Coming to terms. Or not.
Some damned Tory Brexiter was saying the other day that it was high time we who oppose Brexit ‘come to terms’ with it, accept it as inevitable and ‘pull together’ for the country’s sake. Much as if I woke to found a majority in our household had decided to set fire to the curtains in our house, arguing that it would save on heating bills, I should accept their decision and smile benignly as they went about their senseless destruction. But I can’t bear to write more about that. Instead I shall give myself (and just possibly you) the pleasure of writing about two great films that are completely unavailable in this country, but which have recently come into my hands through rather roundabout routes.
One involves ‘coming to terms’, the other it’s opposite, for which there is no name. Now a certain person whose confidences I shall respect by calling him Felix, which happens to be the name of our son, says that if there is one thing he cannot abide, it’s film and novels about ‘coming to terms’. An odd aversion, since so many great films and novels are about just that – what else is ‘Gone with the wind’ or ‘It’s a wonderful life’ but ‘coming to terms’? But I think I know what he means, Felix, that is: a certain type of too-easy English resignation, acceptance of pointless failure, of life not properly lived: ‘Remains of the day’ or ‘Brief encounter’ type of thing.
The first of these films is about ‘coming to terms’ but in a far more positive, even joyous, way. It is ‘A ball at the Anjo’s house’ directed by Kōzaburō Yoshimura in 1947, at the start of the golden age of Japanese cinema. A high-born family is facing their own total defeat, in the wake of Japan’s defeat in war: they have lost their status, their titles, their money, the ancestral home, in short, their world. The father lost the house by credulously trusting to one of Japan’s new rich, who exploited the family name, tricked them into signing over the house and now disposes of them ruthlessly as no longer useful to him. His son hides his desperate sympathy for his father beneath a brittle veneer of world-weary cynicism, and dismisses the servant girl he has seduced with promises of marriage. One daughter, conscious of her rank, dismisses their former driver who adores her and who through hard work has made himself enough to offer to save the family home. The other daughter, played by the incomparable Setsuko Hara, is desperate to save her despairing father, who sharply rebuffs her plans.
(Hara specialised in such roles, notably in the films of Yasujirō Ozu, including ‘Tokyo story’ (1953), which ranks high on most lists of all-time great films. There was something of the father/daughter relationship between her and Ozu. On his death she never worked again and retired to a remote village where she died in 2015. Her roles, as the dutiful, self-sacrificing daughter, but happy in her self-sacrifice, don’t suit today’s feminists. But I know women like that, and they are not patsies or failures or weak, but amongst the best and strongest people I know. I don’t have a favourite actor, but I have a favourite actress: Setsuko Hara, who manages somehow to make every other actress seem a little…well, tawdry, somehow.)
The Anjos decide to hold one last ball in their home, just as they used to do, before losing it forever. Much goes wrong: their past is falling apart in front of their eyes. Yet Hara saves the day, averting her father’s suicide, and in an extraordinarily prolonged scene, almost without dialogue, bringing him, and the whole family, back to life, to love life again, to look forward to their uncertain place in the new Japan. She does it by dancing the tango with him. Wonderful, wonderful Setsuko Hara.
The second film, 'Sunday's children', is a sort of negative to that story: the erasure of a reconciliation, of kindness that was contained in the past. The script was by Ingmar Bergman and is about a Sunday in the household of his (thinly disguised) family household in rural Sweden in the 1900s, when Ingmar was 8 and his father a priest. The outwardly happy, boisterous household conceals a failing marriage and a harsh, sometimes physically brutal relationship between Bergman pere and Ingmar fils, extraordinarily played by Henrik Innros. In a flashforward, we briefly see both in 30 or 40 years’ time – the father is dying, the son visits him, they resume their lifetime’s quarrel bitterly, no coming to terms here. Yet in the present moment, that Sunday all those years ago, we see the two take a trip to a neighbouring parish, and on the way back taking refuge from a thunderstorm: and there is a time of simple happiness and love between them. I find that so moving: the idea of the moment of true happiness, forgotten later, inaccessible to the grown man, but always there, always real.
It adds to the pleasure of this film that it was written by Ingmar Bergman but directed by his son Daniel. Ingmar was notoriously not a good father to his many children from different wives, but he seems to have had some sort of relationship with Daniel, who learned his craft from watching his dad. And it is beautifully filmed, the cinematography like but not like his dad's films. Daniel soon abandoned cinema and became a paramedic working in ambulances, where he reasoned he did more good than by making films. As even my friend John Ellis, capo di capi of media professors, might agree. (Not that there is anything criminal about John, though he would make an excellently calm and shrewd capo di capi, more Godfather than Soprano, should the opportunity ever arise.)
I guess the reason I love these two films is that they show two eternal truths about us humans, which one becomes acutely aware of in old age: our need to tell us ourselves a story about our lives that tells us warts and all, it has a pattern and meaning, that yes, that bit ended and this bit started, but it all makes a kind of sense; and equally, that true meaning is as it were imprisoned on the moment, can only be known in that moment, cannot be overwritten by some larger meaning.
Plus, of course, neither film has anything to do with Brexit.
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I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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