Tuesday, December 29, 2009

O'Horton & Schultze Gets the Blues

Some time in the early 1950s, life insurance ads featuring cheery-faced, grey-haired men and women began appearing in digest-sized magazines like Coronet. They were pictured swinging golf clubs, smiling beneath palm trees and posing happily in vacation-like settings. A 1955 headline over a photograph of a man holding a fishing rod, reads, "How I retired in 15 years with $250 a month."

By 1958, this on-going campaign featured a husband and wife enjoying life in sunny California. Above them, a somewhat updated headline read: "How we retired in 15 years with $300 a month."

Eventually, inflation killed the campaign if not the dream of a carefree retirement. Even in these not-so-golden years, there are those who long and plan for a time when they won't have to work. There are, however, others who find the prospect of an unstructured life more than a bit daunting, their identity wrapped snugly in what they do for a living, and how well they do it. Over the years, several films have attempted to capture the transition to life in the not-so-fast lane. Of these, Norway's O'Horton and Germany's Schultze Gets the Blues are two of the best.

Written, directed and produced by Bent Hamer, O'Horton is a quirky film centering around the days immediately preceding and following a railroad engineer's mandatory retirement. Hamer charmed his way into my heart with Kitchen Stories, and I was anxious to see what he could do outside the kitchen.

As it turns out, O'Horton is a good bit darker and more adventurous than Stories, but still in keeping with Hamer’s penchant for keeping things simple, and letting the pictures tell the story.

In case you're wondering, the “O” in “O’Horton" stands for “Odd”—the central character’s given name. Pronounced "owed", it is, apparently, a fairly common name in Norway, and while some critics believe Hamer chose it for its English translation and pronunciation, the screen writer denies it. And I believe him, as Odd is not an odd man. Solitary? Yes. A creature of habit? Perhaps. But odd? No.

If anything, Odd, as portrayed by Baard Owe, is a rather ordinary member of the working class. A railroad engineer by trade, he has always lived by the rules, and in Odd’s world, those rules dictate that he retire at the age of sixty-seven.

We meet him on the morning of what is to be his next-to-last run. As the credits roll, we see a train passing by his modest Oslo apartment building. Cut to his studio apartment, where he is in the midst of a long-standing morning routine: packing his lunch, filling his thermos and covering his parakeet’s cage before setting out on foot for the nearby train terminal.

He arrives just as his train pulls into the station. We see only the front end of the engine. As it comes to a halt, we hear the wheels squeal, the sound of additional cars hooking up, and the slow steady shuffle and eventual acceleration of the train as it makes its way out of the station and into the stark white landscape of a typical Norwegian winter.

Cue the music, and what has to be one of the most beautifully-filmed train sequences I have ever seen. It is a study in black and white, with Hamer using three cameras to provide breathtaking views. There is the overhead shot taken from a helicopter – showing us the expanse of the land and the sure steady path of the train. A second camera is placed just behind Odd, where he sits―trusty pipe in hand, anticipating every twist and turn along the way. A third camera provides ground-level close-ups of the train and surrounding countryside.

The total effect is spell-binding, particularly the cabin footage. Here, we see what Odd sees; the whitest of whites, followed by the blackest of blacks, as the train makes its way in and out of tunnels and snow-covered towns.

Scheduled to make his last run the following morning, Odd arrives in Bergen, where he is honored at the obligatory retirement dinner. This sequence is one of the film’s best: a charming, whimsical piece of folderol, during which he receives a silver train-topped trophy from the railroad, and a wonderfully humorous tribute from his fellow engineers.

It is in these opening sequences that we learn that Odd is a quiet man who is uncomfortable in the spotlight, choosing to be an observer rather than participant at his own retirement party.

When circumstances cause him to miss his last run, Odd's life takes an unexpected turn, trashing the one post-retirement plan he had in place―a return flight to Oslo. What would be a minor snag for most, is, literally, a major departure for this life-long railroad man, and I found myself wondering whether it was, if only subconsciously, an act of defiance: a non-confrontational way of getting back at a company that has no use for a loyal employee of a certain age. Look Ma, no trains!

But ma isn’t listening, as she sits by her rest home window, lost in a world of her own. Yet despite the fact that she no longer has the ability to listen or respond to her son, she remains an ever-present force in his life, her lost dreams infiltrating his own.

With no plans for the future, Odd takes refuge in the faces, places and creature comforts that have been a part of his working man’s routine. Among them, a neighborhood tobacco shop, a local restaurant where, like Cheers, everyone knows his name, and a boarding house, where a smitten innkeeper has kept a room and hot meal waiting for him on the nights when his run ended in Bergen.

Yet even amidst the old and familiar, there are off-putting moments, as one unexpected dilemma leads to another. Before long, the newly-retired engineer finds himself taking chances and making decisions that fly in the face of rules and convention, and are, at the very least, out of character.

After one such predicament in a local gym, Odd comes upon an elderly gentleman named Trygve Sussner, superbly played by veteran actor Espen SkjĂžnberg. Lying on a city pavement on a cold winter’s night, it appears that Dr. Sussner has had a bit too much to drink. Odd helps the old man to his feet and into cab: a kindness that leads to a series of events and givens that are not quite what they seem. As these events unfold, and the givens fall away, we learn the back story that shaped Odd’s life, and will ultimately impact his future.

Towards the end of the film, Sussner confides that as a young man, he had a gift for being able to see with his eyes closed, and would often take to the road blind-folded. Inviting Odd to join him for a pre-dawn drive, the old soul looks around his snow globe of a town and remarks, “Today is a beautiful day for driving blind.” It is a statement that far exceeds its literal meaning, causing the once cautious engineer to do some blind driving of his own.

Like O’Horton, Schultze Gets the Blues follows a man who has been forced into retirement, without a clue as to how to fill in the blanks. Despite the fact that Horton is a Norwegian engineer and Schultze is German miner, their stories, at least at first blush, appear to be quite similar. The engineer receives a silver train-topped trophy for his years of service, the miner receives a rock of salt. The engineer finds comfort in his pipe, the miner, in his accordion. And yet, to say that they are basically one and the same film with different subtitles, would be a mistake, as they each have their own rhythm, look and story line. Fraternal twins, they are alike in some ways, yet totally different in others.

Of the two, Schultze’s tale is a good bit brighter, with a happy dose of Zydeco music, and a trip across the pond to cheer us on. But while O’Horton’s journey may be somewhat darker, it is not without its fair share of humorous moments. Together, they prove that the joys, fears, foibles and challenges surrounding retirement are universal. Underscoring this notion is the fact that, as of last August, O'Horton had been seen by more Americans than Norwegians; the commonality being the milestone rather than the miles.

Are these films for the geriatric set, or can they be enjoyed by all? The answer lies in another question: Do you have to be from outer space, a vampire, animated figure or larger-than-life mortal to enjoy films about them? Surely not. A good movie is a good movie. It's as simple as that.

Here’s to a bright and shining New Year, filled with spectacular moments both on and off the silver screen.

Till the next time...

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