- Daughters, Wives and a Mother (1960)
There are so many impressive screenings around Chicago today—and all of them showing from film stock, no less—that you’d think it was Friday or Saturday.
At 4:30 PM, the Experimental Film Society at the School of the Art Institute (112 South Michigan Avenue, Room 1307) will present The Devil’s Cleavage (1972), a feature-length soap opera spoof by the recently departed George Kuchar.
(The SAIC's George Kuchar screening has just been rescheduled for next Monday, February 27, at 4 PM.) At 6 PM, the Siskel Center will screen Robert Bresson’s final masterpiece L’Argent
(1983). Doc Films has announced a repeat screening of Yilmaz Güney’s striking Turkish western Bride of the Earth
(1968), which I wrote about last week
, for 9:30 PM. And at the Music Box, you can see the praised-in-the-Reader A Separation
for just five bucks. But the most valuable may be Doc’s revival of Daughters, Wives and a Mother
(1960), which plays in their Mikio Naruse/Hideko Takamine series at 7 PM.
The gorgeous color TohoScope photography of Daughters—a movie so vibrant that it frequently recalls MGM musicals—serves as an ironic counterpart to the material, a saga of middle-class unhappiness that was Naruse’s stock in trade. It concerns an aging mother, her five grown children, and several of their spouses, nearly all of whom have money troubles. When one of the daughters (Setsuko Hara) is widowed, she returns to the family nest with a substantial inheritance—one by one, her siblings take advantage of her trusting personality, driving her close to bankruptcy and despair. It can be hard to keep track of the numerous major characters, but that only enhances the movie’s suffocating portrait of family life. With his usual quiet focus, Naruse accumulates moments of pettiness and cruelty until the final effect is devastating.
This Naruse/Takamine series has got to be the most appropriate film event of the season, as these movies can hit you like lake-effect winter wind. Few of the calamities in these films are out of the ordinary, yet they occur with such constancy (and generally overwhelm any moments of happiness in the work) that some viewers consider Naruse a pessimist or even a nihilist. His films center on the sad truth that for many people life is determined primarily by money—as opposed to romance, ideals, or destiny, as many films would have us believe. Naruse returned obsessively to characters who sell over their dreams because they lack the financial means to pursue them. There’s an autobiographical element to this theme: Naruse’s parents pulled him out of school in early adolescence because they could no longer pay for his education; his father died when he was 15, and his mother forced him to join the labor force with his brothers. He found odd jobs around the Shochiku movie studios (it was a lot easier to break into movies in the silent era; the pay was a lot less), somehow working his way up to the position of director by 1930.
By numerous accounts, Naruse never felt quite at home in the film industry. He was terribly shy and tended to keep to himself when he wasn’t on set. Recently I was surprised to learn that not only did he barely develop a personal relationship with Takamine (though they made 17 films together); he remained too timid to offer her much direction even after they’d collaborated for years. This shyness may account for Naruse’s tendency to present characters one at a time during dialogue scenes, a technique that makes people feel isolated from each other no matter how physically close they may be. True to character, Naruse claimed this was an economic decision, which allowed him to shoot dialogue with one camera and assemble the scenes in editing. Whatever the reason, that feeling of loneliness pervades much of Naruse's work, even when he worked in vibrant, life-affirming color, as he did brilliantly in Daughters, Wives and a Mother.