Thursday, January 26, 2012

Claudia Springer: Taken by Muslims -- Captivity Narratives in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Prisoner of the Mountains

Taken by Muslims: captivity narratives in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
and Prisoner of the Mountains
by Claudia Springer
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Prisoner of the Mountains does not simply reverse the terms of typical Muslim captivity narratives and naively assert that all Russians are destructive and all Chechens are kindhearted. Quite the contrary: there are trigger-happy Chechens eager to kill the two captive soldiers, and a Chechen man shoots his own son for the offense of working for the Russian police. Their violence, though, is shown in the context of their motivations, not as resulting from sadistic impulses. On the Russian side, even the Commander seems to have a change of heart and indicates that he may be ready to trade Abdoul-Mourat's son, an event that is foiled when the son tries to escape and is shot. Rather than paint a simplistic picture, the film suggests that empathy becomes possible when people learn about the realities of others' lives.

In Vanya's friendship with Dina, we see the film reject Orientalist divisiveness and replace it with what philosopher Martin Buber calls an "I and thou" relationship based on nonjudgmental respect. Vanya and Dina overcome inherited cultural myths that would make them enemies and learn to perceive each other as individuals, not symbols. This is the type of connection called for by Czech theorist Vilém Flusser, who critiques the insularity of people who identify too strongly with their homelands—their heimats—to the point that they reject foreigners and anyone with unfamiliar customs. Flusser offers as a solution to intolerance the condition of the migrant, a person who is not anchored to any one place and who "carries in his unconscious bits and pieces of the mysteries of all the heimats through which he has wandered" (14). The migrant, Flusser writes, works on "the mystery of living together with others" and poses the following challenge to all of us:

"how can I overcome the prejudices of the bits and pieces of mysteries that reside within me, and how can I break through the prejudices that are anchored in the mysteries of others, so that together with them we may create something beautiful out of something that is ugly?" (15).

Prisoner of the Mountains gives us a glimpse of two people—Vanya and Dina—who break through prejudices and briefly create something beautiful. Their friendship develops awkwardly and tentatively, initiated by curiosity and followed by small acts of generosity, leading up to her secret visits to the deep pit within which Vanya is chained after his failed attempt to escape with Sacha. In addition to lowering bread and water to him on a rope, Dina informs him of his fate, standing above him at the edge of the pit: "My brother is dead. You have one more night to live." Her elevation indicates her power over him, but their conversation reveals mutual respect, she by acknowledging that he has a right to know what lies ahead, and he by responding patiently. Their cultural differences are apparent, because her idea of being helpful originates in her beliefs about the afterlife, which are meaningless to him, but his responses, while indicating his despair, avoid undermining her. She says, "Usually they throw the enemies' bodies to the jackals. But I will bury yours." He asks her to bring the key to release him. She says, "No. I will dig a wide grave for you. And you will see the Angel of Death. I'll put my necklace in the grave as your wedding gift. Maybe your soul will find a bride in heaven." He responds with a gentle smile: "I don't think so."

Later, she does bring him the key to his leg shackle after finding it hidden in a box while the film crosscuts to her father returning to the village with his son's body in the back of a truck. Before she throws the key to Vanya, she says to him, "Don't kill any more people, promise?" Her request represents a significant shift away from her former acculturated hatred for Russians as well as an attempt to break the cycle of revenge that has trapped both sides in the conflict. She has learned through her friendship with Vanya to respect life—everyone's life. Vanya responds in kind when he refuses to leave in order to protect her from punishment. Her father, Abdoul-Mourat, finds the two of them together at the edge of the pit and sends her home after scolding her for being more concerned about Vanya than about her own dead brother. But even Abdoul-Mourat—perhaps following his daughter's example—rejects vengeance when he lets Vanya go after marching him into the mountains.

Vanya's respect for Dina extends to the film's refusal to eroticize her. Even when she dances for him, she is not objectified; her dance is grave and earnest and shot from a respectful distance. She wears a headscarf and boots and an ankle-length red dress with a dark jacket. Her dance is accompanied by wailing diegetic music from a funeral procession winding its way through the village. She and the other Chechen women—most of them weather-beaten and wearing headscarves—are frequently seen at work. It is their labor, not their sexuality, that defines them. Dina is seen working with donkeys, preparing food, cleaning up, knitting—preparing for life as a village woman—and she calmly explains her future to Vanya before she dances for him. He asks her, "Did you get married yet?" She replies, "No." He says, "I would marry you." She says, "We cannot get married. I can get married next year. We marry early here." Later, when she returns to the pit to tell Vanya that he has one more night to live, she is dressed entirely in black to show that she is in mourning for her brother but also suggesting that she is preparing to mourn for Vanya, taking on the role of his widow although they have never even exchanged a kiss. She stands above him in her black robe, embodying the Angel of Death as well as the bride she speculates he might find in the afterlife. Their union is symbolic, impossible in the world they inhabit but indicative of the connection they have made.

The film also treats the Chechen landscape, customs, and music, all initially strange and unfamiliar to the Russian captives, with respect. Perched on rocky cliffs, the village is both precarious and solid, built of stone to withstand the ferocious winds. A song sung by the village children tells of the longevity of the Chechen culture and the inability of visitors to tolerate the wind. The film was shot on location in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, neighboring Chechnya, just twenty miles from where fighting was taking place at the time. (Ironically and sadly, the region's harsh conditions proved fatal for the actor Sergei Bodrov Jr. a few years later when he returned to direct a film and was killed by an avalanche.) The music, cinematography, and editing combine to emphasize endurance. But it is all obliterated at the end with the offscreen Russian assault. Vanya's inability to conjure up the villagers in his dreams symbolizes the military attack's total erasure of their existence, eliminating their history along with their future. Instead of exalting military might—as does The Lives of a Bengal Lancer—the film raises questions about the morality of bombing raids on civilian targets as a military strategy.

The final crucial element that sets this film apart is its slow, deliberate pacing, counteracting the speed with which the Bengal Lancers engage in their adventures. Unhurried panning shots linger over the mountains and valleys and the village's worn cobblestone streets. It takes time to overcome enmity, and Prisoner of the Mountains measures time very slowly. Its choices provide a cinematic model for relinquishing Hollywood's tired anti-Muslim clichés.[2]

To Read the Entire Essay

Friday, January 20, 2012

Films We Want to See: Tiny Furniture (USA: Lena Dunham, 2010)

Films We Want To See: Moonrise Kingdom (USA: Wes Anderson, 2012)

Stephen Papson: Baz Luhrmann’s Australia -- When Excess Isn’t Parody

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia: when excess isn’t parody
by Stephen Papson
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This paper looks at the intersection of parody and mythology in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. My argument is that the ambivalence directed at Australia by critics is the consequence of two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is Luhrmann’s use of parodic excess as his auteurial signature. The film abounds with clichés, allusions, and stylistic excess, which potentially lead to a referential parodic reading. On the other hand, the film also evidences the desire to rewrite the Australian national mythology, in which landscape, bushman, and Indigeneity come together to form a national multicultural identity. Here Luhrmann uses racism, in particular the policies associated with the Stolen Generations, as a narrative driver. First, I explore how the film’s oscillation between parody and a politicized, revisionist construction of Australian history places the viewer on uneven ground resulting in ambivalent critical readings. Second, I argue that despite Luhrmann’s vision of an alternative Australia, an Imaginary multicultural Oz, he produces a mythology that reinforces whiteness as the invisible agentic force shaping Australian national identity.

Australia: a self-referential parodic text

Linda Hutcheon argues that “parody is doubly-coded in political terms; it both legitimizes and subverts that which it parodies”(1889:101). Texts, which contain parodic elements, are always to some degree reflexive, and consequently challenge the socially constructed nature of dominant ways of seeing. By exaggerating the codes of the original, parody potentially disrupts the hegemonic reading position.

“Parody can be used as a self-reflexive technique that points to art as art, but also to art as inescapably bound to its aesthetic and even social past. Its ironic reprise also offers an internalized sign of a certain self-consciousness about our culture's means of ideological legitimation” (Hutcheon, 1989:101).

For Hutcheon parody both reveals textual codes, and illuminates the socio-cultural norms that legitimize and are legitimized by aesthetic forms. Parody’s disruptive tendency demands a socio-political reading. Parody, however, can also blend with the original and not be read as parodic. Exaggeration not only exposes and disrupts but also magnifies and reinforces the original. Consequently, parodic readings are often uneven and unstable and highly dependent on the reader’s expectations.

Parody’s central element is excess. It functions as a distancing tactic exposing the representational codes of a text, genre, and/or moment in history. The use of excess is a trademark of Baz Luhrmann’s directorial style. Criticism directed at Luhrmann’s previous cinematic work (his Red Curtain trilogy) applauds his creative use of excessiveness. For example, Kinder refers to Moulin Rouge as “an extravagant movie full of excess,” noting it reveals the structural tension in the musical genre (2002: 52). The rooftop scene in which Christian and Satine sample loves songs in a landscape constructed out of signifiers of romantic love (hearts, fireworks, the moon, a gazebo, etc.) not only unveils the codes of the musical genre but also the ideology of romantic love expressed in that genre. Moulin Rouge is often read as a critical analysis of the ideology of romantic love. However, despite Luhrmann’s use of cinematic excess and referentiality in previous work, Australia (with the exception of Langton) has not been read as a parodic text. Instead critics have seen it as a failed melodramatic spectacle — a Gone with the Wind gone bad.

Despite taking years to make, costing the most of any Australian film to produce, promoted with heavy international marketing and laden with stars, Luhrmann’s Australia could only muster one Academy Award nomination: Best Costuming. Moreover, film reviews were heavily negative, particularly by Australian reviewers.

“It’s as if Australia …was built with one under riding intention: to amalgamate as many national clichés and stereotypes as is humanly, cinematically, possible. They pour out of every scene; they drip from every frame. Luhrmann mines the sort of cultural cringe factor Paul Hogan exploited back in the 80’s in Crocodile Dundee, and this time around, outside the auspices of comedy, veering dangerously close to ‘historical’ epic, the ramifications are dire. I fear it will take years for us to live this film down. A message to international audiences, for which Australia was undoubtedly intended: just in case you didn’t realise, this film isn’t social realism. Luhrmann presents a time that never happened, in a place that never existed, with a people light years away from embodying, or even suggesting, what it means to be an Australian.” (Luke Buckmaster, In Film Australia, November 27, 2008)

Reviews like this one point to the film’s cinematic referentiality but do not read it as referential. They list the parodic elements and note the excess but are unwilling to make the final leap into a full parodic reading. The review above notes the film is not social realism but then criticizes it for its failure to depict the Real.

Germaine Greer not only penned a scathing critique of the film, but she also attacked Marcia Langton for her praise of the film:

“The scale of the disaster that is Baz Luhrmann's Australia is gradually becoming apparent. When the film was released in Australia in November it found the odd champion, none more conspicuous than Marcia Langton, professor of Australian Indigenous studies at Melbourne University, who frothed and foamed in The Age newspaper about this ‘fabulous, hyperbolic film.’ Luhrmann has ‘given Australians a new past,’ she gushed, ‘a myth of national origin that is disturbing, thrilling, heartbreaking, hilarious and touching.’ Myths are by definition untrue. Langton knows the truth about the northern cattle industry but evidently sees as her duty to ignore it, and welcome a fraudulent and misleading fantasy in its place, possibly because the fantasy is designed to promote the current government policy of reconciliation, of which she is a chief proponent” (The Guardian, December 16, 2008).

Greer demands that the film be an historical account that emphasizes exploitation. Through out her essay she uses numerous historical examples to point out the film’s failure to enlighten about exploitative colonial practices. Langton, in contrast, recognizes that the film is an “hyperbolic, postmodern” text and praises it:

“this adventure into the soul of the nation succeeds with powerful cinematic craft, passion and humour” (The Age, November 23, 2008).

She draws on her own childhood memories to anchor her praise, but more important, she accepts Luhrmann’s vision as “a fresh, bold approach” to the mythology of the Outback. Greer, however, attacks this view as being politically driven, serving the interests of the present political regime’s policies of reconciliation for which Langton is a proponent.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Thursday, January 19, 2012

John Berger: Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us?

“Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentiality.”
— John Berger, Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (1960)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Robert Alpert: The Social Network: The Contemporary Pursuit of Happiness Through Social Connections

The Social Network: the contemporary pursuit of happiness through social connections
by Robert Alpert
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The United States’ myth of opportunity holds that those who work hard may achieve, and that history is a progressive, forward movement in which the country betters itself through such hard work. Yet such optimism has consistently been tempered by a sense that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” inadequately define a satisfied life. Thus, the myth of individual success also frequently becomes a story about loss and failure. For example, based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the owner of a nationwide chain of “yellow journalism” newspapers, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) portrays Charles Foster Kane as having achieved material success at the cost of a life of dissatisfaction. Forcibly exiled from his childhood home, he remains consistently angry and alone as an adult. Even that champion of historical progress, John Ford, late in life enunciated the myth’s failure in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” grandly announces the newspaper editor. The successful lawyer, governor, senator and ambassador to Britain, played by James Stewart, is ashen-faced, however, when he realizes that the material progress he has cultivated on behalf of his country has masked the fact that Vera Miles, the love of his life whom he married, has never loved him. The myth maker Ford eulogizes instead the primitive John Wayne who has died penniless and alone in order to make way for that dream of “progress.”

This same disillusionment also runs through U.S. literature. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) is the story of Jay Gatsby, who believed in the myth of achieving material success and thereby the promise of a better future only to learn the futility of his quest and his loss of a more Edenic past. Thus, the novel concludes:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[2]

The Social Network deals with that myth of material success and an historical shift in values in which that myth has come to be accepted as fact. It is a bleak portrayal of a male, adolescent-dominated world in which connections, not relationships, are all. The director, David Fincher, has worked with different screenwriters on all of his movies, and his movies prior to The Social Network — such as Se7en (1995), The Game (1997), Fight Club (1999), Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) — have in common that nearly all have at their center a young man lost and wandering through a series of episodes in which he seeks to define a place for himself. For each of these characters the search is obsessively personal, and in each the character is mistakenly confident that his skills will enable him to triumph. For example, the newly married Brad Pitt as Detective David Mills in Se7en taunts killer Kevin Spacey only to become Spacey’s seventh victim. Michael Douglas, a wealthy financier in The Game, remains certain that he can outsmart those who run the Game only to “succeed” by the grace of those who control the game. Fincher’s characters are lost and angry, adolescents in the bodies of grown men. Even Panic Room (2002), whose main character is played by Jodie Foster, focuses on her illusion that she can acquire security through her ex-husband’s money. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the TV series West Wing and the screenwriter of The Social Network, places Fincher’s central character in an historical context. As such, he elevates the individual failure of Fincher’s character to a cultural failure.

The Social Network bases its story on Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who, while an undergraduate student at Harvard University, developed Facebook. Through deposition testimony in two lawsuits brought against Mark — by Eduardo Savarin (Andrew Garfield) and by the Winkelvoss twins, Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer) — the movie recounts how what is today a worldwide phenomenon began in Mark’s dorm room. Like other Fincher characters, Mark is no less brainy, no less confident that he can outsmart those around him, and yet he fails in the end to find any personal satisfaction in his seeming success. The Social Network is especially bleak in that Mark’s personal failure gain him financial rewards in a world in which Facebook is everywhere, including Bosnia where, as a young associate at the law firm defending Mark remarks in disbelief, there are not even any roads.

Mark’s obsessive creation of Facebook results in a worldwide network of “friending,” an exchange of electronic data by persons who are physically and emotionally at a distance from one another. As such, this kind of friending offers a parallel to Mark, who becomes increasingly isolated from those physically surrounding him. Mark Zuckerberg’s contemporary success in business, measured in billions of dollars, results in his personal failure to achieve anything of value. Ironically, it was never about the money for Mark; as a high school student, for example, he uploaded for free his idea of an application for an MP3 player, notwithstanding an offer from Microsoft. Later, in his quest for success, he is oblivious to and uncaring about the consequences to others of his commercial success. As a result, by the end of the film, his success has cost him personal growth, his friendship with his one friend, and the loss of an idealized love of his life. While inventing an online “social network,” Mark is consistently visually framed as a young man alone, whether in his law firm’s large conference room on the night that a settlement will be reached in the two lawsuits or in the loft-like space of the Facebook office on the night Facebook achieves one million members and its entire staff is out celebrating.

The Social Network deals with male adolescents, such as Mark, who should be in transition to manhood but never progress beyond their adolescence. Taught that individual achievement of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is all, they lack any genuine empathy with others and hence any sense of social obligation or responsibility for its own sake. While Harvard University has long been co-ed, the movie portrays the college as an historic relic: the exclusive domain of its male students. It equates the exclusivity of its “final clubs,” fraternity-like clubs, with the busloads of women brought in by those clubs to Animal House-like parties. Mark’s failed quest was to become a member of a final club at Harvard, which, in Mark’s view, would lead to a “better life,” the contours of which, though, were unknown to him. Likewise, both in Facebook’s early stage when housed in a rented, suburban home in Palo Alto and later when ensconced in its high tech office space, adolescent males run the organization plugged into their computers with women as sexually available and often intoxicated or drugged objects. Women exist solely for the pleasure of these male adolescents who feel nothing beyond themselves and who thereby are inevitably alone in the midst of their noisy, crowded clubs.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Andrew C. Billings: Biographical Omissions - The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity

Biographical Omissions: The Case of A Beautiful Mind and the Search For Authenticity
By Andrew C. Billings
The Film Journal

On March 24, 2002, the Academy Awards concluded with a Best Picture statuette awarded to Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, a biopic of the schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash. While Nash's real-life story is remarkable, another story of "overcoming the odds" has been built: the story of how A Beautiful Mind survived a whirlwind of negative publicity to gain the Best Picture award. The controversy stemmed from perceptions that Nash's life has been whitewashed for the silver screen, including the omission of (a) Nash's alleged anti-Semitism, (b) his homosexual leanings, and (c) his divorce and ultimate remarriage to current-wife Alicia Nash (Bunbury, 2002; Lyman, 2002; Mcginty, 2002). Detractors argued that A Beautiful Mind was being irresponsible to omit such large issues, yet Universal Pictures stood behind the film, arguing that no one's life can be portrayed in its entirety and that A Beautiful Mind had been as accurate as possible. The studio went on to say that there was clear evidence of an "orchestrated campaign" against the film that had more to do with winning an Oscar than achieving authenticity (Seiler, 2002, p. 4D). Film historian Pete Hammond argued that this was one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory, stating that "to accuse the subject of a film of being Anti-Semitic when you know that a lot of the people who will be voting on the Oscars are Jewish, well, that's really down and dirty" (Lyman, 2002, p. 1A).

Within the entire battle over A Beautiful Mind, one can extract a larger question prevalent within the debate concerning the responsibility of a film to portray a historical person or event in an accurate way. How far must a director go to ensure authenticity? In the case of Howard's film, the questions became quite complex. Take, for instance, Nash's homosexual leanings. Giltz (2002b) writes that Nash was frequently referred to as a "homo" in college and also was arrested for public indecency in a men's restroom, ultimately losing his job at the Rand think tank because of the arrest. In fact, the book in which screenwriter Akiva Goldman adapted the movie contained over thirty references to homosexuality, yet all thirty instances were omitted for the movie (Giltz, 2002a). Thus, while no one was arguing that A Beautiful Mind was telling outright lies, they did argue the film was guilty by omission. Contrast this with the equally ugly controversy surrounding the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, chronicling the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the subsequent trial to exact justice thirty years later. Critics all agreed that Ghosts of Mississippi was "85 to 90 percent true", but, as Medgar Evers' brother Charles states, "the bigger problem is that other 'true' facts are shunted to the background" (Wiltz, 1997). In the case of A Beautiful Mind, some were even arguing that the film was 100% true, but that the majority of the whole truth was left out. In the case of Nash's homosexuality, it was not even an overt choice, as Brian Grazer and Ron Howard were forced to sign a contract that guaranteed the omission of such leanings. Thus, A Beautiful Mind becomes not a case of a director making choices of what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor; instead, A Beautiful Mind can be equated with the television journalist who agrees to requests to keep certain topics "off-limits" before interviewing a major public figure.

Hardt (1993) states that the "question of authenticity remains one of the major issues underlying the critique of contemporary social thought" (p. 49). Yet, one must wonder: could anyone, even Nash himself or his wife Alicia, tell a story that is 100 percent true? More succinctly, is authenticity attainable? The latter question must be answered in the negative, as authenticity is an ideal that is unreachable and that American society should implement a new standard for measuring the "accuracy" of historical film narratives. A Beautiful Mind is just the most recent in a long line of films criticized for not being "accurate enough." The debate has been waged for decades.

It is a common notion within academia that nothing we ever say is truly authentic; everything is borrowed directly or indirectly from someone else. In essence, every story we tell is someone else's depiction or at least someone else's language that has been instilled within us through maturation. For instance, if a person were to tell the story of how their first day of school was, it would be their own story, yet their language would be influenced by their background and through other students' perceptions. Clearly, it is likely that a thousand people could each live the exact same day and still render a thousand different authentic stories. Thus, the moral contact with self that Trilling (1969) describes does not really make a story authentic, but it can make a story true. For instance, people who were present at the assassination of John F. Kennedy would all have a true story to tell that would depict their version of the true happenings. Still, as evidenced in the past 30 years, there were many different sides to the same "Truth", making absolute authenticity impossible, even for eyewitnesses of the assassination.

As a result, Visker (1995) argues that the "subject" of any story should be dropped from any argument pertaining to authenticity; the only important aspect of the story is the author/storyteller's ability to recall or retell the story to the best of his or her collective memory. So, in response to the question proposed in the introduction, Visker would argue that who tells the story in Schindler's List is not important; what is of vital importance is that the person telling the story has the ability to tell the story as closely as possible to collective memory found from witnesses and research. In the case of Spielberg's Holocaust epic, this proved to have obstacles of its own, as critics subsequently learned that key scenes, such as Liam Neeson's great "one more person" monologue, were inserted for dramatic effect rather than for historic accuracy.

Yet, beyond the question of the "right to tell a story" comes the larger question of the need to tell the story accurately, another historical Holy Grail. As previously argued, there is no way any director or film producer can tell a story that somehow is or becomes a historical event. Three hundred factually accurate films about the JFK assassination could be made; still they would have three hundred different contexts, equating to three hundred different stories.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jonathan Eig: A beautiful mind(fuck) - Hollywood structures of identity

A beautiful mind(fuck): Hollywood structures of identity
by Jonathan Eig
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It has been more than sixty years since Toto tore the cover off the Wizard of Oz and more than forty since Sam Loomis unmasked Norman Bates. Narrative surprises about the identity of major characters are not new in Hollywood film. But three characteristics distinguish movies like The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko from past, more typical, Hollywood identity-surprises.

First, in these films the character with the surprise invariably is the protagonist, as opposed to a supporting character who affects a more “normal” hero. The next two characteristics work in tandem. The hero in question does not know the true nature of his identity and so is not simply keeping a secret from us. And the audience does not know the backstory either. We are not let in on a secret the hero does not know. A sudden boomlet of movies intentionally lie to the audience and manipulate viewers’ emotional investment in the heroes. In critical circles, these movies have developed a trendy name: mindfucks.

The two Davids—Lynch and Fincher—are the modern-day champions of the mindfuck film, but they certainly owe a large debt to Luis Buñuel, who made a career out of yanking the rug out from under his audience. From the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou and the “is it real?” documentary Land Without Bread early in his career, right up until the final shot of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the double female lead in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel played with our perceptions of his characters, simultaneously involving us in fictional lives and reminding us that what we are seeing is flickering light in the image of actors—a representation of a representation.

The current crop of Hollywood mindfucks from 1999-2001 no doubt has been fertilized by several successful “surprise” movies from the recent past. Both Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992) and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1994) boasted Oscar-winning screenplays and significant profits; artistic and financial success mark them as more widely seen than previous cult favorites like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985)and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990). But the heavy hitter in this recent history is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999).

The Sixth Sense employs a plot device characteristic of all the recent mindfuck movies. At some point in the first act, after a character’s life is threatened, the story is either interrupted for a flashback to show how we arrived at this point (Fight Club and Memento) or the character appears to survive the threat. In The Sixth Sense, we will come to learn that Malcolm Crowe did not in fact survive, that at least part of his subsequent story has been illusory. That will be the big climactic surprise.

Such a narrative device did not originate with Shyamalan. Modern drama has paid plenty of attention to the nature of man’s life and death, from the mainstream of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to the absurdism of Samuel Becket’s Endgame. Two earlier films employ an identical device: Robert Enrico’s Oscar-winning short La Riviere du Hibou (based on Ambrose Bierce’s story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and initially shown to a large American audience as part of The Twilight Zone1 television show in 1964) as well as Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. But neither led to similarly constructed movies nor did they generate $300 million dollar ticket sales in initial release, as The Sixth Sense did.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Jason Shawhan: "Qui Est Sylvie Braghier?" -- Identity and Narrative In Olivier Assayas' Demonlover

(ENG 282 students -- this is the film we are watching tonight 1/17, do not read this until after you have seen it)

"Qui Est Sylvie Braghier?": Identity and Narrative In Olivier Assayas' Demonlover
By Jason Shawhan
The Film Journal

"I'm not in charge of anything." -Diane de Monx

Idealized human family relationships, at least in the time of the modern global economy, are a façade. The business world's model is not the proto-nuclear family, but rather that timeless combination of family structure and capitalist motivation: the mafia (1). Underlings enter a closed system, work their way up the ladder by seizing opportunity (and making their own, whether by action or omission of action), and if they manage to stay alive and useful for long enough, they are rewarded with largesse, respect, and the status of an elder. It's just like any established and powerful industry, but the similarities to filmmaking and its star system are particularly fascinating, especially considering some of the thematic ties I feel Olivier Assayas' Demonlover shares with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2). If the industry is done with you, where do you go?

There is an unsettling relevance for the casual American viewer of the film. Given the disassociative relationship that many Americans feel with regards to their government (especially over the past two years) and the shifting political environments which time and again cede power to corporate expansion (Halliburton, etc.), what serves as an experimental meditation for some becomes all-too real and ominous for even the most insular of Americans. There is something about Diane de Monx's relationship to her job that speaks to any single person; with neither spouse or children, the world sees you as an expendable source of more tax dollars. "No pain, no gain," we are told, the risk encouraged, the loss devalued.

Much of Demonlover deals with pornography, but not just the glimpses of hentai we see at the TokyoAnime offices or the film that fascinates both Diane and Herve seperately in their respective Tokyo hotel rooms. The world that Volf and Mangatronics inhabit is fetishized with the porn of success: private jets, the freshest fruit, limo rides with stocked bars, the latest breed of cell phones, palm-sized DV cameras, and so very many screens of input (3). It isn't a new thesis that power and money, in extreme doses, lead to extreme habits. Pasolini delivered a fairly definitive statement on the subject with Salo, as did good old Aristide (Joe d'Amato) Massacessi with Emanuelle in America. And Emanuelle in America, so the legend goes, begat Videodrome (4), and from there we dabble in some of David Lynch's pair of psychogenic fugues (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive), and we have the skeleton around which Assayas' film grows. An intersection between the degradation of the individual by an established industry and a vast conspiracy intertwined with the depiction of sadistic violence.

But it is not only pornography that gives us a key into the world of Demonlover; the influence of video games cannot be understated. This seems most readily apparent after Diane's Tomb Raider-ish infiltration of the hotel room of and catfight to the death with level boss Elaine (5). She kills Elaine, yet is herself taken out, only to awake on that same level with all traces of the battle gone. It is very fortunate for Diane that she had an extra life or two remaining at this point, a feeling which recurs throughout the film as it careens between its spheres of action. This also opens up the disturbing relationship that female icons are subject to in the vast spaces of the internet: Lara Croft, Emma Peel, Wonder Woman, and Storm from The X-Men are all icons of female power degraded at Hell Fire Club for the fantasies and delectations of countless faceless viewers (6).

Assayas' technical skill (along with his dynamic cinematographer Denis Lenoir) is undeniable, never delivering an unengrossing frame, fascinated with patterns of movement and concentric action. Before Elise's dramatic delivery of Karen's message to Diane, there is a stunning moment of the multicolored lights of the Paris streets, diffused through a misty windshield, and it is breathtaking (7). The surfaces which so readily proliferate in the world of the film often create refining subdivisions of the image, accentuating the delicious claustrophobia of the cinemascope frame in the enclosed offices, suites, studios, cars, and torture chambers of the film.

Having read Mark Peranson's interview with Assayas in the Spring 2003 issue of CinemaScope, I am grateful, as it gave me the tools with which to get to the heart of what happens with the story. As an example of the fragmented nature of modern life, it is spot-on, illustrating the way that much of modern thought moves in expansive leaps rather than in linear progression (much like the difference between analog and digital sound), and it is certainly one of the first films to comment on the way that DVD has changed the relationship between film and audience, as anyone with a remote can now unmake aspects of films, dive deeper into them, reshape its context, or just leave it sitting on the shelf in its appropriately fetishized box like the lovely ladies currently featured on Hell Fire Club. Accordingly with Assayas' expressed wishes, Demonlover is eerily relevant to how life is right now. It haunts, thrills, and acquires you; a shiny baubled collection of snapshots from right now, and, miracle of miracles, a film that digs into the soft flesh of the brain and stays there in the hippocampus, where nightmares live and fever dreams flourish.

To Read the Rest of the Review

Roderick Heath: A Dangerous Method (2011)

A Dangerous Method (2011)
By Roderick Heath
Ferdy on Films

I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.

The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).

Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.

Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.

We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jeremi Szaniawski: Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)

Sokurov Waltz: Faust (2011)
by Jeremi Szaniawski

Alexander Sokurov’s Faust (2011), a free adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s eponymous book, tells the story of Heinrich Faust (German TV actor Johannes Zeiler), an impoverished middle-aged scientist and scholar on a quest for absolute knowledge. Led to pawn off some of his belongings, he meets the local usurer, Mauricius Muller (Derevo troupe founder Anton Adasinsky), a mysterious and grotesque figure who seems to possess magical talents. Starving and depressed with the apparently unsolvable problems posed by the mysteries of the human soul, Faust asks his assistant, Wagner (Georg Friedrich), to provide him with a sleeping potion to kill himself. Instead, Mauricius, who pays Faust an impromptu visit, drinks up the potion and survives its lethal effects. From that moment on, the two men become inseparable, Faust constantly challenged by Mauricius and probing the usurer’s mysterious knowledge in turn. During one of their walks through the medieval town where most of the film’s action takes place, Faust accidentally stabs Valentin Emmerich (Florian Brückner), a young soldier leading a dissolute life. Following the accident, he becomes fascinated with the beautiful Marguerite (Isolda Dychauk), Valentin’s younger sister, whom he escorts home following the funeral. Through Mauricius’s intercession, Faust manages to provide Marguerite’s mother (Antje Lewald) with money, but when he confesses to having killed Valentin, it seems as though the young woman is lost on him forever. Mauricius seizes this opportunity to offer a night with Marguerite to Faust, in exchange for his soul—a contract the scholar must sign with his own blood. Following the fateful night, in the course of which Marguerite’s mother is killed with a sleeping potion, Faust and Mauricius flee to an unknown and strange land, where they meet the ghost of Valentin, and marvel at a geyser. Ready to move on, Faust quickly grows irritated with this spectacular but repetitive geophysical phenomenon. When he finds out that Marguerite will most likely be accused of her mother’s murder, he tears his contract to pieces, throws Mauricius down a ditch and casts heavy stones at him. Although Mauricius survives the ordeal, Faust is now left to fend for himself alone in a sublime and barren land of snowy mountains and glaciers, led by his unquenched thirst for knowledge and the voice of Marguerite, which may (or may not) be the calling of love.

Ever since the coming to power of Vladimir Putin in Russia, the cinema of Alexander Sokurov, once such a private chamber auteur, has grown bigger and bigger, both in scope and ambition. This was much in evidence in his ideologically questionable but technically admirable tour de force Russian Ark (2002), as well as in the ‘tetralogy of power’, begun in Moloch (about Hitler, 1999), Taurus (about Lenin, 2000), The Sun (about Hirohito, 2005), and brought to a close by Faust (which was awarded the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival).

In fact, it is not as though Sokurov went through some dramatic transformation with the coming to power of Russia’s new Czar: his cinema was always rife with grand, important topics and motifs (Death, the question of existence, the human soul and its destiny). But under the financial and ideological constrictions of the dying Soviet Union or the early, troubled post-Soviet years, the Russian auteur could not give them their fullest, most spectacular expression, opting instead for a sublime, if sedate cinema of decay, of slow and contemplative temporalities. With Faust, however, his most expensive (and expansive, in many ways) project, Sokurov not only crowns the tetralogy and its exploration of the nature of power and the price of the human soul, but also his career as a whole.

At first look, Faust does not really resemble Sokurov’s earlier cinema. To be sure, the perpetuum mobile nature of the steadycam evokes Russian Ark, and the Russian director’s trademark distorting anamorphic filters are much in use here. But his earlier films were generally characterized by slower, more static compositions. Nevertheless, Faust can be readily viewed as an magnum opus, a sum of all that has preceded, from the fairy tale environment of Mother and Son (1997) and late medieval imagery found in Hidden Pages (1993) to the apocalyptic considerations of Mournful Insensitivity (1987); from the obsession with death and funerary rituals (e.g. The Second Circle; 1990) to the pessimistic celebration of life and beauty (the ‘star child’ from Days of Eclipse; 1988); from the idiosyncratic literary adaptation and appropriation (Platonov, Shaw, Flaubert, the Strugatsky Brothers, and now Goethe) to the minimalistic original script (Stone, 1994), and for its profound investment with the grotesque and animal imagery.

As everywhere else in Sokurov, the film is strongly preoccupied with death, and presents a strong dialectic of body and spirit: following an opening aerial shot of the city, the film reveals a close-up of a corpse’s tumid penis. Faust and Wagner are trying to locate the human soul in the dead body, which instantly evokes early surgical works painted by Rembrandt as well as Mantegna’s dead Christ. As the body is lifted vertically on its slab, its innards gushing out through the open abdomen, the physicality of the cadaver, its sheer lack of spirituality and its banal, heavy presence are reminded to us in all their materiality. And whereas in Goethe’s book Faust was saved from committing suicide by an Easter procession, here the merry celebration is replaced not by one, but two funerals. In each case, the hearse and score of mourners in black are accompanied by the mysterious figure of Agathe (Hannah Schygulla), a sibylline cameo and an alleged Death figure who also claims to be the wife of Mauricius.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Girish: Difficult Cinema

Difficult Cinema

I've been wondering: What does it mean for a film to be difficult? Are there multiple ways in which films can be difficult? To put the question to myself in a more personal and subjective way: What are some films or filmmakers that I find difficult? And why?

I recently watched Andrei Rublev (1966), a remarkable and quintessential work of cinematic modernism. It can be called difficult for many reasons: it's three and a half hours long; the narrative is episodic and discontinuous; the film is structured in the form of chapters but often there is little idea of how much time has elapsed between them; there are dozens of characters, and the relationships between them are not always clear; to complicate matters, the same actors turn up in multiple roles through the film; Tarkovsky frequently drops narrative and character in order to focus on the elements (earth, air, water, fire) in an immersive, tactile way. In and beyond matters of plot, action, character and psychology, Tarkovsky poses challenges to interpretation, especially given the central theme of the spiritual -- the non-material, the intangible -- that runs through the film.

Robin Wood has a wonderful passage on the subject of difficult cinema in a 2004 essay on Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep. It appears in a section he titles "Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic." Let me quote it at some length:

For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no 'spelling out' in dialogue.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Timothy Garton Ash: The Stasi On Our Minds

The Stasi on Our Minds
Timothy Garton Ash
The New York Review of Books

The Lives of Others
a film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Das Leben der anderen: Filmbuch
by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 216 pp., Ä8.50 (paper)

One of Germany’s most singular achievements is to have associated itself so intimately in the world’s imagination with the darkest evils of the two worst political systems of the most murderous century in human history. The words “Nazi,” “SS,” and “Auschwitz” are already global synonyms for the deepest inhumanity of fascism. Now the word “Stasi” is becoming a default global synonym for the secret police terrors of communism. The worldwide success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s deservedly Oscar- winning film The Lives of Others will strengthen that second link, building as it does on the preprogramming of our imaginations by the first. Nazi, Stasi: Germany’s festering half-rhyme.

It was not always thus. When I went to live in Berlin in the late 1970s, I was fascinated by the puzzle of how Nazi evil had engulfed this homeland of high culture. I set out to discover why the people of Weimar Berlin behaved as they did after Adolf Hitler came to power. One question above all obsessed me: What quality was it, what human strain, that made one person a dissident or resistance fighter and another a collaborator in state-organized crime, one a Claus von Stauffenberg, sacrificing his life in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, another an Albert Speer?

I soon discovered that the men and women living behind the Berlin Wall, in East Germany, were facing similar dilemmas in another German dictatorship, albeit with less physically murderous consequences. I could study that human conundrum not in dusty archives but in the history of the present. So I went to live in East Berlin and ended up writing a book about the Germans under the communist leader Erich Honecker, rather than under Adolf Hitler.1 As I traveled around the other Germany, I was again and again confronted with the fear of the Stasi. Walking back to the apartment of an actor who had just taken the lead role in a production of Goethe’s Faust, a friend whispered to me, “Watch out, Faust is working for the Stasi.” After my very critical account of communist East Germany appeared in West Germany, a British diplomat was summoned to receive an official protest from the East German foreign ministry (one of the nicest book reviews a political writer could ever hope for) and I was banned from reentering the country.

Yet this view of East Germany as another evil German dictatorship was by no means generally accepted in the West at that time. Even to suggest a Nazi–Stasi comparison was regarded in many parts of the Western left as outmoded, reactionary cold war hysteria, harmful to the spirit of détente. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele concluded in 1977 that the German Democratic Republic was “a presentable model of the kind of authoritarian welfare states which Eastern European nations have now become.” Even self-styled “realist” conservatives talked about communist East Germany in tones very different from those they adopt today. Back then, the word “Stasi” barely crossed their lips.

Two developments ended this chronic myopia. In 1989 the people of East Germany themselves finally rose up and denounced the Stasi as the epitome of their previous repression. That they often repressed at the same time—in the crypto-Freudian sense of the word “repression”—the memory of their own everyday compromises and personal responsibility for the stability of the communist regime was but the other side of the same coin. After 1990, the total takeover of the former East Germany by the Federal Republic meant that, unlike in all other post-communist states, there was no continuity from old to new security services and no hesitation about exposing the evils of the previous secret police state. Quite the reverse.

In the land of Martin Luther and Leopold von Ranke, driven by a distinctly Protestant passion to confront past sins, the forcefully stated wish of a few East German dissidents to expose the crimes of the regime, and the desire of many West Germans (especially those from the class of ‘68) not to repeat the mistakes made in covering up and forgetting the evils of Nazism after 1949, we saw an unprecedentedly swift, far-reaching, and systematic opening of the more than 110 miles of Stasi files. The second time around, forty years on, Germany was bent on getting its Vergangenheitsbewältigung, its past-beating, just right. Of course Russia’s KGB, the big brother of East Germany’s big brother, did nothing of the kind.

After some hesitation, I decided to go back and see if I had a Stasi file. I did. I read it and was deeply stirred by its minute-by-minute record of my past life: 325 pages of poisoned madeleine. Helped by the apparatus of historical enlightenment that Germany had erected, I was able to study in incomparable detail the apparatus of political intimidation that had produced this file. Then, working like a detective, I tracked down the acquaintances who had informed on me and the Stasi officers involved in my case. All but one agreed to talk. They told me their life stories, and explained how they had come to do what they had done. In every case, the story was understandable, all too understandable; human, all too human. I wrote a book about the whole experience, calling it The File.

It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down. Set in the Orwellian year of 1984, it shows a dedicated Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, conducting a full-scale surveillance operation on a playwright in good standing with the regime, Georg Dreyman, and his beautiful, highly strung actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. As the case progresses, we see the Stasi captain becoming disillusioned with his task. He realizes that the whole operation has been set up simply to allow the culture minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favors from the lovely Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way. “Was it for this we joined up?” Wiesler asks his cynical superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz.

At the same time, he becomes curiously enchanted with what he hears through his headphones, connected to the bugs concealed behind the wallpaper of the playwright’s apartment: that rich world of literature, music, friendship, and tender sex, so different from his own desiccated, solitary life in a dreary tower-block, punctuated only by brief, mechanical relief between the outsize mutton thighs of a Stasi-commissioned prostitute. In his snooper’s hideaway in the attic of the apartment building, Wiesler sits transfixed by Dreyman’s rendition of a piano piece called “The Sonata of the Good Man”—a birthday present to the playwright from a dissident theater director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi’s own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht’s more elegiac verses.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

"‘The Stasi on Our Minds’: An Exchange -- Harvey Cox and Jonathan Steele, reply by Timothy Garton Ash."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Selin Gulgoz: The Politics of Art -- Middle Eastern Women in Fiction and Film

The Politics of Art: Middle Eastern Women in Fiction and Film
By Selin Gulgoz
The Millions

The four-and-one-half-hour evening train ride from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Chicago marks the beginning of my occasional, brief getaways. I’ve devised my own routine: as soon as the conductor checks my ticket, I head to the food car to pick up a small bottle of Cabernet and a frozen pizza — something I’d hardly eat if it were elsewhere — to accompany the film I’ve already picked out. One time, the film I had chosen was The Stoning of Soraya M. It describes the real story of an Iranian woman named Soraya, who is stoned to death as required by the rules of Shari’a, when she is (wrongfully) accused by her husband of having committed adultery. It is a powerful and moving film — less because of its cinematography, and more due to the plot.

As I watched, I could tell that the woman sitting next to me was taking sneak peaks at the film every now and then. When I finished, she told me that she found the film to be really interesting, and asked me what the title is. At times like this, I find myself caught in a dilemma — a feeling I suspect many Middle Eastern women get. On the one hand, I too am enraged and have my feminist blood boil at how cruel certain Middle Eastern practices can be toward women. Yet, on the other hand, I worry about the tendency that people may have of succumbing all too easily to culture blaming, perceiving these practices as abstract and independent of historical and global relations. I struggle with the fine balance of condemning violations of human rights without accidentally submitting to contemporary extensions of Orientalism.

I was reminded of this dilemma during Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman’s speech at the University of Michigan on Nov. 14. Karman is a Yemeni feminist activist who played active roles before and during the Yemeni uprising, considered part of the Arab Spring. Throughout her speech, you could see Karman’s determination to bring democracy and gender equality to Yemen emanating from her whole being. She touched upon issues like how, during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, women were trapped in their homes under the veil of religion; whereas now, they were out on the streets, not only taking part, but leading the revolution in many aspects.

In popular culture, Middle Eastern women are rarely depicted as such — willful and agentic. Instead, we see them as a category, rather than individuals, that is surrounded by inhuman (male) oppression. We often receive depictions of Middle Eastern women as submissive and helpless, forced to hide their bodies, and we hardly ever discuss their determination as individuals. Indeed, as Turkish writer Elif Şafak mentions in her TED Talk of July 2010, when Middle Eastern women in literature do not fit these descriptions, they are found not to be “Middle Eastern enough.” Thus, it might surprise some that Karman, who stood strong as she chanted her slogans of peace to the auditorium, with her hands forcefully shooting high up in the air, still chooses to wear the headscarf.

Craig Thompson’s latest graphic novel Habibi, and Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 film Incendies are two recent narratives that I’ve very much enjoyed, which endorse counter-stereotypical portrayals for their respective Middle Eastern female protagonists, Dodola and Nawal. Both Dodola and Nawal are illustrated as determined individuals, who survive through hardships unimaginable to most of us. And while both women are strong, at a closer glance, there are subtle differences in terms of the perspectives these two depictions provide on Middle Eastern women. This is seen most vividly in the relationships the two women have with their own bodies.

cover Thompson’s Habibi takes place in a country named Wanatolia (a somewhat cheesy play on the word Anatolia). Wanatolia is portrayed as a timeless Middle Eastern country characterized by a water crisis surrounding a spectacular dam, with contrasting skylines of modern skyscrapers and neglected shantytowns, ruled by its insatiable sultan, constantly on the lookout for new gems to be added to his harem.

Dodola is one of the women kidnapped by the sultan’s guards for the harem. Being part of the harem means giving up ownership of one’s own body, readying it for service of the sultan’s lustful urges; whenever and wherever they may emerge. In contrast to the plump and outright unattractive sultan, Dodola is beautiful and skinny. Yet, in spite of how attractive she may seem to others, Dodola feels a strong disconnect with her own body. This feeling of disconnect is further enhanced when she’s impregnated by the sultan with the heir of Wanatolia, and as her body begins to accumulate fat. While it seems here that Thompson has yielded to the contemporary pressures of the slim and tender female body image, there is many a reason for Dodola to feel a disconnect with her body. As a nine-year-old girl, Dodola is sold into marriage by her parents, in order to survive the drought. And at 12, her husband is murdered by thieves, and Dodola is sold into slavery.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alireza Vahdani: The effects of Kabuki on Akira Kurosawa’s Auteurism , Part 1 -- Introduction and Background

The effects of Kabuki on Akira Kurosawa’s Auteurism , Part 1 ~ Introduction and Background ~
by Alireza Vahdani

The idea behind this research, sub-divided across these two essays, is derived from establishing the connection between kabuki, one of the principal forms of Japanese theatre, and Akira Kurosawa’s period drama films. Kurosawa is recognised by many Japanese scholars and Westerners alike as an auteur. The intriguing point which I discovered during the research was that although Kurosawa dislikes kabuki, his cinematic texts are influenced by its conventions. The reason for this ambiguity is not farfetched, for kabuki heavily influenced the Japanese cinema. Kurosawa, as a studio director, follows the general rules of kabuki, but in order to preserve his personal style, utilises kabuki elements modulated and tailored to suit his subjective inclination.

Introduction: Focus and significance of the study

Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) epitomises Japanese cinema for many Western film scholars over the last half-century. Some of the books on Kurosawa’s oeuvre focus on the link between Kurosawa and auteurism. However, hitherto, none of these books examined this link by studying the influence of kabuki as a form of Japanese classic theatre on Kurosawa’s films, or the extent to which Kurosawa permits his works to be influenced by kabuki’s conventions. Indeed there have been attempts to illustrate kabuki characteristics of Kurosawa’s film for aesthetics reasons; this notwithstanding, they did not consider it as an aspect of Kurosawa’s auteurism. I found during my research that Kurosawa personally did not like kabuki; indeed, he was sceptical towards the concept and did his best to separate his works from kabuki conventions. The problem is that kabuki, as one the most influential sources on the Japanese cinema, leaves a limited space for Kurosawa to preserve his personal style. I hope this text helps readers to reconceptualise Kurosawa’s auteurism and rethink the way that he treated kabuki conventions while making his films.


There are a multitude of discussions and debates on auteur theory; however, one of the fundamental similarities in different understandings of the notion is that each auteur has his personal motifs, which can be seen as a directorial signature in his or her films. Kurosawa a director considered to be an auteur by many scholars, thus there are aspects of his films that make a cinematic text a Kurosawa film. The objective of this research is to develop an innovative argument on Kurosawa’s auteurism, and investigate if he utilises kabuki’s conventions in his directing style, and if so, in what way he engages with those conventions.

In order to research the above areas, I will analyse one of Kurosawa’s films: Tora no o wo fumu otoko (1945). The English translation is The men who tread on the tiger’s tail or The men who step on the tiger’s tail. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto’s book Kurosawa: film studies and Japanese cinema contains a chapter on this film, which will be the primary source for the research discussion; in addition, Donald Richie’s books will function as supporting academic texts to create a more in-depth argument and debate on the matter. Furthermore, Keiko I. McDonald’s book Japanese Classical Theatre in Films (1994) will provide extra information for the case study on The men who tread on the tiger’s tail.

The chosen film is by no means the magnum opus of Kurosawa or his sole work with elements adopted from kabuki. [1] He has created other cinematic texts which are influenced by kabuki; however, three significant points make this film a suitable case for academic research:

1. The film is based on the play Kanijincho. Yoshimoto (2000, p.107) describes this play as one of Kabuki Juhachiban, which means it is one of eighteen favourite kabuki plays, from an artistic perspective.

2. Kurosawa added two new characters to the plot. The most controversial one is a porter, played by the comedian Kenichi Enomoto (1904-1970), known as Enoken in Japan. According to Richie (2005), the result of this change was the ‘total alteration of the concept of drama’ in Japanese cinema.

3. This film was banned until 1952. At first by Japanese censors, because it was ‘too democratic,’ and in post-war Japan by American authorities, for being ‘too feudal, too Japanese’ (2005, p.168); therefore, this film can be seen as a controversial case that merits scrutiny.

Reviewing Auteurism

There is a substantial amount of literature dedicated to Kurosawa’s career. One of the early writings by a Western critic on Kurosawa is Noël Burch’s To the distant observer (1979). Burch, whilst describing Japanese cinema as presentational (meaning that there is no attempt to disguise the mechanics of the art, in opposition to representational), distinguishes Kurosawa’s filmmaking style from the typical mode of Japanese cinema by claiming that Kurosawa created a personal representational cinema based on the Western tradition of filmmaking. Burch’s reasoning here is that a Kurosawa cinematic text is merely a Western film with a Japanese façade. Burch is not the sole Western writer with this idea; in fact, other Western scholars, most notably Donald Richie, consent with this argument on the presentational nature of Japanese cinema. However, Richie, in two of his books, The films of Akira Kurosawa (1984) and A hundred years of Japanese cinema (2005), presents an innovative perspective on the Japanese identity of Kurosawa’s works, which controverts Burch’s ideas. Richie tries to establish Kurosawa as an auteur who represents his Japanese mentality and identity through film. Kurosawa: film studies and Japanese cinema by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto (2000) takes a similar critical approach towards Burch’s ideas; nevertheless, Yoshimoto is more critical of Burch’s ideas than Richie. He tries to clarify that not only is Kurosawa an auteur of representational cinema, but he also follows the traditional rules of Japanese cinema. That is, Japanese cinema is not presentational as Burch or his promoters suggest, but representational.

In order to study the auteur theory in depth, in addition to Yoshimoto’s book, two other written texts including Theories of Authorship (1981) edited by John Caughie and Auteur and Authorship (2008) edited by Barry Keith Grant have been studied. These books include many (if not all) of the key texts that have been written on auteur theory, since its conception in the early 1950s. I chose these books because they help the reader to learn more about the developments of the theory, and the positions which this research will reference and rely on. Besides these books, Peter Wollen’s Signs and meaning in the cinema (1972), and Roland Barthes’ Image, music, text (1977) will provide additional discussion for the literature review. The final books that I used in writing the literature review are Akira Kurosawa’s Something like an autobiography (1983), and Carl Gustav Jung’s reprint of Dreams (2002). Kurosawa’s account of his early years as a film director is a helpful source for readers to understand his mentality and vision, and why he is considered to be an auteur.

Peter Wollen (1972) observes the foundations of auteurism in connection with the political conditions of France in the Second World War. The Vichy government (1940-1944), under occupation by Nazi Germany, was ruling the country at the time. The result was harsh interdiction on different aspects of social, political and cultural freedom. The hegemony of these two political systems practised its authority through actions such as banning Hollywood films. As is common, severe censorship often builds cultural curiosity in the masses. After France’s liberation, many American films were imported. The great appetite for Hollywood films, coupled with their sudden and newfound freedom, resulted in an excessive emotional impact on French audiences.

The high degree of attention paid by the audience required a new approach to the American films. Wollen (1972, p.74) believes, “[auteur theory] sprang from the conviction that American cinema was worth studying in depth, that masterpieces were made […] by a whole range of auteurs, whose works had previously been dismissed and consigned to oblivion.” As with any new theory, auteurism condemned the ways of the past, and offered redemption for the future. Cahiers du Cinéma [2] and its young critics [3] undertook this task. As one of the pioneers of the movement, François Truffaut, in his inspiring essay “A certain tendency of French cinema” (“Une certaine tendance du cinéma Français,” January 1954) cited in Grant (2008, p.9), argues that in the French cinema of the time there was nothing but a handful of films per year, with no artistic quality worth mentioning. He sarcastically labels the directors of these films as “followers of tradition of quality.” By quality, Truffaut did not refer to artistic values, but rather, over-the-top sets, costumes and aristocratic atmosphere in films borrowed from French literary traditions of the nineteenth century. [4]

Auteurism as a notable theory in film studies creates a site for academic debates and intellectual writings. The theory, initially, did not contain a cinematic nature. Edward Buscombe (in Caughie 1981, p.22) writes, “the auteur theory was never, in itself, a theory of the cinema, though its originators did not claim that it was.” The writers of Cahiers du Cinéma always spoke of “La Politique des Auteurs.” One of the early attempts of the theory was to discuss works of Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and others in a scholarly tradition. However, this policy soon turned out to be more of an obsession rather than a scholarly crusade. Grant (2008, p.20) mentions that André Bazin in his 1957 essay “De la Politique des Auteurs,” criticises the young writers of the Cahiers by writing, “they always see in their favourite directors the manifestation of the same specific qualities.” There are two points in Bazin’s idea: ‘favouritism among directors’ and ‘specific qualities.’ The latter constrains cinema and deviates it from a secular concept to a series of dogmatic codes, i.e. how to make a good film. The former creates an atmosphere of discrimination and stigma towards non-auteur directors. The ‘Politique des Auteurs,’ despite its lack of perfection and clarity, survived and even flourished.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

To Read Part 2

Roger Ebert: "Nobody has the right to take another life"

"Nobody has the right to take another life"
by Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times

Yesterday I read this in an article in the British Guardian newspaper:

"Twelve of the last 13 people condemned to death in Harris County, Texas were black. After Texas itself, Harris County is the national leader in its number of executions.

"Over one third of Texas's 305 death row inmates - and half of the state's 121 black death row prisoners - are from Harris County.

"One of those African Americans, Duane Buck, was sentenced based on the testimony of an expert psychologist who maintained that blacks are prone to violence. In 2008, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal resigned after sending an email message titled 'fatal overdose,' featuring a photo of a black man lying on the ground surrounded by watermelons and a bucket of chicken."

I could pause at this point, type "case closed," and consider this a blog entry. But that would be too simple. White people are also executed at an efficient pace in Texas. The odds of being given the death penalty in that state are fearsome, and the chances of having your sentence overturned on appeal are dismaying. So far in his two terms in office, Rick Perry has declined to commute the sentences of 235 condemned prisoners. During George W. Bush's time in office, Texas executed 152 prisoners, more than any other governor in modern American history before Perry.

Bush commuted the death sentence of one prisoner, Henry Lee Lucas, who had been charged with murder in 189 cases and "was once listed as America's most prolific serial killer." (Wikipedia.) His decision was recommended by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, based on evidence that on the day of the specific murder Lucas was convicted of, he was not in Texas. Perry has commuted the death sentences of two prisoners, both also on the recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. It would appear that if the board rejected your appeal, your chance of having the sentence overturned by Bush or Perry was zero.

In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. In one fell swoop he commuted 160 death sentences to life sentences. Ryan explained that he believed execution was appropriate in the case of "heinous crimes," but noted that during his first year in office "Thirteen people were released from jail after appealing their convictions based on new evidence." (Wikipedia) I was at a dinner party with Ryan at about that time, and he told us, "The possibility that we would be executing an innocent man made it impossible for me to sleep at night."

To Read the Rest of the Commentary

Steve Dollar: Film of the week -- Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
by Steve Dollar
GreenCine Daily

Time's up, cinema aesthetes. Ring out the old, ring in the new. Stop looking at those 10 best lists and get on with your lives. The calendar has flipped over into 2012 and... I've already got a new #1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which opens today in New York, will have plenty of competition throughout the coming year. Guaranteed, though, you will see very few films as masterfully designed and executed, or so heavy with thought that the extended silences that suspend the characters in time and space make even the most seemingly mundane interludes of dialogue (and there's a ton of dialogue by Ceylan's minimalist standard) feel loaded with quietly devastating significance. Imagine, for the sake of cultural transliteration, the banal, jocular nature of—say, a traveling salesman joke—shared between two gruff men, strangers yoked together by professional duty, breaking the boredom of a marathon overnight detail that threatens not to end with the dawn. On one level, it's just a little rough humor to pass time, break ice. But in this scenario, lines that might be throwaway someplace else turn resonant, the lure of hidden meanings plunged like an anchor against the elliptical drift.

Ceylan proposes a mystery, even though the crime has been solved. Much as in his 2008 Three Monkeys, there's a dead body to kick the story into motion. In that earlier film, a tragic accident and a cover-up set the stage for a domestic meltdown. Here, the corpse is the focus of an arduous search. As the film opens, a tiny caravan of cars winds slowly along an isolated road that curves through the Anatolian steppes. Dusk settles into night, the yellow glare of headlights illuminating a tall tree that divides the purple horizon, limbs rustling in the breeze. The stationary camera sits far enough away from the action that the entire scene unfolds against a painterly tableaux, the dialogue and slamming car doors close-miked so that you hear the terse, impatient voices before matching them to any faces.

To Read the Rest of the Review

Randolph Jordan: Resonance of the Soul: The Function of a Sound Motif in The Clone Returns Home

The Clone Returns Home (Japan: Kanji Nakajima, 2008: 110 mins)

Jordan, Randolph. "Resonance of the Soul: The Function of a Sound Motif in The Clone Returns Home." Offscreen (May 31, 2010)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Donato Totaro: Flirting with the Fantasitic -- Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata (2008)

Tokyo Sonata: Flirting with the Fantastic ~ Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008 ~
by Donato Totaro

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has quietly (appropriately enough, given his aesthetic) become the master of the slow burn horror. His 1997 Cure marked his entry into the broad parameters of what could be called horror. With Cure Kurosawa tackled the serial killer film but steered from the moral or narrative clarity of predecessors like Seven or Silence of the Lambs. In Cure a series of bizarre killings take place where each victim is left scarred with an X on their chest (homage to Hawks’ Scarface?), and the killers are found with no memory of the murder or possible motive. The disconnected killings are eventually tied to a disturbed young man who seems to have the power to hypnotize people into killing. Kurosawa is less interested in solving the crimes or understanding them, than he is in tapping into the psychological underpinnings that the crimes bring out of the detective investigating the crimes, Takabe (played by Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Koji Yakusho). Kurosawa’s understated style (long takes, minimal use of music, ambient electronic sounds, autumnal lighting) builds toward an atmosphere of dread that grows as much from the underlying themes of identity loss, urban ennui, and alienation, as the actual murders. Kurosawa followed Cure with a slew of similarly themed and styled horror films, sometimes adding a hint of the supernatural. They are Charisma (1999), Seance (2000), Pulse (2001), Bright Future (2003), Doppelganger (2003), Loft (2005), and Retribution (2006). Although Kurosawa is rightly figured into the J-horror phenomena and is arguably its greatest practitioner –Cure was made one year before the breakthrough J-horror film, Hideo Nakata’s Ring– his horror films don’t fit perfectly into the J-horror mold, which perhaps explains why only one of his films has been turned into a US remake, Pulse. The point is not that his films are not frightening in the same way as J-horror (they are), but that they seem to have more invested in the human condition (lack of communication, breakdown of the family, loss of identity, technological dependency, alienation from nature, etc.) than the average J-horror film. Some of the other great J-horror films also touch on these issues (Ringu and Inugami, for example), but if Michelangelo Antonioni had been born in Japan forty years later and made J-horror films, they would be like Kurosawa’s!

With Tokyo Sonata Kiyoshi Kurosawa takes a partial step back from his traditionally contemplative horror Kammerspeils for the genre that the great Yasujiro Ozu made most of his films in, the gendaigeki (films dealing with contemporary life). In a sense, Tokyo Sonata is a reverberation on Ozu’s classic gendaigeki, Tokyo Story (1953), which looked at the changing social values in post-world war 2 Japan, using the family as a microcosm of the strains between tradition (a mother and father living in Onomichi) and modernity (their married children living in Tokyo). Kurosawa’s film ultimately looks at the same cracks and fissures that appear in the family fabric, but within the context of Japan’s current economic meltdown. Even though the film’s finale veers away from the realism of the gendaigeki, Ozu’s shadow is visible in the countless shots of passing commuter trains (or their off-screen sound).

The main protagonists of Tokyo Sonata comprise a “traditional” Japanese family: hard working salary man husband Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa), his dutiful, devoted wife Megumi Sasaki (Kyoko Koizumi) and their two sons, ten year oldish Kenji (Inowaki Kai) and teenager Takashi (Yû Koyanagi). Ryuhei becomes a victim of ‘downsizing’ and loses his company job. Rather than let his family know he pretends that nothing has changed and spends his day idling about in the city park or the local library with countless other salary men ‘in between’ jobs, recalling Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (L’Emploi du temps, 2001). Meanwhile, back at home Kenji pines for piano lessons after spotting the young, attractive piano teacher in his neighborhood; Takashi decides to join the US military; and Megumi eats away inside while her family slowly crumbles around her. Ryuhei is reduced to taking up menial jobs (including a lavatory attendant, which must be a veiled homage to Murnau’s The Last Laugh) and tries to hang on to his dignity in the only way he knows how: by enforcing his patriarchal discipline. He refuses to allow Kenji to take up piano lessons and forbids Takashi from joining the US army; but, like everything else, Ryuhei’s authority is undermined (which is one of the other themes of the film, clearly marked in the scene where Kenji embarrasses his school teacher by telling him in front of the class that he saw him reading ‘erotic manga’ on the subway) when Kenji swaps his lunch money for secret lessons and Takashi enlists with his mother’s tacit approval. The gendaigeki portion of the film comes to its dramatic apex in the scene where Ryuhei confronts Kenji over his illicit piano lessons. After Kenji raises his voice, Ryuhei slaps Kenji across the face. An angry Megumi sends Kenji to his room upstairs and tells Ryuhei that she knows he is unemployed (“Screw your authority,” she tells him). Kenji comes back down and throws his cheap Casio (which he found in the garbage) at Ryuhei. Ryuhei chases him up the stairs. We hear Kenji’s off-screen yell and the shot cuts to Kenji falling down the full flight of stairs. He is taken to the hospital, and leaves with only a few cuts and bruises.

To Read the Rest of the Response

Julian Ross: The Art Theatre Guild of Japan

The Art Theatre Guild of Japan
Electric Sheep Magazine

Virginie Sélavy talks to Julian Ross about the summer’s seasons of experimental and independent Japanese cinema of the 1960s and 70s. In the 60s, the Art Theatre Guild of Japan (ATG) in Tokyo became the centre of a vibrant independent filmmaking scene, encouraging bold experiments and innovative collaborations with other artists. The discussion focuses on the ATG, its related space Theatre Scorpio, and the films the ATG helped produce or distribute, including works by Nagisa Ôshima, Kôji Wakamatsu and Shôhei Imamura.

Julian Ross is a commissioning editor at Vertigo Magazine and the programme coordinator for the Theatre Scorpio season at Close-Up Film Centre and the Art Theatre Guild season at the BFI Southbank.

To Listen to the Episode

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Electric Sheep Magazine: Kim Newman on Nightmare Movies

Kim Newman on Nightmare Movies
Electric Sheep Magazine

Kim Newman discusses the new, updated edition of his essential book Nightmare Movies: Horror on the Screen since the 1960s with Electric Sheep‘s Virginie Sélavy. Nightmare Movies is published by Bloomsbury.

To Listen to the Pocast

Aryeh Kaufman: A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Part 1 ~ What it Means to Live ~

A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Part 1 ~ What it Means to Live ~
by Aryeh Kaufman

1. Introduction to Ikiru

Ikiru, meaning “to live” or “living,” was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952 under Toho Productions. Kurosawa, with the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, wrote the screenplay for the black and white film at age 42. The film, widely recognized as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, must be understood within its historical and cultural contexts. Ikiru emerged during Japan’s postwar reconstruction, as the country sought to adapt to its newly inherited capitalism and democracy. Calling for forms of cultural upheaval and self-scrutiny, the film may be viewed as political cinema. Specifically, Ikiru affirms the pride and power of the individual. It promotes breaking traditional ties to larger social groups, such as family and company, for the sake of personal achievement.

Kurosawa’s first postwar film, No Regrets for our Youth (1946), similarly dealt with the national process of recovery and cultural transformation. In that film, Yukie, the daughter of a professor, is groomed for marriage, studying the arts of piano and flower arrangement. Such a passive existence fails to satisfy her, however, and she seeks alternative outlets for her passions that take her beyond the bounds of class and gender associations. [1] Kurosawa’s work, therefore, seeks to prepare audiences for the spiritual process of Japan’s recovery on the individual level by promoting a more Westernized view of the self.

In general, Kurosawa draws upon numerous sources and texts to inform his films. Ikiru is no exception, combining Western elements from Dostoevsky’s works and Goethe’s Faust with Eastern visions of Zen and the samurai code of Bushido. In terms of Ikiru’s specific origins, Kurosawa explains, “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” [2] Furthermore, Fumio Hayasaka, musical composer for several Kurosawa films and the director’s close friend, was consistently ill with tuberculosis, then considered terminal, at the time of Ikiru’s production. In a letter to Kurosawa, Hayasaka openly declared that “for a man, dying for one’s job is one way of showing one’s spirit.” [3] Such real life inspiration may have shaped Ikiru’s development.

Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe, who, when facing death, finally realizes that he has led a meaningless life—that he has not lived at all. In fact, Watanabe has crafted his life to avoid passion and action. The film often depicts Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, in an office environment that emphasizes his physical and emotional absence. Watanabe’s death sentence, presented through an advanced stomach cancer, shocks the protagonist and leads to his despair. After disavowing his prior existence and accepting a search for means to live to the fullest, Watanabe experiments with various approaches to living, each with different moral implications. He explores the immediate fulfillment of the senses in a wild scene of night revelry. He attempts to rely on family bonds and relationships for the support and closeness he needs. And he is driven to live through a youthful coworker who appears to know the secret to his desperate search for aliveness. Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, Watanabe realizes he may in fact bring meaning to his life. By championing a proposal to build a children’s playground in a slum, and by dedicating his remaining days to its fulfillment, Watanabe finds peace and tranquility. The tragedy has turned into an uplifting model of affirmation.

The film presents a unique binary structure that utilizes multiple character perspectives and non-linear time. The first division, covering two-thirds of the film, begins with an omniscient narrator’s presentation of an X-ray of Watanabe’s stomach and the knowledge that he has terminal cancer. This part demonstrates Watanabe’s progress from the discovery of his cancer to the realization that he can proactively impart meaning to his life. The second division of Ikiru also begins with the narrator’s instruction, though this time he informs the audience that Watanabe has passed away. The remainder of this part presents the main character’s wake ceremony at which he is eulogized and remembered, often hypocritically. This second division is characterized by a unity of time and space, unlike the freer narrative structure of the first. At the wake, flashbacks serve to fill in gaps and are presented as literal reconstructions of events. Ironically, viewers are never presented with specific flashbacks in which Watanabe successfully achieves either approval or acceptance of the playground proposal—a key moment for viewers. The mourners fail to present such moments. We merely observe his dogged determination in putting pressure on colleagues, pleading with the Deputy Mayor, painfully crawling down office hallways, and quietly resisting the threats of gangsters.

In passing from the first to second divisions of the film, viewers are forced to consider why it is that the film has not ended with Watanabe’s death. Equipped with recent observation of Watanabe’s suffering, experiences, and ultimate enlightenment, we engage with the mourners of the wake scene in their deliberations. They question why Watanabe behaved the way he did, whether he knew he was approaching death, and whether he in fact brought the playground to fruition. Here we observe how he is perceived and misunderstood by others. Most importantly, through character recollections, we perceive both that Watanabe ultimately found happiness and meaning in life before death and also that his chosen actions led him to such accomplishment.

Ikiru presents infinitely more than an idealism centered on the individual as hero and agent for social change. It presents more than a prescription of “good deeds” for the sake of enlightenment and transformation in modern society. Ikiru proposes that healing one’s spirit is always possible, that a Faust-like search for meaning in earthly and spiritual realms has an answer. Kurosawa answers the existential question posed in Rashomon (1950): how should one live in a meaningless world, where death is certain, individuals are selfish and self-serving, and God does not exist? In that film, Kurosawa altered the original story of Akutagawa to present the woodcutter, also played by Shimura, as redeemer of the world through his final act of taking an orphaned baby into his home. Despite the importance of self-sacrifice and altruism in such a feat, Ikiru and Watanabe demonstrate that of primary importance to the individual, to the rebirth and empowerment of one, is the creative deed. Through the purpose and act of creation, Watanabe proves to resolve many tensions presented through the film, such as the shallowness and insufficiency of immediate satisfaction of the senses contrasted with the need to live a youthful, passionate existence, and the difficulty communicating one’s thoughts and feelings to those supposedly closest to one despite the isolation and loneliness of the individual.

To Read the Rest of Part 1

To Read Part 2