Today I’m heading back to Kurosawa, and looking at my first Robert Altman film. I wanted to go back to Kurosawa as soon as possible, and who can resist an Altman film? Today’s films are:
Akira Kurosawa – Rashomon (1950)
Robert Altman – Gosford Park (2001)
Both of these films are amazing, and Gosford Park has been one of my favorite films since the first time I saw it. Rashomon I’ve only seen once or twice before, but I was excited to get back into it.
This is an interesting pairing because after choosing Rashomon, I really didn’t know what else to pick. Usually I try to find some common trait, but Rashomon just feels so unique to me. I chose Gosford Park because I saw Robert Altman had an interview of the Rashomon Bluray I owned. I thought about a couple of Altman films, but went with Gosford Park.
Let’s get into it.
Rashomon is a film about a murder. A bandit attacks a couple on the road and the husband ends up dead. The bandit is captured, and is brought to trial. But when trying to determine what happened, every character has a completely different version of events. Who is to be believed? Who can be trusted? Who is telling the truth?
And so Kurosawa takes us on one of his most famous, memorable, and unique journeys. Kurosawa made a few different kinds of films. He made lots of films set in feudal Japan, like Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo/Sanjuro. He made films set in modern Japan, usually with a crime theme like High and Low or Stray Dog, and then he did literary adaptations like Throne of Blood, Ran, and The Idiot.
Rashomon is a film set in feudal Japan with a crime theme. So it’s a bit of a crossover for Kurosawa. The film opens on a ruined temple in the pouring rain. Two men are sitting in the temple for shelter. One of them just keeps repeating “I don’t understand.”
A third man runs through the rain to the temple to dry off. One man tells him that they could tell a story like he’s never heard. The other tells him that he’s faced disasters before, but he may finally lose his faith in the human soul.
So before we even know what the film is really about, it’s selling itself really strongly. Note to any aspiring filmmakers: don’t ever do this. Kurosawa got away with it here, but there’s no quicker way to make your film hard to enjoy than telling the audience how unbelievable the story you’re about to tell is.
But it’s a good way to get into it. The woodcutter (played by Takashi Shimura, a constant presence in Kurosawa films), the priest, and the commoner who has just arrived sit down to tell the story of what they experienced. The woodcutter begins, telling the story of how he found the crime scene.
Kurosawa does something really interesting here. He’s moving into a flashback, which normally involves some kind of slow transition like a fade. But Kurosawa smash cuts from the rainy temple to a peaceful forest. It’s a jarring transition, and it caught my attention immediately.
The woodcutter moves through the forest, his axe on his shoulder. He begins to find strange signs, a couple of hats, a cut rope, and then he stumbles over a dead body.
It’s worth noting at this point that the film is perfectly shot. Kurosawa always had excellent shot composition and this film is no exception. Everything is framed perfectly, and there are so many interesting and unexpected shots. Especially during the forest scene here. Kurosawa cuts around quickly and confidently, letting us relax and appreciate the quiet walk before we get into the meat of the story.
Once we get set up, we move to the courtroom, where the woodcutter tells his story. The priest follows, explaining that he saw the couple on the road before they were attacked.
The courtroom section is also interesting. Kurosawa never shows us the judges. We never even hear them. The characters all respond to these invisible judges, but the camera never turns around. I’m not sure what Kurosawa is trying to say by doing this. But I take it as him just focusing on the characters he’s established rather than trying to create a courtroom drama. The story is in the three characters in the forest and what happened between them, not the pointed questions a clever judge might ask.
The story moves quickly here, and we meet the bandit, who has been captured: Tajomaru, played by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune plays the bandit out of control and on edge. There are shades of the character he’d play in Seven Samurai in this role, but this character isn’t heroic. He’s quite possibly insane.
He tells the story of seeing the husband and wife on the road, and falling in love with the woman immediately. He decides he will try to steal the woman away, but claims to the judge that he never intended to kill the man. He tells the man he knows of a secret treasure that he will sell to him. The husband follows him, leaving the wife behind. Tajomaru overpowers him, tying him to a tree, then returns for the wife. Upon seeing her, he decides he wants her to see how he was able to defeat her husband, and takes her to him.
She begins to fight back, pulling a dagger, and attack Tajomaru. He is surprised at first, but then begins to toy with her. She can’t strike him, but he lets her try. Eventually she gives up, collapsing to the ground crying. Tajomaru takes this opportunity. He approaches her, embraces her, and kisses her. She resists at first, fighting, but then we see her slowly relax.
The film is coy here about exactly how far this went, but it becomes clear that Tajomaru raped the woman, though it appears the husband believes she might have gone willingly. The woman begs Tajomaru to take her with him, saying that either he or her husband has to die. The bandit decides he must be honorable, and releases the ropes, giving the husband a sword back. After a pitched sword battle, Tajomaru wins the battle. He turns to the wife, but she has gone.
We return to the courtroom where Tajomaru claims again he never wanted to kill the man. We move back to the woodcutter and priest who claim his story doesn’t make any sense, he must have lied.
Here’s where we begin to see the uniqueness of the film. The wife takes the stand, and begins to tell her story. She begins after the rape, so we can assume everything up to that point is accurate. But she tells a tale of the bandit leaving and her husband refusing to speak to her, staring at her coldly. She begs him to speak, and takes her dagger. She then claims she blacked out, and awoke with her dagger in the husband’s chest. She doesn’t know what happened.
So we have two different versions of the story, with the resolution having almost nothing in common with each other. Who’s telling the truth? The film doesn’t tell us, but then we hear from the dead husband, through a medium. This is treated as a totally serious and reliable form a testimony by the film. Seeing the husband’s story, he admonishes his wife, sends her away, then kills himself.
None of the stories match. But Kurosawa isn’t trying to give us a mystery that we can solve, he’s making a statement about perspectives on life, and how people will protect their own egos, even against logic. Each person tells a story where they are heroic in their own eyes. The bandit tells a story of honor from his perspective. Yes, he robs the man and rapes his wife, but he allowed the man to fight for his life. The wife cannot help being raped, but it was her husband who refused to accept her, and she passed out, with no idea what happened after that. The husband can’t be with his wife because she has been with another man, so he kills himself for honor.
Do the people believe their own stories? I’m not sure. But it doesn’t really matter. Like I said, the film isn’t really about the truth. But I think it’s fair to say that none of the three people involved in the crime are telling the full truth. But then, back at the temple, the woodcutter reveals that he knows for sure they’re all lying because he saw the entire event, hiding in the bushes.
I won’t get into the story he tells, but again, we must question if he’s telling the truth. The entire film we’ve been taught that we can’t trust any of the stories these people are telling. But I thing most viewers will be tempted to believe the woodcutter’s version. I think that’s fair, but I also firmly believe that we never saw the whole truth in the film.
This is a stellar film, and generally credited with bringing awareness of Kurosawa and Mifune to America. It’s easy to see why. This film is really like nothing else from the time. Kurosawa is able to tell an interesting story, and speak about the human condition while never really answering the questions he sets up. It’s a tough line to walk for a filmmaker, but Kurosawa manages it.
He also does a great job of differentiating the stories visually. For example, when the bandit tells the story of the sword fight he had with the husband, both swordsmen are experts, crossing swords like masters. When someone else tells the story of the sword fight, it’s desperate and clumsy, with both men clawing for their lives.
I am not a Kurosawa expert, although I love his films. I would love the opportunity to watch this film over and over and pull out every little detail, but that’s not the goal of this blog. I could write and write about this film, but just go watch it.
Gosford Park (2001)
Gosford Park is a film about an English country estate hosting guests for the week, set in 1932. We see the lives of both the lords and ladies of the house, as well as the servants running around behind the scenes. When the lord of the estate is murdered, everyone is a suspect. Who murdered him, and why?
If this film feels like a prequel to the series Downton Abbey, there’s a good reason for that. This film was written by Julian Fellowes, who also created Downton Abbey. There are a lot of similarities between the two projects. For example, the balance between the upstairs and downstairs stories, and the care taken to humanize and understand both groups and portray the complex relationship between the two.
This is a tough film to write about because there are approximately 40 characters who all have names and contribute to the story. Keeping the characters straight by name and relationship is quite challenging for the audience. This is a film that definitely rewards multiple viewings. So much is revealed in small moments, or a look, or the way the camera lingers on an object.
The film is essentially a murder mystery, though the film takes a long time setting up it’s characters, introducing other small mysteries along the way. The credit sequence starts in the rain, with Lady Trentham, played by Maggie Smith being driven to the estate of Lord William McCordle, played by William Gambon. We see the interaction between her and Mary, her ladies maid played by Kelly Macdonald. The servants stand quietly in the rain while Lady Trentham takes her time getting ready, then being brought to the car under an umbrella. When she can’t get the top off of her thermos, the car must be stopped and Mary must get out to help her.
Arriving at the house, we see more contrasts. The upstairs is calm, collected and relaxed, while the downstairs is constant motion, feeling like chaos. All of the chaos is held in check by Mrs. Wilson, played by Helen Mirren. She confidently directs servants to where they should be, and ensures that all of the guests are taken care of, and even correcting servants when their behavior is off. The house has a strict rule that servants refer to each other by the last name of their master. It’s played as confusing for the servants, but it seems like a move made to help the audiences connect servants to masters and vice versa. On a series like Downton Abbey, it’s not too large a concern if we don’t know how all the characters connect and their duties in the first two hours, we have many more hours to figure it out. But in a film, shortcuts have to be made to make sure the audience can keep up. The film does a fairly good job of it, but I did have to keep the IMDB cast list open at all times during this movie. It helped me figure out who was who.
The film uses very short scenes, showing us quick interactions between various characters, expanding the backstory of the characters and giving us a window into their relationships. This is ostensibly exposition, but it doesn’t play that way, because it feels like natural interactions. Almost every line of dialogue is either gossip, or someone revealing something that might be used as gossip. This sets up a few storylines. One man, Anthony, is trying to ensure Lord William will invest in a scheme he is planning. Another, Freddie, needs a job from Lord William and threatens his daughter Isobel with blackmail to get it. Lady Trentham learns that the allowance she receives from Lord William is not guaranteed for life, and he’s threatening to revoke it. We also learn that Lord William’s wife Sylvia greatly prefers her sister’s husband, Lord Stockbridge, and her sister Louisa feels the same way. It’s clear the husbands would prefer the switch as well.
Increasing the intrigue is a movie star, Ivor Novello, who is related to Lord William, spending the weekend there. He’s brought along a Hollywood producer, Morris Weissman, and his suspiciously Irish valet, Henry Denton. Interestingly, Ivor Novello was a real movie star of the time, who starred in The Lodger, a well known Hitchcock film of the time.
The character of Henry Denton is full of questions for the servants, giving us some suspicion about his character, but also giving us insight into the world of the servants. Without this outsider character asking questions, we don’t have any way to know the underpinnings of their world. We see their actions and reactions, but we might not understand their motivations.
As the film progresses, Lord William makes some enemies, pulling out of Anthony’s business deal, refusing to give Freddie a job, and openly fighting with his wife Sylvia. So when he’s murdered, it’s not terribly surprising. The film makes a meal out of the audience not knowing who did the crime, ensuring that all of the suspects are conspicuously away from the group when the crime is committed, and having them reappear only once we’ve seen the murder.
The film is fairly long, over 2 hours, and the last hour is devoted to discovering whodunit. A delightfully inept inspector played by Stephen Fry appears, with his assistant proving a talented investigator. It turns out that Lord William was poisoned before being stabbed, deepening the mystery.
The mystery in the film is played out expertly. Altman gives us lots of information, and some of it is essential to solving the mystery, but much of it is just there as background. I think it is possible to solve the mystery before the film takes you there, but it’s not so obvious that every viewer will manage it. In another great move, the film uses the Lady’s maid Mary as the detective, getting the right information at the right time, and being insignificant enough to those involved to hear all the confessions. We see the solution through her eyes. There’s no misdirection here, Altman gives us the solution clearly, in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie and other mystery writers. It leads to an incredibly satisfying conclusion.
This is another film that I could write and write about. I saw this film during it’s theatrical release and immediately fell in love. At the time, my friend Jason and I would make a point to seek out films we suspected would be nominated for Oscars and go see as many as possible in the month leading up, sometimes seeing as many as 3 movies a day, maybe 5-6 in a weekend. This was one of those films.
In addition to being an intriguing study of this ensemble, it’s also an incredibly funny film. Maggie Smith in particular brings a lot of comedy, much like she did in Downton Abbey. Her biting comments and ability to say exactly what she means never fails to draw a laugh from me.
The cast in general is spectacular. Some of the best British actors of this generation populate the cast, many that were well-known before the film, but some that got attention because of this film.
It also does a great job of showing the minor differences between the upstairs and the downstairs. In one scene, Anthony confides in a maid after Lord William has pulled out of his scheme. He asks if she believes in luck, and how some men have it so easy, and others must struggle all their lives to get by. He’s talking about himself, but it’s easy to draw a parallel between the upstairs and downstairs. The only real dividing line between these two groups is the luck of their birth.
In another scene, Lady Trentham questions her entire world “Why must we do these things?” The entire system is a holdover from a forgotten age, and everyone is caught up in it, upstairs and downstairs alike.
There are so many little moments in this film that are worth calling out and talking about, but I only have so much time to write these posts. Unfortunately, I’ll have to stop there for now, but perhaps someday in the future I’ll revisit this film or do a special post where I break down all the scenes I love.
The Double Feature
For a set of films that I wasn’t sure about putting together, these worked surprisingly well together. They both involve murders, and a mystery surrounding those murders, and both aren’t really about the murders or the mystery, but about the characters swirling around in the mystery.
Rashomon is a much simpler film structurally, but possibly deeper plot-wise. While the Kurosawa film only gives us a handful of characters with speaking parts, Gosford Park pours them on, playing out the plot through the intersection of dozens of lives. Altman weaves them together expertly, but the story is fairly simple. Kurosawa flips this a bit, using a small number of characters to play out a complex plot.
Stylistically, the films are very different. They both use a lot of motion in their camera work, and in fact, the camera is constantly moving in Gosford Park. I haven’t done the work on this myself, but I’ve read that there isn’t a single still shot in the entire film. While watching though, I certainly never saw a still shot.
The dialogue in Rashomon is very straightforward, but we can’t trust anything the characters are saying. In Gosford Park, the dialogue is fast and snappy, and we can believe what the characters say, especially between servants, or between a servant and their lord or lady. So I would say that Rashomon is much easier to keep up with, but we must constantly evaluate what we’re hearing. Gosford Park is hard to keep up with, trying to remember which character is which and how they relate to other characters, but when we do catch their dialogue, it is accurate.
I really love both films, and there are a lot of interesting parallels to draw between them, but just as many differences.
I’m starting to feel like myself again, which is a huge relief. I’m getting healthy again, my allergies are abating, and I’m starting to look forward to some of the various tasks that I have to complete this summer. I start teaching next week, and I think it’s going to be a great class. I think the break has been exactly what I needed, and I’m really glad I took it.
So, let’s discuss the next two films. Looking around FilmStruck, I’m realizing I’ve never looked at literary adaptations. So that sounds like as good a reason as any to jump into these two films:
William Wyler – Wuthering Heights (1939)
David Lean – Great Expectations (1946)
It will be my first David Lean film, as well as my first Laurence Olivier film, so it should be an interesting pairing.
See you then.