Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tropical Paradise?

Paradise has come down to us across the millennia in many guises, with varied topographies. However clumsy or deliberately vague or downright silly, every religion has its own version of Paradise.* While the torments of hell have never been very hard for people to imagine** - being merely an expansion of the torments of life - Paradise has been cast almost invariably in the form of earthly pleasures: feasting, drinking and fornicating. Whatever its particular location or the nature and number of the pleasures to be enjoyed thereabouts, one aspect that all these paradises share is that there shall be no variation and that all the sensual pleasures shall continue without end.

This is precisely at which all descriptions of paradise fail to engage the imagination - let alone the libido. And not simply because eternity can only be grasped in the abstract. One of the peculiarities of human imagination is its inability to represent perfect happiness except in terms of contrast - in other words as a condition that is a temporary respite from suffering, if not exactly a reward for it. Leisure has value only in contrast with labor, plenty with want, feast with famine, etc. If one looks at some of the more specific descriptions of paradise, the Muslim one, for instance, with its promise of 77 virgins, it only makes sense if one is living in a culture in which women are largely invisible and untouchable.

Perhaps to its credit, the Christian paradise is so preposterous as to be completely unbelievable. Why is it that some of the most primitive visions of paradise are so much more attractive? This was summed up in a brief exchange between Daniel and Father Laforge in that splendid film Black Robe:

Daniel: They (the Algonquins) believe that in the forest at night the dead can see. The souls of men hunt the souls of animals.
Laforge: It is childish, Daniel.
Daniel: Is it harder to believe in than a paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?

The very concept of an earthly paradise is a political - and a heretical - one, born not only with the French Revolution but with the discovery, in 1768, by a French ship no less, of an island in the South Pacific called Tahiti. A society in which the fruits of the earth and the sea were so plentiful as to make labor unnecessary, in which "marriage" was exogamic and non-binding, and in which a pleasant - though constant - climate made clothing optional must surely have seemed like heaven on earth to 18th-century Europeans, particularly ones who had spent several months at sea. But, of course, it only took a few decades for Christian missionaries to utterly spoil Tahiti forever - their revenge for the presumption of realizing a paradise without God.

But having lived in one for a year, without the advantage, I confess, of nude Tahitian girls, a tropical paradise leaves much to be desired. Just now, the never-ending heat (a characteristic of the other final destination) is relieved by daily rainfall. But the dry season, which locals regard as their summer, is only a few months away. The very constancy of the heat is enough to disqualify the tropics from any such status as paradise. And for all the expats who were so quick to assure me that after several months of living here I should become acclimated to the point where I wouldn't sweat so much, I have some bad news: unless you have had your sweat glands surgically removed, your body and mine responds to the heat the same way it always did. The only thing that has changed after several months of sweating is that by now we've grown accustomed to it and now we aren't so annoyed by the runnels of sweat behind our knees or having our shirts permanently glued to our backs.

It is now late autumn in what's known as the Norther Temperate Zone, where the hardwood trees like oaks, birches and maples have already shed their leaves, and the days are perceptibly shorter. In Alaska, where I came from, it has been snowing already for a month. From now until March the temperatures will rarely rise above freezing. And it is a measure of how ultimately enervating the climate in the tropics can be that I miss the snow and the darkness almost like I miss my youth. It is too bad that I can't retrieve my youth as easily with a one-way plane ticket.

* Hinduism and Buddhism have simply replaced paradise with transmigration: a return trip to another life.
** Tertullian explained that one of the pastimes in heaven is watching the torments of the damned.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Gold Rush

On recently laying hands on a collection of Charlie Chaplin films, including all of his films for Essanay, I thought I would resurrect this article from 2002 on what I still consider his greatest film.

A little man, known simply as The Lone Prospector, has invited a girl named Georgia and a few of her friends who work in the local saloon to a New Year's Eve party in his cabin. He is 'cabin-sitting' for the cabin's owner, who has left town to do business elsewhere. It is Klondike, Alaska, at the time of the gold rush. The little man – the poorest of the poor, but adventurous, always hopeful – has come to the Klondike, along with thousands of others, to try his luck. He has raised a little money shoveling snow from local storefronts, just enough for a roast chicken and trifles for the girls. He has carefully decorated the cabin and set a small table for the party.

It is still very early, so the little man sits down at the table and irresistibly falls asleep. He dreams that his party is in full swing. They are all there, Georgia and her friends, and he is delighting them with little gifts and jokes. As a finale, he takes two forks, jabs them into dinner rolls, and performs an impromptu dance – the lighting and framing creating the wondrous illusion of the rolls becoming his tiny feet on the table, doing ballet moves, soft-shoe and sideshow dances. The girls cheer the little man when he is done and he pretends to swoon . . . only to awake at the same table, unoccupied, alone in his cabin. It is nearing midnight and his guests have forgotten his party.

Hearing noises of revelry from the town, the little man, his aloneness complete, walks the short distance from his cabin, halts outside the brightly lit windows of the saloon and gazes within just as the crowd of townspeople – mountain men, miners and bar girls – all join hands at the stroke of midnight, maudlinly singing “Auld Lang Syne.” When the song is done, shots are fired into the air, and the celebration is renewed. The little man turns toward us, casts a shatteringly sad look at the frozen night and then wanders off.

The scene, the little man's dream and sad awakening, is the centerpiece of Chaplin's The Gold Rush and evokes, in only a few short minutes, the breadth of his genius – the inimitable quality of laughter in the face of pain, the whole bittersweet invention of how and why this peerless film artist could have made a pathetic tramp into a figure of fun. Chaplin admitted in his autobiography (which he titled, with – for once – unintentional humor, My Autobiography) that no matter how famous or prosperous he had become, he could never forget the poverty, the want and the humiliation, of his childhood.

At first impish, often violent in the knockabout style of his Mack Sennett two-reelers, Chaplin's Little Tramp matured as he gradually acquired total control over his work. Once he had fulfilled the terms of his contract with First National, he was free to explore the character more deeply, giving him a romantic, even tragic, side. Until, in the final scene from City Lights (1931), the comic mask is shockingly lowered: Chaplin becomes an actual tramp – broken and shambling, but still oddly (beautifully) capable of dignity. But The Gold Rush presents us with this unique mixture of heartbreaking comedy in its most perfect balance.

The shoot became legendary, with Chaplin taking full cast and crew by train to Truckee, California in the Sierra Nevada mountains (where one of the first inspirations for the film – the 'Donner Party' episode – took place) with the intention of filming entirely on location. His young wife, Lita Grey, was cast as his leading lady and the shoot went smoothly (except for Chaplin's usual long pauses for inspiration) until Grey became visibly pregnant. Chaplin removed her from the picture and cast one of Grey's friends, Georgia Hale, in the part. He then took everyone back to Los Angeles to re-take most of the scenes on back-lot sets. Very little of Chaplin's location shooting remains in the finished film.

In 1942, Chaplin re-released the film with all the title cards removed and music, sound effects and narration (all by Chaplin, of course) added. Chaplin did this in order to regain copyright of The Gold Rush, which had fallen to the public domain, for his own production company. When it was released, in the middle of World War II, audiences and critics were delighted, most of them agreeing that Chaplin had improved his masterpiece.

But there are subtle differences in the re-release version. Chaplin often used two cameras during shooting, and some of the scenes are framed differently, suggesting he used some of the footage from the second camera. And one significant cut takes place at the very end of the film. In the original cut, The Lone Prospector (Charlie) and Georgia are having their picture taken by some reporters and Charlie gives Georgia a prolonged kiss. In the re-release the scene is gone, the film ending with Charlie and Georgia simply disappearing up some stairs, with Chaplin comically alluding in his narration to their future together. Perhaps Chaplin felt that the kiss was a too-happy ending for the Tramp.

Since the appearance of the re-release version, a preference for the original has developed among Chaplin purists. Many still find Chaplin's narration, though often discreet, to be too unsubtle for the film, sometimes belittling the action. For instance, Chaplin playfully mocks the (obviously intentional) overacting of Mack Swain – which is unnecessary editorializing. It was as if Chaplin were making excuses for a new audience unaccustomed to silent film.

But the original film, untampered with and unimproved, still resonates with audiences whenever or wherever it is shown. Chaplin's Little Tramp was so entirely a creature of the silent film that he never allowed him to speak – except the gibberish song he sings in Modern Times (1936). Chaplin is one of the very few film artists who, having made silence his m├ętier, so prolonged the life of silent film that its persistence was guaranteed by his genius. The silent film lives through Chaplin.

[This article can be found at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/02/22/gold_rush.html]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Children's Day: A Modest Proposal

Friday, October 17, was National Children's Day here in the Philippines. So ubiquitous and inescapable are children in this country, you would think after a stroll down just about any street in any city or town that every day was Children's Day. But on this particular day the kiddies were particularly prominent, cluttering the markets, running wild among the dry goods stands, and wailing uncontrollably in the internet cafe I frequent every time I come to town.

Instead of pandering to these poor people with insuperable problems for the stupid misfortune of having more children than they can possibly account for, the Philippine goverment should declare a National Family Planning Month. They would first have to re-educate the population - for whom the number of children has always been a desperate and foolish measure of bounty - that as long as there are births in such numbers, not only are women enslaved but the ranks of the unemployed will continue to expand, crime will flourish prodigiously, and politicians, faced with so many consequential social ills that simply cannot be fixed, will have a whopping excuse to continue their habitual misappropriation of funds - a problem that exists even at the highest levels of government and which goes unpunished even when proven.

Behind my kitchen is a one room shack that houses nine people. The mother is obviously - to anyone with ears - suffering from some mental imbalance. In the mornings, when her seven children, with their seven empty stomachs, are clamoring for their breakfast, she screams at them. She screams the word hoy! most of the time just to get their attention. But she can sometimes he heard - it's impossible not to hear her - screaming in Visayan dialect gosto ko mamatay!, which simply means I want to die! During the day she often has to go searching for a stray child, and her screams of hoy! are heard throughout the barangay, from the highway on down the hill to the sea. But the evenings are the worst, when her children have to be told that there is nothing for them to eat. The older children, perhaps inured to going to bed hungry, take it stoically. But the youngest can be heard crying well into the night. Occasionally one of them, the slow eldest daughter, will cry out hysterically in the night, and the mother will just shout her down, leaving the child wimpering sporadically until she falls asleep. The only thing that muffles all this terrible noise coming from next door is the constant whirr of my electric fan.

Keaton Takes Us to College

In one of his last great silent comedies, College* (1927), Buster Keaton pokes rather pointed fun at the American worship of sports. Like Chaplin but with a much wider range of variations, Keaton was the eternal outsider trying to get in, having to compensate for his small stature and lack of social skills with acute resourcefulness and extraordinary guts. And he always wins - but in College it is a Pyrrhic victory, as the closing shots reveal.

On winning an "honor medal" at his high school graduation ceremony, Ronald (Keaton) gives an uproarious speech (via title cards, of course) against the "Curse of Athletics":

The secret of getting a medal like mine is - books not sports. The student who wastes his time on athletics rather than study shows only ignorance. Future generations depend upon brains and not upon jumping the discus or hurdling the javelin. What have Ty Ruth or Babe Dempsey done for Science? Where would I be without my books?

Needless to say, Ronald delivers his speech before an increasingly hostile audience - while struggling to keep his cheap suit from disintegrating. The last line is something of an appeal, as Ronald covers his crotch with a book when his flies come undone. By the time his speech is over the auditorium is empty - but a popular girl who happens to like him throws down a gauntlet that Ronald - unwisely one feels - picks up: "Your speech was ridiculous. Anyone prefers an athlete to a weak-knee'd teachers' pet. When you change your mind about athletics, then I'll change my mind about you."

Having no formal education, Keaton may himself have regarded college as a waste of time and college students as privileged parasites. But he saw the rich comedic potential of playing a college type enough to use it once again in his last great film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). As portrayed in the later film, college students are naive and completely unprepared for life in the real world.

That Ronald is too poor to afford college is perhaps more than a comedic ploy. It does not, of course, deter him from working his way through school - with disappointing results - as a soda jerk and as a "colored" waiter. Ronald loses both jobs rather than expose his identity (and the shame of having to work) to The Girl. Working in blackface may leave Keaton open to charges of racism today, but when some of his blackface rubs off in one of his patented pratfalls and his true "racial identity" is exposed, it is the black kitchen crew that comes after him - with meat cleavers! In pursuit of more than just cheap laughs, Keaton gives us a glimpse in this scene of the ugly face of Jim Crow.

Nothing, apparently, can stop Ronald from winning The Girl's heart - and social acceptance - by proving that he can excel at athletics. Despite the fact that, as his own stunts proved time and again, Keaton possessed considerable athletic abilities, all that Ronald can prove in College are his inabilities. In a prolonged and often painful scene, Ronald tries out for various track and field events and only manages to succeed at nearly breaking his own neck. One after another, he finds that he cannot run, cannot jump, cannot hurdle, hurl or vault. And the gags that he pulls off, some of them requiring precise balance and timing, soon become more pathetic than funny. Ronald's obvious disregard for his own safety makes his struggle to not fail take on an almost tragic quality. For if this scene of physical failure means anything, it is that trying to measure up to everyone else's standards is foolhardy, and that expecting it of everyone is cruel and terribly wrong. What gives the scene added punch is the presence - unseen by Ronald - of The Girl, who watches with mounting alarm and pity as Ronald risks life and limb to find his inner athlete.

By now the film has introduced us to the college dean - a diminutive (like Ronald) pinch-faced old man who at first welcomes Ronald for his academic achievements. But when Ronald's grades begin to suffer due to his experiments in sports (during which Ronald nearly takes the dean's head off with a misdirected discus), the dean calls him to his office where the following exchange takes place:

Dean: You have been a miserable failure in all your studies and I know the reason why.
Ronald: I took up athletics because the girl I love thinks I'm a weakling. I love her and would do anything to please her.
Dean: I understand, my boy. The same thing happened to me but I was stubborn. That's why I'm a bachelor.

Later we watch the dean, alone, gazing sorrowfully at an old photograph of a woman, presumably the girl who thought he was a "weakling". Whether the dean is meant to be pitied for being "stubborn" is questionable, particularly in light of the film's last few shots.

But College is, after all, a comedy, and by the last reel Buster wins the race and The Girl in his beautifully unorthodox way, discovering practical applications for his track and field experience as he rescues The Girl from the clutches of his adversary (who, significantly, had been expelled for his poor grades). Buster dashes at great speed, hurdles hedges, pole vaults into The Girl's dormitory room throws plates instead of discuses and nearly skewers the bad guy with a lamp pole as he tries to escape. Caught alone with Ronald in her room, The Girl announces to the Dean that they are paying the official penalty for such misconduct by getting married.

Happy ending, right? Then why does Keaton close the film with a montage that could hardly be mistaken for marital bliss? Neatly chronicling the rest of Ronald's life with The Girl, the montage dissolves from the church to a hectic household with three kids, to a quiet old age, finally to a shot of two graves, side by side and overgrown with weeds. In nearly all of his films (Go West being the hilarious exception) Keaton gets the girl. Only in College, near the end of his creative career as America's greatest silent clown, does Keaton show us what getting the girl ultimately means.

*It would be interesting to program Keaton's film with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925). Lloyd's irrepressibly preppie image is a revealing contrast to Keaton's working student in College.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Setsuko Hara - The Enigma of the 'Eternal Virgin'

It's been a slow month thus far, so I decided to take up space with an old (2002) article I wrote for Senses of Cinema.

The actress known as Setsuko Hara was born Masae Aida, June 17 1920 in Yokohama, Japan. Her filmography begins in 1935 with Don't Hesitate, Young Folks (Tamarau nakare wakodo yo, Tetsu Taguchi) and ends abruptly in 1962 with Hiroshi Inagaki's rendition of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chushingura). In between are films that made her – and which she helped to make – unforgettable: No Regrets For Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, Akira Kurosawa, 1946), Late Spring (Banshun, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949), Repast (Meshi, Mikio Naruse, 1951), Early Summer (Bakushu, Ozu, 1951), Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, Ozu, 1953), The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, Naruse, 1954), and Late Autumn (Akibiyori, Ozu, 1960), to name but the most illustrious.

As it turned out, the name Setsuko Hara wasn't much different from any of the other names that Masae Aida answered to in her films, like Yukie or Noriko or Akiko – people who existed only within the context that Kurosawa or Ozu or Naruse gave them. Shocking everyone except her family and closest friends, who alone had intimations of her true self, Masae/Setsuko announced her sudden retirement in 1963. “And then there was what she said,” writes Donald Richie of the event, "the reasons she gave. She implied that she had never enjoyed making films, that she had only done so merely to make enough money to support her large family, that she hadn't thought well of anything she had done in the films, and now that the family was provided for she saw no reason to continue in something she didn't care for." Setsuko Hara was never seen again. Masae Aida, nearly 30 years older than her debut in films but still unmarried and childless, retreated into a genteel obscurity. Her private life had been pried into before, during her reign as Japanese cinema's Eternal Virgin, but nothing was found there to satisfy the tabloids, nothing to disturb the popular mythology surrounding her. And nothing more would be found out, in the nearly 40 intervening years in which Masae has lived her unassailably private life “in a small house in Kamakura,” adamantly refusing to appear or speak on behalf of her former self.

Masae has seen to it that we will never find out who she is. And even if we know quite a bit more about Setsuko, some of it is frustratingly inconsistent – in perfect keeping, perhaps, for the Woman Who Never Was. Her first appearance on film was at the age of 15 with Shochiku Studios, founded in the 1920s. And Shochiku became her contracted studio for the rest of her life. But it was a particularly troubled time in Japan, with the war in China raging and Japan's entry into World War II looming. Still, Setsuko quickly became a star.

Though considered, like her sensei Ozu, quintessentially Japanese, she was singled out by Arnold Fanck in 1936 as representative of a European-style young woman, probably due to her expressively large eyes. Fanck, famous in Europe for his Alpinist films – hyperventilated mountain melodramas, often starring the young Leni Riefenstahl – got her top billing in his German-Japanese production called The New Earth (Atarashiki tsuchi) in Japan and Die Tochter des Samurai in Germany.

Hara then appeared in a string of wartime propaganda films with such emblematic titles as War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai mare oki kaisen, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1942) and Watchtower Suicide Squad (Boro no kesshitai, Tadashi Imai, 1943) – films that were more illustrative of Japan's national peril than of its jingoism. Their poor quality did not prevent Setsuko from becoming a “pin-up girl” for wartime Japanese soldiers.

The war lost and Japan in ruins, a novice director named Akira Kurosawa, on loan to Shochiku from a newly formed studio that would later call itself “Toho,” cast Setsuko in the meaty role of the heroine of his beautiful but uncharacteristic “feminist” (and transparently socialist) No Regrets for Our Youth, which addressed the consequences that the generation that came of age during the War had had to face for their political activism. Setsuko was magnificent as a “woman of the people,” and it is one of the performances that have become the bedrock of her – by now – international reputation. Five years later at Shochiku, Kurosawa cast her in the impossible Nastasya Filippovna role in his fascinating adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), transforming her into a woman who fascinates virtually every male character in the cast with her striking beauty and erratic behavior. With her severely coiffed hair and accentuated eyelashes (like Marlene Dietrich, she is invariably lit from above), her performance was severely damaged, along with the film, by the studio's demands for draconian cuts, leaving it, laborious explanatory inter-titles and all, at less than one-third its intended length.

But it was Ozu who noticed certain qualities in Setsuko and cast her in the first of his late, great masterpieces, Late Spring. She was 29, but still 'virginal' in at least one sense, and totally convincing as Ozu's iconic devoted daughter Noriko. Like her, Ozu never married, choosing instead to devote his remaining years to erecting an indestructible monument to the fragile, disintegrating Japanese family. And Setsuko played an irreplaceable part, in five more Ozu films: Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957), Late Autumn, and The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961).

Meanwhile she would also make four films with Mikio Naruse, who was somewhat less reverential toward the Japanese family than Ozu, and much more interested in the constricted roles that women were required to play in Japanese society. For Naruse, Setsuko was allowed to approximate a more realistic, postwar young woman, in two films based on Fumiko Hayashi stories and two on Yasunari Kawabata – equally delicate but very different writers. Hayashi was one of the first postwar writers to devote herself exclusively to depicting the plight of women. In Repast, Setsuko played a wife trapped in a childless and loveless marriage in the lower middle class suburbs of Osaka. Setsuko, ever the refracting prism of the lives of Japanese women, was both totally convincing and deeply moving.

In The Sound of the Mountain (which, incidentally, was Yasunari Kawabata's own favorite of all his screen adaptations), Setsuko was again involved in an unhappy marriage, this time to a husband who has a child by a mistress. Setsuko's character has an abortion (quite an advanced detail for a 1954 film). The only comfort she receives is from her father-in-law, who quite obviously adores her and helps her to cope.

With so much sensitive and intelligent work in the service of a handful of some of the greatest films ever made, it is all the more puzzling that Setsuko/Masae could not only suspend it forever but even renounce it. It was one thing for Greta Garbo to confess to David Niven that she retired from films because she was bored with always playing “bad women.” (Niven) What Garbo perhaps lacked was an Ozu, a Naruse, or a Kurosawa. But even these stalwarts of Film Art were apparently not enough to keep Masae from her secret life in Kamakura as the Eternal Virgin, alone and, by society's standards, unfulfilled. It was as if Garbo had shorn her hair and entered a nunnery.

E. M. Forster once complained that he had to give up novel writing because he had grown tired of granting his characters the happy ending that he himself had been denied in life – heterosexual love and marriage. Although some sexual motivation often has the effect of humanizing an otherwise superhuman subject, I am not suggesting that Masae Aida was homosexual. Assigning sexual preference to people based on completely innocent statements, writings or other evidence has become one of the more tiresome commonplaces of revisionist criticism. I am perfectly satisfied to leave Masae's virginity intact – even now that she is 80, when such distinctions are subtle, at best.

But would it be going too far to suggest that Masae, having defined Japanese women in their various social roles, spurned those roles in her own life because she was unable to find fulfillment in them? In Japan, a woman unmarried past the age of 25 used to be called “Christmas cake” – stale and unappealing after the 25th. In a country that remains so male-dominated, perhaps Masae's decision to remain unmarried and childless was less a “failure” than a conscious decision? A protest? Donald Richie seemed to think so:

It now seems, particularly to young women, that this actress truly reconciled her life. Truly, in that though she played all social roles – daughter, wife, and mother – she only played them in her films. They were inventions, these roles. They did not eclipse that individual self, our Setsuko. And in this way she exposed them for the fictions that they are.

While seeming to codify the separate parts she played in the fictional world of her films, subsuming her own life – her own dreams – in theirs, Masae Aida proved herself to be far greater than the sum of these parts. Her choice of anonymity after such fame grew into the ultimate rebuke to the culture who sought to worship her, but only in the terms it defined.


Though some sources report that she made over 100 films, the Internet Movie Data Base (http://www.imdb.com/) lists only 44.

The tabloid press in Japan is at least as prying and libelous as anywhere else in the world. Kurosawa attacked it in his 1950 film Scandal, in which a bohemian painter gives a beautiful socialite an innocent lift on his motorcycle, only to find within days that the tabloids have embroiled them in a turgid affair. A more recent example of tabloid excesses occurred in December of 1997, when one publication, called Flash, drove the filmmaker Juzo Itami (Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) to commit suicide over a rumored extra-marital affair.

Works cited:

Niven, David, Bring on the Empty Horses, New York: Putnam, 1975
Richie, Donald, Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1988