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 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.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Dziga Vertov

A few weeks ago, as I was learning to appreciate the sport of ice dancing, it could not have occurred to me that Russia would so shortly be invading one of its neighbors.  Or rather, it could have, and it did, but I thought that the neighbor in question would be Georgia, as Russia had extended its border security checkpoints into Abkhazia for the duration of the Sochi Olympics.  But instead Russia invaded Ukraine, and this evening I found myself watching Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Ukrainian film Enthusiasm: A Song of the Donbass.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Vertov and his cinematic project.  On the one hand, he was a devout communist, both politically and artistically.  For Vertov, art was politics by other means and it principle purpose was didactic.  This is an ideology that I find absolutely abhorrent.  However, even at his most propagandistic (which was pretty much always), Vertov’s artistry always shined through.  His cinematic montages—and he was one of the pioneers of the montage technique—are consistently fascinating and often beautiful.   One does not have to subscribe to his worldview to appreciate the aesthetics of his films, even if they’re films with titles like Stride, Soviet and Three Songs about Lenin.  He can almost be forgiven for the pernicious influence he had on Jean-Luc Godard, who in the late 1960’s began making Maoist propaganda films with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group.  Almost.
Vertov, born in 1896 to Jewish parents in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Poland, and who worked for much of his career in Ukraine, is to a certain extent emblematic of the way that these countries, so often at odds with each other politically, are nonetheless deeply and inextricably linked to each other.  We can all certainly hope for a future in which they regard each other with mutual respect and with a shared notion of the importance of human dignity and liberty, and I mean that not in the jingoistic American sense of the word, but in a universal sense.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Sanitizing of Nelson Mandela for American Media and Political Consumption

In the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been an extensive (and not particularly surprising) attempt by American media outlets and the American political class to sanitize and defang the late ANC leader.  As a public service—as we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus value education—here are a few popular misconceptions about Mandela, cleared up for your edification.
First, there is the myth that Mandela came from humble beginnings.  Although it is true that he was born in rural, white-ruled South Africa, which I suppose is its own form of humble, he is in fact descended from King Ngubengcuka of the Thembu nation of Xhosa-speakers.  This makes him royalty.  There is nothing particularly humble about that.

After he got his law degree, Mandela became active in the African National Congress (ANC), the largest of the anti-Apartheid political parties in South Africa, which was allied with the South African Communist Party of Joe Slovo, which was the only significant majority-white South African party to support the ANC’s militancy.  Because the ANC was a militant organization.  Perhaps the greatest misconception about Mandela is that he was a Gandhian.  He was nothing of the sort.  He famously said that non-violence is a tactic, not a principle.  And when the ANC’s non-violence got them nowhere in the fifties, they turned to armed insurrection in the sixties, and Mandela briefly became the head of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and led a guerilla campaign against the government.  He wasn’t a particularly good guerilla commander, and was shortly thereafter arrested and commenced upon his twenty-seven years in prison.

In the late eighties, with the South African economy crippled by foreign sanctions, Mandela began negotiations with the white minority government to end Apartheid, dealing first with the hard-line Afrikaner nationalist P. W. Botha and then with the more congenial F W de Klerk.  It has been said in the American media that the end of Apartheid was peaceful, but it came amidst considerable violence between the ANC and their fellow black Africans in the Bantustans.  These were the ghetto-statelets invented by the Apartheid regime so that they could claim they were granting black people self determination.  The reality of the Bantustans was that they were puppet states, but their leaders liked the idea of having their own states and fought viciously against reintegration into South Africa in the early ‘90’s.  It should also be noted that the end of Apartheid came after the bloody war in Angola, where South African troops were soundly defeated by the communist forces of the MPLA and their Cuban allies.  When Mandela was released from prison, the first foreign leader he met with was Fidel Castro, whose friendship he would never forget.  He was also close with Muammar Gaddafi, who had supported the ANC when the U.S. and British governments were still calling it a terrorist organization (and Mandela would not, in fact, be removed from U.S. terror watch-lists until 2008).

Now, Mandela is often praised in the U.S. for seeking reconciliation with the Afrikaner establishment rather than reprisal, but what did this reconciliation consist of?  Mandela essentially said to the Afrikaners, “If you give up your political power, we’ll allow you to preserve your economic power.” I’ve always thought that the end of Apartheid was something of an economic boon for Afrikaners, as it brought an end to the sanctions regime and brought to power a regime that was willing to let white South Africans retain their grip on the economy.  Now, in Mandela’s defense, his conciliatory attitude towards the white establishment prevented a mass exodus of white people from the country (although South Africa did lose about a sixth of its white population) and they probably would have taken with them their wealth and their technical and administrative know-how, which would have crashed the South African economy (as we have seen in similar flights of white people from neighboring countries like Angola and Zimbabwe).  Furthermore, there was the very real possibility of civil war in the early ‘90’s, and Mandela deserves praise for averting it.  But he likely gave up too much, as the economic inequalities of the Apartheid era largely remain to this day, where nearly eighty percent of the land in South Africa is white-owned.

I don’t say any of this to diminish Mandela’s legacy.  I think it’s quite possible that he was the last person of our time whose global moral stature rivaled that of Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi.  But knowing and stating the truth about Mandela isn’t the same as denigrating him.  People of all political backgrounds are going to try to exploit Mandela’s memory in the coming days (hell, Ted Cruz has found something nice to say about Mandela, even though American conservatives hated him in the ‘80’s) and it’s important that we establish what the facts are before the American myth-and-mystification machine goes to work on him.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chantal Akerman and the Rejection of Identity Politics

This will necessarily be a fairly short post, as most of my information is coming from a highly reputable source a few stray lines on Wikipedia.  You see, I recently watched Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an uber-realistic depiction of a few days in the life of a Belgian housewife (it features a potato-peeling scene, the high drama of which would not be matched until the potato content in Bela Tarr’s and Agnes Hranitsky’s The Turin Horse (2011)). 
Now, it’s not hard to make the argument that Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film, or rather: a film with a feminist message.  It’s depiction of the quiet desolation in Dielman’s life is unambiguous and heartbreaking.  But I’ve always been skeptical about the political labels that get attached to art.  Can a work of art be black? Or feminist? Or gay? Alberto Manguel raised this last question in the introduction to his anthology of gay short stories, Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest.  In order for a story to be gay, he asked, does it have to have a gay writer, gay subject matter, or both? If it’s a story by a straight writer about a gay subject, is that a gay story? Or vise-versa? And what is “gay subject matter?” There is a similarly vexed question in the title of Eavan Boland’s recent essay collection, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.  And what is the difference between being a “woman poet” and just being a poet? We wouldn’t speak of a “man poet” (except maybe Robert Bly, but I don’t want to speak of him period).  And by describing a poet of the female sex as a “woman poet,” do we not ghettoize her and reduce the appreciation of her work? Do we not trivialize her artistic accomplishment with these labels, which seem to suggest that the artists in question are not pure artists but must be seen in a political light?  Does not Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o diminish his own work by insisting upon its African character? Can’t it just be art, as in the case of, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?

Chantal Akerman has evidently been troubled by these same questions (or so Wikipedia teasingly suggests).  In the article on Jeanne Dielman, it states that “Akerman was reluctant to be seen as a feminist filmmaker, stating that ‘I don’t think women’s cinema exists.’” And that’s certainly not to say that women don’t make films.  But it says that these films are not fundamentally distinct from the films made by men, and that we would be wrong to ghettoize them.  Akerman has expressed similar concerns about the reception of her 1974 film Je tu il elle, whose female protagonist engages in an extended sex scene with another woman, which led some to label the film as an example of “queer cinema.” Well, Akerman is having none of that.  Take it away, Wikipedia: “According to the book Images in the Dark by Raymond Murray, Akerman refused to have her work ghettoized and denied the New York Gay Film Festival the right to screen Je tu il elle. ‘I will never permit a film of mine to be shown in a gay film festival.’” Now, unfortunately, the Wiki doesn’t elaborate anymore on this subject, but Akerman’s stance on the issue is quite clear: she clearly wishes to be an artist, first and foremost, and not a woman artist or a gay artist. 

I wonder how she would respond to the way Wikipedia has labeled her, as the categories in which her article appears include: “Belgian women film directors,” “LGBT directors,” “LGBT Jews,” “Women artists,” “Belgian Jews,” and “LGBT people from Belgium.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Radiophobia; or, Is There a Geiger Counter App?: Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope

Radiophobia—according to Wikipedia, which has never steered us wrong—is the fear of ionizing radiation, of the sort that was released during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, or in the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test which irradiated the Japanese fishing vessel Fukuryu Maru, or of the sort released by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As we have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Japan has almost certainly suffered from more catastrophic nuclear shit than any other country (with the possible exception of, say, the Marshall Islands, which is such a small country that maybe they suffered proportionately more as a result of U.S. nuclear tests; but, you know, it’s not a competition).  As I write this post, radiation continues to seep into the ground beneath Fukushima Daiichi and from there into the Pacific Ocean.  Fukushima also hosts hundreds of containers of radioactive water (which, after being pumped through the reactors to cool their nuclear fuel rods, the Tokyo Electric Power Company apparently has nowhere else to store it but on-site) which another catastrophic earthquake/tsunami could release into the atmosphere.

It is not surprising if all of this has certain segments of the Japanese population feeling radiophobic, and this is the subject of Sion Sono’s 2012 film The Land of Hope.  Sono is something of an enfant terrible—his previous works include mindfucks like Suicide Club and Cold Fish, not to mention the four-hour up-skirt photography epic, Love Exposure.  In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima, Sono took the script he had just finished working on and rewrote it to take the recent disasters into account; the result was Himizu (2011), which has not been made available yet in the U.S. (alas) and the merits of which I cannot speak to.  He followed it up with The Land of Hope, which recently became available on Hulu courtesy of the people at Asian Crush.

In The Land of Hope, a second earthquake/tsunami/meltdown has struck a nuclear plant in the town of Nagashima (Wikipedia says there’s a Nagashima in Kyushu, but it doesn’t mention a nuclear plant; let’s assume Sono’s Nagashima is fictitious).  The film mainly follows the impact of the disaster on a multigenerational Nagashima farming family (it also intermittently follows the fortunes of another family, their neighbors, but they frequently drop out of the film for long stretches and their inclusion feels like more of an afterthought).  There is the paterfamilias, Yasuhiko Ono; his wife Chieko, who appears to have Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia that causes her to experience memory impairment and a disconnect from reality; the son, Yoichi; and Yoichi’s wife, Izumi.  The nearby nuclear plant begins to melt down, the authorities set up an exclusion zone (much as they did at Fukushima) which comes right up to the Ono’s property.  Now, if you’re on the very edge of a twenty-kilometer exclusion zone, you’re probably not much safer on one side than you would be on the other, and Yasuhiko instructs his son and daughter-in-law to flee.  He and his wife are too old and too stubborn to be moved.  So Izumi and Yoichi relocate to a new town that’s theoretically a safe distance away from Nagashima (and Fukushima) and there Izumi finds herself pregnant.  And she becomes consumed with radiophobia.  She stocks up on the surgical masks so popular amongst the Japanese, then rapidly escalates to a full-scale hazmat suit, which she wears whenever she ventures forth from the apartment which she’s sealed shut with plastic wrap and tape.

In a previous post in which I touched upon the situation at Fukushima, I mentioned the famous T. S. Eliot line, “I can show you fear in a handful of dust,” and pointed out how the dust is now radioactive.  What Sono seeks to explore in his movie is how one goes on living when the air itself is poisoned with fear (and cesium).  And he does so with a compassion and restraint that his previous films had led me to believe he didn’t have in him.  Movies like Strange Circus or Cold Fish are in gloriously poor taste.  A subject like the recent disasters in Japan would seem to call for tact and delicacy, and Sono delivers.  In his treatment of the old couple left behind near the exclusion zone, he raises similar issues to those broached in Michael Haneke’s Amour (also 2012, which got all the international awards) without the Austrian miserablist’s unrelenting pessimism.  And in depicting Izumi’s radiophobia, he demonstrates the workings of a very modern type of fear and the age-old methods with which to confront it.  Finally, there is a journalistic quality to The Land of Hope—it is very “zeitgeisty”—and, as Fukushima continues to ooze radiation into the sea, Sono’s film should be required viewing for those seeking to understand what this disaster means for Japan and the world.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Darkness Visible; or, What’s the Deal With Japanese Ghosts?

Upon finally getting around to watching Takashi Shimizu’s seminal Ju-On, I find myself thinking about master horror auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s assertion that “Japanese ghosts don’t really do anything.” I’m sure we all have a good idea of what a typical Japanese ghost looks like, but just as refresher: the Japanese ghost is a woman, pale as death (which makes sense, because she’s dead), with long black hair (which makes sense, because she’s Japanese), dressed all in white.  Her eyes are creepy as fuck and there’s a good chance she can contort her body at weird angles (the constant breaking and re-breaking of the neck is a frequent feature of Japanese ghosts; they can also spider-walk like Linda Blair in The Exorcist).  And of course this basic ghost mytheme isn’t just limited to Japan: it has found its way into the horror cinemas of Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, and, in the form of shitty remakes of horror movies from these Asian countries, the United States.

Now, Kurosawa isn’t exactly correct when he says that Japanese ghosts don’t do anything.  They can definitely kill you.  But the mechanism by which they kill is usually left ambiguous.  The Japanese ghost will creepily approach its victim, the victim will scream, and then we cut to the next scene, with the police investigating the mysterious death of the victim, whose face is frozen into a rictus of terror.  So it seems likely that the Japanese ghost kills by literally scaring its victims to death; it doesn’t need to physically attack the victim, because the implications of its very existence are enough to kill a person (or drive them mad, I should add; they don’t always die; sometimes they just go insane).

The best, most effective horror works by implication. H. P. Lovecraft knew this, as did the other practitioners of the so-called “weird story.” In many of these stories, the hero doesn’t have direct contact with the supernatural (ghosts or demons don’t leap out of the woodwork and tear them apart), but the characters find incontrovertible evidence that these monsters exist.  And this evidence defies the laws of nature; its very existence is obscene and an abomination against reality (in Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, he explains quite astutely that the “weird” story only became possible once science had progressed to the point that universal laws of physics had been established; reality can only be obscenely violated once it’s been established).  As for what is being implied, besides the existence of various monsters and nightmares, I think it is best summed up in this analysis of the work of British fantasy/horror/”weird” writer William Hope Hodgson, which I found on Wikipedia, and which is so well-written that I’m assuming it was plagiarized from another source: “Hodgson achieves a deep power of expression, which focuses on a sense not only of terror but of the ubiquity of potential terror, of the thinness of the invisible boundary between the world of normality and an underlying, unaccountable reality for which humans are not suited.”

Humans are a profoundly vulnerable species.  Not only do we have weak, soft bodies (without claws, or horns, or venom) but we have the capacity to think, and with the capacity to think comes the capacity for madness and horror.  There is a thin, transparent membrane of logic and scientific reason stretched tightly over the amorphous, monstrous body of magical thinking with which primitive man first encountered the world.  This is where vengeful, super-powerful ghosts come into the picture; because, from a logical perspective, we know that the dead victim of an injustice is just that: dead; and he or she can no longer harm us.  But the magical thinking that animated the human genius for most of our history tells us that the blood of criminality is rank, and that it rises up to heaven and calls out for vengeance.  And so history becomes the proverbial nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus was trying to awaken.  Every horror, ever violation of the codes of morality can come back to destroy us.  To paraphrase William Faulkner, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past; it is a pissed off Japanese albino from hell, with blood dripping from her eyes, come back to kill you in your bathtub.”

And so this is why Japanese ghosts don’t need to do anything.  They take that which has been effaced by time and criminal deception, and they bring it back into the light of day.  To steal a line from William Styron (who isn’t read anymore), who in turn stole it from John Milton: the Japanese ghost exists to render “darkness visible.” The ghost’s very presence constitutes an action, as it sets into motion the wheels of history and morality (albeit a brutal morality predicated on vengeance and terror).  The ghost is the conscience of the human race, gone mad and out for blood.  This ectoplasmic conscience holds up an appropriate mirror to the potential for psychotic violence and terror which exists in all of us.