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.

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.