Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Floating Clouds

Fatal Distractions, Colliding Regrets

(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.


'Death from consumption.' - Cancer? Pneumonia? Tuberculosis, the flu? With the practically epidemic levels that pervade the 19th-century novel and Japanese cinema of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, illness has always seemed in these works, no matter the real-world basis, the deus ex machina of choice to push the plot forward to its tragic dénouement. How many Ozu films feature a child stretched beneath a sack of ice-water scaled to meet their brow? How often was the inducer of the fever the film-world (scenario) itself?

The sitting-room as the theater of death: "theater" in two senses: that of the common usage, and that of the "operation theater" that featured recently on the cover of one of my favorite New Yorker illustrations of all time. (I think of The New Yorker here not only in relation to this cover, but also in the context of critical mass, in all the senses of the phrase.)

The patient fixed ("like a butterfly on a pin" [it takes 12 years more till Suzuki's Branded to Kill]), with the physical body and the condition itself as fulcrum; the patient as the operative element of the narrative procedure. I think of Stahl's Magnificent Obsession, Franju's Eyes Without a Face, Frankenheimer's Seconds, Almodóvar's The Skin I Live In. The procedure will transform the film-world itself, transubstantiate, shake the story. (Note written: "Ripe enough for Preston Sturges in Sullivan's Travels." Okay...)

Sallitt compares Floating Clouds [Ukigumo, 1955] to Ford's The Searchers as a work that evinces the full distillation of themes, idea-concerns, all taken to their most complex height of insight, most insightfully and ambiguously, by its respective author, here Naruse. But Naruse it seems to me cannot thrill a general audience as Ford did, never mind color, action, or tech: he makes his ideas expositionalized through incessant one-on-one dialogue pinned against a decor filthy enough to reinforce the emotional ordure. The fact that Floating Clouds was Number 3 in Kinema Junpô's all time Japanese greats some year (mind you the magazine is closer to Sight & Sound than it is to the yellow covers of Cahiers du cinéma) seems a mistake or as they say in the parlance "a misunderstanding." In 2017, whether Floating Clouds is a good or a great movie strikes me as an irrelevant qualification. It's cinema that 'goes too far, and yet, not far enough.'

I believe the Japanese public experienced Floating Clouds as a kind of release: a portrait of the post-war struggle and vicissitudes of finding employment. I suspect too it was moving for audiences as a doomed-romance-story. In a sense it is exemplary Naruse: plot-deployment heavy, claustrophobia around writing in which no breath might be stolen by character or viewer in the seams of dialogue or flung upsets.

That being the case I've sometimes found writing about these Naruse pictures — as much as I admire them — a tedious task. I lapse into recounting their overcomplicated plots, which is to say character definition often resolves after accumulation of plot-beat upon plot-beat. Let's take the matter at end, Floating Clouds, adapted from a story by Fumiko Hayashi. It begins in late-1946 with the arrival in Tokyo of repatriates from French Indonesia. Goads the viewer into the time-honored Japanese cinema tradition of war as backdrop for most acute melodrama.

Naruse and unrelenting story: lyric moments are thankfully folded within: a walk; the movement through a marketplace; a cloistered hall; a forest. This film exhausts me with its two stars (Hideko Takamine as Yukiko Kôda and Masayuki Mori as Kengo Tomioka) playing poor.

We have a flashback structure: Da Lat (exotically scored): the forest administration. A senior official explains to Yukiko, early-20s typist freshly arrived from Japan and garreting at their HQ, "Our mission is forestry, not fighting." And yet, Forester Tomioka: "I have to go check the quinine garden."

Beautiful cuts that link actions into and out of flashback (such as the kisses early in the film), and though the film is not entirely constructed out of the flashback structure, Floating Clouds still existed four years before Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour, which I broach not for nothing given this earlier film's relative naïveté and unregistered troglodyte effectiveness.


Tomioka: "You must forget the past." Yukiko: "For us the past is the only reality. Without it, where would we be? I wish I hadn't seen your wife..." A few minutes later, Tomioka: "My wife has suffered enough. She kept the home while I was at war. I can't walk out on her now." — thereby breaking his promise that he and Yukiko would marry upon their return to Japan.

Tomioka to his wife: "I'm trying to make a go of my business. I need to raise capital. I have to sell the house to raise some! The price of lumber is soaring." — We will never see Tomioka at work on building the business.

Yukiko's brother-in-law (through her sister) raped her before the war — they run into one another in a marketplace and eat noodles together; there's an explanatory conversation (flashback to the precipice of the rape); back to present, she admits she's sold some of his things (mostly bedding) for the money.

Yukiko gets picked up on the street by an American G.I.; she becomes his kept woman. Tomioka, dropping in on her pad, intimates she's casting a wider net as full-on prostitute.

These idiot-winders are determined to keep their flags emblazoned after Da Lat as means of self-preservation. Yet upon their reconciliation at the small-town town of Ikaho, they fantasize over sake about double-suicide. Then the morning after Tomioka eyes Osei (Mariko Okada)... the innkeeper (Daisuke Katô)'s helper and young wife. Tomioka extends his and Yukiko's stay, and he and Osei get together: he moves on to a new woman, she moves on to a new man. She has designs of moving to Tokyo. When Yukiko catches on, Tomioka confesses: "I feel so empty, bored."

Etc. etc. and months later, Yukiko visits Tomioka's residence (inquiring for "Takase-san"?) only to discover he's moved to the "countryside": Yukiko visits a room at the rear of a dark warehouse in an industrial sector of Tokyo by the railroad, Osei living there, who explains that Tomioka visits but lives with his wife who is ill — but when he visits, she stays with a friend: a lie: Yukiko spots his kimono and then two toothbrushes... — she asks a neighbor boy if a man lives there and does he come every day — and he says Yes to both. Tomioka shows up and she tells him she's quite pregnant...

Then there's the House of the Sun God: false healers: the racket Yukiko's brother-in-law is all into now. She borrows money, she chances an abortion: at the clinic eyes a newspaper: "Jealous Husband Kills Barmaid." Cut to Tomioka writing a statement and reading a letter: "Kuniko is dying. We need money." Yukiko shows up. — during her breakdown, the odd punctuation of the children outside playing house: "Honey, dinner's ready," cut back...

More time passes. Tomioka stops by one Mr. Iba's (the rapist's), where a rejuvenated Yukiko now resides. She goes through many transformations in the crazy pattern that's this film. Tomioka tells her Kuniko died yesterday. He needs to borrow money for the funeral (yet money would have allowed his wife the surgery to remove her tumor). — Leaves her place:

...At another point the passage of time (days) is conveyed by the now-absence of Tomioka's medical eyepatch he was wearing due to a stye, otherwise we would think he was arriving straight from Yukiko's place (impossible given that his flirtatious neighbor informs him she stopped by).

Yukiko steals 300,000 yen from Iba's House and absconds to an inn; sends telegrams to Tomioka to join her. (In the course of a drunken evening between the two there, Yukiko invokes Maupassant's Bel ami saying to Tomioka he reminds her of the main character — second reference in Naruse to the novel since Ginza Makeup) — ("He's a poor man and he fools girls to help him succeed.")

Tomioka is headed to the island of Yaku to be forest-ranger. And with this, for the final half-hour, the plot machinations slow down: as the film gets easy: and in response to Yukiko's begging he takes her along — it's their journey — their Narusean storm — her illness — and his regret. (She busts into chills the moment he acknowledges her as a common-law wife.)

And he breaks down over her corpse as flashbacks register of her posing to his camera in Da Lat — "So short is the life of a flower / Yet how many hardships it suffers." Echoing forever the memory of happiness measured by a flower...


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]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]

Tsuma [Wife, 1953]

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


Friday, April 07, 2017

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the Mountain Is "Resignation" ("Silence")

(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.


Naruse doesn't devise his films in this period with a 'reading' of mise-en-scène in mind — the style is 'invisible,' with the exception of such hallmarks as the alternation between (1) axonometric travelings of the act of walking, filmed in full-shots, and (2) cuts-in to two-shot medium close-ups of same. Sallitt mentions, sharply, the cuts in certain scenes — those sudden cuts that seem to bring the curtain down abruptly in the film, as happens too in Repast for example. Naruse's découpage, particularly in the scenes of family living rooms, might be likened to a round-robin, a sliding from shot to shot, glissando-esque: taken in tandem with variations on shot distance, the impression is one of "invisibility," of silence. This is highest-order mise-en-scène.

mise-en-scène: décoratif -> (aesthetique) | contre | (psychologique) -> stylistique

The Sound of the Mountain [Yama no oto, 1954] is adapted from Yasunari Kawabata's novel. The setting is the city of Kamakura. Kikuo (diminutive: "Kikko") (Setsuko Hara) shares a loving connection with her father-in-law, Ôgata (Sô Yamamura), at whose house she and her husband Shûichi (Ken Uehara) reside. Ôgata notes early in the film that he and his wife have no grandchildren from Kikuo and Shûichi. The latter regularly goes out after work (he's in the employ of his father), spends the evening with his long-time mistress (one Kinuko — whom we'll meet late in the film, played by Reiko Sumi), and doesn't return home till late. Often drunk, he heads straight to bed, but doesn't fall asleep before, supine, calling out: "Kikko!". In the first instance of this scene, Naruse cuts from the interior of the house to the backyard...

Shûichi's sister Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) and her daughter Satoko and baby arrive at the Ôgata residence. Her husband is having an affair with another woman. Fusako already has footing as the least favorite child, and her parents seem to have resigned themselves to the inevitability of her divorce. Her daughter Satoko further irritates the Ôgatas — "She pretends to cry?" — whenever she doesn't get her way. During one such scene, Shûichi enters the room and, perfunctorily drawing the contrast, announces to Kikko, "You can't take care of children. You're a child yourself." Later, word comes from his secretary Ms. Tanizaki (Teruko Nagaoka) (who, it is suggested, herself harbors feelings for Shûichi) that he's told his mistress Kinuko, with whom Tanizaki is close, that his wife is "like a child." She adds: "You can't expect a proper wife to act like a prostitute."

(In one scene, a Narusean typhoon strikes. During the storm, Shûichi for the second time in the film grunts from his bed: "Kikko.")

In his own way, Naruse is as elliptical as Ozu, but in the former's body of work the omissions are more often associated with the unsavory details of the characters' lives than with temporal leaps in the storyline. The director allows himself the occasional visual metaphor to foreshadow or suggest unpleasant business, or topics unbroachable (at least by the 'standards' set by the early portion of the narrative). Take for example Kikuko's nosebleed (on the heels of the character Satoko's in Repast) which at once stands in (1) for The Feminine insofar as menstruation prevails as the corps' foundational process: mechanism of ovulation and, chauvinistically considered, the crucible of the humors; and (2) as the primary marker of post-adolescence, post-pubescence. Shûichi regards Kikuko as something of an obscenity. Her abortion, an act half-co-dependent and foreshadowed by the bloody nose, releases Shûichi from the burden of fatherhood and from new consideration (or considerations) of his wife. In an exemplary instance of the Naruse walk-and-talk, Shûichi, back turned, gaze persistently adverted, admits to his father (his father who has only recently displayed a decorative noh mask as his wife exclaimed: "THAT'S supposed to be a child?") after confronting him with news of Kikuko's abortion: "She said she wouldn't have my child with the way I am now." Upon a visit by Ôgata to Shûichi's mistress Kinuko, he learns she's broken things off with him. She is pregnant with his child. He tried to induce a miscarriage. She'll bring the baby to term on her own.

Everyone in The Sound of the Mountain has one foot in the past of habits (and habitual thinking) except for Kikuko, Fusako, and Kinuko: pregnancies and abortion and walk-outs. Early in the film Ôgata (who himself admits to Shûichi having carried on his own affairs, which has much to do with his visit to Kinuko to straighten matters, and with his strongly felt kinship with his son) proclaims that a successful father is one who makes his children a success. This, of course, is nothing more than a depressing Japanese post-war platitude that I feel Naruse no more endorses than does Ozu. Among both directors, however, one always senses that the effort to give shrift to both sides of the argument — family+tradition vs. independence — is at work not so much in the directors' own personal predilections as in the films themselves. Naruse and Ozu possess a willingness to air opposing positions to the film and the audience itself, in order that they reflect upon the given conceit. Both filmmakers are constantly obsessed with families (the audience is a set of families itself), even if they at essence have no more personal druthers in the matter than the one who punches the missile codes when the signal is struck.

After Kikuko returns from her convalescence at her parents' home (one has the impression of strained terms between the two families — her own is relegated to a phone call informing the Ôgatas of her staying there — "She'll be back when she feels better."), she meets with Ôgata for a walk-and-talk in a park, and here announces she will divorce Shûichi. In time, Ôgata remarks: "Soon my wife and I will go to the family house in Shinshû — and if it's livable we'll make it our final abode."

The open prospect of the park vista makes for a poignant end that brings no closure. Kikuko's main loss will be that of her (spiritual) father, Ôgata, who recited: " 'Without fulfilling the climbing of Mt. Fuji, I have reached old age.' "


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]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]

Tsuma [Wife, 1953]


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Everything Goes Wrong

It's Okay Mom I Feel Relaxed Eating at Home

(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.)


The year is 1960: Suzuki takes on (is handed) a project about Shinjuku Sun-Tribe trash. Everything Goes Wrong [Subete ga kurutteru].

The year is 1960: Suzuki's resulting movie offers up a 3-minute chat, in the middle of a busy Tokyo crosswalk, shot via telephoto while cars whizz port and starboard of the characters Etsuko and Ono in the middle of conversation around an unwanted pregnancy — with... designs on abortion.

I'll speak curtly about this film which, I think if you see it, you'll understand the way I deliver these notes and thoughts —

The film that begins under the credits at the Shinjuku theater, shown in 1.37 within the 2.35 Scope widescreen of the movie proper, is a WWII film with lots of exploding mud and jungle palm called: "FIGHT TILL THE LAST DROP OF BLOOD."

Throughout there's a youth-party atmosphere; again: this is Sun-Tribe trash. This is a mix-up imagination of "youth gone wild" and the exaggerated Tokyo-world that is without parents, with 1-minutes statutes of limitations, and its title is A Clockwork Plum.

Jirô (Tamio Kawaji) goes nuts on this girl he fucks and throws her arcade-coins — the more nonsense that comes to the fore, absurd, in a Suzuki picture, the more one can feel his outrage — as rare a case in society as this degree of misogyny might be, — [beat and:] — voilà, that's why these Suzuki/Nikkatsu movies exist.

Why should one want to watch this? The lead is unsympathetic when he meets a friend on a Ferris wheel; we are condemned to "visual flair," to a shot set-up where the two raising and lowering reminisce in dialogue about high-school events, — events I'd rather see. And yet I have more respect for Suzuki for bullying on with this and not "fleshing it out." Who cares? Let's get in and out. The script is Sun-Tribe trash.

Toshimi (Yoshiko Nezu), with her butchy voice sprouting from capri pants, and her ruinous chewing-gum smack, is the most powerful Suzuki star up to this point, without question.

Rock-and-Roll: Masayo (Tomoko Naraoka).

Jirô's mother's gentleman-interest, Nanbara-san: Jirô has a dead father — Jirô has a restaurant...........

Nanbara financially supported Jirô and Mom for 10 years — "Hookers take money," Jirô tells his mother. "Our home isn't a sex hotel. Dad was run over by a tank in the war. Nanbara builds those tanks. So it's like Nanbara killed Dad!"

I suppose it is. Koichi is the boisterous friend.

Coleman Hawkins posters go up not only to take us out of the stupidity of the scenario and experience of the movie, by image and by sound of the music track, but also to close us out when the movie's over.

Patron: "What did you do at their age?"

Bartender: "I was put to work in wartime labor."

Jirô throws the coins post-coitally at Toshimi — "Women take money!"

Etsuko swindles Nanbara (looking for Jirô at their local) to travel to a beach and pleads "I want you to buy me!" — he just gives her the money. In the meantime Jirô has told his mother Nanbara's gone on a tryst — Jirô and the mother walk in on Nanbara just as Etsuko, in her negligé, is trying to return his cash.

Masayo: "We don't live as freely as young people do today." — CUT TO: Waves breaking with force on rocks.

We don't discover Nanbara is married till 10 minutes before the end.

Ono: "We don't interfere with one another; we're independent."

Jirô wrenches Nanbara and flees; Etsuko in a fit falls down a subway entrance and miscarries.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Sidetrack No. Thirteen," or: Take Aim at That Police Van

We OPEN on a rainy-night train platform. CUT TO: The erotic pawing of a rifle-butt.

(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.)


In the course of rewatching Seijun Suzuki's 1960 Jûsan-gô taihisen," yori: Sono gosôsha (w)o nerae ["Sidetrack No. Thirteen," or: Take Aim at That Police Van], and planning on doing a series writing about many of his films that have been posted on FilmStruck / The Criterion Channel, the great master died at the age of 93 after having long suffered at the hands of an oxygen tank. I will celebrate the life of this remarkable director, whom I discovered in my early 20s by way of the original Criterion DVD releases of Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. If I recall I saw his penultimate film and penultimate masterpiece Pistol Opera four times in Seattle theaters on 35mm (1.37:1 original aspect ratio) — one of the greatest films of the 2000s.


Caressing his rifle — a sniper, on the margins of a prisoner-transport-van accident set off by a truck rolled roadward, fires shots into the pile-up, and it's six months suspension for the presiding prison officer on-duty, Tamon (Michitarô Mizushima). As Tamon sees it this will be vacation — to enter the labyrinth of the crimes' solution and, even if subconsciously, expand his agency beyond "prison officer." Trauma luck comes to some. "An armed marksman walking the streets worries me."

(Imagine the frantic trepidation of 1980s America moms dropping their kids and kids' neighbor-friends off for a matinee at the new Suzuki... Imagine '10s mothers...)

The opening sequence glides into incomprehensibility unless you see the film twice in a row: Tamon/Fuyukichi/Gôrô... a sniper in wait... then suddenly a man comes up to pick up a rock near the sniper as though to attack him — but he chucks it at a truck parked on a nearby incline — the sniper readjusts his position as the other man kicks a rock out from under the tire of the truck causing it at the precise second to roll into and block the police van, bang! bang! — Tamon cuts open the tied wrists of the prisoners — Gôrô is reluctant to escape — Fuyukichi's shot and killed — CUT TO: bachelor Tamon's six month suspension and regaling his housekeeper how he's happy to use the time off. But he's already practicing with an unloaded pistol and wonders in inner-monologue V.O. why try to shoot on a prisoner transport? drugs? smuggling?...

Looking at my notes:

Hamaju Agency: Akabori (trying to sell Hamaju to Akiba with Yûko's father, the Hamaju owner indisposed)

Akiba (boss)

Yûko (child of a mother who was a prostitute in Southeast Asia), taken in by Hamajima

Shôko – ex of?

Tsunako (Gôrô's GF, the one sighted on the side of the road in the opening van attack)

Fuyukichi — sniped

Tamon and Yûko are ambushed by Akabori — a struggle, and Tamon wrests away the gun — he demands they be taken to "where the girls are" — Gôtenba — Gôrô's there — Akiba told him to fake his own death — he's there presenting girls for sale — the girls are given sedatives — Akiba arrives — unseen, camera POV and shots of his feet and gloved hand only. Tamon and Yûko are apprehended at or nearby the scene and tied up — this leads to an amazing attempt at execution by means of a gasoline tanker truck.

The police who grab Tamon in the back of the restaurant, they're like thugs themselves, but...

The two men killed in the sniping; Ryûta Komine (who killed a fellow thug) and Fuyukichi (who peddled prostitutes).......

Tamon investigates, Ryûta's sister used to work at the burlesque — Mari Sanjô quit yesterday — but another headshot... that's Tsunako Andô, who quit with Mari and put up bail for somebody... She gives Tamon a lead, she's probably in Atami with Gôrô....

Anyway the plot goes on and on... — Make this movie a priority for your Oscar Sunday.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sunday in Peking {American-Language Version}

Eddies in the East

(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.)


There's some received wisdom about the Chris Marker filmography, that Dimache à Pékin [Sunday in Peking, 1956] is not only the first Chris Marker film but also the first Marker essay-film, and more broadly the first essay-film period. Except Marker made Olympia 52 in '52, which from the little amount of it I've seen on YouTube, I would call an essay film; and he co-directed with Resnais in '53 Les statues meurent aussi [Statues Die Too] before doing a rewrite on Jean Cayrol's narration for Resnais's '55 Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog]. Anyway, there's a long tradition of "the documentary" — in the sense of using the term. Can we say of La natation, par Jean Taris, champion de France. that it's a documentary portrait of the great athlete? I would say the essay-film or film-poem not only exhibits a display of directorial point-of-view, but additionally displays a "reasonable" (to use a term applicable in law, too) quantity of poetic juxtaposition of ideas, of narration, sound and image. Perhaps then "essay-film" is a qualitative term, and "documentary" shouldn't rightfully exist...

In advance of Resnais's Le chant du styrène, Marker employs Pierre Barbaud to compose the Eastern-accented score, orchestrated by Georges Delerue. Another credit of note: "conseil sinologique: Agnès Varda"...

From the first moments of the voice-over narration across a city balcony bedecked with an array of Chinese objets, to the quick pan upward that shows us we're in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, and thus, probably, on the landing of Marker's own apartment, we are witness to one of the most beautiful Eastmancolor films ever made... The gesture provides a Marker-playful, though perhaps dated occidental context way-in for the joyous surprises that will abound on "the mainland" in the minutes ahead. Marker cuts to an old photo-still of the gates of Peking (present-day Beijing, the cart burdened with history wheels onward), the gates of the tombs of the Ming emperors, and intones: "It's not very often that one can step into a picture belonging to one's childhood — yet, here I was..." Thus signals the cut to Marker's footage of the gates themselves, and the title card: "PÉKIN 1955".

Marker will link the light and mist of the city's early mornings with the politesse of Chinese culture in general, and specifically with the tradition of Chinese painting. And yet: "The price of modernism does not seem so high when we see the harsh price of the picturesque."

The Revolution, though, represented not only an econo-political effort, but also one determined to combat the gradations of sheerly existential malaise: "dust, disease, and flies." Surveying the Peking of 1955, Marker wryly notes that, nevertheless, "One still finds capitalists in China — but there are no more flies." (According to Catherine Lupton in her book Chris Marker: Memories of the Future [2004], remarks like these were taken as "Communist propaganda" by the selection committee of the 1957 Berlin Film Festival, who, perhaps understandably sensitive to anything that might even be mistakenly interpreted as painting the Party in a cheerful light, demanded they be removed for the film to be projected at the good festival.) Sunday in Peking exists as a kind of fulcrum, a singularity on either side of which incessantly oscillate The China of the Future, and The Pekingese of Today (1955).

Marker films the vision of a nation that views itself as decidedly new, or at least one that puts on its best game-face. In this Tomorrowland, pre-adolescent gymnasts garbed in lantern-red sweatsuits demonstrate their maneuvers for the camera; ever Marker, he praises "these young athletes, lean as cats..." But through the filmmaker's images and narration, one perceives an irony in the very unironic, un-self-aware screen of Ersatz that seems to unfold everywhere: Peking on one hand contains a "model district" with a "model school" and its "model girls"; elsewhere, "the whole town is a display-stand for ancient China."

He continues: "Let us say no more about History — in the gardens during the afternoons History goes on. So long shut away behind its symbols, China is now called upon to reveal itself, and we are required to understand these sensitive faces: these men, these women, these children, with whom we shall have to share History as we shall have to share our daily bread." He turns to the Peking Zoo, with its lovers "chatting tenderly about the Five-Year Plan." There's a scene out of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, were he removed to the Summer Palace more than thirty years on from his death: "[T]his Mongol Versailles... [...] All this is as remote as China, and as familiar as Hyde Park."

He concludes Sunday in Peking: "I wonder whether China itself is not the sabbath of the whole world."


Other writing about the films of Chris Marker at Cinemasparagus:

Leila Attacks
(posted in 2007, and including a note in the Comments from Chris Marker himself)


Thursday, February 16, 2017


Notes on the Nakagawas

(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.


The film is based on another Fumiko Hayashi novel, Chairo no me [Hazel Eyes, 1950], — it's almost to Repast what Ozu's Early Summer is to Late Spring, although Ozu's two films are superior. Here again, we have a solitary housewife Mineko (Mieko Takamine) living with an essentially chaste dissatisfied workaday husband (Ken Uehara): these are the Nakagawas. (Despite the film's title, and the fact that Mineko's inner monologue lends the opening of the film its V.O. narration, the wife's point of view is not dominant.) With regard to the title, Wife [Tsuma, 1953]: a digression on Japanese nouns and the poetic benefits of the lack of articles to express at once the specific case and the general phenomenon... — cf. the scandal of Godard's La femme mariée vs. Une femme mariée — one could translate the title "The Wife," "A Wife," etc... But: "Wife" seems most appropriate to me, in keeping with the Japanese generality...

The Nakagawas have been married ten years. The first time I saw the film I felt it was a masterpiece, the second and third times its power and complexity diminished. I'm not ready to offer any definitive judgment, not here for that... Isn't that though what keeps us intrigued by a great director's work? Even typing this I am ready to watch the film again, and so as Nakagawa-san exits his house to head to work, Naruse assigns him his own monologue. ("I wonder why we can't make it work.") — This strikes me as almost proto-Godardian, or rather let me say: here is the literary influence carried over in part from Naruse/Hayashi and their previous entanglement Repast.

The Nakagawas run a boarding-house; the Matsuyamas are a couple who board; there's a painter too, Tanimura (Kantarô Mikuni): fine-arts, but at present he pays the bills with contract painting.

(Structural flourish: Short flashback to a job Tanimura copped decorating a bar in Ginza: his anecdote stretches on in V.O. across the soundtrack....) — He spied Mrs. Matsuyama (Chieko Nakakita) there, showing up for her secret shift to work as a hostess (bartender who accommodates the patrons' moods). — "She looks like a schoolteacher to me," offers Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama?), a visiting neighbor. "You never know with women," Tanimura replies, then gets a bucket of water splashed on his head from the height of a balcony above; the woman apologizes: "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there..." Wife expands excitingly beyond previous Narusean confines. It's difficult to discuss the film's mise-en-scène; I feel it's more on the invisible end, Naruse-wise, which only means the intense Naruse-heads will argue the fact (but I'm open to accept all contrary appraisals).

We move to Nakagawa-san in his workplace, pissed off about his delivery-lunch while his secretary Ms. Sagara (Yatsuko Tan'ami) who delivers his meal unwraps for herself a more delicious looking bentô.

The boarder Eiko Matsuyama leaves her husband the freeloading drunk — short shots around her (when she arrives home to find him passed out, as she packs her belongings onto the moving truck).

Tanimura the painter on his way to the newest exhibition, spots Nakagawa and the secretary leaving the museum together — Sagara is a widow with child, formerly lived in Osaka.

Once evening falls, still strolling, Nakagawa discloses his feelings for Sagara, after the two see a movie together, when they're on a bench in the park. ("Bad boy / Petting in the park / Bad girl / Petting in the dark") A relatively chaste admission, for his wife awaits him home while Sagara herself is on the brink of the return to Osaka.

Skip ahead: Mr. Matsuyama, in continuation of a series of departures and arrivals, ejects himself from the house for good after drunkenly dragging Eiko back to the place and causing a row. In the days ahead Eiko will return and ask Mrs. Nakagawa if she would rent a room to a single friend who works with her at the bar; she discloses that the friend has a "patron." (So this Mineuchi will eventually move in upstairs: all mod cons supplied by her patron ("Papa-san"), Kitô.) Coming home from work, Mr. Nakagawa is indifferent to the prospect despite the new boarder's promise of a ¥50,000 deposit: he announces he's leaving on business in Osaka.

I'll take a break from recounting the intensive plot. (1) Note Tanimura's covert fascination with Mr. Nakagawa's private life and his lamentation, upon hearing of the new boarder's move-in, that women just don't like him. (2) Note that the vacillation between house-/neighborhood-space and work-/city-space trace a similar delineation to that of Repast; Uehara unsatisfied, as in the earlier film, which is not to say in Wife that he is so conflicted. (3) There's a proto-There's Always Tomorrow [Douglas Sirk, 1956] moment with a toy-truck falling off the steps at Sagara's in Tokyo; she wishes she could could return to Tokyo with him.

Mrs. Nakagawa has drawn her conclusion about her husband's relationship with Sagara upon his return from the Osaka trip. — He confirms they're lovers, and this is the midway point of the film. "I can't believe what we're facing. This is awful."

Kitô-the-patron's wife appears at the boarding house, heartbroken upon Mineko's confirmation of the intel that a Ms. Mineuchi lives there (as she learned from a hired private eye). — "And your husband fell for a woman working at a bar."

The second-half 'settles' into an alternative groove — confrontation, Sakurai arriving to cook the estranged couple halibut — some comic so-and-so —

Odd cut from her harangue to Mineko to Nakagawa's look-in from outside — moments later. She tells Mineko (she's storming off to see her parents): "Let me say this now. You're a cold-hearted person. Have you ever offered anything to others?" — she storms out, appalled by Mineko's attitude — and Mineko departs to her parents'.

Sagara unexpectedly rearrives in Tokyo, phones Nakagawa to meet up.

Sôbei Niimura — Mineko is née Niimura apparently — he shows up at Nakagawa's workplace. — He beckons him to a meeting — afterward Nakagawa goes to "Lambre" to meet Sagara: their place.

Once she's home she's urged to return to her husband — she's chided by her sister for applying too much rouge — sis advises: stick to the lips. Mineko says: "Women are pitiful.""When men fall for other women, don't they care about their relationship with their wives?" "Of course they do; they're humans too. That's why divorce court is always busy."

Mineuchi and Kitô come home. Anxious, Mineko rifles through Nakagawa's blazer and finds a card with Sagara's address — she proceeds to pay a direct visit. She confronts Sagara, they go for an extended walk. Everything comes out. — They stop at a café and order black tea. Mineko Nakagawa: "I refuse to get divorced to receive alimony from him. If you still want to be with him, I'll kill myself and haunt the both of you."

Showdown and Sagara leaves —

Nakagawa heads to Lambre and a note awaits him delivered by a hostess, from Sagara.

The very end, in bookended monologues — he wonders whether divorce can happen; she wonders the same and expresses how she could only wish to confess more of her feelings. — "Is that what being a woman or a wife is supposed to be?"

Last two shots: (1) Nakagawa walks to work, crossing the rail line. (2) Mineko dusts the house whippingly.

As you might be able to tell, for me, this is a Naruse film where I'm trying to come to something. I'm writing these pieces with the hope that one picture leads to a revelation in the next, revelations in the nest notwithstanding. My acquaintance Brad Stevens deems this his favorite Mikio Naruse film.


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]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Le chant du styrène

L'arrivée à l'usine Resnais


A World's Fair of modern(ist) form, Alain Resnais's short, plastic essay-poem-film Le chant du styrène [The Song of the Styrene, 1958] takes the viewer on a backward journey from the final removal of finished plastic products off the mold, through the process of manufacture, to their petrochemical concoction and elemental origin. We learn styrene used to be made from benzoin, drawn from the resin of the bush Styrax.

The film was commissioned by the industrial concern Pechiney. Resnais eluded their expectations; his effort is a Mad Men campaign run Tati-influenced riot, a Season 7 brainstorm in a Season 1 backdrop. He enlisted Raymond Queneau to write the voice-over narration (read by Pierre Dux), which is comprised wholly of alexandrines; a stanza by Victor Hugo acts as prologue. Then of course Pierre Barbeau added a rich and dynamic score for strings, itself a small masterpiece...

The film exists in versions featuring two different opening titles respectively: one maintains Resnais's original: "Le chant du styrène." The other merely announces: "STYRENE," and it's this version (a Janus Films print) that appears on The Criterion Channel and on the Criterion Blu-ray of Last Year in Marienbad. Alteration for the sake of a Pechiney in-house print, intended for screening at the corporate getaway?

The film moves from Mon oncle to Red Desert. Its structure and imagery echo that of Resnais's earlier Night and Fog. Here is a different kind of "concentration" camp, albeit one not without, to quote Queneau's script, its own "origins obscure". The film concludes on a plunge into the primordial: now proved prophetic: the siren's song of industry: "the future's in plastics"?


There's an excellent text on the film by Pierre Lazlo viewable here as a PDF.

Here is Raymond Queneau's voice-over text in full:

O temps, suspends ton bol, ô matière plastique !
D'où viens-tu ? Qui es-tu ? et qu'est-ce qui explique
Tes rares qualités ? De quoi es-tu donc fait ?
Quelle est son origine ? En partant de l'objet
Retrouvons ses aïeux ! Qu'à l'envers se déroule
son histoire exemplaire. Voici d'abord le moule.
Incluant la matrice, être mystérieux,
il engendre le bol ou bien tout ce qu'on veut.
Mais le moule est lui-même inclus dans une presse
qui injecte la pâte et conforme la pièce.
Ce qui présente donc le très grand avantage
d'avoir l'objet fini sans autre façonnage.
Le moule coûte cher : c'est un inconvénient -
mais il peut re-servir sur d'autres continents
Le formage sous vide est une autre façon
d'obtenir des objets : par simple aspiration.
A l'étape antérieure, adroitement rangé,
Le matériau tiédi est en plaque extrudé.
Pour entrer dans la buse il fallait le piston
et le manchon chauffant - ou le chauffant manchon
Auquel on fournissait - Quoi ? Le polystyrène
vivace et turbulent qui se hâte et s'égrène.
Et l'essaim granulé sur le tamis vibrant
fourmillait tout heureux d'un si beau colorant.
Avant d'être granule on avait été jonc,
joncs de toutes couleurs, teintes, nuances, tons
Ces joncs avaient été suivant une filière
un boudin que sans fin une vis agglomère
Et ce qui donnait lieu à l'agglutination ?
Des perles colorées de toutes les façons.
Et colorées comment ? Là devient homogène,
le pigment qu'on mélange à du polystyrène.
Mais avant il fallut que le produit séchât
et, rotativement, le produit trébucha.
C'est alors que naquit notre polystyrène
polymère produit du plus simple styrène.
Polymérisation : ce mot, chacun le sait,
désigne l'obtention d'un complexe élevé
de poids moléculaire. Et dans un autoclave
machine élémentaire à la panse concave
les molécules donc s'accrochant, se liant
en perles se formaient. Oui, mais - auparavant ?
Le styrène n'était qu'un liquide incolore
Quelque peu explosif et non pas inodore.
Et regardez-le bien : c'est la seule occasion
pour vous d'apercevoir le liquide en question.
Le styrène est produit en grande quantité
A partir de l1éthyl-benzène surchauffé.
Faut un catalyseur comme cela se nomme
oxyde ou bien de zinc ou bien de magnésium.
Le styrène autrefois s'extrayait du benjoin
provenant du styrax, arbuste indonésien.
De tuyau en tuyau ainsi nous remontons
à travers le désert des canalisations
vers les produits premiers, vers la matière abstraite
qui circulait sans fin, effective et secrète.
On lave et on distille et puis on redistille
et ce ne sont pas là exercices de style.
L'éthylbenzène peut - et doit même éclater
si la température atteint certain degré.
Il faut se demander maintenant d'où proviennent
ces produits essentiels : éthylène et benzène.
Ils s'extraient du pétrole, un liquide magique
qu'on trouve de Bordeaux jusqu'au coeur de l'Afrique.
Ils s'extraient du pétrole et aussi du charbon.
Pour faire l'un et l'autre, et l'autre et l'un sont bons.
Se transforment en gaz, le charbon se combure
et donne alors naissance à ces hydrocarbures.
On pourrait repartir sur ces nouvelles pistes
et rechercher pourquoi et l'un et l'autre existent.
Le pétrole vient-il de masses de poissons ?
On ne sait pas trop ni d'où vient le charbon.
Le pétrole vient-il du plancton en gésine ?
Question controversée... obscures origines...
Et pétrole et charbon s'en allaient en fumée
Quand le chimiste vint qui eut l'heureuse idée
de rendre ces nuées solides et d'en faire
d'innombrables objets au but utilitaire.
En matériaux nouveaux ces obscures résidus
Sont ainsi transformés. Il en est d'inconnus
qui attendent encore un travail similaire
pour faire le sujet d'autres documentaires.


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Alain Resnais:

Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog, 1955]