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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Ooh, that’s Really Not Acceptable: Domestic Violence in Yasujiro Ozu’s What Did the Lady Forget?

You know, I’ve never really felt comfortable with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which, for those not in the know, is about a man who marries a woman against her will, then bullies and abuses her until she consents to “love”—obey—him.  Now, I generally like to distinguish between the morality and the aesthetics of a work of art—after all, plenty of art is full of “political incorrectness—but the domestic abuse is so central to the plot of The Taming of the Shrew that it’s just hard to get beyond it.  This ethical trouble is not as problematic in Shakespeare’s other least-comfortable-for-a-modern-reader play, The Merchant of Venice (at least in my experience), because even though the anti-Semitism on display here is appalling, it is not (again, to my mind) central to the play.
The issue of domestic violence comes up again in, of all places, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1937 film What did the Lady Forget? Ozu is one of the gentlest, least offensive filmmakers in all of cinema (in this respect, he rivals his countryman Hiroshi Shimizu, who once directed a film called Mr. Thank-You, about the non-adventures of a scrupulously courteous bus driver).  Overt violence is profoundly alien to Ozu, at least in the Ozu movies that I’ve seen, and it’s important to note that I’ve only recently started to explore his pre-war film output, when he depicted a far greater variety of themes and subject matters than he would in the post-war family dramas for which he is most famous.  So imagine my surprise when watching a generally cheerful and gentle movie like What did the Lady Forget?, about a young, modern woman who tries to encourage her uncle to rebel against his wife’s controlling ways, when the film reaches its climax with the uncle slapping his wife in the face.  Now first off: this is a comedy and that’s not funny.  Second, this is an Ozu film, and that’s not Ozu. And thirdly, and perhaps most troublingly, the assault on his wife is played as her receiving her just desserts.  The niece congratulates her uncle and declares her satisfaction with the action.  The uncle admits that he probably shouldn’t have slapped her, but he doesn’t seem too troubled by it, and anyway, his wife becomes more submissive to him, so she learned her lesson.  And, most appallingly, the next day, the wife boasts to her friends about how her husband hit her.  And the friends are impressed!  Their husbands are pushovers who would never do such a thing; they never fight back, even though that’s what the wives secretly want.

So what the fuck happened here?  Because I’ve never encountered anything like this in any other Ozu movie (that I’ve seen).  I’ve seen it in other Japanese movies, but always as something transgressive and wrong; the kinds of men who beat their wives are typically drunken assholes.  The uncle in What did the Lady Forget? is a kindly doctor.

Now, I don’t like to make sweeping historical claims about movies, because (a) it is a fundamentally Philistine venture to seek to reduce a work of art to a political argument and (b) they’re usually wrong.  But I find it interesting that What did the Lady Forget?, which contains the only example of domestic violence that I can recollect in any Ozu movie (and, let me reiterate, I haven’t seen them all), was directed in 1937, the same year the Japanese army invaded China and perpetrated the Rape of Nanking.  The Japanese people in Ozu’s movies of this period are all smiles and good cheer, but thousands upon thousands of those same Japanese were off in China carrying out some of the worst atrocities in human history.  It is provocative, to say the least, to think that at least a tiny bit of that violence, which was to become such a pervasive element of the Japanese history of this time period, should find its way into the films of a gentle and civilized man like Ozu.  The Rape of Nanking—Shintaro Ishihara’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding—is so called because of the violence perpetrated by men against women.  And a small but nonetheless revolting form of that violence manifests itself in the supposed comedy that is Ozu’s What did the Lady Forget?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Selena Gomez, Neocolonialist? On the Meaningless Charge of “Cultural Appropriation”

Wow, I never thought I’d be doing a blog post about Selena Gomez.  What is she, Justin Bieber’s… wife? I kid, I kid, I know who Selena Gomez is.  And I know that song of hers, where she says, “I love you like a love song, baby,” and I also know her newest song, “Come and Get It,” where she says poetically, “If you want it come and get it / na na na na / na na na na / na na na na.”
Now, at first, I thought this was just another middling pop song, but then my old friends at Slant Magazine took a different approach to it.  They charged her with one of the most dreadful crimes in the cultural studies/liberal academic lexicon: cultural appropriation!  You see, Gomez’s song “Come and Get It” features a tabla, a drum prominent in Indian music.  Gomez is not Indian.  Ergo, she has “stolen” an element of Indian culture and appropriated it for her own uses.  How dare she! This is cultural imperialism!  Looks like she’s trying to finish what General Dyer started!  Ravi Shankar’s ashes must be rolling over wherever they settled!

Anyway, that’s—I guess—what the cultural studies/liberal academic/Foucault-is-a-bald-Jesus crowd would have you believe.  So what exactly is “cultural appropriation?” As far as I can tell, it’s when a person from one “culture” makes use of an element of another “culture,” and this is wrong for some reason, because of racism or neocolonialism or something.  So when Selena Gomez—an American—makes use of the tabla—an Indian instrument—she is harming India or Indians somehow.  Now, this notion is founded upon several fallacies (hence the scare quotes around “culture.”) First, culture is not a genetic/racial/ethnic inheritance.  A person does not come from one particular culture.  A person’s culture is best defined by the cultural activities they participate in.  If you watch Japanese movies and read French novels, these all constitute part of your culture, even if you were born in the United States or Italy or Benin or wherever.  The liberal academic notion of culture seems to confuse it with ethnicity or nationality. 

The second fallacy is the notion that cultures are somehow hermetically sealed off from each other, and that they don’t, or at least shouldn’t, influence each other.  And make no mistake, that’s what the cultural theory crowd would have you believe.  They don’t see the introduction of Indian instrumentation into Western popular music (which goes back to the Beatles, so there’s actually something of a tradition of doing this) as being an understandable part of cultural exchange and diffusion and growth.  They think Western culture should remain exclusively Western (whatever that means), because making use of elements from any other culture (even though that’s what virtually all cultures have done since the beginning of human civilization) is wrong, exploitative, and racist.

Not only do cultures influence each other, they need to do so in order to grow.  Left in isolation, they would stagnate or decline.  With vibrant cultural exchange comes vigorous cultural growth.  What would Japanese history be like if they hadn’t adopted (appropriated) Chinese writing?  What would the rest of Europe be like if they hadn’t appropriated Italian trends in painting and music.  German theater without Shakespeare? Global cinema without the distinctly Russian innovations of the 1920’s? Etc, etc, etc.  Cultural appropriation isn’t a bad thing, it’s the essential thing that stimulates cultural growth.  Fuck, what if artists in general weren’t allowed to influence each other?  Suppose Cervantes never read Rabelais; suppose Fielding never read Cervantes; suppose Dickens never read Fielding.  The novel itself is not a form native to Indian culture: should the great Indian novelists abandon the medium and just compose ghazals?  Should Zubin Mehta abandon Western-style classical music and confine himself to Indian music? (Here the tabla comes up again.)

And the cultural theory people would answer my last question with, “No, because Mehta is a person of color.  The formerly colonized peoples can appropriate as much as they want; it’s only Westerners who can’t because it’s racist/neocolonialist.” Really? So Western cultures should stagnate because you think Selena Gomez singing over a tabla track somehow hurts someone? Well it’s doesn’t.  Cultural exchange and, yes, appropriation, are the fundamental elements of how human cultures work, and that includes “Western” cultures.  Cultural appropriation doesn’t hurt anyone.  Japanese people don’t suffer when white kids read manga, anymore than Europeans suffer when Haruki Murakami writes a Western-style novel.

Now, it’s possible to do cultural appropriation badly.  The Australian rapper Iggy Azaelia has produced some pretty appallingly shitty music which some have argued appropriates black and American Southern culture.  But to bitch at her for “cultural appropriation” is to confuse an aesthetic problem with an ethical problem.  And the same goes for Selena Gomez; “Come and Get It” isn’t a particularly good song, but that’s a question of aesthetics.  Cultural appropriation doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fear and Resentment and Love: American Young People in Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel

“I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man.” So begins the narration of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Constance Garnett’s translation of Notes from Underground.  What drives a man (or woman) underground? Fear, spite, resentment, contempt?  I read a letter to the editor today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (I hate-read the letters to the editor) and one of them was from a doctor bitching about how some of his patients had the temerity to self-refer themselves to the Mayo Clinic, even though he was perfectly capable of caring for their chronic conditions.  Some of these people were even receiving Medical Assistance from the state.  Who do they think they are? Persian Gulf oil despots?  The clear, visceral contempt that this doctor has for his patients is clearly enough to turn sick men into spiteful men.  And why are they sick? Well, certainly the prevailing current of fear in the United States doesn’t help matters.  Fear of what? Americans are afraid of everything.  But mostly they’re afraid of each other.  They’re afraid of others doing better than them.  They’re afraid of others getting a break that they didn’t get.  They’re afraid of being judged.  They’re afraid of being hated.  They hate the people who might hate them.  They hate the people who do hate them.  And they fear failure.  Because in America, no one is held in greater contempt than the failure.  Economic failure is moral failure in the land of Ragged Dick Struggling Upwards.  I’ll bet nowhere in the world are poor people hated more than in the US (maybe in Latin America; I get a vivid image in my mind of Salvadoran oligarchs hating poor people; but some of this may just come from my reading of the angry Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya).
We young people (and I’m 23, I’m a young person) stand on a tight-rope stretched taut over a Grand Canyon of failure, and on the other side is some precarious kind of success.  But the canyon is wide, and to top it all off, it’s fucking windy.  The fear of falling off the tight-rope is enough to make anyone sick.  In John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (and I don’t pretend to be working class, not that we acknowledge the existence of such a class here in America), but I say, in John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” he sings, “When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years / Then they expect you to pick a career / When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear” (emphasis added).  This is the current state of so many middle-class American young people.

And it’s this condition which is depicted so vividly in Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 masterpiece The Color Wheel (which, ironically, is in grainy 16 mm black-and-white).  The film follows two young people, a brother and sister, as they go on a weekend road trip to retrieve the sister’s stuff from the house of her broadcast journalism professor, with whom she’d been living prior to their recent break-up.  The sister, JR, is an aspiring broadcast journalist/actress, but she has very few prospects in this field.  The brother, Colin, is an aspiring writer (a term he hates) with similarly dismal prospects.  And they both judge each other because they each don’t want to admit that they’ve probably fallen off the tight-rope.  And everyone else—the professor, former high school classmates—judges them because they (everyone else, that is) have fucking made it, but the fear of not making it is still so strong in them that it still has its icy fingers wrapped around their intestines, that they hate, they passionately hate the failures who represent what just as easily could have happened to them.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I have a long-standing prejudice against American cinema, but I loved this movie (granted, it’s the kind of American movie that I would like: something in the Wes Anderson/Noah Baumbach/Whit Stillman/mumblecore tradition).  It’s a profoundly compassionate movie.  As JR and Colin realize that everyone hates them, they learn to stop hating each other (they probably never really hated each other, they just sniped at each other like siblings sometimes do, but my point is that they learn to treat each other better).  And amidst all the fear of their flailing and fading youth, they make beautiful and privileged moments together. 

Hell, this is probably the best American movie I’ve seen in the past year.  Certainly the best one that didn’t have Greta Gerwig in it, and I love Greta Gerwig.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nicolae Ceausescu Looks at Stuff: Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

The New Wave of Romanian cinema (and I don’t know how we date new waves exactly, but it was definitely under way by 2006 and it continues to this day, I think) has produced some undeniable masterpieces: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Tuesday, After Christmas, to name just a few (the Romanians are evidently interested in time).  They have also produced a number of films that one might call “difficult,” although I don’t like that label; I don’t think any film is difficult, although some may be more or less opaque than others (“opaque” was the conclusion that Jonathan Rosenbaum drew upon his first viewing of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and I think it’s a good descriptor).  For instance, there’s Cristi Piui’s 2009 film Aurora, which is three hours long and has a vague plot that takes place over the span of about five minutes.  And now there’s Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausecu, a three hour documentary composed entirely of stock footage of Ceausescu’s 1965-89 reign as president-dictator of Romania.

The film provides no voice-over narration and no commentary from talking heads.  It’s just footage of Ceausescu making speeches, meeting with foreign heads of state, and providing on-sight advising at random stores and construction sites, much like the Kims Jong-il and Jong-un, and this is perhaps no coincidence, as Ceausescu was a great admirer of the patriarch, Kim Il-sung.  Now, as Romania is a uniformly gray and poorly-lit country, the North Korean scenes of The Autobiography are surprisingly cheerful, if only by contrast.  “Kimjongilia” may be creepy as fuck, but the dictators there know how to put on a good show involving thousands of people moving in unison.

Having only recently mastered the art of the screen-capture, I crave your indulgence as we look at these beautiful pictures from Ceausescu's trip to North Korea:

Perhaps one of the problems with The Autobiography isn’t a problem with the film itself, but with this viewer, and that is that it assumes its audience already possesses a broad knowledge of Romania’s communist history, and so a lot goes unexplained.  Now, going into this, I knew the general outline of Ceausescu’s reign, or at least the highlights—the refusal to invade Czechoslovakia, the rapprochement with the West, the rapport with Kim Il-sung, the construction of huge concrete apartment and office blocks, and then the final, rapid overthrow and execution of Ceausescu and his wife during an uprising on Christmas of 1989.  The most fascinating footage in the film—footage which I would have liked to see more of—is from Ceausescu’s awkward show trial, which his captors felt compelled to stage (and film) before shooting him in a hurry.  Here we see Ceausescu unscripted and, for the only time in the film, humanized, as he snipes at his judges while attempting to comfort his wife.  For further details on the show trial, I would direct the reader to Peter Nadas’s essay “The Great Christmas Killing.”

On a much lighter note, I came away from three hours of footage of Ceausescu convinced that he bears an uncanny resemblance to David Lynch.  Does anyone else see it?

The late Mr. Ceausescu.
 Post-script: Perhaps he looks more like Jack Nance than David Lynch.