September 8, 2009


Goodbye, summer. The heat dissipates and a nostalgic sadness creeps into my mood. Call it the ghost of “back to school” blues, the end of youthful freedom. My adult self is staunchly anti-summer, averse to damp undershirts and the fetid stench of perspiring garbage piles. So outwardly I celebrate the great cooling-off, no longer having to hear the words “weekend getaway” or feign interest in another’s banal sunbathing/soaking/tanning plans. But there’s an insistent twinge in the human part of my heart, a vestigial sense of loss that the good times are over, it’s time to get back to work. I try to ignore it, but I might as well admit it’s there. As with most things regarding people and their damned emotions, Yasujiro Ozu has a lot to say.

So in honor of the season, I cracked open the cases of I Was Born But… and The End of Summer (both available in Criterion’s Eclipse line of DVDs). The first, a silent from 1932, is a salve for the schoolkid in me, detailing the illusions and pranks of two young brothers as they try to mesh in their new suburban home. The latter, from 1961 (his penultimate film), is for the sentimental old coot I’m prematurely becoming, a story about a childlike father and his stumblingly mature sons and daughters. The former is set in the beginning of the school year, the latter, well, read the title. An arbitrary start and end, 29 years apart.


I Was Born But… starts in a rut. Specifically, it’s a wheel spinning in mud on a country road. Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara) and Keiji (Tomio Aoki) are with their salaryman father Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito), riding to their new home in a moving truck. After some fruitless spins in the dirt, there is a cut to Yoshii looking perplexed, instantly associated with stasis and weakness. His kids stare at him with suspicion. Then Yoshii tells them he’s off to visit his boss, and sends them on home with the driver, ambling off frame left in the sparse, electrical-post lined landscape. In these opening three minutes, Ozu sets up the themes that thread themselves throughout the rest of the feature. There is the move to the country, and the upheaval that will cause in the children’s lives. Then there is the conflict between father and sons, as the boys become increasingly aware of their father’s less than illustrious station in life, including his need to kowtow to his superior. The economy of expression here is astonishing.

But what I’m concerned with here is the bereft look on the kids’ faces as they approach school. The end of summer for Ryoichi and Keiji means the end of their previous lives. Now they have to adapt to the weird new suburban kids, with their own rituals and games. Keiji starts annoying people straight off, initiating a gang war with his transcendent oddness. Aoki’s  performance, filled with testicular scratches and exaggerated mugging, is probably the most entertaining child performance I’ve ever seen. His taunt (seen to the left) as he leaves his tiny antagonizers is a move of balletic slapstick.

He’s moving too, as he apes Sugawara’s every move in their tantrums. He’s always a step behind his brother, but his loyalties are ironclad (unless a rice ball shows up). These pantomimes of his reminded me of my lapdog relationship with my older brother. I camped out by his side and honed my interests to match his, whether it was spending hours pricing baseball cards or constructing a basement city (called Hudsonville), I strived to meet his approval at every turn. I always attempted to maintain a facade of independence with subtle variants, as we grew older he liked Pearl Jam, I chose Nirvana. He liked Metallica, I listened to Megadeth. Keiji doesn’t even attempt to mount even that minute kind of differentiation. He is Ryoichi’s disreputable mirror. Where Ryoichi is stern and commanding, Keiji is disheveled and confused (there is always a bit of white dress shirt sticking out of his fly). But they act as trusted confidants and pranksters, sharing a hive mind of youthful rebelliousness. Their faux-pouting stare as their parents try to ease them out of a funk (brought on by their father’s obvious lack of status) is both heartrending and hilarious. They are being brutally awoken to the inequalities in the world, but they carry it with impish humor, a quality one hopes they carry into old age.

If Keiji grew up and had a family, he probably would have turned out a little like Manbei Kohayagawa (Ganjiro Nakamura), the playful patriarch in The End of Summer. Manbei is a widower who is attempting to marry off his remaining single daughters, Akiko (Setsuko Hara) and Noriko (Yoko Tsukasa). He’s a gregarious sake brewery owner with active eyebrows, who has recently re-ignited a relationship with an old mistress in Kyoto.  The repeated refrain of his children is, “I wish he would act his age.” But what does that mean, exactly?

This childhood-in-adulthood aspect of the film is dealt with throughout, variously treated as a defect and a blessing, a reflection of happiness and selfishness. Ozu never chooses one side of these contradictions, but lets Manbei loose in all his irresponsibly engaging glory. He prances along, alienating and bewitching his children and mistress in equal measure. Nakamura plays him with a similar mischievousness as Aoki’s Keiji, playing endless rounds of hide and seek with his grandson before sneaking out to a rendez-vous at a race track.

In a conversation with Noriko, Akiko echoes the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog (made famous (for me) in Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin) by saying that it’s possible to change a man’s actions, but never his character. This statement echoes throughout the film, rendering any attempt to “change” this old coot as absurd. This aging Keiji is disreputable, perhaps, but chasing happiness with seemingly more energy than his concerned children. Akiko and Noriko are the only other two characters with designs on a free life. Setsuko Hara, Ozu’s greatest actress, radiates a self-assured wisdom, completely secure in her widowhood and unwilling to sacrifice her life for the sake of a cow-loving, Ralph Bellamy-type husband.


Circling around these characters though is a motif of smoke, a symbol of dissipation eventually awaiting all of these characters. At this point in his career, Ozu has settled into his serene late style, with low-angle framings and little camera movement. It’s startlingly different from the fluidity of I Was Born But…, which includes witty tracking shots matching a line-up of schoolkids with yawning office workers, but his images are still layered with action. These images of smoke originally seem incidental, as in the shot heading this post. The incense in the foreground is only one aspect of the family home. But its unobtrusive presence slowly accretes meaning, its insubstantial wisps a growing reminder of the body’s slow demise, and the flimsiness of our everyday complaints. Ozu frames it in his famous “pillow shots”, framings held after characters leave the screen, empty rooms with traces of a human presence. Then the smoke billows around Manbei’s body, his final lament, “Is this it? Is this really it?’ shooting up the chimney.


June 9, 2009

The problem of the young cinephile: what to see next? Growing up in movie-thin Buffalo, I had to consult the oracles: movie critics in bigger cities. Then there was the winnowing process – who to trust and who to ignore? Once I locked in on a kindred spirit, I followed in lockstep with their viewing and reading recommendations. Soon a whole network of informed writers radiated from my admiration of one critic, and opened up whole new vistas of learning. For me, that critic was Jonathan Rosenbaum, formerly of the Chicago Reader. Sure, I also gobbled up the words of J. Hoberman at the Village Voice, but Rosenbaum had a combative skepticism that suited my own tastes of the time, and I eagerly anticipated his work every week. His enthusiasms also led me to the work of Manny Farber, Joe Dante, Jacques Rivette, and a whole host of others.

Why the reminiscing? Well, the enigmatically named MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image started a meme on his site, listing the ten film books that left the greatest impression on him. He encouraged other film bloggers to do the same, and it’s been all over the internet this past week. I noticed it first at Glenn Kenny’s Some Came Running. Below the fold is my contribution, all of them determining factors towards my questionable taste.

1. The Chicago Reader‘s Brief Reviews Archive: Admittedly, this is cheating, but ever since I discovered this vast trove of critical nuggets from Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr, I’ve considered it my go-to reference book, despite its mere virtual existence. With the click of my sweaty fingers, I could read the concise and informed opinion of my two favorite writers on just about any cinematic subject at hand. Need a recommendation for an upcoming pre-code series? Hmm…Me and My Gal was Manny Farber’s favorite Raoul Walsh, sez Rosenbaum, and that it’s “A small picture, but an ecstatic one.” Sold!  I’ve consulted the site more than anything bound in pulp, and I daresay I’m the better for it.

2. Negative Space, by Manny Farber (1971, 1999): See, film critics can be great writers! Just read Negative Space, the only published collection of Farber’s work. His dense, allusive prose takes as much time to unpack as some of the films he adores (Scarface, Me and My Gal, Wavelength), and goshdarnit if he doesn’t have a cantakerously careening essay on Howard Hawks. On Scarface, and also not a bad description of his writing: “The image seems unique because of its moody energy: it is a movie of quick-moving actions, inner tension, and more angularity per inch of screen than any street film in history.”  (and is Amazon lying to me or is this out of print? A tragedy, if so, despite its Kindle availability)


3. Howard Hawks, by Robin Wood (1981, 2006):  Of all the words I’ve consumed about Howard Hawks, these were the first and the most influential. His introduction to the 1981 edition told me that “the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ was too rigid”, and that Mozart worked for an audience as much as Hawks. His thematic breakdown of the work still holds up, as does his enthusiasm (also see his excellent recent monograph on Rio Bravo). I’ll also always agree with him on this point: “If I were asked to chose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo.”

4. A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson (1975-2002): If I could rewrite history, I would have told my youthful self to purchase Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema instead of this tome, but I can’t, so here we are. I’ve grown weary of Mr. Thomson and his inability to engage with contemporary cinema (see his lazy entries on Abbas Kiaorstami and Wes Anderson, for instance), but his elegant phrasing and embrace of Hawks (sensing a theme?) were definitely valuable, and it’s impossible to discount this book’s importance in shaping my young mind. The only thing that sticks with me from that book is his epic ode to Johnny Carson, both moving and mystifying for this Letterman-aged viewer.

5. This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich (1992, 1998): Before Hawks, Welles was my favorite – and where Hawks was tight-lipped, Welles was expansive. An incredibly entertaining romp through Welles’ astonishing career, with the added benefit of an exhaustive career chronology, an appendix of the scenes cut from The Magnificent Ambersons, and the memo Welles sent Universal with his suggested revisions to Touch of Evil. A treasure trove of research material to please any budding Wellesian. Also plenty to throw back at those who say Welles declined after Citizen Kane, or similarly ill-informed gobbledygook.

6. Movie Mutations, by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, et. al. (2003): My most obscure choice introduced me to a number of young cinephiles, and clued me in to the vibrant journals Senses of Cinema Rougeand Cinema ScopeIt lent me a sense that I belonged to a community, not just a darkened living room. First published as a series of letters in the French magazine Trafic, it brought together Rosenbaum, Martin, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. These epistles were added together with a few essays on transnational cinematic exchanges: Jones on Tsai Ming-liang, Shigehiko Hasumi on Hawks (!), and an excellent tete-a-tete between Martin and James Naremore on academic film study (which I was about to enter). This volume was very prescient in regards to the bourgeoning online film community, and in a sense paved the way for my own modest entry into the online film conversation.

7. Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997): Another superb book of interviews from Bogdanovich, this time chatting with a gaggle of the greatest talents from Hollywood’s Golden Age, from Aldrich to Walsh (Hawks is included, of course). Rich with production minutae and backstage anecodotes, it’s an invaluable resource, and I find myself always coming back to it. My recent infatuation with Leo McCarey led me to it recently, and his reticence at discussing one of his masterpieces, Make Way for Tomorrow, is palpable and moving: “It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.”


8. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, by David Bordwell (1988): This is available for free as a PDF at the link provided, so download it now. Got it? OK, this is the most in-depth auteur study I’ve ever read, exhaustively covering Ozu’s style (his 360 degree use of space, low-angle camera, etc.) as well as the culture he came out of. Definitive in every sense, and essential for an understanding of one of the greats. I came to it while writing a forgotten paper on An Autumn Afternoon, and its erudition, depth, and breadth are staggering. Read his blog, too!

9. Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Bunuel, by Jose de la Colina & Tomas Perez Turrent (1986, 1992): Bunuel’s autiobiography, My Last Sigh, is phenomenal (I’ve never forgotten his poetic description of his lost sex drive), but the offhanded charm of this collection of interviews was too hard to resist. Full of important lessons, like, “Let’s put a little rum in our coffee like they do in Spanish country towns. It gives coffee a nice smell.”

10. Fun in a Chinese Laundry, by Josef von Sternberg (1965) & A Third Face, by Sam Fuller (2002): I cheated at the beginning, so it’s only appropriate I do so at the close. These cooly enigmatic (Sternberg) and riotously entertaining (Fuller) autobiographies are fascinating reflections of these directors respective artistic personalities. Von Sternberg is dry, ironic, and withholding: “The system of films can be a severe shock to anyone whose mind has made progress since childhood.” Fuller is blunt and hilarious: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.” Both revelatory in their own way.