The Music Room, which Ray made between the second and third films of his justly acclaimed The Apu Trilogy, may (as critic Pauline Kael once suggested) reflect the same themes of cultural futility as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But if that's so, The Music Room is The Cherry Orchard seen through the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Music Room (which Criterion has just released this summer in both regular and Blu-ray) is about how a once powerful aristocrat stubbornly clings to the past through his opulent staging of musicales. But, in doing so, he destroys his family and his life.
|Chhabi Biswas as Roy|
There is almost a darkly comic aspect to watching Roy getting roused from his stasis by the distant sound of music (particularly from his neighbour, the noveau riche moneylender Ganguli, who represents the modern expedient aristocracy poised to replace Roy). In a series of moves to rival Ganguli, Roy tries to upstage his rival with rousing Indian classical performances of song and ballet. But in doing so, he guts his own remaining funds including his wife's jewels.
|director Satyajit Ray|
Although Chhabi Biswas was a huge stage and film star in India, ironically, he wasn't such a great fan of music. But you'd never know it from his memorably plangent performance here. Biswas helps us see how Roy's desire for music is not just the nostalgia of recovering the pleasures of the past, but it's also a refuge from the ravages of the present. The Music Room examines with a wistful glance the passing of traditions. But it does it while still casting a watchful eye on what human mysteries get brought forth by the modern world replacing those traditions.
As well, Kon Ichikawa's extraordinary The Makioka Sisters (1983), which Criterion has also released on DVD this summer, explores the conflicts between the traditions of the past and the modern world encroaching on those traditions. But Ichikawa, whose movies (Kagi, Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp) often ride on waves of inchoate emotions moving towards a sense of discovery, addresses those changes with evocative colourful impressions rather than through familiar narrative devices. While the film is based on a Junichiro Tanizaki novel (as was Kagi), The Makioka Sisters departs from some of the plot designs of the book and creates instead an evocation of a way of life that reveals the fleeting impermanence of beauty. It may be one of the few pictures where colour reveals as much about the dramatic moods as does the plot.
|Taeko and her dolls|
|director Kon Ichikawa|
Ichikawa also has no illusions about the rebellious Taeko. While most Western films celebrate and often idealize the rebellion of the young against adults, Taeko's actions are often reckless and have consequences that complicate our responses to her. Ichikawa, who in the past had also confronted us with the dire reality of war (as he did in Fires on the Plain), puts the conflict in the distance to keep our concentration on how the afflictions of time alter the Makioka chemistry. Even the music, the largo from Handel's opera Serse, is scored for modern synthesizers and guitar creating a timeless mood of coronation, a stately quest for marriage set against the unpredictable forces of nature.
|Teinsosuke and Yukiko|
The Makioka Sisters was made in the age when rock videos emerged, changing the course of movies, but Kon Ichikawa creates true visual music. The Makioka Sisters is a beautifully meditative look at the impermanence of life, but Ichikawa is too much of a sensualist to let the movie become languid, or stately. Showing a poet's touch, Ichikawa allows those lost moments of billowing beauty to take permanent residence in our imagination. It's a sublime masterpiece.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, concludes at the Revue Cinema on Monday, August 22nd with a discussion of Vertigo and Casualties of War. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)