Saturday, February 13, 2010

Japanese "Silencio"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Last night, I had my first-ever experience watching a silent film with live musical accompaniment...and it was a pretty cool experience, all in all.

The film was an early (1930) silent feature from Yasujiro Ozu, That Night's Wife. It was the concluding film of a brief three-film retrospective of early Ozu silents hosted by WNYC's John Schaefer at World Financial Center's Winter Garden; alas, it was the only one I was able to actually make it out to see. (Passing Fancy (1933)—available as part of Criterion's Silent Ozu Eclipse box set—and Woman of Tokyo (1933)—which is not—were the other two; That Night's Wife doesn't seem to be available on DVD either.)

That Night's Wife is ostensibly a thriller: Its plot hinges partly on a desperate father (Tokihiko Okada) who turns to armed bank robbery to help support his family, a sick daughter (Mitsuko Ichimura) in particular; and the cop (Fuyuki Yamamoto) who doggedly chases his tail. But after staging a well-shot heist sequence in the beginning of the film, Ozu slowly but surely begins to enlarge those genre conventions to encompass touching domestic drama and weighty moral complexities. Much of the 65-minute film, in fact, is set in an enclosed space, the family's tight apartment; within that space, however, Ozu uses the most telling of close-ups to create a humanist chamber drama in which, well, "everybody has their reasons," as Jean Renoir famously said in The Rules of the Game (1939). In its broad outlines, the film may sound like uncharacteristic Ozu, and certainly on a stylistic level That Night's Wife isn't nearly as austere and deliberately pared-down as he would become much later on. But even this early in his artistic career, he was already showing a distinct patience in exploring his characters' many facets and the milieus in which they live.

Last night, That Night's Wife—projected via a 35mm print courtesy of Janus Films—was accompanied by a generally intriguing musical score by Robin Holcomb, who performed on the piano along with a cellist (Peggy Lee), an accordionist (Guy Klucevsek) and a bassoonist (Sara Schoenbeck). It was a reasonably evocative, modern-sounding score that, like the film itself, focused more on creating a mood of underlying disorder—broken only by the father's loving interactions with his sick daughter, wherein Holcomb's score went fully tonal—than in ratcheting up tension and suspense. In short, Holcomb went for a more broadly contemplative vibe overall rather than merely ratcheting up suspense; as a result, the film itself seemed more slowly placed than the material might usually call for. Which is certainly no bad thing, in my eyes and ears, especially when performed as well as was done last night.

The Winter Garden, in fact, seems like a perfectly fine venue for more of these kinds of screenings, silent or otherwise; the fact that last night's screening was free just made it even better. More of these should be scheduled; I'd certainly go, on the right days!

That Night's Wife may or may not be a major Ozu work; either way, it shows traces of the wisdom and warm humanity that would fully flower forth in his later works. And, on a more general level, it immediately reminded me that there are still pleasures to be had from watching silent films, where much of the emphasis is indeed on visual elements like facial expressions to tell a story. There's a purity about them that feels especially fresh in this age of massive-budget eye candy like Avatar.

Here are a few choice clips from this early Ozu film, sans musical accompaniment, via YouTube, just to give you all a taste:

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