Monday, June 30, 2014

Veiled

Catherine Russell from her Cinema of Mikio Naruse:
With this film, the director shifted gears yet again to make one of the most anomalous films in his oeuvre. He did not fare any better with the critics, and he himself declared it to be a failure. . .
The film's protagonist Goro periodically pauses while a dark filter drops like a veil over the image and he speaks his inner thoughts in voice-over. . . The device is not terribly effective. . .
A bigger part of the problem with Avalanche is its speechiness. The voice-over monologues are only one element of a script that places an enormous emphasis on spoken language. Moreover, the editing style is remarkably static. . . In one of the film's key scenes, Goro argues with his father, both of them articulating their positions while standing facing each other in a Western-furnished room. Using conventional reverse-angle cutting and a few camera movements as the men move around the room, this four-and-a-half minute scene fails to convey the emotional tension of a conversation in which the son tells his father that he wants to end his marriage. . . .  
Much too harsh.

The blocking of the actors is stagy and there is lots of talk. On first view I thought it was a Japanese equivalent to those popular stage adaptations with Important Themes so beloved by American movie critics of the late-1930s. (Holiday [1938] being by far the best of the group.) It is not. The movie is based on a popular serial-novel and the screenplay was written by Naruse in collaboration with Tomoyoshi Murayama, a well-known Marxist intellectual. (Whose deep understanding of Fascist and soon-to-be-annihilated Japan can be pretty much summed up by the song "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie.) More important, Nadare (Avalanche) could never work anywhere but within 5 or 6 feet of a movie camera. All the beauty of this strangely brief masterpiece is contained in the medium-shots and close-ups of the very human cast, and most of that beauty resides in the face and body and voice and movements of Noboru Kiritachi, as the ignored wife. The sexual obsession that the Empty Suit husband/son has for Yayoi (Ranko Edogawa) is perfectly believable. But one who believes that Empty Suit husband/son cannot feel love or physical desire for Kiritachi is one who has lost his marbles. She is among the most heartbreakingly beautiful actresses in all cinema and the great Naruse -- who must've fallen in love with her as his marriage to Sachiko Chiba fell apart -- photographs her with reverence. He allows us to comfort ourselves in the beautiful light of her nature.

Nadare (1937) also sports some of the most astonishing hats and hairstyles of the still (in Japan) Deco Thirties.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Survivor

"Surviving the 21st Century," from May 22, 2014.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Shimai

Naruse's women, from a different time: tender animals, angels, does at large in melancholy and lovely human forms.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Morning's Tree-lined Street (1936) is how normal it is for the director. Part of a long series of 1930s masterpieces by Naruse (Flunky, Work Hard! [1931], No Blood Relation [1932], Apart from You [1932], Every Night Dreams [1933], Wife, Be Like a Rose! [1935], Three Sisters with Maiden Hearts [1935], The Girl in the Rumor [1935], A Woman's Sorrow [1937], Avalanche [1937], The Whole Family Works [1939]), and the third and final starring Naruse's wife Chiba Sachiko (they would divorce soon after), the story is very simple: a young woman leaves her country hometown to make her way in Tokyo.

Catherine Russell:
After some fruitless job hunting in downtown Tokyo, [Chiba] accepts a job as a bar hostess in Shiba ward. Well away from glamorous Asakusa and Ginza, this is a neighborhood bar where the women are dirt poor, each having only one kimono to their name. Contrary to the title, there are few trees to be seen, although a small stream crossed by a little bridge gives the setting some character. The film contains a surprising number of exterior scenes, including shots of canyonlike downtown streets strangely empty of traffic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wife


Thanks to the downloading magic of Karagarga (the most essential movie site on the planet), I've been blessed over the past couple years to see more than half of the surviving 60-plus works of Japanese director Mikio Naruse. Meshi (1951) is generally considered to be the director's "return-to-form" movie, after two periods of drift and underachievement, caused by Pacific War restrictions; and by post-war US Occupation restrictions. The problems of wartime production are obvious regarding material and message (although these problems did not keep anti-war masterpieces such as Kinoshita's Army [1944] and Mizoguchi's 47 Ronin [1941-42] from being made, accomplishments absolutely impossible within wartime Hollywood). Yet during the war Naruse was able to create the lovely comedy Hideko the Bus Conductress (1941) featuring the teenage Hideko Takamine, the dark and very moving The Whole Family Works (1939), and the ceremonial masterpiece Way of Drama (1944), with the heroically beautiful Isuzu Yamada. Naruse's Occupation output has an especially mediocre reputation, lumped by many (including Naruse's best English-language critic Catherine Russell) under the limiting category of kitsch.

The movies from 1946 - 1951 are certainly more open to the swirls of outside influence (ostensibly of a democratic nature) than anything he made before or after, and have thus taken on the baggage of being impersonal assignments taken until Doug MacArthur and his band found some other backward non-white non-Western culture to improve. Yet Naruse's movies under Occupation are among the most human and interesting ever made: Urashima Taro (1946) and Both You and I (1946) are insanely earnest in their worship of "the people and democracy" and in their loathing of zaibatsu culture; the neo-realist noir romance The Angry Street (1950); the beautiful White Beast (1950), embracing the lost women of Occupation; and my favorite Spring Awakens (1947).

If one sees the works in order, the changes within Meshi, hinted at in Naruse's previous movie Dancing Girl (1951), are startling, and I was at first resistent to them. The look is slicker and more processed, almost at the Hollywood level, and it gets between us and the characters (at first) in a way not to be felt in the Occupation movies. The characters are more typed, less detailed and grounded than we are used to -- they are more like emotional motifs in an anti-connubial music piece. The stars are bigger. (Setsuko Hara was the biggest female star in 1951 Japan.) The script is based on a best-selling prestige novel by the great Fumiko Hayashi. (Naruse's first of many uses of her.)

If the 1950s Douglas Sirk "triumphed" over the slickness of the woman's picture genre and the popular soapy novels usually at its base, then Meshi pre-Sirks Sirk. As with most movies from the Hollywood (born German) director, Meshi has a single consciousness: Hara's. Her loathing of the state of marriage is here (at first) an act of triumph and freedom. She may be trapped within a legal institution, but she is in no way stranded within the torture chambers of her own imagination as are the wives of Dreyer, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Cassavetes and Hitchcock. Hara creates and re-creates the meaning around her. She throws out the fetching young niece who has come to visit, and who has enchanted Hara's husband. Hara packs up and leaves for Tokyo. She opens the door to an affair with her old flame Kazuo (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi, the same actor she marries in Early Summer). She writes a farewell letter to her husband, decides not to mail it, and tears it to pieces at the end. In control all the way, she is moved purely by her own cares. By leaving the marriage and returning -- her hold over it and her husband becomes near total: a death grip; although the last we see of her, she doesn't seem too thrilled with what she is now in control of. And neither are we, nor Naruse, thrilled with our heroine. Meshi rejects more than it embraces what has been ignited in the wife by Japan's now ego-based, consumer culture.

Hara's emotional music has changed sharply from earlier in 1951, where she was not the central consciousness of Ozu's Early Summer.



In Meshi, despite the distaste for her husband and their marriage, her pity for him comes through. The husband is lost without her and always would be. Naruse captures the heart of the problem: one is never in so much marital danger as when one feels closest to the loved one. That is when the devils seem to have their hour. And hawks steal something living from the gambol on the field.

She knows this and her return to him is an act of love and triumph over her own "happiness." (Has the awkwardness between two people who live together, two married people, been captured better than Meshi's scenes of "reuniting"?) Making another human being happy is not the worst basis for a life, even if her eyes at the end suggest otherwise.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Socialists Ball


The most beautiful -- and international -- and elegant -- basketball team of all-time has done it. In a world seemingly universal in its devotion to Ego and the Cult of Violence, a 21st-century world of despair and division, the communal joyousness of the San Antonio Spurs may only be like tossing a penny into a canyon. Or maybe not. . . .

Humility, focus, connection, smartness, quiet, tribute, contribute, complexity, precision, privacy, honor ~ for its own sake, strangely apart from domination. (And over the Miami Heat, of all things.) How rare and how bracing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Martyr's Cause

In South Africa against apartheid, June 1966.



Running for President at the University of Kansas, March 1968.



The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lion Heart

Robert Francis Kennedy running for United States Senate, before the students of Columbia University, September 1964.



(Please forgive the "public domain" imprint.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Moses Supposes