Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Few Observations on Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II


One of the first “Westerners” (and I don’t approve of these civilizational terms, but it’s easier to say “Westerners” than “Europeans and/or Americans”) to see a production of a Noh play was Ulysses S. Grant, of all people.  This would likely have been after his presidency, when he went on a world tour and made a generally positive impression on people, so much so that, upon his return to the United States, there was talk of him running for a third term.  Nowadays, Grant tends to get described as one of America’s worst presidents, but I’ve heard that this trend was started by Southern historians who wanted to besmirch his reputation.  But that’s neither here nor there.  What’s relevant to us right now is that, in the 1880’s, Ulysses S. Grant travelled to Japan and saw, among others things, the production of a Noh play.  I do not know which play it was, nor do I have any idea what Grant could have gotten out of it.  It would have been in Japanese, a language he certainly didn’t know.  The staging would have been completely alien to all “Western” theatrical conventions.  But Grant was apparently deeply impressed by it, and after the play, he is said to have walked up to the producers and said, “You must preserve this.” I believe I read this anecdote in one of Donald Keene’s books about Japanese literature.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1945 film Sanshiro Sugata, Part II is set in 1887, roughly around the same time as Grant’s visit to Japan, and the film is positively crawling with “Americans.” Or at least “white people” (I’m also one of those leftists who doesn’t approve of racial classifications, forgive me) who are meant to sound kind of American-y.  In 1887, the industrialization and modernization of the Meiji Era was in full swing, and the Japanese were in contact with the outside world in a way that they hadn’t been since the 1500’s.  And this meant American sailors, American merchants, and American adventurers (like Grant) swarming all over the place, from the harbors of Nagasaki and Yokohama to the heart of Tokyo.  The old samurai order had been eradicated, and this is one of the reasons that Grant said that Noh needed to be preserved, because in the Meiji Era, it was in real danger of dying out.  Noh was never a popular entertainment (unlike Kabuki and Bunraku) and was dependent upon the patronage of the elites of the old order.  With them out of the picture and society in dramatic flux, Noh had lost its support base.

The protagonists of Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (and Sanshiro Sugata, Part I, from 1943, which was Kurosawa’s first film), aren’t interested in the theater, but they are deeply engaged with preserving Japan’s traditional martial arts.  In the first Sanshiro Sugata film, the focus was on the eclipse of jiu-jitsu by judo (of which the eponymous Sanshiro becomes a master).  In the sequel (made in early 1945, as American bombs incinerated whole Japanese cities and the Japanese army was losing Okinawa), one of the main plot lines concerns the conflict between traditional Japanese martial arts and the recently imported American practice of boxing (a bloody and barbaric sport, staged for entertainment and money).  It’s up to Sanshiro to defend the honor of Japan (and remember, it’s 1945) by using his judo skills to defeat William Lester, “the greatest boxer in the world!” (Who spends the entire course of the film hanging around in Meiji Japan for reason).

So we have several scenes at the boxing arena, and the halls are packed with white people, and where do they come from? Are these all German expatriates?  White Russians and their children? Surely they didn’t take American POW’s and draft them into their movie? (Had they done this, I suspect that the “Americans” wouldn’t have spoken with such weird, vaguely British accents).  These “Americans” in Japan in 1945 are just as out of place as William Lester in 1887.

Now, from at least the 1960’s onwards, the Americans in Japanese movies tended to be real-ish Americans, and a few, like Chico Roland and Kathy Horan, made careers for themselves as “professional Americans” in Japanese cinema.  They were terrible actors, but to a Japanese audience reading the dialogue in Japanese subtitles, it probably didn’t make much of a difference.  I’ll stop this digression here, as I plan to devote a future blog post to the unlikely Japanese film career of Chico Roland, who is thus far in the Criterion Collection on five separate occasions.

Oh, and hopefully this won’t come as a spoiler, but Sanshiro wins the fight against William Lester, thusly redeeming the honor of Japanese martial arts.  This movie, along with 1944’s The Most Beautiful, constitutes Kurosawa’s only foray into the propaganda film.  I have not seen The Most Beautiful, but Sanshiro Sugata, Part II certainly transcends its propagandistic elements to and is an enjoyable film in its own right.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

God Damn These Vampires: An Exploration of the only two Mountain Goats Songs I’ve ever Heard

The title and the premise of this piece may not sound very promising, but neither did the premise of Nicholson Baker’s U and I, in which Baker explores his experience with John Updike despite having read very little of Updike’s work.  Now, granted, I haven’t actually read U and I, because I have a probably unfair prejudice against John Updike—Gore Vidal told me I should hate him—and I’m somewhat skeptical of Baker because Geoff Dyer, in his essay “Unpacking my Library,” which is a reference to the Walter Benjamin essay of the same name, comes across a copy of Baker’s mid-90’s novel Vox and speaks disparagingly of it, and this alarmed me, because Vox is one of the few Baker novels I’ve read, and I liked it at the time, but maybe I shouldn’t have? What’s wrong with me?  Does liking that book reflect poorly on me? Because you know who else liked it?  Monica Lewinsky.  She thought it was sexy and she allegedly gave a copy to Bill Clinton (and it would have been in one of those hideous Vintage Contemporaries editions, too).  Now, surely Monica Lewinsky is not a paragon of good taste.  But why not? Why shouldn’t she be?

But all of this is really neither here nor there, because it is not my intention to speak of Nicholson Baker right now, but rather of the two Mountain Goats songs that I know, and those songs are: “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” and “Damn these Vampires.” Here is "Lovecraft in Brooklyn":


I first became aware of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” (and, by extension, the Mountain Goats), in 2009.  I was out with some friends, celebrating one of our birthdays, and one of my companions decided to purchase the Lovecraft-themed “Arkham Horror” board game at a game store in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.  This naturally sparked a conversation about H. P. Lovecraft and one of my friends said to me, “Have you heard of the Mountain Goats?” I wanted to say, “Those bearded, hill-bound, cuckold creatures? Yes, certainly,” were it not for that little article, and so I said, “No, no I haven’t, who are the Mountain Goats?” And I was told that (a) they were a band I might like and (b), they had a song called “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Now, already I had a good idea of what this song must be about, because I knew what had happened to Lovecraft in Brooklyn, thanks in large part to Michel Houellebecq’s monograph, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, which is a wonderful title, and which I read in 2006, and clearly information about Lovecraft is always current, because this knowledge came to my assistance in 2009 when my friend told me about the Mountain Goats and it is assisting me now, in late 2012, as I write this blog post.

You see, in 1924, bug-eyed proto-Nazi H. P. Lovecraft (God bless him), left the rural New England haunts in which so much of his fiction is set and tried to establish himself in Brooklyn, where he sought to get a “real job.” The task of “getting a real job” proved remarkably hard for Lovecraft, whose bookish knowledge and literary proclivities apparently didn’t recommend him to work in a stock-broker’s firm or a lawyer’s office, or whatever the fuck kind of white-collar work someone like him could have expected to get in 1920’s New York.  Houellebecq notes that the typical Lovecraft character almost never has an actual job; either they have an inheritance of very old money to sustain them, or economic questions are so irrelevant to their (and Lovecraft’s) interests that they’re just overlooked altogether (I am reminded of the protagonist of Boris Vian’s novel Mood Indigo (or Foam on the Daze, or Froth on the Daydream, there is no consensus on how to translate the title), who has at his disposal a large supply of gold doubloons that spare him the hassles of conventional employment, and the origin of which is never mentioned (or if it is, I don’t remember it; certainly it doesn’t matter).

So, when Lovecraft was in Brooklyn, he was unemployed and this pained him.  What also pained Lovecraft in Brooklyn was the presence of different people.  The families who populate the crumbling estates of Lovecraft’s stories may be decadent and inbred, but there’s an aristocratic element to that inbreeding, as well as one of racio-ethnic purity.  Those debauched in-bred New Englanders are Anglo-Saxons, God damn it, or at least old Dutch families of long standing, and that’s almost the same thing.  In New York, it being New York, Lovecraft came into contact with people of every conceivable racial and ethnic background.  Here there were Italians, Jews, and Asians (the people he referred to in a letter home as “Italo-Semitico-Mongoloids”), black people, Polynesian sailors of the sort who would play such a prominent role in “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” On a related note, he would also find people of mixed ethnicity and mixed raced, and these people, along with the black people he despised so much, would provide the source for so many of the monsters and half-human-half-alien hybrids of his best fiction.

So, to feel like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” means, first and foremost, to feel really, really racist.  In analyzing Lovecraft’s racism and its relationship to his work, Houellebecq perceptively traces it all back to a common origin: fear.  In Lovecraft’s case, there was the fear of poverty and the fear of the inadequacy that would be represented by his inability to get a job, and Lovecraft translated this fear into an animus against the different people he was encountering in New York, or perhaps it was merely magnified against people that he hated already.  His life is falling to pieces, and here he is surrounded by strange people, many of whom have jobs, and if these “inferior people” have jobs while Lovecraft doesn’t, well, then what does that say about Lovecraft?

Now, Houellebecq’s analysis doesn’t justify Lovecraft’s racism, but it does explain it with sensitivity.  And the Mountain Goats song, while focusing on a more generic depiction of the city as chaotic and loud and distressing to a person on edge, certainly allows for the discerning Lovecraftian to pick up the racial component involved.  The menacing people in the song, what color are they? Now, we progressive men and women of the 21st century, of Barack Obama’s America, we know that it shouldn’t matter, but the Lovecraftian knows that these are “people of color,” and that in Lovecraft’s warped and crumbling mind, that’s a part of the fear.

Well, I liked this song when I listened to it in 2009 (yay, a song about Lovecraft, I must have thought), but evidently I didn’t like it so much that I felt compelled to seek out the rest of the Mountain Goats’ music, or any of it, for that matter.  No, it was not until 2012 that, following a series of YouTube recommendations, I came upon a Mountain Goats song called “Damn these Vampires,” and, as that is an excellent title, I listened to the song immediately: 
 
And thematically, I found that it was remarkably similar to “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” but tempered more by compassion and suffering.  Whereas the protagonist of “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is on the verge of falling apart, we get the impression that his counterpart in “Damn these Vampires” already has, and on multiple occasions.  In the chorus, he sings, and with great pathos, although the vocal style is in that “almost-talking” register that you get with Death Cab for Cutie and similar bands: “Crawl til dawn / On my hands and knees. / God damn these vampires / For what they’ve done to me.” And if you want to see these songs as connected (and, as these are the only Mountain Goats songs that I know, it’s hard for me not to do so), the suffering protagonist no longer betrays evidence of racial animus.  He’s just a man who’s suffered terribly (at the hands of “monsters,” mind you, but at least they’re vampires, and vampires are typically white, Blacula not withstanding) but still has within him the strength to revolt and curse his persecutors.  There is great satisfaction in hearing him say, “God damn these vampires.”

And his sufferings must have been numerous and, in the nature of vampiric assaults, they sucked him dry.  It must have been a steady drip-drip-drip of persecution and harassment that wrecked him inside and out, for he goes on to say, “God damn these bite marks / Deep in my arteries.”

In the Jamaican context (or at least in the context of Jamaican music, which is the aspect of Jamaican culture with which I’m most familiar), to call someone a vampire is a supreme insult (well, almost supreme, I suspect the worst insult that homophobic Rastas have in their arsenal is batty boi, which is their slur for a gay person).  Lee “Scratch” Perry famously attacked Bob Marley’s producer Chris Blackwell for being a vampire and Peter Tosh, explaining his iconic guitar shaped like an M-16 assault rifle, said he used it to “scare all vampires.”

And so perhaps Tosh, were he not long dead (shot in the head during a home invasion in 1987) would join (somewhat ironically, no doubt) with H. P. Lovecraft (also long dead) and the Mountain Goats (still living, according to Wikipedia), in saying God damn these fucking vampires.  God damn them.

So apparently my take-away from the Mountain Goats can be summed up as, “Christ, fucking vampires.” But surely anyone who’s ever felt him or herself sucked dry by the vagaries of life (to which Houellebecq found Lovecraft thoroughly opposed) would agree with the sentiment, “God damn these vampires for what they’ve done to me.”

Post-script:

And just a reminder, in case someone has to have this explained to him, no, I don’t approve of Lovecraft’s racism and anti-Semitism or the homophobia of pretty much every Rastafarian musician who’s ever expressed an opinion on the matter.  The art and the life are two separate things, and if they weren’t, we’d be fucked.  Take English literature, for example.  With a few examples, virtually every British writer of the twentieth century was a casual anti-Semite up until World War II.  Now, does that mean we can’t read the anti-Semitic British writers of that period? Because that’s basically all of them (the same goes for nineteenth-century Russian literature; here’s a fun drinking game: read Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album and take a shot for every story that somehow finds a way to disparage Jews, even if they have nothing to do with the plot).  So no, no, of course it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them.  If you’re an adult, then you can hopefully make the adult distinction between a work of art and the life and opinions of the artist who created it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Apocalyptic Style in American Politics; or, who would T. S. Eliot Vote for?; or James Spillane’s Handy Presidential Election Guide

Americans, I have bad news: You’re fucked.  You’re really fucked.  Obama doesn’t know how to fix your economy and his administration is full of the people who fucked it up to begin with and, in case you’re forgotten, he believes it is his right as president to carry out extra-judicial murders around the world, including the killing of American citizens.  So it will be terrible to vote for Obama.  On the other hand, if you vote for Romney (and his Objectivist side-kick, Ryan), you’ll be electing people who are basically caricatures of American Republicans.  They’re right, white, wealth-worshipping plutocrats who openly hold poor people in contempt.  They would gut what’s left of the welfare state in the US (Medicare, Medicaid, social security, disability coverage) while carrying on Obama’s overseas killing spree.  And who knows, maybe worse.  Romney seems hell-bent on starting a trade war with China (on his first day in office, no less), a new cold war with Russia (the greatest threat to America, he says), and possibly a hot war with Iran (although everybody boasts about going to war with Iran, they’ve wanted to go to war with Iran since at least Bush and probably since Carter, it hasn’t happened yet).

America is economically and politically fucked.  American government barely functions because the right is actively trying to obstruct it and the center (the Democrats) lack the willpower and the skill to do anything about it.  There’s nothing to stop another economic crisis from taking place, of the sort that we had in 2008 or far worse.  It is quite conceivable that the next US president will have to contend with the collapse of the eurozone and the global economic turmoil that that will entail, and the American government that brought us the 2011 let’s-almost-default-on-our-national-debt-just-because fiasco isn’t up to the challenge.  These times require visionary leadership.  There is none.  We need a Roosevelt and all we have is an Obama.  And we might get a Romney.

Now, to my foreign readers, this is why you’re fucked too.  Because if the US is going to suffer catastrophic decline, I can’t imagine its brilliant political and military leaders won’t try to take with them as many foreigners as they can.  For a lot of Americans, Obama just isn’t aggressive enough when it comes to blowing up Muslims, and this from a president who has blown up thousands of them, many of them civilians, many of them children, many of them outside warzones.  Obama’s drones sometimes carry out “double-tap” attacks, in which the drones hover overhead after an initial massacre and then open fire on the people who show up to render medical aid or at least try to recover the bodies.  He’s also launched attacks on the funerals of drone victims, based on the logic that “militants” are likely to be in attendance at the funerals of militants (along with their wives and children, of course).  I put militants in scare quotes because we know that the Obama administration considers any military-age male that they kill to be a militant unless they are presented with a posthumous vindication of the victim.  So they’ll concede that you weren’t a militant, but only after they’ve killed you.  It should be noted that it was this logic—that all military-age males are inherently military targets—which provided the impetus behind the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces murdered some eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys.

So Obama has killed an enormous number of Muslim civilians, but for so many bloodthirsty Americans, that just isn’t enough (or something, I don’t understood how these people can believe that Obama has been “appeasing” Muslim militants when he can’t go a day without killing a bunch of them and anyone who happens to be standing nearby).  Jesus, if Romney gets elected, how many Muslims will he have to kill before his supporters are satisfied?  Certainly he’ll kill a lot.  The result of Obama’s drone war will have been to make these sorts of assassinations and extra-judicial murders the bipartisan norm.  America’s so-called Left won’t have a platform from which to criticize Romney, because he’ll be doing the same thing as Obama, and they didn’t object to it when Obama did it (it’s almost as if… they’re hypocrites!)

It’s become something of a cliché by this point to dismiss the entire American political class as a bunch of corrupt, power-hungry assholes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true and it doesn’t mean we can overlook it.  If America continues down the path of economic decline and lawless imperial warfare and murder, nothing good will come of it.  America’s increasingly militarized police forces are already getting their hands on drones, and it won’t be long before the tools of imperial oppression, honed on recalcitrant natives overseas, are brought back to the US.   Historical examples abound, but for considerations of space, here are just two of them.  This is exactly what happened near the end of the Roman Republic; the Generals Marius and Sulla went off to fight a foreign war in Libya and they ended up bringing their armies home with them and plunging the country into civil war.  More recently, the French Fourth Republic was brought down by the threat of a coup from soldiers trying to suppress the Algerian Revolution. 

Now, I’m not saying we’re necessarily going to see tanks in the streets in the US; far from it.  Americans are an acquiescent bunch and they would gladly sacrifice their freedoms on the altar of “security” (in Zbigniew Herbert’s elegant little book of myths, The King of the Ants, he describes a fictional Roman deity that he calls Securitas, to whom one sacrifices everything).  Tell the Americans that the Wikileakers are making us vulnerable to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or al-Shabab, or Ansar al-Sharia, or whatever the Islamists in northern Mali are calling themselves), and they’ll gladly sacrifice their freedoms (of speech, of dissent, certainly of religion if that religion happens to be Islam).  And the American republic will end not with a bang, but with a whimper, with a whimper (to continue my trend of incorporating famous T. S. Eliot lines into my blog posts).

And speaking of bangs versus whimpers, this brings me to my tepid and deeply reluctant of endorsement of Barack Obama.  The election of Mitt Romney would destroy America with a bang (death to social services, death to the poor, death to labor unions, government control of women’s reproductive systems, war with Iran, war with the Muslims in general), whereas the election of Obama will continue America on the path to a slightly quieter but no less irreversible decline.  He will kill Muslims, but fewer of them.  He probably/hopefully won’t go to war with Iran, unless Netanyahu does something stupid, in which case any American puppet-president would jump at the opportunity to attack Iran if it first attacks Israel.  On the economic front, we’ll see the same stagnant non-recovery that Japan has been experiencing ever since the bursting of its “bubble economy” circa-1990.  And as for social issues, this might be Obama’s only redeeming point.  Obama does not hate gay people, he does not think women are stupid and incapable of making decisions about their own reproductive health, he doesn’t hold poor people in contempt.  So that’s nice and it’s in marked contrast to the Republican position on these issues.

This endorsement of Obama is not a glowing endorsement.  In my heart of hearts, I want to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who holds genuine leftist positions and probably wouldn’t bomb anyone.  But when it comes down it, I’m afraid I’ve accepted the logic that a vote for a third party candidate by a leftist like me is like a vote for Romney.  And I really don’t want to see Romney elected.  I would much rather see the American republic end not with a bang but with a whimper.

Post-script:

Also, in case anyone was wondering, T. S. Eliot, were he still alive, would probably vote for the Constitution Party’s Virgil Goode, because they’re both arch-reactionaries.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Of Essay Films: Chris Marker (1921-2012) and the Genre He Invented

It was with great sadness that I heard yesterday that the great French filmmaker Chris Marker had died (five years to the day after the surprisingly simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni).  Marker was 91, so it can hardly be said that he didn’t have his innings.  Although he’s probably most famous in the United States for his 1962 fictional short film La jetée (which I’m told every film student sees in film school), the majority of his work fell within the confines of a genre which he all but invented, the “essay film.”

How does one define an essay film? Well, let’s start with how we define an “essay” in its literary sense.  The first essays to bear the name were written by Marker’s countryman Michel de Montaigne and published in 1580.  The French essai means “attempt,” and Montaigne describes his sui generis pieces exploring his free-ranging thoughts on various subjects as his “attempts” to explicate those subjects; so, attempts, essais.  When the English writer and scientist Francis Bacon set about a similar enterprise, he borrowed Montaigne’s term and describes his pieces as “essays,” and that’s how the term entered the English language. 

The defining characteristic of Montaigne’s essays is their frequent tendency to digress and their intense subjectivity.  He may call a piece “Of Cannibals” or “Of Friendship” or “Of Some Lines of Virgil,” but he’ll feel free to follow his line of thought wherever it may take him.  Furthermore, he makes no pretense to objectivity in these essays.  This is just what he thinks, and perhaps his most famous line is “'Que sçay-je?” (“What do I know?”) And, as it pertains to his tendency to digress, it should be pointed out that this line comes from his longest essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond,” only a small portion of which has much of anything to do with the titular Raymond Sebond.
Now, what distinguishes Montaigne’s essays from other “non-fiction” genres, such as historiography or philosophy, are these characteristics of digressiveness and subjectivity, and I believe it is these same characteristics in Marker’s films which distinguish them from more unambiguously documentary films.  Let’s take Marker’s most famous essay film, Sans Soleil (1982) and ask ourselves what it’s “about.” Well, it’s about a lot of things: it’s about a picture from Iceland, it’s about aspects of Japanese culture, it’s about memory, it’s about Amilcar Cabral and the independence movements in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.  And what gets said about these things? This and that.  Whatever Marker wants to say about them, really.  I suppose you could say that the movie is about memory, and that Marker explores these various topics in relation to the “theme” of memory; but I don’t think anyone would say, “Marker has made a documentary about memory.” People could, however, say of Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate, for example, that he has made a documentary “about” controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès.

I wouldn’t say that the borders between the essay film and the documentary are hermetically sealed and never the twain shall meet.  There has certainly been cross-pollination between the two.  In reading some of the obituaries for Marker, I saw someone describe Michael Moore as an essay filmmaker and I thought, “Well, I guess…” Moore certainly has the subjectivity thing down.

And conversely, Marker made some essay films that really look like documentaries; the three-hour epic A Grin Without a Cat is most definitely “about” something, namely the rise and fall of militant leftist groups in the sixties and seventies.  So why do I think it’s an essay film? Well, there’s that subjectivity again, and there’s the digressiveness.  Eric Henderson of Slant, in his review of this film, calls attention to Marker’s wonderful digression on the subject of Fidel Castro’s microphones.  Apparently Castro, when giving his lengthy, extemporaneous speeches, was in the habit of from time to time adjusting the various microphones that were arrayed before him.  It was something like an unconscious tic, and he could always be seen fiddling with them.  Well, Marker shows us footage of Castro giving a speech in the Soviet Union, and, horror of horrors, his microphones are fixed in place.  They won’t yield to the compulsive ministrations of his hands, and you can see him, desperately trying to make the damn things move, while his speech falls apart and he starts spouting really simplistic slogans in an effort to get easy applause (“Viva the Soviet Union!” is a characteristic example).  So there’s an example of something that I wouldn’t expect to find in a documentary about leftist militants or Fidel Castro or the like.  But in an essay film, it’s presence seems perfectly appropriate.

Perhaps my reluctance to grant Michael Moore the title of “essay filmmaker” is an aesthetic hang-up.  Marker’s films, at their best, are profoundly beautiful.  I highly doubt that anyone has ever walked away from a Michael Moore movie and thought, “Wow, that was profoundly beautiful.” I don’t think Moore gets aesthetics and I doubt he’s that concerned with the matter anyway.  Also, if Moore shares with Marker an attachment to subjectivity, he does not share Marker’s sense of restraint.  At no point in a Chris Marker film to you get the impression that Marker is shouting, “Hey! Look! Look at me! Look at this thing I’m doing!” whereas that’s basically half of any Moore movie.  In fact, Marker tends to try to make himself unobtrusive. 

The narrative voice-overs in his films are quite pointedly not done by him; in fact, they tend to be female; at least, I know that was the case in Sans Soleil and I think it was the case with A Grin Without a Cat.  I don’t recall the sex of the narrator of 1992’s The Last Bolshevik, which may very well be the only other “feature-length” Marker film I’ve seen.  A remarkable number of his films aren’t available in the United States.  His death is lamentable, but hopefully it will spark greater interest in his work and prompt the release of more Marker on DVD.  For instance, the British writer Clive James has described Marker’s 1957* film Letter from Siberia as his greatest film; Letter from Siberia is not—nor, as far as I can tell, has it ever been—available on Region 1 DVD.  Criterion Collection, get on this shit; do a Chris Marker Eclipse Collection the next time you’re tempted to release The Films of Norman Mailer, which I have not seen but for which I don’t have high hopes.

Marker doesn’t have that many successors in the school of essay filmmaking, but the followers he does have are quite reputable.  Among the occasional makers of essay films—few people seem to devote themselves to it almost exclusively, as Marker did—we find masters like Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Straub-Huillet, (note the heavy French presence), Orson Welles, and Wim Wenders, whose 1985 Tokyo-Ga features a brief cameo appearance from Marker himself (as well as Werner Herzog, whom I left off my list; are Herzog’s non-fiction films documentaries or essay films? Some combination thereof?  I do not have an answer for you at present).

Marker has left us, but his films will certainly endure, and hopefully we here in the United States will have the chance to see more of them soon.

*This post originally incorrectly stated that Letter from Siberia was released in 1961.  Not the kind of mistake that would have been made had I actually had the opportunity to the see the film in question.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That Load-Bearing Wall is Alienating Me: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudi and Other Examples of Architecture on Film

There are certain directors who distinguish themselves by their remarkable use of architecture, above and beyond the necessities of basic scene-setting or even of visual beauty.  The directors of this type who first come to mind are Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Tsai Ming-liang.  Tsai’s work is especially engaged with the ways in which his characters find themselves enmeshed in their urban landscapes.  Some of his best films are devoted largely to the exploration of buildings, like the apartment complex in The Hole (2000) or the single apartment in Vive L’Amour (1994).  Tsai’s perspective on urban architecture seems to owe a great deal to Antonioni, as they both see in urban landscapes the inescapable signs of modern man’s alienation; one need only recollect the image of Monica Vitti lost within the industrial wasteland of 1964’s Red Desert, Antonioni’s first color film, to understand the Italian auteur’s dissection of the relationship between humans and architecture.

However, Antonioni’s landscapes don’t speak merely of “alienation;” they are also hauntingly beautiful.  According to Geoff Dyer’s book-length essay Zona, Andrei Tarkovsky didn’t care for Red Desert, as he thought that “Antonioni got so seduced by ‘Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists’” that “the color has killed the feeling of truth.” That’s a bit harsh.  But have you seen Monica Vitti’s red hair against the mists?  It’s hard not to be seduced, and I see nothing wrong about that.  Red Desert is by far my favorite among Antonioni’s films, which are a pretty “mixed bag,” as far as I’m concerned, but that belongs to another blog post.

Tsai takes Antonioni’s aestheticization of potentially bleak urban landscapes even further.  For Tsai, massive apartment complexes—while perhaps emblematic of a broader sense of alienation—provide a wonderful refuge for his hero, Hsiao-kang. (The protagonists of every Tsai Ming-liang film are named Hsiao-kang and are played by Lee Kang-sheng.  Hsiao-kang is Lee’s real-life nickname).  This is especially the case in Vive L’Amour, as Hsiao-kang seeks to withdraw from Taipei by hiding out in the empty apartment that sits at the heart of the film.
The trope of Hsiao-kang as squatter is taken up again in 2006’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, which finds Hsiao-kang in Kuala Lumpur, savagely beaten by thugs and whisked away to an abandoned building to be nursed back to health by a Bangladeshi migrant worker (the two never speak to each other, ostensibly because of the lack of a common lanuage; in fact, Hsiao-kang never speaks at all in this movie.  This isn’t that unusual for Hsiao-kang or for any character in a Tsai Ming-liang movie, for that matter.  They are not a talkative bunch).  The lower levels of the building become flooded, which calls to mind the ceaseless rain of The Hole and is in sharp counterpoint to 2005’s The Wayward Cloud, in which Hsiao-kang and the denizens of yet another apartment complex confront a Taiwan in the grips of a devastating drought.  In all of these movies, Tsai films the architecture of the buildings with a seemingly intuitive feel for the way they appear on film; he almost abstracts them from their context, and you find yourself looking at a lovely arrangement of shapes that could potentially end up signifying nothing beyond themselves.  But they always do (signify things beyond themselves, that is), because Tsai also sees in the architecture an exteriorization of his characterss mental states (often states of alienation) which is comparable to the way in which Akira Kurosawa famously reflected his characters’ emotions through the weather (Toshiro Mifune is always the harbinger of a storm).

What got me thinking about architecture on film was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1985 documentary Antonio Gaudi (which I watched this evening), which seems to take the filming of architecture and reduces it to its purest form.  Antonio Gaudi is a largely wordless film, and consists almost entirely of Teshigahara’s camera panning through the various Gaudi-designed buildings that pepper Barcelona.  Without any verbal narrative to place things in context (for example: “Gaudi designed this building in such and such a year; his wife had just died and his patron was, etc, etc”), we must draw our meaning almost solely from the architecture on view.  I say “almost,” because the film is accompanied by a score by Toru Takemitsu (who, slight exaggeration, scored every Japanese movie made during his adult life) and the score, by turns elegantly baroque (or rather, Baroque) and surreal (electronic noise like what one finds in the “music” of Karlheinz Stockhausen), and this score provides the viewer with certain basic emotional cues.

In such a stripped down movie, Teshigahara is forced to let architecture speak, and in so doing he shows how architecture can speak in other, broader cinematic contexts (by which I mean, movies where the architecture is not the exclusive focus).  Teshigahara’s filming of Gaudi’s architecture (I don’t know how to separate them in the opinions I’m drawing here) is alternately beautiful, sensual, unsettling, or often some combination thereof.  I must confess myself to be not a huge fan of Gaudi as an architect.  His works are the sort of thing that would work well as painting or sculpture, but I should think it would be difficult to live in them; I could say the same thing of Le Corbusier’s concrete brutalist monstrosities, although for different reasons.  Le Corbusier’s buildings are just cold and inhuman.  Gaudi’s buildings have warmth, but it’s a pulsating, surrealistic warm; the humanity they convey is unstable and disturbed, and I don’t know that living in them long-term would have a good effect on the mind. Or perhaps their surreal impact diminishes with time and one becomes accustomed to them.
The Gaudi movie is an unexpected entry in Teshigahara’s somewhat small filmography, which includes such classics as The Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another.  Although perhaps it’s not so unexpected when one looks at the prominent role of architecture in The Woman in the Dunes (1964).  This masterpiece, based on the Kobo Abe novel of the same name and with a screenplay by the novelist, depicts the travails of an amateur entomologist who finds himself trapped at the bottom of a large pit amongst a sea of sand dunes, his only company the woman who lives there and his only shelter her house.

The woman is faced with the Sisyphean task of daily shoveling back the sands that never stop encroaching on her house.  Not surprisingly, we see a lot of the house, and the house’s relationship to the sand and the people and their relationship to it is of the utmost importance.  We can see in this film Teshigahara’s mastery of the use of architecture for narrative and aesthetic purposes.  Whether or not he’s a master of “architectural cinema,” like Antonioni or Tsai, is a question for which I do not yet have an answer.  I would like to see more of his films first.  Hopefully the Criterion Collection, which has released four of them in the U.S. (Antonio Gaudi and, before that, Pitfall, The Woman in the Dunes, and The Face of Another in a box set) will provide American cinephiles with access to the rest of his oeuvre.  It must be smaller than Ozu’s, and Criterion has already done an admirable job of making that available to us in it’s entirely (or almost its entirety, anyway; feel free to contradict me in the comments section if I’m missing something).  Perhaps a Teshigahara Eclipse collection would set the matter to rights.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Some Notes on Japanese “Crazy Young People” Movies of the 1950’s and ‘60’s



Young people are a plague, teenagers especially.  They’re ignorant, they’re reckless, some of them are downright sociopathic.  They have no impulse control.  God damn the lot of them.  Americans realized this no later than 1953, with the release of László Benedek’s The Wild One.  This is the movie where Marlon Brando, a motorcyclist with a leather jacket, upon being asked what he’s rebelling against, famously responds, “Whadaya got?”

Now, it’s quite possible that the Japanese realized that young people were dangerous and insane long before 1956, but it’s 1956 that saw the release of Ko Nakahira’s epoch-making (or rather initiating) film Crazed Fruit (Kurutta kajitsu).  This movie would serve as the prototype for most of the “crazy young people” movies to follow, and we can find in it most of the key elements that would define the genre.

First, some background on Crazed Fruit.  The film—produced by Nikkatsu, masters of the Japanese b-movie—was written by the novelist Shintaro Ishihara, a friend of Yukio Mishima who would later go on to become a far-right wing, vigorously racist politician; he is currently the governor of Tokyo prefecture (after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, he said that it was the gods punishing the Japanese for becoming “too materialistic.” This is comparable to Jerry Falwell blaming 9/11 on gays and feminists; interestingly enough, I remember thinking to myself, shortly after the disaster, “I wonder if Ishihara will blame this on the Koreans or something.” Luckily he restrained himself, and we didn’t have a repeat of the aftermath of the 1923 Kanto plain earthquake, when dozens of ethnic Koreans in Japan were lynched for a variety of imagined crimes.  For instance, the water in many of the wells in the Tokyo-Yokohama area became cloudy—a natural result of the earthquake—and this was interpreted as the Koreans poisoning the well water!  Sigh, racism). 

Now, Shintaro Ishihara’s involvement is important because—slight exaggeration—all crazy young people movies were written by Ishihara.  Furthermore, Crazed Fruit stars Yujiro Ishihara (or “Yu-chan,” as he was known to his legions of fans; God, was he pretty), Shintaro Ishihara’s younger brother.  Yujiro Ishihara—against, slight exaggeration—is the star of all Japanese crazy young people movies, and God damn, but there are a lot of them.  Between 1956 and 1959 alone, he was in literally dozens of movies (perhaps actors in general were just more productive back then; I mean, how many movies was Ryan Gosling in last year? Three? Maybe four?)

There’s a  pretty girl in Crazed Fruit named Mie Kitehara.  She was similarly prolific and she and Yu-chan appeared in a number of films together.

Oh, what’s Crazed Fruit about?  Well, Yu-chan and his brother are spending their summer vacation at their father’s house on the beach.  Being wild and reckless, they do a lot of motor-boating and water-skiing with their hard-drinking, nihilistic friends, including a wealthy half-American with the exotic name of Frank.  Of all the crazy young people, Frank is the most hedonistic and the most amoral, which is not surprising, given that he’s not really Japanese.  This is another trope of crazy young people movies: the sinister presence of foreigners (and their nationalities are rarely specified; they’re just foreigners, or gai-jin. Frank is rather an anomaly in that his American-ness is noted; usually, the only foreigners to get a nationality are African-Americans, who are something of their own category in post-war Japanese cinema; more on this in a moment).

I see I’ve digressed.  The plot of Crazed Fruit: Yu-chan and his brother meet a pretty girl named Eri (the lovely Mie Kitehara) and they both fall in love with her.  This is problematic because Eri, as it turns out, is married to a paunchy, balding foreigner who must be at least twice her age (he has a British accent, for what it’s worth).  The image of young Japanese women “whoring” themselves out to foreigners is one of the main signs of decadence in these films, and it’s also the primary way for the women to demonstrate their depravity.  There are worse things a young Japanese woman can do than marry a foreigner in these movies.  She can openly prostitute herself to foreign businessmen and American soldiers.  And, most provocatively, she can have sex with an African-American soldier.  In Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1963 The Warped Ones, someone recommends to a prostitute—whose primary clientele consists of American soldiers—that she have sex with his black friend.  This is too much for her and she declines with disgust.  Even she has standards.  And in Shohei Imamura’s 1961 masterpiece Pigs and Battleships, a prostitute attempts to make her boyfriend jealous by threatening to sleep with American soldiers, even black ones!

One of the remarkable things about the Japanese cinema of this period is the complete lack of any notion of political correctness in its representation of African-Americans.  The depictions are by no means always hostile, although sometimes the best they can do is treat the African-American as a novel object of curiosity.  Or the Japanese character will see the African-American through a haze of stereotypes and received ideas.  This latter tendency is depicted most trenchantly in Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Black Sun (1964), in which a young petty gangster finds himself involved with a fugitive African-American soldier who has murdered two of his white fellow soldiers.  The Japanese man is a lover of jazz music, the prism through which he sees black people, and he assumes that this is all he’ll need to make friends with his new black guest.  In broken English he tells him, “All black people are my friend!  Thelonious Monk: buraku!” Now, the soldier has just killed some people and is in fear for his life, so he has no time for jazz music, but the Japanese gangster just can’t understand that.  When he finds that the soldier can’t even play the trumpet, and doesn’t even seem to like jazz, it’s downright incomprehensible to him.  Black Sun is probably the best Japanese movie I’ve seen which directly examines Japanese conceptions of black people, painful though it is often is to watch.  And in defense of Imamura’s treatment of African-Americans in Pigs and Battleships, I don’t think Imamura himself is expressing a racial prejudice; he’s just depicting his characters realistically, and alas, that’s how, realistically, they’re going to talk about black people.

I’ve digressed again.  Crazed Fruit.  Yu-chan, his brother, their love for Mei Kitehara’s character, her shameful marriage to a foreigner.  Well, it goes without saying that the relationship between the two brothers collapses, and they eventually end up engaged in open combat for Kitehara’s love.  I won’t reveal the ending; go get a Hulu Plus account and watch it there (they have a lot of Criterions available for streaming there, and it’s cheaper than Netflix).

A few more things that decadent Japanese youth will do in crazy young people movies: they like to drive convertibles, they listen to jazz and rock music, they use American slang expressions (quel horreur!)

It’s interesting how movies like Crazed Fruit and, say, Rebel Without a Cause, can be so reactionary (look at these crazy young people, with their cars and their music and their sex!) while simultaneously being so exciting to the young people that they purport to depict (“Wow, look at Yu-chan/James Dean! He’s so rugged and handsome and dreamy! Look at Mie Kitehara/Natalie Wood! She’s so sexy with her provocative, form-fitting sweaters!)

Now, as a cosmopolitan snob, I’m leery of American movies, so I’ve probably seen more Japanese crazy young people movies than their American counterparts (in fact, of the American variety, the examples I’ve given—The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause—are probably the only ones I’ve seen).  I sort of work under the assumption that if it’s Japanese, it must be better than the American version.  But I’m sure both Crazed Fruit and Rebel Without a Cause spawned legions of shitty imitations.  The only difference is that no one bothered to distribute the Crazed Fruit knock-offs in the United States, whereas the Rebel wannabes were free to flood the market. So the Japanese can produce crap too; it just doesn’t get exported.

As for Ko Nakahira, he’s something of a one hit wonder in the Japanese film industry.  After Crazed Fruit, he ended up making a string of similar young people movies for Nikkatsu, none of which equaled the success of his break-though, and then he ended up relocating to Hong Kong, where he directed, among other things, a Chinese-language remake of Crazed Fruit.  This movie has not yet been released by the Criterion Collection.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of August Strindberg’s Face and then Maybe the Face of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Final Two Episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Episode 5 of Scenes from a Marriage is entitled “The Illiterates,” but it could just as easily be called “How not to sign your divorce papers.” First off, there should be no alcohol involved.  Second, you probably shouldn’t have sex just before signing.  And then, you certainly shouldn’t drink even more, to the point of drunkenness.

Episode 5 consists entirely of Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) together in Johann’s office, putting off signing their divorce papers.  Once again, these people still clearly love each other, but it becomes increasingly evident that they also hate each other.  I see no reason why these two emotions have to be mutually exclusive.  As Marianne and Johann trade hysterical recriminations, I am reminded of the plays of Bergman’s countryman, August Strindberg, so many of which involve a man and a woman emotionally and psychologically destroying each other; typically it’s the woman who has the upper hand; to say that Strindberg had “issues” with women is likely a polite understatement.  Now, if Strindberg was an out and out misogynist, then I have no desire to apologize for him, but I feel like his male characters are rarely outstanding personalities themselves.  No, often the main thrust of a Strindberg play is that everyone, male and female, is really pretty awful, at least sometimes.  Everybody can and will undermine and seriously fuck up everybody else.

If Strindberg has a counterpart in Scenes from a Marriage, it is certainly Johann, because as the miniseries progresses, it becomes evident that Johann’s drama is not just marital, but is also one of personal failure and disappointment.  Throughout the series, Johann’s pronouncements on himself and on the rest of humanity become increasingly dire and pessimistic.  Marianne, by contrast, becomes increasingly self-assured and confident.  It reminds me of the way Annie Hall unfolds, with Alvy (Woody Allen, a well-known Bergman enthusiast) mired in the self-defeating pessimism that he’s spent years cultivating, while Annie (Diane Keaton) grows and flourishes as a person.  By the end of the film, Alvy needs her in a way that she really doesn’t need him.  In Scenes from a Marriage, this question of who needs whom isn’t as one-sided as it is in Annie Hall.  Although I would say that Johann is clearly the weaker of the two, Marianne is not without her vulnerabilities. Her new-found self-assurance is fragile, and it often seems like she wants—or perhaps even needs—Johann to prop it up for her, even though, at least superficially, she built this self-assurance out of her emancipation from him.

People, people, people.  This is probably one of the best “relationship movies” I’ve ever seen.  Bergman approaches the titular marriage with a firm understanding of the human condition.  When two people set out two negotiate a relationship, they generally don’t really know what they want.  Or, perhaps more precisely, they want any number of things, some of which undermine each other, some of which are blatantly contradictory, and some of which are probably just self-destructive.  Being human is (not always, but sometimes) a terrible burden.  How awful, to have so much, to have our hopes for happiness, riding on the fulfillment of poorly articulated and poorly understood desires.  No wonder most people fuck it up to varying degrees.

Now, personally, I think it is important to engage in what I call “cautious pessimism.” This outlook necessitates being prepared for the worst while hoping for—and actively pursuing—the best.  Full-blown pessimism, pessimism which is honest with itself and clear-eyed in its view of the world, would likely just lead to giving up.  Pure optimism, by contrast, is almost always going to lead to disappointment, and you’re not going to be prepared for it when it comes.  But cautious pessimism, this middle way, allows us to pursue the good while not being caught off-guard by the bad.  Cautious pessimism is perhaps an ideal survival method, at least from an emotional perspective.

So, spoiler alert, but here’s how Scenes from a Marriage ends (this is the Guanyin/Kannon/Avolikotesvara portion of the title of this post).  We find Marianne and Johann, seven years after their initial break, now each married to a new spouse, sneaking off to the countryside for a weekend tryst.  And both of them are emotionally vulnerable, especially Johann, who lacks the equipment for dealing with disappointments and reversals that Marianne seems to have been cultivating.  Neither of their new marriages is particularly happy.  Marianne is vulnerable too, because she feels the melancholy weight of what could have been, had they made different decisions years ago.  How sad, to find, years down the line, when it can no longer be rectified, that you’ve made a series of colossal mistakes.  And so they come together in this cottage in the countryside and night falls and they hold each other and console each other and their love for each other is made abundantly clear, and they both radiate compassion.  And we see what fundamentally decent human beings they are.  And for all the misery to which they’ve been subjected throughout the six episodes of Scenes from a Marriage, this scene of the two of them together is one of pure warmth and even love.  Love persists despite all the squandered opportunities, all the shit they’ve been through, all the shit they’ve put themselves through.  And this is why we mustn’t give into pure pessimism, which is so easily translated into despair, because love and warmth and compassion are still possible, in spite of everything.

How unexpectedly uplifting!  Ingmar Bergman is important for me not just as an artist, but for the role he played in my own discovery of cinema.  It was Bergman who first showed me (as an adolescent, and let’s not harp on that, because who wants to remember their adolescence?) that films could be works of art and that cinema was therefore an art form.  Not all cinema, mind you—the quasi-filmic abortions of, say, Adam Sandler, are only films in the technical sense, just like James Patterson is “technically” a novelist (well not even that; at least Adam Sandler actually makes his movies; I’ve never read a James Patterson novel, of course, but judging by the rate at which they’re pumped out, and by the fact that there’s pretty much always a co-author on them, I highly doubt that he’s actually writing them anymore.  So James Patterson is such a shitty writer that he doesn’t actually write.  Shit.)

But let’s not think about people like them.  I hold them both in contempt and would be happy to just drive them from my mind.  I’ll conclude this post by reiterating my great respect for Ingmar Bergman, as well as by declaring the high esteem in which I hold Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.  There, respectable people for a respectable conclusion.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of Erland Josephson’s Face: Watching the third and fourth episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Well, Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) have broken up now.  That’s not a spoiler, mind you, but rather the basic premise of the movie (or miniseries or whatever you’d like to call it).  Johann initiated the break.  He had taken a lover, a college student half his age, and the two of them decided to run off to Paris together.  But they’re both foolish to throw away what they have (Johann and Marianne, that is).  Marianne says, vis-à-vis being a living human person, “you have to have somebody’s hand to hold.” And surely she’s right, surely it helps to have someone’s hand to hold as you go about the business of being alive and being in the world and eventually dying.  I think of Ashitaka and San facing what seems like imminent death near the end of Princess Mononoke, as they restore the Forest Spirit’s head; they did it together, and that must have made it less frightening.

By getting married and sustaining their marriage for ten years, Marianne and Johann were well on their way to having the kind of lifelong companionship and support that makes life more livable and death (if ever so slightly) less a matter of fear.  But then Johann was struck by a different kind of fear; he was afraid that he had fallen into domestic complacency, and that he was wasting his life by staying with Marianne.  And he felt this way for a long time (“Do you know how long I’ve wanted to be rid of you?” He asks with sadistic glee. “Four years!”) and he should have said something sooner, because they seem to get on together well enough, so why not fix it rather than risk being alone again? 

The scene where Johann tells Marianne that he’s been cheating on her and the he’s going to leave her is painful to watch.  Johann vents all his pent up frustrations, which he could have aired over the years, and he takes pleasure in it, the kind of perverse pleasure that comes with doing irreparable damage to something or someone you love.  Inflicting this damage gives one a sense of freedom, much like the dangerous sense of freedom which I suspect accompanies the feeling of despair if it is not suppressed quickly enough.

While watching this scene, I was initially tempted to say, “Well, I’ve found the problem with their marriage: Johann is an asshole with no self-awareness and no shame.” But he approaches the matter so lucidly—he’s so well aware of how likely it is that he’s irreversibly fucking up his life—that one feels compassion for him.  He knows that his relationship with the college student, Paula, isn’t likely to go anywhere.  And he knows he still loves Marianne.  He knows he’s probably going to make himself terribly unhappy.  It’s like he’s stepped outside himself, and is going to watch as he becomes the architect of his own doom.

On an architectural note, Johann asks Marianne at one point, “Have you seen where I put my copy of Speer’s memoirs?” This is Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, convicted at Nuremburg, imprisoned at Spandau, and released in 1966.  This miniseries was made in 1973, when Speer was still very much alive.  I don’t know what, if any, significance the reference to Speer carries with it, although it is interesting to see the specter of Nazism and, by extension, the Holocaust, intruding into this resolutely domestic drama.  No, but I take that back, this is hardly just a domestic drama; we find in it signs of that great and overblown concept, the human condition.  We find in it fear, loneliness, love, the irrational desire to destroy love, the gratuitous infliction of suffering—of cruelty—on other people.  Perhaps the reference to Speer is meant to remind us that domesticity does not exist in isolation, but is just one of the many fields of play in which we act out the “human drama” (or the “human farce,” depending on the actors and the setting).

Before I finish this post, I want to mention, more as an aside than anything else, that the scene in which Johann abruptly confronts Marianne and tells her all about his affair was based very closely on something that Ingmar Bergman actually did to one of his wives (he had five of them, and he had a total of nine children).  This (the scene and the family issues) was discussed in the documentary Bergman Island, which was composed of interviews with an elderly Ingmar Bergman in his home on his beloved Fårö island and broadcast on Swedish television in 2006.  Bergman was aware that he was neither a good husband nor a good father to most of his wives and children, and God, imagine the masochism that must have gone into recreating in Scenes from a Marriage that painful scene from one of his own marriages.  Because Johann looks like an absolute asshole (Josephson plays the narcissistic asshole well, in a way that I don’t think Max von Sydow could have done; von Sydow’s characters tend to be too sensitive, too compassionate, to act in such a manner).  In Bergman’s defense, his final marriage lasted about twenty years (the earlier four tended to last about five years a piece) and he never remarried after his last wife died.  In Bergman Island, he says that he can feel her spirit around him and that he hopes to see her in some sort of afterlife (sentiments that are rather surprising coming from the director of a “Silence of God” trilogy).
So, that’s my take on episodes three and four of Scenes from a Marriage.  Keep a lookout for my review of the final two episodes, which will likely be up soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

“And Then The Red Guards Ate Ice Cream”: Another Record of Human Cruelty: Hu Jie’s Though I am Gone (Wo Sui Si Qu)


I warn you in advance, this post is full of heavy, depressing, and potentially disturbing shit.

It has been several days since I last saw a cheerful movie.  Last night I watched the Czech filmmaker Evald Schorm’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, about a man trying and largely failing to recover from a suicide attempt.  I didn’t know what I would have to say about that, so I didn’t say anything about it.  Tonight I watched Hu Jie’s 2006, mostly black-and-white documentary, Though I am Gone, about the efforts of Wang Jingyao, a Chinese professor of history, to preserve the memory of his wife, Biang Zhongyun, a secondary school teacher who was tortured and murdered by her students during the Cultural Revolution.

Oh God, where to start with the Cultural Revolution?  Such a strange and almost unique event in history, in which the establishment incites a revolt against the establishment.  But of course, that’s a gross simplification.  More accurately, Mao Zedong used the Cultural Revolution to secure his position within the party and to secure the position of his ideology within the communist “culture” of the China of the time.  So Mao encouraged people to revolt against reactionaries and “capitalist roaders” wherever they could be found.  Students were encouraged to form “Red Guard” units and attack their teachers should they suspect the teachers of being reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, capitalist roaders, or of harboring “bourgeois thoughts,” as one of their victims described it.  And so they did attack their teachers.  And they’d subject them to so-called “struggle sessions,” in which the victim would be dragged out in front of a seething mob, forced to denounce him or herself, and then insulted and beaten and humiliated and, if the vengeful spirit of the crowd deemed it necessary, tortured and killed.

That’s what happened to Wang Jingyao’s wife.  She was accused by a fellow teacher sympathetic to the Red Guards of being a reactionary.  She was harassed and beaten and then one day they beat her to death.  And she knew it was coming.  She took a shower before going out to the struggle session, stating that if they were going to kill her, she wanted her body to be clean first.  On the day his wife was killed, Wang was called and told that she had been badly beaten and was in the hospital.  He gathered his four children and they went to see her there, only to find that she was already dead.  Her face was swollen and, as her daughter describes it in the documentary, she had a bloody hole in her head and another hole in her arm.  She had been beaten to death with spiked clubs.  At some point during the process, she had voided her bowels and bladder.  Forty years later, Wang still keeps the clothes that his wife was wearing when she died, and he shows us a feces-stained garment.  At this point in the movie, I remember thinking, “Ah, maybe this is why it’s in black-and-white, so we can’t see the blood and the feces.” And then the movie switched to color.  And we could see the feces, faded over forty years, but still there.  Jesus Christ.  What is there to say to this? Well something, of course.  I always hate it when somebody says of the Holocaust (for example), “It defies explanation.  We can only face it with silence.” I beg to differ.  It was Theodor Adorno who famously and sententiously said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” and it was Paul Celan who said, “Fuck you, Adorno,” or at least conveyed that message by surviving the Holocaust and writing really good, really important poetry, if people still believe that poetry is important.  We can always say something, even if it’s something along the predictable lines of, “That’s horrible!” or, what I said just now, “Jesus Christ.”

And speaking of Jesus Christ, we find that Wang, despite being a confirmed atheist (he goes to pains to make this very clear), is nonetheless captivated by Christian art and iconography.  We see a Russian-style picture of the Virgin and Child and he says of it (and I’m paraphrasing slightly): “It’s the eyes, so full of love for humanity.” And on his wall he has a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and he says something to the effect of, “And there’s Jesus, about to be betrayed” (this apropos of his wife being betrayed by her colleagues and students).  And he opens an art book and shows us a picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà and then he discusses the crucifixion, and the bearing of crosses, and says that his wife’s death is the cross he has had to bear for forty years.  Because he wants to remember it and because he documented it. When she died, he took pictures.  He took pictures of her mutilated body, which are hard to look at.  He took pictures of his children in morning.  And, as I’ve mentioned, he preserved the clothing she was wearing at the time.  He says he wants these things to be displayed in a Cultural Revolution Museum, should one ever be created.

I don’t want to talk about this anymore, I’m not in the right mindset for it.  There’s the horror of the feces (if we want to throw in a little Barthes—and we probably don’t—the feces is horrible because it is the sign of Bian’s abject humiliation and degradation), and there’s the horror that comes from knowing she was killed by her owns students, and that they were given free license to do so.  In a future blog post, I’d like to talk about the religious structures that can be found in the most fanatical communisms.  Specifically in the notion of a “struggle session,” in the killing of heretics and heathens, in the brutal self-critiques and self-flagellations that often accompanied them.  All of this is displayed with great, penetrating insight and understanding in Koji Wakamatsu’s 2008 docudrama, United Red Army, especially the psychotic extent to which “self-critique” and the almost religious notion of cultivating a “revolutionary mindset” can be taken.  I would also like to investigate why the hell people outside of China who really should have known better could have been taken in by the Cultural Revolution and by Maoism in general (looking at you, Jean-Luc Godard).  Wakamatsu was himself a supporter of the Japanese Red Army when they first came into being, but United Red Army shows that he was clearly disillusioned with them, and in his depictions of their viciousness, he spares no one, least of all, I suspect, his younger self.  But, once again, I digress.  I’ll save United Red Army for another post.  For my next post, I should write something happy, like “a post-colonial exegesis of Kittens on a Slide (or whatever they wanted me to do in college).  Speaking of Kittens on a Slide, here’s a link to Kittens on a Slide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gppbrYIcR80
This should brighten your spirits.