Friday, February 22, 2013

In Memoriam, Donald Richie (1924-2013)

Donald Richie, 1924-2013.
My favorite American writers tend to be those who got the fuck out of America at some point.  Herman Melville goes off on a whaler for years at a stretch.  Henry James and T. S. Eliot go off to England and become British (I always like to think that the British balanced the scales by gifting us Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden; they could have kept Hitchens).  Ezra Pound settles in Rapallo in Italy.  Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs emigrate to Tangiers.  William T. Vollmann decides that the best way to learn about the Afghan Mujahedeen is to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the early 1980’s.  And today Eliot Weinberger adventures around India, sifting through that country’s newspapers in search of stories for his fiction-y non-fiction pieces.

If we go back to circa-1900, two Americans made trips to Japan that would have important ramifications for both countries: I am referring to Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Fenollosa (and to their credit, they were always kind of foreign-ish Americans, even when they were in the U.S.; Hearn was half Greek and half British and was born in the Dodecanese islands and Fenollosa was Catalan).  These two would become the first great American interpreters of Japanese culture who approached the matter from a Japanese perspective.  There was nothing superior or Eurocentric in their engagement with Japanese literature; they found in it material equal to that of its Euro-American counterparts.  Lafcadio Hearn’s famous renderings of Japanese folk tales would provide many Anglophones with their first exposure to Japanese literature and they would go on to provide the source material for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 masterpiece, Kwaidan.  Fenollosa would play an important role in preserving Japanese Noh theater (fallen into decline during the Meiji restoration) and his unpublished translations of Noh plays would be “literary-d” up by Ezra Pound and published in 1916.  Someone in the know (no… pun intended.  Jesus Christ) can correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe these to be the first large-scale translations of Noh plays into English, as the Briton Arthur Waley’s book of translations was not published until 1921.

I’m getting off track here.  By presenting Lafcadio Hearn and Ernest Fenollosa, I mean to compare them to their later twentieth-century counterparts, the great American Japanological Donalds, Keene and Richie.  Donald Keene is perhaps the pre-eminent American expert on classical Japanese literature of his time (and I say “American,” but he took Japanese citizenship in 2011 and now resides in Japan permanently).  Richie, although certainly possessed of no mean literary knowledge, distinguished himself as the great American interpreter of Japanese cinema (and he knew everybody in Japan, writers and film people; there’s a wonderfully inexplicable photo of him with Yasunari Kawabata taken in the late 1940’s long before Richie had distinguished himself in anyway; Richie was evidently one of those people who know how to make themselves liked wherever they go).  Richie’s and Keene’s paths to Japan were fairly similar, as they both came there in the aftermath of WWII, but whereas Keene was already a fluent writer and speaker of Japanese, Richie doesn’t appear to have begun to learn how to speak Japanese until the Occupation, and up to his death he never learned to read or write it.
A young Richie with Kawabata.
In 1948, he met the film distributor Kashiko Kawakita, who introduced him to Yasujiro Ozu and other Japanese cinematic luminaries and with whom he would work for decades in bringing Japanese cinema to the West.  Speaking of Ozu, he wrote a book-length monograph on Ozu’s films and another on those of Akira Kurosawa (alas, I have not read either).  I have, however, read a number of his essays, including those collected in Viewed Sideways: Writings on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan, as well as his essays for Japanese releases by the Criterion Collection, with whom he worked on a number of projects in the last years of his life (he did the subtitle translation for films like Drunken Angel and Kagemusha).

Now, his film essays are generally excellent, but I must say that I have been somewhat troubled by the approach he takes in some of his essays on broader aspects of Japanese culture.  There is an unfortunate tendency to make grand, all-encompassing statements about the Japanese: “The Japanese do this, the Japanese think that…” Well, there are many millions of Japanese, and you can’t make sweeping generalizations about them, anymore than you can about any other group.  When you start to make these generalizations (and this I learned from William Burroughs), you’re no longer talking about reality, but rather about abstractions.  Furthermore, it’s these generalizations that lead to unhelpful and stereotypical views of cultures, any cultures.  Jonathan Rosenbaum asserts that in Richie’s Ozu book, the Japanologist tends to interpret certain elements of Ozu’s work in terms of Zen Buddhism, and Rosenbaum quite rightly argues that this is just cultural essentialism.  Ozu’s works are those of an individual and there’s no reason to assume that distinctively Japanese cultural elements inform his films’ iconography.  If we were talking about, say, Stanley Kubrick, I don’t think we’d seek out quintessential Americanisms in his work, nor would we turn to them to explain things that were cryptic to us.  We wouldn’t zero in on the French-ness of Godard’s films.  So why should we engage in this kind of essentialism with a Japanese filmmaker, just because he happens to be Japanese?

But I hate to dwell on this problem when discussing Richie, as it’s just one flaw in a largely excellent career spanning over six decades.  All of us outside of Japan who love Japanese film are in Richie’s debt, both in general, for his efforts to disseminate it outside of Japan, and in specific cases, for his work on films like Harakiri and Kagemusha.  The world of film culture will be poorer without him.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Man Who Watched The Man Who Left His Will on Film

With some of the most radical left-wing filmmakers of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, one gets the distinct impression that they didn’t actually have a particularly high opinion of radical left-wingers.  Take La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s most overtly Maoist film of his pre-Maoist period (which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the usual dating of Godard’s first period is from 1960, with the release of Breathless, and 1967, with the release of Weekend, at the end of which he declares the death of cinema (for the first time; Godard likes to declare the death of cinema and will do so again on several subsequent occasions) After this period, we get the DzigaVertov Collective films, which are explicitly Maoist). 

But, I say, take La Chinoise: privileged bourgeois college students get themselves wrapped up in radical politics, which in their case manifests itself in empty sloganeering and the inability to speak in anything but the most clichéd of Marxist/Maoist jargon.  Watching Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky screw around with Maoism from the comfort of their Paris flat (in which Juliet Berto has erected a barricade out of a heap of Quotations of Chairman Mao), it’s clear that Godard thinks these people are idiots.  Astonishing, then, that by 1968 he had turned full Maoist, and in 1970 he could respond to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist with the simplistic statement that “we must struggle against capitalism and individualism.” Never trust an artist who professes to despise individualism.

Now, this evening I had the pleasure of watching the late Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), which the Criterion people recently added to Hulu, God bless them.  It is comparable in many ways to Oshima’s 1960 film, Night and Fog in Japan, in that they both swirl around the misadventures of not particularly competent Japanese student protestors.  But where the student protestors of 1960 had fairly concrete goals (preventing the signing of the 1960 American-Japanese security treaty and advocating for the removal of the Americans from Okinawa) and the film a fairly straight-forward premise (resentment within the ranks of the protestors, between those who have abandoned the movement after recognizing its futility and those who have stuck with it and are facing persecution for it), The Man Who Left His Will on Film presents an inversion of these qualities.  The students of 1970 are apparently supporting global communist revolution, although how they think they’re contributing to it is pretty vague; they’re devoted to making “films for the proletariat,” although we never actually get to see one of these films.  They’re just as bogged down in communist jargon as their counterparts in La Chinoise (and they appear to be Maoists as well; at least they denigrate Stalinism and one of the worst insults that they can throw at each other is “cultural commissar”). 
The Man Who Left His Will on Film.
But the actual events that unfold in The Man are just as foggy as the students’ political aspirations.  The film opens with a student radical name of Motoki chasing after a man who has stolen his camera.  The thief runs to the top of an office building and leaps to his death.  Motoki tries to take the camera from the dead man, but is promptly intercepted by the police, who steal the camera in turn.  When Motoki returns to his fellow radicals, he finds that they have a completely different story as to what happened to the camera: they claim that they were filming a protest when the police stole the camera and Motoki chased after them; Motoki was beaten by the police and now they have to try to get the camera back.  All of them (with one exception) think his memory of the suicide is a hallucination brought on by injuries sustained when he was attacked by the police.  The exception is Yasuko, who vacillates between thinking Motoki is crazy and claiming that the mysterious thief was her boyfriend.  And the bulk of the film follows Motoki and Yasuko on a dream-like quest to track down the thief/boyfriend.

By the end of the movie, I’m not quite sure what’s actually happened.  The reality remains ambiguous, and this underlines the efforts of the students to use cinema as a weapon in their political struggle.  They say (and they’re probably echoing some communists’ clichés), but they say that the camera is a tool that brings the creative subject (the filmmaker) into contact with reality, and that it can be used to change reality.  Now, while they’re speaking in a more abstract political sense, this would seem to have happened literally in the case of Motoki and the mysterious thief. 

It also seems to indicate a growing skepticism on the part of Oshima about the efficacy of revolutionary cinema.  There’s a delightful exchange in which the students discuss the idea of getting leftist filmmakers involved in a campaign to get their camera back from the police, and one of the students says, “How about Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda?” to which another student responds that filmmakers like that only care about “freedom of expression” (as opposed to the broader goals of the revolution). That sounds a lot like Godard denigrating Bertolucci for the crime of individualism.  It is significant that Oshima in 1970 was only a few films away from his pornographic masterpiece, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), in which the heroes studiously ignore political realities and turn inward so as to pursue deeply personal, individualistic pleasures.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

On the Desire to Escape from History: J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K. and Tengiz Abuladze’s The Plea

Personally, I don’t think a person has to actively and positively contribute to humanity in order to be a “good person.” I think it’s enough to not actively fuck things up for other people.  So, by this logic, a hermit is a good person, even if he or she isn’t actually doing anything for anybody.  Because they are arguably doing a good thing by not running around raping and murdering people.  Call me crazy, but I think that’s a good thing.

Now, if you were to ask me, “James, what is your least favorite J. M. Coetzee novel?” I would probably say, “The Life and Times of Michael K.” This 1983 novel by the South African (now Australian) master is a relentlessly bleak and unpleasant catalogue of horrors (what we in the industry would call “bleak chic”).  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a “depressing” book; take anything written by Thomas Bernhard, for example.  But whereas Bernhard writes with great stylistic inventiveness and gusto, Coetzee’s style is dry and unadorned and The Life and Times of Michael K. becomes downright tedious after awhile (and, always one to qualify things, I must say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a dry and unadorned style.  It’s the coupling of this style with Coetzee’s choice of subject matter that sinks Michael K.)

What is Michael K. about?

Thank you, good question.  The titular Michael K. is a borderline mentally impaired man of mixed racial ancestry (“colored,” in the abhorrent Apartheid parlance) living in a South Africa descending into civil war.  Now, Michael K. isn’t interested in participating in the civil war, or joining sides, or serving his country, or any kind of bullshit like that.  Michael K. would just like to be left alone to eke out a meager living by himself (at one point he digs himself a hole in the ground and survives off of a small garden he sets up).  But society and the forces of history won’t leave Michael K. be.  They insist on pushing him around, impeding his freedom of movement, and even interning him in a prison camp.  And they just can’t fucking understand that the man doesn’t want to participate.  History is a horror show and Michael K. may not be that bright, but he still recognizes it as such. 

I think The Life and Times of Michael K. is the best artistic depiction I’ve yet encountered of the desire to escape from history.  And so even though I didn’t enjoy reading it, Coetzee’s novel has influenced my worldview despite itself.  I can’t help but see the Michael K.’s in society who just want to be left alone.  Even in the most horrendous of circumstances, I find it hard to blame those who wish to maintain their neutrality.  Especially in a war situation.  What, you don’t want to leave home, injure and kill people, and maybe get injured and killed yourself?  Well of course you don’t.  Hell, that’s just downright sensible.  And I’m not going to call you a coward or a traitor for it.

Now, this brings me to Georgian-Soviet director Tengiz Abuladze’s 1968 film, The Plea (and apparently it’s Georgian cinema month here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, just as December was Japanese cinema month). 
The Plea (Molba in Russian, Vedreba in Georgian; or possibly the other way around).
Now, I must confess that I don’t know much about Georgian history, or cinema for that matter (which is a shame, I’ll have to rectify this at some point), so I’m not quite sure when the action of The Plea takes place, but the men in this movie have guns but they also wear chain mail.  Maybe it’s anachronistic (again, don’t know much about Georgian history, couldn’t tell you).  But the film follows a warrior of the Khevsar tribe who refuses to cut off the hands of their enemies, the Kistans (the Khevsars are Christians, the Kistans are Muslims).  Now, the warrior doesn’t seem to be a full-blown pacifist; he’ll still kill Kistans (and the Kistans steal the Khevsars’ horses!) but he doesn’t want to cut off their hands and keep them as trophies (much as Japanese samurai used to cut off their enemies’ heads so as to prove that they’d killed them; apparently it wasn’t enough to boast about your prowess in battle, you needed to show physical proof of it as well).  The warrior takes it even further, and offers the sacrifice of a cow to implore God to send the soul of his latest victim to Heaven (even though the victim was a Muslim!) (Oh, and I’m pretty sure they actually killed a cow for this scene). Well, despite the fact that our hero seems to be the best warrior that the Khevsars have, they can’t tolerate his deviation from tradition and religious orthodoxy, so they burn his house and his food and drive him into exile.

Having broken with his tribe, the warrior makes the mistake of thinking that he’s escaped from the historical conditions that govern the actions of Khevsars and Kistans alike.  And so, when he comes upon a Kistan hunter, he accepts his offer of hospitality and shelters at his hut.  And the other Kistans find out about this, and they capture the warrior and prepare to execute them.  And his host thinks this is outrageous—to violate the laws of hospitality!—but what is he thinking?  The warrior has killed Kistans, and he’s a Christian, and he fell right into their hands, for Christ’s sake, how can they not kill him?  And so they beat up the host to illustrate their point and then they kill our hero.  And so that’s what the two of them get for trying to escape from history, the dictates of which are cruel and barbaric.

I think it noteworthy that—at least from my perspective, largely ignorant as I am of Georgian and Caucasian history—but it seems that the Khevsars and the Kistans have very little that separates them.  They dress the same, their houses look the same, their economic activities are the same.  The major difference seems to be religion, but whether it’s Christianity or Islam, the outcome of their religious fervor is the same: a desire to kill “infidels” (as they call each other) and a blind devotion to tradition.  And fanatical religious or cultural orthodoxy will kill you as sure as Apartheid will.  And history will remain implacably cruel to the Khevsar warriors and the Michael K.’s of the world.