Monday, 9 November 2020

100 Films

When the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant lockdown measures reached the UK back in March, I somehow got the idea into my head that I'd watch one hundred films and give each one a short (one paragraph) write-up, generally focusing on a particular representative image or scene from the film. One hundred seemed both sufficiently large and sufficiently arbitrary a figure, a structure for meandering viewing, a way to focus attention, with the process as something that both mirrored and staved off the thought that this situation wouldn't end any time soon. Now that we've come to the other end of the year, one hundred films have been written up. I've been posting them periodically on a dedicated Tumblr site, but have now added them as a page to this site--you can see them by clicking the link on the sidebar, though they look more elegant on Tumblr. 

Includes films by: Bergman, Burnett, Clark, Clouzot, Collins, Demy, Dovzhenko, Duras, Gerima, Gunn, Hondo, Kramer, Mambéty, Poole, Rocha, Maldoror, Pasolini, Sembène, Resnais, Varda, Von Praunheim, Wakamatsu, Woodberry, Yoshida, etc etc.

Image from Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen's Byker series, seen in Edinburgh back in February.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

The Name: Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver) (1979, dir. Marguerite Duras)
























A film of the name— Aurélia Steiner a name invented by Duras to stand in for and (this a matter that’s more complicated, and perhaps more dubious) to identify with the losses of the Holocaust—the girl of 18 (as Duras was when she left Vietnam for France; as is ‘she’ in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amor’ when her lover is killed), on the cusp of adulthood, who decides, as Duras did, to write. To write: as Aurélia’s name is written on the screen; as a passage of the dialogue appears in handwriting—as when dialogue appears on a chalkboard in ‘Le Navire Night’—the intertitles of silent film. Duras later said that to write was like silent screaming, something that, unlike other art forms, did not entail the social context of making things exterior in terms of performance, sound. In these films, all sound is cut from image save Duras’ speaking voice: is this ‘texte’ or ‘écrit(ure)’; how does this sounding tread between text and film, a sound film which, like many of Duras’ other films from this time, sound is central, but which in other ways feels like a silent film?

The name is that which is given, over which on has little control—here, not the name of the father but of the mother, passed on (the Jewish maternal line)—a name signalling ethnicity (‘Juden Aurélia Steiner’ repeats a lover)—a name which echoes the name of the dead mother and stages a revenant return even as it also associates the living with the dead, on that wider scale of historical horror. Half way through the film, we see the handwritten name on screen—though we never see a face, a body, a person to put to that name; and towards the end, Duras speaks the voice of repeating the name in an erotic encounter, obsessively, turning over each syllable until those are the only words he can speak, yet which become more and more detached from personal connection and meaning the more he repeats them. This erotic pairing plays throughout the film, in multiple variants: the man with black hair and blue eyes, who is at once the father hanged in the camp for stealing soup to feed his new-born daughter, and the speaker, the daughter Aurélia, seeking her father in teenage sailors and other lovers—the pairing of I and you, she and he that so preoccupied Duras at this time, in writing that grew out of epistolary texts to absent or imaginary addressees.

Filmed in black and white, unlike the majority of the films from this period, the visual methodology, the movement of the film is that of the tracking shot—the use of this particular form echoing the debate about Holocaust and famously emblematised in Jacques Rivette’s excoriation of the tracking shot in Pontecorvo’s ‘Kapo’, later turned into a kind of basis for a critical ethics of film by Serge Daney. While, in ‘Les Mains Négatives’, humans appear fleetingly at the edge of the picture—moments that, as I argue here, are central to how one might interpret that film politically—this ‘Aurélia Steiner’ is devoid of any such traces. What we see, however, serves as symbolic representation or displacement of a trauma which, as Rivette had argued, lies beyond the ethical boundaries of representation. Thus, the figure of the ‘white rectangle’ described as the spot of execution—the camp under a German sky—seems to find its equivalent in a burst of sun through cloud; and the tracking shots of trees, chopped down and laid out, numbers inscribed on their lopped off trunks, of the overgrown tracks and platforms of an abandoned railway station, suggest the mechanisation of death in transport and execution of the camps, as the speaker describes substituting erotic encounters for the impossible encounter with the dead father. Or the space with which the film begins—that of the edge, viewed in calm—the sea, the horizon, the waves—reconstructed by the voice as, on the one hand, the space of death, of execution in the camp, and on the other of erotic desire, felt as a giving over of self, of entry, which seems at once to assuage and to replay the trauma of that death, Aurélia Steiner an infant laid on the ground beside her dead mother in the ‘white rectangle’. The speaker recollects a storm, real or imagined, that has previously exploded over (and under) the city, then receded: landscape in calm bears the trace of a foundational, invisible disruption, and, even in calm, the white rectangle (the sun through clouds) and a ‘black spot’ on the horizon form something like visual floaters on the most absent or distant of landscapes.



Duras picked Vancouver and Melbourne as Aurélia’s locations, though filming in France, because of their distance from Europe; trauma is not bounded by geography. Spending so much time by the sea—as in many of Duras’ other films—a space at once of arrival and departure, the film ends as the lover sails away, bids farewell. Aurélia Steiner seems to become both the woman he sails with, or to, and the one he leaves behind: Aurélia, this figure who Duras later said ‘is everywhere, writes from everywhere at the same time’, as a figure of total identification, disavowal and loss, of writing as survival—writing to the impossible recipient, here, the dead father and the lovers who replace him, in the companion film, another lost lover. The address seeks to bring back to life the lost object against the impossibility of resurrection, whilst the activities of the living—writing, sex, the present inhabitation of a landscape far removed from the horrors of Europe—is itself under/over-written by death. For Duras, such paradoxes are the only way to represent that which is hijacked, overdetermined, defamed. Duras said that it was this project that brought her back to writing after years of writing only for the cinema—yet a writing whose conditions of possibility seem here to be that of cinema, a cinema whose conditions of possibility are those of writing, all for that which cannot be written, that which is written in numbers on skin (the number equivalent to that of the camp tattoo which appears after the words of Steiner’s name in the close ups of handwritten text), the film ending with the statement of identity—name, place where you live, age, parents, occupation—its final words the statement of continuance that, for Duras, is that which enables one to keep on living, that becomes like breathing itself: “I write”.



[Further reading--the tracking shot:

Rivette on Kapo--'On Abjection', Cahiers du cinema 120 (June 1961).
Daney on Rivette on Kapo --'The Tracking Shot in Kapo', Trafic (No. 4, Fall 1992).
The tracking shot itself--
from Kapo (1960, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo).

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Les Mains Négatives (1979, dir. Marguerite Duras)



The visual component of this short film consists of outtakes from Le Navire Night: shots from a moving car of Paris streets at dawn, their emptiness in some way linked to Duras’ sparse voiceover. The text puts forth a simple supposition about the prehistoric hand prints—‘blue for the sea, black for the night sky’—left in caves in Southern France, 30,000 years ago: a single human whose ‘negative’ mark is accompanied by a plea for human connection, a screamed ‘I love you’, announced to ‘those who have names, those who have identities’—‘to anyone who will hear me screaming’. Duras has him alone—the search for human connection that characterises all her work, but is presented in particularly stripped-back form in these short-to-medium legnth films of the late ’70s and early ’80s (Les Mains, Césareé, Aurelia Steiner,L'Homme Atlantique). She told Godard that she increasingly distrusted the role of actors—first, for their role as performers, as representations of something other than themselves; second, for getting in the way of the solitary and singular relation of individual writer to text that she enjoyed (that was the condition for) her writing, but which cinema by its very form denies. Hence the five films made ‘without actors’, as she put it—the feature-length 'Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert’—the soundtrack to India Song set over images free of those who voice it—and then the shorter Les Mains, Césareé, the two Aurelia Steiner films—in which the voiceover, too, is freed of any voice save hers. Removing these mediations—actors as spokespeople, as it were—these films are concerned with the direct—though not necessarily answered, or even heard—address from an ‘I’ to a ‘you’: lover and beloved, speaker and hearer, director and audience. As well as the mediating role of actors, Duras distrusts the illusion of liveness provided by diegetic sound. In conversation a few years later, Godard suggested that her insistence on film’s connection to text marked a return to the textuality, the necessary experience of reading, that formed a vital part of film’s meaning in the days of silent cinema: image, sound, and text, not as an integrated whole, but as separate tracks, at once more stripped-back than the narrative talkie and, in their endless juxtapositions and recombinations of those tracks, infinitely more complex. In ‘Les Mains’, then, ambient sounds from the footage are removed; instead, Duras’ voice and the solo violin that plays through it all, in one of the loops of short musical material she favours, as if tuning up, finding its way to a melody.

The roving camera finds the Parisian streets themselves as a kind of equivalent to this mark—the traces of human existence with the humans removed. Discussing her work during the period in which this short film was made, Duras—whose literary production had temporarily dried up as her alcoholism increased, yet who was making more films than ever—said she wanted to ‘murder’ cinema. She was in search, she said, of ‘une image passe-partout’—a ‘master image’, one which can be superimposed on any text, meaningless in itself, without aesthetic value (‘neutral […] neither ugly nor beautiful’), brought to life and given meaning only by the text that ‘passes over it’. As well as master image, ‘passe-partout’ suggests the frame between picture and glass, or, alternatively, that which enables the bearer to pass anywhere. And so in ‘Les Mains’, we have the neutral master image, the frame which enables the passage suggested by the car’s movement. Yet, while the image is clearly contrasted or enlivened by he apparently distinct voiceover, image itself is not entirely neutral. The humans we see are, in the main, the street sweepers and garbage collectors whose peripheral existence recalls the figures at the edges of roads in ‘Le Camion’ the previous year. As in ‘Le Camion’, where the freedom to travel, by lorry or by car, reckons with the failure of broader societal organisation and the marginalisation of the peripheries within Europe itself (known in the French left of the time as the ‘Fourth World’).

The footage—at least in the online print I saw—was too blurred to make out much more than silhouettes, the rhythmic action of brushes, vague figures tipping rubbish sacks into lorries, but Renate Gunther suggests that they’re migrant workers: the film’s progression from night to the first traces of day, as white people start to appear, rendering the ‘negative hands’ those of the labour rendered invisible, carried out before the dawn, while at the same time resisting the binary thinking that would reinforce precisely that racialised division, that classed division that maps onto the spaces of night and day as labouring spaces. In ‘Aurelia Steiner’, the flow of the river suggested to Duras, not an image of continual flow, of nature, of beauty, but of political disappearance—the Algerian protestors thrown into the Seine in 1961, the spaces of war during the period of occupation, with their attendant anti-semitism, collaboration, complicity. These images cannot be neutral in the political sense that would imply. Duras’ voiceover here also serves to displace the mendacious lies by which ‘European’ identity—continental being—is tied to an increasingly exclusionary ideology, one which encourages migration for cheap and disposable labour while closing its borders and blaming those from its peripheries for its ill. So it is that Duras presents the lone prehistoric man in context of what she calls ‘the endless forests of Europe’. Europe itself is here estranged from its mendacious myths of dwelling, belonging (for some, not others). The prehistoric man is not the primordial Aryan ancestor but an outcast: civilisation, the permanence and question for socialisation implied by mark-making, is not the first step towards exclusion, conquest, division, exploitation, but the search for connection that continue in spite of those practices. As such, the film comes down to an expression of Duras’ theory of art—and of civilisation itself: the search for human connection and a sublimated scream for love that inheres in any mark-making, any mode of address. The first-person, that fusion of prehistoric man and Duras herself, addresses ‘you who are named / who have an identity’—that is, those with the ‘passe-partout’ which enables them safe passage, I.D. card, passport, badge of class or gender or skin. And so too the speaker identifies themselves, by implication, with those who wander, those undocumented, those sweeping the streets, those performing their invisible labour at night, those inserted silently behind the principal image in the frame. Duras, for whom writing itself was, as she would later put it, like a ‘silent scream’, announces:

I am someone who calls, I am someone who called, who screamed, thirty thousand years ago: “I love you”. I scream that I want to love you. I love you. I will love anyone who will hear me scream.

Throughout the film, such utterances shift between tenses—the present and future tenses that occupy most of the film’s delcarations of love, and the final past tense with which the film ends (‘I am the one who screamed he loved you’). In these shifts, and in the stitching together of fragments of film, fragments that chart a general crepuscular progression, the movement from night to dawn,but in ways that are hesitant, vague, imprecise, 'Les Mains' suspends time. It plays out across the distance, impossible to imagine, between the moment of mark-making 30,000 years ago; the repeated rituals of dawn in the modern city; the malleable distances of desire and fulfilment, address and reply. It poses a question, puts forth an address, an imposition, a scream, that it dares its audience to answer in ways that are, perhaps, unanswerable.

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Vargtimmen / Hour of the Wolf (1968, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
























In Summer with Monika (1953), heterosexual love relationship as escape from societal constraint is depicted as a bucolic idyll that can’t last–unable to support the family on a single, meagre salary and burdened by the baby who’s a product of that summer escape, class and gender roles reassert themselves and tear the couple apart. Upon discovering Monika’s infidelity, her now-husband Harry first clumsily paws at her in a last burst of erotic longing, then strikes her after she begs him not to. It all unfolds with a grim inevitability that ultimately goes beyond words. While this moment is depicted through the framings of realism—minimal camera movement, minimal music, a concentration on medium shot lending it ‘objectivity’—the film has previously broken from realism for a brief moment in perhaps its best-known moment, with Monika’s ambiguous, steady gaze directly the camera as she initiates her extra-marital affair, as if daring conservative audiences to judge and progressive audiences to ponder the social arrangements which lead to restriction and misery. It’s a moment that’s non-judgmental and unexpected, an open question that reinforces the film’s gentle tugging at the edges of the social conventions of romance and domestic arrangement.



The gaze direct at camera that, in Summer with Monika, breaks free of narrative framing, both creates and refuses implication and judgment, finds a very different sort of echo in Liv Ullmann’s direct to camera visual address in Hour of the Wolf. Bergman often shoots her face in extreme close up, going so far as to fill the screen with just the eye itself: an attempt to see into the heart of things which attains, if anything, more confusion than before. In the opening sequence, Ullmann’s Alma tells the unseen filmmaker of her artist husband, Johan (Max von Sydow), his descent into madness and his last days before his attempt to murder her and his apparent suicide. Ullmann’s opening direct to camera address, with its suggestions of the documentary interview following on a credits sequence that plays over the sounds of a film set, sets up a soon to be destroyed illusion of realism. Opening on-screen text suggests the entire scenario as a kind of found, collaborative document between Alma, who tells her story to the filmmaker, and the filmmaker, who 'brings that story to life'. This framing both exacerbates this sense of potential realism and gives scope for the ‘subjective’ rendering of extreme mental states through surrealistic techniques that increasingly dominate the film’s second half. Bleached-out scenes of violence and anguish cut between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and disorientating edits which render the experience ‘dream-like’; horror is exacerbated through shock effects such the old woman whose removal of her hat necessitates removal of her entire face (an eye—the gaze again!—placed in a fancy tumbler), the man who walks on the ceiling out of ‘jealousy’, the predatory human who turns into a predatory bird (or vice versa), the naked, and sexualised corpse that comes to life. In the film’s climax, Von Sydow’s breakdown is rendered as a literal tearing about by manifestations of the inner demons he knows by the names of ‘ghosts’, ‘cannibals’. To what extent is this an inevitable by-product of the process of artistic creation (one popular myth), to what extent is art the product of enhanced / vulnerable mental states (another popular myth), and what, in any case, should the artist and their loved ones do outside the realm of the artwork? The film throws these questions up but doesn’t answer them, concerning itself not only with the boundary between inner torment and outer action--climaxing in the tormented artist shooting his pregnant wife--but the limits of loving empathy in the couple’s marriage, Ullmann concluding the film by wondering whether she loved her husband too much--an over-identification which led to her also seeing some of these ghost personages as real people--or too little, unable to save him from those forces he felt assailed him.

The film’s stripped-back setting--an island, a bare landscape, a small cast--might suggest Robin Wood’s critique--that, as ‘poet of the incomplete’, Bergman ‘increasingly deni[ed] his characters their existence as social beings, reducing each to his or her individual psychology’--though the demons who beset him, living as they do in a decrepit castle and treating him as a kind of glorified performing puppet (as in the puppet show based on Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’, whose narrative of transformations, the horrors of night, and the redemptive powers of art, finds a kind of negative echo here), would seem to be a parasitic societal upper tier, somewhere between inherited aristocracy and new money. Von Sydow’s character emphatically rejects psychology, slapping the psychiatrist who accosts him on the cliff-path, but he also rejects art, drunkenly telling the crowd of aristocratic ‘cannibals’ (to applause and their ever-present laughter) that his work comes from a compulsion, has no social value in itself, but that he’s forced to perform the role of the ‘artist’ in order to satisfy their own craving. Though his character is a painter, and though we see him set off on plein air painting trips, we never see the paintings themselves in any detail. Art seems a mirror, not for societal diagnosis, nor for eternal truths, but for whatever the characters, the artist themselves, and us, the audience, read into it: in a scene where a painting becomes central, as one of the ‘cannibals’ describes the emotions he’s poured into a panting of his former (married) lover (the discovery of their affair prompting a breakdown which saw him institutionalised), we see the characters looking off-screen, and thus directly at, but beyond, us, their glazed focus lacking the questioning insistence of Ullmann’s opening and closing monologues and instead transporting them into closed worlds of introspective contemplation. Rather than bringing together, then, art seems to divide, exacerbating and damagingly clawing at the wounds of psychological torment that seem to preclude any long-lasting connection. Though Ullmann’s character hopes that love might breach these gaps that art cannot, she and von Sydow remain stuck in a world of insomniac vigils, failures to communicate and the ultimate switch into violence both against her and himself. If her unswerving faith and loyalty seems to reproduce a fairly standard patriarchal narrative of male artistic suffering and the consistent, self-sacrificing support of the female (non-artist) companion, it’s she who survives as, in his reported words, a ‘whole person’, with ‘whole thoughts’: the integration which he is disastrously denied.

The result, in part, of childhood trauma--locked in a closet, subjected to what amounts to physical and mental torture and forced to beg for forgiveness--the relation of Johan’s breakdown to authority, in terms of gender, the family and class would be ripe for further investigation, but, in contrast to the overlays with contemporaneous politics, particularly the Vietnam war, in other of Bergman’s films from the era, the nightmare feels too bounded in its one case study to move further in that direction. ‘Case study’ is perhaps the wrong word—the film’s intention is not really diagnostic, though it could easily be read for its exposure of the damaging myths of masculinity. Johan’s anguish manifests in a horror of the feminised and a relation to women that alternates between love, redemption and violence. His nightmares in the film’s climax centre around a horror of queerness (the eroticised and violent encounter with a boy, the scene in which he’s made-up and dressed in a chintzy robe by a predator older man), or, perhaps, of sexuality per se, in which inner torment turns into external violence against women (or uses the former as excuse for the latter, whether or not any of this is filtered through the heroizing, decontextualising frames of a certain conception of art).



Johan’s torment, then, expresses itself in almost exclusively gendered ways—the scene in which he shoots his wife might make us think of the climactic scene in which Harry slaps Monika, or for that matter, the brutal murder of a sex worker in his ‘Marionettes’ film, whose title recalls the Magic Flute puppet theatre we see here. But if, as Bergman suggests in that later film, ‘we’ are puppets of impulses, urges, drives, the scatterings of fate, that are beyond our control, screaming into a world of silence, what role does society play here? To what extent is Johan’s anguish a manifestation of classed, gendered and sexualised double-binds into which he’s been forced to define his inner and outer being? How does a universal discourse of drives, anguish and the like map onto those other relationships—how much might the social shape perception of the drives, rather than the other way around? In a sense, the film’s experimental aspects, the surreal horror which makes it so memorable and troubling, are both that which enables Bergman to escape following through on such implications and those aspects which most strikingly raise the questions he won’t attempt to answer (or answer with an anguished existential throwing up of hands).

And so we’re left with Ullmann’s gaze, once more refusing interpellation and judgment, yet abdicating her own strength of character—that which his enabled her to physically and mentally survive as what is in effect carework is rewarded with attempted murder—in favour of an endless rumination on the partner of whom she is finally free. Monika packs up and leaves the flat; Ullmann has stayed on, though she’s soon to move back to the mainland. It’s there the film leaves us, uneasily transitioning between departure and return, confrontation and escape, the soul (alma!) and the body, bleeding and torn apart. The film’s stare may be unblinking, but it doesn’t always seem to know what it’s seen.

Monday, 2 November 2020

“Toothache in the Soul”: Summer Interlude (1951, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
























Described by Godard in the late 1950s as one of the most beautiful of all films and by Bergman himself as his first mature film, ‘Summer Interlude’ tends to be overshadowed by Bergman’s other summer film, ‘Summer with Monika’, and by the heavier meditations on love relationships, existential torment, loss and despair that are now firm entries in the canon of world cinema. Ballet dancer Marie, coming to her late twenties, at once at the peak of her career and anticipating its end, receives a worn-out notebook in the mail—the journal of her former lover Henrik, documenting the summer they spent together thirteen years before, a summer ended by his death in a tragic accident while swimming on the coast. When her rehearsal is delayed by a powercut, she takes the ferry out to the archipelagic island on which the romance took place, and Marie’s remembrances of that summer form the bulk of the film. In the final third, she returns to the dance studio, resolves to confront and move on from the past, to attempt to allow the emotional openness she associates with an ‘interlude’ of lost happiness back in, past the self-protective walls she’s constructed around herself as strategic melancholia against the experience of grief. 

For much of its running time, ‘Summer Interlude’ depicts a teenage idyll which latter-day critics, in the wake of Bergman’s reputation for existential gloom, have interpreted as ‘surprisingly sweet’. This is a situational reading that, ironically enough, given the film’s own concern with memory and the re-reading of the past, depends on retrospection. Such critical response tends to receive the flashback ‘interlude’ as characterising the mood of the film itself—sweetly observed romance with occasional premonitions of dread—and it takes up much of the running time, but it’s important to note that the film is structured as a critical reflection on, as well as an echo of, that romance. If the filmic flashback tends to suggest that we can simply replay the past in the present, Bergman’s framing of these flashbacks also suggests the vicissitudes of memory, the palimpsestic alterations that are both re-readings and re-writings, not so much to decry them as fictions or to lament memory’s instability, but to explore ways in which past and present might be integrated in a way that neither melancholically disavows the past in a false ‘moving on’, nor remains immured in it, unable to face the present except with a diffident and distanced mask.

As the central structuring element of the film, then, flashback is self-consciously deployed. There are in effect two framings to the ‘interlude’ of teenage love which makes up the film’s emotional heart and takes up the majority of the running time: following the musical designation, one might call them ‘preludes’ (with a ‘coda’ to conclude). First, we have Marie in the dressing room, where she waits as the ballet rehearsal is suspended due to a power-cut—what happens when art’s sublimatory power is put on hold, the make-up is removed, and inner depths must be confronted direct? Triggered by the receipt of Henrik’s diary, and brushed off by her current lover David, a handsome but superficial tabloid hack (self-described), she takes the ferry out to the island where she spent her summer holidays and where she and Henrik conducted their affair, and it’s the further memories triggered by presence on the island itself that take us into the world of flashback per se. On Henrik’s death, the return by ferry and an encounter in the dressing room provide the final resolution. The film’s structure is insistently retrospective, a chain of remembrances, whether contained in physical objects (Henrik’s journal, the abandoned summerhouse or the bucolic coastline where the young lovers spent their time) or in a more amorphous tendency of the mind to wander. Even the remembered moment—the ‘interlude’—is itself framed by the unhealthy dwelling on the past and on youth exhibited by Marie’s alcoholic and predatory ‘uncle’ Erland, obsessed with the memory of a moment Marie’s mother danced ‘for him’ (in reality a forbidden, unreciprocated longing played out in the presence of her husband and his wife) and seeking to recreate it in his attraction to Marie: after Henrik’s death, he promises he will teach her how to wall herself off from the world.





















The film at once revels in and critiques the dead-end of nostalgia—and, as Marie reckons with balancing personal memory and artistic present, so Bergman bases on his own experience of youthful love, with a lover who also died tragically young, in a gender-reversed version of that scenario that takes as (one of its) explicit theme/s the relation between artistic sublimation and personal memory and desire. As such, the integration of the interlude—the past, first love, carefree teenage years, metropolitan pastoral, Stockholm archipelago, ‘tempered countryside and wilderness’, as Bergman put it, playground of the comfortable –with the present—the city, the newspaper, the urban—is more complicated than it might appear, given that much of what we see of that present, urban world is in fact the backstage and rehearsal space of the ballet—a mode of artifice, of fantasy and of alternative world-building if ever there was one. All the ore so when we consider that, in Bergman’s notebook draft of the story the decade previous, based on his own experience of teenage love, the original ballet to be performed was Stravinsky’s Petrushka—the ironic jibes of the puppet master and the puppet performing for the callous crowd. As it stands, the ballet is the more kitschy-grandiloquent tragedy—and crowd favourite—Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake: comparisons might be drawn, somewhat unexpectedy perhaps, to Gena Rowlands getting the children to enact the dance of the dying swan in her ‘Woman Under the Influence’ breakdown, or to the more surreal ballet sequences of Cassavetes’ underrated late career ‘Love Streams’, where ballet indices nostalgia, the passing of youth, the responsibilities and demands of love and family as a form that becomes inherently uncanny, associated as it with the time-bound physicality of gendered youth and a dream-world that’s a bizarre fusion of the ‘child-like’ and the cruelly adult, the physically punishing, fate, doom, imbricated sex and death.















But whereas Cassavetes’ use of ballet here is framed through class—ballet stands as a mode of escape from the world of family, the constructions of gender roles, the inability to express care, tenderness or an aspiration beyond the worlds of gender-segregated social formations (the boy’s gang, the girl’s get-together) or the gendered labour of the family—Bergman’s world is one where the solidity of class comfort—albeit one not untouched by grief, loss, orphanhood, and the gendered performance of beauty—is, in contrast to the class conflicts of ‘Summer with Monika’, a given. The young lovers here don’t so much define sexual or classed prohibition as inhabit a blissful space of permission, while ballet is stressed as quotidian performance—the dance studio filmed with attention to lights, technicians, consumers (the worker who disparages the performance because the dancers don’t show their legs enough), the gatekeeper at reception, perpetually keeping out the press in a bit of comic relief. To that extent undercut, presented as simply another mode of labour—note the prominent shots of chain-smoking dancers, the scenes of applying and removing make-up, of people entering and leaving the space, the stairs perpetually crowded with comings and goings, the unpredictable rhythms of the working day—ballet also serves as a useful index for the film’s consideration of the relation of art to desire, passion to sublimation, aesthetic temporality to that of personal memory. In ‘Swan Lake’, the figure of the lover turned into a swan serves as ready metaphor for the ballet dancer training their body in the service of aesthetic beauty: a metamorphosis—whether as sublimation or transmutation, or both—into the not-quite human that is ballet’s own uncanny fascination, from Swan Lake itself to Coppelia to Petrushka. Bergman’s film is more concerned with the back-stage movement that surrounds ballet as with ballet as self-contained artistic world: the world of theatre wings as much as the choreographed wings of Tchiakovsky’s swan-maidens. The film was a self-interrogation, a cathartic working-through of an experience of personal loss: if more realist than a 19th century ballet, still an artistic translation—metamorphosis? sublimation? transmutation?—of personal experience. But then, what in daily life’s the border of experience, feeling, performance, self/representation?

Dying swans, the contortion of the body to a position of gravity-defying airiness in fact predicated on the disciplined torture of the gendered body: there are multiple mirrors, feints and screens here. These are all the more emphasized in the climactic dressing room dialogue with the ballet master is made up as a sinister clown, complete with hat and prosthetic nose—Delibe’s Doctor Coppelia, another variant on the obsession with craft, the mechanical, the imitative that likewise characterises Petroushka, a doll maker expert at art’s mimetic processes but unable to participate in life itself. Much of the scene is shot in a complicated arrangement of mirror reflections, the doublings and pairings of mirrors, cameras, windows.
























Here we anticipate the world of ‘Persona’, of doublings and projections and withdrawal from the world. But the film’s emotional tenor is predominantly that of lyrically-invoked bliss—clouds, sun, water, teenage love—presented without judgment, consequence or moral prohibition (what a breath of fresh air in 1953), framed by the ambiguous melancholy of the dressing room, and the turn to tragedy upon Henrik’s death seems as abrupt as the turn to ‘comedic’ resolution at the end—Marie making faces at herself in the mirror on the realisation that she is, in fact, ‘happy’. If these shifts feel jarring—however much they’re elegantly smoothed over with the technical accomplishments of cross-fades, carefully composed rooms, attentiveness to the dynamics of people’s relations to interior space—so too our perceptual experience of time, and the sudden eruptions and disappearances of memory itself, at once willed and unwilled, can be jerky as much as smooth, close-ups as much as long shots, non-sequiturs as much as rehearsed and integrated narration.

But how much does this itself fall prey to the idealised stasis the film attempts to work through? In his Bergman book, Robin Wood argues for the ‘immaturity’ of the film’s ‘romantic fatalism’. It is, after all, at precisely the moment when practical difficulties are mentioned (Henrik is to go back to university, Marie to ballet school in the next three days) that the fatal accident occurs: the shift to the easier and grander mode of mortal tragedy, which gives a ‘hook’ to the narrative of memory, regret and loss that doesn’t have to entangle itself with the practical business of living, of the integration of passion with routine, career, labour, of the extension beyond the arcadian ‘interlude’ into the next act. (‘Summer with Monika’, would address these more closely.) That’s mapped onto the too-easy pathetic fallacy—picking wild strawberries in summer! walking past leafless trees in autumn!—the reading into and onto ‘nature’ in a film that’s otherwise highly conscious of artifice, performance and the uneasy balance between social construction and constriction and ‘natural’ feeling. Such moments are characterised by openings to, or onto landscape—raising the blinds in the summerhouse, cranes up towards sun and clouds or across to se and coast—in a spacious and languorously mobile visual field. After Henrik’s death, however, the framing becomes increasingly crowded and interior in the final act, with faces and bodies in rooms and interior spaces, cut off and contained by the sharp angles of walls, tables and mirrors, rather than the gentler shapes and spacious mobility of the outdoors. In particular, the extreme close-ups of the older Marie’s face—an eye, a face—present us with the unnerving experience of direct confrontation, interpellating audience as both voyeur and as suddenly themselves watched. 



 

















Such moments chop up the face, dividing parts from whole, contrasting sharply with the integration of person and landscape, lover with lover that characterises the medium- and long-shot framings that dominate the interlude itself. In a parallel move, after Henrik’s death, Bergman uses crossfades of Marie walking down the hospital corridor, leaving the building, and so on, which don’t so much divide and separate part from whole but entangle different spatio-temporal wholes, different levels, so that a picture of a single whole becomes virtually impossible to determine.

















These crossfades serve to index time at once passing and freezing in a kind of arrested development. While the structure of the filmic flashback tends to move from the ‘objective’—the narratalogical field which presents the narrator in context—to the subjective—signalled by the presence of the narrator’s voiceover on the soundtrack, these cross-fades seem caught between the two modes, at once suggesting the collapse of time in the immediate wake of loss and the longer process of acknowledgment, disavowal, sublimation and the like that is loss’s long afterlife. In the following scenes, Marie’s narration of memory seeks to reckon with her experience of time as a void to be filled, as something whose unavoidable passing—personal loss, awareness of mortality—is as full of anguish as the anticipation of its continuance. Thus, her conscious creation of self-protective walls, spaces that become prisons, whether in her brief romance with ‘uncle Erland’ (alluded to but not seen) or in her devotion to the ballet: art as sublimation, face as mask, total investment in skill and performance at the expense of the loss of identity, of sense of self. That this is frequently mapped out in pathetic fallacy—the ‘summer interlude’ of first love followed by the ‘autumn’ of its passing (crashingly emblematised, not only in the end of the affair, but in the tragic death of the beloved) that veers close to truism or cliché, notably in the sudden ‘happy ending’. In ‘Swan Lake’, Siegfried stays faithful to his original, true love by throwing himself in the lake, thence ascending to heaven with Odette. The lover must sacrifice themselves for the memory of a past love in order to enter into the metaphysical eternity that at once symbolises futurity and abolishes time.

In ‘Summer Interlude’, the integration of past, present and future doesn’t have to rely on the magical transformations of a ballet scenario. As the film ends, Marie, it seems, has succeeded in getting the burden of the past off her chest by giving her current lover Henrik’s notebook and resolving to—what? ‘move on?’ inhabit a new emotional openness? Just like that?—as a flash of the free-spirited teenager returns and she pulls faces at herself in the mirror. This ending as resolution is too quick to feel achieved—the present-day boyfriend’s feet planted solely on the ground, Marie, dashing backstage in a quick changeover, going up on point to kiss him, the body parts reflecting gender division, severed from the bodies they support (the feet are the proletarians of the body, Etienne Decroux once said), the balance of groundedness and aesthetic flight again subject to the ravages of time—as Marie is reminded several times, she does not have many years left in her career, and one might presume that David—who resents the erratic schedule and her pursuit of art, whilst also being admiringly attracted to it—would hardly be the most liberated of partners.

But that would be another story.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

“You only passed through my flesh”: ‘Affair in the Snow’ (1968, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)




















In just four words, the English language title to this entry in Yoshida’s ‘anti-melodrama’ series captures both the scenario and what is perhaps the film's most characteristic feature—the oppressively frozen mountain landscapes in which much of its action takes place. That sense of a reduced narrative—characters in ‘elemental’ settings, playing out ‘elemental’ passions—might serve for advertising copy, but there’s a lot more going on here than the reductive essentialism such characterisations might imply. The paradoxical distancing by which Yoshida renders scenarios of passion—the ‘anti’ in ‘anti-melodrama’—is in play from the beginning, as a pre-credits sequence introduces us to Yuriko (Yoshida’s ever-present collaborator Mariko Okada), an employee at a beauty salon, the salon introduced in a defamiliarising overhead shot over which plays a disembodied voiceover relaying apparently disconnected pieces of gossip which loosely introduce us to the characters in elliptical overlays that immediately set things aslant. Post-credits, and a car stalls in the middle of a deserted road (the deserted settings another Yoshida trademark). The camera moves in—the passenger, Yuriko, is seeking to end her affair with the driver, Arika (Yukio Ninagawa), a teacher who drunkenly picked her up the previous year. Yuriko states that this was planned as their last trip, and constantly telling Arika that they need to break up. Refusing to take no for an answer, his attachment is as much based on hate as love: as they prepare to take a motorboat out into the middle of a lake, he considers murdering her, throwing her overboard, a threat—it’s never clear how seriously we’re meant to take it—only forestalled when she announces that she’s pregnant. Refusing to let him take her to the hospital in Muroran, she instead arranges to meet the only man she trusts, a former lover, Kazuo (Isao Kimura), now married and working in a supervisory capacity in a factory. The pregnancy turns out to be phantom; Akira, who’s followed her, is beset with jealousy, joining her in her hotel room as she reiterates the need to break up. The next morning, Yuriko waits at the train station, where she’s arranged to meet Kazuo; again, Akira follows her, and there follows a kind of parody of the classic melodrama departure scene, as she switches trains trying to avoid the lovers who follow her to each. Deciding to head for the mountain resort where she and Kazuo broke up several years before, the triangulation continues, as she reveals that the break was due to Kazuo’s impotence, a source, first for Akira’s laughter and scorn, then for a kind of transmuted jealousy, as he flees into the snow, followed by Yuriko and Kazuo, whose passion is rekindled by the chase. It’s never clear where Akira’s heading, and the dramatic meanders of this final section are deliberately halting, at once over the top and curiously flat: eventually, Akira commits suicide in a jealous rage and the traumatised lovers bear his body through a blizzard, the film ending on Okada’s anguished scream. Reduced to narrative summary, that scenario might very well sound like over-baked melodrama, but its enactment is something else again.

As far as I can tell from machine translation, the title literally renders as something more like ‘staggering of trees under ice’—that’s to say, drawing attention to the landscape, whether or not as pathetic fallacy, objective correlative, etc. That motion, or gesture, of staggering—the collapse under a real or apparent weight—usefully suggests the human motion of the lovers climbing and descending mountains in snow drift, and the blocked, halted or directionless movement by which they reach the film’s primary locations—Sapporo (Yuriko and Akiro’s hometown), Muroran (Kazuo’s new hometown, where Yuriko checks for pregnancy at the hospital) and the final snowy resort. In a film that travels between three locations, each stage of the journey is in some cases also a kind of ‘staggering’: the broken-down car on the road (by which we’re introduced to the Yuriko-Akira coupling); the near-slapstick changing of trains (the station scene which establishes the Yuriko-Akira-Kazuo triangulation); or the chase through the snow that occupies the film’s snowy climax. That climax takes place in a world of apparently deserted ski lodges, hotels empty of other guests, and tracts of empty snow that combine with Yoshida’s characteristic bleached-out black and white and carefully off-kilter shot compositions to displace the stripped-down triangulations of melodrama (here essentially limited to the three protagonists) onto empty and ‘inhuman’ landscapes (a technique which gets repeated in the midst of human habitation and history Yoshida’s next film, ‘Farewell to the Summer Light’). The film’s closing sections alternate between two visual registers: the close-up interior, associated with relational tension and erotic bonding—faces, shadows, body parts cut up into near-abstract compositions—and the long-shot exterior, miniaturised figures stumbling through snow on a seemingly pointless quest, as if the landscape can’t wait to erase any trace of their presence, these figures who don’t even cast a shadow.  If this is the existential confrontation where everything’s laid bare, where true feelings are revealed—Yuriko really loves Kazuo, the mask of physical passion with Akira has been a sham, they feel they’ve thrown their lives away, Akira’s only out for what he can get, what he considers a realm of ‘freedom’—we might reflect too that snow covers up what lies beneath it; its apparent, dazzling clarity as much another mask as tool of revelation. 










Existent critical commentary in English—limited to a select few film blogs or review sites—tends to remark on the ‘coldness’ or ‘emotionless’ delivery of lines—which seems to me somewhat overstated, if we’re to judge the film by its outbursts of passionate declamation, impulsive physical gestures and the like. Nonetheless, the framing resolutely avoids indices of intimacy, both in terms of in-camera movement and the juxtapositions of montage, of editing and post-production. Thus, while the camera is generally static, several scenes notably deploy extensive hand-held camera motions, swirling around characters with a kind of roving curiosity that often moves away from the character delivering dialogue to focus on apparently inconsequential detail—an unmade bed, the corner of a room—with a kind of anxious inaccuracy that doesn’t heighten voyeuristic intimacy (the feeling that ‘we’, the camera cipher, are in the room with the characters) so much as reinforce difference and distance. When the camera’s not moving, Yoshida shoots faces to the side, from above, behind windows, in mirrors, cut off by the cropped angles of furniture, and the like; or otherwise isolates the figures in deserted streets, landscapes, indeterminate spaces (the logistical challenge of emptying out every location of those who normally people it must have been half the battle of the filmmaking in the first place). Meanwhile, the music, so often in melodrama the surface motor of emotion, here establishes a kind of distance. Yoshida’s most conventional, full colour, studio-produced melodrama, ‘'Akitsu Springs’ is characterised by the classically melodramatic over-abundance of a musical score in ‘Akitsu Springs’: Hikaru Hayashi’s orchestral soaring and thundering signalling the film’s topoi of desire through three specific themes associated with shared passion, thanatopic dread, and the pain of waiting), pushing them to a kind of absurd limit. Here, however, the ‘cool’, vaguely jazzy main theme by Sei Ikeno (stalwart composer for popular items like the Zatoichi series and the original Godzilla film) is hummable in a kind of Morricone-esque register that screams genre in a kind of generic (that’s to say, non-specific) manner that could equally serve for a spy film, a comedy, a heist movie, etc. Music doesn’t so much index the passions we see on screen as produce another layer of distance and concealment: that snowy carpet once again.

What, then, lies under that carpet? Yoshida later suggested that entire motivation for the film lies in this question of impotence: “The theme seemed very clear to me.  A woman loves an impotent man.  This kind of situation can easily happen, can’t it?  But can men – leaving aside the impotent one – can the other men, in general, admit it?  Can they forgive it?  For man it is unthinkable.  A platonic love is not impossible, but it’s not real love”. (Impotence is again a plot motor in his previous film, ‘Impasse’ and again in ‘Eros plus Massacre’.) What Yoshida’s comments suggest, though, is that the question is one of relations ‘between men’, of homosocial anxieties, the trade in women, and the spectre of biological reproduction as index of futurity, as mark of social standing. What would there be to ‘forgive’ about impotence? What is being sinned against here? What is the ‘real’ (or, for that matter, the ‘love’) in ‘real love’? If Yoshida’s vocabulary here suggests a kind of spiritual or at ideal register—the thinkable, the forgivable, the platonic, love, the real—by which we conventionally understand the physical, the film itself also serves to destabilise such elisions. The film sets up a series of parallels—spirit and flesh, ‘platonic’ and physical love, potence and impotence—constructed around male anxiety, jealousy and possessiveness. As Yoshida’s said of ‘Akitsu Springs’: “for me, with the burdens of my generation and my society, the historical responsibility of that period is on the men's side, not the women’s, so the male side must be responsible for everything bad that happens”. Above all, then, the film is concerned with the gendered nature of  social roles—Yuriko, having experienced the capital city, to which she fled after the ending of her affair with Kazuo, has returned to a Sapporo filmed more like a wintry village than a city; their retreat to the mountains a further distancing from, a playing out of more existential conflicts that are nonetheless shown to be completely tied in with the anxieties, power plays and violence of gendered social roles (after all, we’re only am atter of a few scenes into the film when the lovers admit to wanting to kill each other; Akira’s all set to murder Yuriko by throwing her into a lake before she informs him that she’s pregnant and he suddenly assumes a mask of tender concern. 










This moment, early on the film, is probably the most dramatic illustration of the possessive and instrumentalising tendencies within erotic love attendant on Akira’s character. This startling threat in turns leads to an allusion to an incident Yuriko and Akira together in a guilt that’s only exacerbated, rather than resolved, by physical ‘intimacy’. Though this apparently significant plot point is never returned to, it’s implied that Arika was involved in a drunken hit-and-run accident, Yuriko encouraging him not to turn himself into the police, adding further to his cocktail of guilt, suppressed violence and anxiety, to be transplanted into the myth of male ‘potence’, sexual prowess, and possession of a feminised lover. As such, this contextually bizarre allusion to the narrative schemes of film noir reverses noir’s structure of gendered blame—the man led astray into acts of violence, which he physically performs but for which the woman is blamed. If you loved me, you wouldn’t make love to me so violently, Yuriko asserts. Yes, it’s true, I hate you, he replies, launching into the murderous verbal fantasy in which he throws her off a boat in the middle of an icy lake. At the film’s end, such violence will be turned inwards, Arika throwing himself off a cliff as a last gesture of power over the departing Yuriko. Thus, if, on the one side, Akira’s possessiveness has to do with biological potentiality—‘potence’—as a means of possessing a gendered other, it also has to do with the opposite: with the power to wield life and death, the thanatopic exercises of gendered power through murderous rage.

Both for Akira and, it transpires, for Kazuo, the ability to ‘act’ on sexual desire—‘potence’—becomes a kind of addiction: Kazuo, suddenly ‘potent’ in a drunken encounter with a sex worker, becomes, in his words, ‘addicted’ to sexual encounters, before settling down with a wife whose miscarriage and subsequent depression are added only as footnotes. Kazuo’s initation into the rites of male ‘potency’—the role of the patriarch able to produce future offspring—is not so much an entry into intimate/erotic fulfilment, but into a social role. Yet this role  doesn’t assuage the burden of guilt and frustration supposed to result from ‘impotence’ or sexual inadequacy; instead, it simply transfers it onto a female recipient who can be re-idealised through a physical relationship with Yuriko that’s in some ways as idealised as that of the ‘platonic’ previous affair. His rekindling of the affair with Yuriko thus fills the conventional, if socially proscribed role of the extra-marital affair as a refuge for patriarchal frustration and idealised dreams of romance (as in ‘Akitsu Springs’). At the same time, such dramas are not limited to the conventional roles of marriage and family life: neither Akira nor Yuriko are bound by the marriage contract, yet there’s just as much jealousy, possessiveness and dependence (almost exclusively on Akira’s part) as in a legally binding union.

Both in and outside martial relations, these anxieties—questions of biological reproduction—are not unconnected to questions of labour and economic production. Yuriko works in a feminised role that associates gender with physical appearance—the beauty salon; Akira, the professor (schoolteacher rather than university academic, it would seem, though as far as I can tell it’s never stated or seen directly), situated within an intellectual realm, connecting to generational training, in a kind of central yet sideways relation to economic productivity; Kazuo, the factory supervisor, with the direct realm of economic production. Aside from brief shots, these spheres of labour are virtually absent from what we see on screen, implied only in snatches of dialogue. When we do glimpse a workplace, it’s rendered in a manner that occludes the labour within it: thus, the tracking shot of the salon in the pre-credits sequence, or the factory as a kind of starkly abstracted backdrop to Kazuo’s and Yuriko’s first meeting, then, in a later telephone conversation, as a crowded, masculine space of hubbub and activity. 



In a sense, these professional roles represent the reverse of their erotic roles: that is, as Akira narrates them and as they might be understood in the conventional heteropatriarchal schema Yoshida outlines as “men, in general”—Akira as potent, physical, possessive, Kazuo as impotent, longing, resigned (and in some ways feminised). Thus, it’s Akira—desirous of associating himself within the realm of the potent, assertive, physical—whose profession is that of the mind—and it’s Kazuo, professionally located in the realm of the productive, whose ‘impotence’ and lower class position occasion both Akira’s scorn and his unease. While Kazuo asserts that, following the traumatic ending of his affair with Yuriko, he’s found his place in a newly-discovered ‘potency’, a marriage, and a social role amidst the scene of labour, in response to Akira’s cynical questioning of his commitment to this environment, he merely shrugs off the question as one for another time.

That shrug is likewise enacted in the film’s very form. Sociality’s introduced in the opening shot, already at a remove—a group of women walking, backs to the camera, along the street: when one of them stops, as if having being hailed from or by the gaze, the camera moves forward, a kind of shudder into place for the bare-bones narrative, which much of the time features on two or three of the triangulated protagonists. Mid-way through the film, we get a kind of parody of the train farewell scene familiar from the melodrama in Hollywood and elsewhere: Okada getting on and off trains to escape her suitors (who she’s nonetheless arranged to come to the platform). Train stations are of interest for Yoshida for their spacing between arrival and departure, dead ends or new starts, all to a rigid external schedule (think the closing of ‘Heroic Purgatory’, or the similar parody of the train departure scene in ‘Akitsu Springs’). What’s of interest here is that, within this otherwise deserted station, we first hear, then see a group of workers—at first shot from such a distance that they appear more like mechanical apparatus than human bodies—hitting the side of a train with sledgehammers to free the coal frozen inside it. As Yoshida notes, this telling detail was the result of happy accident.

There is a scene that we shot very early in the morning in Muroran station in Hokkaido. […] I arrived with my crew before my actors. It was dead winter, very cold. A cargo train was already in the station, filled with coal, and it was so cold that the coal was frozen in the coal compartment and they couldn't take it out. Seventy or 80 workers were hitting the wagon with huge hammers so that the coal would loosen up and they could take it out. So we started frantically making shots of them doing this, and when Okada and the actors arrived I asked them to wait while we shot it. Then the train that we borrowed came in, and we started shooting the scene with the three actors. We could still hear the sound of the workers hammering at the wagon. After we finished the scene, the actors told me that hearing these sounds all the time affected their performances. That was a case of incorporating something accidental into a scene.

Using this moment to illustrate a point about the incorporation of accident within otherwise very tightly scripted scenarios, Yoshida’s anecdote also suggests the arbitrariness of the division between the erotic dramas of ‘private life’ and the forces of production and the social—felt here as a kind of sonic intrusion onto a classic melodramatic scene that should be filled with—say—Sirkian strings or the tear duct manipulations of the Demy—Legrand team. This intrusion of the realm of labour, of the social stands out in this film precisely as an anomaly; as ‘anti-melodrama’, Yoshida’s concern with the way that social repression, neurosis and anxiety inflects and infects intimate relationships is conveyed precisely through removing traces of social context for a bare-bones scenario in which characters say exactly what they mean—to the extent that they can sound like philosophical ciphers—so that this is not a Sirkian (or Ozu-esque) drama of repression, but of passions that are, if anything, less manifest than those repressed in the classic melodramas of the 1950s. That’s to say, this is not a realm of freedom, but a measure of the extent to which social alienation and the performance of normative roles—particularly within the context of a radical societal shift following the ending of the war—replay both inside and outside conventional heterosexual arrangement.  In that sense, though these films have none of the ‘content’ of radical politics that would characterise Yoshida’s more famous trilogy of radicalism at the turn of the decade, politics—or questions that, despite occurring outside the ostensible realm of politics (laws, activism, extra-legal guerrilla activity) are inextricably political questions.










In the encounter between Yuriko and Kazuo, the couple’s attempt to re-enact a past moment of love nostalgically remembered and long passed by, the film echoes ‘Akitsu Springs’, with which it also shares that film’s critique of the patriarchal framings of such desire. Yet, if Yoshida argues of ‘Akitsu Springs’ that the “mutual sharing of a memory is impossible”—here, some sort of rapprochement seems to be reached between Yuriko and Kazuo based, not on failed re-enactment but on a newly mature understanding contrasting to Akira’s possessiveness, his violence, his guilt and existential nihilism. Yet Akira, in a sense, has the last word. In the film’s climax, Akira, realising he cannot possess Yuriko, the bond of patriarchal ‘potence’ broken, enacts his own oblivion as a final gesture of binding power—promise me that, if I throw myself off this ledge, you’ll split up, he orders, before throwing himself off anyway when they ignore him—and becomes the literal corpse they drag through the snow. The final scene thus finds the couple once more ‘staggering’, this time not under a metaphorical but a literal weight as they carry Akira’s corpse through the snow, the film ending abruptly with another Mariko Okada scream that recalls the moment of death in ‘Akitsu Springs’. 

The film thus doesn’t really seem to imagine a future for Yuriko and Kazuo—the suspension in time that characterises the vain repetitions of ‘Akitsu Springs’, recapitulations that ultimately lead only to death, here lacks even the performative passions (suicide pacts, the ends of global conflicts) we find the former film, instead caught in a kind of nether-world between the deferral of a break-up and the stuttering beginning of a new start. I was never yours, “you only passed through my flesh”, Yuriko informs Arika in a final gesture of rejection. The choice between the platonic/impotent and erotic/potent is one that’s ultimately posed by Arika—that’s to say, the terms are set by a heteropatriarchal view, by a binary and dualistic thinking which reifies biological capacity as a kind of base overlaid and intermingled with the superstructure of erotic or romantic love. Might Yuriko and Kazuo’s encounter find a way through these questions of platonic idealisation (love as spiritual) and physical degradation (love as physical)? That closing scream suggests not. In 'Farewell to the Summer Light', these questions of futurity and the recapturing of the past are posed in more explicitly historical terms, as a formative generational trauma—that of Hiroshima and Nagaski—begins to name itself. In ‘Affair in the Snow’, we’re left with a perpetually stalling car, the perpetually changing trains, the frozen coal hammered out of the carriage by the relentless rhythm of multiple hammers: a carpet of frozen brightness, an end title, a death, a scream that resolves nothing.



Tuesday, 13 October 2020

"I've saved a life / I've done nothing": 'Akitsu Springs' (1962, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)




At the very end of the Second World War, Shusaku Kawamoto (Hiroyuki Nagato), a traumatised, tubercular soldier refused medicine by the army (as he’s not in a fit state to fight), is nursed by innkeeper’s daughter Shinko (Mariko Okada), who’s been forced to abandon studies in Tokyo to return to the rural Akitsu Springs. Returned to physical and mental health through—improbably enough—witnessing her copious tears on the announcement of defeat and by her youthful vivacity, Shusaku, still mired in despair, falls in love and proposes a suicide pact which she first laughingly dismisses, and to which she then assents (‘if you really love do me’); yet at the moment of proposed liebestod, she giggles as the ropes he binds her with tickle, thus accomplishing, through bathos, her second act of rescue. Presumably in disapproval at this rash act (though, typically, the film’s narrative essentially streamlines any but the most vital of plot points), he’s forced to leave her by mother—and thus begins a futile process of recreation, as he periodically revisits the Inn, now managed by Shinko after her mother’s death and living in hope of his never-to-be-permanent return.

Despite the film’s seventeen-year scope and its opening the day before the announcement of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, this is not a historical film; rather, having set up the lover’s encounter against this backdrop in the first twenty minutes, as the film continues, any kind of historical context seems to be stripped further and further back, as the pattern of Shusaku leaving and returning (while in the meantime getting married, starting a family, and embarking as a career as a writer in the shadow of his successful elder brother in Tokyo) establishes itself at near-interminable length. Though the sociopolitical aspect is important—whether the skewering of patriarchal militarism in the drunken soldier who hunts for the teenage Shinko with his sword in the name of military honour, the adaptation to American influence (Japanese songs now have to be performed with ‘swing’ inflection)—the film quite deliberately seems to strip all but the bare bones of plot in favour of a kind of decontextualised repetition of the core situation. In a sense, it’s melodrama taken to its zenith, as an endless series of (anti)climaxes, each time accompanied by the three main themes of Hikaru Hayashi’s score associated respectively with the stirrings of mutual passion, the dread of the suicide pact, and the strains of yearning and waiting. Brief shots of Shisaku’s life outside Akitsu Springs—drinking in bars, jealous of his brother’s literary success, neglecting his wife, flirting with a shop assistant—succinctly establish him as a self-centred asshole, yet they’re all essentially peripheral to what can only be described as a kind of paradoxically minimalist maximalism: melodrama as a ritual of repetition, of the same overblown gestures, from the lovers fleeing and chasing each other, literally striking poses as if in theatre, opera, ballet, to the more banal rituals of renting a room, drinking sake, smoking a cigarette, going away without saying goodbye. The film turns the melodramatic ritual of parting into a kind of repeated tic, ‘you hate to see me leave’, ‘let me see you leave this time’, as Shisaku’s repeated avowals that this will be the last time ring more and more hollow and the relationship itself becomes more and more a cipher for a lost moment of possibility that was, in actuality, the encounter of a traumatised, suicidal soldier caught in the thick of war and a teenage girl saddled with a kind of empty mythology less about the specific love object—whose qualities can hardly have been revealed in much detail over the space of a few days (or 20 minutes of film)—as the about the idea of feminine waiting and masculine arrival.  Thus, the youthful Shinko’s proclamation ‘I’ve done something! I’ve saved a life’ when Shusaku credits her for his recovery comes up against her later bitter announcement, ‘I’ve done nothing’, in which her management of the inn after her mother’s death—itself a replay of her mother’s own frustration with the inn with which she’s saddled after remarriage—is not so much framed as an index of feisty survival, Scarlett O’Hara or Stella Dallas style, more a kind of existential footnote. Thus, if Shinko suggests a generational advance in terms of gender roles, of toughness and capability, even when not bound to the patriarchal norms of arranged marriage which she rejects, she’s is bound to an impossible love which—as in the suicide pact itself—remains an irresolvable cul-de-sac. 

Yoshida has spoken of his rejection of the postwar humanism—of an unbounded faith in progress and the essential goodness of people—that he associates with the Americanised optimism exemplified by Kurosawa, one which Yoshida’s more radical generation firmly distrusted. Likewise, Yoshida, who would later revise his criticism of Ozu to write a major book on Ozu, also avoids any of the dramas of restraint, resignation, obligation and fatalism associated with the latter. (Worthy of note, too, is Okada’s own prior work with Ozu—astonishingly, this, the first of her long series of collaborations with Yoshida, whom she would also marry, was already her one hundredth cinematic role.) Statements of disappointment—that’s the lot of humanity—that might, in Ozu, form a devastating climax, are here offered by Shusaku as pat apologies for treating her as a kind of nostalgic accessory, a permanently available holiday in the country, ‘tomorrow will be another day’: resignation as pronounced when it’s at the bottom of a sake bottle as when it seeps into the affected pipe that replaces frantic cigarettes and despairing maladjustment with bourgeois, patriarchal complacency (on his last visit, Shusaku orders a razor – ‘I want a shave’ – treating his mistress as a kind of extension of his wife. Shinko’s own commitment to the despairing romanticism to which Shusaku’s youthful proclamations have doomed her is in turn belied when, having slit her wrists with the same razor, she faces the water, looks at the camera, and screams: for all the subsequent, climactic moments of heightened tragedy, Shusaku holding her body in his arms beneath billowing cherry blossom and billowing strings, it’s that moment that sticks in the memory. We’re forced to ask: what precisely do we make of the film’s conclusion, apart from a general sense of being ‘moved’ by the swelling music, the classic tragedy of a love-death, and the rest? If we weep, who do we weep for, and why? As such, the film also turns the mirror on its audience: Shinko, who throughout the film is essentially used by Shisaku for his own purposes, with diminishing and expendable returns, is first encountered in essence performing in front of a series of mirrors as she introduces herself in unconventional fashion, and in the absence of the usual obstacles—familial or societal convention, the weight of circumstance and the like—it’s the audience itself who suddenly have to face the uncomfortable question of what this is all for. Shisaku’s nostalgic addiction to an experience that was never quite the grand amour both he and Shinko imagine—her tears at the defeat of Japan inspire him to continue living with their passion, and her laughter in the face of suicide again inspires him to continue living, and his visits in subsequent years serve as little bursts of nostalgic recreation that help him adjust to his dissatisfactions with a life of quiet success; perhaps even her death will serve as an instance of artistic inspiration, rather than traumatic self-reckoning. 

In the merest fragments of carefully off-kilter composition, Yoshida at times anticipates the deliriously off-centre framings of the later radicalism trilogy (perhaps most notably in ‘Heroic Purgatory’): we see Shinko between window panes as a in a prison, shot in profile from the side at odd angle, faces crammed just too high or too low onto the screen, the close-ups suddenly too close, the familiar settings of the film suddenly too claustrophobic. But that’s not where the real subversion lies: rather, even in this exercise in high budget repertory film making, the contradictions within the form itself are stretched to their limit precisely by being inhabited so fully, while also remaining palatable as a mere exercise in following the demands of the genre to the letter. And thus, by flattening out and removing narrative motivation, by not developing the romance, by rendering the narrative a series of performances, gestures and affects rather than any sort of theory of love—all while sticking to the conventions of rich costume, colour, music, grand event and grand feeling—the melodrama starts to collapse from within.