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. 

Sunday 11 October 2020

“What would have been a film”: 'Le Camion' (1977, dir. Marguerite Duras)

All of Duras’ films are in some senses about the impossibility of making films; about trying to make the impossible film; about taking apart a medium felt to be at once incompatible with and an ideal medium for a particular approach to writing, narrating and speaking. As she writes/speaks in the late book/film ‘Writing’ (1993): 

One should be able to make a certain film. A film of insistence, flashbacks, new beginnings. and then abandon it. And also film that abandonment. But not one will do it, we already know this […] Because this would be the film of the mad, unattainable idea, a film about the literature of living death.

As ever, Duras insists on separating and simplifying the strands that go into the normative idea of a film: scenario, plot, dialogue, narrative, characterisation, the creation of temporal and spatial continuity through editing, the self-contained world. In each of her films, this is accomplished in different ways; a different recombination of elements, building blocks rearranged with the overall structure that is the film: a combination of moving pictures, sound and dialogue which lasts for a set period of time, bracketed by opening and closing credits. In India Song (1975), the entirely non-diegetic soundtrack severs one link on which the sound film—and to an extent, the silent film—rests: that between the visible movement of lips and uttering of speech and its sounding (or the intertitles that accomplished the same function at an anticipatory delay in the silent era). This cut between the seen and the sounded, one in which the sense of re-enactment, dramatization and the like is retained through the silent tableaux of actors who recreate some of the social situations described on the soundtrack in glacial, frozen poses, is heightened in India Song's 'sequel', Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), in which the same soundtrack instead unfolds over landscapes entirely devoid of actors, of people. Images, though, are central in both films: in L’Homme Atlantique (1978), images themselves almost disappear, an almost entirely blank screen over which we hear Durasian speech removing, not only the connection between the sounded and the visual, but the visual element per se.

Le Camion is somewhere between these two extremes, the relationship between film and narrative severed—or alternatively reinforced. Duras reads a script to Gerard Depardieu in her house. The script describes the scenario for an imaginary film in which a woman hitches a ride on a truck by the sea and launches into a monologue—with occasional interdictions, responses, questions from the (male) driver—sometimes closing her eyes and launching into song, observing the landscape (apparently inaccurately), hinting at stories, providing vague hints of a family connection (the birth of her daughter’s child), a love affair, her disillusionment with the present state of Marxist politics, the complicity of the proletariat’s official representatives with those of the power structure they ostensibly seek to overthrow, leaving only the possibility of ‘ruin’ ("Let the world go to its ruin, that's the only form of politics"). Duras describes this scenario in the conditional tense—this is what she would have said if we had made this film—yet this description is itself scripted, everything under a tight control belying the vagueness, the dissolution, the aimlessness imparted by dialogue and scenario. Depardieu’s questions seem, too, to be scripted, his and Duras’ eyes fleeting downwards to the pages of script they hold even when the dialogue appears spontaneous. They are not playing the female passenger and the male driver, but of course they cannot not be read as analogues. As in ‘Le Navire Night’ (1979), in which the focus on settings, costumes, the process of make-up, are disconnected from any dramatized acting of the scenarios described, film becomes a record of narration rather than an embodiment of what’s narrated; but as one critic points out, perhaps this makes ‘Le Camion’ more truly a ‘narrative film’ than any conventional film narrative.

The film cuts between Duras and Depardieu, filmed in one setting in the day, in another at dusk; between shots, filmed from a moving vehicle, of the landscape—factories, lorry parks, the edges of towns constituting neither the urban built environment nor the rural; spaces of transport and passage—and shots of the titular blue lorry travelling through it, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations intermittently coming and going as if on the truck’s radio. Beethoven’s grand cycle of 33 pieces departs from a melody by publisher-composer Anton Diabelli, who’d commissioned the leading European composers to write variations on his waltz theme, both as an exercise in vanity and a charitable enterprise for families affected by the Napoleonic wars. In these variations, the original theme, characterised by the simplicity of its repeated musical sequences, its ‘melodic neutrality’ (Hans von Bulow’s phrase), is taken apart from its smallest elements outwards and turned into a display of virtuosity, complexity, variant texture and mood, in a process often read as a kind of satire or parody on the drab and thin material it extends to other realms. Alfred Brendel: “The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted.” Writing on Ivor Levit’s recent recording of the piece, a critic describes this principle of variation as “identifying with the particular musical situation and at the same time maintaining his distance from it”. The piece itself is not mentioned in the film, unlike the now (semi-)famous waltz by Carlos D'Alessio that haunts ‘India Song’, or the less well-known pan-flute melody that equally haunts ‘Baxter, Vera Baxter’—both sounds which could well be said to imagine diegetically from what we see onscreen, even in the radically discontinuous non-diegesis of the ‘India Song’ soundtrack, recorded before shooting, to emerge from the traces of a social milieu in which sound spills over and signifies classed anxieties, doubts, desires, proximities. D'Alessio's pieces are characterised precisely by their simplicity, their incessant repetition: these are not extend 'works', but 'pieces', morceaux, fragments entire in themselves, the opposite of grand structures. Here, the Diabelli Variations' grandeur, its variations on a theme, the parodic play between distance and identification built into its structure and the circumstances of its composition, are subject to further 'variation', heard only in fragments--sometimes alone on the soundtrack, sometimes as an undertone beneath voiceover--fitting Le Camion’s own distances between what’s described, what’s seen, what’s spoken and unspoken. In a film that--as we'll see--is in large part to do with political despondency, Beethoven may be invoked for his association with the revolutionary hopes associated with art—as he is in Fredric Rzeswki’s ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, written two years before Duras’ film, and using the model of the Diabelli Variations to spin a bravura fantasy on the Chilean revolutionary song, on the political movement/s of peoples and nations, of the possibility of, first Eurocentric, then ‘Third World’ universalism. In Duras, though, perhaps what wins out is parody—the distance between technique and melodic core, between idea and execution, between the cohesiveness of the large-scale concert work based on a single theme and the elliptical nature of the fragmentary variation form. Or perhaps to do so would be to over-read detail, in a film at once so sparse and, in its ambiguity, seemingly freighted with an easily-missed significance in every aspect. 

Duras notes in her script that the film could be shot in various different locales—all of them outside the metropolitan centre, through-spaces, neglected spaces, a ‘land of migrants’. As such, they destabilise notions of national belonging, of the power relations read into landscape, while suggesting the fate of the economic periphery, that which is to the side of dominant narratives, albeit in a manner far removed from the conventional representational framings of social realism, cinema verité, and the like. When we see these landscapes, we might think, if not of cinema verité, of the social critique imparted through landscape film in Masao Adachi’s theory of ‘fukeiron’, in which “all the landscapes one faces in one’s daily life, even those such as the beautiful sites shown on a postcard, are essentially related to the figure of a ruling power”; of his 1969 film A.K.A. Serial Killer in particular. At this point in the 1970s, Adachi’s work, or at least his theories, would presumably have been known to Duras through left-wing and filmmaking circles, but overshadowed and supplanted by Adachi’s own disappearance from filmmaking and exile in Lebanon as part of the Japanese Red Army. Perhaps more likely, we think of James Benning; not yet occupying his position as a prime filmmaker of landscape, Benning’s and Bette Gordon’s United States of America had nonetheless been released two years before Le Camion, with its single moving camera shot as two protagonists—a man and a woman—driving across the States; or Barbara Loden’s Wanda, in which driving, and the female-passenger, male-driver relationship, becomes index of power and passivity. Later, the wanderings of Varda’s Vagabond amplify the sense of being outside social structures, on the edge of towns, between urban and rural, with the road as conduit for a journey without destination. In all these films, the relations between gendered power dynamics, transport, travel and landscape are inscribed into the very (narrative) texture of the film. In A.K.A. Serial Killer, Adachi’s misogynist serial killer, his repression and hatred emerging from the social structures we see, not as a kin of disembodied ideology, but inscribed into the very physical structures in which he lives and moods: structures which the film hopes it can re-train us to read, train us to re-read, not as neutral backdrop but as an open book of domination and violence. Loden’s, meanwhile, is an exploration of safety-in-domination, passivity-in-violence, the role of the accomplice, the subjugated, the drifting.

At the same time, Duras’ insistent return to the static, interior scene of reading—the scenes with Depardieu occupy at least as much screen time as the footage of and from the lorry—prevents these resonances of the ‘road movie’ – as quintessentially American or pseudo-American import (think Wim Wenders). Here is none of the fetishization of vehicles, the potentials of travel or escape found in the road movie as latter day cowboy movie, nor as obvious a diagnostic of gendered power and domination as found in Adachi or Loden. The film feels at once specific and non-specific: in one shot, the camera sweeps round the cabin of the parked lorry—described in the script as both prison and safe house—with a combination of clinical precision and vagueness. The camera seems too big to move comfortably around the space, we see few details that indicate that someone has actually been inside. It feels too antiseptic, too uninhabited, too clean. In Duras’ script, the room in which the reading takes place—curtains shut in day, with a light on inside to create a ‘dark room’; or curtains open to the night, with the film light outside visible in the reflection—becomes analogous to the lorry’s cabin and again in turn to a photographic dark room; all three keeping out a kind of unbearable or sinister light from outside--a door suddenly opened on a darkroom, destroying the image developing within--which nonetheless constitutes its very conditions of possibility. 

I feel as though you and I, too, are threatened by the same light that they are frightened of; the fear that all of a sudden the lorry’s cab, this darkroom, may be flooded by a stream of light, you see…The fear of a catastrophe: political intelligence.

Is this fear the fear of political intelligence, or is this fear political intelligence in itself? What might this catastrophe be, insulated but constantly on the move? Is this even all an extended metaphor for the ‘fellow traveller’?

For the film's 'exterior' shots--which, as that dialogue might indicate, are always poised delicately between exterior and interior--we view the lorry from the outside, seen from a distance, the shots too brief and spatially ambiguous to give much sense of where the vehicle's come from or where it's going. Alternatively, in the ‘landscape’ shots filmed from within it, the lorry becomes merely a floating conduit, its apparently directionless motion emblematised in a scene in which it drives around a roundabout twice for seemingly no reason. As the lorry passes various built structures, the woman remarks that people used to live on these sites—you’re lying replies the driver—I’m lying, she admits. But of course people do live here; this is not a ruined landscape, an ‘end of the world’ (as she describes the sea). To be sure, aside from a brief shot of children by the roadside in the roundabout ‘scene’, these roads and roadsides are devoid of people, the dwellings they pass crumbling or half-built, spaces of potential or aftermath, spaces of passage rather than certainty. The driver doesn’t know what packages he’s delivering or where he’s delivering to; the woman doesn’t know where she’s going—perhaps back to the sea from where she came—the journey doesn’t seem to stop or end. But people do live here, here in the Yvelines region; immigrant families, like those families who are the focus of Duras’ later novel ‘Summer Rain’; those who are not ‘integrated’ into the fabric of the dominant order, those to whom the ‘social contract’ is barely extended or not at all. These, no doubt, are the people we see at the side of the world—those who inhabit spaces which, to those who pass through them, are liminal, transitory, excluded from any rhetoric of ‘dwelling’ or ‘belonging’. 

If the passenger’s disillusion with Marxism appears close to the familiar left melancholy born out of—or bearing—cynicism and despair from the comfortably sad, sadly comfortable vantage of its own beautiful rooms and antique furniture, perhaps its disillusion with (one presumes) an official Communist Party line might derive from the historical failure of that line to encompass the experience of those marginalised, those by the roadside, those not justified, glorified, given their historical place as subject-objects of history within the ranks of and by the name of ‘proletariat’. This view, in which race, nationality and gender are divisive modes of subsidiary otherness detracting from the predominant struggle, refuses that which Duras names in ‘Writing’ as “coexistence with humans, with colonised populations, with the fabulous mass of strangers in the world, of people along, of universal solitude”; as “planetary death, proletarian death”. For Duras in ‘Writing’, the smallest detail—in this case, the slow death of a fly which she happens to witness—connects to the crises of war and death, “these mountains of war on earth”—or, as the woman suddenly cries out in Le Camion (in what’s also a kind of ironic self-reference to Duras’ most famous cinematic contribution, the screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour), “Hiroshima!” The PCF son-in-law's reluctance to name his non-Jewish son 'Abraham' for fear of inciting a pogrom; Stalinist anti-Semitism; the scriptural Abraham’s own nomadic wandering, poised between an abandonment of social context and myths of nation-building and identity-formation; the sea as the figure of departure and arrival, in betweenness, mist, coasts, borders, the switches and ambiguities of power.

“Is it a film?” asks Depardieu at the very beginning of this film, reading from a script he was seeing for the first time. “It would have been a film”, replies Duras, reading from the script she’s written. And then: “Yes, it’s a film”. Perhaps we might draw that film that "would have been a film"—yet which, in its rehearsal, retelling, conjectural description, is a film—into the orbit of Duras' conception of revolution, of a non-derailed, non-betrayed communism that refuses compromises with the established order, those compromises Duras describes as a bargain between capitalism and socialism, resulting “the infinite delay of any free revolution”: 1956—“the clowns on the tanks, entering Prague”—1968—a time of promise returned again to compromise and defeat; the Party as patriarchal structure (the male driver accusing the unattached, middle-aged, unfixed woman, who can’t be interpellated in terms of sexuality, desire or attachment to the familial structure, of being, first, a reactionary, and then a ‘madwoman’ escaped from a psychiatric hospital); yet a certain turn towards a pragmatic politics (in Duras’ continued endorsement of Mitterand, based in part on their shared past in the Resistance) which might well be accused of exactly the same compromises—those between socialism and capitalism—with which Duras (rightly) accuses Stalinism. The passenger, in her apparent lack of attachment to existing systems of social conscription, is not an ideal, utopian figure—the impossible fulfilment of that which exists as contradiction, the material affects of power, class struggle, patriarchy, silencing, the nothingness of sound and fury, in the realm of the impossible film. Her—and the film’s--'aimless', 'banal' mobility (Duras’ own terms) are not escape, but a kind of fugitive moving within entrapment, encampment, an endless negotiation of power, of the frames—filmed, written, spoken, gendered, politicised—within which one can speak.

“Several explanations would have been possible”.