Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Through A Child's Eyes

For several years, Art Linkletter was the host of a television program entitled Kids Say The Darnedest Things. However, because of their naiveté, some kids also do the darnedest things!
  • Once, during a winter snowstorm in Brooklyn, I methodically crafted several dozen snowballs and stored them on a tabletop in our family's garage. After several weeks of sunshine, I went to look for them and discovered that they had vanished.  When I asked my mother where they could have gone, she thought that was the funniest thing she had heard in years.
  • Another time, our family was walking down the aisles in the Macy's Herald Square department store when we passed a display for hair clippers. Seeing an exceptionally interesting device, I promptly reached out, held it on top of my head and squeezed its handles together, which left a shockingly precise square patch of skin with no hair. My mother was not amused.
  • On a blistering hot night in a Pennsylvania motel, I once held my hand too close to a portable electric fan (this was before fans were required to have protective shields). While the idea may have seemed pretty cool, the bloody result was not.
  • When the grocery store on our block installed a vending machine that sold ball point pens, I was so fascinated by how the machine worked that I promptly spent my entire stash of quarters buying pens. Being forced to return the pens for a refund is probably what saved me from the allure of slot machines later in life.
Although their judgment may be faulty, children are remarkable astute at observing what happens around them (especially when adults are behaving strangely, or youngsters feel a need to protect someone -- or something -- they love from being harmed by adults).  Two movies seen at film festivals this month depicted children caught in moments when they realize that life is horribly unfair.

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In recent years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has started to screen silent movies from foreign lands such as India, China, and Russia.  One of this year's offerings was a 1932 Japanese classic directed by Yasujirô Ozu.

Accompanied on piano and flute by Stephen HorneI Was Born, But focuses on two young boys forced to adjust to life in the suburbs. Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito) and his wife (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) have just moved to a new home located close by Yoshii's boss, Iwasaki (Takeshi Sakamoto) and his son, Taro (Seiichi Kato). Like many young couples, their relocation to the suburbs has been accompanied by the hope that their two young sons (played by Hideo Sugawara and Tomio Aoki) will attend better schools.

Tomio Aoki, Hideo Sugawara, and Tatsuo Saito in I Was Born, But

While there are plenty of sight gags in this film, most of the audience's laughter derives from the simple honesty of boys being boys. Yoshii's sons are reluctant to go to a new school.  As commuter trains zip by in the background, the boys look for any possible excuse to cut classes. As happens in far too many cases, they are quickly spotted and victimized by their new school's bully.

Hideo Sugawara, Seiichi Kato, and Tomi Aoki in I Was Born, But

Co-presented by the Center for Asian American Media, I Was Born, But finds its dramatic steel as the two young boys make friends with Taro, the rich kid at their school (whose father is Yoshii's boss) while learning how to deal with Taro's "protector." As with most movies that involve groups of young boys, it is not the cleanest or best looking boy, but the one with the most expressive face (Tomi Aoki) who consistently steals the film.

The following scene captures the moment in which Yoshii's two sons discover something about their father that they've never known. Normally a very serious man, Yoshii and Iwasaki have been captured on film, clowning around in front of a camera. The boys are both startled and embarrassed to see their friends laughing at their father.

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I often lose patience with directors who overdo the use of flashbacks to a point where the audience has no idea where they are in a story. Thankfully, that was not the case with Gilles Pacquet-Brenner's suspenseful use of this dramatic device to peel away the layers of a complex mystery in Sarah's Key.  As Brenner explains in his director's statement
"When I came across Tatiana de Rosnay’s book, I was dazzled by its captivating plot and the way the story also explores the gray areas which few films deal with, such as the attitude of the regular people during the Roundup. Also, it resonated with my own family history. I’m of Jewish origin and the men in my family were victims of that period. My grandfather, a German Jewish musician who had settled in France, was denounced by some French people and died shortly after being sent to the camps. I pay tribute to him through the character of the violinist who has a ring containing poison so he alone can decide when he dies. My mother told me that story for the first time while I was in pre-production for the film. Certain things resurfaced. Obviously I wasn’t around when my grandfather was deported, but I saw how it had affected my grandmother and my mother and her sisters. The book brought that back to me -- the living who have to learn to live with the dead."

Sarah (Mélusine Mayance) senses danger
when gendarmes comes to visit.

As the film opens, two young French children -- Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) and her little brother, Michel (Paul Mercier) -- are tickling each other in bed in a Parisian apartment.  What seems like innocent fun, but will soon go horridly wrong. It is July 1942, and the French Roundup of Jews is about to begin.  Sensing that something bad is about to happen, Sarah locks Michel in an armoire, insisting that he not make a sound until she comes back to let him out.

Soon, Sarah and her confused parents are being held captive at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a huge sports arena with limited bathroom facilities. From there they will be transported by train -- along with thousands of other Parisian Jews -- to the transfer point at Drancy before being sent to Auschwitz to die.

Sarah's desperate attempts to return home and free Michel from his hiding place are in vain. By the time she has managed to escape from a Nazi transit camp at Beaune la Rolande and convinced the rural French couple who gave her shelter -- Jules (Niels Arestrup) and Geneviève Dufaure (Dominique Frotate) -- why she must get to Paris, Michel's body is rotting where she left him. Although the audience knows there is no hope for Michel, they won't learn what happened when Sarah returned home until much later in the movie.

Poster art for Sarah's Key

More than 50 years later, Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas) is an American journalist who has been living in Paris for the past 25 years. She and her husband, Bertrand Tezac (Frédéric Pierrot), have just taken ownership of the apartment he inherited from his parents.

It's the apartment the Starzynskis once called home.

As Julia (who is researching an article about the Roundup) tries to learn more about the apartment's past owners, she comes across some curious information gaps in the history of her husband's family. Julia also discovers that she is pregnant -- only to learn that her husband no longer wants another child.

Julia's instincts as an investigative journalist lead her on a wild goose search for clues to the fate of the Starzynski family. Simultaneously, Sarah's struggles are revealed in a series of heartrending flashbacks that follow her life as she matures into a beautiful young woman (Charlotte Poutrel).

Julia's research eventually leads her to Sarah's dying husband in America, Richard Rainsferd (George Birt), his second wife, (Joanna Merlin), and Sarah's disbelieving son (Aidan Quinn) who lives in Italy and had absolutely no idea that his mother was Jewish.

Pascal Ridao's cinematography effectively enhances both parts of the story (that are a half century apart) with astonishing intimacy. Gilles Pacquet-Brenner's direction turns Sarah's Key into a riveting thriller quite unlike any other Holocaust movie. The large cast is uniformly superb. Here's the trailer:

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