Monday, April 21, 2014

The Largest Crowd is Composed of the Dead: On the Horror of Crowds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger

When asked why he had never performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz replied that he didn’t like crowds.  Which sounds like a reasonable answer, although it likely contributed to the assassination attempt on him that took place several years later, when a Muslim militant stabbed the octogenarian man of letters in the neck.  Luckily, Mahfouz (a) was in the presence of a doctor friend when the assault took place and (b) happened to live across the street from a hospital, so he survived, albeit with permanent injuries.  But when I think of crowds, poor, irreverent Mahfouz is one of the first people who come to mind.

I also think of Elias Canetti, whose study Crowds and Power seems to be the last word on the subject.  For Canetti, crowds are more than the sum of the people that compose them.  They take on a mind of their own, and not a particularly reasonable mind.  Crowds of people, like swarms of insects, are a source of horror, and he grimly points out that the largest crowd must surely be that of the dead, who vastly outnumber us.

Elias Canetti, wondering what the fuck is wrong with you people.
This horror of crowds is on full display in Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a scene of which I would like to explore without giving away major plot details, because it’s the sort of film whose plot twists should be appreciated fresh by first-time viewers.  The movie revolves around a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer plaguing the streets of London, and in one critical scene, a man, who may be innocent, is already handcuffed and on the run from the police.  He ducks into a bar for a quick drink, then leaves, and shortly thereafter the police show up and describe their suspect.  The patrons of the bar recognize the man who just left and, taking the initiative from the police, they flood into the streets to lynch him themselves.  The man comes to a fence and hoists himself over it, but his handcuffs becomes entangled in the spikes that top the fence, and he hangs there helplessly as the crowd amasses above and below and begins to assault him.  It’s a deeply disturbing sight.

Victim of the crowd's fury.
Canetti prided himself on never joining groups, even benign-seeming groups, because all groups had within them the seeds of the crowd dynamic, the dissolution of individual will and individual moral responsibility.  It’s hardly an original point to observe that people do horrible/idiotic things when they succumb to the mob mentality, but it’s a point that gets proven time and again.  Just a few days ago, a crowd at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, rioted because the school hockey team lost.  Somehow they got it into their heads that: a team affiliated with our school has lost a game, ergo: we should start tipping over cars and assaulting police officers.  Idiots.  The sort of people who would do that can’t be trusted with important decisions that require the valuing of human life.  Because they’re the sort of people who form lynch mobs.  So, take a lesson from Hitchcock (or Canetti) and stay the hell away from crowds.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dispatches from Satan’s Church: On Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia

Nature is perhaps too beautiful and too abundant.  Within its vastness, man is inevitably reduced to a position of weakness and insignificance.  This theme is richly illustrated in Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad’s haunting 2009 fiction/documentary hybrid, Agrarian Utopia.  As it follows the day-to-day lives of two families of sharecroppers in rural Thailand, Uruphong’s camera captures a world of rich digital greens and Ruisdael cloudscapes, and the comparison is apt, because its rivals any Dutch landscape for detail and intensity.

Now, when I think green, there are two movies that come to mind first and foremost: Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Chou-chou (2001)—which is all rain-soaked rice paddies in varying shades of green—and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (also 2009), in which Charlotte Gainsbourg speaks the line that sums up my pessimistic view of nature (and if you know me, you’re probably sick of hearing it).  She says, “Nature is Satan’s church.” But in Agrarian Utopia, nature isn’t just a church, it’s a whole world, and a world on the verge of apocalypse, with our protagonists, the Jumma and Mungmeung families, clinging onto its edge like insects.  One gets a distinct impression of how deep the earth is, and how human beings can only scratch its surface.
In its leisurely pacing (there is not much in the way of plot) and its rural setting, Uruphong’s film calls to mind the work of his countryman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with whom he shares an interest in humanity’s place in nature.  Agrarian Utopia also reminds one of the annoying films of Terrence Malick, minus the pseudo-philosophical bullshit and the art-house clichés that make films like To the Wonder so insufferable (Uruphong may have depicted tall grass blowing in the wind, but he managed to resist the temptation to have an attractive woman twirling through it for half the film).  In fact, this is the kind of movie that I think Malick wants to make (or thinks he’s making): a genuinely profound meditation on man and nature and capricious fate.
And now a word on availability: like the film I profiled in my last post (Pere Portabella’s Umbracle), Agrarian Utopia is streaming on MUBI, and that appears to be the only venue in which to see this film in the United States.  Personally, I’d been wanting to see this movie for a long time; MUBI briefly put it up a few years ago, but I neglected to watch it then, and then it disappeared! and I had regretted my negligence ever since.  So, I don’t want to sound like a shill, but if you’re a Thai cinema enthusiast in the U.S., this may conceivably be your only opportunity to see this film, ever, or at least within the foreseeable future.  I wish it wasn’t like that, and that international art films like this were much more widely available here, but that’s unfortunately the case at present.  Kudos to MUBI for doing its part to rectify the situation.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Falangist Vampires! Notes on Pere Portabella’s Umbracle

Christopher Lee in Umbracle (1972).
In 1969, English thespian Christopher Lee—whose career followed a largely Vincent Pricey trajectory—travelled to Francisco Franco’s Spain to appear in a schlocky Eurotrash adaptation of Dracula.  This was the beginning of the heyday of the shitty European exploitation horror film; Italy would make the most contributions to the genre, but Spain gave the Italians a run for their money.  Lee was in country to star in Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, but while he was there, he ended up making unexpected appearances in two films by Catalan avant-gardist Pere Portabella.  These films, both dating from 1970, are Cuadecuc, vampir and Umbracle.
Portabella has made a number of very strange films in a career that stretches from the 60’s to the present day.  His films that I’ve seen tend be plotless, expressionistic mindfucks, shot in high-contrast black-and-white.  They call to mind the movies of Guy Maddin and Philippe Garrel, minus any pretense of having a story or characters or anything like that.  Cuadecuc, vampir consists of shots filmed between takes on the set of Franco’s Count Dracula.  Somewhere on the internet I saw it described as a “film beneath a film.” Umbracle, which I watched this evening, has largely severed its ties to Franco’s film, and instead follows Lee as he wanders through Barcelona (I think it’s Barcelona).  These scenes are punctuated with several sequences that have the character of cultural artifacts and which are far more grounded in conventionality than what one became used to in Portabella films (for one thing, they have synchronized sound; Portabella’s soundtracks are usually just silence, or sound effects and audio scraps that don’t correspond to the action on screen).  These cultural sequences include: Spanish filmmakers discussing the censorship of film in late Francoist Spain; extensive clips from a fascist-Catholic propaganda film called Infinite Front (1955); and portions of the act of two musical clowns.  We also see Christopher Lee singing in German and French and reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Now, I said that these movies don’t have a plot but it would be more accurate to say they don’t have a story.  In terms of plotting, or narrative coherence, they follow their own internal logic, but it’s the logic of dreams rather than reality, or the logic of freewheeling erudition, as we might see with Jean-Luc Godard or, why not, James Joyce.  The films rely on the juxtaposition of their various sequences to generate meaning; I suppose all films do this, but Portabella’s films rely upon this method exclusively.  It’s sort of like the Qatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, except more localized.  Because what are the Qatsi movies about, if not everything? Whereas Portabella’s films, dreamy though they may be, have some recurring themes that they address, namely: fascism/Francoism and the peregrinations of recent Spanish history.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, Portabella sounds cool, I’m gonna go check out his movies! Where can I find them?” Well, if you’re resident in the United States (as I am), you’re going to have a real hassle tracking these things down legally.  MUBI used to have a bunch of them, but now they only have one (Umbracle).  I saw Cuadeduc, vampir on Youtube, but movies on Youtube come and go.  I don’t believe Portabella has ever had any DVD releases in the U.S.  So, I’m not going to tell you what to do; follow the dictates of your conscience.  Or hope that MUBI streams more of these films, and maybe they will.  They’ve done so in the past.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Contradiction Within the Polity: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin

*with spoilers*

A lot of people were shocked in 2010 when Iranian director Rafi Pitts released a subversive film called The Hunter, about a man whose wife and child are killed by the police during a protest and who seeks vengeance by taking up his hunting rifle and shooting two police officers (and this is not a spoiler, but rather it is the premise).  Now, Iranian filmmakers have never been the sort to shy away from controversy, but a film depicting such a direct and violent challenge to the Iranian authorities was remarkably provocative, especially coming as it did so soon after the suppression of the 2009 anti-government protests, which had seen the arrests of filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof.
There is a similar shock to be had in seeing Jia Zhangke’s most recent feature film, 2013’s A Touch of Sin.  Now, a few words about Jia.  First, if you were to ask me, “James, who are the greatest filmmakers working in the world today?”—and people rarely ask me that, unfortunately—I would say, “Well, moving from west to east, I’d say: Pedro Costa, Aleksandr Sokurov, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Jia Zhangke.” (And I list those five because a top five is more elegant than a top seven).  And of those five, Jia might be the best.  I am thinking specifically of two of the films that represent the apotheosis of his craft, The World (2004) and Still Life (2006).  Now, when Jia started making films in the ‘90’s, he did so independently and outside of the Chinese government-sanctioned system.  He made three films of varying quality: Xiao Wu (1997, known in the U.S. as Pickpocket), Platform (2000, which I personally find to be a bit tedious), and Unknown Pleasures (2002).  These three films are all set in the same kind of desolate backwater town on the borders of Inner Mongolia in which Jia grew up, and they all have a similarly grimy and makeshift aesthetic.  They are largely plotless films about aimless young people drifting and killing time (shades of Jim Jarmusch). 

With The World, Jia began to work within the Chinese governmental system, and say what you want about the ethics or the politics of that decision, but it catapulted his films onto a completely different level.  As its title suggests, and as Jonathan Rosenbaum has astutely observed of Bela Tarr’s Satantango, The World is sort of a check-in on “the state of the world” in 2004.  What are the economics, what are the social relations, what are the politics, where is the culture?  It’s a movie about everything.  And it looks really, really good, because now Jia was working with state-of-the-art equipment, and the colors and mise-en- scène are gorgeous (there were certainly signs of this in Unknown Pleasures, but the technology on that film seemingly wasn’t up to par).

Jia continued making these crisp, zeitgeist-y films with Still Life and 24 City (2008), as well as several documentaries that I have not been able to see because I live in Minnesota and too many foreign films don’t make it out here.  But A Touch of Sin, fresh off a best screenplay victory at Cannes, is getting a wider release in the U.S. and I was actually able to see it.  And it marks a fascinating departure for Jia, not so much in terms of style (it looks a lot like The World) but in terms of its content.  Jia’s films contain a fair amount of emotional violence, but very little physical violence; they’re stately and respectable in this regard.  A Touch of Sin, by contrast, is something of a bloodbath, and I’m amazed that the Chinese censors allowed it to get made.  The films consists of four episodes: a man name of Dahai (Jiang Wu) who has been victimized by the oligarchs in his mining community seeks bloody vengeance against them; a non-descript-looking migrant worker travels around with a pistol that he’s more than happy to use; a woman (Zhao Tao, who first appeared in Unknown Pleasures and has been Jia’s star ever since (and recently became his wife)) must fend off violence from her lover’s wife and from predatory men; and a young factory worker battles with despair.

Dahai (Jiang Wu), heavily armed.
It’s this first episode that’s especially shocking, because Dahai, armed with a hunting rifle (shades of Rafi Pitts’s film) basically goes Travis Bickle on the local establishment.  There are the oligarchs who struck it rich selling off the publically-owned mine at the heart of the town; the accountant who knows about their corruption but won’t go public with it; and the sycophants who suck up to the oligarchs and mock Dahai’s pitiful attempts to petition the federal government to bring the bastards to justice.  We see Dahai get bullied, pushed around, and finally assaulted with a shovel in his quixotic quest for an elusive justice that we know right from the get-go will remain out of reach.  And so Dahai loads up his hunting rifle (which is maybe a shotgun? Does that even sound plausible? I don’t know my guns.  I think it’s a shotgun because it seems to spray shot rather than individual bullets) and: blasts off a significant portion of the accountant’s face; kills a sycophant in cold blood; kills Oligarch #1; kills a man who has nothing to do with the oligarchs, but whom we’ve seen beating a horse, an act of cruelty which Dahai decides to put a stop to as long as he’s on a rampage; and then kills Oligarch #2.  And then the episode just ends, and we don’t see what happens to Dahai (although we can hazard a few likely guesses).

And that’s just one episode (albeit the most shocking).  The whole film paints a deeply distressed picture of modern Chinese society and gives the lie to the façade of stability that the Chinese Communist Party would desperately like to present to the world.  According to the Wiki (which would never lie to us), A Touch of Sin has apparently not been cleared for release by the Chinese censors, which makes it the first of Jia’s films since Unknown Pleasures not to receive official clearance from the Chinese government.  Whether or not this will mark a permanent rupture between Jia and the authorities remains to be seen.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Yasujiro Ozu

There’s a video—and I have no idea where it comes from, nor can I provide any context for it, although, like most youtube videos, I’m sure it’s infringing on somebody’s copyright—of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki talking about (or rather to) Yasujiro Ozu.  And Kaurismäki says something quite interesting: he says that he deeply admires Ozu because the Japanese director managed to capture all of human life in his films without depicting violence.  Which is a nice sentiment, but it happens to be untrue.  First, here’s a link to the video, which for some reason I can't embed in this post:
Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen certain Ozu movies, and so I can’t recall for certain whether or not they depict violence (was there violence in Equinox Flower (1958)? I have no idea), but there are several that I’ve seen more recently that I can say with certitude do in fact depict violence.  First, there’s What did the Lady Forget? (1937), which I profiled in a previous blog post.  This “comedy” features a man slapping his wife in order to put her in her place.  And there’s the film I blogged about in my last post, Floating Weeds (1959), in which the protagonist repeatedly slaps: his girlfriend, his son, and his son’s girlfriend.  And then, perhaps the most violent of Ozu's films—or at least of those that I’ve seen—comes A Hen in the Wind (1948), in which a man strikes a woman in the face and knocks her down a flight of stairs upon finding out that she prostituted herself in order to pay for medical treatment for their sick child while he was away awaiting repatriation to Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

As Ozu is a master of the domestic film, it is perhaps no surprise that these are all examples of domestic violence.  But also, if they do not sound particularly Ozu-esque, then perhaps the time has come for us to reexamine what constitutes a “typical” Ozu film.  Now, if I were to ask someone to describe the “typical Ozu movie,” they would probably say: “Parents run in to difficulties while trying to marry off their adult children, who often have different, more modern values than their parents.” And this would generally be true of Ozu’s works from Late Spring (1949) onward through An Autumn Afternoon (1962), but that period of time only encompasses a fraction of Ozu’s work.  By my count, Ozu made approximately forty films prior to Late Spring.  Now, many of these are silent films that are unfortunately no longer extant, but even if we just consider his surviving films, a good half of them are pre-Late Spring and thusly pre-“Parents-marrying-off-their-children.” Before he settled on the theme that would occupy him for the rest of his life, Ozu made all kinds of films: romantic comedies, “salaryman” comedy-dramas, crime films, films about poverty, college comedies.  He was a profoundly versatile director. And so, to say that the “typical” Ozu film is a domestic drama in the Late Spring mold is to ignore a significant portion of his oeuvre.  And to deny the presence of violence in a number of his films, as Kaurismäki does, is to paint a false picture of his work and the varieties of human experience that he explored.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Preserve the Buds, Model Good Behavior for the Kids: Some Reflections Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds

I have just had the great pleasure of watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), a remake of his 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds.  Now, normally I’m skeptical about remakes (typically only justified if the original film was a seriously botched literary adaptation that can be improved upon), but Ozu’s films, in a way, are all remakes of the same basic family drama.  Also, Floating Weeds belongs to that small privileged class of Ozu films that are in color; he made only six color films at the end of his career (and life) after decades of working in black-and-white, but they are some of the most beautifully composed color films ever made.  Floating Weeds is especially distinctive in that Ozu uses a bright palette of rich reds and blues; most of his other color films, by contrast, draw on a more muted, pastel palette.

I have a theory—which I don’t hold strongly, but I entertain it nonetheless—which asserts that the late films of Ozu represent the apotheosis of cinema.  They are perfect and they represent the logical conclusion of the progress of cinematic history.  From a technical perspective, and from their engagement with the major issues that make us human—what Matthew Arnold would call “high seriousness”—they are flawless and unsurpassable.  Now, of course that’s bullshit: there are plenty of great films post-Ozu, and cinema continues to evolve in new directions.  But with Ozu, we see, for instance, the conclusion of one of the main trajectories of the evolution of camera-work.  At the beginning of cinema, from the Lumières to Feuillade and Sjöström, the camera remains stationary.  Then Griffith comes along and—one giant leap for cinema—the camera moves.   And soon it moves all over the place, from the sweeping pans of Murnau’s The Last Laugh to the hand-held camera-work of Godard’s Breathless.  But Ozu brings about the second great innovation in terms of camera-work: as his career progresses, the camera becomes increasingly immobile, until almost every shot is a static shot in films like Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon.  It’s really quite striking: the idea of moving the camera was revolutionary and the idea of returning it to stasis was equally so.  And now Tsai Ming-liang does it and it’s positively avant-garde (there is, for instance, only a single pan in his film Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003).
Now, as for the theme that obsessed Ozu throughout his later work: families, and more specifically: the conflict between the values and aspirations of the younger generation and those of their parents.  The technology may have changed dramatically between A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, but the basic plot remains the same: a travelling Kabuki troop arrives in a town where their leader tries to cultivate his relationship with the illegitimate son he fathered many years ago, and who thinks that his real father is dead, and that the actor who visits from time to time is his uncle.  The love and the rancor between father and son constitute a universal story.  Universal as well is the melancholy that comes with the inevitable passing of time and the changes that time works in society.  And in the end, the parents’ generation find out, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that their sons and their daughters are beyond their command.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Romantic Idea of the Artist in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum

*Contains spoilers*

There is a certain conception of the artist which, at least in the Western context, originates during the Romantic period.  It is the idea of the artist as being distinctly apart from the rest of human society, as being isolated and alienated and consumed by his or her (probably just “his,” originally) art.  And this isolation brings with it a tragic beauty and often a tragic fate, as we see in the aesthetically pleasing deaths of the second generation British Romantic poets: Shelly (drowned), Keats (tuberculosis), Byron (some complicated infection, sustained while fighting in someone else’s independence war).  We see it in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Krueger, in which the protagonist leads a lonely, one might even say icy, life in service to his art.  The ice metaphor is best asserted by Graham Greene, who said, “A writer [or artist] must have a splinter of ice in his heart.”  Now, this is all in sharp contrast to the way the artist worked during the Renaissance and the Baroque (forgive the Eurocentrism on display here): in these contexts, the artist was a craftsman who worked for money, often to be had from a wealthy patron.  In the 21st  century, they would all be seen as sell-outs.  Can’t you picture it? Can’t you picture the hipster dismissing Michelangelo as a “sell-out?”

But anyway, this Romantic, splinter-of-ice business lies at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.  It narrates the tale of Kikunosuke, a young Kabuki actor whose love for a lower-class woman, Otoku, leads him to fall out with his father, leave his family’s company, and go on the road, seeking to perfect his craft while performing in increasingly dismal and disreputable settings.  The relationship with Otoku is complex, because although one could argue that his love for Otoku is what brings him down in the world, it is also Otoku who makes him into a true artist.  When he was with his father’s company, his acting was hammy and inelegant, but because he had his father’s name and was surrounded by flatterers, he wasn’t aware of it.  Otoku was the only one who had the honesty to tell him that he wasn’t a good actor and it is Otoku who supports him at every step of the way as seeks to hone his craft while in exile from his father.  Without Otoku, it is true that he wouldn’t have had his crisis, but he probably also would never have amounted to anything artistically.

But after years of suffering, Kikunosuke has the opportunity to reunite with his father’s company.  They give him the opportunity to appear on stage with them and he gives a brilliant performance.  All of his trials and suffering have paid off and he is now a good actor, worthy to reconcile with his family.  All he has to do, the company tells him, is leave Otoku and apologize to his father.  Now, Kikunosuke is not an asshole, and he at first refuses to even consider leaving Otoku, to whom he owes everything.  But Otoku also wants him to return to his father’s company, even if it means leaving her.  All of the privation and misery that she underwent with Kikunosuke was done in the service of advancing his career and his art, with the logical outcome being a return to a reputable Kabuki company like that of his father’s.  If he doesn’t leave her, all her sacrifices will have been in vain.  It is his art that matters above all other considerations.  And so, despite his misgivings, Kikunosuke, with a splinter of ice in his heart, leaves Otoku and returns to his father’s company.

It’s just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a number of devastating Mizoguchi films, including Sansho the Bailiff, upon the viewing of which the critic Anthony Lane said, “I left the theater a broken man”).  It’s somewhat surprising to me, because the version of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I saw, the one that Criterion has on Hulu, is in a state of advanced decay: it’s faded and scratched and the soundtrack is full of hissing and distortion, but one quickly forgets it as one becomes absorbed in the happenings on the screen and in Mizoguchi’s lovely mise-en-scène, for which he was renowned.  The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of the great tragic stories in world cinema, just as spiritually moving as Bicycle Thieves or Tokyo Story.  If it is not as internationally well-known as those films, it is only because it was made at a time when Japanese cinema had not yet made its appearance on the international scene (and what a lack that must have been, a world cinema that didn’t take Japanese cinema into account).  Let us hope that a restoration of Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece will be undertaken, so that it might appear with as much pristine clarity as other Criterion releases of great Mizoguchi films, like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.