Saturday, May 24, 2014

And Just What Does Noriko Have to Smile About? Observations on Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer

 
In his essay film Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders says of Yasujiro Ozu (and I’m paraphrasing) that he “captures all of human life in his films.” And as I am in agreement with this assessment, I have recently come to the firm conclusion—and I’m sure you were all eagerly anticipating this announcement—that Ozu is the greatest filmmaker of all time.  He put everything into his films, all of family life and everything that radiates out from it.  There is not a subject he didn’t touch on, however obliquely, which brings me to my first point of inquiry, which is Ozu’s treatment of WWII.

Now, one of the high points of Ozu’s career is the “Noriko trilogy”—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—so-called because in each film Setsuko Hara plays a woman named Noriko, although they are different Norikos, as there is no continuity between the films.  They all take place amidst the aftermath of WWII, and Ozu’s treatment of the subject is subtle but devastating.  Unlike other Japanese filmmakers, like Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, Ozu never directly depicts soldiers in combat.  Rather, they become notable by their absence.  In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the families at the center of the film are each missing a son.  And their loss is especially agonizing, because their sons are not dead, or at least not confirmed dead, but have simply disappeared in the chaos of the war, and as the years go on and time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they’re still alive.  But their families can never know definitively; there will always be uncertainty.  In Early Summer, which I just watched this evening, there’s a scene in which the mother and father of the Mamiya family are speaking with a neighbor about their missing son Shoji.  And the father says of the mother, “She thinks he could still be alive somewhere.  But there is no hope.” But there is no hope.  This quiet, Dantesque fatalism is just as tragic as anything in the bloodiest war movie.  There is no hope.  That’s Ozu’s pronouncement on war.

Another theme running through Ozu’s work is the terrible sadness of “normal,” everyday life.  At the beginning of Early Summer, Noriko lives happily with her extended family: mother, father, brother (the one who survived the war, played by Chishu Ryu), sister-in-law, and nephews.  By the end of the film, she’s engaged to be married, which has prompted her parents to decide to move off to Yamato with her elderly uncle, while her brother and sister-in-law will raise their kids in a more American-style, nuclear family.  And the tragedy of this situation, which has developed through the normal, socially-acceptable course of family life, leads Noriko to dissolve into tears and say, “I’m sorry.  I’ve broken up the family.” To which her father responds, “It’s not your fault.  It was inevitable.” Yes, but isn’t it sad that something like that has to be inevitable? Is it any less tragic for being normal?

Noriko smiling.
Which brings us to Noriko’s smile.  Setsuko Hara has one of the most memorable smiles in all of cinema, and she spends much of the Noriko trilogy beaming, regardless of the sadness of her situation or the human condition in general.  In fact, everybody in these movies insists on being happy.  They’re always telling themselves, “We’ve been very happy, haven’t we?” “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” Because what else can you say? When you’ve reached old age, can you really admit to yourself that you haven’t been happy, and that it’s too late to change that? No, that would be unbearable.  We must persist in smiling like Noriko, whether or not the situation justifies it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

She Bears an Uncanny Resemblance to Herself: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love

Among other things, Iranian cinema is remarkable for the number of meta-films that get made.  There is Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, which depicts a child actor’s refusal to cooperate and incorporates it into the narrative; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, which are both about filming the participants of real events as they re-enact them; and Kiarostami’s (again) A Taste of Cherry, with its famous on-screen revelation of the presence of the filmmakers.  So the Iranians are keen to let us know that there films are not depictions of reality, but are quite consciously performances. 

Another way that filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami emphasize this point is through the extensive use of non-professional actors (well, Kiarostami at least is using non-professional actors; I’m not sure what the deal is with Makhmalbaf; sometimes I suspect that he’s just using actors who aren’t particularly good at what they do).  These actors conduct themselves in a Brechtian manner, in that it is more like they’re reciting their lines than acting them out.

But in recent years, Kiarostami has for the first time started making use of professional actors.  He and Makhmalbaf have both found themselves exiled from their native Iran following the abortive 2009 protests.  Although I don’t know that either of them have officially sought asylum in France, where they now reside, Makhmalbaf declared himself to be failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s overseas representative, so he certainly can’t go back; and Kiarostami has advocated on behalf of Jafar Panahi, who has been persecuted by the Iranian government along with other filmmakers.  Kiarostami certainly could not make films in Iran with the liberty that he can overseas, although that was pretty much always the case, and it didn’t stop him from making excellent films like Life and Nothing But, Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, and the politically charged Ten.
Certified Copy (2010).
But, as I was saying, Kiarostami, in making films outside of Iran, has started to use professional actors, which is a marked change for him (I should note that he had made some films outside of Iran prior to 2009, but one, ABC Africa, was a documentary, and the other, Five Dedicated to Ozu, was an avant-garde piece with no actors).  His first international feature was the masterful 2010 film Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche (who’s about as professional as they come) and William Shimell, a British opera singer who is most certainly not a professional actor, so it can be said of Certified Copy that Kiarostami blends professional and non-professional acting together quite seamlessly.  One does not come away from the movie with the impression that Shimell has not acted before.  In the film, Binoche is an antiques dealer and Shimell a writer who go on a drive together through Tuscany.  They have apparently never met before, but as their journey progresses, they pretend to be married, until they carry the performance so far that it becomes increasingly unclear what the true nature of their relationship is.  It is a deeply subtle and mysterious film.
Which brings us to Kiarostami’s latest outing, Like Someone in Love (2012).  Set in Japan and cast with professional actors, it follows a young college student/call-girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and her evolving relationship with an elderly john/professor of sociology name of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), which leads to potential trouble with her jealous fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase).  This film raises identity issue similar to those encountered in Certified Copy, but this time with diminishing returns.  Akiko is always being told she looks like other people, and a recurring problem is her resemblance to a woman in an ad for sexual services (the joke being that it’s not just a resemblance, but rather that it’s actually her in the ad).  When Takashi meets Noriaki, he has to conceal the true nature of his relationship with Akiko, and so he claims to be her grandfather, or rather, let’s Noriaki assume that he’s her grandfather.  All of this unfolds in leisurely Kiarostami fashion, and while it’s not unpleasant, one doesn’t gain from it the sense of a layered and mysterious profundity that one finds in Certified Copy.  Either Kiarostami has exhausted his theme, or he needs to be prepared to take a dramatic new approach to it.

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.

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.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZPpnd4hTVw
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.
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.