had Jean-Louis Trintignant in mind when he wrote the script; Trintignant happily accepted the opportunity to work with Haneke, a director whom he has deep respect for. During auditions for the part of Anne, it is said that Haneke was very impressed with Emmanuelle Riva. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Director Haneke always has a clear vision of what emotion he wants delivered in each scene, and his actors respect him for his ability to communicate to them exactly what he is looking for. I am actually surprised that Haneke would approve the official trailer, which seems to be describing a completely different movie than the beautiful one that I watched.


First Family Post

Dear friends and readers,

To continue Ichigo’s spirit of writing about history and people through films, different members of Ichigo’s family will periodically post on this blog about films they have watched. The posts will primarily be in English. This is the first post by Ichigo’s family. Each post will be signed by the author.

Thanks for reading.

Ichigo’s final post

Dear friends and readers,

This marks the end of our translation project. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was Ichigo’s last post on her Japanese blog before she passed away two years ago. Moving forward, periodic posts will be written by family members to carry on her spirit.

Thanks for reading.

Movie: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) is a publisher of a liberal newspaper in San Francisco. He loves his wife Christie (Katharine Hepburn) and daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton, a niece of Katharine Hepburn), and raised his daughter teaching against racial discrimination. While traveling Hawaii, Joey meets and falls in love with John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Joey and John decide to marry and visit Joey’s parents to tell them of their decision. Even to the parents who oppose racial discrimination, it is not easy to embrace Joey’s decision immediately. The mother wants to accept John—who is accomplished, handsome, and a perfect gentleman—but the father isn’t ready, and his beliefs are being tested. John will leave to New York after having dinner together. He, in contrast to Joey who never doubted the support of her parents, knows the harsh reality of racism, and tells Matt that he will give up on this marriage unless both of Joey’s parents embrace it. Matt must tell them whether or not he supports their marriage by dinner in a few hours. In addition, John’s parents—without knowing John is engaged to a white girl—are coming from Los Angeles to join the dinner to celebrate their engagement.

Although the Japanese title “An Uninvited Guest” sounds good in Japanese, I think it is not a good translation that properly reflects the theme of the movie. The title comes from what excited Joey says to their cook—“Guess who’s coming to dinner! Monsignor Ryan! Please add one more”—when Monsignor Ryan, who is a close friend and advisor of the parents, hears and congratulates Joey and John on their decision, and wants to join them for dinner. Thus, the Japanese title meaning someone showed up for the dinner without an invitation is wrong. In other words, the parents’ belief against racial discrimination resulted in the dinner to which all of the guests were formally invited. If they had taught their daughter that blacks were inferior and not to be treated equally, Joey would not have talked to John, and would not have fallen in love with him because she would not have opened her heart to him. The Draytons’ life attitude invited John and his parents who wish for John’s happiness, as well as Monsignor Ryan. Although it was surely an unexpected development for the Draytons, the dinner after all was stemmed from their philosophy. The title “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” captures the not probable, but possible surprises of life. Due to their rejection of racial discrimination, Matt and Christie allowed for this rare, but possible event for the 1960s to happen.

The movie was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, who also directed Judgment at Nuremberg and was a strong advocate of social justice. Thus, it was no surprise that he made a movie addressing the racial discrimination, one of the biggest issues in the 1960s. It may be unbelievable now, but in the year of 1967 when this movie was made, as many as 17 states prohibited interracial marriage, and those who violated this were sent to prison as criminals. I have deep respect for the courage of Stanley Kramer for making this movie during those days. Importantly, this movie, instead of being political propaganda, achieved being a high quality human drama since Kramer focused on depicting universal wisdom in life, instead of anti-racism belief.

First, the love between husband and wife is depicted. Both Joey’s and John’s parents who married more than 30 years ago still love each other and maintain mutual understanding and trust. Without the parents’ lasting marriages, the audience would feel that the excitement of Joey and John may not last once reality comes into play. The sustaining mutual love of parents gives the audience a secure feeling regarding the future of the young couple. The love between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who were partners in their real life, overflows from the screen.

Next is the depiction of the love between parent and child. It is very profound and interesting. First, the child simply reflects the way of life of her parents, as seen by Joey. However, even more interesting are John’s words. John’s father says to John, “Every day, I carried a heavy load for many miles, and I raised you through great hardship. You owe me,” but John clearly states, “Father, I owe you nothing. From the day you brought me into this world, you owed me everything you could ever do for me, as I will owe my son if I ever have another.” In most societies, it may be accepted that, “Because a parent raises a child through hardships, the child should obey what the parent says and should look after the parents,” but I agree with John’s words. A person cannot select their parents, but a parent can select their child because they usually can choose whether or not to have a child. The ultimate love of a parent would be, once a parent decides to have a child, the parent does everything they can for the child without expecting any reward from the child. People should be devoted to bringing up the next generation without the expectation of compensation. However, the interesting thing is that the child who is brought up like this often gives back unconditional love to their parents without being asked.

Lastly, you don’t need someone’s approval to live. If the people around you give you approval, life is certainly easier, but the message is that, even without approval, as long as you clearly understand the height and difficulty of the hurdle, you can get through life on your own, and you should not make getting approval life’s first priority. Matt states this at the end:“There’ll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled, and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives… You’ll just have to cling tight to each other and say, ‘screw all those people’!”

This movie tells a five hour story in approximately two hours. The story is dense and fast-paced in a good way—much like High Noon—and the performances by the actors are wonderful. Katharine Hepburn expresses all emotions—“surprise,” “disappointment,” “giving up,” “determination,” “understanding,” “supportive,” “happiness” –with just her eyes; her “acting with eyes” is amazing, but even more amazing is Spencer Tracy. Because of his thick glasses, he is not able to use his “eye power” throughout the movie, and he never acts dramatically; yet, every change in emotion is transmitted, and it is slightly scary how much so. This movie was Spencer Tracy’s final work, and Katharine Hepburn received her second Oscar with this movie.

As mentioned before, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states across America in 1967, but around the time this movie was being screened, the Virginia v. Richard Loving case—which was appealing for the overturning of Loving’s imprisonment for the marriage to a black woman—was being judged in the U.S. Supreme Court; the case ended with the judgment that the law prohibiting interracial marriages was unconstitutional, and interracial marriage finally became legal across the whole country. It was 102 years after the liberation of slaves was officially established with the approval of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution in 1865.


Movie: Downfall — Der Untergang (2004)

This movie is based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s personal secretaries that lived with Hitler in the bunker of the Führer Headquarters in Berlin, Germany, who served Hitler until his suicide, typed Hitler’s suicide note, and witnessed Hitler’s death.

Since 1930, Hitler always used two secretaries, but due to an increase in workload, he hired a third secretary, Gerda Christian, in 1937. It is said that this woman was extremely beautiful. Since Christian took an extended vacation in order to marry Eckhard Christian, a member of the Armed Forces Command Staff and the lieutenant colonel of the Air Force, in 1942, Traudl Junge was hired to take Christian’s place. In this movie, a beautiful actress performs as Junge and it is depicted that Hitler likes her among the many applicants and hires her. One reason may be that she was from Munich, where the Nazis were formed and the headquarters for Nazi activity was located. Berlin was an area with strong sympathy for communism, as well as an area in which Nazis historically had difficulties in winning elections. After Christian returned from her honeymoon, Junge remained as Hitler’s secretary and became a loyal and close associate of Hitler’s.

Adolf Hitler had an underground bunker built into the Führer Headquarters in 1935. Later in 1943, since the war situation had deteriorated considerably, he had a new Führerbunker with increased defensive function built, and connected the two underground bunkers with stairs. The underground bunker was built with concrete walls four meters thick to tolerate attack, and was partitioned into about 30 rooms. Hitler lived here starting from January 1945, in the final stage of World War II. Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun, Nazi #2 Goebbels and his family, the SS leaders, and their secretaries and chefs lived here. Amid the final days of warfare in the streets of Berlin, Hitler committed suicide here on April 30, 1945.

After Hitler’s death, Junge was arrested by the Allies during her escape, but it is said she was soon released without being interrogated deeply. Since then, she continuously claimed that she knew nothing, so one might expect there not to be any astonishing historical truth from her memoirs. Also, as the youngest secretary, one might think she does not know much political intelligence. Thus, one might expect a movie made from her point of view to be about Hitler being a kind boss while the commissioned officers that pampered Hitler’s favorite woman were wonderful uncles, and about her not wanting to give up the life in the safe underground bunker, where they drank wine, had delicious meals, and slept in late.

When Hitler gave the order for his four secretaries to leave due to the deterioration of the war situation, the two older secretaries escaped, but Junge and Christian said, “I share life and death with the Führer until the end,” and refused the order. Junge later stated, “I don’t know why I made such a decision,” but after all, for a young person without a real feel for death, I think it is 50% pure youthful indiscretion to think, “When the time comes, I’m not afraid to die,” and 50% youthful foolishness that the man, who until now had almighty power and had given her a comfortable environment to live in, could not be defeated. Instead of being thrown into the war in Berlin without any protector or friends, I think she felt safer being surrounded by people who (she thought) will protect her.

This movie is made from the point of view of a woman who didn’t know the truth about the Nazis or the lives of people who suffered outside, yet was nevertheless a young woman in possession of good instinct. Even though she behaves amicably to everyone as a secretary, she carefully observes who will betray and who will stay loyal to her boss Hitler. This movie is 40% from her point of view, and it depicts how people behave when faced with the danger of losing their lives after the fall of absolute authority. Since that is insufficient, another 30% depicts historically significant Nazi figures at the time, and since that is not quite enough, the lives of citizens suffering from war are also depicted. Therefore, this movie doesn’t have a single protagonist, and the viewpoint of the story shifts throughout the movie. Although Junge appears many times, she doesn’t play an important role in the story. Two-thirds of this movie is Hitler repeatedly shouting about his disappointment in his close associates, and it wouldn’t be this way if Hitler were the protagonist. The profoundness of this movie starts after the death of Hitler. It vividly depicts how people behaved immediately following Hitler losing his power. Some followed Hitler to death with suicide. Some ran away, and were arrested by the Allies and executed at a trial. Some who tried to escape were executed by their comrades as a traitor to the nation, while others executed citizens for being communists as a warning to the general public before the Soviet Army entered. Commissioned officers started openly smoking—something Hitler strictly prohibited—and some drank wine and got drunk. Those who attempted to escape ran toward the south part that was occupied by the American army; their greatest fear was to be arrested by the Soviet Army.

For someone like me who doesn’t know many details about Nazis, this movie is a treasure chest of information, but the most significant piece of information was that Hitler committed suicide in the end. This after all is not surprising, although some believe in urban legends about Hitler, analogous to the theory of Yoshitsune (a famous samurai) escaping death and becoming Genghis Khan. Some believe that someone sacrificed his own body for Hitler to be burned with gasoline in order to make the burned body impossible to identify while Hitler snuck away in a secret passage. People can’t believe such a self-preserving man would choose death.

However, this movie depicts that the reason Hitler wanted his body burned was not to fake his death, but because he did not want his body displayed publicly after his death (Hitler knew Mussolini was mercilessly executed by the partisan and was hung in public) and for his clothes to be displayed in a museum exhibit. Pride was most important to him. His biggest fear was to be shamefully on display. In the movie, some of his close associates recommend, “You should do an unconditional surrender for the sake of the nation before it is too late,” but he could never permit this because of the shame it would bring. Those who recommended this are nearly shot. Because his rejection of this idea was so strong, I wonder if some people who recommended this were actually executed. He had lost the idea of “citizens” or “for the nation.” In the movie, when an officer suggests, “We must protect the citizens, especially the women and children,” Hitler declares, “With this critical battle now in our territory, the concept of citizens does not exist.” He doesn’t have the sentiments of, “I accept whatever will happen to me; I only want to save the citizens,” or, “I accept the punishment for my mistakes, but don’t punish the people who obeyed my orders.” His mind was preoccupied with figuring out how he could die with honor.

There certainly seem to be tunnels that he could have used to run away. SS Major Otto Günsche completes Hitler’s final command to have his dead body burned, and attempts to escape with SS Colonel Wilhelm Mohnke, Junge, and Christian through the underground tunnels, but they aren’t able to escape in the end. Christian gives up trying to escape and stays with Major Günsche and Colonel Mohnke. This movie does not depict when the Soviet Army arrested them, and the movie ends with a scene of Junge biking away and escaping to Munich.

Christian is given only a small part in this movie, and there is almost zero information about her. After some hardships, Christian escaped to an area occupied by America, but Major Günsche and Colonel Mohnke were taken by the Soviet army, and they each served 10 years in labor camps in USSR and East Germany, respectively. It is said that Christian called Major Günsche a “lifetime friend.” She divorced her husband soon after the war, and was able to be reunited with Major Günsche 10 years later.