Friday, December 31, 2010

My Year in Film 2010, in Images

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Apologies in advance, dear readers; I was all set to do a detailed year-end round-up yesterday and today, and ring in the new year with the usual batch of resolutions tomorrow. But then real life intervened, as Real Life usually will do. So for now, at least, this image essay will have to suffice as a sum-up of my year in movies.

For much of this year, I shared the opinion of many that 2010 was a pretty middling year for movies. I thought the same of 2009. But then the same thing that happened towards the end of the year in 2009 happened this year: I took a closer look at my personal running list of films seen/rated, and I realized that there were a lot more worthy films than I had remembered. This year, I counted at least 30 new releases I had seen this year that I thought were interesting, challenging, pleasurable, horizon-expanding and so on. So maybe this wasn't so terrible a year for movies after all. As usual, the cinematic riches were there if you were willing to look past what Hollywood offered at the multiplexes. (Of course, not everyone reading this, I'm sure, would have necessarily access to said riches...but thanks to video-on-demand services such as, say, Netflix Instant viewing, there was plenty more available at the adventurous moviegoer's fingertips than ever before.)

Of all the new releases I saw this year, these 10 stood out the most. In alphabetical (read: unranked) order:


Others I liked:

My blind spots this year are legion—Lourdes, Alamar, Our Beloved Month of August, Blue Valentine...and yes, the latest Harry Potter, among many, many others. But while in previous years I might have panicked inside about how not-caught-up I was compared to other cinephiles/film critics offering up their Top 10 lists this time of year...this year, at about the midway point, I honestly began to care less and less about keeping up with the new releases the more time I spent catching up with classic films in repertory screenings. And now that I live in New York, I have much easier access to more of this stuff than I ever had before. It's come to the point where I'm starting to wonder whether I should even bother maintaining a Netflix account anymore!

Of the many cinematic discoveries I made through repertory screenings this year, these had the biggest impact on me. Again, in alphabetical order:

A Movie (1958)

Close-Up (1990)

Nightfall (1957)

Onward to more discoveries in the dark in 2011! In the meantime, feel free to comment on my picks (and omissions) in the comments section; I welcome the opportunity to elaborate on them there.

See you all next year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brooklyn: The Borough that Bloomberg Forgot?

NEW YORK—Four views from the intersection of Kingston Ave. and St. Johns Place in my Brooklyn neighborhood:

Admittedly, a good amount of the snow you see on these streets was cleared away today, so this intersection doesn't look nearly as, well, apocalyptic as it did both yesterday and the day before. Nevertheless, there are still many side streets that, as of this morning anyway, were still buried in snow. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The blizzard was more or less over by early Monday morning...and still there are whole neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of New York City that are reportedly blanketed in unplowed snow.

But, of course, Manhattan streets are, save for a few annoying puddles of slush, relatively free of white stuff on the ground...because hey, Times Square needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible for New Year's Eve festivities Friday night!

The clean-up operation is over, Mayor Bloomberg? Really? It sure doesn't look like it in my neighborhood, for one.

(Holiday) Weekend Film Round-up: True Grit, Secret Sunshine...and Die Hard

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—For the sake of completeness, allow me to get this out of the way first: As expected, seeing Die Hard (1988) on a big screen was totally awesome, with the reasonably sized crowd's palpable enthusiasm adding immeasurably to the experience. To wit, audience members cheered and applauded when Bruce Willis's name popped up in the opening credits, and did the same for Alan Rickman; later, they would react the same way when John McClane first unleashes his trademark "Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker" quip. Otherwise, the film itself took care of the rest; seeing it on a big screen reminded me of just how perfectly directed and rigorously constructed this film actually is, with barely a wasted shot or gesture in its headlong rush. Above all, though, Die Hard works because it actually bothers to create memorable, down-to-earth characters and skillfully weave those characterizations into the suspense. Certainly, none of the other films in the series dare to open the film with a relatively quiet 20 minutes of set-up, a stretch which plays more like a character drama than an action yarn. (I go further in outlining its many other virtues at this House Next Door piece from a few years ago here.)

The only sore point about this theatrical screening of Die Hard? The quality of the print screened was pretty mediocre—not unwatchable, but fairly beat-up, sometimes to the point of adding unintended suspense when the print's wear and tear ran most rampant. I assume, though, that this was the best print the theater could find. (Who knows? Maybe, 20-30 years down the road, Die Hard will be considered canonical enough that it'll be deemed worthy of a restoration that would screen at, say, Film Forum!) It sure wasn't enough to prevent me from being thrilled all over again by John McClane's first, and by far his best (despite all the crowing I've done about Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2 both on this blog and on my Twitter feed), cinematic adventure.


My other adventure in mainstream American cinema came courtesy of True Grit (2010), the latest film from the Coen Brothers, and arguably their most emotionally direct, with a concluding 10-minute stretch that ranks not only among one of the most memorable in the filmmakers' body of work, but one of the finest moments to come out of 2010 cinema.

From what I gather, having not read Charles Portis's novel nor seen Hollywood's first go at the source material—via Henry Hathaway's 1969 film with John Wayne's Oscar-winning turn as one-eyed bounty hunter Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn—the Coens retained much of Portis's arch dialogue in their screenplay and restored the focus to the revenge-driven 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a mightily impressive screen debut) rather than to blustery Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) himself. Much of the film is actually fairly talky, though with dialogue this juicy and with the actors clearly savoring the distinctive turns of phrase, it's difficult to complain too loudly about it. But what seems like an amiably poky genre exercise for much of its running time becomes something more with those aforementioned final 10 minutes, which not only sum up the film's main themes of compromised humanity and morality, but does so in such a lyrical, beautiful and poetic manner that it imbues the rest of the film with a retroactive heft. I won't spoil what happens here; simply put, True Grit reveals itself to be, among other things, a coming-of-age story in which its young female protagonist begins to understand—as people like her eventually must understand in the Coens' moral universe—just how complicated typical American notions of justice and heroism can be in the real world.


There is no justice either in the moral universe that South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong paints in Secret Sunshine, his 2007 film that is only now getting a theatrical release here in the U.S. (Possible spoiler alert) After the kidnapping and subsequent death of her son in the town of Miryang, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) turns to religion as a way to deal with her overwhelming grief. But then, she decides to take it upon herself to go to prison and personally forgive her son's killer for his sins...only to then suffer a profound crisis of faith when she discovers the killer has already discovered God and feels that He has forgiven him already. Why would God pardon his sin before she does?, she begins to wonder. Is there even a God in the first place, watching and judging accordingly? She becomes increasingly reckless with expressing her disillusionment; in arguably the film's most potent image, the camera slowly zooms into Shin-ae's face from above, suggesting a God's-eye point-of-view, as she tempts Him with her sexual immorality.

Secret Sunshine is yet another film released this year—following Jessica Hausner's Lourdes (2009) and Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch (2009)—which tackles the question of God's existence by detailing how individual characters' belief in a Supreme Being manifests itself in their actions, and exploring the implications of those actions. Whether there definitively is a God out there is of passing interest at best to these filmmakers; they're more concerned with putting religious belief to the Job-like test. This strikes me as a refreshingly rational approach to questions that usually inspire heated emotional responses, and Lee's film is certainly laudable for its consistent intelligence and even-handedness.

If I ultimately can only work up a distant admiration for this film rather than full-on love, it probably has something to do with this feeling I got as the film went on that there's something a bit too overdetermined about Lee's storytelling style. Each scene makes its point tidily and economically, and certainly some of those individual scenes are fascinating to observe in and of themselves. But Lee's, well, God-like control over the story ends up being rather self-defeating; the film begins to feel less like a character study and more like an accumulation of carefully worked-out plot points. Secret Sunshine is sometimes affecting and rarely less than thought-provoking, to be sure; more often than not, though, it seems to take place in a vacuum, in which the messiness of real life isn't allowed to intrude lest it force Lee to stray from the grand storytelling plan he has mapped for his characters. (I don't remember his most recent film, Poetry—which I saw at this year's New York Film Festival, and which I reviewed on this blog here—feeling as overly scripted as this one.) Yes, Jeon Do-yeon is a force of nature, offering an unforgettable portrait of a woman in various stages of grief and anguish; but even she, for all her magnificence, can only do so much with a character that increasingly feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being, more like a predetermined slate on which its writer-director can thrust all of his thematic concerns. For all its admittedly neat (stage-bound?) plotting, even John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole—another recent portrait of parental grief with another exemplary lead female performance, this one from Nicole Kidman—felt less oppressively schematic, and more exploratory, than this.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Images for the Day: White Nights on a White Night

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—A blizzard is raging in Brooklyn right now, and is forecast to continue 'til tomorrow. (Apparently this is more than a blizzard, though; there were reportedly flashes of lightning in the sky at certain points in the afternoon. Thundersnowstorm, anyone?)

I was thinking of braving the elements this afternoon to finally see The Fighter at Brooklyn Academy of Music; I mean, it's not like I have to drive a car to get there. But one look out my window at about 6 p.m. convinced me to not even bother. It's utterly nasty out there.

So, right now, thanks to this latest installment of Snowpocalypse 2010, I'm in the room in my Brooklyn apartment—just me, my MacBook and a radio that is now turned off after hearing the New York Giants embarrass itself against the Green Bay Packers this afternoon. (I'm not a Giants fan, though, so I could care less. The New York Jets are in the playoffs despite losing against the Chicago Bears earlier in the day; that's all I care about.)

I also have these snowy, dreamy images to warm my thoughts:

Who knew snow could be used to such powerfully romantic ends as Luchino Visconti, with the help of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, used it in White Nights (1957), his glorious adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's famous short story of the same title? And yet here is Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, playing two lonely souls who achieve a (it turns out, tragically temporary) moment of connection crystallized by the snow that suddenly falls on them.

This is the kind of film that I could close my eyes, conjure up in my mind and dream to all day and all night. It never fails to make me swoon (especially as a single guy like myself with romantic desires of my own). Really, what more could you want out of a movie...especially on a, um, "white" night like tonight?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Video for the Day: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Coldplay Style

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Though I have a general love/hate relationship with Coldplay (A Rush of Blood to the Head is great, but the rest I can take or leave), I've always enjoyed lead singer Chris Martin's interpretation of that holiday chestnut "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," with its piano-driven intimacy and simplicity. It's far from the most immaculately sung version out there, but it's warm in a way that feels completely true to the spirit of the season. (It's available on a compilation holiday album entitled Maybe This Christmas.)


Anyway, just wanted to share that with all of you. I hope you've all been enjoying your Christmas holiday today, whether you've been opening presents or, if you're Jewish, indulging in Chinese food! Me, I came back to visit my folks in East Brunswick, and took one of the more refreshing afternoon naps I've had in a long while. Yay for holiday laziness!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Images and Well Wishes for the Christmas Holiday

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—For all you last-minute shoppers out there on this Christmas Eve, I hope, in your quest to track down the perfect gifts for your friends and family, you don't all look too much like this:

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


By the way: This week somehow turned into "catching up with, or planning on catching up with, old friends" week...and all that catching up and planning—all while working at The Wall Street Journal and plugging in last-minute viewing holes on the 2010 new-film-releases front—took away more time for blogging than I had expected at the beginning of the week. I apologize for that, faithful readers; I guess it's just that time of year.

I hope next week will be more fruitful in that regard. It ought to be, anyway; that's when I plan to finally get around to summing up my year, both in film and elsewhere. It's been quite an interesting year, cinematically and personally.

Until then...merry Christmas to you all! I hope the holiday brings you all lots of warmth and good cheer.

Hey, if even those brooding spoilsports Mulder and Scully can get into the Christmas spirit, you can too!

From "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," a holiday-themed Season 6 episode of The X-Files


Oh...and as you can tell by this post's dateline, I'm not back home in East Brunswick, N.J., just yet. I'll be heading back home tomorrow, on Christmas Day, and sticking around 'til Sunday night. In the meantime, though...tonight I'm celebrating Christmas Eve by watching this:

No, I'm not watching the classic original Die Hard (1988) on DVD or Blu-ray; I'm seeing it at New York's Landmark Sunshine Theatre at midnight tonight on the big screen!

I've seen this film countless times on video—in a way, it was another one of those formative movies of my budding cinephilia—but never in a theater. And, as I've learned this year time and time again, films you thought you already knew and loved on video can play differently projected on a big screen. Will this happen once again with Die Hard? Maybe. Maybe not. It should still be a ton of fun anyway.

Maybe next year, Die Hard 2 on a big screen? One can only hope. Or, at least, I hope so...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Free Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof!


Jafar Panahi
Mohammad Rasoulof

This is a day late...but no matter, because this isn't likely to become any less relevant in the coming days...or years, actually.

I refer, of course, to the recent sentence handed down by Iran's repressive government sending Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof to prison for six years and banning Panahi—an internationally renowned world-cinema giant—from making any more films for 20 years. This ruthless silencing of artistic voices would be terrible for any nation, but it is especially enraging in Iran, for which this kind of thing is a deeply unfortunate way of life.

Admittedly, my exposure to Panahi's work is, as of now, limited to his last—and maybe final?—film Offside (2006), a trenchant and subversive humanist comedy-drama set detailing the attempts of a handful of women—who are banned from entering sports stadiums altogether—to watch a major soccer match live. It's a fantastic film, available here in the United States on DVD but banned—as are all of his films—in his home country. And I've seen nothing by Rasoulof, though I hear from many of my New York cinephile friends that his most recent film The White Meadows (2009) was one of the highlights of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Putting all that aside, however, this kind of governmental clampdown on free artistic expression is absolutely unacceptable and needs to be fought whenever it pops up, as it has here in upsetting fashion.

David Ehrlich, a writer for Cinematical, sums up the outrage eloquently, so I'll let him have the last word here (and, of course, read his full post here):

The Guardian spoke with Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, who opined that, "This is a catastrophe for Iran's cinema. Panahi is now exactly in the most creative phase of his life and by silencing him at this sensitive time, they are killing his art and talent." Dabashi later detailed the national ramifications of Panahi's sentence, offering that, "Iran is sending a clear message by this sentence that they don't have any tolerance and can't bear arts, philosophy or anything like that. This is a sentence against the whole culture of Iran. They want the artists to sit at their houses and stop creating art. This is a catastrophe for a whole nation."

Editorializing, ahoy! To echo Dabashi's sentiments, this is obviously both a tragic day for cinema as well as a tragic day for human progress. It appears as if the autocratic forces of regressive censorship haven't just robbed the world of one of its most vital artists, but also a country of one of its most essential voices. As film lovers and free-thinking people alike, we have no choice but to shine a light on this atrocity and shame those at fault into reversing their decision. This all feels like a ghastly clerical error, a mistake so flippantly unjust that it seems inevitable that the forces of reason will descend upon Panahi's cell and absolve him of this insanity. If only.

We're not here to stir our readers into political action, but art must be allowed to flourish, and Jafar Panahi's cinema is important in a way that cinema should no longer have to be. We urge you to consider both his films and his plight.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

RIP Don Van Vliet (1941-2010)


The passing, due to complications from multiple sclerosis, of the musical and visual artist many in this world knew as Captain Beefheart demands to be acknowledged.

Putting aside his wide diversity of musical influences and the extent of his own influence on later punk-rock and new-wave bands like Talking Heads, Devo and many others, there remains the music: some of the most deliriously experimental, defiantly personal and endlessly fascinating rock ever recorded. When I heard that Van Vliet had died yesterday, I immediately decided to revisit his 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica and found myself once again seduced—yes, seduced—by its challenging Arnold Schoenberg-like dissonances and wild and weird poetry. Even his relatively "accessible" later work—I'm thinking of his last three albums, Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982)—suggest gleefully confounding glimpses into one messed-up mind. I mean that as a total compliment, of course; he was a true original, and one can honestly say there hasn't been music quite like his then and now.

For what it's worth, the amusing Twitter feed @Discographies—which bills itself as "a definitive guide to an artist’s body of work (studio albums only) in 140 characters"—summed up Captain Beefheart's music in this way:

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: 1 primitivism; 2 post-impressionism; 3-4,9-11 early & late cubism; 5-6 expressionism; 7-8 LeRoy Neiman.

And finally, some video footage, this of his appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1980 performing two of my favorite Beefheart songs, "Hot Head" and "Ashtray Heart," from Doc at the Radar Station:

Friday, December 17, 2010

(Really Late) Weekend Film Round-up: Shadows Run Black

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Though the weather in New York was pretty good—a bit on the cold side, but with plenty of sunshine to counteract the chill in the air—on both Friday and Saturday of this past weekend (before the frigid patch in which the metropolitan area has been engulfed all week), the subject matter of the three films I saw on those days was the kind that would cast cloud-borne shadows on anyone's mental landscape. But, of course, as with some of the best works of art, these "dark" films felt more cathartic than depressing. In that way, now that I think of it, the films actually mirrored the cold-yet-sunny weather.

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) is a case in point. The film details one artist's metaphorical journey from technical perfection to true artistry—a process that, according to this film, has the power to bring an artist to the edge of madness in the pursuit of greater truths. This would be pretty heavy subject matter for any film, and the physical and mental depths to which Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman)—picked by demanding choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to be both the White and Black Swans in a brand new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake—sinks in order to transcend her technical perfection might have come off as...well, as bleak as the nightmarish falls from grace in Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2002). And yet, in Black Swan, Aronofsky's depictions of sexual repression and artistry under pressure plays less like Requiem's rub-your-nose-in-shit sadism, and more like an increasingly delirious bastard child of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), crossed with Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). In other words, Aronofsky—taking his cues from a relatively conventional screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin—renders Nina's gradual descent in immorality and mania with such stylistic gusto that her mental breakdown becomes exhilarating to behold.

Which isn't to say that Black Swan is merely a bubble-brained spectacle of surreal horror tropes; the spectacle is always put at the service of expressing the point-of-view of its central character, a sheltered but ambitious dancer who embarks on the biggest role of her career and finds, to her frustration, that she may not have the emotional resources and life experience to be the kind of truly great artist that she aspires to be. As she slowly begins to give in to her darkest impulses—taking Leroy's advice to "live a little" to dangerous limits—the film likewise begins to tip unreservedly over into expressionistic fever dream, eventually embracing the kinds of psychological- and body-horror tropes it mostly kept at bay earlier in the film. Nina's desperation essentially becomes the film's. In essence, her art takes over her life—but for Nina, it was ever thus.

L.Q. Jones's 1975 sci-fi film A Boy and His Dog starts with a scenario that's even darker the destruction of one character's innocence: the destruction of the world and the resultant demolition of society in the year 2024. At the center of this doomsday scenario is the titular boy (played by a young Don Johnson) and dog, both of whom have developed a telepathic bond which allows them to converse with each other. The boy is only interested in food for the dog and sex for himself, while trying to ward off fellow barbarians above ground. His quest for lovin', however, leads him to a woman (Susanne Benton) who ends up knocking him out and luring him underground to "Topeka," a secret society that turns out to be a typical middle-American suburb...with some major twists.

Jones—adapting a Harlan Ellison sci-fi novella, and possibly drawing from his own experiences as a Sam Peckinpah regular—turns these twisted premises into a shockingly funny film, full of gallows humor that constantly pushes the boundaries of, um, good taste. Its seemingly ingratiating title deceives; the dog, named Blood, turns out to be a weary, snarky, cynical type that the boy nevertheless puts up with because, well, they need each other in this physical and moral wasteland. A Boy and His Dog starts out as gleefully risqué vaudeville, and then suddenly becomes an even more vigorous send-up of Norman Rockwell-like suburbia, complete with Jason Robards donning pancake make-up as one of the community leaders. And just as you think the film is about to end on a sentimental note...well, let's just say the film's final sick-joke punchline (which Ellison reportedly hated, while praising the rest of the film) confounds such expectations.

Woody Allen's latest film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), also confounds expectations—at least, the expectations of those of us who have been less than enthralled with the laziness of some of his recent work. Who knew that Allen could still manage to inject genuine freshness into his usual obsessions with death, the meaning of life and the question of God's existence? Here, once again using the omniscient-narrator device he most recently used in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Allen crafts a roundelay featuring an interconnected cast of characters all trying to negotiate their way through mid-life disappointments in their own way. The ways they try to stave off unhappiness lead them to make all sorts of questionable decisions...but, in this film, at least, there's a poignant sense of empathy that, I would daresay, verges on the Renoir-ian. And for once, the world he creates here feels halfway grounded and plausible, not arch like his exoticized Spain in Vicky or even the New York of his last film, Whatever Works (2009). You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn't any less misanthropic than his recent films, but the human dramas are, for once, fairly gripping, and ultimately there's a real sting to the point-of-view he expresses here. Consider that the character that ends up being the happiest turns out to be the one who has fully swallowed the illusions about God and the afterlife that Allen has questioned over the course of his career.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Video for the Day: Hard Truths About Journalism

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Last Monday, as a favor for a friend, I woke up super early and went down to Bound Brook, N.J., to speak to a bunch of high-school children about my job at The Wall Street Journal. Basically, I told them about how I got to where I'm at now, what exactly I do now and what they would probably have to study in order to be prepared to go into the journalism field.

One thing I didn't really delve all that deeply into, though, was the troubles of the journalism industry, especially print journalism. The closest I came to being at all negative about the journalism industry was when I said, partly in response to a question about how much I made as a News Assistant at the Journal: "I wouldn't discourage any of you from going into journalism, but you just need to be prepared to make some sacrifices."

If I had been more brutally honest with those kids, though...this might be what I would have said to them:

Maybe this means I myself am negative and bitter, but I really do hope that no one going into college to study journalism is as cluelessly idealistic as that light-skinned bear.

And of course, the deadpan computerized voices make this bitter pill even funnier to watch. Killer punchline, too.

Whoever you are, BrooklynLee: Hats off to you!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Video for the Day: The Real Musical/Spiritual Precursor of Black Swan

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—This weekend, I finally saw Black Swan...and this, not Swan Lake, is what I had running through my head when the film was over:

For all the Swan Lake music featured in the film—set as it is during rehearsals for an upcoming new production of Tchaikovsky's famous ballet—I would suggest that the real musical/spiritual precursor of Darren Aronofsky's new film is Maurice Ravel's La valse. Just as Black Swan begins as a fairly realistic backstage drama with occasional surface disturbances and eventually transforms into a full-on surreal nightmare, so does the great French composer's brilliant 1920 "poème chorégraphique" build in moments of tension to break up its initial aura of Johann Strauss-like gracefulness, gradually build to a pitch of crazed intensity and finally explode in a hallucinatory swirl by its concluding moments.

I have more to say about the film—which is a total blast, by the way—but for now, if you haven't seen it and want an idea of what the experience of watching it is like...well, look—or rather, listen—no further.

Oh, and then, you can turn to another Black work—the 1947 Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger masterpiece Black Narcissus—for a cinematic equivalent. Because, to my mind, that's, in many ways, a more relevant point of comparison than the oft-cited The Red Shoes. The former may not have ballet in it...but it has built-up repression, and lots of it, as does the lead character of Black Swan.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dramas of Things Left Unsaid: A Very Japanese Weekend in Cinema

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In addition to binging on alcohol to celebrate my 25th birthday on Saturday night (which went very well, by the way; I couldn't ask for more than to see all my various social circles converge in one concentrated area), I ended up binging this past weekend on Japanese cinema. It just somehow worked out that way. So on Friday night, I visited Asia Society to see my first ever Mikio Naruse film, Yearning (1964); then, on Saturday, I first introduced myself to the feverish visual splendors of Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) at Film Forum (the opening selection of an ongoing retrospective of some of the film-scoring work of esteemed composer Toru Takemitsu), and subsequently followed that up with my second viewing of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (1953), in a new 35mm print at IFC Center. All three films offer starkly contrasting cinematic experiences, but there are some intriguing undercurrents that link them together, undercurrents that could be considered distinctly Japanese in nature. In that sense, then, this weekend was also one of getting closer to my cultural roots through cinema—not inappropriate for a birthday weekend.

Being that both the Naruse and Ozu films are intimate dramas filmed in a unassuming manner, and Teshigahara's film is an existential nightmare that thrives on expressionistic stylization, it's difficult, on the surface, to see much in the way of similarities. And yet, all of them share at least one common theme: the weight of cultural/societal expectations bearing down on characters, leading some of them to suppress their innermost desires.

Reiko (Hideko Takamine), the central character of Yearning, is a widow who is still running her late husband's store 18 years after her husband died in World War II. Though the mother-in-law is both grateful and ambivalent about Reiko having spent so many years of her life basically preserving her dead husband's memory through that store, others who are angling to turn it into a supermarket—in order to compete with an already existing supermarket that is driving smaller businesses to ruin—feel far less compunction in flat-out dumping her and installing son-in-law Koji (Yuzo Kayama) as its head. All the while, though Reiko outwardly expresses a selfless concern for the store, every so often you see glimpses of an inner desire to break free from a life that she has possibly wasted on the memory of a dead man, or so Koji bluntly says to her at one point in the film. And yet...why has she persisted all these years? Is she sincere, or is preserving her late husband's memory something she feels culturally expected to do? Naruse never stoops to clarifying her motives, leaving us to draw our own conclusions; the result is a film whose surface simplicity masks a deep well of psychological complexities all the way to the blunt-force tragedy of its final shot.

Tokyo Story is just as rich in unspoken emotional subtexts; its children-ignoring-parents angle is really just the tip of a monumental thematic iceberg. Ozu called his film Tokyo Story for a reason: Tokyo, then as now, was the prime mecca of modernization in post-war Japan, and Ozu used this as a springboard for a timeless meditation not only on modernization's effects on a newer generation of Japanese, but also on the cultural gap that inevitably develops as older Japanese folk deal with societal shifts. Though the two children of Shukishi (Chishu Ryu) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama have long adjusted to the fast pace of city living, Shukishi and Tomi both find themselves bewildered by their children's impatience. On a certain level, they understand their children's inability to spend more time with them in Tokyo; they all have their own lives to lead, after all, and obviously they're children anymore. It has to be bitterly disappointing to a parent, though, to realize that he/she has become a mere burden to his/her children, not the source of love or wisdom that he/she once was. Yet, if Shukishi and Tomi do feel that crushing sense of disappointment, they mostly keep it to themselves, taking pains to avoid direct confrontation. (Only Shukishi goes so far as to give voice to that disappointment—and then, he only expresses his true emotions to friends his age over drinks.) Ozu, however, spares no one with his serenely still camera positions; his gaze may be empathetic, but it is also ruthlessly observant. Tokyo Story wrings a lot of drama out of things left unsaid, as a result.

If Yearning evokes some of the dramatic power of melodrama and Tokyo Story evokes something approaching real life, Woman in the Dunes tells a more overtly allegorical tale of Niki, an entomologist (Eiji Okada) who gets trapped in a sand dune out in the desert with a widow (Kyoko Kishida) who has spent years shoveling sand in order to prevent her home from being swallowed up, as well as for the gain of the villagers above ground. Look past Teshigahara's expressionistic imagery, however, and the film offers yet another portrait of characters stuck in long-accepted societal roles. The nameless widow accepts her fate in part because (in a character detail that vaguely recalls Reiko's attachment to her late husband in Yearning) her husband and daughter, killed in a sandstorm, are, she is told, buried somewhere in that dune, with her endless shoveling a way for her to supposedly get closer to finding them. Whatever her initial resentments about her Sisyphean role, she has now gotten so sucked into her daily routine that she can't even find it in herself to question it. Niki, meanwhile, spends a good deal of the film trying to escape the fate into which he has been unwittingly ensnared...but, as time—years, it turns out—passes, he gradually finds himself settling into that fate, to the point that (spoiler alert) when the widow's ectopic pregnancy forces her to be lifted from the sand dune for medical attention, he finds himself so comfortable with his life now that he convinces himself that he can always think about escaping later on.

Thoughts of "Stockholm syndrome" will inevitably cross the minds of many in seeing Niki's disturbing story play out in Woman in the Dunes; in a sense, though, all of the main characters in these three films are hostages to something, literal or otherwise. Reiko in Yearning is captive to both her in-laws and her husband's memory, to the point that it prevents her from being able to fully experience life on her own—and when she finally creates such an opportunity for herself, she finds that emotionally she can't fully give into that freedom. As for Shukishi and Tomi in Tokyo Story, one could say that they remain hostage both to changing times and to their own natural deference to their children; they are so devoted to their kids that they find themselves slaves to their whims—and even when it turns out those whims are less than wholly affectionate in nature, they go along without complaining, because, in their mind, to do so would be "burdensome."

I've always heard that—stereotypical or not—it's part of the Japanese character to be deferential and agreeable to everyone, especially to blood relatives. Heck, despite my being raised almost entirely in America, I often think I have some of those specific cultural traits in me: a penchant for avoiding confrontation, a sense of duty to larger communities, a willingness to make sacrifices for others. So seeing these three films, with their in-depth dramatizations of certain aspects of the Japanese character, consecutively turned out to be an eye-opening experience, inspiring reflection on a side of my cultural heritage that I honestly don't often reflect much upon, at least compared to my Taiwanese side. In many ways, these three films brought me closer to my Japanese heritage than my three trips to Japan ever did!

Me in Japan last year, in full kimono garb. Come to think of it, I believe the Hotel New Akao, where this photo was taken, was located in Atami—the location of the hot springs to which the two children send their elderly parents at one point in Tokyo Story!