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Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

Mizoguchi’s earliest sound film has, sadly, seen extensive deterioration of its soundtrack, not that there seems to have been fidelity much there to start with. Oyuki, the Madonna was made for the independent Daiichi Eiga studio, and seems to have a correspondingly smaller budget than The Downfall of Osen. In any case, that movies most incredible meshes of technical and artistic flair are mostly absent here, and what remains is a simple morality tale with a discomforting moral outlook and reduced showmanship, but effective moments here and there. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, the same source that inspired John Ford’s socio-thematic approach to Stagecoach four years later. In Mizoguchi’s adaptation, a number of locals, many strangers from different classes, take to a hired stagecoach to escape a warzone. Soon, the bourgeois passengers turn their class prejudice against two prostitutes on board: the confrontational, fiery Okin; and the passive, compassionate Oyuki. But after the passengers are all captured  by government soldiers and suspected as spies (a bizarre, unpleasantly fragmentary ellipsis), the bourgeois stagecoach passengers beg that the prostitutes offer themselves to the ranking officer, with the hope of earning escape for the whole group. Okin is rejected, much to her humiliation, in a shot that demonstrates Mizoguchi’s skill in radically altering the depth of a composition with simple, expressive gestures.

Oyuki’s offer is better-received, though the soldier’s deep sense of honours compels him to pound back alcohol before accepting her proposition. The moment of intercourse is handled by an elliptical gesture: the soldier sits gazing at Oyuki, then as he stands up, the camera tilts downward and tracks backwards with his striding feet before resting on tattered leaves on the floor. Before returning to the couple, we see a stark exterior wide of soldiers guarding the building, which is soon filled by a small band of trumpets and drums that call away the soldiers. The moment also stands as an elliptical comment, a metaphorical stand-in for copulation.

When the escaped stagecoach passengers reach a ferry across the river, they hypocritically turn upon Oyuki and Okin and send them back from where they came. The two return to their war-torn homes, desperate for work but lacking clientele. They discover that by coincidence the government soldier has hidden in their home. Hoping for a reward and full of spite, Okin hopes to turn him in; Oyuki, however, has fallen in love with him, and begs Okin to spare him, claiming that Okin, too, has fallen for him. The confrontation, wherein Okin threatens the two with a rifle but finds herself unable to pull the trigger, offers another glance at Mizoguchi’s methods of calling attention to different nuances of his characters’ emotions and personal conflicts with small pieces of blocking and lighting conceits, and without cutting.

Acknowledging truth in Oyuki’s accusations, Okin grants mercy, and the soldier escapes, leaving the pair alone.

This romanticization of a woman’s assumed moral fealty to a man marks out a clear retort to those who would claim Mizoguchi as a proto-feminist filmmaker. Though I can’t be certain whether these elements were Mizoguchi’s idea, his collaborators', his studio’s, or the product of censorial fear (Mizoguchi had been the recent object of government surveillance for his socially progressive themes, a fact that frightened him), it’s clear that while at this point Mizoguchi had retained his sorrow at the unfair sacrifices that women make to support men, his storytelling had lost its disdain for patriarchal imbalance. But perhaps some of this impression comes from the emotional incoherence of the ending, which combines the plot contrivance and inorganic psychological behaviour that have dogged Mizoguchi’s films up to this point. Nonetheless, the concluding sequence is lovely in its simplicity and sorrow: a melancholic piece of music fills the soundtrack as the soldier departs on a boat in the distance, leaving the universally rejected pair isolated in the desolation of a bygone civilization.

Hey, Will has a new review of László Nemes's close-up Holocaust drama, Son of Saul up over at Tiny Mix Tapes! If you're interested, why not give it a look?

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

In its broadly available form, The Downfall of Osen has two soundtracks, one created in 1935 with a sound-on-film benshi narration, another one created in a modern age. The original 1935 soundtrack is the more accurate of the two to the original film, but seeing both recontextualized the benshi in late silent Japanese cinema for me, and as is so often the case seeing multiple versions of a film contributes to a fuller appreciation of it.

The Downfall of Osen was not Mizoguchi's first film made with a soundtrack; he made that around five years earlier. However, it was produced very far into Japan's protracted transition from silent cinema to sound cinema. An essay by Chika Kinoshita ("The Benshi Track: Mizoguchi Kenji's The Downfall of Osen and the Sound Transition") reveals much about the film including, most intriguingly, that it was originally intended as a sound film, but was switched to a silent very shortly before production began, with post-recorded music and benshi narration supplementing intertitles as a means of compromise between a sound system and the limited equipment available to many rural Japanese theatres. That was a rarity at the time, it seems, but the inclusion of a recorded benshi track was not, and led to negative reviews against the film which asserted that it was a detrimental and old-fashioned component. Kinoshita argues that Mizoguchi incorporated the benshi into the space of the film by having the narration draw attention towards important parts of the frame which the film does not visually focalize; he implies that Mizoguchi planned the film around a benshi. I find this a bit far-fetched, and believe that more evidence exists to suggest that Mizoguchi shot The Downfall of Osen in precisely the manner he meant to, and that the benshi served as an after-the-fact compensation for moments when on-set sound could not serve its intended and required purpose. A few scenes suggest that the film was carefully designed for synchronized sound; I’ll give an example in a moment.

The Downfall of Osen is another Mizoguchi film set in the Meiji period and dealing with the self-sacrifice of a woman who destroys her life in order to give an unworthy man she loves a chance for success. The narrative is somewhat fragmented and given to leaps of logic and occasional contrivances, but it is still the most effective Mizoguchi narrative I have seen thus far. It opens with a scene that cuts between a train station where a distinguished, academically-dressed man looks to a nearby temple on a mountain on a rainy night, and a young, poor man on that mountain as he prepares for suicide by knife. The film suggestively cuts between that older man's intent gaze and the young man, suggesting that the former is watching the latter. We gradually realize that, in a twist of form that anticipates the bravura opening of Speed Racer more than 70 years later, we are in fact viewing a flashback that uses the character's mental interaction with their physical space to project their experience with that location across a broad temporal spectrum.

An incredible opening, one made all the more stirring by the sumptuous visuals, which show Mizoguchi's photographic mastery reaching full stride for the first time in his extant work.

A later scene further bears out the importance of sound in this film's planning, as Kinoshita observes. When one dramatic scene ends and both characters leave the frame via the foreground, the camera moves forward on the empty street. In silent presentation (and, indeed, in the new Benshi recording), this shot is attractive but totally oblique, seeming to emphasize little but its own emptiness.

However, the original sound-on-film recording plays the sound of a bell, indicating the tower in the background. That tower belonged to the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, famous for its bells, and this soundmark both redefines the focal point of the shot and deepens the textual weight of the scene. 

The benshi narration (which is fairly unaffected but unobtrusive) and the removal of synchronous sound were far from the most damaging effect of the film's 11th-hour switch to a silent. That would be the intertitles, which frequently interrupt what are otherwise gorgeously mounted long takes and camera movements. Mizoguchi was clearly fully prepared to play with the mise en scene of extended shot lengths, and the dramatic effect of these shots is readable and probably would have been fantastically effective in their intended (read: sound dialogue) context. But the intertitles slice through them mercilessly, reducing their impact, their spatial declamations, to a technical and theoretical object.

Because of this shortcoming, The Downfal of Osen doesn't provide nearly as complete an evidence of its maker's skills as it ought to have; we must instead take the aforementioned flashback sequences, frequently breathtaking lighting and frame composition, and a late-film superimposition of hallucinations in a hospital room as examples that confirm his technical and formal prowess was in search of the the robust narrative shape he required for a masterpiece. Obviously, I am still in the early stages of this filmography crawl, but I suspect that for the non-completionist looking for a chronological run through Mizoguchi, this is a good point to start. I cannot emphasize enough that the original soundtrack provides the superior viewing experience.

Jan 26, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

by Will Ross

Though it was one of the defining events of the 21st century so far, and ripe with dramatic potential, the 2008 global financial crisis has yet to receive anything like a definitive comment in cinema. Sure, Margin Call was a solid and intelligent all-rounder, and Inside Job was a competent breakdown and civics lesson, but for an event engineered with such villainy that had such widespread impact, eight years is a long time to go without essential representation by a great artist (the other transformative American event of that decade, 9/11, was five years removed from Paul Greengrass’s masterpiece United 93). With the United States’s apparent disinterest in banking reform, the topic isn’t getting any less important, so it’s surprising that the most high profile effort towards it so far is directed by Adam McKay, of all people.

McKay is an odd choice for a comedy drama prestige film. In spite of ample experience in the “comedy” realm, his work has all had a ramshackle absurdity that ensures they cannot be taken seriously, and frequently turns that to his advantage. The Big Short, despite its frequent quips and asides, absolutely must be taken seriously in order to work on any level at all, and McKay doesn’t seem to have the directorial toolkit to make that happen.

This is not to decry McKay as incapable of relevance. I’ll be damned if I can think of another director who could have made Anchorman, and whatever you think of that film, it had a powerful influence on the decade of comedy that followed. He has a deft sense of comic rhythm where it counts. But he’s also never produced a film that formed an irreducible whole; his spotty music choices, indulgent stylistic tangents, sloppy pacing, and near-incompetence as a camera director make sure of that.

McKay doesn’t overcome any of those weaknesses in The Big Short, not by a long shot. But his strengths do keep the script’s quips from thudding too mechanically. And, to its credit, the screenplay rattles off its breezy dialogue very nicely, for the most part. In any case, it’s clear that Charles Randolph has a fine utility with words, if not entirely with structure. The Big Short flirts with a hyperlink influence, but the disparate paths of its characters never cross, probably because in real life they never did cross, and, as the film is fond of repeating via voiceover, This Stuff Really Happened. But the separate stories never cross in a meaningful thematic way, either. They just trundle along their parallel story threads, going through the same events with the same emotional tenor and the same overarching observations and the same results, and the only thing that keeps them feeling any different is the contrasted personalities involved, which are thinly sketched at the start and then hardly filled in at all, in spite of being capably embodied by the film’s all-star cast.

But the script’s greatest sin is its celebrity cameo-lectures, which are disastrously disruptive to the film and condescending to the audience. An especially frustrating instance comes just after the film hits one of its emotional peaks, as a character realizes the full scope of the coming blow to the global economy. Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine” plays over the soundtrack as voiceover gives way to a flurry of impressionistic cuts between cooking, casino bets, and then the whole thing stops dead so that Selena Gomez can spend two minutes explaining what a synthetic CDO is, even though the scene that just happened did a perfectly fine job of that. There are three or four of these interruptions, and, unsurprisingly, Randolph has stated that they were McKay’s idea.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the counterintuitive but excellent choice of “Sweet Child O' Mine” was also McKay’s, but the editing that accompanies it is very obviously the work of one of his two major new collaborators on the film, Hank Corwin. Corwin gives The Big Short a lot of its best moments, bringing his editing bona fides from Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life to bear with some ingenious flashes of discontinuity or subjective flashbacks, while also being obviously beholden to the arhythmic onus of his material. A film with heavy coverage, length, and a multi-threaded structure is a prime candidate for a rewrite in the editing stage, and doubtless Corwin could have done it, but that probably would have required more rearrangement than was possible in a 2015 release window.

If there’s one person who benefits from Corwin’s work more than McKay, it’s his second major new crew member, Barry Ackroyd. The English director of photography is a near-ideal choice for the project; he excels at bringing the best out of directors who have little confidence with cameras (Ralph Fiennes had him take charge for the entire visual design of 2011's Coriolanus), and might be the best docudrama cinematographer working today (and any docudrama DoP needs a damn fine editor backing him or her up). And yes, the best visuals feature dynamic, reactive handheld movements and reframing, and they’re entirely typical of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography. The worst are arbitrary, uninspired coverage choices and awkward, locked-off compositions and dollies. Those are entirely typical of — you probably see this one coming — Adam McKay. Which points to one of two things: either Ackroyd isn’t at home with still frames and compositions, or Adam McKay is a lackluster director of visuals who scuttled The Big Short’s chances at aesthetic cohesion. (A reminder: Ackroyd shot the magnificent, classical, locked-off compositions of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.)

This illness at ease pervades almost every aspect of The Big Short, and it compromises the film’s message delivery. An early voiceover insists that the machinations of all these deals and financial terms are not beyond our understanding. If the film trusted its dramatic pull and had assured procedural storytelling, it would be able to prove this, instead of throwing asinine Bill Nye the Science Guy-style educational vignettes into the middle of its plot mechanics. Instead, it is a deeply patronizing experience, and it’s hard to give it points for necessity given the existence of Margin Call, which is at once every bit as comprehensible as The Big Short, and a smarter, more focused, and more complex film in every way that matters.

McKay is a little more at home when he steps into the dramatic territory of another recent film about excessive, criminal greed in this neighbourhood, The Wolf of Wall Street, and yet any comparison shows Scorsese’s 2013 opus as the riskier film that plays its tonal shifts and “can’t-believe-it’s-a-true-story” spectacle with unstoppable forward momentum. That movie about a banker convicted in the early 2000s did much more to convincingly inspire anger against the (still unconvicted) white collar criminals who engineered the recession in '08 than this film that deals directly with the latter subject. The Big Short is allowed to succeed on its own terms, of course, but I’m not sure that the people who made it were ever sure what those terms ought to be. I don’t dislike Adam McKay — I could never dislike anyone who could conjure the good-natured anarchy of a film like Anchorman, short of Nazi apologism or something — but I can’t think of a clearer recent example of a director dragging down his material and his collaborators.

by Will Ross

There are three misdirections in the title of Boy and the World. The first is “Boy”, and though this misdirection lies at the heart of the film’s single most brilliant and defining gesture, I daren’t spoil its corresponding reveal at the end of the film, so you will have to take my word for it (I’ll throw in a couple of cryptic allusions to it to make up for that). The second is the ordering of the nouns, because while the central boy and his childlike perspective of his surroundings is central to the movie’s approach, the film is ultimately more concerned with the machinations of a World slowly crumbling under some combination of aggressive, unchecked capitalism and fascism.

The third misdirection is tonal, for a glance at Boy and the World’s promotional materials, or any given shot, or even just watching the first few minutes, would suggest you’re in for a feather-light, gamboling trip through elaborate images whose base aesthetic use a child’s doodling and collage as its main reference points. Writer-director Alê Abreu maintains that visual style, but it quickly transpires that Boy and the World is a sorrowful film, filled with equal rage and despair for a world whose consumerism and commercialization is crushing beauty and joy out of everyday life and systematically threatening the bonds of familial love. That it combines this form and intent, as well as moments of humour, but never indulges in cheap irony or sarcasm, bespeaks a maturity and seriousness that inspire an emotionally-involved political engagement. There aren’t many animated features that even aspire to that, let alone achieve it.

The film’s plot revolves around a little boy living on a farm in the country, who scampers happily through the rainbow-pastels of the grass and plays with the animals and lives a life of such innocence that when his father gets on a train and leaves for the city, he is unable to comprehend the absence of a loved one, let alone accept it. Seemingly more by impulse than by despair,the boy hops on a train and journeys to the city, and on his way there he encounters people struggling to make daily ends meet. These people’s entire lives appear to revolve around their labour; one is an old, sickly-looking man who picks cotton on a farm under the harsh scrutiny of his foreman, and one of the film’s most distinctive stretches of its kid’s-art style is a birds-eye shot that reduces the farmworkers to computer-arranged rows of abstract, geometric shapes. When the oblivious boy reaches the city, the structures and oppressiveness of consumer-capitalism become even more suffocating. The film, as I said, is a broadside to these environments, and though their design becomes ever-more elaborate, the film never loses sight of the person at its center. Indeed, the exhaustion of merely processing the world’s backgrounds and operational minutiae is enough to make the mere companionship of the boy’s newfound friends profoundly comfortable, and those moments of respite help the film narrowly avoid becoming a ceaseless parade of impressive but unmodulated design concepts. (And then that final revelation reveals the devastating irony of those acts of compassion.)

All of this is handled through wordless, subjective illustration, and I can’t say enough good things about how Boy and the World expands the possibilities and scale available to this kind of hand-drawn, show-the-brushstrokes animation. After I fawned over Inside Out, it was somewhat taken to task by some friends, who argued that its commercially-friendly adventure-story plot structure limited its ability to fully explore its conceit, that some “in the brain” scenes are arbitrarily justified, and that for every innovation towards the metaphorical depiction of an inner life, the film set down some sort of limitation. It’s hard for me to refute these claims (though I disagree that they meaningfully detract from Inside Out’s accomplishments), but it’s easy to see Boy and the World as somewhat of a corrective to these caveats, with its tricky ambiguity between real-world experience and expressionistic memories.

An even more fruitful comparison can be drawn between Boy and the World and Don Hertzfeldt’s 2015 short World of Tomorrow, a film similarly concerned between the impact of “progress” upon its stick figure characters; while World of Tomorrow suggested an inner life so defined by technology and digitizations that the film’s environments are visually defined by computer-perfect lines and shapes, Boy and the World uses its drawn-on-paper aesthetic to express the view that capitalist industrialization is incompatible with basic human decency. Both films have a decidedly pessimist outlook on techno-industrial progress, but the clichéd rural-urban/happiness-misery dichotomy of Boy is my only real sticking point with it. That’s not to say that Abreu’s politics are shallow or stupid; indeed, if they were, I doubt he could conceive images at once so intellectually and emotionally evocative as cities so over-developed, they taper upwards into the sky like long, upside-down funnels.

Boy and the World’s last 15 minutes are some of the most dense, upsetting moments of any recent movie I’ve seen precisely because its allegory is so convincing, its expressions of joy and culture (and cute dogs) so loving and beautiful that it’s nearly unbearable to see them beaten down by the powers that be. There is a momentary formal rupture during this climax that replaces animation that suggests a cold, literal reality But the film stops just short of hopelessness, thank god; though it’s undeniably sad, it holds tight to the comfort of beauty amidst tragedy, and the inalienable personal charm of its craftsmanship suggests that there is an intrinsic joyousness to living and feeling that, in some way, makes it all worth it. Even that could have amounted to sentimental defeatism in the face of oppression, but Boy and the World couples that final personal message of hope with the impression that the seemingly endless cycle of that oppression may also mean that there’s still time to make a change.

by Will Ross

In this series of posts, I’ll be describing my impressions and making personal observations, at first historical and then increasingly critical, as I view every extant film by Kenji Mizoguchi. I will be learning and writing as I watch, and may periodically come back to extend or update my earlier posts.

This is an excellent example of the shinpa dramatic form that was one of Mizoguchi's primary narrative influences throughout his career. In shinpa, the poses and artifice of kabuki were somewhat lessened in favour of a more 'modernized' theatrical approach, without fully adopting western standards of realism. The class and gender issues of the time were often a central feature of the story; the kind of issue that most directly concerned Mizoguchi was the narrative of the woman who suffers inordinately for her man in order to support him in his social rise. As Tadao Sato explains in his comments on The Water Magician on the Digital Meme DVD presentation, this was a common real-life scenario at the time, as the western-style modernization of the Meiji period encouraged education and upper class professions, but these positions were only available to men. Thus, women often had to help their men within the limited range of work available to their gender, fostering a common sense of guilt among the men whom they supported.

In The Water Magician, the woman in question is a traveling performer, a water artist named Taki no Shiraito. She falls in love with and resolves to support an out-of-work young man, Kinya Murakoshi, by sending him to school in Tokyo, and periodically sending him the money she earns as part of the troupe. However, an unprofitable winter and Shiraito's impulsive generosity soon leaves her unable to support him, with mutually tragic consequences.

The awkwardly staged light comedy of their early meeting — where Shiraito's earnest flirting goes virtually unnoticed by Kinya — is a solid explanation in itself of why Mizoguchi's later work was so humourless, and the story relies upon some extraordinary coincidences and somewhat unbelievable character choices by Shiraito to position the lovers in the impossibly unfortunate finale (the final, crucial beats of which have either been cut at some point and necessarily replaced by narration, or were unwisely never included in the first lace). Nonetheless, the emotional intent of the star-crossed dynamic partly survives the film's flaws, especially when the plot gets properly moving in the second half. What's especially distinctive is Mizoguchi's direction, which shows him well on the way to full mastery. Clever match cuts, expressive compositions and blocking, and absolutely gorgeous lighting conceits abound, as does a hint towards his later "One scene, one cut" style: a stunningly elaborate tracking shot shot that preludes the climactic crime at the picture's center. It moves from a wide exterior to a tight interior room, before moving to the doorway of another room and settling there. Whatever the film's flaws, its visual panache alone makes it an enjoyable experience, and its contemporary popularity and place in Mizoguchi's filmography make it an excellent historical reference.


The Water Majician (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1933, 100m) (with benshi narration) 

Hey, Will has a new review of Andrew Haigh's 45 Years up over at Tiny Mix Tapes! Why don't you go check it out?