Half Nelson [2006] – A Teacher & Student’s Search for Identity

Half Nelson refers to a wrestling hold in which a wrestler’s arm is passed under his opponent’s armpit and the hand is holding the back of the opponent’s neck; an uncomfortable position in which the opponent feels locked. Ryan Fleck’s indie feature, Half Nelson (2006) expresses its teacher protagonist’s feeling of being caught in a disquieting life situation; a wrestling hold turned into a subtle metaphor in this low-key emotional narrative. Similar to Blackboard Jungle (1955), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995), and Freedom Writers (2007), Half Nelson also features a tough American inner-city school with a teacher hailing from the liberal background (with the exception of Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, all the other protagonists in the aforementioned movies are white). 

Moreover, the core narrative of Half Nelson follows the tentative friendship between the young, charismatic history teacher and his African-American teenage girl pupil. Nevertheless, this is not a movie of big statements and cheap melodrama. In fact, Ryan Fleck and his co-writer Anna Boden crafts this as a wonderful examination of broken people, where the teacher is neither ideal nor says something like ‘Carpe diem’.

“The only constant is change”, declares Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an instantly likable history teacher (with a great interest in dialectics) working at inner-city middle school in Brooklyn. He also says, during one of his classes, “Everything is made with opposing force. We may be opposed to the machine, but we're still very much a part of it, right? I work for the government, the school, but I'm also very much opposed to a lot of its policies. You guys hate coming to school, right? Holler back if you heard me! You hate it, but you come anyway.” I think these two statements perfectly alludes to the core themes of Half Nelson, especially the characters’ inner conflict as they feel the pull between two opposing forces or despair over the change.

Right from the beginning, we can see how brilliantly Dan engages his students, making them care about what he says. Thirteen-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps) admires and respects him like all her classmates. He’s also her basketball coach, making us think that this guy is not just good with intellectual discourse. The first crack in this handsome, talented young teacher image is inflicted when we see him lead a lonely life (a cute cat is the only companion at home), chasing girls at a bar and buying crack cocaine from a street dealer. Later, he is caught snorting coke at the gym bathroom by Drey. Interestingly, Drey doesn’t judge Dan; maybe because she’s already acquainted with the drug-addled society, or she cares too much about Dan to question him about it. It’s a bit of both.

Drey’s parents are separated. Her father doesn’t show up (in her life and in the movie). Her mother is a regular beat cop working round-the-clock. Drey’s elder brother is in jail, taking the fall for a friend and local drug-dealing kingpin, Frank (Anthony Mackie). Frank looks out for Drey. It’s ambiguous whether Frank is just recruiting her for his line of job or looking out for her simply out of brotherly love (maybe, it’s a bit of both). While Dan and Drey gradually develops a bond - for Drey a better father-figure than Frank - their friendship is pulled by opposing forces.

 Dan’s life begins to unravel since he is unable to kick his drug habit. His ex-girlfriend meets him to say that she’s rehabilitated and going to get married. Dan sleeps with a female colleague, which later only leads to a cringe-worthy situation. On the other hand, Drey is slowly drawn to Frank’s world, delivering drug on his behalf, and speaking in his lingo. But despite the opposing forces pulling them and the eventual change, the film ends with Dan and Drey retaining their meaningful redemption, and their shy smile hints at the possibility of positive change.

Half Nelson is a remarkable effort by first-time feature-film screenwriters, Ryan Fleck and Anna Borden (after making couple of indie features, they recently helmed a big studio project -- Captain Marvel). With this original script (Boden also served as the film’s editor) the duo does a fine job in intertwining their pet themes while also taking great care to subtly zero-in on the emotions. Fleck and Borden largely avoids the conventions of the genre, particularly when it comes to realizing Dan and Drey’s bond. The nuanced performances and the honesty with which the actors express themselves of course is also the reason for the way the film-maker transcends the plot’s ordinariness.

Yet the writing interests me for the manner it gradually accumulates emotions and thematic ideas, and the drama doesn’t look to make a big impact but passes off like a gentle breeze. The reason behind Dan’s drug addiction or why his life is wreck isn’t clearly stated. But we know he is the disillusioned child of bourgeois parents who probably were hippies (“You stopped the war”, Dan says to his mom). Furthermore, his pursuit of dialectics, the weighty books he studies, and his messed up relationships does tell a lot about his personality. However, it’s also understandable why such nuanced and ambivalent treatment may make Half Nelson a disappointing movie experience for some. From the shaky, fly-on-the-wall visual style that induces nausea to the tad tactless, abrupt ending, the film does has its share of flaws.

Eventually Half Nelson is worth watching for the two mesmerizing central performances. It’s hard to define the way Gosling and Epps command the emotional terrain of the narrative through mere words. Gosling is especially great in the scene when his character decides to confront Frank, asking him to stay out of Drey’s life. Dan tries to make his point, but anxiety and vulnerability takes over and he ends up taking Frank’s offer for a drink. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, where Dan’s frail state is conveyed with a light note of humor (that moment he picks up the stray cat is laced with sadness and humor). Epps, a non-professional actor, incorporates a rawness to the character, and is perfectly up to the task in playing against Gosling. The different shades of emotions rendered by both the actors are clearly as fascinating as the film’s dramatic core.

Overall, Half Nelson (106 minutes) is an indie gem that takes an overwrought story-line involving charming teacher and troubled student to turn in a narrative full of honest emotions and rich themes. 

Detour [1945] – An Intense and Concise Film Noir of the Classic Era

Film movements and newly flourishing film culture have often helped movie enthusiasts to re-evaluate or re-discover particular style of films. This was particularly true of film noir (of the 40s) which although had been revered for decades by the French critics (they also coined the term). The video culture and the film criticism of the 1970s boosted few forgotten tiles of film noir, some eventually raised to ‘masterpiece’ status - the truth blended with mythos helped certain movies’ popularity. Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) was one such movie to have been re-discovered and went on to occupy an honored place in the history of film noir. It just about appears on every film noir connoisseurs’ list of classics of the genre.

Edgar Ulmer was one of the expatriate film-makers - born in Austria - who came to Hollywood after the rise of Third Reich. Ulmer associated himself with film industry by working as set designer. He has worked in the notable silent films of the era, including “Der Golem” (1920), Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927) and “Die Nibelungen” (1924). At Hollywood, he directed the Universal horror classic, Black Cat (1934), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. However, Ulmer’s directorial career didn’t flourish much under the studio domination. He was content with doing small-budget films and Ulmer’s visual styles very often belied the paltry budget. The knowledge of Detour’s low-end production is very well known among noir aficionados: it was shot over 28-days, although it was rumored to have been only shot in six days. Yet Ulmer easily transcends ramshackle production into a highly professional piece of work. He also perfectly puts to use the grimly fascinating and focused script (by Martin Goldsmith) that instantly grabs our attention.

Detour offers textbook illustration of film noir narrative and imagery: voice-over narration, broken men, dangerous women, smart use of montages, unusual camera angles (oh that coffee cup!!), and effective use of lighting, especially that slot of light to denote the protagonist’s emotional torment. The narrative largely unfolds as a flashback. The disheveled and tempestuous central character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sits in a shabby diner and thinks back on the nightmarish events from the past few days of his life. Al is a New York pianist who is deeply in love with his singer girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake). The girl, however, has decided to move to Los Angeles to try for better prospects in the showbiz. But Sue only lands up in a waitress gig. To support his agonized lover, Al decides to hitch a ride to Los Angeles and get married.

Al feels lucky to have come across a guy named Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who agrees to take him, all the way to L.A. since that was his destination too. The guy even buys Al a meal. Charles is a burly guy who likes to chat. He tells the story behind the scratches in his hand (courtesy of a crazed female hitchhiker), about his horse-betting profession, and finally the reasons for making this trip. Al takes the wheel for few hours and allows Charles to sleep. Soon, Haskell croaks (the reason remains baffling) and Al, in a state of panic, hides the corpse behind a bush and borrows the guy’s money, car, his suit, and his identity. Al’s bad luck only turns worse when he makes the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker himself. The hitcher is a mean, sharp-tongued woman named Vera (Ann Savage) who knows Al is lying, because she was that 'crazed female' who gave Charles Haskell Jr. his scars. After extraditing the truth from Al, Vera sticks on to him like a parasite and chooses to use him or rather Al’s new identity to receive loads of money.

Like a typical noir, Detour dabbles with bleak fatalism, tracing the downfall of an ordinary, flawed yet conscience-striken man who gets drawn into web of crime due to odd twists of fate. Ulmer stages the narrative with an urgency and strong sense of inevitability, depicting how Al’s desperate actions to avoid disaster only secures his doom. The cynicism and bitterness - staple elements of film noir - is clearly evident in Detour’s quest for happiness-gone-wrong narrative. In many ways, the film is seen to be providing a counterpoint to the usual perception of Hollywood & Los Angeles as a dream factory. 

The woman who talks of making it big gets (literally) strangulated. The man with dreams of bonding back with his love gets increasingly haunted by nightmarish scenarios. The cross-country journey may be mostly filmed on a process stage. But the limited production values help to establish the surroundings as wastelands, which shatters one’s dreams, doing the opposite of what the typical American cross-country trips tend to achieve. Ulmer excels in keeping intact the grimy, sooty atmosphere throughout, be it the set design of darkly-lit diners or the suffocation-inducing motel rooms.

Detour also greatly benefits from the central pair’s unerring performances. Neal is pretty good at expressing the looks of sullen resignation while facing every disapproval and indignity inflicted upon his character. The memorable shot of small slot of light on Neal’s face perfectly conveys the countenance of a person who only expects the worst from life. Savage lives up to her name, her Vera occupying the hall of fame of femme fatales alongside Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Joan Bennett, etc (though Ann Savage never made the jump to A-list stardom like the other female actors mentioned here). Vera is absolutely feral, irredeemable, and intolerable, Savage’s fire-breathing performance was truly entertaining. Interestingly, Savage’s Vera was not bluntly sexualized, unlike the femme fatale roles of the era.

Though technically a bit rough, Detour (68 minutes)  doesn’t have any flaws (perhaps the strictly enforced Hays Code moral ending was the only annoying aspect) and it offers a remarkable distillation of film noir’s essential themes and images.   

Ornamental Hairpin [1941] – A Japanese Wartime Drama that Skilfilly Combines Humor with Pathos

Hiroshi Shimizu’s Ornamental Hairpin (‘Kanzashi’, 1941) along with the director’s other two talkies – Mr. Thank You (‘Arigato-san’, 1936) & The Masseurs and a Woman (‘Anma to onna’, 1938) – were conceived as group portraits set among a distinct backdrop that temporarily brings together vacationers or travelers. While Mr. Thank You unfolds inside a small, rickety bus as a cross section of rural Japanese people travel through picturesque mountain roads, The Masseurs and a Woman & Ornamental Hairpin is set in the backdrop of a remote, hill-side hot spring resort. 

The unique characters in the three films represent a microcosm of Japanese society; in an era when the nation slowly recovered from economic depression, only to be beset by the total mobilization for war. The singularity of Shimizu’s men and women are sharply delineated by the ‘Senses of Cinema’ article (Hiroshi Shimizu: A Hero of his Time’) by Alexander Jacoby:His characters are almost always those who are alienated from the mainstream of society, whether by personal situation (poverty, family breakdown), profession (his men are often artists; his women, hostesses or prostitutes), or geography (most of his films are set in outlying areas of Japan, particularly the mountainous and inaccessible Izu Peninsula).”

Based on a story by Masuji Ibuse, Ornamental Hairpin opens with the shot of group of geishas walking through mountain road flanked on both sides by humongous trees. Among the women in the group, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her friend Okiku (Hiroko Kawasaki) are jubilant about their brief visit from Tokyo. The geishas’ arrival engulfs the inn with festive mood, the women booking all the masseurs available. The noisy gathering, however, irks the grumpy professor Katae (Tatsuo Saito) whose vociferous complaints go unheard. 

Other guests at the inn include: an old man and his two lively grandsons, Jiro and Taro; the meek Mr. Hiroyasu (Shinichi Himori) and his wife (Hideko Mimura); and Nanamura (Chushu Ryu) a soldier on leave. The geishas depart the inn after few days, but Emi leaves behind her ornamental hairpin in the hotspring which injures Nanamura’s foot rather badly. Nanamura isn’t bothered by his injury and finds the whole thing poetic: just like a poem pierces the soul, this 'poem' has pierced a sole.

The professor initially frowns at the soldier’s poetic inclinations. But he starts to speculate on the (and other guests too) beauty of the haripin owner, further adding to Nanamura’s romantic take on the accident.  Meanwhile, Emi sends a letter to the resort owner offering to pay for the return postage if anyone finds the hairpin.  And when she hears about Nanamura’s predicament, Emi arrives in person to apologize. Of course, Emi is young and beautiful, and a quite affection grows between her and Nanamura. 

Rejecting her wealth and materials of her former life in Tokyo, Emi stays in the inn and watches him gradually rehabilitate. The two mischievous boys (Jiro and Taro) accompany Emi and Nanamura, shouting cheerful words as the wounded soldier tries to walk without the help of crutch. Nevertheless, Ornamental Hairpin isn’t a straightforward love story. The 'love' is rather suggested through meaningful yet quiet glances and represented through the walk that first take place between trees and later over a rickety bridge, and mesmerizing hillside stairs.

The narrative is mostly episodic in structure, each hinting at how the tranquil atmosphere shelters this group of disparate people from the hard realities of outside world. Shimizu subtly hints at the guests’ class status - they all are sharing rooms on cheap rates and hence the refrain from commenting on the sameness of served rationed food - and Emi’s troubled past. The professor’s pompous nature comes down a notch as he socializes with others and assumes the role of the head of this make-shift family. The community of inn guests, of course, disintegrates when the holidays reach its end. The film ends on a melancholic note with kimono-clad Emi repeating the walks - among the trees, in the bridge and hillside stairs - without her would-be lover, and in that moment we can also discern the misery and uncertainties the wartime affairs is going to bring upon all the characters we had just traveled with.

Like most of Shimizu’s works, Ornamental Hairpin first appears to be a conventional gentle comedy, but slowly reveals its deeper layers as the film-maker manages to evoke nuanced, unspoken emotions of love and friendship. Often compared with the works of French master Jean Renoir, Shimizu’s films too remains as a mixture of charming simplicity and emotional complexity. The most striking aspect of Shimizu’s direction is his penchant for tracking shots that not only follows characters, but also cuts diagonally across to give us a feeling of the landspace and spaces. Some of the director’s formally beautiful shots withhold great emotional power. 

For instance, the scene Nanamura climbs up the hillside stairs leading up to a forest temple. His ascent presages the end of the transition period (Emi turns away in tears), whereas the calm and safety of the moment remains frozen in those frames. While Mr. Thank You’s narrative arc was infused with notes of hope and redemption, Shimizu in Ornamental Hairpin in order to reflect the uncertainty and hardships of the times (wartime Japan) rightly leaves the tender connection between Emi and Nanamura unresolved.

Humanity and Paper Balloons [1937] – A Subtly Drawn Tragicomedy

Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) ends with a poetic imagery of a hand-made paper balloon landing in a gutter, set adrift by the light breeze. This metaphorical representation of the fragility of human existence plus the dismal events which leads up to that moment hits us with the feeling of pensive sadness, but not just because of the film’s melancholic qualities. The sense of loss is also derived from factors unrelated to the narrative, such as the talented 28-year-old Japanese film-maker’s untimely death on the battlefront in Manchuria (17th April, 1938). Sadao Yamanaka supposedly made twenty-six films in his short directorial career. More than half of the films he made between 1932 and 1937 are silent cinema - most belonging to ‘Jidaigeki’ genre - and only three films survive from the director’s oeuvre: Tange Sazen and the Pot worth a Million Ryo, Priest of Darkness, and Humanity and Paper Balloons. Nevertheless, these three projects stand as a testament to his skillful use of the cinematic medium.

Bolstered by a complex, layered script from Shintaro Mimura (based on a kabuki play), Sadao Yamanaka’s swan song is set in the Tokugawa era (probably the 18th century). The story closely focuses on the people of lower classes, dwelling in the slums of Edo (now Tokyo), often beset by the fierce feudal class values. The narrative clearly illustrates the infrangible relationship between the ruling class and the mercantile class whose efforts to maximize their wealth and power largely goes undisputed. And the samurai classes who aid their masters in maintaining the status quo are far different from the ‘noble warriors’ portrayed in the chanbara classics. Setting aside the bushido code evoked in samurai cinema, Yamanaka and Mimura shows these swordsmen as unscrupulous thugs who are only capable of lording over impoverished peasants and workers. The lower classes are cynical and opportunistic in nature, not yielding themselves to the notion of ‘nobility in poverty’. But they are relatively honest bunch as we find the authoritative air in the upper rungs of social ladder more stifling.

Humanity and Paper Balloons opens with a shot of downpour, battering the cramped street of Edo slum. The rain clears up next day and the denizens set about to earn their meager wages when they hear the news of the suicide of a samurai neighbor. The death of neighbor is discussed in a darkly humorous manner- why he didn’t hang himself in a rainy day and why didn’t he commit hara-kiri - which also allows Yamanaka to introduces different types of people in the community: a crafty blind masseur named Ichi (not to be confused with expert blind swordsman hero 'Zatoichi'), a freewheeling gold-fish seller; the landlord; a defiant barber named Shinza (Kanemon Nakamura); the poor ronin, Matajuro Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) and his good-natured wife, Otaki (Shizue Yamagishi). The barber and ronin are the central characters who are repeatedly humiliated by the clan’s powerful. Apart from being the local barber, Shinza sets up surreptitious gambling games. This catches the attention of Yatagoro gang who has monopolized illegal gambling.

Before Shinza’s conflict with Yatagoro henchmen, the character’s persuasive nature is established as he requests the landlord to organize a wake, in memory of the dead samurai. He persuades the landlord to buy few sake bottles, and the wake soon turns into a riotous party for the slum dwellers. "Party or wake, it’s all the same in the end", quips an inebriated man. The narrative also ends with a drunken revelry although the tragedy that follows it is more devastating. After the wake, Shinza is abducted by the yakuza gang and warned by Yatagoro to stop his furtive gaming sessions. Shinza yields to the gang, but the same night he arranges for the game, which is duly stormed by Yatagoro men, making Shinza to flee from the scene. The other main character, Matajuro Unno, a downcast masterless samurai, desperately tries to get the attention of local clan leader Mori (Kosaburo Tachibana), who was a former associate of his late father. Mori keeps avoiding Unno and even humiliates him by sending up Yatagoro’s thugs after him.

At home, Unno assures his wife that Mr. Mori will offer him a job. Unno’s wife, Otaki spends her day cooped up in the shack, making paper balloons to support the family. While Yatagoro serves as adverse figure in Shinza’s life whereas Mori in Unno’s life, the two men are equally mortified by the Shirakoya Pawnbroker shop. The rich shopkeeper’s young daughter, Okoma (Takako Misaki) is to be married to an aristocratic family in order to strengthen the bonds between merchant and noble class. Okoma, however, harbors a love for Chushichi (Kikunojo Segawa), a dashing yet cowardly young man working for the pawnbroker. Shinza gets fed up by the authority persecuting him and decides to commit an act of rebellion by kidnapping Okoma. Unno doesn’t actively participate in the kidnapping, but he aids Shinza in a crucial way. Nevertheless, as one can easily discern Shinza can’t escape after demeaning the powerful. The film ends with painful images of glinting knives set against dismal weather.

Humanity and Paper Balloons is stripped off the romanticized notions associated with Edo period and image of the samurai. There are no conventional heroes here as the greed, alcoholism, and thuggery rampant in the narrative speak of decline in virtues and values. Both Shinza and Matajuro Unno aren’t conventional heroes. Although Unno seeks employment as a samurai, he is a weakling and not much of a fighter. The spark of defiance withheld by Shinza almost turns him into a heroic figure, but he is a bit flexible with his values. Moreover, mastery of tongue wouldn’t aid him to overpower the swordsmen. While director Yamanaka’s treatment of lower classes is unglamorous yet empathetic, he reserves his bitter critique for the privileged classes, whose composed posture seems to masquerade their unbridled self-interest and greed.

Yamanaka symbolizes the hopeless situation of the marginalized through gloomy weather, often punctuated by heavy rain. He repeatedly trains his camera on the muddy, rain soaked alleyways, teeming with the city’s poor populace to emphasize on the stress and despair caused by the congested space. The subtle characterizations by writer Mimura also perfectly compliments the film-maker’s carefully staged scenes. Yamanaka is alleged to be fan of American cinema and hence the witty banter of Shinza is said to be meticulously tailored by him.

Historical dramas can be used as a tool to reflect the bleak social and political conditions of the present. In this vein, Sadao Yamanaka and Mimura’s downbeat vision subtly relates the tyranny of feudal Japan with the corruption of values within the political hierarchy of pre-war Japan, which was then afflicted by the increasing jingoistic and militaristic fervor. Overall, Humanity and Paper Balloons (86 minutes) is one of the overlooked gems of Japanese cinema that fascinatingly exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of the high society and observes the struggles of disenfranchised poor with poetic pathos.