Friday, December 20, 2013

Natural Born Killers, Innit?: Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and the Decline of Britain


German poster for Sightseers, by Heike Jörss, which MUBI's Notebook declared
to be one of the best posters of 2013.
I remember reading somewhere in the work of far left-wing nutjob Tariq Ali that the United Kingdom is just a medium-sized Northern European country.  And it struck me as a revelation, to think of Britain, this great fount of artistic achievement, the land of Shakespeare and Milton, as being decidedly marginal.  Its permanent position on the UN Security Council is just a relic of an era long since passed and whatever power it still wields in the world is either a legacy of colonialism or a concession from its powerful ally, the United States.  And like the United States, Britain is in decline.  A country like Norway may be marginal (militarily and probably culturally, unless we consider black metal and Ibsen revivals to be an influential part of modern culture), but it’s still got its shit together, economically.  Norway is a nice place to live and will continue to be a nice place to live for the foreseeable future.  Britain, by contrast, is falling apart, and has been ever since Margaret Thatcher took a sledgehammer to the welfare state and declared that “there is no society,” which is the kind of thinking that led her to rip up Britain’s social contract.
So Britain’s been falling to pieces since Thatcher, and Christ knows it shows in their cinema.  I should say first off that I’m not a huge fan of British cinema.  If you contrast it with the cinemas of countries of comparable size and historical-cultural influence, like, say, France or Japan, it’s downright pitiful.  They either sent their best filmmakers abroad (Chaplin, Hitchcock) or had to import them from overseas (Kubrick, Gilliam, all those Korda brothers).  The only truly great British filmmaker working in Britain back in the day was Michael Powell, and he shared credit on his best productions with the Hungarian-born Emeric Perssburger (the credits typically read “Written and Directed by Powell and Pressburger,” although my understanding is that Powell did most of the directing and Pressburger most of the writing).  In recent years, British movie production has focused mostly on two types of film: the kitchen-sink drama (or bleak chic; in America, we call it K-mart realism), embodied by the films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Andrea Arnold; and period pieces: like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement or The King’s Speech (the auteur theory crowd must not think too highly of these films’ directors, as I don’t know their names). 

But there is a third type of British film, pioneered by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg: the gritty black comedy bloodbath (think kitchen-sink drama with zombies).  This is the best description I can think of for Ben Wheatley’s 2012 film Sightseers.  The film stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also wrote it, along with Amy Jump) as Tina and Chris, a pair of sad sack lovers who go on holiday together.  With camper in tow (or caravan, as the British apparently call it), the couple seeks out a series of innocuous tourist sites in Yorkshire (including a historical exhibit about tram cars and the pencil museum, at which Tina purchases an enormous pencil—shades of the hamburger phone in Juno).  Tina and Chris (and, based on no research, I’m going to assert that they were named after the couple in the Talking Heads) run into a spot of bother when Chris reveals that he has a nasty habit of murdering people who piss him off.  His first victim, whom he kills (somewhat) accidentally, is just a random asshole, but subsequent victims are upper-class and well-educated, and a blistering class resentment soon makes its presence known.  Now, in America, we certainly have class, but we’re generally not allowed to talk about it: internet joke and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently asserted that even a term as inoffensive as “middle class” is Marxist and un-American.

Sightseers strikes a remarkable balance between hilarity on the one hand and passionate hatred and despair on the other (it’s the hatred that I don’t think an American film would be able to pull off).  Sightseers shows what absolute freedom looks like: it is desperate and it is necessarily short-lived, sustainable only until the authorities catch up with you.  As long as societies likes Britain’s (and America’s) continue to languish in anomie and economic decay and class warfare (by which I mean the war perpetrated by the plutocracy against everybody else), we will continue to see people flip their shit, abandon the future, and perpetrate horrific acts of vengeance against the world that tantalized them with everything and provided them with nothing.  In the words of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, these are the people who were “shown how to feel good and told to feel bad.” Although I suppose the American conservative would just dismiss them as “entitled.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

On the Decadence of Contemporary French Cinema and the So-Called “New French Extremity”

*Full of a bunch of spoilers for all sorts of movies*
*Also, I don’t usually say this, but I guess I should issue a trigger warning as well*


In my viewing of twenty-first century French cinema, I have seen the following things: a group of soldiers gang-rape a woman, and one of the soldiers is later castrated in retaliation; a man with an axe smashes a car window open and murder a woman and a girl inside and then rapes another girl; a gay man sodomizes a woman in a tunnel for about ten minutes and her fiancée and his friend retaliate by smashing the rapist’s skull to bits with a fire extinguisher inside the most nightmarish gay club since William Friedkin’s Cruising; a man watches a tape of his brother-in-law having sex with his niece.

The scenes I have just described come respectively from the following films: Bruno Dumont’s Flanders (2005), Catherine Breillat’s A ma soeur (2001, released in the U.S. as Fat Girl for some fucking reason), Gaspar Noé‘s Irreversible (2004), and Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013).  These films are all examples of what they call the “New French Extremity:” fucked up movies where every horrible thing that would once have taken place off screen, or at least that would have been mitigated by jump cuts and other forms of elision, is depicted onscreen in unsparing detail.  It is underpinned by the philosophy that every horrible thing can and should be put on film, and that a film has no responsibility to be pleasant or aesthetically pleasing (Bastards especially lingers in my memory as a grim, dirty, visually ugly piece of cinema).

Now, I don’t consider myself to be prudish or censorious in my film-watching habits.  I don’t find anything inherently objectionable in films that depict “extreme” subject matter or that make use of an “extreme” style.  Hell, I love contemporary Korean cinema, which has to be the most fucked up national cinema in the world; one of my favorite films is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (the original, of course), which is an incest-fueled bloodbath.  But it’s a very stylish, even, dare I say, pretty, incest-fueled bloodbath.  Or take Kim Ki-duk’s elegant film The Isle, which depicts: a man swallowing a bunch of fishhooks, a woman driving fishhooks into her vagina, and more unsimulated animal cruelty than I’ve seen in any other movie.  And yet these are not unpleasant films to watch.  Because the directors understand that there is a balance to be struck.  And so, if we’re going to have fucked up subject matter, we will balance it with stylish compositions and clever, engaging plotting.

The problem with the New French Extremity is that there’s no balance.  These films are unrelentingly bleak, drab, ugly, and depressing.  To take Denis’s Bastards as an example: the title could apply pretty well to all the characters.  Or it could just as easily have been called Very Bad Things Happen to Terrible People with a Gray and Brown Color Palette.  Or let’s go back to Korea for a moment, and consider one of Kim Ki-duk’s latest films, 2012’s Pietà.  In this movie, which follows a brutal loan-shark as he rampages through Seoul torturing people who can’t pay off their debts, Kim fails to strike the balance like he did in The Isle.  Instead, we have a tedious movie depicting horrible things with an ugly color scheme (how this film won the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival is a mystery to me).  Now, this tendency in French cinema wouldn’t be all that problematic if it was confined to just a few films, but it’s becoming positively ubiquitous.  Noé and Breillat have always made brutal movies, but it’s also beginning to suck in directors with a broader skill-set, like Denis and Olivier Assayas,  Something has to change here, as I can’t imagine that this already unpalatable film movement has much energy left in it.  You can only film so much rape and torture before you’ve exhausted the permutations and need to find new material.  Perhaps we should pin our hopes on the older generation of French filmmakers; people like Agnes Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, not content to repeat themselves, continue to come out with weird and innovative new movies.  If only the young French enfants terribles could take the lessons of these octogenarians to heart.

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.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ethno-Brechtian Pomegranate Orgy: Sergei Parajanov’s Ashik Kerib



In all of world cinema, there can be few oeuvres as wonderfully strange and original as Sergei Parajanov’s.  The great Soviet filmmaker directed a number of films, the first several of which were  made under the constraints of socialist realism and which he would later disavow; he is remembered chiefly for four mind-fucking films set in the Soviet Union’s many non-Russian cultures: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), set in the Ukraine and probably his greatest film; The Color of Pomegranates (1968), set in Armenia; and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988), set in Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively and co-directed with Dodo Abashidze.  Parajanov himself (né Parajanian) was born to Armenian parents in Georgia and spent much of his career pissing of the Soviet government by mining the rich, pre-Russian cultures of the Caucasus.  Parajanov’s lack of productivity during the seventies can be attributed to his persecution at the hands of the Soviet government, which imprisoned him on false charges of homosexual rape and propagation of pornography.

The government hated the bizarre and innovative style that Parajanov came to utilize in his movies, a style so utterly unique that it makes Tarkovsky look mainstream by comparison.  Following the logic of dreams and obeying the compositional traditions of Armenian and Persian painting, his films (especially from The Color of Pomegranates onwards) dispense with most considerations of plot and characterization, instead providing the viewer with a rich series of expressive tableaux and oneiric transformations.
I have just seen the last of Parajanov’s four great films, 1988’s Ashik Kerib.  The film follows the adventures of a pre-modern Azeri minstrel (or ashik) who must travel the country in an effort to raise money to win the hand of his beloved, whose wealthy father demands a dowry of precious metals, rather than the talent and good looks possessed by Kerib.  What follows is a series of dance routines, musical performances, allegorical encounters, and enough swirling color to freak out even the most jaded of LSD-consumers.

As is typical of Parajanov’s films, there is no effort to maintain any semblance of realism in Kerib’s adventures.  Here’s a “tiger” he has to confront:

 
And here’s the final shot of the film, which, like the camera in Bergman’s Persona or Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, insistently reminds us that this is a film and that it is governed by the rules of cinema, not reality:

 
As a side-note, I’d like to acknowledge the role of Dodo Abashidze in making this film.  In discussions of Parajanov’s last two films, they’re usually treated as being strictly Parajanovian undertakings, but Abashidze’s name precedes Parajanov’s in the opening credits of Ashik Kerib.  I don’t know what the distribution of labor was, but to ignore Abashidze’s contribution is to do him—and the films—an injustice.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Johnnie To’s Drug War and its Depiction of the Chinese Police


 
As I watched Johnnie To’s technically excellent police thriller Drug War, about a courageous mainland police unit and their efforts to bust a gathering of Hong Kong drug lords, I kept thinking of the plight of Chen Yongzhou.  Chen, a journalist for Guangzhou’s New Express, was arrested on October 19th of this year after writing a series of controversial articles about Zoomlion, a Chinese manufacturer of sanitation and construction equipment.  According to the BBC, Chen had accused Zoomlion of “improperly account[ing] for sales;” this report led to a dip in Zoomlion’s stock value on the Hong Kong stock exchange, which prompted the police in Hunan—and Zoomlion is partially owned by the Hunan provincial government—to arrest Chen for “damage to business reputation.” In response to Chen’s arrest (or detention, the exact circumstances are not clear), The New Express published a front page headline calling for his release, a rare and bold move in a country where the press is still generally forced to toe the government line.  In fact, according to the BBC, the government of Xi Jinping is currently engaged in a crackdown on bloggers and reporters deemed to have gone too far in their criticisms of the Chinese authorities (or, in the case of Chen Yongzhou, of a company in which the authorities have an interest).
Ok, now what does all of this have to do with To’s Drug War, his first Mainland production and an engrossing thriller?  The problem here—and it’s a problem with cinematic depictions of the police elsewhere, including in the U.S., for that matter—is that the heroic cops in Drug War are theoretically the same cops who arrested Chen Yongzhou; the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought asylum in the US in dramatic fashion last year; and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned after calling on the Chinese government to recognize the human rights enshrined in its own constitution. 

The Chinese police do a lot of awful things, but you wouldn’t know it from Drug War.  This is a far cry from South Korean cinema, where the police are almost without exception depicted as sadistic and incompetent.  It’s even different from the cinema of Hong Kong, where To himself has depicted the police in a far more nuanced light, sometimes as pragmatists willing to broker deals with gangsters (as in the Election films) or as dangerously corrupt (as in Mad Detective, which To co-directed with frequent collaborator Wai Ka-fai).  One is forced to raise the question, “Has To sacrificed some of the moral integrity of his art, or at least compromised it, in making a film on the Chinese Mainland?” Or has he perhaps done the best he could under the circumstances? Or is this not a relevant question to ask, given the kind of story that To was seeking to tell in Drug War? I’m trying to think of other examples that I’ve seen of police in Mainland films: there’s Lu Chuan’s The Missing Gun, which focuses on the struggles of one individual cop who’s very much enmeshed in the life of his small town.  One could also consider two of Jia Zhangke’s movies, Xiao Wu (also known as Pickpocket) and Unknown Pleasures, where the task of the police is to keep in line a motley assortment of dumb, small-town hoodlums.

I don’t have a solid answer to the questions raised here.  It will be interesting to see how the issues of freedom of expression and criticism of the authorities play out as Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese film continue the fruitful exchange that has in recent years produced some of the greatest films of either of their cinemas.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On Deliberately Unpleasant “Bleak Chic” Cinema: Lino Brocka’s Insiang



There are some movies (and books) that are so relentlessly bleak, depressing, and unpleasant, that I can’t imagine why someone would want to make them.  Surely they couldn’t have derived any enjoyment from making them, anymore than someone would derive enjoyment from watching (or reading) them.  Now, usually, I like to discuss the things I like on this blog—you’ll notice that most of my reviews are “positive” because I’m deliberately not discussing the things I don’t like.  But I just watched a movie so sadistically ugly that I feel the need to bitch about it.

The movie in question is the late Filipino director Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976).  This grimy, poorly composed piece of miserablism depicts a young woman (the Insiang of the title) who lives in squalid poverty with her abusive mother and her mother’s violent and sexually predatory boyfriend.  The boyfriend rapes Insiang, and when she reports it to her mother, the boyfriend alleges that Insiang goes about the house naked (which she does not) so how could he not be seduced and, you know, rape her?  The mother is persuaded by this line of reasoning.  So Insiang turns to her boyfriend, Babeto, and asks him to elope with her.  They go to a seedy motel, where they have sex, and then he abandons her.  Everyone gossips about her and thinks she’s a slut.  Even her mother can’t bear her “promiscuity” despite openly fooling around with her own boyfriend right in front of her daughter. 
In many ways, this film could have been like Robert Bresson’s masterpiece Mouchette (1968), which follows the similar persecutions and sufferings of a young girl surrounded by perverts and hypocrites and assholes in general.  But even at his cruelest, Bresson still made sure his films looked good.  If only Insiang had been in black-and-white like Mouchette, it would have served to aestheticize the proceedings.  But instead Brocka shot his film in the hideous, grimy color of seventies cinema (like we see in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, for instance, or hell, the later color films of Bresson, which look awful).  Furthermore, Bresson’s black-and-white films are simply but elegantly composed and possessed of a spare, icy beauty.  Insiang, by contrast, plays out more like a Filipino Precious (or at least I assume it does; I have no interest in seeing Precious, it looks tasteless and racist in the sort of way that would appeal to white liberals who voted for Obama and don’t understand how a movie like Precious could be racist).

Now, let me say that I don’t object to sad subject matter in general.  I’m a pessimist and I don’t mind seeing that reflected in art.  But the art needs to be artful.  Just because your movie is sad doesn’t excuse it from the responsibility of all great art, which is to be beautiful.  And Insiang isn’t beautiful.  And it’s not just the poor production values: Djibril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki is cheap; so are most of the films of Abbas Kiarostami.  But they don’t indulge in miserablism and they don’t ignore the aesthetic necessities that bind all art, no matter its subject matter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kafka (and Hrabal) in Italy: Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto



Let me say right from the get-go that the kid in Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (played by Sandro Panseri) looks like a young Franz Kafka.  Whether or not this is by design, I can’t say, but it was impossible to watch the movie without seeing him as Kafka.  Having said that, there are a number of ways in which this 1961 film feels Kafkaesque specifically and Czech in general.

Olmi’s hero is a not particularly bright young man named Domenico who is seeking a position at a big company in Milan (the name and nature of which are never mentioned).  We follow him through the application process, as a bunch of awkward would-be job applicants are weeded out, we follow his abortive romance with fellow applicant Antonietta, and then we see him settle into the actual job, which turns out to be assistant messenger (he was trying to be a clerk, but they apparently didn’t actually need new clerks).  All the while, as he gets pushed around, he utters not a peep of complaint (even Kafka’s heroes could complain from time to time); to a certain extent, he is like an Italian(er) Michael Cera (I’m assuming “Cera” is Italian), passive and hoping for nothing more than to disappear unnoticed into the background.

The Czech New Wave, which kicked off a few years after the release of Il Posto, produced a number of movies about the absurdity of work that all seem to hearken back to Olmi’s film.  One is reminded especially of Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains (1966), about a young nitwit not unlike Domenico who gets a job at a train station and reveals his naïveté at every term.  There is also Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (1967), in which the titular ball plays out with the absurdity and laughable self-seriousness that we see in the New Year’s party with which Il Posto reaches its climax (if a movie like this can really be said to possess a climax).
The heroes of Czech New Wave cinema are small people pursuing small-scale ambitions.  Like young Domenico, they’re merely trying to find a foothold, however miniscule, within the system.  Their positions are far too tentative and insignificant for the notion of challenging the system to ever rear its head.  In this respect, these are cruel cautionary tales for the young people of my generation.  I am reminded of a short poem by the late Harold Pinter: “Warning / The pricks are out and they’re fucking everything in sight / Watch your back.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

Here’s a Picture of René Clair Chilling with Erik Satie: Some Thoughts on Artistic Movements and Communities

Of the many time periods/places I would have liked to inhabit, 1920’s Paris has to be in the top five.  Everybody was there.  Gertrude Stein hung out with Picasso who painted Stravinsky who (maybe) had an affair with Coco Chanel.  René Clair apparently hung out with Erik Satie, because why not?

Clair and Satie, 1924.
But it’s not just nostalgia or romanticism that attracts me to 1920’s Paris (although that’s certainly an element) but rather the attraction of a historically significant intellectual milieu.  I’ve never lived in one and I don’t know where I’d go to find one today.  It used to be you had Beats in New York, poets in Heian Kyoto, decadents in 1890’s London, and fucking everybody in Paris.  Is there anywhere like that in the United States today? Or in the world, even? (or perhaps there is and we just haven’t recognized it yet? Or my attention has not been called to it?)

The great Mexican poet and essayist and intellectual jack-of-all-trades Octavio Paz frequently harps on this theme in his essays; he says the last major artistic movement was the Surrealist movement, and that after that everything became fragmented.  Now, that doesn’t mean that important works of art haven’t been produced since the Surrealists, but Paz says you don’t have zeitgeisty artistic waves like you used to.

I’d argue that the French New Wave constitutes an artistic movement, but you know, I don’t think Paz was into film.  He held forth on every other artistic medium, but I don’t remember him ever discussing cinema.  With the French New Wave, you have a community of people who know each other and work together (the former writers for Cahiers du cinéma: Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, etc.) and certain commonalities of style.  You also have a distinctive break with the recent past while hearkening back to previous artistic movements; in this case, the New Wavers are breaking with French studio cinema and its Hollywood counterparts and referring back to Italian neorealism and the poetic realism of the inter-war period.  It’s similar to how Ezra Pound sought to “make it new” and become ultra-modern by reviving the poetry of the French troubadours and bringing classical Chinese poetry to the “West.” Perhaps the recent New Waves in Romania, Iran, and Thailand qualify as artistic movements of the type that Paz thought had gone extinct.  So there’s hope in that.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nobody’s Dupe: Simon Leys vs. the European Maoists



In his latest film, 2012’s Après mai (released in the U.S. with the much less evocative title Something in the Air), Olivier Assayas’s depiction of student revolutionaries in post-May 1968 France, there is a fascinating scene in which our protagonist, Giles, gets into a discussion with several of his fellow revolutionaries about the Belgian-Australian sinologist Simon Leys.  Giles, you see, has a copy of Leys’ book Chairman Mao’s New Clothes.  Now, in this book, Leys explains matter-of-factly how the great Proletarian Cultural Revolution actually consists of punk kids terrorizing, torturing, and murdering innocent people while destroying China’s cultural heritage.  Giles, who identifies more as an anarchist than a communist (although, as a white child of privilege, he’s really neither), seems pretty convinced by Leys’ arguments, but his interlocutors will have none of it. “No,” they insist, “the Americans and the Soviets are just afraid of what the Cultural Revolution truly means.  Leys is just a CIA agent.”

Now, Leys certainly was not (nor is he now) a CIA agent, so who is he?  Born Pierre Ryckmans in Brussels in 1935, Simon Leys (his pen name) is a brilliant sinologist and one of the greatest essayists of our time.  A “best-of” collection of his essays, entitled The Hall of Uselessness, was recently published by NYRB, and the back cover contains the following blurb from Assayas: “That early on I developed a critical distance from the ideologies of the epoch I owe to writers like Simon Leys and Guy Debord.  They kept me from being a dupe.” And lord knows the epoch of which he speaks was full of people trying to dupe him, perhaps first and foremost the insufferable European Maoists of whom we here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus have complained so vociferously in the past.  These were people who had never been to China, and had probably never actually spoken to a Chinese person, but who nonetheless felt comfortable insisting that Mao was the savior of his nation and that the Cultural Revolution was doing wonderful things for China and, soon, the world!

Imagine their irritation, then, when someone like Leys comes forward who actually knows what he’s talking about, who’s talked to Chinese people, and who knows that the Cultural Revolution is just a psychotic bloodbath meant to help Mao strengthen his grip on power.  When Leys published Chairman Mao’s New Clothes and similar writings, he earned himself the hatred of a large swath of the European intellectual class; the feeling is evidently mutual; the idiot Maoists and their apologists of the ‘70’s have been replaced by a new class of would-be radicals and in The Hall of Uselessness, Leys delivers cutting rebukes to dead French intellectuals like Roland Barthes (who had nothing but good things to say about his brief trip to Maoist China in 1974) and the very much alive, like Alain Badiou, who in the twenty-first century still defends the legacy of the Cultural Revolution and of Stalin and Mao.  With people like Badiou on the loose, another generation is at risk of becoming dupes.  Thank God Leys is here to save us.

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.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Few Notes on Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Suitably Maddening A Page of Madness



I don’t really have a good handle on what exactly happens in Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), an avant-garde silent film without intertitles and with editing so violent that Hype Williams himself would see it and say, “Whoa, dude, chill.” Kinugasa, who would go on to direct the early color masterpiece The Gate of Hell (1953) made A Page of Madness in collaboration with Yasunari Kawabata (the future Nobel laureate) and a group called the Shinkankaku-ha, which Wikipedia helpfully explains means “School of New Perceptions,” who “tried to overcome naturalistic representation.”  This wasn’t perhaps as tall an order in the Japanese cinema of the period as it would have been in other national cinemas.  The early days of cinema saw filmmakers trying (and often failing) to draw a distinction between film and the similar craft of stage drama that preceded it.  Now, in Russia or Scandinavia or Germany, the drama of the period immediately preceding cinema had reached great heights of naturalism (Chekhov, Ibsen).  Japanese drama, by contrast, had a long history of being profoundly unnatural (there is nothing naturalistic about the Noh drama or Kabuki.  The closest thing Japan had to naturalistic theater was, interestingly enough, the Bunraku puppet theater).

So, what did the School of New Perceptions achieve with A Page of Madness.  First, let’s dispense with the plot, or what there is of it, and much of which I drew from the Wikipedia summary rather than my viewing of the movie: Kinugasa’s film is about the experiences of a janitor at an insane asylum whose wife is one of the patients there.  At various points in the film, he appears to attempt to liberate her from her incarceration.  He also has a daughter who flits about, and whom Wiki claims was unaware that her father was a janitor until he discovers him janitoring midway through the film (so this anticipates Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata by about eighty years).
So much for the plot.  The heart of the movie is in its imagery and its editing.  A Page of Madness unfolds as a rapid-fire series of surreal and nightmare images, of grotesque laughing faces and the contorted bodies of lunatics.  The film climaxes with a grotesque coup de grace, as the internees don Noh masks which, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, can be just downright horrifying.  And again, the editing: by 1926, Japanese filmmakers clearly had a grasp of the montage technique that was just as good as anything coming out of the Soviet Union and just as dazzlingly disjointed as the latest Nine Inch Nails video.

Well if this isn't just the creepiest thing ever...
I would also like to point out that this movie is far more surreal than anything Buñuel and Dali would do a few years later with their far more famous films, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or.  There is something profoundly juvenile about the two Spaniards’ provocations when contrasted with the expert grotesqueries of Kawabata and Kinugasa.  Had this film been made in France or Germany, chances are it would have garnered far more international attention than it did coming from 1920’s Japan, when Japanese cinema had yet to stride across the world stage as it would in the fifties and sixties.  Interestingly, and like all too many silent movies, it was considered lost for decades, and it was only in 1971 that Kinugasa discovered a copy in his storehouse.  The version we have today is missing about a third of its original content, but I suspect that even in its unabridged form it wouldn’t have made any more sense.  It is, after all, a page of madness.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Violent Masculinity in Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy



As I’m sure every foreigner rightly suspects, the United States is a violent country.  And although it is surely not the only country of which this can be said, there seems to be something uniquely perverse in the American insistence on defining masculinity in terms of one’s willingness and ability to perpetrate violence.  I was especially struck by this during my recent viewing of two Harold Lloyd films, Grandma’s Boy (1922) and The Kid Brother (1927). 
In both of these films, Lloyd plays a nebbish and cerebral “weakling” (as an intertitle in Grandma’s Boy describes him) who must prove himself by, in essence, beating the shit out of some people.  In The Kid Brother, he has to beat the shit out of some thieves.  In Grandma’s Boy, he has to subdue a dangerous “tramp” (nowadays, we would say, “He has to beat up a homeless person”) and then beat up the thug who is his rival for the hand of a remarkably airheaded young woman.

In Grandma’s Boy, more than in any other silent-era comedy that I’ve seen, I became keenly aware of the violence on display.  The fight between Harold and his rival isn’t just a comedic bout of fisticuffs, as one will find in almost any silent comedy; these men are assaulting each other and could get badly hurt (there’s a similar sense of real danger in the boxing scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights).  This brings me back to the love interest in Grandma’s Boy, a woman name of Mildred.  Now, Mildred’s affections are divided between the mild-mannered Harold and his thuggish rival (the rival doesn’t have a name) and I can’t imagine why.  The rival is clearly a psychopathic asshole who beats people up.  What’s the appeal? Is there something more “manly” about him because of his willingness to hurt people? How sad that Harold has to render himself as dangerous as his rival in order to win Mildred over.  Why does he even want her?

The violence of American constructions of masculinity is still with us today, although it’s perhaps slightly less overt than an order to go out there and beat someone up.  Perhaps it’s not so much the act of beating someone up, as the willingness to do so that is still expected of a manly man.  Surely this is why assholes still get into bar fights because someone was “hitting on” their girl or saying something sexual about her or whatever the hell idiots get into fights for.  They’re “defending” “their” women (forgive all the scare quotes).  Hell, they don’t even have to be drunk.  The just have to have the “masculine script” in their minds; and that’s’ what it is; when these guys get into fights, they’re not acting sincerely, but rather they’re acting out scenarios of masculinity from movies and elsewhere.  They’re abdicating their reason in order to fulfill an expectation.  I’m sure America isn’t the only place where this happens, but it’s repugnant wherever it takes place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Austrian Culture Committed Suicide in Brazil: A Largely Extra-Cinematic Reflection


Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian writer.
There’s a rather disturbing episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses in which Stephen Dedalus’s employer says to him, “Do you know why Ireland is the only country in Europe never to have persecuted the Jews?” “Why?” asks Dedalus. “Because we never let them in!” He says with a smile. Now, this notion of an Ireland without Jews doesn’t correspond to reality, as the character of Leopold Bloom can attest, but there is something deeply sinister, and darkly prophetic, about this fellow’s fantasy of a culture without Jews.

Changing scenes from Ireland to Austria, here is a country whose culture was deprived of Jews, which was especially calamitous when we consider that Austrian literary culture of the pre-Anschluss period was largely the achievement of Austrian Jews.  There was Karl Kraus, the great polemicist and magazinist (who had the good fortune to die in 1936); Egon Friedel, who committed suicide during the Anschluss by jumping to his death (his last words were a warning to anyone passing by below to look out; Stefan Zweig, who successfully fled to Brazil, but who couldn’t stand the loss of the cultural milieu in which he’d lived for sixty years, and who thusly killed himself along in 1942.  Those are the prominent deaths, but then there are the writers who fled (Elias Canetti and an elderly Sigmund Freud) and those who never returned (Ludwig Wittgenstein).  There are also those whose careers had not yet started but who deliberately chose to remain outside of Austria and who abandoned the German language (Jean Amery and Jakov Lind, whose first works were in German but who later shifted to English).

What has Austrian culture been like since WWII? Certainly nothing like its former self.  It is defined more than anything else by a characteristic popularly known as “bleak chic.” Austria is a country whose writers know themselves to be wounded.  Hence the rant-as-literature-style of Thomas Bernhard, the misandry of Elfriede Jelenik, and the contrarian pro-Serb nationalism of Peter Handke.  As for film, they’ve contributed little of it to the international scene, and what they have given us is some of the most relentlessly depressing cinema out there: Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidel, the latter of whom recently released a trilogy with these premises: a woman who goes to Kenya for the purpose of sex tourism; a teenage girl at a weight-loss camp; and a woman who becomes a religious fanatic and flagellates herself in front of a crucifix.

Austria’s depressed post-war artistic culture presents perhaps the clearest picture of any European culture of the terrible cultural impact of the Holocaust (which is to say nothing of its obvious human impact, which I do not at all wish to trivialize).  I say all of this by way of observation.  I certainly don’t have any suggestions for Austria to rectify the situation.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two Versions of One Film: Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid and Im Sang-soo’s The Housemaid


Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960)
Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), perhaps the greatest Korean film ever made, appeared on the scene during a unique time in Korean cultural and political history.  This was the thaw that occurred between the 1960 overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Rhee Syng-man and the 1961 coup that brought Park Chung-hee to power (his daughter, Park Geun-hi, is South Korea’s current president).  There was a great artistic flowering during this brief liberal interlude and Korean cinema experienced something of a golden age, of which Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid is perhaps the best representative.

The film follows a wicked young femme fatale as she insinuates herself into the middle-class household of an unassuming piano teacher, whom she sets about seducing.  The film is gloriously moody and atmospheric (and sexist as all fuck, but one has to look past that).  Its place in Korean cinema is so iconic that the challenge of remaking it—and remaking it well—would seem to be quite daunting (although this is really the challenge of all remakes, which so rarely justify themselves).  It would be comparable, in an American context, to remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which Gus Van Sant inexplicably did in 1998, to disastrous results.  But in 2010, on the fiftieth anniversary of Kim Ki-young’s film, Korean filmmaker Im Sang-soo rose to the occasion.

Now, Im has a mixed track record, based on the three films of his that have been released in the United States.  There’s 2005’s controversial The President’s Last Bang, about the 1979 assassination of the abovementioned Park Chung-hee, which doesn’t know if it wants to play itself as dark comedy or political thriller and largely fails at both.  Then there’s 2010’s The Housemaid, which I’ll discuss in just a moment.  And finally there’s 2012 evil rich people sleaze-fest The Taste of Money, which was the big flop of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but which I enjoyed well enough.  The Taste of Money knows exactly what it wants to be: a vicious satire on 21st-century plutocratic capitalism, just as applicable in Korea as in the United States.
Im Sang-soo's The Housemaid (2010)
But back to Im’s version of The Housemaid, which is an excellent movie, perhaps the most successful remake I’ve ever seen.  Im’s first good decision was to cast Jeon Do-yeon in the title role; Jeon is one of the best actresses in Korean cinema (she won the best actress prize at Cannes in 2007 for her performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine) and she is captivating and mysterious in The Housemaid.  Im was also wise in the changes he made from Kim Ki-young’s original film.  When Gus Van Sant inexplicably remade Psycho, he basically did a shot-for-shot remake (as Michael Haneke did with his equally inexplicable and totally unnecessary English-language remake of Funny Games).  Im, by contrast, dramatically changes the parameters of his Housemaid.  In 2010, the employers aren’t middle class: they are obscenely wealthy.  And the housemaid is no longer the evil seductress, but rather she is an innocent and fundamentally decent person, part-seduced and part-coerced by her amoral employer.  Im stays true to the underlying theme of domestic evil explored in Kim’s film, but he makes its depiction distinctly his own while removing the sexism and classism that rankle in the 1960 film (not that older films need to be sanitized or bowdlerized, mind you; it’s merely a good idea to avoid transferring the archaic prejudices of these films into modern cinema).  In so doing, Im has carried out a remarkable feat: he has created a remake that stands on its own as a solid and satisfying work of art that also renews one’s appreciation of the original.  I heartily recommend both of these films; the first one especially is essential viewing to any fan of Korean cinema.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tartuffes Everywhere: Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man



The world is awash in fake holy men, pious hypocrites, and snake-handling demagogues, and they’re all a litigious bunch, so I will confine my examples here to the dead, because the dead can’t be libeled and the dead can’t sue.  For every person who finds him or herself confused and afraid and drowning in the isolation of the human condition, there’s an asshole out there willing to exploit them with a mantra and a blessing in exchange for a check or credit card.  In America we have televangelists: ugly, bitter old white men who rant about the gays and the feminists and use your donations to build megachurches and megahouses for themselves; or charismatic black Baptists who call themselves “bishops” and who only interrupt their condemnations of homosexuality in order to engage in it.  India, by contrast, is a land of gurus, wonderworkers who have gone into the Himalayas and received special wisdom from immortal demigods and who have returned to civilization to spread the word and buy Rolls-Royces.  They dazzle rich and poor alike with their recollections of their past lives and their leger-de-main magic tricks, like the late Sai Baba, who could “materialize” coins and wrist-watches (but apparently not large quantities of food for poor people).  Or there was Pete Townshend’s guru of choice, Meher Baba, whose blessedness couldn’t prevent him from repeatedly getting into several terrible car accidents.
This all brings me around to Bengali master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s The Holy Man (Mahapurush) (1965), about a travelling huckster named Baba Birinchi who insinuates himself Tartuffe-like into a well-to-do family and begins exploiting their friends and neighbors.  Now, Birinchi doesn’t attempt the “miracles” of Sai Baba, but he instead dazzles with anecdotes from his lengthy life history (he claims to be well over two thousand years old): we hear how he taught Einstein the theory of relativity; how he intimidated Plato with is wisdom; how he knew the Gautama Buddha when the latter was a child; how Manu presented his laws to him for review; and how he knew Lord Vishnu when He was incarnated as a Boar.  His celebrity friends remind one of the late Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon, who claimed to have been visited by Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Confucius.

Now, Baba Birinchi’s arrival on the scene ends up seriously impeding the romantic plans of a young man named Satya, who is attempting to court the young lady of the house into which Birinchi has inserted himself.  It will be up to Satya’s older, less love-addled friends to unmask Birinchi for the hypocrite that he is and drive him from the scene. 

As a side-note, this movie has some of the loveliest black-and-white cinematography that I’ve ever seen, and serves as a reminder that black-and-white was at its best just as color film was about to supplant it.  I would also like to mention that I have seen lamentably few Indian movies, and about half of them were directed by Ray.  If anyone has suggestions for Indian films that I should see, please mention them in the comments.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cue Random Musical Number… Because We Can! Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine: The First Japanese Talkie

 
With the noise pollution that has accompanied the machine age, it is perhaps not as surprising as one would initially think to discover that the first Japanese talking picture, Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931) is about a man trying to escape from noise.  In this rather flimsily plotted film—clocking in at under sixty minutes—a playwright facing a deadline moves his wife and two young children into a country house with the idea that he’ll “be able to get some real work done here.” Such was his hubris!
Enter stage left, right, and center: the cacophony of the modern world! Crying babies! Crying slightly-older children! Shrieking alley-cats in heat!  Alarm clocks! Bells! And, to top it all off, the neighbors have a jazz band rehearsing at their house! God, what are the odds? Now, why, you may ask, is there a jazz band next door? Because this is Japan’s first talkie, and goddamn it, we’re going to have some music.  And what music it turns out to be: a veritable futurist anthem in which they sing, “This is the speed generation!” before the English(y) refrain, “Speed-o! Speed-o! Speed-o! Hey! Hey!” One expects that old dead asshole Vladimir Mayakovsky to pop out of the woodwork and issue another slap in the face of public taste.
The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine is the first “first talkie of a national cinema” that I’ve seen.  The first talkie in the U.S. (and anywhere, for that matter) was Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which I haven’t seen, but which I understand features Al Jolson in some profoundly racist blackface numbers (so many cinematic milestones are full of sickening racism).  Sound films came comparatively late to Japan.  Gosho’s movie was released in 1931 and silent films would continue to be made there well into the mid-thirties.  One of the reasons for this was the popularity of the uniquely Japanese institution of the benshi.  Benshi were live speakers who would provide narration to accompany screenings of silent films.  Some of them were so popular that they became stars in their own right, and people would go to a movie because of who was narrating it.  When the talkies finally did take over, the institution of the benshi died and their livelihoods were destroyed.  Akira Kurosawa’s brother, Heigo Kurosawa, was a benshi, and when the silent film died out, he committed suicide (this is described in Kurosawa’s memoir, Something like an Autobiography).  The original title for this piece was going to be “How Heinosuke Gosho Personall Killed Heigo Kurosawa,” but I decided that that was in dubious taste.
The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine might be a bit rambling, but the Japanese talking picture would come into its own by the end of the thirties, with great directors like Kenji Mizuguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Sadao Yamanaka creating their first masterpieces (or their last, in the case of Yamanaka, who died in 1938, but that’s another blog post).  As far as I can tell, not much of Gosho’s work is available in the US; I watched The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine on the Criterion Collection’s Hulu page, where they also have another Gosho film called Burden of Life (1935) which is Ozuesque and just much better in general, and shows that Gosho clearly went on to master the medium of the sound film.  Hopefully more of Gosho’s works will become available here.  In the meantime, I would recommend Burden of Life as the ideal introduction to Gosho’s oeuvre.