Saturday, May 24, 2014

And Just What Does Noriko Have to Smile About? Observations on Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Summer

 
In his essay film Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders says of Yasujiro Ozu (and I’m paraphrasing) that he “captures all of human life in his films.” And as I am in agreement with this assessment, I have recently come to the firm conclusion—and I’m sure you were all eagerly anticipating this announcement—that Ozu is the greatest filmmaker of all time.  He put everything into his films, all of family life and everything that radiates out from it.  There is not a subject he didn’t touch on, however obliquely, which brings me to my first point of inquiry, which is Ozu’s treatment of WWII.

Now, one of the high points of Ozu’s career is the “Noriko trilogy”—Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), and Tokyo Story (1953)—so-called because in each film Setsuko Hara plays a woman named Noriko, although they are different Norikos, as there is no continuity between the films.  They all take place amidst the aftermath of WWII, and Ozu’s treatment of the subject is subtle but devastating.  Unlike other Japanese filmmakers, like Kon Ichikawa and Masaki Kobayashi, Ozu never directly depicts soldiers in combat.  Rather, they become notable by their absence.  In Early Summer and Tokyo Story, the families at the center of the film are each missing a son.  And their loss is especially agonizing, because their sons are not dead, or at least not confirmed dead, but have simply disappeared in the chaos of the war, and as the years go on and time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they’re still alive.  But their families can never know definitively; there will always be uncertainty.  In Early Summer, which I just watched this evening, there’s a scene in which the mother and father of the Mamiya family are speaking with a neighbor about their missing son Shoji.  And the father says of the mother, “She thinks he could still be alive somewhere.  But there is no hope.” But there is no hope.  This quiet, Dantesque fatalism is just as tragic as anything in the bloodiest war movie.  There is no hope.  That’s Ozu’s pronouncement on war.

Another theme running through Ozu’s work is the terrible sadness of “normal,” everyday life.  At the beginning of Early Summer, Noriko lives happily with her extended family: mother, father, brother (the one who survived the war, played by Chishu Ryu), sister-in-law, and nephews.  By the end of the film, she’s engaged to be married, which has prompted her parents to decide to move off to Yamato with her elderly uncle, while her brother and sister-in-law will raise their kids in a more American-style, nuclear family.  And the tragedy of this situation, which has developed through the normal, socially-acceptable course of family life, leads Noriko to dissolve into tears and say, “I’m sorry.  I’ve broken up the family.” To which her father responds, “It’s not your fault.  It was inevitable.” Yes, but isn’t it sad that something like that has to be inevitable? Is it any less tragic for being normal?

Noriko smiling.
Which brings us to Noriko’s smile.  Setsuko Hara has one of the most memorable smiles in all of cinema, and she spends much of the Noriko trilogy beaming, regardless of the sadness of her situation or the human condition in general.  In fact, everybody in these movies insists on being happy.  They’re always telling themselves, “We’ve been very happy, haven’t we?” “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?” Because what else can you say? When you’ve reached old age, can you really admit to yourself that you haven’t been happy, and that it’s too late to change that? No, that would be unbearable.  We must persist in smiling like Noriko, whether or not the situation justifies it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

She Bears an Uncanny Resemblance to Herself: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love

Among other things, Iranian cinema is remarkable for the number of meta-films that get made.  There is Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror, which depicts a child actor’s refusal to cooperate and incorporates it into the narrative; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence and Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, which are both about filming the participants of real events as they re-enact them; and Kiarostami’s (again) A Taste of Cherry, with its famous on-screen revelation of the presence of the filmmakers.  So the Iranians are keen to let us know that there films are not depictions of reality, but are quite consciously performances. 

Another way that filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami emphasize this point is through the extensive use of non-professional actors (well, Kiarostami at least is using non-professional actors; I’m not sure what the deal is with Makhmalbaf; sometimes I suspect that he’s just using actors who aren’t particularly good at what they do).  These actors conduct themselves in a Brechtian manner, in that it is more like they’re reciting their lines than acting them out.

But in recent years, Kiarostami has for the first time started making use of professional actors.  He and Makhmalbaf have both found themselves exiled from their native Iran following the abortive 2009 protests.  Although I don’t know that either of them have officially sought asylum in France, where they now reside, Makhmalbaf declared himself to be failed presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s overseas representative, so he certainly can’t go back; and Kiarostami has advocated on behalf of Jafar Panahi, who has been persecuted by the Iranian government along with other filmmakers.  Kiarostami certainly could not make films in Iran with the liberty that he can overseas, although that was pretty much always the case, and it didn’t stop him from making excellent films like Life and Nothing But, Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us, and the politically charged Ten.
Certified Copy (2010).
But, as I was saying, Kiarostami, in making films outside of Iran, has started to use professional actors, which is a marked change for him (I should note that he had made some films outside of Iran prior to 2009, but one, ABC Africa, was a documentary, and the other, Five Dedicated to Ozu, was an avant-garde piece with no actors).  His first international feature was the masterful 2010 film Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche (who’s about as professional as they come) and William Shimell, a British opera singer who is most certainly not a professional actor, so it can be said of Certified Copy that Kiarostami blends professional and non-professional acting together quite seamlessly.  One does not come away from the movie with the impression that Shimell has not acted before.  In the film, Binoche is an antiques dealer and Shimell a writer who go on a drive together through Tuscany.  They have apparently never met before, but as their journey progresses, they pretend to be married, until they carry the performance so far that it becomes increasingly unclear what the true nature of their relationship is.  It is a deeply subtle and mysterious film.
Which brings us to Kiarostami’s latest outing, Like Someone in Love (2012).  Set in Japan and cast with professional actors, it follows a young college student/call-girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and her evolving relationship with an elderly john/professor of sociology name of Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), which leads to potential trouble with her jealous fiancé, Noriaki (Ryo Kase).  This film raises identity issue similar to those encountered in Certified Copy, but this time with diminishing returns.  Akiko is always being told she looks like other people, and a recurring problem is her resemblance to a woman in an ad for sexual services (the joke being that it’s not just a resemblance, but rather that it’s actually her in the ad).  When Takashi meets Noriaki, he has to conceal the true nature of his relationship with Akiko, and so he claims to be her grandfather, or rather, let’s Noriaki assume that he’s her grandfather.  All of this unfolds in leisurely Kiarostami fashion, and while it’s not unpleasant, one doesn’t gain from it the sense of a layered and mysterious profundity that one finds in Certified Copy.  Either Kiarostami has exhausted his theme, or he needs to be prepared to take a dramatic new approach to it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Largest Crowd is Composed of the Dead: On the Horror of Crowds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger

When asked why he had never performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz replied that he didn’t like crowds.  Which sounds like a reasonable answer, although it likely contributed to the assassination attempt on him that took place several years later, when a Muslim militant stabbed the octogenarian man of letters in the neck.  Luckily, Mahfouz (a) was in the presence of a doctor friend when the assault took place and (b) happened to live across the street from a hospital, so he survived, albeit with permanent injuries.  But when I think of crowds, poor, irreverent Mahfouz is one of the first people who come to mind.

I also think of Elias Canetti, whose study Crowds and Power seems to be the last word on the subject.  For Canetti, crowds are more than the sum of the people that compose them.  They take on a mind of their own, and not a particularly reasonable mind.  Crowds of people, like swarms of insects, are a source of horror, and he grimly points out that the largest crowd must surely be that of the dead, who vastly outnumber us.

Elias Canetti, wondering what the fuck is wrong with you people.
This horror of crowds is on full display in Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent classic, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a scene of which I would like to explore without giving away major plot details, because it’s the sort of film whose plot twists should be appreciated fresh by first-time viewers.  The movie revolves around a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer plaguing the streets of London, and in one critical scene, a man, who may be innocent, is already handcuffed and on the run from the police.  He ducks into a bar for a quick drink, then leaves, and shortly thereafter the police show up and describe their suspect.  The patrons of the bar recognize the man who just left and, taking the initiative from the police, they flood into the streets to lynch him themselves.  The man comes to a fence and hoists himself over it, but his handcuffs becomes entangled in the spikes that top the fence, and he hangs there helplessly as the crowd amasses above and below and begins to assault him.  It’s a deeply disturbing sight.

Victim of the crowd's fury.
Canetti prided himself on never joining groups, even benign-seeming groups, because all groups had within them the seeds of the crowd dynamic, the dissolution of individual will and individual moral responsibility.  It’s hardly an original point to observe that people do horrible/idiotic things when they succumb to the mob mentality, but it’s a point that gets proven time and again.  Just a few days ago, a crowd at my old alma mater, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, rioted because the school hockey team lost.  Somehow they got it into their heads that: a team affiliated with our school has lost a game, ergo: we should start tipping over cars and assaulting police officers.  Idiots.  The sort of people who would do that can’t be trusted with important decisions that require the valuing of human life.  Because they’re the sort of people who form lynch mobs.  So, take a lesson from Hitchcock (or Canetti) and stay the hell away from crowds.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Falangist Vampires! Notes on Pere Portabella’s Umbracle

Christopher Lee in Umbracle (1972).
In 1969, English thespian Christopher Lee—whose career followed a largely Vincent Pricey trajectory—travelled to Francisco Franco’s Spain to appear in a schlocky Eurotrash adaptation of Dracula.  This was the beginning of the heyday of the shitty European exploitation horror film; Italy would make the most contributions to the genre, but Spain gave the Italians a run for their money.  Lee was in country to star in Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula, but while he was there, he ended up making unexpected appearances in two films by Catalan avant-gardist Pere Portabella.  These films, both dating from 1970, are Cuadecuc, vampir and Umbracle.
Portabella has made a number of very strange films in a career that stretches from the 60’s to the present day.  His films that I’ve seen tend be plotless, expressionistic mindfucks, shot in high-contrast black-and-white.  They call to mind the movies of Guy Maddin and Philippe Garrel, minus any pretense of having a story or characters or anything like that.  Cuadecuc, vampir consists of shots filmed between takes on the set of Franco’s Count Dracula.  Somewhere on the internet I saw it described as a “film beneath a film.” Umbracle, which I watched this evening, has largely severed its ties to Franco’s film, and instead follows Lee as he wanders through Barcelona (I think it’s Barcelona).  These scenes are punctuated with several sequences that have the character of cultural artifacts and which are far more grounded in conventionality than what one became used to in Portabella films (for one thing, they have synchronized sound; Portabella’s soundtracks are usually just silence, or sound effects and audio scraps that don’t correspond to the action on screen).  These cultural sequences include: Spanish filmmakers discussing the censorship of film in late Francoist Spain; extensive clips from a fascist-Catholic propaganda film called Infinite Front (1955); and portions of the act of two musical clowns.  We also see Christopher Lee singing in German and French and reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Now, I said that these movies don’t have a plot but it would be more accurate to say they don’t have a story.  In terms of plotting, or narrative coherence, they follow their own internal logic, but it’s the logic of dreams rather than reality, or the logic of freewheeling erudition, as we might see with Jean-Luc Godard or, why not, James Joyce.  The films rely on the juxtaposition of their various sequences to generate meaning; I suppose all films do this, but Portabella’s films rely upon this method exclusively.  It’s sort of like the Qatsi films of Godfrey Reggio, except more localized.  Because what are the Qatsi movies about, if not everything? Whereas Portabella’s films, dreamy though they may be, have some recurring themes that they address, namely: fascism/Francoism and the peregrinations of recent Spanish history.

Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Wow, Portabella sounds cool, I’m gonna go check out his movies! Where can I find them?” Well, if you’re resident in the United States (as I am), you’re going to have a real hassle tracking these things down legally.  MUBI used to have a bunch of them, but now they only have one (Umbracle).  I saw Cuadeduc, vampir on Youtube, but movies on Youtube come and go.  I don’t believe Portabella has ever had any DVD releases in the U.S.  So, I’m not going to tell you what to do; follow the dictates of your conscience.  Or hope that MUBI streams more of these films, and maybe they will.  They’ve done so in the past.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Yasujiro Ozu


There’s a video—and I have no idea where it comes from, nor can I provide any context for it, although, like most youtube videos, I’m sure it’s infringing on somebody’s copyright—of Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki talking about (or rather to) Yasujiro Ozu.  And Kaurismäki says something quite interesting: he says that he deeply admires Ozu because the Japanese director managed to capture all of human life in his films without depicting violence.  Which is a nice sentiment, but it happens to be untrue.  First, here’s a link to the video, which for some reason I can't embed in this post: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZPpnd4hTVw
Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen certain Ozu movies, and so I can’t recall for certain whether or not they depict violence (was there violence in Equinox Flower (1958)? I have no idea), but there are several that I’ve seen more recently that I can say with certitude do in fact depict violence.  First, there’s What did the Lady Forget? (1937), which I profiled in a previous blog post.  This “comedy” features a man slapping his wife in order to put her in her place.  And there’s the film I blogged about in my last post, Floating Weeds (1959), in which the protagonist repeatedly slaps: his girlfriend, his son, and his son’s girlfriend.  And then, perhaps the most violent of Ozu's films—or at least of those that I’ve seen—comes A Hen in the Wind (1948), in which a man strikes a woman in the face and knocks her down a flight of stairs upon finding out that she prostituted herself in order to pay for medical treatment for their sick child while he was away awaiting repatriation to Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

As Ozu is a master of the domestic film, it is perhaps no surprise that these are all examples of domestic violence.  But also, if they do not sound particularly Ozu-esque, then perhaps the time has come for us to reexamine what constitutes a “typical” Ozu film.  Now, if I were to ask someone to describe the “typical Ozu movie,” they would probably say: “Parents run in to difficulties while trying to marry off their adult children, who often have different, more modern values than their parents.” And this would generally be true of Ozu’s works from Late Spring (1949) onward through An Autumn Afternoon (1962), but that period of time only encompasses a fraction of Ozu’s work.  By my count, Ozu made approximately forty films prior to Late Spring.  Now, many of these are silent films that are unfortunately no longer extant, but even if we just consider his surviving films, a good half of them are pre-Late Spring and thusly pre-“Parents-marrying-off-their-children.” Before he settled on the theme that would occupy him for the rest of his life, Ozu made all kinds of films: romantic comedies, “salaryman” comedy-dramas, crime films, films about poverty, college comedies.  He was a profoundly versatile director. And so, to say that the “typical” Ozu film is a domestic drama in the Late Spring mold is to ignore a significant portion of his oeuvre.  And to deny the presence of violence in a number of his films, as Kaurismäki does, is to paint a false picture of his work and the varieties of human experience that he explored.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Preserve the Buds, Model Good Behavior for the Kids: Some Reflections Inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds


I have just had the great pleasure of watching Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959), a remake of his 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds.  Now, normally I’m skeptical about remakes (typically only justified if the original film was a seriously botched literary adaptation that can be improved upon), but Ozu’s films, in a way, are all remakes of the same basic family drama.  Also, Floating Weeds belongs to that small privileged class of Ozu films that are in color; he made only six color films at the end of his career (and life) after decades of working in black-and-white, but they are some of the most beautifully composed color films ever made.  Floating Weeds is especially distinctive in that Ozu uses a bright palette of rich reds and blues; most of his other color films, by contrast, draw on a more muted, pastel palette.

I have a theory—which I don’t hold strongly, but I entertain it nonetheless—which asserts that the late films of Ozu represent the apotheosis of cinema.  They are perfect and they represent the logical conclusion of the progress of cinematic history.  From a technical perspective, and from their engagement with the major issues that make us human—what Matthew Arnold would call “high seriousness”—they are flawless and unsurpassable.  Now, of course that’s bullshit: there are plenty of great films post-Ozu, and cinema continues to evolve in new directions.  But with Ozu, we see, for instance, the conclusion of one of the main trajectories of the evolution of camera-work.  At the beginning of cinema, from the Lumières to Feuillade and Sjöström, the camera remains stationary.  Then Griffith comes along and—one giant leap for cinema—the camera moves.   And soon it moves all over the place, from the sweeping pans of Murnau’s The Last Laugh to the hand-held camera-work of Godard’s Breathless.  But Ozu brings about the second great innovation in terms of camera-work: as his career progresses, the camera becomes increasingly immobile, until almost every shot is a static shot in films like Floating Weeds and An Autumn Afternoon.  It’s really quite striking: the idea of moving the camera was revolutionary and the idea of returning it to stasis was equally so.  And now Tsai Ming-liang does it and it’s positively avant-garde.
Now, as for the theme that obsessed Ozu throughout his later work: families, and more specifically: the conflict between the values and aspirations of the younger generation and those of their parents.  The technology may have changed dramatically between A Story of Floating Weeds and Floating Weeds, but the basic plot remains the same: a travelling Kabuki troop arrives in a town where their leader tries to cultivate his relationship with the illegitimate son he fathered many years ago, and who thinks that his real father is dead, and that the actor who visits from time to time is his uncle.  The love and the rancor between father and son constitute a universal story.  Universal as well is the melancholy that comes with the inevitable passing of time and the changes that time works in society.  And in the end, the parents’ generation find out, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, that their sons and their daughters are beyond their command.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Romantic Idea of the Artist in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum


*Contains spoilers*

There is a certain conception of the artist which, at least in the Western context, originates during the Romantic period.  It is the idea of the artist as being distinctly apart from the rest of human society, as being isolated and alienated and consumed by his or her (probably just “his,” originally) art.  And this isolation brings with it a tragic beauty and often a tragic fate, as we see in the aesthetically pleasing deaths of the second generation British Romantic poets: Shelly (drowned), Keats (tuberculosis), Byron (some complicated infection, sustained while fighting in someone else’s independence war).  We see it in Thomas Mann’s novella Tonio Krueger, in which the protagonist leads a lonely, one might even say icy, life in service to his art.  The ice metaphor is best asserted by Graham Greene, who said, “A writer [or artist] must have a splinter of ice in his heart.”  Now, this is all in sharp contrast to the way the artist worked during the Renaissance and the Baroque (forgive the Eurocentrism on display here): in these contexts, the artist was a craftsman who worked for money, often to be had from a wealthy patron.  In the 21st  century, they would all be seen as sell-outs.  Can’t you picture it? Can’t you picture the hipster dismissing Michelangelo as a “sell-out?”

But anyway, this Romantic, splinter-of-ice business lies at the heart of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1939 masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum.  It narrates the tale of Kikunosuke, a young Kabuki actor whose love for a lower-class woman, Otoku, leads him to fall out with his father, leave his family’s company, and go on the road, seeking to perfect his craft while performing in increasingly dismal and disreputable settings.  The relationship with Otoku is complex, because although one could argue that his love for Otoku is what brings him down in the world, it is also Otoku who makes him into a true artist.  When he was with his father’s company, his acting was hammy and inelegant, but because he had his father’s name and was surrounded by flatterers, he wasn’t aware of it.  Otoku was the only one who had the honesty to tell him that he wasn’t a good actor and it is Otoku who supports him at every step of the way as seeks to hone his craft while in exile from his father.  Without Otoku, it is true that he wouldn’t have had his crisis, but he probably also would never have amounted to anything artistically.

But after years of suffering, Kikunosuke has the opportunity to reunite with his father’s company.  They give him the opportunity to appear on stage with them and he gives a brilliant performance.  All of his trials and suffering have paid off and he is now a good actor, worthy to reconcile with his family.  All he has to do, the company tells him, is leave Otoku and apologize to his father.  Now, Kikunosuke is not an asshole, and he at first refuses to even consider leaving Otoku, to whom he owes everything.  But Otoku also wants him to return to his father’s company, even if it means leaving her.  All of the privation and misery that she underwent with Kikunosuke was done in the service of advancing his career and his art, with the logical outcome being a return to a reputable Kabuki company like that of his father’s.  If he doesn’t leave her, all her sacrifices will have been in vain.  It is his art that matters above all other considerations.  And so, despite his misgivings, Kikunosuke, with a splinter of ice in his heart, leaves Otoku and returns to his father’s company.

It’s just one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a number of devastating Mizoguchi films, including Sansho the Bailiff, upon the viewing of which the critic Anthony Lane said, “I left the theater a broken man”).  It’s somewhat surprising to me, because the version of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum that I saw, the one that Criterion has on Hulu, is in a state of advanced decay: it’s faded and scratched and the soundtrack is full of hissing and distortion, but one quickly forgets it as one becomes absorbed in the happenings on the screen and in Mizoguchi’s lovely mise-en-scène, for which he was renowned.  The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum is one of the great tragic stories in world cinema, just as spiritually moving as Bicycle Thieves or Tokyo Story.  If it is not as internationally well-known as those films, it is only because it was made at a time when Japanese cinema had not yet made its appearance on the international scene (and what a lack that must have been, a world cinema that didn’t take Japanese cinema into account).  Let us hope that a restoration of Mizoguchi’s pre-war masterpiece will be undertaken, so that it might appear with as much pristine clarity as other Criterion releases of great Mizoguchi films, like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dodes’ka-den! On the Film that Almost Destroyed Akira Kurosawa’s Career


Akira Kurosawa is held in such nearly universal high esteem that it is almost impossible to believe that there was a time when it looked like his career was over and that his moment had long since passed.  In the early to mid-1960’s, he directed some of his most beloved films: The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard.  But even as these films were released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, the film world was changing dramatically, both on the Japanese scene and internationally.  In Japan, the ‘60’s saw the rise of New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who had little patience for the humanism and classicism of older directors like Kurosawa (and similar trends were afoot in France and Italy and elsewhere).  The films of the New Wave were gritty, violent, alienating, and overtly political.  Although Kurosawa and Oshima were both communists (or, if Oshima was not a communist, he was at least a radical leftist), Kurosawa would never explicitly foreground a political agenda in the way that Oshima does in films like Death by Hanging or The Man Who Left His Will on Film.
Following the completion of Red Beard in 1966, Kurosawa began a new stage in his career.  He had a falling out with long-time collaborator Toshiro Mifune, with whom he would never work again.  He also decided that for his next film, he would work in color for the first time.  (It’s always interesting to see what great directors make of their first color films).  After a period of long gestation, Kurosawa returned in 1970 with Dodes’ka-den.  The film was conceived in collaboration with fellow filmmakers Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi, all giants of the golden age of Japanese cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and all of whom were marginalized by the New Wave.  Set in a community of social outcasts who have erected a shantytown within a Tokyo junk yard, Dodes’ka-den presents a kaleidoscopic picture of life on the margins, following alcoholics, the chronically unemployed, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other misfits as they experience the small victories and often bigger tragedies of their day-to-day lives.  This is largely new subject matter for Kurosawa, who had built his reputation on samurai epics (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress) and masterful crime films (Stray Dog, High and Low).  Although he had treated the theme of poverty before (most extensively in Drunken Angel and especially in his adaptation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths), the degree of deprivation and despair on display in Dodes’ka-den is without precedent in his oeuvre.
Two of Kurosawa's slum-dwellers.

Now, having said all this, it is noteworthy that Dodes’ka-den is not a particularly depressing movie.  First off, it is a work of great visual beauty.  Kurosawa’s compositions are as elegant and striking as ever, and his use of dazzling primary colors is reminiscent of Godard’s in films like Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA.  Secondly, Kurosawa, even at his darkest, always infuses his films with compassion and hope.  And this is something that you won’t find in the New Wavers.  In the films of Oshima and Imamura—and both of them have depicted life in the slums—hope is a bourgeois vice.  They approach their subject matter with viciousness and a sense of the grotesque unredeemed by any trace of warmth or any sense of indulgence for human frailty.  This is why Kurosawa is a humanist and Oshima, even when he’s advocating for the persecuted and the marginalized, is not.

So, what was the reaction to Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den?  Near universal revulsion and contempt.  Critics were baffled and audiences hated it (or at least, the few people who actually saw it hated it).  In modern parlance, it tanked at the box office.  Kurosawa, the Japanese critics said, was finished.  He was out of his depth.  Film had changed and Kurosawa had failed to change with it.  And most troublingly, the producers who put up the money for these things agreed with them, and Kurosawa found himself, really for the first time in his directorial career, struggling to raise funds to make more films.  He fell into despair.  He attempted to commit suicide by slashing his arms (his brother had committed suicide in the 1930’s when the advent of sound films rendered silent film narrators like him obsolete).  Luckily he survived and in 1975 he made something of a comeback with the Soviet film Dersu Uzala.  And in 1980, with financial assistance from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, he returned to the samurai epic, the genre that made him famous, with Kagemusha.  In 1985 he made another samurai epic, Ran, an adaptation of King Lear which proved to be one of his greatest masterpieces.  He then made several smaller films as his health declined and he died in 1998. 
 
So Dodes’ka-den wasn’t the end of him, but it’s lamentable that anyone ever thought it was.  Criterion released it on Region 1 DVD a few years ago and the time is now ripe for a critical re-evaluation of this strange and beautiful work which marks a transitional period in Kurosawa’s career but which hardly signals the decline in quality that reviewers perceived upon its initial release.  It is just as shocking and new and distinctly contemporary as anything that Oshima and Imamura and the other New Wavers came out with.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Brief Thoughts on Dziga Vertov

Vertov, evidently embracing the leatherman look.
A few weeks ago, as I was learning to appreciate the sport of ice dancing, it could not have occurred to me that Russia would so shortly be invading one of its neighbors.  Or rather, it could have, and it did, but I thought that the neighbor in question would be Georgia, as Russia had extended its border security checkpoints into Abkhazia for the duration of the Sochi Olympics.  But instead Russia invaded Ukraine, and this evening I found myself watching Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Ukrainian film Enthusiasm: A Song of the Donbass.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about Vertov and his cinematic project.  On the one hand, he was a devout communist, both politically and artistically.  For Vertov, art was politics by other means and it principle purpose was didactic.  This is an ideology that I find absolutely abhorrent.  However, even at his most propagandistic (which was pretty much always), Vertov’s artistry always shined through.  His cinematic montages—and he was one of the pioneers of the montage technique—are consistently fascinating and often beautiful.   One does not have to subscribe to his worldview to appreciate the aesthetics of his films, even if they’re films with titles like Stride, Soviet and Three Songs about Lenin.  He can almost be forgiven for the pernicious influence he had on Jean-Luc Godard, who in the late 1960’s began making Maoist propaganda films with a collective called the Dziga Vertov Group.  Almost.
 
Vertov, born in 1896 to Jewish parents in what was then the Russian Empire and is now Poland, and who worked for much of his career in Ukraine, is to a certain extent emblematic of the way that these countries, so often at odds with each other politically, are nonetheless deeply and inextricably linked to each other.  We can all certainly hope for a future in which they regard each other with mutual respect and with a shared notion of the importance of human dignity and liberty, and I mean that not in the jingoistic American sense of the word, but in a universal sense.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Anguish is Caused by the Failure to Dominate a Situation: Henri Laborit and Alain Resnais’s Mon Oncle d’Amérique

 
I don’t know much about the field of ethology, which is the study of behaviors, both in humans and in other organisms (ethos and ethnos share the same route; they deal with ways of acting and being).  And so I can’t tell you much about the French ethologist Henri Laborit, other than that he appears as himself in Alain Resnais’s 1980 film, Mon Oncle d’Amérique, where he offers some very intriguing insights into how poorly adapted the human animal is for modern social life.
The film presents us with three protagonists (or case studies): René Ragueneau (Gerard Depardieu), a Catholic office worker in a textile company; Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), a Jacqueline-of-all-trades who is variously a communist agitator, stage actress, and higher-up at the company where René works; and Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre, who looks vaguely like Jean-Pierre Léaud), a teacher turned civil servant turned writer.  We follow them through the various twists and turns of their lives while Henri Laborit offers commentary about the basic (and primitive) behaviors that they engage in.  As Laborit tells it, there are four primary behaviors: consumption (eating, drinking, fucking), combat, flight, and anguish.  Anguish doesn’t really sound like a behavior; it is rather the inability to do anything to control a situation and prevent an undesirable outcome.  Laborit states that “anguish is caused by the failure to dominate a situation.” In a state of anguish, a subject suffers not just from an unpleasant circumstance, but from the knowledge of his or her own impotence.

He illustrates this with an experiment on a lab rat (and I think it is safe to say that animals were harmed in the making of this film).  In the experiment, a rat is placed in a cage with a partition down the middle.  A buzzer goes off and, after a few seconds, a mild electrical shock will strike the rat if it doesn’t flee through a little doorway in the partition to the other side of the cage.  In the first stage of the experiment, the rat rapidly figures out how the system works and learns to flee in a timely fashion.  This is the flight behavior.  In the second stage, the door in the partition is locked and the rat, upon hearing the buzzer, goes into a frenzy of impotent panic before experiencing the shock.  After a while, it stops reacting and just lies there, getting shocked and presumably hating itself.  In stage three, a second rat is introduced into the cage, and when the buzzer goes off and the first rat finds the door closed, he vents his fury by attacking the second rat.  And in this scenario, even though the rat can’t avoid the shock, he does not fall into a state of motionless anguish, because he can vent his fury through combat with the other rat.

Henri Laborit.
We humans, Laborit tells us, often find ourselves in situations of impotence and anguish.  Maybe—and this is illustrated by our three protagonists—we are stuck in a romantic relationship that frustrates us; maybe we are harassed by a coworker whom we can’t avoid.  Whatever the case, we don’t have the options open to the rat: combat and flight.  If we assault our coworker, we’ll go to prison.  If we stop going to work, we won’t be able to support ourselves.  And so we vent our fury on our own bodies, either through psychosomatic illness (René has an ulcer; Jean has kidney stones) or, more destructively, suicide.  It’s a rather bleak picture of the human condition, to suggest that the frustration of these basic animal drives is making us miserable.  But Laborit asserts that until we understand that these are the drives we have to deal with, we will not be able to prevent outbreaks of catastrophic aggression and violence (and he’s thinking big picture: he means war and genocide), let alone illness and suicide.

Post-script: Although Laborit did not know this at the time (1980), peptic and duodenal ulcers are caused by the h. pylori virus.  While stress can exacerbate the condition, recent medical findings suggest that it probably doesn’t cause it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Farmers and Prostitutes vs. Fascists: On Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy

 
What do we, as human beings, owe each other?  Good will and kindness, certainly.  But are we obligated to suffer terribly for each other? To die for each other? Under what circumstances? Does it depend on whom we’re dying for?
These are some of the questions raised in Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Love and Anarchy (1973), in which a simple farmer-turned-anarchist hides out at a brothel in Rome while preparing to assassinate Benito Mussolini.  Now, this is no simple task, as Mussolini had a number of people try to kill him over the years and he survived all the way until 1945, when the partisans finally shot him at the end of the war.  The exact time period during which the events in Wertmüller’s film transpire isn’t specified, but it’s made clear that several attempts on Mussolini’s life have already taken place.

What really struck me about this film was the deep, convincing humanity of the protagonist, poor, ill-starred Tunin (played by an excellent Giancarlo Giannini).  Tunin does not look the part of a hero.  He’s painfully shy (which probably won’t serve you well at a whorehouse), he’s soft-spoken, he’s out of place in the big city, and he’s clearly—in his own words—scared shitless by the prospect of shooting Mussolini.  He knows that his chances of success are slim and he knows that he may very well be captured, brutally tortured, and murdered.  In fact, he’s not even the top choice for the anarchists who hire him; he only takes over from his friend, a real anarchist-assassin, after the latter gets killed by the fascist police.

As the film progresses and Tunin tries to keep his fear under control, the few people he lets into his confidence (two prostitutes, one of whom is an anarchist agent, the other of whom he falls in love with) try to convince him that he is under no obligation to do what he’s planning to do.  And surely they’re right.  Surely we don’t expect everyone to throw their lives away in a desperate act of violence.  Let’s consider good old Kant’s categorical imperative, which posits that we should act in such a manner as we would want everyone else to act in the same circumstances.  Well, do we want everyone shooting Mussolini? (Or, to put it more plausibly, do we want everyone going out and getting tortured and killed while trying to kill fascists?)  Hell, even the most fanatical rebel movement doesn’t expect that; guerillas are dependent on the support of the civilian population (consider another Italian movie, Rossellini’s Rome Open City).  If everyone went out and became a militant, there would be no civilians to support them.

Do human beings not have a right to escape from history entirely, if they can? If someone tries to get the hell out of a warzone, can we blame him or her? They’re just following the strongest of human instincts: the will to survive.  And this will is coupled with the general inclination to not shoot and kill people.  Perhaps the fear afflicting Tunin and his ilk is generation upon generation of historical memory telling us, “Don’t kill and don’t get killed.” It’s hardly irrational if one submits to this command.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reckless Young People Go Boating: Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika

*With spoilers*
One of the worst tragedies—I should imagine—would be to subscribe to a system of values that you know is screwing you over, but to be unable to conceive of life through any other framework.  This is a tragedy that the late great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman explored in a number of contexts: the knight trapped within medieval Christianity in The Virgin Spring; the couple trapped within the institution of bourgeois marriage in Scenes from a Marriage; and the rebellious young couple who foolishly seek to establish a normal, respectable life for themselves in Bergman’s 1953 film, Summer with Monika.

First, a word about the nudity.  Summer with Monika is one of the first feature films ever to feature real live naked people.  The five seconds or so that the titular Monika (Harriet Anderson) appears nude are remarkably tame by modern standards, but at the time it was downright scandalous.  American distributors released an edited version of the film called Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl, and this contributed in no small part to Sweden’s reputation as a sexually permissive country (and it also led to the production of a lot of trashy sexploitation films with “Swedish” settings).  But times have changed and we’re now much more civilized (heavy sarcasm), and we can look past the titillation to see Summer with Monika for the visceral tragedy that it is.

Monika is a young working-class woman living with her parents and (too many) siblings in a cramped apartment.  She falls in love with Harry, a young man with a lousy job and a dysfunctional relationship with his chronically ill father.  Having had enough of their respective families and jobs and the generally shitty way they’ve been treated, they steal Harry’s father’s boat and run away together and have a series of sexy, romantic adventures.  And then Monika becomes pregnant.  And suddenly, the two young rebels decide that the really cool thing to do would be to get married, and Monika can become a housewife while Harry gets a job and goes to night school to eventually become an engineer.  And so they come back to the lives they fled and end up living a miserable and impoverished existence together.

Idiotic young people.  What were you thinking? How did you think this would work out? They saw how miserable their parents were and they fled from it, only to return to set up the exact same kind of lives for themselves.  And in a way their fate is just as tragic as that of Max von Sydow’s vengeful knight in The Virgin Spring.  They all lack the intellectual equipment to conceive of alternative ways of living, even though the current system is totally inadequate to meet their needs.  In the end, Summer with Monika isn’t about sex, but rather it’s about drudgery and resentment and regret.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Goya’s Giants and Attack on Titan

I’ve never watched a great deal of anime, not out of any particular prejudice against the medium, mind you, but for the same reason that I’ve never watched The Wire or Breaking Bad: I am reluctant to make the necessary time investment.  But I heard that Attack on Titan was the shit, and when I watched the trailer for it, I was powerfully struck by the image of the monstrous giants at the heart of the show.

Some background for those who are not yet aficionados.   Attack on Titan is an anime series about a dark future in which the Earth has been overrun by giants (the Titans) who eat humans, and the remaining human population has withdrawn behind a series of massive walls.  The Titans vary in appearance: some have idiot grins plastered on their faces while others glitter with sadism   They vary in height, with the so-called “Colossal Titan” reaching over fifty meters tall.  It’s this Colossal Titan that first drew me into the show.  He looks like this:

 
It’s probably a failure in terms of my skills as a critic, but I can’t quite articulate the feelings that that image evokes in me.  It’s unsettling and maybe uncanny.  It’s also somewhat moving.  It reminds me of the giants that Goya painted, and which evoke a deep pathos.

 
 
And as long as we’re on the subject of Goya and titans who eat people, we mustn’t forget Goya’s famous painting of Saturn devouring one of his sons (which Goya painted directly onto the wall of his house; he theoretically looked at it while eating dinner):
 
Now, the Saturn picture is just gruesome.  But if we can turn back to his giants, we find a far greater complexity.  They’re these towering piles of flesh and musculature; they’re big, puffed-up towers of humanity.  A giant is likely to have giant-sized feelings: gigantic melancholy, gigantic rage, and gigantic caprice.  It’s this capriciousness that can prove especially deadly for us regular-sized humans, as Goya was quite aware and as proves to be the case in Attack on Titan.  Eren, the protagonist, makes reference to the horror of “living at their mercy.” One has no peace of mind with monstrous forces like this on the loose.  They can kill you at their leisure.  At the time of this writing, I am seven episodes into the series.  Maybe the Titan killing machines will develop a more Goya-esque complexity, as the seventh episode suggests will be the case.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Language is a Virus from Inner Space: Mari Asato’s Gomennasai (Ring of Curse)

 
*Spoiler alert.  Actually, the ending is really cool, so maybe see the movie before reading the review*

I suspect that ever since the first Sumerians carved their cuneiform into clay tablets, there has been a desire amongst certain people to turn the written word into a deadly curse.  If words are magical (and any animist and anyone with OCD can tell you that they are), then written words are the most efficacious kind, because they have material reality and permanence.  The theme of a book that will kill its reader pops up in different places in modern literature.  I am thinking specifically of Miroslav Pavic’s The Khazar Dictionary, which makes prominent use of a poisoned book, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Never Any End to Paris, in which he discusses a book he wrote in his youth that was supposed to kill its readers (and I think he actually did write that book, but it has not been translated into English yet; oh, and it probably doesn’t actually kill the reader; I feel like it would be more well-known if it did).  There’s also a J. G. Ballard story somewhere, the name of which escapes me right now, which concludes with the revelation that reading the story will cause one to die (and, knock on wood, but I read that like four years ago and I’m still alive).

All of this is some background context for Mari Asato’s 2011 film Gomennasai (or Gomen nasai), released in the US with the idiotic title Ring of Curse.  But don’t let said title fool you, as this is an excellent movie, and the first Japanese horror film I’ve seen in a long time that doesn’t feature jump scares or the typical long-haired, pale-skinned, water-logged Asian horror movie ghost (“Japanese floaty girl” is how they describe her in the end credits of The Cabin in the Woods).  Gomennasai is about a put upon Japanese high school student name of Kurohane-san who seeks revenge against her awful classmates (not so much her teachers, whom we almost never see; the students spend most of their time at school in unsupervised “self-study” sessions).  She does this by means of her cursed writing, which will kill anyone who reads it, and the movie follows her attempts to disseminate it and the attempts of our hero, Yuka, to defeat her.

Now, perhaps the most satisfying thing about this movie is that we have in Yuka a protagonist who gets it, and who has the critical thinking skills necessary to figure out what needs to be done to survive a horror movie.  After being cursed along with several other girls, who begin to die one by one, Yuka, who knows her shit, realizes that the curse doesn’t kill in the order of exposure to it.  So if A is cursed, and then B, and then C, it doesn’t necessarily mean that A will be killed before B and B before C.  It could go BAC, or CAB, etc.  And so Yuka, harnessing the power of statistics, decides that her best hope for survival can actually be found in actively spreading the curse to as many people as possible.  Because if ten people are cursed, then her chances of dying are one in ten.  If one hundred people are cursed, one in one hundred.  If one thousand are cursed… well, you get the idea.  At the end, she tells us that she has spread the curse so effectively that the odds of dying from it are less than the odds of getting in a fatal car accident.  Also, by watching the movie, and reading the opening credits, we the viewers have also been cursed, and it is in our interests to get as many people to watch the movie as possible.  Now that’s clever.  Yuka actually spreads the curse far beyond what Kurohane-san could have achieved on her own.  It’s not the sort of cold and calculating conduct we expect from our “final girls,” but they would be well advised to follow Yuka’s lead in future.  Or at least to familiarize themselves with the laws of statistics.