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How to Appreciate: Yasujiro Ozu (pt. 1)

600full-yasujiro-ozu

Ozu’s modest stories about the seasonal rhythms of domestic life offer a perspective on human relationships that may strike many modern film-goers as quaint, distant dispatches from a polite but alien world. His famous sunken camera places us always at an intimate distance–not quite apart, yet not far removed from the action. Dramatic action itself is sometimes suspended or merely inferred in an Ozu story (such as the never-glimpsed Gary Cooper-lookalike in Late Spring) so that the impact of a thing often outweighs the thing itself. His extreme visual formalism at times approaches abstraction. Actors resemble figures on a plane. Line and space play leading roles. All so very strange…

Watching an Ozu film thus requires a different kind of mental attention than most people are used to giving. While most dramas require the suspension of disbelief, Ozu seems to aspire to nothing less than the suspension of expectation. The reward for this contemplative “relaxation” is no less than the divine promise of religion: to fill the fleeting human frame with the inspired essence of eternity.

1. The mundane is the message

In an Ozu film, people are forever exchanging pleasantries. He seems to focus on the very mundane chatter that most filmmakers would simply do away with.  The plot of Good Morning (Ohayo!) even revolves around the social repercussions of just such a skipped-over greeting. For a fast-edit obsessed generation weaned on music videos, the amount of screen time devoted to the prosaic chit-chat of everyday social interaction may feel maddening. All those “Hello”s and “I’ve returned”s and “Thank you”s and “Forgive me”s, many of them delivered straight to the camera, as if the actors were directly addressing the audience–it’s like attending a mannered school of Ozu etiquette.

However, in an Ozu film, the simple act of two people greeting each other functions as pregnant punctuation to the narrative, never to be cut or glossed over. These moments prop up the action and give us easy entry and exit points, engendering the satisfaction of proper ends and proper beginnings, and allowing us to remark the scene’s true beats–the subtle nuances and emotional variations underlying such meetings, partings and idle chatter. Through repetition, Ozu draws us ever deeper into the everyday, allowing us to appreciate what is usually overlooked as commonplace and inconsequential until surface formality achieves the resonance of emotional revelation–like in this scene of two old friends reflecting about their children.

 

Over time, these ordinary exchanges build momentum, and through dozens of repeated bows and “thank you”s, the viewer sharpens her emotional discernment. Think of Setsuko Hara’s incessant smiling throughout Late Spring. At first, her expression has all the glimmering subtlety of a toothpaste model.

hara smile

But soon we see subtle differences between her genuine jubilance with best friend Aya and her more perfunctory warmth with Hattori. Eventually, we can learn to decipher the subtle mix of wry emotions in this particular Mona Lisa smile:

Hara

Until finally we feel with full force the stinging poignancy and complex resonance in the expression before her wedding day, when she offers thanks and struggles to force a smile, though her heart is broken.

hara wedding dress

Through repetition, Ozu’s stories gently lead us to ask such simple but rarely explored questions as “How does a child properly thank one’s parents?” or “How can a friend or in-law be more filial and loving than your flesh-and-blood?”  Can such profound and complex notions be expressed in words or a simple bow? In Ozu, the answer is “yes,” but this meaning arises, not through a single momentous gesture, but through a chorus of daily habits and a glimpse into the pathology of everyday consciousness.

In an Ozu film, the mundane IS the message and the message immerses us always deeper into the ordinariness of life, the present-ness of Now. Life is always right before us if we only have the hearts and minds to see.

 

100-word Intro: John Cassavetes

Cassavetes wrestled with angels like a cinematic Jacob (industry devils, too) and for his trials was heralded the Patron Saint of independent film. His genius for the genuine disarms and overwhelms. He hurls us headlong into maelstroms of emotion unbalancing expectations and sorely testing our endurance (see the wake in Husbands or the party scenes in Faces). He challenges us to follow the fancy tonal footwork of Nick and Mabel Longhetti, constantly bobbing, weaving and turning on a dime. And beneath the brawling chaos, his profound understanding of Life as eternal process, struggle and improvisation–acting as a crucible for truth.

100-word Intro: Wong Kar-Wai

Wong mocks the coolness of detached posturing and the poverty of everyday experience through ravishing visual splendor. His exquisitely beautiful stars are sketched in anachronistic relief–dressed in the styles of a nostalgic past or revealed in disembodied voice-over—to give the impression of vivid but disappointing dreams. The sensual modulation of his neon palette and his musical editing style lend texture and felt rhythm to his best works like Happy Together and In the Mood for Love where the intimate dance of attraction and repulsion is experienced through inspired tango stylings and Nat King Cole’s cool baritone.

Alt. Feature: DOG STAR MAN (Stan Brakhage)

Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements for a work of art is to acknowledge one’s ambivalence toward it.  I change my mind about Dog Star Man each time I see it.  Again and again I reconsider its symbols, endure its pacing and marvel at its virtuosity, and I am never able to digest it.  In part, this is a good thing.  I find that the best art, by and large, actively prevents one from getting too cozy with it.  However, this is not the kind of uneasiness I feel watching a given film by Cassavetes, Bergman or Bresson.  My ambivalence about Dog Star Man is almost strictly intellectual as opposes to the emotional discomfort and uneasiness elicited from repeated viewings of A Woman Under the Influence, Scenes from a Marriage or Une Femme Douce.

The biggest difficulty I have with Dog Star Man is the lack of narrative complexity.  Despite Brakhage’s reputation for visual abstraction, this is a narrative film; make no mistake about it. It is the story of human life, the great myth of the existential journey through the figure of the filmmaker/protagonist.  It is as P. Adams Sitney describes it (paraphrasing Brakhage I believe), one of the tales of the tribes.  But unlike the narrative cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky that Brakhage so admired, his narrative is clunky and his symbols seem trite and loud.  As a tale of the tribe, Dog Star Man comes across overdone and lacking any shade of subtlety.  Yes, it is intense, messy, visceral, physically and psychologically grueling, but I wonder if the film’s effects are multi-dimensional or just singularly taxing.  This is not to say that it lacks formal complexity.  Dog Star Man is in fact quite adventurous formally, but I cannot help feeling that the message cannot catch up to the method.

He uses images as if they were musical notes, though Brakhage knew that this very concept was dubious.  Images can never really function as notes do.  He describes trying to defend his movies to Andrei Tarkovsky for precisely this reason: “I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had before Window Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming.  Because he’s arguing, this isn’t music, it has symbols, things that are nameable.  It was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent I’ve ever had, but it’s totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of my kind of films.” (Brakhage Meets Tarkovsky 2)  I’m rather inclined to agree with Tarkovsky, at least regarding most of Brakhage’s camera films, because the ultimate effect is one of overload, rather more cacophonous than musical.  A note is a note, but an image is a sign with all kinds of meanings carried with it.

This method renders Dog Star Man exceptionally challenging for first-time viewers.  Why all the trees, breasts, stars, organs?  A clever student will make the symbols into metaphors: trees to stars, breast to moon, etc, and there is indeed some of that to be had.  A close-up of a vagina superimposed over a baby’s head followed by an image of a stained glass Madonna heavily relies on the viewer’s understanding and familiarity with a set of pre-established signs, namely the iconography of Western mythology and Christianity.  But a much more ambitious sign arrangement propels Dog Star Man.  Vaginas are not just vaginas anymore; dogs are not merely dogs.  They are explicitly materials – images to be manipulated like two colors of paint one would mix together to come up with the desired color.  That I am left unable to give these signs a denotative meaning or assign a name to these colors is quite likely the filmmaker’s intention, and possibly one of the film’s great strengths.

Documentary filmmaker, Fred Wiseman, says the problem of cinema is that the director tries to show what is inside a person by photographing his or her outside.  This sounds like exactly the opposite of much of what one can see in Brakhage’s work.  More than just using stock footage of the inside (cells, organs, etc.), Brakhage tries to visualize an inside and project it on the screen.  Maybe scratched up celluloid, overlaid images and optical printing effects are not what you see in your mind’s eye, but for Brakhage those techniques function as metaphor.  Let us be certain to understand his purpose.  Brakhage does not represent the internal; metaphors do not represent, signify or stand in.  Metaphors compare.  They change the meanings of the things they compare.  In Dog Star Man it is often difficult to distinguish between internal and external, that is the eye and the mind’s eye, even if you have a good grasp of the symbols and mythology.

This movie is about really basic stuff.  Why am I here?  Brakhage explores this question from various fairly well known angles – the struggle between man and nature, the miracle of birth, the simultaneous beauty and agony of sexuality, confronting the otherness of woman.  All of these are pretty standard canonical tropes in the history of western literature and art.  Dog Star Man is the story of the same journey we know from the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and As I Lay Dying.  It is the western myth in which the protagonist first becomes self-aware, and then attempts to come to terms with his or her place in the universe by confronting and struggling against basic human fears.

Telling this story again is not Brakhage’s achievement.  He makes it new.  He puts the viewer through the journey all over again in his own idiosyncratic way.  Even if the tropes and symbols are tired, Brakhage revives them by injecting film into the mythology.  Dog Star Man is not just animals, genitalia, the human circulatory system and heavenly bodies.  It is also self-conscience, deliberate and obtrusive celluloid.  The western viewer will be familiar enough with the journey.  One will recognize Brakhage’s concerns as the fundamental mythology of the Western world.  But the experience of Dog Star Man is to be lived through, rather than discussed afterward.  One must gaze upon its unique light and take part in its palpable duration.  Dog Star Man is not the story of a journey; it is the journey.

–DJ

100-word Intro: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The melancholy gay Mozart of New German Cinema. Fassbinder’s prodigious genius yielded an astounding 42 features in only 13 years. Despite ceaseless experimentation across a range of genre, discursive melodrama best served the tension between his seething contempt for bourgeois hypocrisy and his infinite tenderness for his tragic protagonists—compelled by their natures to seek love and do right but restrained at every turn by social, moral and sexual forces beyond their control. In masterpieces like Ali and 13 Moons, Fassbinder utilized static blocking and intricately staged visual tableaus to conjure perhaps the saddest framing in all of cinema.

Feature: Festival Report (12th Jeonju International Film Festival) Part II

DAY THREE

7:30
Why do I wake up? Good thing anyway because DK set his alarm for 8:00PM instead of 8:00 AM.

8:00
The hotel breakfast buffet is a travesty. The milk and orange juice are room temperature. There is no meat. I never thought of kim-bap as an early morning food, but there it is. I’m confused by the jelly packet.  “What am I supposed to do with this thing,” I ask DK. “Fold it in half and  squeeze the two sides together.”  Okay.  The thing explodes all over my suit and white shirt. There’s a flaw in the design of the jelly containers they have in this country. As I’m dabbing the jelly with cold water and a napkin, the red print from the hotel napkin bleeds onto my shirt. The jelly comes right out; the dye does not.

(DK: The ineptitude with which DJ handles modern conveniences such as tissues or jelly packs makes me fearful for the evening meal when we are almost assured of encountering wet naps.)

8:44
The ticket situation so far is quite improved from yesterday’s sopping and confused wait. I’m second in line and the dry, cool weather is nothing short of glorious. It’s actually pleasant to stand in a line for forty-five minutes with nothing to do but wait and look. I notice Harpo again. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I would see the same people in line every morning, but somehow her get-up and uncanny, unfortunate resemblance to the mute Marx brother is always surprising.

9:45
Hotel interlude. It occurs to me that I say “diddly” far too often. Let us hope that admission is the first step to recovery.

(DK: I forego the early screening in anticipation of an industry event later in the afternoon where I will dress up in a suit and masquerade as a grownup professional in hopes of generating some sort of interest for our Theater project. My plan is to arm myself with impressive documents and to smile and bow a lot.

Although I am not hopeful, I know that relying on DJ to accomplish any sort of productive human interaction is suicide. Simply suicide.)

11:00
The Nine Muses (2010, English, John Akomfrah)
I can tell you what I saw, but I don’t think I can tell you what this movie is about after one viewing. Akomfrah uses three basic ingredients: gorgeous digital photography of what must be Alaska or northern Canada, archive footage which deals mostly with black in England in the 1960’s though there is also some footage of Indians in England as well and intertitles and voiceover narration consisting almost entirely of Western Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Beckett. It was all very interesting I just can’t say what it adds up to. I was taken with the DV sections that almost always showed a single person from behind looking out over a snowy landscape. I don’t know how the Western Literature contextualized those images, but they were always quite striking. The idea conflict of culture that results from the displacement of Africans was evident in the juxtaposition of the narration and intertitles to the images of Afro-English Diaspora, but on a first viewing, I have more questions than insights.

1:10
DK is convinced that we have time to eat bi-bim-bap before the Claire Denis program. Alas, they are closed, so now we really have to move fast. Somehow we decide that we have time for sushi. After sitting there for about twenty minutes I mention that almost every other table in the restaurant has been served since we sat down. We timed this poorly. DK runs up and cancels our order, as it is now twenty minutes to 2:00. I don’t know what any of the street food is, and there are lines everywhere anyway, so we have convenience store food. I had a 1000 won Snickers and a 1300 won sandwich. I guess I can accept that price structure.

(DK: The uncomfortable subtext to our entire expedition is that I am somehow here to merely feed, shelter and entertain DJ. He complains incessantly about things that are out of my control, such as the availability of a certain type of noodle or the barometric pressure.

Were it not for the fact that we are about to go see Claire Denis in person and that I am thus impervious to his negativity, I would seriously consider putting out a hit on him. Also, I haven’t really been keeping notes during the screenings.)

2:00
35 Shots of Rum (2008, French, Claire Denis)
You see this is why I have no time for artists that I have given a fair shot, but who do not hold my interest because they are one-dimensional or overrated. There are too many great filmmakers that I don’t know yet, and when I discover them, I have to dive in. So, to all my friends who want me to watch more movies by Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch and Charlie Kaufman – to give these guys yet another chance, I have to say, sorry, but I just discovered Claire Denis.

(DK: I want to be more rigorous, explicit and mechanical in my explication of Denis’ genius, but her films inspire only adjectival hyperbole–masterfully assured! dizzyingly sensuous! subtly complex! You leave the theater feeling drunk on fine wine.

With a nod to Ozu’s Late Spring, Denis conjures another rhapsodic meditation on bodies, love and solitude. As always, attention to narrative exposition falls secondary to the exploration of individuals and behavior; yet 35 Shots feels more deeply personal and assured for Denis, as well. The way the camera and the characters revolve around the taciturn central figure of the father (Alex Descas) resonates with a kind of respectful adulation, while celebrating his masculine mystery. She delves freely into this little-seen West-African French milieu without a hint of self-consciousness. She makes black skin appear positively luminous. Rather than rely on plot, motivations and resolution, she appears confident in the ability of an accumulation of vivid details and the occasional non-narrative discursion–such as handheld shots of railroad tracks taken from the driver’s cabin–to complete the film’s emotional arc.

She is quite simply our greatest cinematic poet of human touch. Like Cassavetes or Wong Kar-Wai, she does not merely show people in contact, embracing, dancing, exploring or lashing out–she creates a palpable pulse of sensation and frisson through her heightened visual attention, long takes, close-ups and music. This is no more evident than in the virtuoso central dance sequence that also neatly serves to illustrate the complex confluence of plot, theme and character that is her signature. Watch the embrace between father and daughter (Mati Diop), the graceful exchange of partners, the first delicate clasp of hands between Josephine and Noe (Gregoire Colin), Lionel’s conflicted gaze, then Noe’s undoing of Josephine’s hair and her slight stiffening leading to his kiss and her firm break and re-direction as she gently, insistently pulls him down to sit beside her, intimate but estranged. This is a symphony of meaningful gestures, a ballet of significant touches.

As always, I could go on and on when it comes to her films, but I’ll let the work do the talking… and the moving… and the crooning…)


3:55
Lecture and discussion – what they call a “Masterclass” here at JIFF. DK split for an industry event to try to find someone who will give us money to open a physical Cinema Underground so we can show some movies and offer free film school. Interesting. I notice that Chris Fujiwara is the moderator. I know that name from somewhere. As they are getting set up, Claire smashes her head on the bottom of the screen. This trauma does not stop her from saying one brilliant thing after another and from turning bad questions to gold. After watching Kidlat Tahimik the night before, I get the sense that this is a skill you have to develop if you submit to these kinds of things.

Here are some quotes:

“I love a festival because that’s the best school for filmmaking. There’s nothing better [for young filmmakers] than watching films.”

“I always say more in my films than what I can express after.”

When asked about rooting her characters to their jobs: “As an audience [member] I like to know what is their job. I don’t feel secure when I don’t know where the money comes from.”

“Love is not given like a solid thing; it is made of movement.”

“Metaphor is sometimes a little puerile. I would not make a film around a metaphor and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so.”

5:45
If you’ve read the Cinema Underground Provisional Manifesto, you should have a good idea of what we think of film criticism and film critics in general. We both recognized Chris Fujiwara’s name, but since neither DK nor myself could think of anything he wrote I assumed the worst. In fact, when DK handed him our card I immediately thought I should go to my website and make sure that I didn’t eviscerate him in my review of the Tarkovsky Anthology. After confirming that I was safe on that front, I looked him up online and found this: http://www.insanemute.com/.

I cannot recommend his writing highly enough. In criticism I am as attracted to the salient dismantling of mediocrity as I am to insightful analysis of genius, perhaps to a fault. At least that’s my litmus test. So when I saw headings for Magnolia and Steven Soderberg’s Solaris, I went straight to them to see if Fujiwara would distinguish himself from the majority. I am happy to say that he did and does, and I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of one of the best film critics on the planet.

(DK: As usual when it comes to socialization, I was the one who had to initiate contact with Chris Fujiwara, make small-talk and contextualize our visit to Jeonju so as to make us appear as somewhat social equals. We chatted briefly about festivals and the exhibition scene in Tokyo, while I gave him my card and hinted about our theater project. At some point, I motioned to DJ as my “business partner” whereupon I think he blurted something about “I like movie!” effectively obliterating our dignity.)

6:00
Looking for the best bi-bim-bap? Get in a cab and ask the driver where he would eat. This might be better than the best bi-bim-bap ever from the first day. There’s certainly more bonchon, and that’s crucial. They even brought us some special paste that they apparently don’t give to everyone. The one thing this place does not have going for it: Harpo is here! It’s one thing to see the same eccentric in line with use every day, but what are the odds that she would end up in this restaurant that we only found out about from asking the cab driver? She’s like a real Marx brother, turning up where you would never expect.

7:00
Hotel interlude

8:00
The Turin Horse (2011, Hungarian, Béla Tarr)
First things first, the atmosphere in here reminds me of camping in Missouri in July. That’s not an ideal state to view such a slow movie. The entire audience fights against nodding off. I’m going to have to write a longer review of this film. It was deliberately grueling experience. I’ve seen nothing like it except maybe Sokurov’s Second Circle another film that, coincidentally, takes the mystery of death as its subject as well. I thought about what Claire Denis said about not making a movie out of a metaphor, and I wonder if that’s what Tarr has done.

(DK: The movie and its subject were relentlessly brutal–but not altogether dis-pleasing. It’s my first Bela Tarr movie and I feel intuitively I know where he’s coming from. He wants us to feel the terrible inertia of mortality, the dark terror of spiritual barrenness. And the theater is hot like a bloody sauna, while wild wind blows constantly over the soundtrack. It’s the kind of film that I know will grow in stature after I leave the discomfort of my immediate experience.)

10:03
Whatever it was, The Turin Horse is not uplifting, and I thought it would be disrespectful to go out partying afterwards. I don’t think it’s the kind of film you should ignore. Then again, who knows when we’ll be here again, so I agree to Miller Time on the condition that we agree not to talk about the movie. Should I be surprised that as we take our seats I see Harpo come in the front door? We had some really horrendous bar food and I believe that between the bar and the Hoegaardens in the hotel room we ended up drinking more than the previous two nights.

(DK: My reaction to the crushing gravitas of the Tarr film is to offer to shake it off with a few drinks and a few laughs in front of the local university. DJ’s reaction is to shun and denounce all form of pleasure or enjoyment. We compromise by going to a bar that we know will suck.)

DAY 4

The last day went off without a hitch. We had only one program to attend, so we took breakfast rather leisurely before checking out and setting off for the JIFF Project digital video program.

(DK: The JIFF Digital Project is the centerpiece of the festival as it represents the artistic culmination of JIFF’s commitment to digital filmmaking.  Every year three renowned directors are chosen to receive US$150k funding to create a digital short to be premiered at the following year’s festival. The works are shown together as part of a single program and also distributed through DVD and screened at other festivals and venues. Previous participating filmmakers include Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-Liang, Harun Farocki, Jia Zhang-ke and Bong Joon-ho.)

11:00
The first short was ludicrous. It was by Jean-Marie Straub, a veteran filmmaker whose works I have never had a chance to see. His early works make a significant appearance in Amos Vogel’s Film As a Subversive Art, so I will reserve judgment until I see a few more, because I do trust Vogel for the most part. DK said that An Heir is why people have a bad impression of art movies. I just thought there was no idea behind it, as if they had given him the money and he couldn’t think of anything so he filmed three shots of a guy talking.

(DK: An unbearably pretentious piece of shit. If I was JIFF, I would ask for the remaining US$149k back from Straub.)

Denis’ To the Devil is much more interesting. It’s pretty straight-forward documentary, but it tells a story you probably haven’t heard.

(DK: Denis has an arch taste, it seems, for misunderstood bad boys. It is why the delicately handsome Gregoire Colin figures so prominently in her works and also why, I suspect, she became so engrossed in this story of the outlaw Jean Bena. The film’s most telling moment is captured when Denis offers the man, now over 40 and seemingly engorged by a life of hardship, a photo of himself as a young idealist 20 years earlier. “Look at this young Jean Bena,” Bena beams with a mixture of pride and regret. The toll on the man is as apparent as the ground from which he and his associates strip-mine for gold.)

Memories of a Morning by José Luis Guerín was the standout work of the program. Like last night’s The Turin Horse it was also about death, but approached the matter from a completely different angle and with a lighter touch to put it mildly. Here is another filmmaker whose works I must now seek out.

(DK: Densely-layered, humorous and poignant. As unexpected a film about death as one could imagine.)

After the film Denis and Guerín where on hand to field questions, but everything was in French, Spanish and Korean, so I can’t say much about that particular discussion. I’ll leave it to DK and his parenthetical responses.

I see no need to bookend this tale with a description of our trip back, so I’ll draw this to a close. JeonJu was a great success for Cinema Underground. We met some filmmakers, saw some great movies and ate like kings for three days. Stay tuned for various articles about the specific films.

100-word Intro: Chantal Akerman

Akerman is a genius of the performative mode.  Meaning is bodily, whether between bodies like the lovers wrestling in je, tu, il, elle, or bodies in isolation like the titular heroines in Jeanne Dielman and Les rendez-vous d’Anna.  Anna lies in bed alone or looks out of hotel room windows like a woman in a Hopper painting.  Toute une nuit explores the embrace; couples fall together like Pina Bausch choreography.  Empty rooms and public spaces wait for people to occupy them.  When action is so thoroughly minimal, little things become events.  Jeanne misses a button, and that tells the story.



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