When Charlton Heston passed away earlier this year, more than one obituary writer quoted Pauline Kael’s observation — made in her appreciative review of Planet of the Apes (1968) — that the actor carried himself onscreen like “an archetype of what makes Americans win.” But in Planet, Heston plays one of sci-fi’s all-time losers: As a woebegone astronaut at the mercy of theocratic primates, he’s shot, stripped, beaten, muzzled, paraded as a pet, scolded on behalf of his entire species and called ugly to his face by a furry Kim Hunter, all before realizing that he’s the last man on Earth (a role that suited the actor so well he played it again, three years later, in The Omega Man). Whether or not Planet director Franklin J. Schaffner’s intention was to bring his well-cured ham of a leading man down a peg (or five) is irrelevant: The film endures because of the gleeful way it puts an icon through the wringer.
It’s difficult to segue from Heston into a discussion of Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983), except to note that Kael liked it too, heralding its “triumphant simplicity.” Ichikawa, who died of pneumonia in February at the age of 92, was never as easily pegged as his contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, moving between genres and styles with confidence and frequency. The Makioka Sisters is one of the Japanese master’s more elegant late efforts, foregrounding the romantic travails (if the complications endemic to arranged marriage can be called romantic) of four prosperous sisters in Kyoto against a subtly shifting pre–Word War II backdrop. The underlying push-pull between tradition and modernity isn’t hard to glean — and neither is the relentless seasonal motif that connects the various episodes — but Ichikawa’s images are so richly textured and precisely arranged that resistance is ultimately futile.
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While best known for his role as Kinch in Hogan’s Heroes, Ivan Dixon, who died in March, enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a screen actor and director (The Spook Who Sat by the Door). His wrenching performance in Nothing But a Man, directed by Michael Roemer (The Plot Against Harry), is the jewel in a minor-key masterpiece that has repeatedly eluded audiences since its release in 1964. The film — apparently a favorite of Malcolm X’s — was shot at the height of the civil rights struggle, and depicts the travails of a black laborer, Duff Anderson (Dixon), whose attitude and intelligence continually hinder his progress in the highly codified world of the segregated Deep South; a man’s tortured passage to accepting both himself and the love of a good woman in this inhospitable climate lies at the heart of the film. While working on a railroad section gang, Duff falls for Josie (sensitively played by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln), a preacher’s daughter living in a small Alabama town. Despite Duff’s unpolished overtures and the strenuous opposition of her strait-laced father (whose pandering to the white establishment infuriates Duff), Josie senses Duff’s inherent decency and reciprocates. Scenes of everyday life in the black community are delivered in a gentle and impressionistic style, prefiguring Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, while early Motown hits accompany the more upbeat scenes. Dixon brilliantly portrays a man quietly at war with himself and the world into which he was born. The lives around him are slowly shattered by poverty, alcoholism and violence — the bitter fruit of the Jim Crow system that results in self-hatred for victims and perpetrators alike — but Duff refuses to conform to the code of resignation and wariness that typifies the attitudes of his peers. A brief respite of domestic bliss is enjoyed when Duff and Josie marry, but Duff’s taciturn demeanor is continually — and correctly — interpreted as a sign of defiance, and his attempts to organize his broken-spirited co-workers at the local paper mill result in intimidation and ostracization. The film is filled with convincing performances: Julius Harris as Duff’s estranged father, ground down into sodden and bitter torpor in a Birmingham rooming house, is particularly affecting. Even the crackers are three-dimensional. Though Nothing But a Man is, fortunately, no longer as topical as it was 44 years ago, its power and beauty remain undiminished.
The Makioka Sisters screens Tues., June 24 at 4:30 p.m. and Nothing But a Man screens Sun., June 22 at 6 p.m., both at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum. Planet of the Apes screens Sat., June 21 at 8:30 p.m. in LAFF’s free-admission open-air screening space on Broxton Avenue.