Hopscotch [1980] – A Relentlessly Playful Espionage Comedy

 

British Author John le Carre’s legendary character George Smiley is anti-James Bond. He fights enemies with intelligence and his battlefield is a drab office interestingly referred to as The Circus. Unlike the revered on-screen man-child intelligent agent, Smiley has erudite grasp on using the double-edged sword known as violence. American novelist Brian Garfield with his 1975 novel Hopscotch about a bored ex-spy also deviates from the Western adolescent fantasy life of James Bond. The veteran field agent of Garfield too doesn’t carry a gun even in life-threatening situations and smoothly resolves the conflicts by relying on intelligence. But Garfield’s novel is a light-hearted riff on spy genre without much of the hard-hitting, closer-to-reality tightrope situations experienced in John le Carre’s novels. In Garfield’s logic-defying espionage scenario, the utterly hopeless predicament of the protagonist is transcended through feisty, humorous games (pretty much like the one hinted in the title) rather than violent combats.

 

Hopscotch

Brian Garfield’s Hopscotch originally went up to Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda. But when WalterMatthau - the master of cantankerous comedy - came onboard to play the protagonist, the script was re-written out and out as a wry comedy. British writer/director Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers) was initially set to direct the movie (he co-wrote the script with Brian Garfield) but he was later replaced by fellow British film-maker Ronald Neame. Mr. Neame was one of the important figures in British cinema who has collaborated with cinematic masters like David Lean (as co-writer & producer for Brief Encounters, Blithe Spirit, Great Expectations) and Alfred Hitchcock (worked as assistant cameraman). 

 

Venerated as director’s actor, Mr. Ronald Neame efficiently juggled between the roles of director and cinematographer, bringing out career-best performances from fine actors -- Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Alec Guiness in Tunes of Glory (1960) and The Horse’s Mouth (1958), Hayley Mills in The Chalk Garden (1964), and Judy Garland in I Could Go On Singing (1962). Director Neame has associated himself with projects of different genres – from action adventure, comedy to thrillers and biopic dramas. Before directing Hopscotch, Ronald Neame has made two intriguing comedies – The Horse’s Mouth (1958) & Gambit (1966). While Hopscotch wasn’t a singularly outstanding work in the long career span of both Bryan Forbes and Ronald Neame, it certainly is a very entertaining spy comedy, unlike some of the bland genre exercises in contemporary Hollywood cinema.

 

Walter Matthau plays an ageing CIA field agent Miles Kendig, cloaked in trench coat and his face wearing a persistent frown. He is stinging a group of Russian spies wandering around Munich’s famous Oktoberfest; back when cold war reached threshold point and when Munich was in West Germany. The sting is a success as Kendig perfectly corners his Russian counterpart Yaskov (Herbert Lom). He gets back the stolen intelligence from Yaskov, but lets him depart with a cordial greeting. Kendig’s hard-bitten, no-nonsense boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) who doesn’t understand the subtlety of quid pro quo (or backscratching methods) punishes Kendig with a desk job. 

 


It’s hinted that Myerson has sucked up to Nixon administration and rised to the top ranks of CIA by taping influential people. Kendig’s don’t-give-a-damn attitude fires up as he concocts elaborate plans to get back at Myerson. Kendig begins the game by shredding his personnel file and by threatening to write detailed memoirs which may embarrass all the intelligent agencies involved in the cold war. When Myerson and his clueless cohorts takes Kendig’s bait the narrative moves through uniquely hilarious situations. Helping Kendig on his lucrative final mission is the former-agent & ex-lover Isobel (Glenda Jackson). Heading the operation to hunt-down the old, rogue spy is Joe Cutter (Sam Waterston), Kendig’s protégé who is always one-step behind in figuring out Kendig’s globetrotting adventure.

 

Hopscotch is more watchable for Matthau’s rendering of smug and unapologetically decadent Miles Kendig. Listening to Mozart while shaping his memoir on a typewriter, uproariously humming opera at the border checkpost, and completely failing at mimicking different accents, Matthau’s Kendig is a very idiosyncratic movie spy. Unlike modern rogue spies, Kendig doesn’t boast any noble intentions for his unpredictable revenge trajectory. He makes it clear that it’s an act of selfishness and a display of arrogance. But Matthau adds lively, miniscule touches to his portrayal that we persistently root for his anti-authoritative stance, irrespective of the eventuality. 

 

Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield’s writing may lack some spark to make it spectacular (it’s too relaxed at times), but their character sketches and nuanced comedic situations are nothing short of impeccable. Ned Beatty’s enraged yet inept Myerson makes up the perfect counterpoint to Kendig. The revenge solely channeled at Myerson is punctuated with undeniably funny punchlines, the highpoint being the encounter at Myerson’s estate where Kendig smartly hides. Some of the plot turns remain elemental compared to the brilliantly conceived verbal jousts (for instance, the confrontation between Kendig and Cutter in the hotel room balances comedy and poignance). The other winning aspect of the movie is the unforced chemistry between Matthau and Glenda Jackson. Their amorous teases somewhat serves as an emotional crux of the narrative. 

 

Hopscotch (105 minutes) may encounter the complaint of possessing standard-fare or bare-bones plot structure and predictable happy ending. But it retains a sense of charm that may wholly please viewers of dry, quirky comedies.

 

Late Chrysanthemums [1954] – The Everyday Disappointments of Japanese Women in the Post-War Society

Mikio Naruse’s first three adaptations of Fumiko Hayashi’s stories – Repast (1951), Lightning (1952), and Wife (1953) – explored how women’s social roles remain limited by traditional gender norms despite the reforms in post-war Japan. Late Chrystanthemums  (Bangiku, 1954), also based on the three stories of Hayashi, explores the hardships of women living outside the familial institution of Japanese society. Set amidst the complex, social and economic landscape of metropolitan postwar Tokyo, the film deals with the everyday concerns of four middle-aged women plagued either by lack of money and opportunities, or by the harsh public perception. Staged as usual with precision and simplicity, Naruse delves into the female subjective experience of social transformation in the modernizing Japan.

 

Bangiku

Naruse wouldn't be lionized as a feminist film-maker by the contemporary standards. His method is more of passive observation, which nevertheless frequently engages with questions of female subjectivity.  Furthermore, Naruse's nuanced, poignant portrayals of suffering woman within a ruined nation stops short of explicit social criticism which can polarize the viewers. Late Chrystanthemums is predominantly set in a back-street Tokyo neighborhood, and its four central women characters had worked together as geishas in their youth whose relationship has turned more complex in the dismal economic state of post-war Japan. Of the four, Kin (Haruko Sugimura) has flourished as the women of means, whose financial independence comes at the expense of friendship and male companionship.

 

Kin lives in a better household with a deaf and dumb servant girl. She is a shrewd moneylender and does real estate with her business partner, Itaya (Daisuke Kato). Kin is shown to be amassing wealth just for the sake of it, since it’s made clear that there’s no one in her life to share the fortune. Kin’s everyday routine consists of relentlessly pestering her ex-geisha pals, Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), Tomi (Yûko Mochizuki), and Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) who have all borrowed money from Kin and all leading a hand-to-mouth existence. All three women talk about Kin behind her back. Nobu and her husband make ends meet with their restaurant and pawn business. They have reached a position to pay Kin the interest. Tamae and Tomi, however are very unlucky, holding onto the menial jobs that isn’t enough to pay their rents.

 

The unmarried Tamae and Tomi have one grown children, and they decide to leave the home and live their own life. Burdened by loneliness and without any real means of support, Tamae and Tomi spend their evenings getting drunk. One of the best things about Naruse’s technique is that he glimpses at his characters in a naturalistic manner which evokes neither scorn nor pity. The narrative might revolve around women complaining about their plight, but their existence is also defined by a tenacity of sorts. Kin suffers snide comments from her friends whose ‘haughtiness’ often becomes the topic of interest.  Nobu at one point casually states, “I know what she used to do. She manipulated men for money.”

 

Late Chrysanthemums

Kin’s determination to keep following the motto of ‘eat or be eaten’ is tested by two men from her past. One is Seki, a man who once obsessively loved Kin that he tried to commit love suicide with her. The other is a former soldier named Tabe (Ken Uehara), whom Kin is looking forward to seeing. But both men visit her with the same purpose in mind: to beg for money. More memorable is the narrative’s bittersweet, penultimate scene as Tamae and Tomi watches a young woman in a tight skirt and heels, passing them with a signature Marilyn Monroe walk. Tomi attempts an impersonation of the step. They both laugh, knowing well that they are left behind in this new cultural and socioeconomic setup. Yet the women are intent on making their way in the modern world – the sunlight of metropolitan Tokyo further emphasizing their will to survive.  

 

Though Late Chrysanthemums isn’t as psychologically profound as Naruse’s later works dealing with similar subject matter – Floating Clouds (1955) & When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – there’s a pleasure in absorbing the director and his regular screenwriters’ – Sumie Tanaka & Toshiro Ide – anthropological or sociological view of post-war Tokyo. Naruse’s skills are clearly unparalleled when it comes to detailing and observing the rhythms of everyday life in the city. There’s fluidity in the way Naruse cuts between various characters and their spaces, often adorned with different visual motifs. One particularly well-staged sequence is the showcase of Kin’s vulnerability when she meets Tabe, which is crosscut with camaraderie existing between Tamae and Tomi as the friends get themselves intoxicated to soften the blows of everyday life. The rain serves as the linking point as Naruse cuts between two melancholic spaces riddled with human emotions.

 

Overall, in Late Chrystanthemums (101 minutes) Mikio Naruse perfectly maps out his observation of human emotions with respect to their socioeconomic conditions and interpersonal relationships. 

 

A Visitor to a Museum [1989] – An Unconventional Post-Apocalyptic Cinema with Spellbinding Aesthetics

 

Konstantin Lopushansky’s heavily textured, nightmarish cinema projects a future for humankind that looks prophetic, although we wouldn't hope for it to happen. Lopushansky, who worked as production assistant for Andrei Tarkovsky in Stalker (1979), made his diploma short film Solo in 1980. His debut feature Letters from a Dead Man (1986) is a believable nuclear holocaust drama that drew parallels with Tarkovskian landscape of Stalker. In fact, popular Soviet sci-fi author Boris Strugatsky (Boris and Arkady Strugatsky were the authors of Stalker’s source novel) co-wrote the script for Letters from a Dead Man (alongside Lopushansky and sci-fi writer Vyacheslav Rybakov). After this international festival hit, Lopushansky’s second feature A Visitor to a Museum (1989) also focused on a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape. Though ‘A Visitor’ is a bit heavy-handed than ‘Letters’, it once again emphasized the filmmaker’s stunning creative vision.

 

A Visitor to a Museum

Letters from a Dead Man depicts the life in an underground shelter after a nuclear explosion. The yellowish-brown coloration sets the narrative’s somber emotional t one. Unlike any post-nuclear-holocaust cinema, ‘Letters’ had a unrelenting harsh realism which allowed us to deeply absorb the stunning tableau of visible devastation as well as the crushing of human spirit. The central character in ‘Letters’ is a Nobel-Prize winning atomic scientist (played by Rolan Bykov), who feels that he has contributed to the destruction of the world. He channels his agony into the letters he writes to his dead son, Eric. Riddled with philosophical and religious themes, ‘Letters’ portrays the humans’ innate need to search for truth, hope, and meaning, nuclear winter or not.

 

‘Visitor’ is also a futuristic fantasy where its wandering protagonist strives to make a meaning in an insane, desolate landscape. The prevailing color palette here is red, indicating the hell created on earth by human kind where a tenuous affirmation of hope seems impossible. In fact, both Letters and Visitor were addressed as Lopushansky’s ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ movies respectively. While life came to an end due to nuclear explosion in ‘Letters’, in ‘Visitor’ the extinction is caused by an ecological disaster. Climate change and devastation of the environment are the reasons for this post-apocalyptic tragedy. A majority of the new generation of humans are biologically affected and they are labeled as ‘degenerates’, banished to the 'reservations', situated closer to the industrial dump sites. Red flames decorate the windows of ‘normal’ yet somewhat mentally deranged townsfolk homes to keep out the runaway ‘degenerates’.

 

A Visitor to a Museum opens with a nameless ‘tourist’ (Viktor Mikhaylov) taking the garbage train and walking through miles and miles of garbage to arrive at a coastal town situated near a dead ocean. He reluctantly identities himself as a city dweller and enquires the locals about reaching a museum, which is as large as a city but now flooded by the dead ocean. The mysterious museum, however, is accessible for a week at low tide. It is made clear that the ocean floor is covered with toxic sludge and that many have lost their way during the arduous walk. The tourist is determined about making the pilgrimage and signs the mandatory registration form. Waiting for the low tide, the tourist stays at a local guest house, a former weather station.

 

Museum


The older couple who hosts the tourist also gives shelter to a young ‘degenerate’ man and a woman. The husband is sort of doing a social experiment by attempting to ‘educate’ and ‘civilize’ the ‘degenerates’. Loathed for their limited intellect and susceptibility to religious hysteria, the young man and woman work as ‘servants’ for the ‘normal’ healthy old couples. The tourist, however, is more fascinated by the religion of the phyiscally deformed people, and sought out their monastery and priest. In fact, we learn that the flooded museum is not a symbol of science and rationality, but rather has religious importance. As much as he is drawn to the ‘degenerates’, the tourist is tormented by the manifestation of visions from near-future.

 

Gradually, for the ‘degenerate’ masses, the tourist unwittingly becomes a messianic figure and his pilgrimage to ruinous museum is of utmost importance to them. The children of apocalypse organize an elaborate ritual before preparing him for the trip. The disoriented tourist walks through the ocean in low tide, but he is unable to make a meaning out of the journey. The narrative ends with a long, devastating shot of the nameless tourist, screaming and walking through garbage-strewn landscape with a fiery red sun in the background.

 

I felt a sense of detachment with the proceedings in ‘Visitor’, most definitely due to its unapologetically strong religious themes. ‘Letters’ also withheld religious themes, particularly the sequence involving the scientist and traumatized mute children making a Christmas tree. In ‘Letters’, faith rejuvenates the human spirit and crystallizes the thought of hope. ‘Visitor’ denies any possibility of hope, but utilizes the chunk of running time to showcase the ascension of tourist into a Christ-like figure. Without question, it’s all mesmerizingly shot. But unlike ‘Letters’, the heavily theological second-half of ‘Visitor’ fails to create any emotional impact although the terrifying imagery and oppressive atmosphere keeps us enthralled.

 

‘Visitor’ could be read on two levels. On one hand – as its dense religious symbolism suggests – it seems to speak of mankind’s movement away from God, in the name of scientific progress. Mankind is utterly barren of spirituality that he can’t derive any meaning out of God’s words. In one of the brilliant scenes, a unhinged old man requests the visitor to randomly suggest a passage from the scripture which he hopes would tell his fortune. But unable to conjure any meaning out of the words, the old man sadly remarks, “completely incomprehensible. Can you explain it to me?” In another scene, we see the cultured man of the guest house trying to educate his ‘servant’ by questioning, “what has man created in his time on earth?” The other somberly replies, “Man has created a trash heap”. Through these moments, writer/director Lopushansky emphasizes on how rationality and scientific indulgence has led mankind towards self-destruction.

 

The tourist or ‘visitor’ burdened by the collective guilt of mankind that strayed from God seeks redemption through his odyssey. But then it becomes apparent that it’s too late to stop humanity’s march towards self-destruction or to right the ‘sins’, which in the end is the cause for the tourist’s incessant screams. Or it isn’t such a strongly underlined argument of scientific rationality v. religious faith. What people believe gives them the strength and it generates meaning. Humankind’s existence is closely related to their perpetual search for meaning. Lopushansky probably posits that this search– in scientific rationalization or religious faith – creates an unbreakable pattern that will eventually lead to societal breakdown and madness.

 

Lopushansky

The aimlessly wandering and shrieking tourist has now understood that everything is utterly devoid of meaning, and in a post-apocalyptic landscape sanity can’t be maintained by creating meaning for oneself. He now knows that we were destined to create hell. Moreover, God - if there is one - doesn’t care. In fact, Konstantin Lopushansky who is interested in Christian philosophy makes up such captivating purgatorial landscapes to reinforce the idea of the horrors of a godless world.  Whatever, our interpretation of Lopushansky’s snapshots of futuristic hell is, he successfully breaks away from the conventions of science fiction cinema to bestow thought-provoking narratives on human condition (irrespective of the coldness). 

 

 

Emitai [1971] – A Thoughtful African Perspective on the Colonial Era

 

Ousmane Sembene, who has made a series of seminal Senagalese movies, is generally hailed as the ‘father of African cinema’. Born in 1923, Sembene has worked at the docks of Marseilles, where he got acquainted with French trade union movement, and later the commuist party. He wrote his first novel Black Docker in 1956 and his much acclaimed novel God’s Bits of Wood in the year 1960. Since Sembene felt writing could only enable him to reach the circle of cultural elite, he opted to get trained in cinema from a Moscow film school. He made his first short Borrom Sarret in 1963 and his first feature film in 1966, titled La Noire de (‘Black Girl’). While Sembene’s first two feature films – Black Girl and Mandabi (1968) – dealt with neocolonialism, i.e., set in the period after Senegal’s independence from France (on June 20, 1960), his third film Emitai (1971) is set in the colonial era as French troops abducted young African men to fight in World War II.

 

Sembene’s cinema has repeatedly offered counter-narrative to the colonizer’s representations of Africanness. Some of his earlier films, including Emitai, exhibit a kind of cinematic roughness compared to the smooth production techniques employed in European and American cinema. But Sembene’s uncompromising subject matter and his ability to innovate filmic medium as a way of fighting against neocolonial oppression make him one of the influential members of the ‘third cinema’. The term ‘third cinema’, first coined by Argentinian film-makers Fernando Solanos and Octavio Gettino, hints at the use of revolutionary film techniques to shine light on the condition of disenfranchised people around the world, and to further arouse them to come together and revolt in masses. Of course the radicalism promoted in such films encountered threat of censorship, ban, and imprisonment (‘third cinema’ largely met its demise in the age of globalization).

 

Emitai

 

Ousmane Sembene has once declared that, We have to have the courage to say that in the colonial period we were sometimes colonized with the help of our own leaders. We mustn't be ashamed of our faults and our errors.” Perhaps, this remark is at the heart of every Sembene’s rich, complex dramas that tackle the myriad ways the colonial era and neo-colonialism is haunting the African consciousness. Apart from the unsavory portrayal of the French colonizers, Sembene persistently alludes to patriarchal dominance in the tribes. Interestingly, the film-maker suggests the rise of Abrahamic religions and European colonialism in the African region as the reason for an oppressive patriarchial system. Women in traditional African system is said to be largely free from sexual exploitation and oppression. It is alleged that only with the colonialist suppression, the women’s status in African society and the egalitarianism of ethnic tribes were lost. Emitai echoes this line of thought and it’s expressed more profoundly in Sembene’s swansong, Moolade (2004).

 

Emitai revolves around the Diola people, a small ethnic minority living in the Casamance region of Senegal (the region of Sembene’s birth), who possesses distinct culture, gods, and language. The elders in Diola act as a kind of spokesperson, conversing and learning the mandate of gods and spirits (‘Emitai’ is the name for their ‘god of thunder’). The tribe’s women take over the major responsibility of cultivating and harvesting the rice crops. The Diolas believe rice crop is sacred and it is the property of the gods. Emitai opens with able-bodied young men of Diola village abducted and then recruited for French Foreign Legion. 

 


 

The colonial troops are enlisted to serve in the army of Marshal Petain. As World War II escalates and foreign troops increases in number, the colonial administration impose a new rice tax across Senegal. Fearing resistance, troops march with guns to seize 50 tons of Diola’s rice-crop. The elders, including the village-chief, wait for gods’ counsel in front of a shrine. But the gods stay silent despite the ritual sacrifices to appease their anger. Meanwhile, the black African soldiers, under the orders of a French commander, round up the village’s woman. The Diolas may have lost their sons and brothers to the French colonizers, but the rice solely meant for spiritual sustenance couldn’t be given up. The elders’ humiliation, the women’s resistance, and the savagery of the French allow Sembene to construct a multi-layered examination of ruthless colonial economy and inflexible cultural beliefs.

 

It could be argued that the rice cereal, primary reason for the conflict and the eventual tragedy, could be given away by the villagers since it’s largely needed for religious ceremonies. The French argue they need it for their troops at war. But towards the film’s end, there’s news of Marshal Petain getting replaced by General de Gaulle and subsequently the French demand for overseas food is put into question. Moreover, Sembene doesn’t attune to official history and hail de Gaulle as the hero who resisted Nazi rule. For the West African soldiers who take this change with bafflement (ironically they only argue over the ludicrousness of a 'General' taking over from a 'Marshal'), there are no fundamental differences and they are still colonized subjects of the French empire. 

 

Emitai

 

From an aesthetic perspective, Emitai, similar to all other Sembene’s movies, promotes framing techniques that keeps certain distance from individual characters, for the purpose of contemplation as well as to wholly regard the collective tribal society. Sembene use of language is particularly interesting in Emitai. The elders of Diola use language to make decisions for the collective. Yet the language only serves to divide them as they repeatedly talk of the humiliation and stay in their corner. The Diola women rarely utter a word in the narrative, but they use silence to take a collective action against the French. 

 

The gods in Emitai more or less serve as dreadful phantoms that look as much threatening as their colonial oppressors. In one dreamy sequence when the village chief’s life fades away, Sembene takes us into the reality of the Diola’s religious belief. The sequence respects as well as subtly undermines the native customs and traditions. Nevertheless, Sembene believes that the rituals and customs cause less harm than the ones caused by foreign colonizers. In his after-life, the village-chief appears in front of gods and denounces them for their inaction as if he is their equal, but the same inclusiveness couldn’t expected from the 'foreign devils'. 

 

Emitai (97 minutes) certainly suffers from the kind of visual roughness, found in most of ‘third cinema’. The non-professional actors also couldn’t do much to smooth out such problems. However, film-makers like Ousmane Sembene bring forth a more plural, ambiguous vision of African history, social structure, and culture which isn’t tainted by the Western influences.