Saturday, August 05, 2017


Circle of Death

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)

Prefatory note: The go-to reference work in English about Naruse's films is Dan Sallitt's A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967, which exists as a WordPress site accessible from the link. I've been reading his entries on each film after my initial viewing, and have been enjoying tremendously the lucid and sensitive considerations he's drawn from his own viewings over the years.


Okaasan [Mother, 1952]: Specific summary: "Okaasan" is not a noun for "mother" in Japanese; it is a form of address. Masako (her name only used once?) is Mother, but "Mother" is extensive in Masako's world: she is "Mei-chan,", "Okaa-chan," and so on. She's mother to Susumu (ill ostensibly from the dust in a factory for "woolens," played by Akihiko Katayama), Toshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), and Chako (Eiko Miyoshi). She's sister-in-law to Noriko (Chieko Nakakita). She's sibling. She's auntie to Tetsu (Takashi Itô). She's wife/caretaker/"Mother" to Ryôsaku (Masao Mishima) — then she's widow — and then she's courtee of Kimura (Daisuke Katô)... Then...

Victimhood or passivity in the protagonist marks a type in cinema especially in the Japanese film of the era; but a martyr type (caretaker, etc.) moulds another: a protagonist bent over the sickbed. (Masako has to be martyr to stay awake among the incandescent lights that seem never to be turned off, despite the children sleeping in the same area — her work is never done — dreamtime never comes.) As I've noted before, you can't talk entirely formally with all these Naruse pictures: more often than not Naruse's signature lies in recurring narrative tropes and dramaturgic strategies (including predilections with regard to subject material), as opposed to mise-en-scène moves — which nevertheless include such expressivity as the isometric two-people-in-conversation traveling shot, and the recessive framing of three spaces within a family home.

In Masako-Okaasan we have a woman who slides into surrounding lives and empathies, or perhaps they slide into her (the only satisfaction she might be said to receive in this her present stunted carnality. [Aside: She's been listening to father crunch his toasted beans doused in soy sauce for twenty years now...]): Toshiko's POV is established as the dominant before it too slides, away: Toshiko's narration at the outset of the film never returns until the very end, by which time we've already long forgotten about the device: one of the radical strategies used by Naruse in this great film, and only one element of a composition that Sallitt in his Mother entry deems, justly, as dipping into a strange, and fascinating, dramaturgical "abstraction." Bookends.

Three ellipses in the first half of Mother jagged and fresh:

Ellipsis No. 1: Susumu passes away. (Plus: one single flashback (no structure rooted in the device): Ryôsake playing with the little Susumu.)

Ellipsis No. 2: Papa Ryôsake dies.

Ellipsis No. 3: "The End" appears onscreen 45 or 48 minutes in: it turns out to be the closing credit of a movie the Fukuharas are watching, which occurs shortly after ruining the client's dyed hat. It's an indication maybe that we're to take Mother as Naruse's most self-reflexive (and self-reflective) expression to date — I won't go so far as to call it prismatic with regard to the interplay of points-of-view, but I will attach this sequence to the same notion that might inform the shot from the children's vantage as they look down the street bent over between their own knees, which is one of Naruse's bolder formal flourishes since his days in the silents.

Then we have the second half, with its small vignettes. cf. That few-minute-long lesson on efficiency in ironing, as told-and-sold by "Uncle POW," Kimura. This "ironing out," if you will, leads to a series of questions that permeate the remainder of the film, further adding wrinkles to the drama:

-Has Toshiko scared off Kimura (short-term or not) from proposing to her mother, Masako-Okaasan?

-What will come of Chako's aunt and uncle's successful attempt to adopt her, as seen from Chako's, Masako's, and Toshiko's respective points of view?

-Whether on the table or not, should Masako remarry? and what will the children think?

-What if Noriko — who will dress Toshiko in wedding garb for the sake of a fashion contest — wins the prize and can afford to marry and take Tetsu back into her own home?

-What does Masako stand to lose if Toshiko, herself the protestor of her mother's new wedlock, makes good on her intent to marry her beau Shinjirô (Eiji Okada)?

A new apprentice is brought to the house — 16-year-old Kunihiko — to take over from Kimura who will leave to work in Chiba for the summer and save up to open his own laundry. One night early in his apprenticeship the boy falls asleep at his desk before a letter that's only just begun: "Dear Mother..."

Toshiko's voice-over returns: "Another night deepens in silence..... Mother, my dearest Mother, are you happy?..."


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Mikio Naruse:

Koshiben ganbare [Flunky, Work Hard, 1931]

Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation, 1932]

Kimi to wakarete [Apart from You, 1933]

Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams, 1933]

Kagirinaki hodô [Endless Pavement, 1934]

Ginza keshô [Ginza Makeup, 1951]

Okaasan [Mother, 1952]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]

Tsuma [Wife, 1953]

Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain, 1954]


Monday, July 31, 2017

A Straightforward Brat - UPDATED 2017

A Jigsaw Flatplan

UPDATE: A few more moments of the film were discovered in the last year or so. Criterion have now included it on their Blu-ray of Good Morning.

Ozu's earliest surviving work — or one of them — fragmentarily extant from 1929 — is a great surrealist work in its concatenation of scenes. The boy (Tomio Aoki, dead in 2004 but whom we can watch in other films by Ozu and by Kon Ichikawa, along with two films by the greatest living Japanese director — Seijun Suzuki's extraordinary Yajû no seishun [Youth of the Beast, 1963] and kantoku's 2001 masterpiece Pistol Opera) gets kidnapped by the John Carradine of Ozu's silent cinema, Tatsuo Saitô. The miscreant's false moustache finds an echo in the bald patches (malnutrition? scalp disease? they regardless rhyme with Aoki's kimono's pattern) of the alopeciac co-conspirator, played by Takeshi Sakamoto. Not-Mabuses, the unashamed pair share residence in a domestic-hovelship of crime, Sakamoto especially making a perfect target or twelve for the suction-cup projectiles launched from Aoki's pistol-toy. Clever gag in the oft-typically-lame Japanese Slapcorn Idiom, which Ozu will nonetheless hew and refine five years on for Aoki's turn in A Tale of Floating Weeds [Ukigusa monogatari, 1934].

Tokkan kozô [A Straightforward Brat] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1929:

Both the first act and the last act (separated across fourteen minutes) represent a forgotten realm, a 'nook' of city, mini-labyrinth probably not much more than five-hundred feet square, a kind of Fontaínhas for the 'passing-by.' It brings to mind reels by Essanay Studios or Max Sennett. The premise of the kidnapping is unknown, and that being such centers the premise back into the realm of kid-age anxiety over kidnapping — 'they kidnap you because they want to kidnap you!' and not because, as one realizes upon growing older, that the shadow-they want you for sexual slavery. Ozu configures the chaste childhood bedtime-ceiling-stare version, — it's a comedy, after all. All the antics find Carradine/Saitô redeposit Aoki at home-base and, soon after, his band of friends chase the kidnapper back down for revenge-pelting. A fascinating, justified early work by the Master of the Seasons.

Tokkan kozô [A Straightforward Brat] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1929:

You should watch it with volume off, or accompanied by "Audrey's Dance" by Angelo Badalamenti.


Previous pieces on Yasujirô Ozu at Cinemasparagus:

A Straightforward Brat [1929]

Friends Fighting Japanese-Style [1929]

Tokyo Chorus [1931]

A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... [1932]

Where Have the Dreams of Youth All Gone? [1932]

Passing Fancy [1933]

A Tale of Floating Weeds [1934]

Kagamijishi [1936]

The Only Son [1936]

There Was a Father [1942]


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Farpões baldios

Entrance Is an Exit (Field-Trip) / Commanding of the Soil


Marta Mateus, the director of this 25-minute long Portuguese film, provides an English prefatory note for Farpões baldios [Barbs Wastelands, 2017], her debut, which reads:

"In the end of the 19th century the peasants in Portugal started a courageous struggle for better work conditions. After generations of starving misery, the Carnation Revolution sowed the promise of an Agrarian Reform. Mostly in the Alentejo region, these rural workers occupied the huge properties where they were once submitted to the power of their Masters. Perhaps the lost seed of other fruits...

It is said in Alentejo, when something is lost, those who are looking should start to walk back to the beginning. We must pray and ask Saint Lucy [Lucia] to clear our vision, so we can see and look better.

The protagonists of this film, resistants of this struggle, many of them illiterate, working since childhood, tell their story to the youngsters of today, in their own words."

The opening shot is an entrance or an exit: A man emerges from a slab of darkness. No arbitrary diction: Mateus posits the void as material. As a monolith. This idea will recur a few times through the rest of the film. The idea is that of the ephemeral against the material — "against" in the sense of both "up against" (leaning against; material) and "versus" (pitted against; ephemeral, relational). The emerging man drags a pitchfork in his wake — the tines claw the clay — the sound is terrible.

"When the light is mine / I felt gravity pull""Feeling Gravitys Pull", R.E.M., 1985

Saint Lucia (Luzia), the light is hers. Patron protectress of eyesight.

Black holes, infinite density: wastelands, barbs. Entryways, portals. An illusion of men emerging. Ghosts. Data. The barn is the citadel. The men are protecting their citadel. "Walk back to the beginning."

The kids are the inhabitants of the forests; they're the tourists of the forest. They cross the border of the old wall and enter the citadel ("the barns"). The two men chase them; they forbid Catarina and the boy to tell of what they saw.

A sylvan community. "Ashes from home will save the world."

"Now we weed. Then the pruning. And we sow the carnations."

In all of this, Mateus's Iberian Lucia. The eyes of the boy who attempts to stare ahead, focusing hard outward, but still kept navigating a crazed contradictory interior.

Sacrilege has been attributed to nearly every saint before her or his beatification. The boy who walks backwards can sight the road behind him.

"Maria, Teresa, Luzia. Three shoots, three flowers, three fruits. A trunk, a treetop, a life. A beam, a table, three chairs. Three days, three tales, a handful of times. Two mules and two oxen, for a tractor. A hundred steps forward, a hundred years back. An empty plate. And a shot in the back."

"The accused ascends to the high throne, the shepherd moves to the deep valley." Mateus moves the aphorism back, so to speak, into the mouths of babes, itself a tradition biblical, Huilletian-Straubian, Godardian, Costan. (Philip Roth, in a later interview, in Talmudic paraphrase: "Let the child speak.") —

The woman gathering brush and wood recounts the story of the snake around her leg, to Catarina: "Squeezing, squeezing," she inserts. The woman: "I was screaming, screaming... That day, half a leg, a pay of hunger." Her companion: "All of this was the Defesa, from the mountain, to here, where the pigsties were." The tale of an uprising. "Out of crying, my mother's eyes cut holes in the ground." They perform upon the kids a blessing of Saint Lucy/Lucia. The sounds of sheep bells. The community gathers, watches.

On that: Patrick Holzapfel's excellent essay, published last month, on Farpões baldios is here. He too senses the back-and-forth, simultaneity, whatever you want to call it, about the history and the present, the void and the open, the paradox that is the wound: he says: "It is a film in which two hearts beat: The first belongs to tenderness, the second to severity. The first belongs to the present, the second to the past. The first belongs to the young, the second to the old. Between those movements lies a shaking that opens a world of concentration." He also says: "One could argue that many shots are seen through the eyes of children or ghosts." He says: "The film looks at the stones and dirt with eyes that want more."

I have nothing theoretical to say about this movie I've watched seven times: the above are my notes mingled with my thoughts, neither closed off. Much of these little images are pointless without the sound: take:

Some of the children board the bus that penetrates the building (same threatening vector as a bar-surface in My Darling Clementine), it pulls away from Alentejo. The citadel, closed Parthenon or what you want it to be, stands silent. Fine. There is a new term they use in American media called "the optics of" something — meaning how it looks, to the media camera. I of course hate this word but I also like how simple it is to flip its letters to its antithesis: "the topics of." I'll leave this piece here then, for topics, optics, close-offs in talking, and rewatches, in anticipation when more see this masterpiece —

— That lets the cast in the titles read their respective names, one by one.

Argumento, realização e montagem: Marta Mateus.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Youth of the Beast

"Minami, Let's Get It Over With."

Short notes on Suzuki's Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun, 1963], which I originally wrote for the back-cover blurb of the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray in 2014. "The film that Seijun Suzuki considered the first to execute his full-formed kaleidoscopic style."


Right on the heels of the riotous Go to Hell, Bastards: Detective Bureau 2 3, Seijun Suzuki unleashed what would come to be seen as his true breakthrough, the film that cement "the Suzuki sensibility": Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun]. A delirious fantasia that contains "youth" and "beast" only insofar as in 1963 youth culture, yakuza, and yakuza movies were violently upstart things...

Youth of the Beast is a yakuza tale with a premise like Akira Kurosawa's Yôjinbô, whereby neither of two rival gangs can claim moral superiority over the other. The film stars Suzuki's iconic '60s regular Jô Shishido, with his dare-you-to-call-them-out artificial cheek implants like a new kind of screen-star blasphemy. There are drug-addled whores, gunfights in a toxin-hued apocalypse, and at least one alien landscape — a a mind-searing eruption of sulphur yellow desert like an action-figure playset reeking of sex.

Suzuki's infectious go-for-broke energy is assisted by wide-angle lenses and stunning production design that add a Minnelli-worthy sensuousness to the picture's 'Scope framing. His film would go on to inspire John Woo's forthcoming remake titled Day of the Beast [—??? CK.]; Nikkatsu have in recent times deemed Youth of the Beast one of their treasures. •


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Seijun Suzuki:

"Jûsan-gô taihisen," yori: Sono gosôsha (w)o nerae ["Sidetrack No. Thirteen," or: Take Aim at That Police Van, 1960]

Subete ga kurutteru [Everything Goes Wrong, 1960]


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Muriel, or: The Time of a Return

Guess What's Coming to Dinner?, or: The Amnesiacs

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing on the Criterion Blu-ray disc; no screen-capturing is capable during playback.)


A furious montage, then we learn that objects are too fleeting and, so, too silent to yield up symbolic interpretation — if, if we're looking hard enough. These are zero-hand, 1.5-hand, items. They permafrost the flat at first glance but will ostensibly be sold at appointment by their merchant Hélène (Delphine Seyrig). Clearly, dig the ambiguity around the whole situation with these solids. For example: what of Seyrig in this wig — an item like the rest? We think of Hitchcock, or: we think of Godard thinking of Hitchcock — as he says in the Histoire(s) du cinéma Alfred's "the inventor of forms."

And Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée) says: "You never know what period you'll wake up to in this place." I pause personally not so much at "this place" as I do "wake up to". Muriel, ou le Temps d'un retour [Muriel, or: The Time of a Return, 1963] is no dream-saga or cannot be so easily internalized as such regardless of Last Year at Marienbad — this is dedicated hardcore montage form confronting and abutting in certain prolongation Cocteau, materially.

The town of Boulogne (or Boulogne-sur-Mer) — is there such a place? Was there? Whatever you do, don't ask Hélène. We see it starkly in the light of day, concealed at night except in neon or half-shadow, Jeanne Dielman's Brussels with a casino. Present-time and morning-after, then back, or not — eruptions of time immemorial, frozen, eternal, personages present or not... place, place, place... More profoundly strange than Marienbad, Hiroshima, Nevers. And Algiers is the Mission San Juan Bautista.

Nearly twenty years after the Liberation. Muriel Carlotta is the victim of a war crime that Bernard participated in the act of — or observed — during his time in Algeria, 'down-there.'

Does a fight between friends mean you're finished for life? No, not a war-crime — an argument, a misunderstanding. But what misunderstanding! Alphonse Noyard (Jean-Pierre Kerien) (character's last name an emendation of noyé, par exemple, des clochards) has this put-on about having owned a café down-there, constructed history, but in essence he's a lunatic who cut free from the asylum. However: look at proximate cause. (Paradoxical thoughitsobe: for Muriel is one of the greatest films about cause-and-effect, which is to say, the lack thereof, ever made, existentialist Sartrean strain.) Who in this menagerie could make a fair claim to moral high-ground, or to truth? Hélène is a lie, Bertrand is a lie, Françoise (Nita Klein) is a lie. Property, ownership, is a lie.

Hélène, Alphonse, and Françoise march to the entrance of Hélène's building (one of the four post-war Neubauten of Boulogne), cuts between them twelve-tone, chromaticism in the close-ups (the storied detail: no camera movements in Muriel till the last shot). Hélène: "Many died, were shot. I don't remember how many." Bob Dylan: "From the boat I fish for bullheads — / I catch a lot, sometimes too many."

Françoise: "This is paradise."

Hélène's bedroom at one point functions as an impromptu dining room, or vice-versa. (All the furniture and appointments are in flux from scene to scene.) The Hélène-Alphonse relationship is often swapped/echoed with the Hélène-Bernard relationship: after Alphonse shows up, she says, "The two of us should have gone into hiding."

Bernard: "I don't want to be a filmmaker. I'm just collecting evidence."

The Alsatians say, Merci vielmol. Two shandies. •


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Alain Resnais:

Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog, 1955]

Le chant du styrène [The Song of the Styrene, 1958]

Hiroshima mon amour [Hiroshima My Love, 1959] — a piece I regret now, from 2007