Ariel (1988)

18 10 2008

Only two films in and Aki Kaurismäki is already on track to becoming one of my very favorite directors. It is a bit funny to be watching his films alongside stuff like True Heart Susie and A Canterbury Tale, two attempts at “branching out” when his films are so close to fitting my cinematic ideal it’s ridiculous. In fact, the only real problem I can see between this and Shadows of Paradise is that they are indeed a bit too perfect. There’s something slightly frustrating when a filmmaker fits in with one’s taste as Kaurismäki has done with me and that is the fact that something transgressive is absent to separate it from similarly-minded films. Still, for a compliant, this is pretty inconsequential, both this and Shadows in Paradise are absolute masterpieces in my mind.

One of the most enjoyable elements in Kaurismäki’s cinematic world is that subtle sense of tragedy that is apparent, but never intrusive to the film. In a way, it is a bit like Herzog’s Stroszek, but somehow even less noticeable. On paper this sounds like the saddest story ever: a man watches (or more accurately, hears) his father commit suicide. He responds by taking all of the money from a bank account, but he is then robbed. He ends up in a homeless shelter, but then meets and falls in love with a single mom who works as a butcher. He catches a glimpse of the man who robbed him, and goes to confront him. The scuffle puts him in jail for a year.

The difference between this film and something like say, The Life of Oharu, is not only in the formally straight-forward presentation but also in how the character reacts to the constant negative events that plague his life. The protagonist here, Taisto, rolls with all the punches. The one time he (literally) fights back against his situation, he is sent to jail, which seemingly puts him back into the passive mindset that he started the film with. Through all of these tragedies, Taisto manages to form a relationship with Irmeil, a hardworking single mom. Like the central relationship in Shadows in Paradise, Taisto and Irmeil fall into the “lost souls finding eachother” category that I tend to name-drop on occasion. But a simple imitation this is not, Kaurismäki brings his own type of absurd, deadpan comedy into the mix, resulting in something very unique.

I would never go the length of saying that Ariel will make you laugh and make you cry as such a statement is so cringe-worthy but also because the comedy is not separate from the tragedy like that statement would imply. There’s a sequence early on in the film in which Taisto visits his snow-landen farm to take his automobile. In one long shot, we see him pull the car out of a wooden garage, and the garage collapse. Jia Zhang-Ke tried to do something similar in Still Life with the building turning into a aircraft gag, but that was a bit more surreal where the comedy here is very much grounded in the ignored but still absurd moments of daily life.

It could be argued that Ariel is a tad bit too short, which I might agree with, and that it ends on a slightly too upbeat conclusion. I disagree with latter even if I would admit that the conclusion is anything like the rest of the film, but I find the quick burst of happiness at the end to be incredibly touching. Taisto, Irmeil and her son “escape” from Finland in a boat in the evening while a Finnish version of “Over the Rainbow” echoes through the quiet waters. A tad bit hokey, I suppose, but it somehow hits a perfect mix of the poignant and the bizarre, which could easily be applied to the rest of the film as well.

True Heart Susie (1919)

18 10 2008

Another very good melodramatic tragedy courtesy of DW Griffith and Lillian Gish. As much as I liked this (and I did like quite a bit), I still feel like I should be liking it more. It’s an embarrassing thing to say, but I simply can’t make it through pre-1930s, or 1920s for that matter, films without feeling, well, bored, to make things simple. I really want to like Griffith’s pioneering aesthetic and to an extent, I do, but not quite enough to want to watch it for more than an hour. On a similar note, I also love Lillian Gish’s tragic facial expressions, but I guess neither thing is enough to carry the film for its whole running time. It’s not a film that I even remotely regret watching, but I also can’t see myself wanting to watch it again in the future.

There are, however, some moments, most of which involve Gish, that really have an achingly poetic tone to them. There’s a lot of these moments, but they are dragged down by the many plot progressing scenes in which the developments can be seen from a mile away. Sure, the predictable nature of the story was probably inherited due to its age, but it doesn’t make walking through its muddy puddles any easier.

I’ll admit that I sound a little too defensive here, but it doesn’t actually come from a fear of making the purists angry. I genuinely see something special going here, and it is something that I genuinely want to enjoy more than I do. I guess a problem could be that the film’s initial charm wears off just as soon as the most dull sections of the story takes place. When Susie’s lover, William, returns from college, there is a whole half-hour or so devoted to how uninterested he is in here. Sequence after sequence, titlecard after titlecard, we are told just how “plain and simple” Susie is when compared to the other women in William’s life.

This is all a bit painful to watch, especially since Gish herself is far prettier than any other actress in the film, almost at an overwhelming level. It was probably Griffith’s intention to see a sacrificing, quiet woman be cast aside from her would-be lover only because of society’s standards. However, “society’s standards” is a frequently present title card that states that Susie is plain and unable to be William’s true love. This is nailed into the audience’s head, bordering on being subliminal. I understand why there’s a lack of nuance in early motion pictures, but I can’t overlook it when it makes me feel as though I’m wasting my time. Again, this is a good movie, but there’s so many painfully long stretches and they threaten to dilute some of the most beautiful moments I’ve seen in any movie.