Monday, February 9, 2009

Oshima @ The Film Center

“The problematic nature of Oshima’s work arises from the question: what is the relationship between this me and the struggle out there?”
Noel Burch, “To the Distant Observer”

“Film critics, film festivals, film magazines - they are all too obsessed with the latest thing, the cutting edge, the most incredible new discovery. Retrospectives are disappearing from film festivals and slipping into the walled-up tombs of museums, archives, libraries and cinémathèques. You can't read about an old movie - not even one by Rossellini or Borzage - in an issue of Film Comment or Cinema Scope these days unless it either a. is touring in a roadshow, b. is the object of a fabulous print restoration, or c. has just been released in an expensive dvd box set. Meanwhile, the fashions flush in and out: Wong Kar-wai, Sokurov and Kiarostami are yesterday's news, as we greedily leap upon Gomes and a couple of Filipinos.
Adrian Martin, “Rank and file: The (re)discovery of William Klein”

I can’t bring myself to totally disagree with Adrian Martin and his above rant on criticism and the desire to turn learning into a marketable “event” – such is the nature of capitalism and commodities. I said something similar myself in the introduction to my end-of-year best list (a tradition that, in itself, seems to typify this desire to stay on “the cutting edge”). But I’m surprised by his tone – for one, my past experiences with Martin’s writings reveal an engaged, funny and above all optimistic critic, and second: that this kind of tirade does a certain dis-service to the magazines he singles out for derision. They happen to be two of my favorites, and, while both are guilty of the occasional hype mongering, both magazines, as institutions, have always struck me as the kind of film coverage we so desperately need more of. Furthermore, Martin’s dismissal of Film Comment doesn’t take into account their regular columns by Guy Maddin or Alex Cox, always dedicated to obscure past oddities that have been largely forgotten by the culture at large, or Cinemascope editor Mark Peranson’s peculiar blend of enthusiasm and anti-establishment curmudgeon (and since I'm unfamiliar with "Gomes" or these "couple of Filipinos", I'm looking foward to yet another avenue of untapped possibilities).
If the situation at “museums, archives, libraries and cinematheques” is really as dire as Martin would have us believe, thank god we Chicagoans have The Film Center. Their current retrospective of Nagisa Oshima is probably the first major event of the new year (woops, there I go) and indicative of the Center’s dedication to the oeuvres of key directors - about this same time last year saw a near complete retro of Imamura films, and their late-spring de Oliveira series was, while far from exhaustive, an indispensable primer for one of the major underappreciated figures in world cinema. Not coincidently, and perhaps further evidence for Martin’s discouragement, the de Oliveira series was accompanied by a lively essay in the pages of Film Comment by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Even more damning, the current Oshima series was preceded by a career assessing essay by, yes, Rosenbaum, in the pages of Art Forum. I happen to know that both directors are Rosenbaum favorites - he’s been writing about them in some capacity or another for years. It seems clear that it’s the magazines in question that needed some kind of up-to-the-minute, present tense reason for being interested in the careers of these particular directors. Regardless, anything that can drum up interest in films that aren’t The Dark Knight or more mindless Oscar predictions is all right in my book.

I’ve only seen three of Oshima’s features, and virtually no one can claim to have seen all of his work, which includes numerous documentaries and assorted television works (none of which, to my knowledge, are part of this series). I offer here some thoughts on two films encountered during the second week of the Film Center’s two month program, and hope to be able to catch at least six more by the end of February. Most critics familiar with Oshima agree that he is something of a stylistic chameleon, even if his thematic concerns (a kind of antagonistic, anti-social pedagogue) remains relatively consistent. Seeing Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976) back to back on a Saturday afternoon goes some ways towards validating this generalization. To my mind, both films present a soured, misanthropic view of society, which the two lovers of Senses struggle against - although in Flesh it extends to every character in the narrative. I’m not familiar enough with Oshima’s body of work to claim any kind of special insight, but I’m interested in several specific choices he makes in each film, and how those choices inform each other. Flesh is shot in a beautiful 2:35 aspect ration, the widest of widescreens. He alternates between wide open spaces that obscure characters with intrusions into the foreground, or, conversely, cramping multiple characters into one section of the frame, leaving the rest in a kind of negative space limbo. Whether obscuring an action or face, or creating a claustrophobic clumping of characters into clean, crisp straight lines (the protagonist’s modern apartment), both kinds of compositions hide something from the viewer while simultaneously revealing a character’s state of mind or physical condition. The contours of the plot are too outrageously convoluted to be fully revealed here (although in the film, it is repeated several times, almost as if Oshima is making sure late-comers will be up to speed), but it involves a teacher and his unrequited love for a pupil – he kills her rapist, who is trying to blackmail her family and ruin her good name. Once the deed is done, the pupil marries another man, sending our teacher into a serious funk. Meanwhile, he is blackmailed into concealing embezzled government money, which he must return once his blackmailer is released from jail. Our teacher decides instead to spend all of the money in one year and then kill himself before the embezzler/blackmailer gets out of jail. Anyone familiar with Vertigo will guess what happens next – he hooks up with women that resemble his lost love, showering them with money, gifts and fancy apartments. And that’s just the first thirty minutes or so.
In the Realm of the Senses is an entirely different beast, at least formally speaking. Shot in the relatively more cramped ration of 1:85, Oshima discards the horizontal emphasis of scope, along with the accompanying negative space – instead, we get something of a tableau style, with multiple figures “stacked” in space, their various movement choreographed to retain legibility within various levels of focus. Sidestepping the ever present “what is pornography?” issue, it seems likely that In the Realm of the Senses has become Oshima’s best known feature almost entirely due the controversy surrounding its explicit, hyper sexual content (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is probably the second best known, presumably because of the presence of David Bowie).
Senses can barely conceal its disgust at society – the two lovers abscond to a small room where hey indulge their every sexual whim, only occasionally venturing outside to earn money or buy food – eventually, their outdoor excursions simply turn into extensions of their love making. Other characters comment on their shocking behavior – clearly, Oshima is interested in a didactic kind of anti-moralizing. If the intense, non-stop sex in the film starts off as liberating, it eventually disintegrates into a kind of crazed dementia – each partner demands more and more of the other, and they threaten to consume each other. That the man concedes to his own demise, in fact making himself complicit in his own murder, is presented by Oshima as the only logical conclusion for two people who can no longer exist in this world. He leaves it open as to whether this world is worth existing in or not.
To reiterate, I’m no Oshima expert, and on the basis of these two films (I’ve also seen Taboo, but some years ago), I’m not even sure if he is the “master” that Rosenbaum, Burch and James Quandt might have us believe he is. There seems to me limitations to such an acerbic world view, not the least of which is a kind of anti-social belief that we are beyond hope – if the world is a horrible place, and always will be, then what’s the point? Senses apocalyptic ending is almost romantic, in a sick kind of way, but Pleasures of the Flesh is particularly unsatisfying in its final moments. Like a kind of twisted variation on a Twilight Zone episode, fate conspires against our teacher in an avalanche of ironic futility – he finds out that his blackmailer has died in prison, meaning he would never have to give the money back. Unfortunately, he’s spent it all already, just before his long lost love come crawling to him, desperate for a loan, ready and willing to subjugate herself to him. He’s then implicated in a murder that he didn’t commit, fingered by his old student and woman of his dreams, only to inadvertently confess to the murder he actually committed. Used up and empty, our protagonist has played his part in Oshima’s cosmic dance of futility. It is an interesting question, and one that critic Robin Wood discusses with some frequency – does violence erupt logically from the perceived break down of society, or do the two in fact inform and perpetuate each other? Or, to put it another way, do we in fact have the right to be violently angry? I look forward to delving deeper into Oshima, without any pre-conceived notion that these mysteries will be resolved/reconciled.
Coming up next, Cruel Story of Youth (1959) and Night and Fog in Japan (1960).Cruel Story follows a group of disaffected young people in a bombed out, post-WWII landscape, and critic Dave Kehr describes Night and Fog as a stylistic precursor to Godard’s Maoist period – color me excited.

2 comments:

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Dan,

Great stuff. I myself have doubts regarding Oshima--doubts that aren't lessened by watching more of his films. Oshima's one of those directors whose individual works all raise different issues. The more you see, the less you think you understand him.

Oshima's stance is, ultimately, that of a doubter (doubteur?). So maybe my doubts--and your doubts--are what he wants to engage. If Fuller and Eisenstein wanted to make their audiences into believers, Oshima wants them to become agnostics.

I'm looking forward to reading your opinion on Cruel Story of Youth.

Maya said...

Dan, my thanks to Ignatiy for pointing out your site and--specifically--this write-up on Oshima. The retrospective you experienced in Chicago is now at its last stop at the Pacific Film Archive in San Francisco. Were you able to catch any more of the films? I, too, would love to hear what you think about Cruel Story of Youth, which knocked my socks off with its widescreen technicolor.