Friday 21 August 2020

‘Heroic Purgatory’ (1970, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)


Yoshishige Yoshida’s 1969-1973 trilogy of radicalism--recently packaged for the English language market as a DVD boxset entitled ‘Love and Anarchism’, half-borrowing its title from Lina Wertmuller’s rather different tale of the resistance to Italian Fascism, ‘Love and Anarchism’--is at once of the key points of 1960s political cinema and a body of work that--for its dizzying formal experimentation, for its non-European cultural placement, and for the lack of widely-available, suitably subtitled copies--has received relatively little Anglophone critical attention. Of the three films in the trilogy, Heroic Purgatory has suffered most of all, in large part due to its great density. At least an hour shorter than its predecessor, Eros Plus Massacre, it also extends that film’s tendency to narrative compression and ellipses to a far greater extent, and a first viewing may render elements virtually incomprehensible. As Yoshida puts it in a brief retrospective introduction, whereas Eros Plus Massacre used the past to think about the present, Heroic Purgatory uses the future to think about the present. Imagining its characters at four points in time--the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s--its complex play with narrative structure that shares the making-strange of urban locations of, say, Alphaville or La Jetee, and, to a certain extent, a concern with technological development, but is hardly a ‘science-fiction’ film. 


In ‘Eros Plus Massacre’, Yoshida adopted the framework of the ‘historical film’ in order to cast doubt on that very form: to question the use of the past as fixed in aspic, the contingent nature of reconstruction and the multi-perspectival nature of narration, and the use of a radical past, both as inspiration for, and as something not fully understood by, a present day generation of radicals. Eiko and Wada, the disenchanted students of the film’s contemporary sections, appear to have few ties to actual political activism--in that sense echoing, in the historical scenes, Osugi Sakae’s increasing inability to criticise the State or advocate revolution due to the repressive nature of the imperial state, focusing instead on accomplishing the revolution in the sphere of ‘private’ sexual experimentation. But whereas Osugi, Noe Ito and others are constrained in their ‘public’ activism by State repression, and in the sphere of sexuality by both the State and conservative public morality and opinion (perhaps gossip can destroy a political figure as much as, or in tandem with, violence), Eiko and Wada’s inability to accomplish meaningful action lies, in part, in the opening up of the State--the importation of American-style democracy, with Japan no longer an imperial power but a colonised, or de facto colonised, one, the lifting of sexual restrictions--and of their seeming lack of awareness (or disinterest in joining) existent political movements opposed to current governments. 


Heroic Purgatory offers a more in-depth exploration of contemporaneous political movements that go beyond the lifestyle revolt played out with such desultory frustration by Eiko and Wada. At the same time, its exploration of sexuality, revolt and violence lacks the former film’s basis in a specific historical event. Because familiar from existent accounts, the retelling of aspects of Osugi and Ito’s lives offers a certain legibility--or at least, a way in--that ‘Purgatory’ deliberately blocks. Basing the film on a fictional incident set during the opposition to the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, rather than the explicitly historical re-enactments of ‘Eros Plus Massacre’, removes the framework of referential specificity that grounds Eros in a manner suitable to this film’s greater emphasis on performance, fantasy and the closed dynamics of small, radical groups: the paradox by which those most minded towards the radical transformation of an entire society become inward-turning cells losing contact with the broader climate of that society. ‘Eros' takes as its principal object of examination the heterosexual, monogamous couple, and by extension the family unit: in 'Purgatory', the couple are only one among several other social formations to be explored. 

The film opens as Nanako (Mariko Okada) witnesses what appears to be the attempted suicide of a young woman, Ayu (Kazumi Tsutsui), who then follows her to the apartment she shares with her husband, engineer Rikiya (Kaizo Kamoda), the three becoming a kind of strange family unit of ‘adopted’ children, absent parents and power triangulations. (It’s never made clear in Ayu in fact exists or is a kind of mutual projection of the childless couple). Ayu, who, at least initially, speaks only rarely, claims to be ‘lost’ and disowns the ‘father’ who comes to the couple’s flat to claim her, and who may or may not be either a police spy, a member of the revolutionary cell in which Rikiya was formerly involved, or a genuine father who has lost both his wife and daughter. As the film unfolds, Rikiya recalls his past within that cell during the signing of the 1952 San Francisco treaty--a de facto ceding of colonial power to the occupying American forces, beyond the period of ostensible occupation--as a planned attempt to either kidnap or assassinate an ambassador collapses due to the possible intervention of a spy within the group. This moment is played out again and again, shifting in time and location from 1952 to 1960 (the signing of another treaty of compromise), 1970 (when the film was made) and 1980, ten years in the future: actors play multiple roles, as the original members of the 1952 cell appear to take up roles in ‘official society’ and their successors among the new waves of radical movements turn against them.


Performance is stressed at virtually every turn: in the earlier segments, Ayu’s presence, real or imaginary, reveals families as role plays, removed from their basis in biological parenthood and filiation, while a characteristic move in the film’s final third will see a character remove a wig to reveal their ‘true identity’ (though most of the time their faces are recognisable from the other roles they play). Social roles repeat themselves, over and above the arc of individual motivation, desire or intention, not only within the broader society which, as in ‘Eros’, is encountered more through the discourse of those who resist it than through the appearance of crowds, public places, or the state apparatus, but through the smaller units that try to oppose the Engelsian trinity of the family, private property and the State. Paranoia, suspicion, and the ritual-casting out of outsiders, or spies, are both responses to real conditions, real infiltration, and real defeat, and manifestations of the failure to fully conceive of alternative social arrangements free of hierarchy, cruelty, sexual exploitation and violence. Notably, the wave of late 1960s and early 1970s Japanese New Wave films allying formal and political radicalism--Wakamatsu or Adachi more so than Yoshida--depict this resistance, not by presenting a utopian grouping, a valorised alternative to the more subtle modes of conformism that, in the post-war era, are fostered in the guise of liberation, but through the warping of revolt through violence, sex and fantasy: the actions of ultra-leftist terrorist groups, the misogynist murders of serial killers, kidnappers and sadistic criminals. As the title suggests, part of the problem may be the paradigm of heroism. Refusing to sign Rikiya’s death warrant for betraying the group, Nanako is asked what constitutes the cardinal virtue of a true revolutionary. ‘Love’, she replies. ‘Wrong! It’s heroism’. The constant failure to live up to such an ideal sees the group view heroism, paradoxically, as manifested through an iconoclasm so relentless it must destroy those closest to it for failing to live up to ideals.


Yoshida takes the furthest limits of ‘Eros plus Massacre’s experimentation as its operating principle. Spatially, both films are characterised by carefully askew, non-symmetrical framing, with public, exterior, space rendered as a bleached-out, ghostly horizon, always in the distance, glimpsed as if in perpetual mist or blinding sunlight, and domestic, interior space as an endless series of corridors or bedrooms, of secret spaces, characterised, in Eros, by sliding screens, and in Purgatory by modern walls,as characters endlessly circle the space and each other, shot round corners or in mirrors (Yoshida’s dizzying use of the mise-en-abime possibilities that mirrors afford out Fassbinders Fassbinder (see: ‘Chinese Roulette’), rendering domesticity (the couple, the family or substitute family) a claustrophobic nightmare. 

In terms of temporality, there’s the overlap between different time frames, with characters transcending spatio-temporal restrictions to (literally) wander between them, and the replaying of the ‘same’ moment in different ways. Whereas the multiple versions of a single scene occur only at Eros’s climax (the attempted murder of Osugi as the denouement of the love quadrangle), here, this variant structure replay across numerous incidents throughout: the entry of a stranger into the couple’s flat; an encounter between Rikiya and Ayu in front of a blank wall, which appears to have been either secretly filmed or performed as a kind of voyeuristic sex show, replays with various combinations of viewers and protagonists; the central incident of the dissolution of a revolutionary cell, and the subsequent internal trial of a spy (or perhaps multiple spies), perhaps leading to the spy’s execution; the future visit of an ambassador, surrounded by journalists. All this contributes to the dazzling complexity of the film’s structure, determined to resist the conventional representational hierarchies of narrative clarity. As such, it has much in common with the ‘puzzle film’ structure, the studied enigmas, concentric circles, stories within stories, frames within frames, that yield much of the perplexing pleasures of more famous exemplars, from ‘Out 1’ to ‘Inland Empire’, sharing with them the central conceit by which the verifiable existence of a particular event becomes more and more unstable (the actual slaughter of group members taken as the grounds for the show trial is never shown, for example). While Yoshida was early on influenced by Sartreian existentialism, the puzzle structure serves less as a philosophical reflection on the nature of reality--though it is in part that--but a predominantly political interrogation which suggests that any considerations of the nation of being, memory, individuality, alienation, violence and desire must be viewed as social questions: to abstract them at this historical moment would be meaningless. This applies equally to realist modes of leftist filmmaking which fail to trouble their own representative strategies. Yoshida’s methodology suggests that film is uniquely placed to interrogate both the propaganda of consumer democracy and patriotic hierarchy and the counter-propaganda of revolutionary violence, particularly that of the new generation of ultra-left militants. After all, terrorism of whatever ideological stripe is primarily representational in its strategies, for all the actual violence it involves and for all the secrecy and non-visibility of its organisation, whether the spectacular hijacking of a plane or the kidnapping of an ambassador or a prime minister.


For Yoshida, in these films, film’s role seems to be to cast a critical eye on the mechanisms of site, representation, and narration--that is, virtually all the paradigms of existent cinematic vocabulary--along with the failures of anarchist, ultra-leftist and official Communist responses to normative society. To present any sort of functioning alternative would be to simply fall into the traps that perpetuate the present state of things. But in that sense, film provides no more favourable alternative than the political activism it represents. Whereas Masao Adachi progressed from making films concerning radical actions to joining the PLO, for Yoshida, the representation/action binary is not an either/or. Both in terms of its own, self-reflexive mechanisms--an endless selection of carefully-framed shots that split and hierarchize the visual anarchy that Yoshida, in his critical writing, suggested was the eye’s natural mechanism (and recall Stan Brakhage’s attempt to capture something of that ‘innocence of the eye’)--and the narrative impasse it depicts--an endless compulsion to repeat, as trauma begets trauma, violence begets violence--Yoshida’s film occupies what its title appropriately designates as  ’purgatory’--a space between earth, heaven and hell, a space of uncertainty and temporal suspension. ‘Eros plus Massacre’ appeared to suggest a disenchantment with the medium of film itself--following a kind of shadow play with a projection room, the film’s director figure commits suicide using a roll of celluloid--and ‘Heroic Purgatory’ once more features a filmmaker surrogate--this time, as a member of the modern, ultra-leftist urban guerrilla group who wields a cine-camera interchangeably with a machine gun. Through his method, Yoshida seems at once to suggest that it’s only through a radically reinvented grammar of film that true critical perspective can be gained; on the other, film itself, with its representational mediation, is trapped inside those very frames on which it seeks to cast light. Yoshida’s characteristic over-exposed black and white thus casts a literal light on proceedings which succeeds only in erasing outline, shadow and shape. Yoshida’s equally characteristic off-centre framings (the very first shot provides an example) often set the camera ‘too high’ or ‘too low’, so that we see only the tops of character’s heads, or in which their minituarised figures are overshadowed the built spaces through which they move. In virtually every frame of the film, such framing stresses the limited, partial nature of any one perspective, the slicing up of reality into segments that never tell more than part of the truth. Or, as one critic puts it, “every shot is an idea”.


The film ends at the train station at which much of the action has taken place, as Nanako and her ‘daughter’ board an empty train, only to exit once more and walk back along the platform in front of a prominently-placed sign which reads ‘dead end’. If Walter Benjamin viewed revolutions as pulling the emergency brake on the disastrously destructive myth of historical ‘progress’, here, there’s no more track for the train to run on. The characters admit as much. ‘It’s over. Nothing left’. ‘There’s still things to do.’ ‘Depart to a distant place?’ ‘I will get rid of what I thought my God was’. As the two women walk towards the camera (back to the city, back to society), the camera focuses on the ‘Dead End’ sign, previously only a blurred smudge of white in the background, before blurring it out once more. It’s a perfect in-joke: the traditional signing off of a film, the boundary re-established between life and cinema, the mechanism of narrative closure that rounds off in a neat summary, with the English language signage reflecting the enforced dominance of American culture and its representational strategies. This moment, in its repeating of the mother/’daughter’ pairing, echoes the Valerie Solanas-style fantasies Ayu earlier expounds to Nanako, fantasizing ways of capturing and excuting ‘daddies’ everywhere, it seems as a means of revenge for the abuse that either she or her mother may or may not have suffered from a father figure at an earlier point (and suggested in the armed cell’s condemnation of a female member, who at one point they threaten with sexual violence to extort a confession’ a violence doubled by the criminal gang who surround a lone female figure, played by the same actors as the 1970s guerrilla group). As such, it echoes the thwarted possibility ‘Eros plus Massacre’ found in Ito’s feminist politics--and with the expected casting of Okada, the continuity is further implied.  In the juxtaposition between the historical re-telling of Osugi’s and Ito’s doomed relationship and the adrift experimentation of contemporaneous students, ‘Eros’ suggested that the overt repression of imperial Japan found in the historical segments of ‘Eros’ has now been replaced by the impasse of a ‘democratic’ society, the radical implications of feminism and free love overlooked in a superficial play with transgression, sex and violence. But while ‘Heroic Purgatory’ replaces those students’ petty acts of pyromania with a more focused attempt to change society through underground political action, the same mistakes repeat: the hierarchy, repetition of trauma and, in particular, the patriarchal violence and sadism--which at once condemns sexuality as counter-revolutionary, a distraction (as in the revolutionary-filmmaker’s speech to a female comrade), and sublimates it into an often gendered cruelty, doomed to endless replay myths of heroism in a purgatorial ante-chamber that appears to repeat the binaries of repressive tolerance and flawed resistance every decade: whether in the incidents of 1952 (the San Francisco Treaty), 1960 (ANPO), 1970 (the film’s present) and 1980 (where Cold War problems are assumed to have been ‘solved’ in what is appears to be a pessimistic interpretation of the triumph of the U.S.A. and the Fukayama-esque ‘end of history’). Technology and technocracy are key too: a university student in engineering when involved in the guerrilla activities of 1952, Rikiya paradoxically then went to the United States for further study, reportedly working on the development of the atomic bomb (given the genocidal ‘lab’ of Hiroshima and Nagaski, a doubled historical irony) before returning to Japan to work on a project which appears to involve the construction of an alternative space through laser beams. Meanwhile, the guerrillas progress from debates in clandestine rooms to waving around the symbols of the new, ultra left, Red Army Faktion militancy, brandishing machine guns (or cine-cameras) at every opportunity. As an indicator of progress, technology’s capacity for human transformation becomes subordination to the same mechanisms of patriarchal and national violence, now extended worldwide.


The inability to break a cycle of various kinds of repetition, even in the most radical, vanguard, progressive or advanced of movements--whether official technocracies or revolutionary organisations--is the film’s purgatorial territory. On the other, for Yoshida, those same moments and movements repeat the mistakes of previous generations, collapsing from both internal--and, more importantly for the purposes of the film--internal pressures. In a later interview, Yoshida sketches out his interest in the issue of revolutionary struggle, as manifested in the Japanese left from 1952 through to the present of the film, 1969/70, and the taking of power as a kind of perpetual process--”a power struggle inevitably gives rise to other power struggles”. “How to overcome the political problem of power? it’s almost impossible”, he argues, turning Marx’s famous axiom about the replaying of events, first as tragedy, then as farce, and applying it to the Japanese armed struggle. Yet the film’s title--underplayed in the current translation, but apparently invoking Beethoven’s  third symphony, the ‘Eroica’--suggests a more optimistic take than Yoshida’s present-day opinion that, in such situations, one has to laugh to keep from crying, that the revolutionary movements depicted are nothing more than a ‘scam’ or ‘farce’. Initially dedicating the symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte, as the representative of the enlightened progress, the continuation of the emancipatory spirit that motivated the French Revolution, Beethoven angrily removed the dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. Yet the tears in the page from Beethoven’s scratching out of the original ‘Buonaparte’ subtitle are still existent on the score’s original manuscript, and those tears serve as a useful figure for Yoshida’s film. For all its visual ‘excesses’, this is a film of absence, of narrative ellipses: the un-filled gaps, the endlessly-circling staircases, corridors, subways, and train tracks, taking on or taking off wigs, picking up or putting down the gun. Yet such absences, such repetitions, such deficiencies in action or rhetoric attest, do not only attest to the betrayal and defeat of hopes for revolutionary transformation, the co-option, internal and external violence that play out both in the taking of power and the struggle against it. It’s perfectly possible to view the as presenting a jaded perspective of liberal cynicism. Yet such a view more easily, more comfortably, more cynically fits into narratives of power, defeat and resistance than the film itself offers. Struggles for power may repeat themselves, first as tragedy, then as farce: yet this also means that resistance never ends. Viewed half a century on, Yoshida’s projections of the present into both past and future suggest that, for all the moments of suppression, the defeat of a particular movement or moment, whether in 1952, 1960, 1970, 1980, 2020, the revolution has never ceased to be fought, and will continue to be fought.

Thursday 20 August 2020

'Eros Plus Massacre' (1969, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)

In contrast to the pared-down narrative and cast of Farewell to the Summer Light, the three-and-a-half hours of unrelenting experimentation found in Yoshida’s next film preclude any attempt at summative analysis. Ostensibly, Eros Plus Massacre is a historical epic depicting early twentieth century anarchists Itō Noe (Mariko Okada) and Sakae Ōsugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), concentrating on the triangulation between Noe and between Ōsugi’s other lovers—his wife, Hori Yasuko (renamed Akiko Hiraga, and played by Kazuko Inenon), and his mistress, journalist Kamichika Ichiko (renamed Masaoka Itsuko afer the real-life Ichiko threatened to sue, and played by Yuko Kusunoki) —and culminating in Ichiko/Itsuko’s attempted murder of Ōsugi, ten years before he and Noe were murdered by the police. This timeline is intercut with scenes of the aimless present-day students/actors/dropouts Eiko (Toshiki Ii) and Wada (Dajiro Harada), reading about the earlier events which they half-recreate, half imitate, half-dismiss. Signalled by the constant psychedelic rock soundtrack, the contemporary segments seems to signal their own contemporaneity, but the slower, more patient historical segments are also characterised by stringent formal experimentation which provides both an equivalent to and critique of the passions that unfold within them, as well as the lens of the historical film itself.  As the two timelines begin to blur in the more surreal focus of the film’s second half, such experimentation becomes an increasing part of the film’s method. The point, as Yoshida noted in interviews, is to view the past for the way it views the future, not to reduplicate it in the present. Yoshida opens the film with a startling scene in which Eiko interviews Noe’s daughter, framed as a spotlit interrogation with uncomfortable echoes of State torture. As such, the refusal to divulge, to narrate, to present a coherent chronicle of the past comes to seem an act of resistance in itself: the subject refuses to answer questions, insisting on the exploitation of mothers as such, rather than a focus on the spectacular life of her own mother as either revolutionary exemplar or cautionary tale. The present, Yoshida suggests, treats historical figures like the urn containing Ōsugi’s ashes which opposing rugby teams kick about a field in one of the film’s most startling sequences.

In the film’s second half (the two broken by a brief interval screen), Yoshida more explicitly signals the breaking down of boundaries between the two time periods earlier signalled in subtle nods such as Noe arriving at the modern-day Tokyo train  station at which she’d in reality arrived decades earlier—-with little attempt to ‘disguise’ the location. Having interviewed Noe’s daughter, Eiko now ‘interviews’ Noe herself, and it becomes hard to place scenes of Osugi, Noe and Tsuji wandering the seafront as fantasy, historical re-enactment, or a kind of ghostly presence in the modern day. 

This section culminates in the multiple re-tellings of the attempted murder of Ōsugi which serve as the film’s climax, and which the modern-day students take to attest, not to the breakdown of sexual experimentation—the return of the repressed in the guise of murderous jealousy—but as the point to which it led all along, embraced as the height of ecstasy. Significantly, their attempts to combine eros and thanatos, eros plus massacre, are seen to be conducted through the modality of film itself. Scenes of the pyromaniac Wada setting fire to rolls film or wielding a cine-camera with shades of Powell’s Peeping Tom, and of film rolls turned into a noose as the director first encountered having sex with Eiko—kicks away cannisters of celluloid in a final, suicidal act—problematise the act of representation at every stage, as does the extreme, light-bleached low contrast black and white, the anti-symmetrical framing (honing in one detail rather than attempting an overall picture). Would a revolutionary cinema be destructive—a thanatopic self-immolation akin to the anarchist philosophy espoused by Ōsugi, at once egoist and self-destructive—or constructive, of alternative visions of social life represented by the dreams of free love and revolution?


A haunting line concerning the springtime flowers that survive the massacre, which plays out in the film’s final scenes, is first heard when Ōsugi tells Noe of how the cherry blossom season reminds him of his release from prison after his comrades in the anarchist movement had been executed. This scene, in which Ōsugi and Noe first kiss in public, watched by a police spy—in real life, the subject of much controversy at a time when such actions were constrained by heavy social taboo—is key to the film, as Noe unfolds her own dilemma. Escaping the patriarchal trappings of an initial marriage, she’s escaped into the ostensibly more liberated marriage to Tsuji, yet feels equally constrained by his passive, apolitical stance and unwillingness to follow up on the feminist principles he espouse; Ōsugi serves as a third alternative. Yet, in both cases, love doesn’t compensate for the losses suffered in political struggle—which rendered Ōsugi increasingly wary of openly espousing revolution—or the trap of conventional domesticity. When Ōsugi espouses a theory that Yoshida himself endorsed in interviews at the time—the destruction of monogamy as the precondition for the destruction of attendant restrictions on freedom, the family and the State—it comes across as shallow pontificating justifying his own exploitation of three women who accept his ‘free love’ arrangement unwillingly. The film constantly brings up questions which it deliberately refuses to answer. Is Ōsugi merely an egotistical practicing a kind of male dominance disguised as free love? Or are the constraints of heterosexual jealousy and monogamy? Is the revolution stymied by sexual jealousy as much as by State power? Does eros lead to, or compensate for ‘massacre’? At certain points, Yoshida implies that Noe’s salvation might have lain in living separately from both Tsuji and Ōsugi—a means of avoiding the clash between committed feminism and the modes of male domination and heterosexual competition that characterise even ‘open’ relationships. But these dreams—whether those of male free love advocates or of the independent feminist rejecting heterosexual relationships—are stymied throughout, as Ōsugi’s mistress wryly notes, by money, which creates situations of economic, sexual and emotional dependency that seems impossible to escape.

Yet if the ultimate check on freedom is economic, we see little of the world of private or State power, of the operations of class warfare, that we hear about in dialogue. In particular, the film arguably under-emphasizes the State power that actually killed Ōsugi and Noe. By focusing instead on the attempted murder associated with the earlier menage, the film risks repeating the public/private division of State conservatism, with violence the province of unregulated private passions rather than a tool of State power, or of the imbrication of ‘crimes of passion’ with the law-making violence of patriarchal power. Thus, we see the tea-house murder of 1916 in endless detail, while Ōsugi and Ito’s actual death is rendered in a series of static shots of their corpses, with the assailants nowhere in site. (In real life, policemen murdered them and dumped their bodies in a well.) 

State power and the conservative force of public opinion are, indeed, remarkably absent given their significance in Ōsugi and Noe’s lives: the power of gossip, scandal and patriarchal disapproval in preventing Ito from choosing her own path is hinted at in dialogue, but never really presented outside the smaller triangulations of individual relationship. More generously, one might read this as a self-conscious reduplication of the public/private division by which the hypocritical sexual morality of public order is maintained, and which was a key target for Noe’s proletarian, feminist defense of abortion, prostitution and marriage for love. 

Certainly, that inability to translate ‘private’ experimentation to social transformation dogs Eiko and Wada’s desultory experiments. Eiko’s encounters with a policeman, who interrogates her over her supposed role in a prostitution ring, see the policeman extolling a kind of predatory order over the sexual/political revolution (which the State interpellates under the criminalised heading of ‘prostitution’). The contemporary repressiveness enforced by the modern-day cop is here characterised more by a kind of world-weary 'common sense', than by any kind of fanatical or committed belief in hierarchical order, such a manifestation of State power is more insidious in its operations. The accumulation of wealth, power and privilege found in State and private interest adapts its morality as suits: might even, in certain wings, lead to what Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’, relying on the fact that revolutionaries and artist who experiment with personal life as much as with cinema, writing or politics are as likely to self-immolate, to destroy themselves internally, as to be destroyed from without. Eiko and Wada stage outrageous reconstructions of scenes of death, disaster and eros in abandoned industrial spaces, at one point ‘crucifying themselves’ on two sides of a giant cross. Obsessed with the sexual and revolutionary experimentation they read about in the life of Ōsugi and Noe, their own experiments are mediated almost entirely through artistic reconstruction—descriptions of sex acts compensating for impotence, Wada’s obsessive, pyromaniac play with cigarette lighters instead of the making of bombs, desultory wanderings through a near-empty city or a projection room for political organising. At a time when the explicit hierarchies of an imperial and moral code against which Noe and Ōsugi struggled have been vanquished through American nuclear violence and the imposition of a falsely democratic, capitalist model which Yoshida deeply distrusted, it’s perhaps no surprise that the contemporary segments feel adrift In that sense, both Yoshida himself and the audience puzzling their way through the deliberately exhausting excesses of this film come to seem something like the figure of Noe’s husband Jun Tsuji (Etsushi Takahashi), who historically turned to the life of a ‘vagabond’ as a means of achieving happiness, neither in revolutionary struggle nor in accepting a place within the dominant, hierarchal social order. Perpetually drunk, repeatedly institutionalise, and dying of starvation in a friend’s one-bedroom apartment following the second world war, Tsuji’s self-marginalisation dramatizes the exclusionary powers by which the State renders surplus requirements entire lives, entire ways of living. In the film’s first half, as the couple’s marriage slowly breaks down in the sliding walls of their own home—an endless series of reconfigured boxes, with no way out—Tsuji already seems a ghost in his own life. As he fades out of the centre of Noe’s life, he nonetheless continues to haunt the second half of the film, playing shakuhachi (as he did in real life in order to support himself), followed by the distant figure of his and Noe’s small son. Glimpsed only in silhouetted long shot and the eerie, echoed sounds of the shakuhachi on the soundtrack, it’s his fate—shadowed by our knowledge of his death in real life, starving and alone—as much as the more spectacular passions that are the film’s principle subject, that reverberates in the afterglow of the film’s pyromaniac passions.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

“Until death, I will walk throughout Europe”: ‘Farewell to the Summer Light’ (1968, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)

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“No! Until death, I will walk throughout Europe. No. At the time of the tide, this abandoned church at sea, it’s me.” So declares Naoko Toba (Mariko Okada) in a forbidden embrace with Makoto Kawamura (Tadashi Yokouchi), on the beach in front of Normandy’s Mont St Michel. The camera swirls round its two lovers in a 360 circle; the vast sands are emptied of all other people; Mont St Michel towers in storybook shadow in front of a spectacular sunset that screams ‘photo opportunity’. But what might seem, viewed in isolation, to be a moment of stilted melodrama, of sentimentalised excess, is instead the clearest articulation of what, in Yoshishige Yoshida’s overlooked 1968 film, unfolds elsewhere with a combination of unremitting intensity and restrained languor. The easiest way to describe the film is Hiroshima Mon Amor in reverse, and with the scene of nuclear trauma—here accessed only through elliptical speech, rather than the relative explicitness of Resnais’ grim opening montage—in Nagasaki. Mont St Michel is just the tip of the iceberg: shot across seven different countries, European monuments make prominent cameo appearances in almost every scene. Indeed, given the film’s stripped-back dramatis personae, these monuments are as important a part of the film’s cast as are the protagonists who wander in front of them. Yet Farewell is more than merely a love story in front of tourist-y backdrops. In the guise of a romantic drama or New Wave travelogue, Yoshida’s film has things to say about history, memory and global impasse that are inextricable from its slow-burning drama of forbidden infatuation. ‘Summer 1968’, read the final intertitles, and while Yoshida would address political radicalism in far more depth in his following films, the dilemmas of moving from old to new, of moving out from the shadow of monuments to and of despotism and aesthetic utopianism –cathedrals, coliseums, chateaux—are also evident throughout Farewell.


Impeccably shot—every frame composed with an eye to natural light, shadow, and the framing of figures within a landscape—this is a film of endless wandering without fixed destination, a travelogue saturated with tourist hotspots—Rome’s Coliseum, Paris’s Eiffel Tower, Lisbon’s Belem Tower or Jeronimos Monastery, Finisterre, the western-most point in Europe—which serve as reminders of place and history whose protagonists feel themselves unmoored yet bound to history, time and the logics of itineraries, discoveries and destinations as the film’s two protagonists cross paths, follow or flee from each other across half a dozen European cities while half-conducting an illicit affair. In terms of narrative, mood, and the obsession with memory, the film clearly echoes Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amor especially), but as the title indicates, color and light are key to the films in very different ways to Resnais’ use of black and white’s shadowy contrasts. The film occurs almost exclusively outside, its characteristic movement seeing the protagonists walk through otherwise utterly deserted streets—shot in the glare of full sunlight, when others are hiding indoors, the midnight sun, or the gentler lights of dusk or dawn—in motions that are at once archly choreographed (the artifice emphasized by non-linear intercutting and the heightened affective states of classical music—Debussy’s La Mer is a key presence) and unfold at the pace of un-staged perambulation which, according to the normative expectations of film editing and movement, appears frustratingly slow. The film is, in one sense, dialogue-heavy—the two are near-constantly speaking to or across each other in diegetic sound and in voice over—but their words are slow, spaced out, as often ‘interior’ dialogue as externalised speech, and the film is punctuated by awkward silence, close-lipped wandering.


Given both the virtual who’s-who of European sights it presents, and its visual vocabulary—clearly manifesting the influence of Antonioni, Fellini, Resnais or early Varda—the film signals Europe at every turn. Yet it’s important to stress that this is a film shot of, shot in, but not within Europe. As such, it’s a fascinating reversal of the usual orientalism that manifests, say, in Anna Karina adopting a racist caricature at the same time as condemning the Vietnam war in Pierrot Le Fou: adopting the look, stylistics and existential mood of European art cinema, but from a consciously different perspective. Thus, while existing reviews stress the ‘European’ nature or influence of the film—the locations, the music, the visual sensibility—this is very much a film about Japan, as the dialogue makes abundantly clear: about the geographical displacement of trauma, the gap illustrated literally in one of the film’s most visually arresting shots, as the protagonists face each other across a mosaic world map, the mid-day sun casting continental shadows over its schematic, simplifying representation of a complex totality. 

The burden of European influence manifested in the film’s visual and stylistic sensibility is the very centre of its narrative drama. Rather than the existential alienation of the European bourgeoisie so famously depicted by Antonioni or Fellini in their own films of heterosexual wandering—for which the devastation of the second world war was a kind of vague, discomforting underlay—this film is explicitly about Japan-specific trauma: the explosion of the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki two decades before. That this drama is ‘peripheral’ to the narrative (there’s nothing like the opening sequences of Hiroshima Mon Amour to slam home to viewers the existence of the nuclear massacres) is part of its argument. Makoto searches for the original European model for a church destroyed in the Nagasaki bombings, through a drawing glimpsed in the Nagasaki museum; Naoko has fled to Europe precisely in order to flee the memory of Nagasaki. In a sense, they are in Europe for opposite reasons, yet in another sense, they are drawn to a moment before loss, whether realising that moment to be impossible, and fleeing from everything that reminds them of it, or seeking something prior to it: a kind of impossible double immersion in memory. Both are representatives of a modern, upwardly-mobile class: polylingual, studying or working in business abroad, yet they don’t so much dream of a transformed future as wander in alienated displacement activities from an irresolvable trauma.


That’s one element: the other, closer to the surface of the film, its exploration of the structures of desire and domesticity, is Yoshida’s critique of sexual normativity. In a 1970 interview for Cahiers du Cinema coinciding with the release of his next, and probably best-known film, Eros Plus Massacre, Yoshida castigated Kurosawa for his avocation of stoicism (born, he thinks, in the jingoistic militarism of the former imperial regime) for his naïve faith in ‘postwar humanism’ (an American import, tied to the myth of democracy shattered by the Korean War). If Japan’s past suggests an ugly strain of imperialist nationalism—explored in the third of Yoshida’s trilogy of radicalism, Coup D’Etat—and its present an uneasy futurity represented by US occupation and capitalism, with Europe as a kind of cultural repository, way station (or mausoleum). Yoshida suggested to Cahiers that the destruction of three elements—the monogamous couple, the family, and the state—were the basis of societal transformation: hence his interest in the life and theories of the radical anarchist Osugi Sakae in Eros. Faced with studio interference for his earlier dramatisations of class conflict, Yoshida’s subsequent cycle of ‘anti-melodramas’—of which Farewell is one of the last—turn to romantic and sexual relationship, to blackmail, illicit affairs, love triangles, all the guilt and pain that undercuts the dream of the heterosexual couple form, as the beginnings of a political analysis (much as Ozu’s films address the crisis of the family in post-war Japan). Various characters in Farewell offer ‘love’ as the solution into which they have displaced other activities—whether Makoto’s claim that Naoko is his the true ‘cathedral’ he’s been searching for (marrying her and returning to Japan will solve his quest, his frustration at the ‘rat race’, his cultural insecurity), or her husband Robert’s insistence, at once ironised and sincere, that true love is one which can be faked over time, a matter of development rather than initial passion. Yet the affair is forever caught in the trappings of old roles: patriarchal possessiveness and relinquishment, the emergence of the triangle and the switch to a second couple, the slow-burning breakdown of a marriage, the oscillation between romantic idealisation and pragmatic acceptance of an absence of love as a necessary evil.


Both protagonists—a younger university student who ultimately decides to study urban sociology in Paris, moving from an obsession with the past towards some conceptualisation of the future, and a businesswoman, the wife of an American import-export boss who lives in Paris and travels Europe buying art and furniture—seek to escape Japan, whether as seat of deep-rooted trauma and the loss of memory (the businesswoman’s loss of her entire family during the Nagasaki bombing) or of a frustrated rat-race conformity. The ostensible purposes for Makoto’s trip—which locates him first of all in Portugal—is the dream of locating the European prototype for a cathedral built during the Portugese ‘discovery’ of Japan,


It was at the Nagasaki Museum.  I found a sketch of an old plan of a building built in Nagasaki, 400 years ago, in a Western style. The history of the persecution of Christians has destroyed this building, not leaving any trace of it. This sketch is infused with the tenacity of the first veterans who, 400 years ago, fought on Japanese soil, on what was for them the end of the world. This moved me deeply. The model of the cathedral must still be in Europe.


Naoko, meanwhile, seeks instead to move away from memory, dream or goal, closing her heart as it makes it easier to do her work, ultimately leaving her husband, who gives her his blessing to go to Makoto, but deciding to remain unmoored to either, dreaming of returning to Japan but seeing only a void. Replacing one kind of idealism—the search for the original cathedral—with another—deciding that the ‘cathedral’ he’s searching for is, in fact, Naoko—Makoto ultimately returns to Japan, though with a plan to study urban sociology in Paris (as Naoko drily remarks, he, too, has his eye on the future).


Early on in the film, Makoto opines that their meeting—a detour from the expected route—is of value not merely for its present pleasures, but as a means of consciously building up memories, like a tourist snapshot, a memento, a journal entry to be poured over in the future as proof of experience: This will remain a good memory”. Naoko demurs demurs--“This memory may be injured”--to which Makoto responds, “Memories do not betray. It’s mankind that betrays memories”. This notion of a pure memory, in which one can in the present perfectly recall the truth of the past, is romanticised, grants memory itself a kind of super-human function. Is such memory collective, or individual? How to balance the two sides to one story? Such philosophical questions occur more in elliptical fragments than as extended rumination—though they constitute much of the unspoken substance of the film’s voiceovers. The most explicit engagement with these questions occurs during one of the film’s few interior scenes, and one of the few to feature other actors. Makoto’s visit to Nakoto’s Parisian family home, an English language discussion (in which French performers are overlaid with atrociously stilted American dubbing) between her husband Bob and his sister, Mary, concerning the nature of love and reality. For Bob, this is framed in terms at once cynical and quasi-theological. On the one hand, he gives vent to the frustrations of the bourgeoisie, for whom the world has become one of ‘fake’ values in which humans are caught in the proverbial ‘rat race’. On the other, he proclaims that ‘true love’ comes only from God; human love is merely a replica. Bob bemoans the fake, yet he opines that a ‘forged’ love may last longer than a true love precisely because of its false nature. At the same time, if the performance of (say) domestic commitment, or the salvific nature of human (heterosexual) love, is that which enables one to survive, he also has an empiricist obsession with truth and falsity. Bob’s absolutism is illustrated with the bathetic example of two pipes (shades, perhaps, of Magritte’s ‘ceci n’est pas une pipe)—asserts “If this [one] is real, that [one] is not real. If that is real, this is not real.” Likewise, Bob’s sister, Mary, is obsessed with apparently inconsequential aesthetic judgment—which of two chateaux is ‘more beautiful’—opines that “it is love that gives judgment on everything”.  Worrying away at Bob’s resistance, she asserts (with a good deal of Orientalist projection): “God sees no difference between two [objects] that are the same, but it is very important for me to know which is myself. It is just like a catechism in Zen Buddhism.” This sense, on the one hand, of purely personal knowledge and of a kind of divine sanction ruling everything conveniently explains away history, the real contradictions of international capital, the pressures of bourgeois marriage, as even the silence of the other characters in the scene—in denial at their class position, but acutely aware of their alienation and unhappiness—exemplifies.


The quest for knowledge, for disentangling broader past histories and the romantic dilemmas of the present—“knowing which is which”, in other words—constitutes much of the film’s drama, at least from Makoto’s perspective. Yet, for all Makoto’s proclamations about the necessity of seeking out and understanding the past, of being faithful to memory, both characters also consciously seek to avoid memory. Both come to Europe for opposite reason: Makoto’s quest for the cathedral, as in some sense the root of ‘modern’ Japan, that which binds two sides of the world to each other (as in the extraordinary shot of the protagonists facing each other across a mosaic world map), and Naoko’s to escape the traumatic memory of Nagaski, which is nonetheless for her emblematised in the exact same object. Neither Makoto’s optimistic quest for that which, in the past, will offer the keys to the future, nor Naoko’s constant attempt to escape the past, are adequate responses to the histories of violence, conquest, and empire(s) those stories incarnate. If Naoko ultimately leaves her husband—the influx of the American occupation and the introduction of US-style capitalism—she will not seek an alternative in her younger Japanese lover. Mise-en-scene is key to this argument: the near-constant visibility of spectacularised ruins, shot in always-beautifully composed long shot—which at first seems a kind of tourist board travelogue—is  part of the film’s argument about the ways that the very visibility of the past, of history, conceals and congeals false narratives that justify, prettify and aestheticise power and domination as art objects to be collected, backdrops to vacation or business destinations to tick off the list. The very year that student uprisings rocked both Europe and Japan—as the film’s title card emphasizes with its temporal marker—Yoshida shoots Paris, Lisbon, Rome as waste-lands devoid of anyone but the protagonists. No cops, no military, no workers or students; simply the networks that string travellers from metropolis to metropolis—cafes, airports, shops, historical sites—and the basics of the melodramatic plot, the unbalanced tension between the couple and the one who disrupts their union.


If both are trapped in a past—Naoko, in the film’s final scenes, reveals that she knew all along where the cathedral was located, and describes seeing it during a sunset a horrific echo of the atom bomb explosion over Nagasaki (its own kind of ‘summer light’). For Naoko the cathedral (which she sketches in lipstick on the pristine white of a café table) is ‘my Nagasaki’—a point of suppressed, but ever-present origin, and of impossible return; for Maokoto, the dream of locating the European prototype for a cathedral built during the Portugese ‘discovery’ of Japan raises the hope of conceiving a relation to the ‘west’ based on discovery, hope and promise rather than war, massacre and occupation. But both, in that sense, are Nagasaki: in a retrospective interview on the film, Yoshida goes so far as to claim that Naoko cannot return to Japan with Makoto because she has been “irradiated in Nagasaki” – she is Nagasaki. This apparent contradiction--Naoko has both been destroyed in Nagasaki and become Nagaski itself--is at the heart of the film. The logic of person as synecdoche for place manifests, on the one hand, in the racialised projections heaped onto the foreign traveller--that which might necessitate Naoko's claim that she has become "Japanese without being Japanese". But, given the relative absence of non-European figures within the film (instead reduced to background detail in a subtle reversal of the usual colonial travelogue), person as synecdoche as place serves more as Makoto's desire that a person might provide compensation, replacement for broader social cohesion, the couple form as the place where the ruins of a broader society might be gathered.


In the film’s final tableau, the lovers wander the ruins of the Coliseum, then part ways, as Naoko—having just declared her love for Makoto in the film’s sole montage, one of the few instances where the lovers’ interactions exhibit spontaneity, warmth and laughter—announces (once more) that she will never see him again, and he heads the airport, a characteristic high-framed long shot showing the minute figures drawing every further apart next to yet another body of water. This could have been the closing shot, but it’s not: for now Makoto encounters the ‘new Rome’—the possibility of building on, from or over the ruins of the past which nonetheless loom as preserved ruins in the centre of the modern metropolis (with obvious echoes of Nagaski). Half-ecstatic, half-panicked, his voiceover asks: “who builds this town? And the ancient Rome, will it disappear? Yes, without doubt. But what will not be destroyed? Our love?” Makoto’s leading questions—which once again seem to impart romantic love with the quasi-theological tenets with which Bob imparted it, and to analogise the construction of an international city with the ‘building’ of a love relationship—set over the swelling waves of Debussy’s La Mer, are bathetically undercut as Yoshida abruptly cuts off music and image to depict Naoko alone in a café, drawing the fated cathedral on a pristine white table with blood-red lipstick. The film’s denouement proper—at once climax and bathetic coda—intercuts Makoto’s progression through the airport with Naoko (once more to the strains of Debussy), wavering between giving chase and remaining where she is, left perpetually circling the fountains of Rome in a kind of riposte to the fantasies of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and calling out the film’s last word, "taxi!”, while remaining stock still. This ending seems to send up the tension of the romantic drama—particularly that set in airports, train stations, spaces of arrival and departure—between the ‘inevitable’ (the return to domestic partner, place of origin, or new beginning, breaking the temporary spell of romantic infatuation for the cold reality of continuing life) and the wish-fulfilment fantasy of film’s ‘happy ending’ (the resolution of contradiction in an impulsive gesture and a burst of music, frozen in time). A frequent movement in the film sees one or the other of the two protagonists suddenly stop, leaving the other behind, before a sudden, panicked burst as they run to catch up: most notably, the shot of Makoto in front of an empty traffic intersection in Stockholm, the road signs, with their multiple directional indicators, as a kind of wilfully obvious metaphorical tool that, likewise, reaches towards parody, as well as the serendipity of the film’s spontaneous shooting methods.

Makoto seeks in the cathedral and in Naoko a way out of the obliquely-hinted dilemma of uncertain placement in a newly-developing Japanese society, dominated, as Yoshida has it, by the false ‘democracy’ and ‘humanism’ of American occupation. If his search is initially for the obliterated roots of modern Japan—a former imperial adventure (that of Portugal) whose traces (the Nagaski church) are in themselves destroyed by modern imperialism (the atom bomb and subsequent occupation)—he comes to see its fulfilment in a figure of the present, in the dreams of the domestic (as compensation, perhaps, for the breakdown in traditional familial structure so memorably charted by Ozu) rather than national narratives and utopian projects. This is also a patriarchal narrative of heterosexual rescue (marry me! We’ll return to Japan!), constructed as inevitability, support and futurity: as sign of maturity, of the reassurances of male power (even in the more apparently emancipated form of modern relationship).  Meanwhile, Naoko’s rejection of the demands of love (conceived as domestic or binding relationship), elided in some senses with her inability to return to Japan, is  inevitably deferred. The ex-pat, continent-travelling of the bourgeois business world—as a purchaser, one constantly buys good, accumulating in a kind of endless quest for more accumulation, buying that which is vintage or that which is most modern and chic in a kind of surface play with history as commodity—skims the surface in a kind of parody of internationalism. Yet to return to Japan as housewife (or in a continuing import-export role) would be no less false than the loveless relationship with Bob. Alienated by the inadequacies of the couple form as solution to trauma, and without a politics to provide a broader collective narrative and material analysis, Naoko must, as she put it earlier, “walk throughout Europe […] until death”.


Of course, ‘Europe’ at the time the film was shot was hardly just a succession of tourist post-cards. In the countries where the film was shot, social democratic governments, Fascist dictatorships and the like all faced the push from the left in the now-totemic May Day protests. The film ends with the title ‘summer 1968’, and it’s implied that the student may have some connection to political radicalism—a French poster against the cops on the wall of an apartment. Yoshida would follow this film—the latest in a length series of what have become known as ‘anti-melodramas’ which, like Farewell, star his wife, actor Mariko Okada—with a trilogy on left-wing radicalism: Eros + Massacre, Heroic Purgatory, and Coup d’Etat a more explicit engagement with the entanglements of romance, eroticism and history in the complex and messy business of conceptualising new modes of social(ist)/anarchist relation and the violence imbricated with the attendant struggle for power. Here, however, little is spoken of politics or of a life outside the abstracted world of the tourist’s sojourn from the constraints of time, place and routine, the comforting alienation of wandering in a place where you don’t speak the language. This is precisely the point. The jet-setting role of the international bourgeoisie—whether in business or the intelligentsia—pretends to erase national distinctions (Americans in Paris, Japanese in Europe, Americans in Japan, and so on) in ways that only underscore the collaborative nature of international capital in conjunction (and occasional contradiction) with the racist nationalism of state power. The quests of both characters may displace the trauma of Nagasaki, yet their presence, as fellow Japanese in a world of Europeans, see them alienated from the trappings of European history and culture that so ostentatiously loom over the characters, and they cannot help but remind themselves of the land they’ve left behind. “It is always like that when I meet a Japanese abroad”, muses Naoko in the voiceover describing their first meeting. “Me, I am Japanese without being Japanese.” “You seemed so deeply to appreciate this conversation in Japanese”, Makoto responds. “No, to escape my own appearance, I started a disjointed conversation”. It’s perhaps too easy to read this ‘disjointed conversation’ as a formal analogue for the film itself—whether that conversation be between the protagonists, between Europe and Japan, past and present, the intimacies of human romantic relation and the abstractions of historical artefacts. Yoshida notes that the voiceover in part arose from working methods—the entire film was shot with a five person crew (Yoshida, the two actors, and two technicians, along with local assistance), as a mobile unit moving across the seven countries where the film was shot with only the briefest skeleton of a scenario, improvising with location, action and dialogue as they went (and in that sense enacting the constant, yet desultory movement of the scenario itself). Overlaying so much of the film in Duras-like dialogic voiceover may emphasize the ‘interiors’, the inner voices of the characters—an impossible dialogue of all that lies unspoken—but at the same time, even here, much lies unspoken. The ways of repression run deep; what’s spoken even in thought is carefully composed, arranged, full of hints and suggestions, and sometimes, of sudden revelations, but too invested in self-protection to fully vent what lies beneath.


Monday 10 August 2020

"Airpower coming out of my mouth": Candace Hill

Candace Hill, Muss Sill (London: Distance No Object, 2020)

Just out from London-based small press Distance No Object, this 67-page volume has, over the past few days, provided some welcome flickers of light in early August’s pandemicked heatwave. Hill is best known as an artist working in photography, mixed-media collage, and watercolor—her painting ‘The N.Y. Pigeon’ stands as front-cover sentinel. Though she’s previously worked with words as part of images, this is her first collection of stand-alone poems. But it doesn’t easily fit the paradigm of artist’s book, book by artist, studio journal, manifesto. Hill instead more closely resembles—in level of focus, if not the work itself—artist-poets like Etel Adnan, for whom the disciplines of art and poetry are not subsidiary to each other, nor mirror reflections, but equally-weighted paths of investigation. The poems are ‘stand-alone’ in being purely textually based: but they also ‘stand alone in their distinctiveness. Theyre poems that fit most every definition of ‘unique’, ‘individual’, ‘not like any other’: at the same time, they rarely rest for any authority on the originating or binding consciousness of the mind’s I that spawns their strings of creative association. That’s to say, they sound like nothing but their (multiple) selves. Sometimes ecstatically beside themselves, sometimes in the position of the sardonic observer standing to the side, the poems are clearly the product of a very particular, very individual linguistic consciousness: they reflect a very specific way of seeing, hearing or speaking the world in words that’s unlike other, more familiar ways of seeing, hearing, or speaking the world; that, in the dictionary definition of idiolect, manifests “the speech habits peculiar to a particular person”—a condition after all, that governs the productive tensions of speech itself.


It’s like this: “ ‘She nodded’. Whoever she is. Move the huh huh huh / Huh’s in”. As a whole, the book is a sometimes frenetically overlapping ensemble of shorter pieces, anything from a few lines to a few pages in length, perhaps best appreciated through its parts rather than its sum. After several read-throughs, I’ve found that they have their fullest effect when taken in small doses. Chorically chaotic, a swarm of sounds, impressions, senses, noises, flashing insights, fast and lively, it can be hard to keep up, and zooming in on a few pages at a time helps to elucidate their workings with greater richness. When sampled this way, it’s all the more readily apparent how these poems dance with a slapstick precision; how they fizz with the sheer delight of language, the sonic preponderances that are poetry’s particular unbounded domain; how they zip and pop with a delight in the mysteriously material mechanics of language, spectrally earthy, morphing on the tip of a poised tongue. This is not poetry which will do what you want or expect it to do, but in its quick-linking, jump-cutting double-takes, it whirligigs everything that comes into its path—including that individually generalised figure, ‘the reader’, shaken and delighted by its pun-riven audacity.


For all their individuality, Hill’s poems operate in a tradition of African American experimental poetry—that territory critics like Aldon Nielsen have so painstakingly tried to bring into the consciousness of a literary-historical model that almost entirely ignores them. Gertrude Stein may or may not have met Langston Hughes, as the book’s preface notes (recall Hughes’ audacious political reading of Stein’s statements in the context of US race prejudice and imperial practice, written in 1949), but Tom Postell saw her on the Down Town El to New York City (in the first edition of Yugen) and Harryette Mullen trimmed her into the shape-shifting free-play constraints of her prose-poetic frames. Langston Hughes gets name-checked a number of times across these poems, though he doesn’t sound very much like anything you’d hear here; Hill’s delight in puns is, however, very much in the vein of Julie Ezelle Patton or Russell Atkins or Julia Fields or Elouise Loftin or Lloyd Addison, and their practice of what Patton dubs “phonemenology”.

In Hill’s case, this approach means that within the space of a single line you might find—to pick an example at random—Marie Curie and Nat Turner jostling for space, as the poem seems to construct a discourse on racialised divide-and-conquer strategies of artworld curation: “Lets rate hate hate hate curate hate hate hate / madam Curie mate Nat Turner hate hate hate curate”. (The next lines spin through Shakespeare, St Francis of Assisi and (possibly) Louis Armstrong-style scat and the 1938, Sabu-starring imperialist vehicle The Drum: keeping up with the trains of association enough to construct a summary would be a fool’s errand.) Let’s say that these poems are something like Coltrane’s sheets of sound, perhaps (exploring every single permutation, every harmonic implication of a particular phrasal or chordal structure, both directions at once), or the pleasure of recognition and defamiliarisation in hip-hop’s multiple samples, a plunderphonic spree in curlicued rhapsodic stutter (the kind of stutter that’s the subject of a poem that muses on the mooring and unmooring, the tethering and untethering of ‘poem’ to ‘meaning’). This process can be both exhilarating and vertiginously risky: the fast breath of ecstasy a split second from the asphyxiating hyper-ventilations of anxiety attack.


Um um um um

Stutter stutter stutter

Omission of jay words

Grunts my incomplete sentencers

Er er failure


The book’s preface suggests as another frame of reference scrolling or rolling news and all the contemporary old/new catastrophes that implies—that out-of-time contemporaneity that time operates in the news’ cycles of the catastrophically unstoppable ever-same — “oh wait it’s 2016”. But there’s material heft, grit, graft, that knottily resists digital simulacra even as it engages with/in its frames: the wastage and resistance of the material that, even in rotting, serves as remainder and reminder of histories those news narratives would rather forget— imprisonment, death, racialised violence and patriarchal power. “Wrongful imprisonment can you hear me up / In damn Antarctica touching freedoms”, begins a poem in which the figures of chairs, walls and livelihoods take place within claustrophobic sculptures that run from the plight of miserable children to the general condition of carceral capitalism, where “nails run / down jailers’ wall’d victory”. But this is also—as a necessity of survival—the realm of those inventive responses that circumvent the given frame. The poem ends on a combination of bitter irony and tentative affirmation:


[…] Slip up on a Motown riffty kinda day yes will win

Stay sporadic & still be gay prayful as we sit

In modernised Jim Crow hay.


In such conditions, there’s no such thing as originality—language as virus or Martian, as the colonial language of the enemy, the linguistic cleansing of class-based grammatical control, a condition of being ‘seized’, from the hold to the cell, the ship to the tower-block, that (re)collects with precious little tranquillity.


Think about jest or originality do you know a mess

it’s close to cunning collected language

What will the will to do do

will the me in me seizure plate.


Collection plates, collected poems, the unchanging will to change, these phrases haunt these lines that are jokes or gestures or death’s jest-book. Yet more often than not—as in that “Motown riffty kinda day”, the poems manage to inhabit a resonant space of conviviality accessed above all through music. Jazz in particular forms an aural soundscape in which the poems can breathe, as Ben Webster free associates into Illinois Jacquet; Jean-Michel Basquiat, famed for painting to bebop, pays a cameo visit; Mal Waldron suddenly turns up in the middle of a seafood cookbook recipe; Billie Holiday’s arm directs an orchestra, suddenly clarifying in a single gesture some particularly bewildering preceding lines, like a couplet’s open closure. This is not musical poetry because it references or describes music; rather it is, in a way, music in itself. Driven insistently, even obsessively by sound, syllables tumbling after each other in a vowel-driven string of association. 

Hill also delights in visual puns—seemingly misplaced apostrophes that radically call into question the English languages orientation towards property/possession; the use of numerical abbreviations (‘2’, ‘4’) from the early days of SMS messaging turning into numbered lists, or parodies of lists, ways of enumerating relation that form a non-totalising total, a fractiously equalised sum. It would be lazy to read any of the poems as manifesti, as analogous to art practice—this book is notable precisely for not fitting that traditional model of the artist who dabbles in poetry as a kind of testing ground for ideas more fully realised in their art. Rather, the practice of making visual art exists alongside, say, listening to music, going on dates, or cooking seafood. Such practice is most obviously present in the collection’s penultimate, and longest text, a prose poem in 4 sections called ‘Not to Worry’. “Representational painting isn’t much my thing (except the window / thang slidin’) not showing”, writes Hill, suggesting the need to avoid too easy a mimetic switch or slip in the way we think about art: “mix the paint tip the brush standing in for vibes”. In the third section of the poem, Hill asks “Why not write about the inside of creation”. For someone who works with externals, the visual, in another medium (language) that supposedly acts as conduit between interior and exterior, Hill would prefer to wobble that tightrope in delirious pleasure, operating on paradox, wit, and nerve: “Completes compositional destructively / Uncivilly proportionally”. There’s power in play, in pleasure reclamation and yet a reckoning with “forgetting’s bloodletting”: such “bodacious intelligence” may approach the infantile (“dirt do doodles shit’s”; “this is an unryhmed poem an anecdotal / Hammertime individual a winning poo poo reaction”) but it’s a serious embodiment of thought and thought of embodiment that provides material to pore over for days, struck each time by the stringent delirium of invention, laughing out loud at the audacity of a string of puns like a string of pearls sliding all over the floor. 

The book's back cover to the book presents us with an (invented) dictionary definition which explains its odd title. “Muss sill” is said to be “the underlying brown mess small flowers make having been left too long without adding fresh water or rotating in any porous receptacle; the window sill dust over time when left wanting”. Flip to the legit dictionary and muss is a 19th century variant on ‘mess’, a state of disorder, or more often a verb of messing something up, generally with affection—mussing (up) someone’s hair, say. A window (“the window / thang slidin”), opening and closing; the sill an edge on top of an edge, a link between exterior and interior, “the inside of creation”, where “want” and mess, decay and rot nonetheless create possibility, fertilisation, flowers from the shit. At the end of the long prose poem, the poet catches themselves burning food, having left the flowers to rot, and it feels glorious: 

After-all I left corn on grill under candles muss sill

all day sure’s you born still feels good. 

Indeed it does.