NEW YEAR’S NOTE: At the beginning of each year I tend to devise a cinematic “personal project” of some kind, where I try to focus in-depth on an aspect of film I’d like to know more about (in 2018 it was French cinema, 2019 sought out female auteurs). In 2020 I’m taking on one of my most embarrassing cinematic blind spots: the national cinemas of East Asia. I’ll be starting my exploration with Japanese cinema and expanding from there.
A PAGE OF MADNESS (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926) [01/27/20, Amazon Video]
Astonishing, both visually and historically, even in its currently compromised state. Frequently compared to German Expressionist classic Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, both certainly employ striking, exaggerated visuals in their dramatization of insanity, even if they do so in very different ways: where Wiene’s iconic film evokes a lugubrious dream, Kinugasa’s editing and superimpositions are frantic, often to the point of manic. More than any of its direct contemporaries that I’ve seen, it seems more directly aligned with experimental cinema of much later eras (Peter Tscherkassky’s nightmarish Outer Space (1991) is what specifically came to my mind). With future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata contributing the story and an early script treatment, it was produced by an avant-garde group of artists associated with the Shinkankakuha (School of New Perceptions) who were interested in subverting the type of naturalistic representation that was already starting to dominate filmmaking in Japan–and across the world. If it hadn’t been lost for nearly half a century–it was only in 1971 that Kinugasa rediscovered a print–it might now be regarded as one of the essential films of the silent era, but not helping matters is its incomplete form (approximately 1/3 remains missing) and its lack of intertitles to help clarify the extremely intricate plot (it was intended to be accompanied by a benshi‘s live narration, and now it’s essential to always keep a plot synopsis on hand at all times). I’ve seen it described several times as “fascinating but ultimately boring,” and that does sum up the current situation well: the pleasurable shock power of its visuals manages to carry it a long way, but it’s hard not to grow weary after a certain point if attempting to follow the story. Here’s hoping a full print will still be discovered someday and we’ll be able to appreciate it again in its full glory. Until then I’ll happily treasure and admire what we do still have.
CONVERSATIONS WITH WILLARD VAN DYKE (Amalie R. Rothschild, 1981) [01/26/20, Kanopy]
The most conventional and so in many ways the least interesting of the three of Rothschild’s films that I currently have access to (I reviewed both Nana, Mom and Me and Woo Who? May Wilson in my December 2019 post), though the personalized touches of the type that made those earlier films so special do occasionally surface. And it’s a compelling topic besides: an overview of the life of a promising young photographer who started making social realist documentary filmmaking during the 1930’s before becoming the director of the film department at MoMA before returning to his original passion for photography in old age. Van Dyke is an endlessly insightful, very witty subject with interesting things to say on just about every topic, from own career and creative vision to the larger social and cultural context in which he lived and worked. But what Rothschild is best at is capturing interactions between people, and it was in such moments of interaction–with herself, with former collaborators and friends–that this documentary felt most alive.
KWAIDAN (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964) [01/24/20, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. A beautiful and elegantly unnerving adaptation of four traditional Japanese folk tales by Lafcadio Hearn, it’s one of the supreme examples of this type of atmospheric ghost stories which I am currently in the mood for. The full version of Kwaidan clocks in at just over three hours, and “Hoichi the Earless,” the third installment that runs nearly an hour on its own, probably deserves its status as the film’s most celebrated installment: the extra running time allows the story to indulge in a slow boil until the violent act alluded to in the title erupts with great shock and emotional force. I also am quite taken with the concept of the fourth section, which grapples with the implications of adapting a literary text left unfinished. But I think my favorite is the second, the chilly and ultimately heartbreaking “Woman of the Snow,” which most eloquently conveys a particularly ambiguous merging of the physical and spiritual realms. Ironically, this was the segment cut out for its initial American theatrical release, though it still ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film (ultimately losing to Czech classic The Shop on Main Street).
UGETSU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) [01/21/20, Criterion Channel]
Second viewing. I agree with Robin Wood that the understated but great force of Mizoguchi’s beloved masterpiece is achieved through “the complete eschewal of all camera trickery and special effects” that would differentiate between the physical and supernatural realms, instead “restricting his eerie effects to what decor and lighting can achieve and the camera record.” My first viewing of this film had left me largely unmoved and a bit mystified by its reputation as one of cinema’s supreme achievements, and if I’d still hesitate to go quite that far, this time it did manage to cast its powerful spell over me. As Wood astutely recognizes, what is so deeply unnerving is the lack of clear differentiation between the living and the dead, which allows them to interact freely with only the slightest visual clues indicating any shift between the two. And if we also fail to notice these subtle signals, how are we supposed to fault the main characters for similar lapses in discernment? In the silent, sad tears of the wronged Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), glimpsed only by the viewer (and if you’re like me, you share), the unsettled past and future finally fall together together into a unified, continuing, and–at least for a moment–peaceful present. It’s a most subtle but deeply moving coda.
GATE OF HELL (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953) [01/20/20, Criterion Channel]
A major personal discovery, and a new favorite. The rich, Autochrome-like colors immediately signal to the viewer that they have been dropped in some distant past, albeit in the midst of utter chaos: a frenzied attack is already well underway. Peace is quickly restored, but the turmoil has merely transferred to the psychological realm after a samurai (Kazuo Hasegawa) becomes smitten with the married lady-in-waiting (Machiko Kyō) he helped protect. The story is rather simple, but it’s a most effective scaffolding upon which to hang all other aspects of the production: the acting, direction, and, most obviously, its extreme pictorial beauty. One of Japan’s first color films and the first to be released internationally, the Eastmancolor is vivid and voluptuous (that we nearly lost it forever due to the instability of the format is truly horrifying–see Stephen Prince’s excellent essay for a description of the recovery process), and that we nearly lost it forever due to the instability of the format is genuinely horrifying. As the tragic Lady Kesa, Kyō does extraordinary things through her stillness, conveying the depths of her sadness just through her eyes (I think it’s an even more powerful performance than her more widely heralded turn in Ugetsu, from the same year). But I was so impressed with Kinugasa’s graceful coordination of contrasts: frenzied social acts (war, horse races) alternate with hushed domestic scenes, loyalty clashes with lust, masculine exploits must confront heroic feminine sacrifice, and, above everything, the ostentatious use of color, which seems to be trying to stand in for all the things that must, in the end, remain unsaid.
ONIBABA (Kaneto Shindô, 1964) [01/15/20, Criterion Channel]
In its opening moments Shindô’s film drops the viewer into a field of pampas grass, the wind wildly whipping the leaves into swirls and ripples like the chaotic waves of the ocean in the throes of a storm. It quickly becomes clear: this might technically be a wide open space, but the human figures suspended in it are drowning, and there’s little hope for escape. So we watch, for well over an hour, as they thrash against their situation (abject poverty exacerbated by civil war) and then each other, especially once sex becomes a wedge viciously wielded in turn. I admit that as the film reached its last half hour I was confused–wasn’t this famous for being a ghost film? And then the supernatural(?) suddenly does intercede, and the film feels like it has fallen down one of the caves that make disquieting appearances regularly through the film–it suddenly feels like it has entered a whole new dimension and become a very different film. All hell seems to (literally) break loose, and the effect is genuinely unnerving. While generally lacking the eerie poetry I responded to so strongly in Kuroneko, once again the stark black and white nighttime cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda is truly exceptional, and the use of sets and setting is truly a technical feat in and of itself. I look forward to returning to it sometime in the future: I liked it quite a bit, but suspect that knowing what I’m getting into will make me much more attuned and receptive to what it’s actually doing, and not getting sidetracked by my expectations.
KURONEKO (Kaneto Shindô, 1968) [01/13/20, Criterion Channel]
Eerie and poetic, a favorite combination of mine. From beyond the grave a mother and daughter-in-law duo seduce and take brutal revenge upon local samurais, but must contend with their eternal oaths of vengeance when their son/husband reappears, himself now a newly minted samurai. What is sometimes lacking in plotting and narrative flow—the mechanisms of revenge for long stretches feel caught in a repetitive loop—ends up having a certain poignancy, as the eventual mundanity of open-ended retribution begins to press down on the viewer as much as on the characters. The sense of atmosphere and mood elevates the film from what could easily have become schlock, a great deal which can be credited to Kiyomi Kuroda and Norimichi Igawa’s truly magnificent nighttime black and white cinematography; the lo-fi visual effects are surprisingly effective as well.
LITTLE WOMEN (Greta Gerwig, 2019) [01/12/20, Movie Theater]
Genuinely revelatory. This is partly due to the drastic restructuring of the familiar, frequently remade Alcott novel which Gerwig rips apart and reassembles like a patchwork quilt. In this newly kaleidoscopic pattern, new inflections and interpretations are allowed to emerge; as a lifelong Alcott fan I particularly appreciated how it emphasizes her often overlooked skill as a writer: through deft cross-cutting and flashback sequencing Gerwig locates so many unexpected connections, echoes, and continuities from the original text emerge. In her characteristically incisive review, Stephanie Zacharek points out how “the shifting structure joggles you out of the complacency of knowing what’s going to happen next” and that is exactly right: Gerwig hasn’t added all that much original material to make this Little Women “new,” she has simply rearranged what has become familiar so we are able to experience it anew. And what a pleasure it is!
But make no mistake, this is not all for the sake of a cerebral aesthetic exercise. Countering the narrative pyrotechnics is the sense of generosity and warmth that made Gerwig’s previous film (and solo directorial debut) Lady Bird such a special accomplishment, and now seems like one of her defining auteurist characteristics. But even more than her own film, however, the classic Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) was what came most frequently to my mind, and not just because of similarities in general time period, or the extremely clever use of social dancing as emotional catharsis, but in the representation of the unique dynamics of families dominated by sisters, and the scrupulousness of her overall filmmaking practice. Every aspect of the production design feels carefully considered and selected, but the individual objects and images make less overall impact than the way everything (costumes, lighting, sets, even the score) coalesce into a exquisitely calibrated, integrated whole. The same principle carries over to the acting, which at once features beautiful ensemble work even as it constantly finds moments for almost all the characters, even the most minor ones, to contribute unexpectedly lovely grace notes. Saoirse Ronan and especially Florence Pugh have been rightly singled out for praise and Oscar nominations, but Timothée Chalamet is also wonderful utilized in all his exuberance and endearing awkwardness (Gerwig has described Laurie in interviews as the fifth March sister, and I think that’s such a wonderfully unexpected interpretation of the character). Chris Cooper also gives an unexpectedly vivid performance in what is usually a throwaway role.
The single flaw is the several times the script overplays its hand, elevating the story’s latent feminism into literal talking points (about nineteenth century gender roles, the economic nature of marriage, etc). It’s not that these sentiments feel out of place as they have already been implicitly—and more resonantly—made. Still, a most minor blemish on an otherwise remarkable achievement.
JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933) [01/10/20, Criterion Channel]
I couldn’t have commenced my study of Japanese cinema on a lovelier note. Shimizu’s late silent film, just 72 minutes long, would be a rather inane little melodrama if it wasn’t so shot through with a sense of intense melancholy and regret. The type of story where a single incident sets a series of characters on different life course which inevitably entails a lockstep march toward moral degradation–and topped with a generous slathering of Christian moralism(!!) besides–it’s Shimizu’s direction and Tarô Sasaki’s naturalistic cinematography that reshape this mediocre material into something poetic and even occasionally profound as the camera often lingers on empty streets and hallways, and dissolves make characters suddenly evaporate into thin air, visually underlining the fact that after a certain point these characters are little more than walking ghosts, doomed to enact their fates. Given the title I wish their had been a little more emphasis on the central friendship of the two young women and their eventual estrangement and complex reconciliation, but Michiko Oikawa and Yukiko Inoue do wonderful things with their eyes and facial expressions to convey the underlying genuine affection and care that keeps their lives forever intertwined.
WONDER BOYS (Curtis Hanson, 2000) [01/06/20, Amazon Prime]
Very much NOT my thing, at least at this phase in my life. It’s the source material more than anything that I object to, as I just can’t muster up much patience for this class and rarified milieu (which I freely admit I once craved for myself). The performances, however, are all very good, and Tobey Maguire in particular is excellent.