Saturday, October 16, 2010

Two Takes on the Same Subject

The bureau chief freely admits to having teared up while watching the last scene of Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). It's easy to do so, particularly after a cup of wassail. The film has become part of the American Christmas ritual and the American film canon . The chief has probably seen it five or six times. It's a wonderful mix of comedy, fantasy and sentimentality, with a solid substrata of New Deal populism and post WW II optimism. It asks the question, "What is the worth of a person's life?"

Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru" (1952) asks the same question but from an entirely different perspective. The American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the year of "Ikiru's" release, but there's still a sense of residual economic anxiety in the film. Unlike George Bailey (James Stewart) of Bailey Building and Loan, who in the end realizes how many people's lives he's touched,  Kanji Watanabi (Takashi Shimura) is part of a city bureaucracy dedicated to passing the buck. After thirty years of work, his only accomplishment is to have stamped thousands of papers and sent them on to other offices.

"Ikiru" is not a Christmas tale and has no supernatural elements so I will end the comparisons except to point out that George Bailey, in despair, learns he has already accomplished many good things while Kanji Watanabi, in despair, realizes that he has to accomplish one. He has fatal stomach cancer. He's estranged from his son whom he has sacrificed for. He makes a brief attempt at hedonism but is badly suited for it. He decides he will accomplish one thing before he dies, he will get a children's playground built in a working class neighborhood where there in currently an insect-ridden cesspool.

The story of how he does this is shown in flashbacks during his wake. This is a wonderful scene where as the city officials and bureaucrats get more and more drunk, the truth about Watanabi's accomplishment emerges. This is a great film, wonderfully written, acted and directed. I was led to it by a review by Roger Ebert which is well worth reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Art Inconnu

The bureau chief followed a link from Metafilter (cool in its own right) to Art Inconnu (Unknown Art), which is a beautiful site. Its purpose is stated thusly, "Collected here are works by artists who are forgotten, under appreciated, or little known to the mainstream". If you follow the link today, the works of an anonymous 15th Century Italian artist are displayed first but if you scroll down or click on any of the collections on the right of the screen, you will find that most of the works are from the 19th and 20th centuries. Also, almost everything in the collection is figurative.

A commenter on Metafilter pointed out that a lot of the "unknown" artists might be quite well known in their own countries and the bureau chief can testify that John French Sloan (1871 -1951) is in the collections of the biggest art museums in the US. Here's his "Six o'clock, Winter" from 1912.

On the other hand Zinaida Serebriakova (1884 - 1967) is new to the bureau chief but apparently well known in Russia and France. A self portrait from 1909.

Heinrich Maria Davringhausen (1894 - 1970) was driven out of Germany by the Nazis and his paintings were suppressed for being decadent. When he switched to an abstract style after WW II he changed his name to Henri Davring. The bureau chief knew none of this. This is his most famous painting, "Der Schieber" (The Black-Marketeer) from 1921.

The bureau chief had also never seen the work of the Scots artist Joan Eardley (1921 - 1963) who died way too young. One of her two subjects was the urchins that swarmed through the streets of the poor neighborhood were she had a studio. This is "Little Girl with a Comic".

Her other subject was the fishing village where she had a cottage. This is "Catterline in Winter".

Sometimes when you think the internet couldn't get anymore craptastic, you come across something really nice.