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.