Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The First Transition Week 2: I Was Born, But...

It’s taken some time, and much reconsideration, to dismiss (clarify?) some of the more prevalent misconceptions of Ozu’s work. We can forgive most of the early generalizations: that his films have no camera movement, that his stationary camera is always placed low to the ground in an imitation of a sitting position, that his films deal with family issues and middle class malaise, that he is so inherently Japanese (as opposed to say, Mizoguchi or Kurosawa) that his films are inappropriate/inaccessible to Western audiences and therefore rarely seen (Ozu was in fact quite enamored with American film, and it is generally accepted that Leo McCarey’s “Make Way For Tomorrow” was a primary inspiration for Ozu’s “breakthrough” film in the West, Tokyo Story; furthermore, to suggest that his films were “typically Japanese” neglects all sorts of social levels – where these unrepresented peoples “less” Japanese?). Early formulations on Ozu’s work were, obviously, largely shaped by a certain inaccessibility, with infrequent distribution in the West and gaping holes in between the works that were seen (critics were missing the connecting tissue, as it where). A quick perusal of my Ozu dvds confirm most of the above assumptions – the liner notes for Criterion’s Good Morning describes the film as “a wild card in his career… where he (Ozu) sees the world through children’s eyes” (in fact, Ozu is considered by many to be the best director of children in film, an opinion based on the dozen or so films he made from children’s points of view). The liner notes also make a broad assumption about the key motifs of the 50’s and 60’s, where his films were all about “the attempt by an aging parent to marry off a dutiful daughter…” Critic Michael Atkinson admits that “it’s a cliché now to posit Ozu as the “most Japanese” of that nation’s great directors, but it still seems true” while reinforcing himself the cliché that Ozu’s films are “zen-like”.

Now, with his reputation firmly established and more than a few works of intrepid scholarship (Donald Ritchie, frequently credited as Ozu’s key proponent, has revised much of his earlier formulations, see also Bordwell, Burch, Rosenbaum and Wood), several traveling retrospectives and a general tendency towards archival screenings, as well as the decent amount of films readily available on home video formats, we novices, the uninitiated, can finally come to grips with a large and varied body of work. Far from suggesting that I’m some sort of Ozu expert (I’ve only seen seven of his 50+ films), I am, instead, extremely excited to delve into that oeuvre.

I Was Born, But… seems only atypical if measured against the above (hopefully adequately refuted) presumptions. In actuality, it is a key early work that shows a director in total command of his visual vocabulary and social commentary – in short, it is a masterwork. The Yoshii family has moved out to the suburbs of Tokyo, presumably for the father to be closer to his boss and work (David Bordwell explains the term batsu: a clique of co-workers who also socialize in other aspects of life, forming a kind of familial unit based entirely around company life and the gradual accumulation of more status). The two Yoshii sons quickly become entangled with the local bully and his little mob. Hoping to avoid a fight, the sons skip school and forge an assignment, only to have a teacher report back to their father that they were not in class. Eventually forced to return to school, the Yoshii boys (with the help of an older delivery boy) vanquish the bully and take control of the little gang. From their new found position of power, the boys are shocked to see their father bowing (subjugating) himself to the boss (who’s son is the tiniest member of the gang). While viewing home movies one evening, the Yoshii boys see footage of their father acting like a clown for the boss’ amusement. Angered by their father’s embarrassing play-acting, the boys go on a hunger strike. The next morning, they eventually succumb to hunger and break bread with their father. Familial unity has been restored. And yet still there is unease.

My efforts at plot synopsis are hopelessly inadequate to confer even part of the humor, sensitivity and subversive nature of the film. I Was Born, But… is essentially an examination of social power struggles. The father’s position at work is constantly juxtaposed with/commented on by the sons’ struggles with the local bully. In the children’s world, order and regimentation are based on quantifiable, tangible abilities – size, strength, speed. When the Yoshii son’s realize that they can’t best the bully, they make the logical conclusion to find someone bigger than themselves (the older delivery boy) to fight fort hem. But the father’s world is ruled by status and money – abstract ideas to these small boys who are convinced that, since their father is the “greatest”, he should grovel to no one. Ozu positions both ideas, concrete/intangible, into a kind of dialectic of power – a position articulated by an astounding sequence that segues into an astonishing camera movement. In the school courtyard, a large group of boys are (arranged in what looks like a military formation) doing their morning exercises. As the formation carries out its movements, Ozu gets some laughs from a boy who just can’t seem to stay in step with the group, turning left while the others turn right and so on. The boys are then arranged into a single file line, and as they turn to march off screen to the left, the camera begins a lateral tracking movement to the right. As it tracks, the scene cuts (almost seamlessly, an astounding technical achievement); the camera now moves across a row of men seated at desks in an office. We pass a series of these men before the camera stops and tracks back the way it came, resting momentarily on a man struggling to stay awake. It lingers for just a moment before restarting its path towards the boss’ office. The young boy who so amusingly could not keep up with his fellow students is now linked visually to the tired office worker – what was for a moment funny is now, retrospectively, a depressing projection into the future of this boy/man who will never be able to follow in step with his surroundings. Furthermore, the scene links the notion of rigid formation and following orders from the school yard to the office, a dire trajectory for the Yoshii boys. Later in the film, as the parents lament their own failures and wonder aloud if their children will succeed where they have not, we think back to this defining scene in the film and realize the full weight of what the children are struggling against. Paternal authority haunts the school yard, the play ground, and the office. Indeed, the unease at the end of the film, despite the reconstitution of the family, is the underlining sense that the powerful social dynamics of the capitalized world have been laid bare. If nothing has really changed, there is in fact, a sense that the boys have willfully accepted the need to subjugate oneself in order to survive (as the father tries to explain, with increasing frustration, that the boss is the one who pays him and allows the boys to go to school).
Critic Gabe Klinger filled in for Rosenbaum on this screening (Rosenbaum was attending TIFF) and made some cursory introductory remarks culled mostly from Rosenbaum’s essay entitled “Is Ozu Slow?”. I offer here some of what Gabe read aloud, as well as a bit more context from the essay itself:
“Stockhausen has the following to say about what he calls Japanese timing: "Where timing is concerned, the European is absolutely mediocre. Which means he has settled down somewhere in the middle of his range of potential tempi. It is a very narrow range, compared with the extremely fast reactions that a Japanese [person] might have at a certain moment, and to the extremely slow reaction that he might show on another occasion. He has a poor middle range compared to the European." Stockhausen also implies that this distinction is in danger of being effaced or at least eroded by the Westernization and Americanization of Japan. This is a delicate matter, because we know from the persuasive arguments in Shigehiko Hasumi's book on Ozu, Yasujiro Ozu (available in its entirety only in Japanese and French, though the beautiful final chapter, "Sunny Skies," can be found in David Desser's 1997 collection of critical pieces devoted to Tokyo Story published by Cambridge University Press), that Ozu's work also reflects to some degree the impact of America on Japanese culture. But because Hasumi is a Japanese critic looking at American influence and I'm an American critic looking at Japanese elements, we see things with a somewhat different emphasis. In any case, I would like to suggest--and this is my second hypothesis--that the fast reactions in Japanese spectators implied in Ozu's filmmaking practice often correspond to standing and walking, and that the slow reactions implied in his filmmaking practice often correspond to sitting.”

He goes further regarding, specifically, I Was Born, But…

“… this is a film in which social behavior and social conditioning are at least as important as reflection, and the issue of speed is relevant to all three activities. Early in the film, after the boys skip school out of fear of getting beaten up and have their lunch in the field, one of the brothers reminds the other, "We're supposed to get an A in writing today." Soon afterwards they both stand up to finish their lunch on their feet, an action which implies, as much else in the film does, that getting ahead in the world requires alertness and motion, both of which are usually more obtainable from a standing position.”

He concludes his essay with:

“One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that speed is relative--all the more so in a film where coexistence and relativity are central to the style as well as the subject. For this reason, we can't answer the question, "Is Ozu slow?" in a single way. The work is too rich and too varied for such a question to have any meaning. Indeed, it's part of the function of the greatest artists to dissolve such questions, or at the very least transform them into other questions. For what finally matters most in Ozu is not how slow or fast he is but how slow or fast we are in keeping up with him.”

You can read the entire essay here – I would recommend it, as Rosenbaum’s analysis of the above mentioned tracking shot clarifies and enhances my own thoughts on the matter

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Burn After Reading (or before viewing)

“There is also… a way of reacting to a crisis – perhaps this way belongs to a later phase in which hope and will have been put aside. I refer to the impassive reflection of the absurdities which become the accepted realities of daily life, as well as the emblems of its disorder. The projection of these absurdities according to their own logic produces an art of impenetrable farce, farce being the final form, as Marx noted in one of his Hegelian moments, of action in a situation that has become untenable.”

Harold Rosenberg

* * *

“Keep an eye on them until it all makes sense.”

The camera zooms down through the heavens, breaking through blue skies and clouds, descending upon a Google Earth version of Washington D.C. It’s a god’s eye view that uncomfortably suggests that the Coen Bros. are descending down from their vaunted seat in the critical elite, members of the pantheon about to bestow wisdom upon us mere mortals. We will learn that what they have to teach us is this: none of it makes sense, it’s all a cosmic joke of idiotic, self serving hubris, greed, misunderstandings, and rage. So why not just sit back and enjoy the ride?

* * *

“What did we learn here?”

(pause) “Not to do it again?”

(longer pause) “But what the fuck did we do?”

The Coen’s have always dodged accusations of being pop-nihilists; pick a label - that they are self-consciously hip; glib, sarcastic, condescending, anti-humanist; their films are populated by caricatures (and (un)usually grotesque ones at that); that they are anti-intellectuals who talk down to their audience while, simultaneously and paradoxically, flattering them. To all of which we might now add, with Burn After Reading: they are officially anti-film.
How do I begin to describe a film populated by idiots (a “league of morons”, as is oft quoted in the film) that engage in dubious and ill-advised affairs (sabotage, subterfuge, blackmail, breaking and entering, adultery, alcoholism, murder) in the midst of a lugubrious, twisting plot that gleefully leads nowhere – the lack of closure at the end of No Country that seemed (at the time) to mean so much has now been transformed into a joke itself – an entire film in which the plot and characters are one huge, unprecedented macguffin, coupled with a denouement that unabashedly acknowledges that we’ve all just been sold a bill of goods. To which a defender might suggest: but that’s the joke, don’t you get it? Yes, I suppose it’s all very clever. But what does it all mean? Or does it have to mean anything at all? Perhaps not, unless one actually seeks edification and engagement with works of art. It is confusing to me, the whole thing. Why make films at all? Genre deconstruction? Perhaps; and yet it seems to me that Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men operate all too smoothly within genre parameters to acquire such a label (not to mention unabashed homages like Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy, or a simple remake like The Ladykillers). No, it seems to me, at least, that the Coen’s tackle a subject/genre to both mock it and prove their mastery of it (and in the process patting us on the back for being clever enough to follow along – we confirm our own mastery over the material through them).
And what of their much vaunted technical prowess? It’s certainly not on display here – there is such a lack of visual distinction that one is forced to wonder how much they’ve really leaned on Deakins (or Sonnenfeld before him). DP Emmanuel Lubezki seems to be filling in the blanks, especially after his work with Cuaron, Malick and Mann. Most of the film’s humor comes from the Coen’s cutting on an action or a face, abruptly ending the shot just before or after it might usually end. It creates a certain amount of tension, to be sure, and they get some ok comedic mileage out of Pitt and Clooney, but the idea gets old quickly and they don’t offer much of anything else. Otherwise, it’s pretty standard film grammar, full of shot-counter-shot and matching eyelines. When in doubt, the Coen’s frame something symmetrically or hold the camera in a fixed position for just a beat or two after a scene has ended, in effect leaving the character stranded in a kind of negative space that exists purely for their discomfort (and our sour satisfaction) . The actors all seem game – much like Woody Allen, another highly mediocre and over praised critic’s darling, A-list stars keep falling all offer themselves to be in a Coen Bros film. There must be something there, some perception that one is going to work with a master and/or really push the boundaries of one’s craft. But Clooney is relegated here to steadily repeated punch lines (“I should try to get in a run” used almost as frequently, and with equally diminishing returns, as “We’re in a tight spot here boys!” or “I’m a Dapper Dan man!” or, to go back to earlier examples, “It’s for kids!” or “It really tied the room together!”). Pitt fairs somewhat better, as he seems to have wandered in from an entirely different film, and yet even he winds up regurgitating the same lines over and over again (repeating the name “Osborne Cox….” ad naseum, the presumption being that hearing the word “cox” repeatedly is amusing) and is summarily dispatched in yet another violent-scene-as-punctuation that the Coen’s have become so adept at. If you think your audience might be getting bored, or if you just need a quick shock tactic, spray some viscera on the wall (arterial spray also gets a work out). It’s indicative of their world view that the one character who actually acts like a human being gets shot and hacked to bits with a hatchet. So what’s it all about?

Critic Glenn Kenny (someone who, I might add, I admire quite a bit) offers this:

“Complaining that the Coen Brothers can be a little too smart-alecky is like bitching that de Sica was excessively humanistic: more than a little obvious, and completely beside the point. They am what they am, and putting aside the proposition that there's some moral/ethical prerogative to privilege humanism over smart-aleck-ness, how well you'll appreciate/enjoy these filmmakers' works depends on how readily you're willing to key into (which doesn't necessarily mean agree with) their perspectives.”

He makes at least one good point: we don’t need to agree with it. And do we frequently "key into" perspectives with which we disagree? I might add that, while it’s not particularly fashionable to suggest that there is a kind of moral/ethical prerogative: if there's not, then what’s the point? And what are we fighting for in November? Instead, we find ourselves with Rosenberg's notion of circular, self perpetuating farce. What does it mean if we look into the void and simply shrug? That sounds an awful lot, to me at least, like giving up. Perhaps that's the Coen's contribution to our modern dystopia - permission to acquiesce.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet

A fascinating new critical symposium has appeared online and in print in the newest issue of the essential quarterly film magazine Cineaste. I would assume that the recent spate of critic firings is of vital interest to just about anyone who would be bothering to read this post, and the influence of online film writing is certainly germane to the situation. “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet” seeks to explore some of the issues at stake for the future of an increasingly unstable form of discourse - the passionate, informed discussion of film as an art form. A quick glance at mainstream film coverage suggests the depths to which we’ve sunk – last I saw, People Magazine’s film coverage had been reduced to a hundred word capsule review and a large color photo, along with a list of what was currently playing. And the less said about Entertainment Weekly, the better. I offer the beginning of the editorial that opens the symposium:

“In introducing the Critical Symposium on “International Film Criticism Today” in our Winter 2005 issue, we maintained, with a certain resigned pride, that “critics at independent film magazines have virtually complete freedom, and a generous amount of space, to express their opinions if they are willing to endure the relative (or, in some cases, total) penury that results from being unaligned with the corporate media.” In recent months, American critics, having been fired, downsized, or bought out by a host of publications, are realizing that even making compromises with their corporate employers does not guarantee them a job. Given the current economic malaise, the role of online criticism has become increasingly prominent. There has also been, at least in certain quarters, an intensification of the occasional friction between print critics and the denizens of the blogosphere. In a typically ungracious broadside in The New York Press, Armond White wailed that “Internetters…express their ‘expertise,’ which essentially is either their contempt or idiocy about films, filmmakers, or professional critics. The joke inherent in the Internet horde is that they chip away at the professionalism they envy, all the time diminishing critical discourse.”

Below are the questions sent out to a myriad number of critics/bloggers, either professionals, amateurs, online or in print publications, or, increasingly, some combination of all of these things. The list of contributers includes Glenn Kenny, Mike D’Angelo, J. Hoberman, Kent Jones, Adrian Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Amy Taubin, Steve Erickson and Richard Shickel, among many others:

We posed the following question to our respondents, suggesting that they could choose either to answer the individual questions, or to use them as departure points for their own essay.

1) Has Internet criticism made a significant contribution to film culture? Does it tend to supplement print criticism or can it actually carve out critical terrain that is distinctive from traditional print criticism? Which Internet critics and bloggers do you read on a regular basis?

2) How would you characterize the strengths and weaknesses of critics’ blogs? Which blogs do you consult on a regular basis—and which are you drawn to in terms of content and style? Do you prefer blogs written by professional critics or those by amateur cinephiles?

3) Internet boosters tend to hail its “participatory” aspects—e.g., message boards, the ability to connect with other cinephiles through critics’ forums and email, etc. Do you believe this “participatory” aspect of Internet criticism (film critics form the bulk of the membership lists of message boards such as a film by and Politics and Film) has helped to create a genuinely new kind of “cinematic community” or are such claims overblown?

4) Jasmina Kallay, writing in Film Ireland (September-October 2007), has claimed that, in the age of the Internet, the “traditional film critic… is losing his stature and authority.” Do you agree or disagree with this claim? If you agree, do you regard this as a regrettable or salutary phenomenon?

In the spirit of the internet’s “participatory” aspects, take a stab at answering these questions for yourself in the comments below. You can read the entire (it is lengthy) article here.

The First Transition Week 1: Scarface

Rosenbaum’s First transition screening/lecture series started with a bang this semester, with a showing of Howard Hawks’ gangster classic Scarface. The rise and fall of an American criminal is, at this point (and was, perhaps, even years ago) a tried a true formula, the particular parameters well known to just about everyone. Yet, despite its age and (by now) familiarity, Hawks’ film still mesmerizes. Rosenbaum prefaced the screening with some brief comments, such as Hawk’s dissatisfaction with the previous studio he was working for, which lead him to Hollywood outsider/bad boy producer Howard Hughes – apparently both where in the mood to shake things up and make a film that would push the boundaries of respectability. This led, inevitably, to numerous battles with the censors, necessitating cutting, reshoots, and substituting discarded takes for final shots. The version that still exists to this day is all we’ve got, and no one, even in the 30’s, saw Hawks’ original version in all its gruesome glory. Surprisingly, what remains is enormously provocative – fast paced, sexy, violent, elegant – leading me to wonder as to the extremity of what was removed. Rosenbaum also mentioned that Hawks is one of his five favorite American directors (along with Ford, Hitchcock, Welles and Chaplin) but that it took him longer to appreciate the particulars of his oeuvre than the other directors mentioned. He’s not the first critic to mention such a difficulty – I remember a conversation with Fred Camper many years ago, before I had seen any Hawks films, in which Camper (unsuccessfully, at the time) tried to sell me on Hawks’ peculiar, unassuming genius (I’ve since been converted).

That elusive style is what has always fascinated me about Hawks. In what we could call a system of meaning, or a thematic collection of sorts, Hawks’ most famous period (post ’39 and the release of Only Angels Have Winds) posits an incredibly specific and consistent set of concerns: an emphasis on groups of men, professionals, the best at what they do to the exclusion of all else, be it pilots, lawmen, gunfighters, race car drivers, fur traders or big game hunters. There is usually a fallen comrade, someone who has, through carelessness, stupidity, hubris, or because of a woman, let the group down and must redeem themselves. In Hawks’ world, friendship and professionalism is all that counts and this process of redemption is handled matter-of-factly (see Dean Martin’s redemption in Rio Bravo for the purest example of this process). If someone dies, it is simply because they just weren’t good enough. Women can become a part of the group, but only after they’ve proved that they are tough enough, good enough to stand toe to toe with the men. Then there is, of course, the dialectic between the men dominated action film and the women dominated comedies – a complex dialectic that is perhaps best left for a different essay. But beyond these thematic concerns, there is always the formal – how do the films operate visually? Hawks, quite naturally, frames people in these groups, emphasizing the entire body in motion – gesture, the way someone walks, enters a room, or mounts a horse are all extremely important. Even when not shooting an entire group of people, Hawks almost always includes at least two people – appropriately called a two-shot, and, as Robin Wood has noted, “balancing two characters equally on screen”. Wood also notices that, like almost all of the adventure films, “Rio Bravo contains remarkably few clear point-of-view shots”. We have what is essentially a fascination with equality, where minor characters get as much screen time, and perhaps even more personality, than the film’s ostensible star, and a group dynamic, to the exclusion of all else, is considered the highest ideal one can strive for. An idealized democracy? Absolutely.

As an early work, Scarface fits very few of the above (admittedly loosely sketched) criteria. What we have here is a hard, bitter film (lending credence to Rosenbaum’s suggestion that Hawks is ultimately a pessimistic nihilist). In its brief running time, Tony guns down dozens of men, murders his best friend, gets his sister killed, and finally dies in agony (of interest: an alternate ending included on the dvd of Tony being tried, convicted, and executed; apparently getting gunned down while running from the police didn’t adequately portray our justice system at work). The film is much more expressionistic than later Hawks – at this point Murnau and cinematographer Karl Freund had already been in Hollywood for several years, Sunrise had won the first (and only) Academy Award for artistic achievement, and Universal had begun its now classic monster movie cycle, cementing the infiltration of German Expressionism into an American visual vernacular. Certain scenes even suggest Von Sternberg, as Hawks will frame a shot through miscellaneous bric a brac; the scene that introduces Tony’s sister (Ann Dvorak as “Cesca”) to his best friend (George Raft as “Guino”) finds her looking down at him from her window as he stands on the street – she is framed by an elaborate kind of fire escape railing, creating visually the impression that she is trapped behind bars (essentially true, as Tony is fiercely, inappropriately protective of her) and that Guino clearly represents a kind of freedom. Hawks will also open a scene with a sinewy tracking shot that begins close up on an object before snaking its way up to a more proper framing (his later films almost entirely eschew the close up). Shadows are at constant play here – the celebrated “St. Valentines Day Massacre” scene is one of the more expressionistic moments in Hawks’ career, as far as I know. The camera moves down over a lattice work of X’s that create a dark horizontal band across the top of the frame. The camera moves further down to a white wall and we see the silhouette of several men lined up. Some one orders them to turn around put their hands up, and they obey, all relayed to the audience via shadow. Then, the wall erupts with bullet holes, the shadows crumple, and the camera moves back up the way it came, again crossing the series of X’s that initially framed the scene. It’s an elaborate scene of violent eruption that’s created entirely in the mind’s eye, akin to Dreyer’s (arguably more poetic) use of shadows as an alternate plane of corrupted, horrific reality in Vampyr. Of note, Rosenbaum drew the audience’s attention to the recurring use of these X’s, a motif/joke inspired by old newspapers practice of putting an X where a corpse would be in a photograph. By all accounts, it became a sort of game where members of the cast/crew could suggest different ways of incorporating an X into any of the film’s many, many murder scenes.

Paul Muni’s Tony is all jaw and brow, with sunken, beady eyes to boot – he looks simultaneously like a beaten down wrestler and a petulant youth. Hawks will frequently shoot his face so that thick eyebrows create a kind of horizon line under the brim of a hat and cleaves the face in two. Tony’s gestures are all over the place, a bundle of tics as he constantly winks, scrunches his face, grabs at women or guns – all nervous, combustible energy (and sarcastic at that). When he shoots a pistol, his arm juts back and forth, like a punch or a pelvic thrust. Graduating to a tommy gun, the thrust becomes an orgiastic spray of bullets.

I’m not sure Hawks could make a film where only the protagonist is of importance – even in Scarface, while Tony is essentially the main character and drives forward the film’s actions, he is surrounded by fascinating supporting characters, each with an interesting persona all their own. Ann Dvorak is alternately gawky and elegant, depending on how she slants her shoulders or tilts her head, and George Raft is all quiet menace as he stands around flipping a coin. Boris Karloff turns up as an emaciated, gaunt looking gangster on the run from Tony and his crew – Karloff’s tall, lanky frame looking like it might collapse under the strain at any moment.

Thematically, the film is a nightmare extension of capitalism – the American dream gone sour, the immigrant experience as infiltrating, marauding other. Money is everything, you can’t have enough wealth or enough things – Tony is constantly showing off his newest suits and ties, or his new house with retractable metal shudders. Even the much discussed incestuous relationship with his sister seems to me less sexualized than an elaboration of Tony’s possessive nature – he wants to own her like everything else. The hard working Italian immigrant becomes the hard working American gangster, assimilated whole cloth into a tapestry of disaster capitalism (to appropriate a suitable phrase). We have here, to my mind, a masterpiece of the gangster genre, much like Hawks would master the noir with The Big Sleep and the musical with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, before moving on to refine, and then redefine, the Western.