Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Young Victoria: Royal Rebel

It’s not easy being queen. Nor, for that matter, making a film about the not-so-long-ago queen of a nation that’s very much connected to our own history. I became interested in Britain’s Queen Victoria when I recently toured Kensington Palace. No, I wasn’t invited to tea by Harry and Meghan. They do live in Kensington Palace, as do Prince William, Kate, and their brood. (Clearly, it’s a very big palace.) But the historic rooms of this London landmark have now been spruced up for tourists. I learned a lot about the lavish apartments of George II—ladies were admitted to inner-sanctum parties only if their dresses with sufficiently bouffant—and the far more austere ones of William and Mary. But the chief attraction is the childhood rooms of Queen Victoria, the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated this year.

The word “Victorian” is such a part of our language that we rarely stop to think about it. Queen Victoria, in our minds, is a plump old woman in severe black widow’s weeds, forever mourning the death of her consort decades before. We consider her prim to the point of stodginess, burdening her descendants with an obsolete moral code. But, as I learned at Kensington, Victoria was far more complicated than the dour widow we associate with the era that bears her name. Her father, the younger brother of King George IV, died when she was one year old. As her father’s brothers all lacked legitimate heirs (though there were illegitimate offspring aplenty), it quickly became clear that the young Victoria was in line to assume the throne of England. Her mother, a German princess, in tandem with the ambitious, domineering Sir John Conroy, kept her a virtual prisoner at Kensington. She was not allowed playmates or much in the way of intellectual stimulation; she shared a bedroom with her mother and -- when descending the stairs of the palace -- was required (even into her teens) to hold the hand of a lady-in-waiting. Sir John’s goal, if she were crowned before age eighteen, was for her mother to be declared regent, with himself as the power behind the throne.

Fortunately for English history, the elderly and ailing George IV survived until after Victoria had reached her eighteenth birthday. On June 20, 1837, she was awakened with the news that she had become Queen. Finally able to make her wishes known, she banished Conroy, freed herself from her mother’s grip, and started making her own decisions.  Naturally, various factions tried to control her choice of a marriage partner. She was barely eighteen, extremely sheltered, and seemed easy to manipulate. A German branch of her family contrived to introduce her to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and she was immediately smitten. Happily, so was he. They corresponded for several years (she even sent him a fetching “secret portrait” of herself with her hair undone and shoulders bare), but she had become savvy enough to postpone matrimony until she was secure on the British throne. Finally she proposed marriage—that’s what queens get to do—and by all accounts their relationship was a constructive and loving one, producing nine children and some valuable social programs.

A 2009 British film, The Young Victoria, stars Emily Blunt as the headstrong and frankly sensuous (and charming) queen. I watched it with pleasure, since it reproduced so much I had learned at Kensington Palace. But IMDB lists multiple complaints of tiny historical inaccuracies, like an incorrect placement of the Order of the Garter.  All those Anglophiles out there should really get a life.

Painted for Albert's Eyes Only

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”: The Poetry of Everyday Life

After the close of World War II, the west discovered the charms of Japanese cinema. The hero of the era was the great Akira Kurosawa, whose lively blood-and-guts productions, like Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), meshed well with western sensibilities. In Kurosawa’s swashbuckling screen epics, Toshiro Mifune became an international star. It’s not surprising to learn that Kurosawa’s formative influence was American westerns. No wonder fans of the classic American action flick revere the Japanese master whose Seven Samurai (1954) was the source material for The Magnificent Seven.

Then there was Yasujiro Ozu, whose fifty-odd films were less prone to capture the imagination of western viewers. Ozu’s spare style and avoidance of on-screen theatrics give his movies a Zen-like simplicity that lacks obvious audience appeal. Yet film-lovers worldwide have discovered Ozu, seeing in his intensely Japanese subject matter a universality that is unexpected but profound.

Tokyo Story (1953) is Ozu’s acknowledged masterpiece. At first it’s not entirely obvious why this modest story is held in such high esteem, but a serious filmgoer who doesn’t expect fireworks is soon drawn into its orbit. The plot is simplicity itself:  a long-married couple from the old seaside town of Onomichi travel to visit their married children in Tokyo. The children are not overtly unkind to their elderly parents, but their busy lives (as a doctor, as the owner of a hair salon) keep getting in the way, and it’s soon decided to pack the old couple off to a spa where rowdy fellow guests make their stay miserable. Only the widow of their second son, killed in World War II, interrupts her daily obligations to make time for them, for which they are genuinely grateful. The portrait of old age is touching (even though we discover they’re only in their sixties – yikes!), and we commiserate fully with them in gratitude for any scrap of kindness. There’s a melancholy ending to the story, which reinforces our sense of the passage of time and the evolution of family relationships. The characters may be Japanese to the core, but their situation is familiar, I think, to us all.

In keeping with his reputation as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, Ozu’s film makes profound use of the sense of place. Though there’s little room (or budget, I suspect) for aesthetic flourishes, we quickly see the difference between little Onomichi (in Hiroshima prefecture) and the big metropolis. Onomichi is visually represented by traditional tile roofs, a quaint Buddhist temple, and a small boat plying its way across the local waters.. Every time the scene shifts to Tokyo, the screen is assaulted by belching smokestacks. The couple’s children, who wear western dress instead of traditional kimono, live in tightly packed urban dwellings, unfolding their futons every night. and packing them up in the morning to make for living space, however cramped.. Ozu favors a low-angle camera that barely moves, and his straight-on capturing of the life that goes on in and around shoji screens makes Japanese home architecture seem much like a stage set.

 I learned to speak Japanese during my college years, and used it daily when I worked at Expo ’70 in Osaka. Tokyo Story made me profoundly nostalgic for Japanese linguistic formality and regional accents. Though any thoughtful person can appreciate this film, I feel lucky that the cultural nuances on screen (which doubtless would seem profoundly dated to a modern Japanese) did not pass me by. Moreover, I’ll long cherish the film’s depiction of the unstated but profound love between a pair who are no longer young.