What to Watch on the Small Screen: October 2018

(Note: this article originally appeared here.)

October brings a host of new movies and film festivals to Chicago. If you don’t have the time to catch any of those, however, you can still experience the pleasures of good cinema at home. Here are our recommendations for what to stream this month:

The Last Laugh (1924)

F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh tells the story of an unnamed elderly man (Emil Jannings) who works as a doorman at a luxurious hotel. While hardly lucrative, the man’s job certainly has its perks. Whenever he wears his impressive-looking work uniform, for instance, he feels important, and his neighbors treat him as though he were a king. Unfortunately, however, the man’s manager deems him too old to serve as the public face of the hotel. And as a result, the man abruptly, unceremoniously finds himself demoted to washroom attendant.

In one sense, Last can be read as a rebuke of the way society treats the elderly. In this regard, the film greatly benefits from Jannings, who movingly conveys the emotions of a man desperate to cling to some shred of dignity. Additionally, from a stylistic perspective, the film’s set design – the washroom, for example, is located in a shadow-infested basement – ably speaks to the man’s abiding sense of humiliation. And with its use of dream sequences and blurred imagery, the camerawork provides a vivid illustration of everything that transpires in the man’s head after his demotion.

What’s ultimately most striking about Last, however, is its depiction of poverty. In many movies, destitution is portrayed as a condition whose consequences are largely economic. But as Murnau sees it, poverty’s most devastating effects are social and psychological. For the man, after all, the worst thing about his demotion isn’t the fact that he’ll probably be paid less. Rather, it’s that he’s been forced to confront his own disposability – and that his once-admiring neighbors now view him with a mixture of Schadenfreude and scorn. All told, then, you’ll leave this film with a painful awareness of just how much we care about our pride and ego, even when we can ill afford to do so.

Where to Watch: Internet Archive, YouTube, Kanopy, Amazon

Ikiru (1952)

Image courtesy of Criterion.

What would you do if you suddenly learned that you had only six months to live? In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, that’s the quandary that befalls Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged Tokyo bureaucrat who learns he has a terminal form of stomach cancer. At first, Watanabe copes with his diagnosis by wallowing in self-pity. He goes on a drinking spree, tries to confide in his son (Nobuo Kaneko), and insists on spending time with a young, peppy female colleague (Miki Odagiri). But when those remedies fail, Watanabe finds a better way to use the remaining days of his life: he’ll help a group of parents navigate the city bureaucracy to get a playground built.

On one level, Ikiru easily constitutes one of the most vicious social satires you’ll ever see. Government bureaucracy is depicted as a cesspool of self-serving inactivity, a place where the earnest and compassionate are treated with a mix of bewilderment, condescension, and open hostility. Young people, furthermore, are represented as callous egoists who don’t appreciate their elders’ struggles. And in general, Japanese citizens are portrayed as passive, overly deferential grovelers who care more about etiquette and hierarchy than independence of thought.

Beyond its trenchant critiques of society, moreover, Ikiru also tackles the weighty question of what it means to live a good life. Over the course of the film, Watanabe comes to see that he’s always been guided by a myopic instinct for self-preservation. And by the end, he realizes that it’s only through acts of charity that he’ll be able to overcome his fear of death and make his existence truly meaningful. This idea regarding altruism’s importance might seem simplistic or even cheesy. But in an era that’s seen the advent of YOLO and FOMO – two hashtag-phenomena that shamelessly promote self-indulgence as a life philosophy – Kurosawa’s message still resonates with startling poignancy.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, YouTube, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

L’Atalante (1934)

Image courtesy of Criterion.

Jean (Jean Dasté) is a mariner who lives and works on a dingy river barge. Juliette (Dita Parlo) is a country girl who dreams of seeing the sights of Paris. In Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, the two decide to get married. But they quickly realize that they’re anything but compatible. Juliette tires of the monotonous, cramped, and dirty nature of life on a boat; as for Jean, he goes ballistic every time he sees Juliette even greet another man.

If you were just going by his biography, Vigo could easily come off as an idealistic revolutionary à la Lord Byron. Vigo’s father, after all, was Miguel Almereyda, a notorious left-wing insurgent who was murdered in prison for his beliefs. Ultimately, moreover, L’Atalante was the only full-length feature Vigo made before dying of tuberculosis, a fate that inevitably calls to mind that of famous Romantics like John Keats and Frederic Chopin.

What’s so surprising about Vigo’s L’Atalante, however, is that it completely undercuts this biographical image of him as some kind of Romantic martyr. Instead, the film embraces a pessimistic, earthy realism that’s more reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. With a variety of techniques – deflating long takes, congested set design, emblematic contrasts of black and white – Vigo captures the unsentimental, tedious quality that marriage can take on post-honeymoon. And the film’s ambiguous, deceptively “happy” ending offers an indelible illustration of both the power and ephemerality of infatuation. Almost 90 years have gone by since its release – but even now, L’Atalante remains a meditation on love that all young couples could benefit from watching.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, Amazon

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Image courtesy of Criterion.

Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds takes us to Poland on May 8, 1945, the day the Nazis unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are two Polish resistance fighters who are ordered to assassinate a local Communist politician (Wacław Zastrzeżyński). The problem, however, is that Maciek is reluctant to do so: he’s sick of military life and the endless bloodshed it entails. And ultimately, he only becomes more unwilling after he falls in love with a young barmaid named Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska).

From an American perspective, the Nazis’ surrender was an unquestionable triumph, an event that marked the beginning of the so-called “Pax Americana.” For the Polish, however, the Third Reich’s demise hardly provided a cause for celebration. To start, after the Germans surrendered, the USSR occupied Poland and installed an extremely unpopular puppet regime. Worse, the Allies decided to extend diplomatic recognition to said regime, thereby turning their backs on the Polish government-in-exile. These various events all helped ensure that Poland remained a totalitarian state until well into the 1980s.

In keeping with this historical context, Ashes captures the feeling of helpless despair that pervaded Poland after the war. With the aid of some exceptional camerawork and ironically upbeat music, it illustrates the gap between authorities’ upbeat declarations of triumph and the bleak living conditions that Polish civilians actually faced. And although the romance between Maciek and Krystyna might feel rushed, it testifies to the way larger ideological conflicts overwhelmed whatever individuality ordinary Poles once had. Wajda’s film, in short, remains a powerful experience, a gritty but poetic exemplar of realism that simultaneously serves as an indirect lesson in history.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, Amazon, iTunes

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Image courtesy of Criterion.

John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence chronicles the travails of Mabel (Gena Rowlands) and Nick (Peter Falk), a married couple who live in southern California. On the surface, Mabel and Nick look like a stereotypical American family: they have three bubbly children, live in a comfortable suburban neighborhood, and get a steady income from Nick’s construction job. But Nick is a borderline alcoholic whose temper frequently leads him to commit acts of emotional abuse. And as the title implies, Mabel suffers from what appears to be a severe case of bipolar disorder.

In different hands, Woman’s various themes – familial dysfunction, mental illness, gender roles – would have been easy fodder for a weepy piece of Oscar bait. In particular, Rowlands’ character could very well have been made into a caricature, another “fragile woman” in the mold of Norma Desmond. When Cassavetes first tried to secure funding for the film, in fact, he was curtly informed that “No one wants to see [a movie about] a crazy, middle-aged dame.”

Fortunately, Woman manages to be heart-wrenching without coming off as heavy-handed. In part, this is due to the film’s style: instead of overloading us with scenes of heated, shaky-cam confrontations, Cassavetes alternates such moments with still long takes that are defined by uncomfortable silences. More importantly, however, Cassavetes doesn’t fixate on Mabel’s mental illness per se. Rather, he’s more interested in exploring how people around Mabel react to her condition, and as a result, the overall film is less a “female melodrama” than an examination of our aversion to non-conformism. Because of these factors – and, for that matter, Rowlands and Falk’s stirring performances – Woman carries nuance and psychological insight, two traits that many domestic dramas utterly lack.

Where to Watch: Kanopy, FilmStruck, Amazon, Vudu, iTunes