Wednesday, March 02, 2005

From the Sontag Selects series

The late Susan Sontag, like all astute intellectuals, adored classic Japanese cinema. She programmed two series of classic Japanese movies in the last two years, the second of which has arrived in Los Angeles. A few capsules:

Pigs and Battleships (Imamura, 1961) B+/B

Before Bruno Dumont put homo sapiens up in cages and primed the species for dissection, cinema's foremost zoologist was (and is, I suppose) Shohei Imamura. This awesomely titled picture, one of Imamura's earliest films, is very typical of his (considerably more limited) 60s stuff. In stunning b & w scope, Imamura shows humanity at its most base. It's life lived in the "lower orders" -- peasants who live by instinct and are concerned only with eating, sex, and idleness, preferably in the most vulgar ways -- in diametric opposition to his sensei Ozu's focus on middle class society and its manners. Pigs works in an extended metaphor between the gangsters who run a hog operation and the pig themselves, making the point that parasitic Japanese lives are no better than pigs in a pen. Exceptionally pungent, and filled with astonishing scenes, especially that climax with pigs overrunning the town, if not altogether coherent (Imamura's never been a good storyteller) -- the best part of the movie is the setting. Set in a Japanese town catering to an American naval base in Japan, Imamura views the Japanese there as leeches, either whores selling themselves out to Americans or, worse, two-bit hoods who are good for nothing except squeezing Japanese parasites for some dough -- the bloodsuckers of mosquitos. This movie is ultimately about that most compelling of themes: the community as prison, from which one must escape or die.

(Naruse, 1951)A-

If all you've seen from Ozu are Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and
An Autumn Afternoon, from Mizoguchi only Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, and Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, and from Kurosawa only High and Low, Yojimbo and Seven Samurai, you'd have this impression that each is an unassailable master of the art. A more complete survey will confirm each master's greatness while at the same time reveal certain weaknesses that become more prominent in each director's less successful efforts such as Early Spring, Life of Oharu, and Red Beard respectively. I'm hesitant based on the three well-regarded Naruses I've seen to call him the equal of those lionized Japanese masters. But if Naruse can't be placed in the Pantheon just yet, he's surely quite close to heaven. Repast is, like the other two Naruses I've seen, a spectacularly unspectacular film. The style is classical, unobtrusive. The story, about a married couple facing 5-year relationship crisis, rather ordinary. Just the same, the movie's as compelling as anything by the great masters. As in Late Chryanthemums and Floating Clouds, Naruse here creates an ardently materialist world where the social pressure for money acts like a vise to the head, threatening to break up Setsuko Hara from her weak husband. Hara, never more lovely, gives one her greatest performances here; as in Early Summer, she hides a forceful yen for freedom behind her polite, practiced smile. But here she has a greater range of emotions than I've ever seen from her: strong-willed yet self-doubting, forceful yet a bit opaque, cheerful yet spiteful (has Setsuko ever shown as much disdain as she does here, especially towards the flirty niece?). Hara plays a woman with a more active inner life than any character I've seen from that period (and a direct contrast with another virtuoso performance from a Naruse picture, the force-of-nature heroine played by Hideko Takamine in Floating Clouds) -- it's an eye-opening performance. As for the film, minor epiphanies are reached, but Naruse, the most unsentimental of the masters, closes the proceedings on an ironic note. For Naruse, the central theme is clear: for women, marriage is a prison from which there is no escape.

The Love of Sumako the Actress (Mizoguchi, 1947) C+

I wonder if Mizoguchi lost a bet and was forced by his creditor to put his camera ten feet further back than he wanted. In this perversely stylized film, Mizoguchi will shoot theatrical scenes from the very back row, often from behind spectators' heads, so that the spectacle of Kinuya Tanaka doing Ibsen is but a speckle on the screen. If this film weren't so obscure and minor, I'd guess that Jia Zhangke and Hou Hsiao-hsien furiously took down screening notes. This is Mizoguchi's master-shot scroll-painting style at its most severe, which at the same time doesn't undercut the hyper-melodramatic story so much as neuter the emotions. Tanaka's reputed to have given a great performance as legendary actress Sumako, but from my nosebleed seats I might as well have been watching U2 from the Dodger Stadium parking lot. Worse than even Life of Oharu, there remain some beautiful and moving moments that touch on Mizoguchi's favorite theme: society as a prison for women from which there is no escape.

Others playing in this series, seen previously:

High and Low (Kurosawa, 1963) A

My favorite Kurosawa and among the very best of its genre.

Fires on the Plain (Ichikawa, 1959) A

My favorite Ichikawa and among the very best of its genre.

Might see on Friday: Drunken Angel.