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.

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