Thursday, July 29, 2010


In the history of world film, 1953 was an exceptionally fruitful year. In Italy, Federico Fellini introduced his semi-autobiographical hero Moraldo to the world in I Vitelloni (1). In Sweden, Ingmar Bergman nailed his reputation as a filmmaker of genius with his first great film, Sawdust and Tinsel. In Japan alone two of its greatest film artists created masterpieces: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story was released, a film that has turned up on Ten Best lists ever since (at least since foreign distributors finally decided that it be shown in the West); and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari was immediately hailed as one of the most beguiling films ever made, whetting Western audiences’ appetite for Eastern exoticism – something that had been created by Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and considerably expanded by Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell, also released in 1953, and shot in glorious Agfacolor. Mizoguchi’s film was in black-and-white but had the advantage of being billed as a ghost story. As audiences quickly discovered, however, Ugetsu Monogatari is a peculiarly Japanese ghost story.

In the 16th century, a time of civil wars, Genjiro (Masayuki Mori), lives with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) and young son while plying his trade as a potter. Though poor, he talks incessantly of bettering his lot by selling all his wares in town at a great profit, and his brother Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) boasts of buying a suit of armour and becoming a samurai. Their wives tell them to be thankful for what they have instead of wasting their time on such dreams.

Very quickly the film has introduced us to one of the central themes of Japanese film: the resigned acceptance of the way things are rather than an insistence on change and resistance to the status quo. While Kurosawa was often on the side of the latter, showing how diligence can sometimes create incremental change (in Ikiru, 1952, and Red Beard, 1965), Mizoguchi, a traditionalist, is always on the side of the former, since it is the only way to attain serenity – what has come to be known as mono no aware (2). But of course, Mizoguchi must allow Genjiro to learn this for himself, at great cost to those he loves most.

Just as the script for Rashomon was derived from two different stories by Akutagawa, the script for Ugetsu is based on two stories by the 18th century writer Akinari Ueda, from his collection Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of the Moon and Rain). Mizoguchi combined the stories merely by making the protagonists of the two tales brothers. In the tales and in the film, they both realise their ambitions – Genjiro finds wealth beyond his wildest dreams in Lady Wakasa’s mansion and Tobei becomes a samurai with his own horse and men under his command. Although two ghosts are introduced as principal characters (3), neither is malevolent (even if, admittedly, one of them tries to make Genjiro hers for eternity). Nor are they your typical movie ghosts – created through double exposure or other special effects. Mizoguchi and his cinematographer, the irreplaceable Kazuo Miyagawa, use only shadow and light to evoke the unforgettable illusion of Genjiro’s idyll with Lady Wakasa.

The film abounds in extraordinary sequences. The long crane shot at the film’s opening, establishing the setting of Genjiro’s hut. The beautiful little scene in the town where Genjiro stops to admire kimonos and imagines seeing Miyagi touching them and trying them on. The interiors extravagantly materialise around Genjiro as he enters the mansion and candles are lit from room to room. The justly celebrated love scene by the shimmering lake.

Mizoguchi’s realism is painstaking in its straightforwardness. All of his great period films – The Life of Oharu (1952), Chikamatsu Monogatari (1954), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – deal with ordinary human beings facing real problems, usually highlighting the disadvantaged position of women. If Mizoguchi had a point to his concentration on women, it may have been to explore how their subjugation ultimately affects everyone, male or female. When Tobei discovers his wife has been forced into prostitution, he knows that he is ruined as well, despite his samurai title. Ugetsu Monogatari is, as Vernon Young noted in another context, “a noteworthy essay on the saddest subject there is: illumination glimpsed too late” (4).

Typical of Mizoguchi films, the best performances belong to women: Kinuyo Tanaka’s long-suffering Miyagi, whose patience is rewarded only after her apotheosis; Mitsuko Mito’s playing of Tobei’s wife, who teaches him that position and respectability come with a heavy price; Machiko Kyo’s perfectly realised portrayal of a young woman utterly, distractedly devoted to love and the happiness it gives her. But there is also her startling look of terror and sadness when she finds the Sanskrit prayers written on Genjiro’s skin.

And then there is the long closing sequence, exploiting Mizoguchi’s love for long takes, as Genjiro returns home. The wisdom he has attained allows him even to accept the great loss he discovers in his hut, and the presence of a love so obstinate that it could not be taken away.

(1) Fellini’s original script for La Dolce Vita (1960) was called Moraldo in Citta.
(2) Donald Richie defines mono no aware as “that awareness of the transience of all earthly things, the knowledge that it is, perhaps fortunately, impossible to do anything about it: that celebration of resignation in the face of things as they are.” Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character, Anchor Books, New York, 1971, p. 77.
(3) There are possibly as many as four other ghosts in the film. There is the voice of Lady Wakasa’s dead father which is heard coming from his enshrined suit of armor. The other three are uncertain: Lady Wakasa’s maid and two other attendants in her mansion. All three, however, vanish with Lady Wakasa, leaving her deserted mansion in ruins.
(4) Vernon Young, On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art, Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1972, p. 226.

[This essay first appeared in Senses of Cinema in 2005.]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

[Long before the Coen brothers stole the title, Preston Sturges made Sullivan's Travels (1941), a satire about a successful director of film comedies who suddenly announces that his next film will be a serious look at life as it is lived by millions of out of work Americans. The result was an uneven but fascinating attempt to explore territory normally off limits even for a satire. I wrote the following piece for the Melbourne Cinémathèque's CTEQ Annotations in 2001. It was published in Issue 12 of Senses of Cinema.]

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan: I want this picture to be a . . . document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity . . . a true canvas of the suffering of humanity.

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

Sullivan: [reluctantly] But with a little sex in it.

Life is "a cockeyed caravan" according to a wiser John Lloyd Sullivan at the end of his travels. His attempt to hold a mirror up to life had merely shown him how the average Joes of the world are better off with movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1939, his last film, than with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the one he intended to make after he set out on the road dressed as a hobo with ten cents in his pocket. He learns this somewhat transparent lesson (rather sententiously illustrated by the writer/director Preston Sturges) the hard way. Having lost his memory after a blow to the head in a rail yard, he winds up in a hard-labor prison, while the rest of the civilized world (read: Hollywood) believes him dead. One evening the local preacher decides to sweeten his sermonizing with Disney cartoons, reducing the audience of hard-timers to tears of laughter. Sullivan, astonished, wonders from what mysterious source these hopeless men can have found an excuse for such merriment. Reluctantly, he joins in, abandoning himself to the tide of laughter sweeping the audience, albeit momentarily, away from the misery of their lives.

Preston Sturges pokes fun at virtually everything in Sullivan's Travels - including (luckily) himself. While sparing neither the single-minded hucksters otherwise known as producers nor the successful director of comedies suddenly gripped with a social conscience, Sturges also attacks just the sort of movie Frank Capra was making at the time - Meet John Doe (1941). Capra himself had also been a successful director of comedies (It Happened One Night [1934], You Can't Take It With You [1938]), before his seriousness got the better of him. When Capra tried to combine his social conscience with his comedic genius, the results were usually uneven. While Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) was initially successful as a serio-comic look at Depression-era economics, Capra found himself at odds with the status quo. And his populism pushed both Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe into perilous territory. Neither film had a suitable ending, as if Capra, having confronted Good and Evil so convincingly, couldn't decide who should win.

Sturges never possessed such ambitions, yet he approaches, in Sullivan's Travels, the very territory that would ultimately undo the Capra ethic. One of the cardinal rules of dramaturgy is never to tamper with what is generally known as the tone of a piece. Sturges knew that his bread & butter was satire (even if it employed the very broadest slapstick). He bravely tried to leaven his bread with an altogether serious episode in his satire - the moment when Sullivan is hit in the head. Thereafter, Sullivan's good intentions become the paving stones of the road to hell. Ironically, of all Sturges' films, Sullivan's Travels is probably the best known today precisely for its peek at the altogether depressing facts of Depression-era America: the hordes of hobos jostling for a place on the bread line or a space on the freight car or a cot in the flop-house. But, rather than seek some sort of message from this brush with reality, Sturges only uses it to reinforce his labored point - that none of this matters to your average audience, that what we want above all is to forget all that, to be entertained by something so richly superfluous, so magisterially superficial that we are taken, with our hearty consent, to a place so beautiful or ridiculous that life itself - our life - becomes a distant murmur, a bothersome echo outside the tender confines of the theater, a world with which we must all rudely reacquaint ourselves at the end of every such movie.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Problems With Music 2

Jazz has mistakenly been labelled America's only indigenous art form. It is actually a musical idiom that contains elements that can be traced from American popular music of the 19th and early 20th centuries to West Africa.

Over the years I have found jazz an exalting alternative to the music that, according to my "demographics," I was supposed to like - rock, pop, country, etc. Since I started listening to classical music, which is gloriously alien to every conceivable demographic, I was never fooled into listening to any of the music of my age, or age group, merely because it was inescapable or because all my friends were listening to it.

But because classical music was composed long before my lifetime, I had to seek for examples of how a musical intelligence reacted to the age in which I live from other sources. The trouble with jazz, as I quickly learned, was that it is more about musicians than about music. If you were to call in to a late night jazz radio request line and ask them to play "My Funny Valentine," they would ask you, "Whose?" Ben Webster's or Paul Desmond's? Ella Fitzgerald's or Tony Bennett's? Miles Davis's or Chet Baker's? The interpretation of the individual musician is what jazz is about, not whatever song they happen to be playing. In fact, the song is only a pretext for the musician's playing.

The other trouble with jazz, which is supposed to be one of its greatest strengths, is its heavy reliance on improvisation, on the moment when a musician creates something from nothing. Beethoven was a brilliant pianist - in fact it was his virtuosity at the instrument that make his compositions for piano so magnificent. But Beethoven, great as he was at the piano, could never have improvised the Moonlight Sonata. Improvisation is an important part of creation, but it is only a jumping off point for a composer, a place to begin the laborious process of creating a complex and thought-out musical statement.

Jazz abhors such structuring, and is always straying away from the notes of a song as written. Some of the finest jazz musicians have turned to song-writing, and have incorporated their own styles of playing in their music. But Duke Ellington, for example, drew a line between the music he created with his jazz ensemble and his "serious" concert pieces, most of which were never performed in his lifetime. This showed a respect for composition, with its emphasis on the music - a music that has a life of its own, whomever chooses to perform it.

Jazz, at least as I have come to understand it, has ossified since the 1960s, when leading exponents of the idiom, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, etc., tried to incorporate various other musical trends. Other musicians simply continue to play the Post-Bop style, regardless of the forces that threatened to kill jazz or turn it into some other kind of music, like "smooth jazz," which seems to be where jazz goes when it dies.

Some talented jazz musicians - too many - abandoned jazz for a hybrid form of "instrumental pop," as David Sanborn once called it, merely because they wanted their music to be heard. This was a rather foolish mistake, in my opinion, since it deprives both the musician and his potential listeners of the music he should have been making.

But it is entirely understandable when you consider that jazz music only accounts for three per cent of worldwide CD sales, which is a heartbreaking statistic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I watched the first Iron Man, with (I swear) no expectations. While making certain parts of my autonomic nervous system respond dependably, assuring me that I was at least ambulatory, my heart sank and my brain was in full retreat. Silly me, for expecting it, just like every other film I take the trouble to sit through nowadays, to engage me emotionally and intellectually.

The most that can really be said in support for utterly insupportable films like this is that they were made for the fans, and not for people like me. But the fact is, Iron Man is just another movie, just like all the others. If it fails to entertain, which was its sole reason for being, it is not merely dumb but a failure as well. I, for one, feel uncomfortable when a film, or anything else for that matter, tries to treat me like a child. Millions of others, evidently delighted in being treated like children, made it another hugely popular comic book movie, a genre about which I have already had my say.*

Unlike Robert Downey, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow, who can justify their slumming as actors at the bank (funny, how that works), I'm far too old to go slumming any more at the movies.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Swimmer part six

The sun is definitely lower now. The freezing thermocline in whose upwelling the swimmer was briefly caught has moved on. He is thirsty and weary and finds himself becalmed in an edgy resignation. He has done his purposeful but unrewarded swimming about. Now he wants to preserve his strength for staying alive as long as possible. He is already thinking ahead to another day's floating, taking for granted that he will survive the night.

For the first time he is considering the possibility of rescue. He has abandoned the idea of finding his boat. He accepts that his directionless first attempts to search for it are more likely to have separated him still further. Even if he did happen to be looking in the right quarter when stern or prow or the tip of an outrigger reared up on a wave, there are surely too many intervening waves for anything to be visible now.

He does have a plan of sorts, if that is not too intentional a word for such an impotent state as his. At nightfall, he knows, this area becomes a major local fishing ground. True, many of the boats will have engines over whose unsilenced blatter his shouts may not be heard. But many of the poorer fishermen stop their engines to save fuel and just drift, while the poorest of all will come out here under sail. Since sound travels well over water the swimmer has high hopes that someone will hear.

In the meantime he is once again examining the sunlit depths on the extreme off-chance of rescue from another source. He has heard legends of dolphins helping shipwrecked mariners, of a strange bond which sometimes leads them to aid distressed humans, even occasionally towing them to safety. The sea is empty, however. It seems to him it is a long time since he has even glimpsed a dolphin, several weeks at least. He can remember when it was hardly possible to look at the sea for five minutes in these parts without their breaking the surface, leaping in pairs. Only three or four years ago he would probably have been surrounded by the curious and playful creatures. Now there is nothing. The sea is empty even of their squeaks. The swimmer knows their absence is most likely due to the very fishermen at whose hands he is hoping for deliverance. Why should any remaining dolphin come within a mile of him? Of what use now to invoke "strange bonds" in so self-interested a fashion when the deal had always been so cruelly one-sided?

James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: the sea and its thresholds

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trafficking in Euphemisms

Last month, the Philippine National Police staged (the only word for it) a raid on a Manila club popular with foreigners called LA Café. During the raid, which was enthusiastically covered by the local media, "200 girls" were "rescued" in pursuance of the recently adopted, if irregularly enforced, protocol against human trafficking. The young women who were rescued were detained, their personal documents scrutinized, and, in case there was suspicion that they were underage, given dental examinations. Supposedly, the development of the girls' teeth would give away their true ages, even if it sounds to a layman suspiciously like junk science.

Part of a United Nations Protocol, the anti-human trafficking "guidelines" are defined specifically as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation." The Philippines is, according to reports, making "significant" efforts to comply with the protocol, and a special unit was deployed on the night that LA Café was raided.

The club, which is owned by two Australians, is so popular among foreigners that they come from all over the globe to traffic in the young women who ply their wares on the premises. This is plainly nothing but prostitution, the most victimless crime ever, but the apparent powerlessness of local authorities to put a stop to it, with perfectly sound laws against it, is a cause of some embarrassment to politicians trying to clean up the sectors of Manila, one of the world's most sprawling cities, that are under their jurisdiction.

Such raids, if on a smaller scale, used to be conducted almost routinely, and resulted only in a momentary interruption of the clubs' booming business in, er, "human trafficking". Mayor Alfredo Lim, the venerable crusader who shut down the old Manila entertainment district in Ermita in the 1990s, only to see the clubs simply move to other parts of the city, or north to Angeles City (about which, more to come), personally padlocked the doors of LA Café, vowing that it will never reopen - at its present location, that is.

Since 17 of the 200 girls have been determined to be minors, charges of child abuse have been added to those of human trafficking against the Filipina proprietors (all women) of the establishment. The foreign owners have not been named in any legal action.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Show Goes On

In 1927, while on a world tour, Aldous Huxley attended the screening of an American silent film in the outreaches of the British colony of Malaya. He did not mention the title of the film, but from his description of marital infidelity, jealousy and revenge, it is probably best forgotten. Huxley wondered what the Malayans must have thought of such Americans in their world of unimaginable prosperity and mechanical advancement being represented by such a preposterous movie.

Living in Asia today, very near where Huxley passed through 80 years ago, I notice the number of American television shows that are available to Asian cable TV viewers, and I wonder, as Huxley did, what people must think of Americans when every one of the dramatic shows being presented to them is a "crime drama" - CSI, NCIS, 24, Close, Leverage, and a few others. Practically all that Asian viewers see of American television - which is mistaken by some for American life - is crime, guns, and violent death.

But I begin to wonder, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on 28 June that a long-standing gun control law in Chicago is unconstitutional, in a nation where some have estimated that 200 million guns are in circulation, in which it is now legal to carry a gun into a restaurant in some states and into a bar in others, if all the crime and guns is all that far from the reality of American life.

I accept the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution. I am dubious of its ability to do so. The Second Amendment to the Constitution made perfect sense at a time when America consisted of backwoods and frontiers. In the absence of any authority greater than that of an overworked lawman, citizens had to defend themselves against threats to their lives and their property. Hollywood has re-created this period of American history in loving detail in countless films.

But today, the 4th of July, I have to question the patriotism of my fellow Americans who feel the need to own guns, who do not feel safe in their homes behind locked doors without a lethal weapon under the bed, who (unbelievably) do not even feel safe in restaurants or in bars without a gun on their belts. What kind of patriot is it who does not trust in their own government or their municipal police department to keep them safe? Or is the widespread ownership of guns, which always seems to be a politically conservative activity, something more insidious than simply the exercise of a Constitutional right?

I have expressed elsewhere my contention that if I felt unsafe in a particular neighborhood or in a particular town anywhere in America, I would simply move somewhere else where I did feel safe. I have friends living in parts of America in which locking one's front door is considered unnecessary. (I assure you that my front door would, nonetheless, always be locked.) I have even said that if there were nowhere in my country where I believed I was safe, I would emigrate. What is the use of a country where I had to live in fear? Buying a gun would definitely not make it all better.

There seems to be a kind of siege mentality behind gun possession and gun culture, a somebody-is-out-to-get-you belief that runs very deep. As a cinephile, I have perhaps seen far too many movies in my lifetime. I know for a fact that I have seen too many bad movies. It seems to me that Americans have seen only the bad ones, and all the crime-ridden television shows, and think they are living in them, like they're John Wayne or Dirty Harry. Why does Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers seem more prophetic the older I get?

Friday, July 2, 2010


I was reluctant to even countenance the film Brideshead Revisited (2008) because I have such vivid memories of the splendid television series. The exceptions that I took with the series were the same ones I took with the book: voluptuous, almost edible imagery committed to an unconvincing religious message. Waugh made one feel the pang of regret that everyone must have felt in 1945 for the lost world before the war, a world that Waugh missed so powerfully he made it live again in his writing.

Having seen it, the film improves on the series in some significant places. The casting is better, especially in the lead roles. Three actors in the series could never be bested: John Gielgud as Charles's father, Edward Ryder, Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche and Diana Quick as Julia Flyte. But I liked Michael Gambon as Lord Marchmain, simply because Laurence Olivier was so old and frail in the series. And Emma Thompson is superb as Lady Marchmain, suggesting depths that Claire Bloom, in the series, did not. And Matthew Goode is an improvement on Jeremy Irons, who was a tad old for Charles even in 1981. And the film's elimination of practically all the ponderous narration of the series at least spares us Irons's awful lisp.

Neither the series nor the film manages to make Sebastian more than just the insufferable object of Charles' infatuation. (That teddy bear reminded me, of course, of Mr. Bean's.) Charles does extend his infatuation to Brideshead itself (played by Castle Howard in the series and the film), to Julia, and eventually to Jesus.

Poor Charles' wanting to belong to something greater than himself is the impetus behind the drama of Waugh's novel. He wanted to write a "Catholic" novel, just as Graham Greene had been doing, most effectively in The Power and the Glory. At just over two hours, the film foreshortens the story considerably, which was to be expected. But the series, which is nearly eleven hours long, did seem to drag in places, in its faithful but over-literal way. It seemed that Geoffrey Burgon's beautiful theme music was put through a few variations too many by the time the last episode arrived.

But there is one improvement in the film that is a quite surprising and somewhat shocking betrayal of Waugh. It comes in the famous scene in which Lord Marchmain repents on his deathbed. In the novel and the series, Charles watches as the dying old man crosses himself with his last ounces of strength and speaks in the first-person narration of being overwhelmed. Waugh stages it all quite directly and dramatically. It was the point at which Edmund Wilson balked at giving the novel, which he otherwise admired, his unqualified praise. The film shows Charles watching the scene from the back of the room, and because there is no narration, the depth of his feelings must be taken on trust.

Some critics have, astonishingly, remarked that the film saves the novel from itself by eliminating Charles' religious transformation. Waugh may have recanted some of the style in his novel when he wrote in the 1959 preface: "The book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful." But he did not regret the message of the novel. While the film supplies us with a much more subtle, too subtle, illustration of Charles' conversion (something that Waugh doesn't handle very well either), it is a tacit betrayal of Waugh's account. Neil Jordan did the same thing in his hideous "adaptation" of Greene's The End of the Affair. By eliminating the unexplained miracle of the disappearing birthmark, Jordan, while trying to fend off the incredulity of an unbelieving public, betrayed Greene and much of the redemptive sense of the novel. Why bother to adapt a book in the first place if you don't believe in it sufficiently to do it faithfully?*

But if the film of Brideshead Revisited were anything more than a series of tableaux vivant from the novel, such objections would be unnecessary. As it is, the film is stately and beautifully photographed, and the final out-of-focus image of Charles walking out the the chapel into the light of day will stay with me, I think, long after everything else from the film has faded from my memory.

*The last scene of the film shows Charles entering the Brideshead chapel, dipping his fingers in holy water just so he can douse a lone, burning candle in front of the altar. But he changes his mind, leaves the candle burning, and walks out the door.