Friday, September 15, 2017

Jean-Luc Godard: Archeological Morality: Excerpts from an Interview from 2016

An Interview with Jean-Luc Godard
by Dmitry Golotyuk and Antonina Derzhitskaya

9 Excerpts Translated Here by Craig Keller

originally published in the Russian revue Séance on 22 May 2016
translated for Débordements on 12 September 2017

The following are nine excerpts from a phenomenal interview by Golotyuk and Derzhitskaya which I've translated. This comes in anticipation of the projected 2018 release of Godard's newest feature, once called Tentative de bleu [Attempt in Blue], and then later titled Image et Parole (Papyrus), and now, apparently finally, titled Le livre d'image (Image et parole) [The Image-Book (Image et Parole)]. Enjoy.

[in which D: means Débordements (Golotyuk and Derzhitskaya) and JLG: means Jean-Luc Godard]



JLG: And there were some initial philosophical essays by Albert Camus — I was young, still, before the baccalauréat — that were called Le mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus] and that started with the phrase that, one time, I put into a film that was, I think, For Ever Mozart: “Suicide is the only truly serious problem.”

D: And in Notre musique too.

JLG: Maybe. Yeah, it’s phrases that are more citations. When all is said and done, they’re a part of me and I say them like I, myself, came up with them. [laughs]


D: And for new music used in your film — the recent recordings by Dobrinka Tabakova and Valentin Silvestrov — did Anne-Marie [Miéville] bring them to your attention?

JLG: No. That’s music sent to me by ECM. And from time to time, they speak to me. They regularly send me them, and at times I put parts of them in. Because afterwards, the whole thing with music-rights is easier with ECM than with others.

D: But you still have to pay them?

JLG: Ah oui, that, you have to pay. Like Eddie Constantine puts it in Allemagne neuf zéro: “Always loving, always suffering, always paying.”

D: So then, do you yourself listen to everything they send?

JLG: Not entirely. But at the time I’m making a film. Especially during editing. Suddenly I say: “Here, it would have to be a piece of music like this.” So, I look around. I try for the fact that this wouldn’t be a piece of accompaniment like in the American films, which is totally, totally unbearable. Even in Hitchcock’s films, the music is unbearable. For me at least.

D: On our part, we appreciate a great deal how you treat music — sound, in general. As musicians go, we think you’re a musician too.

JLG: No, because I’m not listening for myself. Maybe I listened a lot at one time, especially classical music, but later on, no. Later on, I never listened for myself — only when I’m looking for something: a sound that’s the equivalent of an image and that’s closer to the parole in a deep sense. Because the Americans and the Germans, they don’t have a word for “parole”. [The closest I could think of when I couldn’t sleep last night was: ‘pronouncement’; Uncas Blythe also suggests 'utterance'. –CK] They say: “Worte” or “words”. Even Hamlet says: “Words, words, words.” But there’s no word for “parole”. And la parole, I remember Malraux said (I put it once in a film, in For Ever Mozart... no, was that it?) — “When one hears one’s own voice...”


JLG: Mais oui, [Beethoven] saw the Emperor Napoléon when he was leaving for Russia. But all that, for me, even more than citations, is rather archeological remains. The film I’m in the middle of making, I call it... if it was a literary work, I’d call it “essai de morale archéologique”. But if one takes note of “essai”, the fact that it sounds very literary — so I’m just saying “morale archéologique”. And it’s pieces of film where we look for… Like, I don’t know if you know these two Italian filmmakers doing archeological research…. What are their names? I forget. It’s underground cinema. I don’t remember names. [Golotyuk and Derzhitskaya note that Godard is referring to Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi —CK]. Often the names elude me these days, and it’s not that I’m losing my memory, it’s that when I see, say, faces, quotes, but not words per se, but like tableaux or whatever. Even in my daily life, if I say to myself: “Here, I’m going to grab a cigar,” I see the image of a cigar, but the word comes later. Or: “I’m going to eat lunch at such-and-such restaurant,” but the photo of the restaurant comes later.

D: It’s closer to what you call: “language.”

JLG: Oui.


JLG: ...Going into Palestine when it started to end: the Palestinian revolution and all that. Whereas all the militants... In Cuba, in ’68, there was a big reunion of intellectuals to celebrate Castro and company and I was invited too at this time. And I didn’t want go there with anyone else, I went all by myself, just for me, paying my own way. In the end, things like that. Always later, later.

D: I think this wasn’t always the case. For example, Raoul Coutard talks about making Passion when you wanted to “piss off” Giscard d’Estaing...

JLG: Pff! Maybe I said that. But Raoul, trust me, he had no clue. And that’s to say he had his own interpretations. He was a former indochine like [Pierre] Schoendoerffer or whoever. I remember that on Pierrot le fou, — maybe I wasn't very direct on the matter, but he couldn’t stand either the Jews or the Arabs. He had a small preference for the Jews over the Arabs, but he couldn’t stand either of them. [laughs]

[Pff! Peut-être que je disais ça. Mais Raoul, il ne comprenait pas très bien sûrement. Et enfin, il avait ses propres interprétations. C’était un ancien d’Indochine comme Schoendoerffer ou comme ça. Je me souviens que sur Pierrot le Fou, moi, c’était pas très net, mais il détestait aussi bien les Juifs que les Arabes. Il avait une petite préférence pour les Juifs contre les Arabes, mais il détestait les deux. (Il rit.)]


D: It makes me think of Jean-Marie Straub who believes that Webern’s abstract music is more political than that of Berg (with his Wozzeck), and that Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach counts among his most political films.

JLG: Yes, I understand. He lives here, Jean-Marie Straub.

D: Where does he live?

JLG: He lives in Rolle. Maybe he’s very ill, I don’t know. He has a woman friend who’s living with him since Danièle Huillet’s death. We barely saw one another, then after that we see each other less often because actually, we don’t have much to say to one another. From time to time he sends me his films.

D: Do you appreciate them, his new films?

JLG: I appreciate his work, contrary to others. I think that he’s more of a sculptor who measures the stone. What bugs me is that he always starts from texts, but the text is like stone, and he films stone that’s hammered out. This is how it seems to me. He made a small film about Montaigne [Un conte de Michel de Montaigne, 2013] that people found to be nothing and unbearable with always these neverending shots where nothing happens. [laughs] But I think he’s a sculptor who has a Michelangelo side to himself too. If I was doing criticism these days, it’s with this language I’d seek to be dispensing of — oh well, whatever, that’s what I’d say.


D: And sometimes you jumble up borders between one thing and another — comparing Notre musique to a book, while defining Film Socialisme as a symphony in three movements, or saying Tentative de bleu, your new project, that it has to do with sculpture. Is it really a film for three screens?

JLG: Not for right now. Maybe, if I come to finish it like this, we’ll try to shorten it up. But to shorten it while putting it on three screens, that means dividing it into three parts. [laughs] And making out of it a... what would you call it? — an installation, or an exposition on three screens, which is very facile. Rather than put it like that, because it bothers me that the screen stays flat. We’ve lost... Actually, it’s normal, it evolves, but we’ve lost a little the sensation of space, a lot actually, that there was in the first films, before the Second World War. Everything has become flatter, if you will, and very different from painting. A good photo in one instant speaks better than an image. Even tracking-shots: I remember the quote from Cocteau who said that making a tracking-shot was completely idiotic because it renders the image immobile.

D: Is this even the case during the shoot?

JLG: Not entirely. Sometimes, actually... Here, now, I’m taking... in place of doing a scenario, rather what the Americans call “storyboard,” but not at all in order, more unconscious stuff. Like a painter. Classical painters make sketches first. Often, I prefer attempts [tentatives, studies], Delacroix’s preparations than his big paintings, because you feel something moving. Later, the big painting, it’s static, and one puts words on top of it. You say: “Freedom guiding the people.” But beforehand, when he draws it like so-and-so, you can feel freedom in the work.

D: So, you still haven’t “mounted” [monté] anything for your new film?

JLG: Here — I’m starting to. After: what I call a scenario idea, a sketch [attempt/tentative] of the scenario, but which is done only with photos, if you will. Once, they came often. I know that for his first films in America, Fritz Lang made reports about the region or about other stuff, then the scenario came. But he didn’t try to write anything. Maybe, rather like a musician, if you will, who works at his piano before writing his symphony, because when he writes, he writes. That’s why I’ve always really liked free-jazz without really being able to stand it. But because nothing was written out.

D: Is Tentative de bleu still the title?

JLG: No, it’s just called Image et Parole. [One year later, it’s now called Le livre d’image, or The Image-Book. -CK] And then, between parentheses: “Papyrus”. [And now one year later, between parentheses: Image et Parole. –CK] It’s like if you find an old piece of papyrus where everything’s all stuck together. Those two Italian filmmakers, they’re making films like that, where sometimes you simply see bits of 35mm. They’re looking at image after image, that is, it’s an archeological discovery that allows one to find certain details of... a broken vase, and so on.


D: The former title of your new project, Tentative de bleu, makes one think of painting.

JLG: Oui, I think that there will be a reference to the end of painting, but it’s not very clear-cut. Because I’m doing a very long introduction. A bit like if before seeing the hand, one sees, separately, the five fingers, and afterwards, only sees the hand. So, I’m doing five elements: war; journeys; law; in the sense of Montesquieu, L’ésprit des lois...; and then, the last one, which is called La région centrale in remembrance of an American underground film [sic - Canadian, by Michael Snow –CK] — and then afterward, the hand. So, with the hand, it’s a small story based on a book that seemed interesting to me, which I call L’Arabie heureuse [Happy Araby]. “L’Arabie heureuse” was a term that in the 19th-century voyagers used (Alexandre Dumas, for example) to speak about this world region, the Middle-East, which today is in distress. And I have the story of a... Like you can’t find gasoline — people want to rest there. But then the leader wants to invade all the other betraying Arab countries, and so on. And he makes a fake revolution that doesn’t work out, then after everyone ends up the same. I’m shooting without actors. I don’t want actors. You hear passages from the book — there’s a narrator who speaks like he’s read passages of the book, and you come to understand it’s a kind of fable.

D: So, there won’t be any actors?

JLG: No, not at all, none. For example, my collaborator Jean-Paul Battaggia said to me: “Listen, to tell such a text you can get Jean-Pierre Léaud, he’d be great.” And then, I said to him: “No, because he’s an actor acting a text, and there cannot be any actors.” So, that’s the deal, I have to find an unknown.

D: You mentioned Léaud and that makes me think of Anne Wiazemsky and of a very strange project that has to do with her. Are you aware that Michel Hazanavicius...

JLG: Oh, I don’t want to deal with that. That makes me sick. But, yeah, I don’t give a shit.

D: This idea sounds stupid.

JLG: Oui, oui. But it’s the same producer, Wild Bunch, who made my most recent films. They don’t even dare speak to me about it. [laughs] It’s stupid.

D: But you can’t do anything about it?

JLG: Pff, no — that’s people; people are free to do what they do.


D: Basically, one can say that contemporary art privileges the idea and dismisses the form, or rather beauty. At what point is beauty such as it is relevant for you? Do you consciously seek out beauty?

JLG: No, not anymore. Actually yes... I don’t know, certain times, but not necessarily. Because within all this modern stuff, when I take a look at it, I think the words come after, and only then comes the execution. People say: “We’re going to make an installation called so-and-so.” Which Agnès Varda does now, or who... what’s her name? This Belgian filmmaker who died, I forgot... Chantal Akerman. But it’s only words. It doesn’t work.

D: I like the definition of beauty given by the composer Helmut Lachenmann: “Beauty is the refusal of habit.” I think that one can apply this phrase to what you do, especially since Film Socialisme.

JLG: Oui.

D: In Notre musique, a Bosnian student asks you if the little digital cameras might save cinema. Were you already considering the possibility of using them?

JLG: At the time it didn’t exist, right? But very quickly I’ve... I liked it a lot... We used to make things smaller, like the 16mm or whatever. To be simpler, smaller. Nowadays, three of us make a film. That’s enough. If you had to... I’d really have liked to make (but this was at the time) a film in Hollywood. I tried, but it never worked out...

D: The Story?

JLG: Oh, way before. What I liked was to make a film based on a best-selling book. I told an American producer: “Yes, I’d really like to make a film, but I’d just be a metteur en scène. You choose the actors, you choose the sets, you choose everything. Me, I just want to do the direction. I don’t want anything to do with the rest.” And that’s not what they wanted.

D: When was this?

JLG: Oh, a dozen years ago. [Godard may be referring to his proposed adaptation of the Daniel Mendelsohn book, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. —CK]

D: Why did you want to impose these constraints?

JLG: Ugh, to try to do something like everyone else. But also to do with being tired, because of age. You know, it’s exhausting to always run around and do too much, it doesn’t interest me anymore, I no longer have the desire. Already with three people it’s exhausting, because the two of them are friends and affectionate their entire lives, but only a little with the discussion of making movies, that’s not there. It’s missing. So, you talk to yourself in these instances. But when it comes down to it, it’s just habit too. [laughs]

[Bah, pour essayer de faire avec ce qui reste. Mais par rapport à la fatigue aussi, à l’âge. Vous savez, c’est fatiguant de toujours courir et faire trop, ça ne m’intéresse plus, j’en ai plus envie. Déjà à trois c’est fatigant, parce que les deux autres sont des amis et sont très précieux pour toute la vie, mais en ce qui concerne la discussion un peu sur le cinéma, il n’y en a pas. Ça manque. Donc, on discute avec soi-même dans ces cas-là. Mais au bout d’un moment, c’est l’habitude aussi. (Il rit.)]

D: Can we say that these small digital cameras give you what you wanted to attain with the Aaton 35-8?

JLG: At the time — yes.

D: To do smaller...

JLG: Oui. Smaller quality? Today, it’s the same to me. The film I’m making... It’s like it’s more archeology, the quality of the image doesn’t matter to me.

D: To sum it up, you treat digital in two ways. On the one hand, you start from its faults to create rich textures, which might be called digital expressionism...

JLG: Oui.

D: And on the other hand, you use them in the normal way; you continue to do what you did before, in 35mm. Can one imagine such a film as Notre musique being shot in digital?

JLG: Oui, oui, it could have been done.

D: Now, it’s the same for you?

JLG: Now, it’s the same for me, and then with digital, very little money is required. For the upcoming film, the producer, Wild Bunch, is giving 300,000 euros. Voilà, c’est tout. And so, with 300,000 euros, you have to deliver at the end of two years (it leaves a bit of time: one year to make the five fingers and then one year more to make the hand). And then, if that’s not enough, what I earn sometimes like the money in France with the revenues of films that show on television, I give back to the producer — I don’t ask him to repay. That’s to say that with 300,000 euros three people have to live off of it and make the film for two years. So, if I’m paying these three people, then including me, on the money for the film, that makes 9000 euros per month. And so, nothing is left over for the film. So, I have to give, and fortunately there’s a little, what I have for the producer. I don’t ask anything of the producer. Voilà, so, there you have it, the economy of the film. And it would be interesting to know that within the actual economy it might be the same way.

D: But at the level of the image: of the light, of the depth of the shot — that’s a little different between 35mm and digital, isn’t it?

JLG: Oui, oui. Then, it depends whether one does lighting or one doesn’t. Me, I innately feel what exists. I always try to keep it. But even with the two others, with Jean-Paul [Battagia] and Fabrice [Aragno], it’s hard because they have crew traditions, and when they show up, they bring all of this into it. And I tell them: “This is a set — nothing must be touched — keep your business out of here.” [laughs] But there are a lot of things that can’t be done. And can’t try to be done, that’s all.

D: Why did you change the aspect-ratio of the image?

JLG: To accommodate television these days, that’s all.

D: But at the time you sent to the Cahiers du cinéma a page with two images from Notre musique as projected in three different aspect-ratios. You wanted to show how the 16:9 satellisait a person and concealed the truth. [The original Cahiers article showed a 1.37:1 frame of a woman's face from Notre musique, followed by its cropping to 1.66:1, then to 1.78:1 (16:9), over which Godard marked in pen: "esclave-satellite," or "satellite-slave."]

JLG: Oui, it’s not a good ratio. But it’s the aspect-ratio in today’s reality. I mean that once painters, they painted what they had available. When paint tubes were invented, that changed a lot — impressionism, etc. So, you can only make reality. It doesn’t matter… And then after, if I put a film on DVD, that passes for normal, no one makes a big deal. Whereas in the theater everyone freaks out... Even with television: there’s not one viewer who equates the one with the other. So, there’s nothing to be done. You have to try so that there remains one thing and it’s this thing you have to select to go off from and have to find — if you will.

D: At the beginning of Adieu au langage, we see a mysterious object with elements of a 3D camera. It appears for a few seconds in the light of a flare ceaselessly moving — and then, near the end, it lands on the cover of a book by Van Vogt. And you’re the one who put it there; the actual cover is different.

JLG: Oui, it’s a different image I put on top of the cover of the Van Vogt. So you could see the title.

D: Why did you do this?

JLG: Because what the cover was didn’t suit me. Whereas that one, it was an image (I don’t know where it came from) of an Indian totem or whatever. I thought it was better. If I was the one who published the book, I would have gone with that. [laughs]


D: For these last 35 years, you’ve worked with several directors of photography, like, besides Coutard, William Lubtchansky, Caroline Champetier, Julien Hirsch. Why did you change them up? Why, for example, did you break with Coutard, even though he did beautiful work on Passion and Prénom Carmen?

JLG: Ugh, we made lots of films. Later, I was going somewhere else, and he was staying where he was at. Lubtchansky or whoever — same. There’s a lot of them; I started out with them. At times… Lubtchansky, he had an assistant who was Caroline, Caroline had an assistant who was Julien, bah voilà, on passait... Then after, it came to an end. [laughs]

D: Sometimes, you left Caroline Champetier alone on the set. You even sent her to Moscow to shoot a scene for Les enfants jouent à la Russie.

JLG: Oui, oui, and she did a great job. Because she’s someone who wanted to be involved with everything, who talked about everything, who discussed everything. I said to her: “Bah, tu veux? Tiens, voilà a bag of money. Go on, go to Russia and film the death of Anna Karenina. I have nothing to do with it.”

D: This terrifed her.

JLG: Ah oui, sûrement.


Friday, September 08, 2017

The Exterminating Angel

Email on Buñuel from 2012

I recently watched the Criterion Blu-ray re-edition of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel [El ángel exterminador, 1962].* The following is an email I sent in 2012 to an acquaintance who asked me for my thoughts about the film, I think in relation to a movie she was making at the time.

*One Peter writes to DVDBeaver, who includes his remarks in their review of the Criterion Blu-ray:

"I'm surprised no one has mentioned this, but the Criterion reissue of EXTERMINATING ANGEL is a dual-pronged botch: it's 1.37, erroneously, and is absolutely a 1:1.66 film. There's way too much headroom throughout (and, of course, below as well), clearly borne out by the design of the credits, as well. A preposterous transfer choice for a 1962 production such as this, even more obvious by a quick glance at the framing at any given point during the film.

And it suffers from the same atrocious sound as the original release. It sounds like the source used has soundtrack damage from the beginning until about the 1 hour and 16 minute mark, at which time it finally disappears. My ears tell me it is a scratched optical track, resulting in distortion/white noise.

Someone along the line applied compression/noise reduction (not very well) for the first 40 minutes, leaving a lot of artifacts behind and making the dialogue occasionally hard to hear but basically acceptable. But at the 40 minute mark, the background noise in the master becomes overwhelming, and remains that way for 36-ish minutes. I cannot believe no one has pointed this out; it's almost as though perhaps whomever mastered it confused it for the sounds of the storm raging outside earlier in the film and forgot about it?"


These observations are only my take-away from this viewing; this movie is enormously expansive, and reveals new things at different times and to different viewers.

On one level, it aligns itself, consciously so or not, with the "mansion/country-house bourgeois/aristocrat dinner-party" tradition in cinema that generally serves to critique the bourgeoisie and deliver an examination of the world via microcosm, often through the interplay of "upstairs/downstairs" or "insider/interloper." The most famous examples probably being, off the top of my head, 'The Rules of the Game' (the bear in Buñuel's film is a hilarious metamorphosis of [and nod to] Renoir's character in his film, when he dons the bear costume for the pantomime performance), 'Last Year at Marienbad' (from the year right before 'Exterminating Angel'), and -- maybe the first ever example of this strain -- Buñuel's own 'L'Age d'or,' from 1930. My understanding is he carries this even further in 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,' -- but, scandalously, I've still never seen that film or any of the final Buñuels from 1970 onward.

I think one could even say that 'The Exterminating Angel' is an anarchist re-rendering of 'Last Year at Marienbad' -- again, maybe a conscious response, or not, on Buñuel's part. It's tempting maybe to call this film, or these strains of films, as satires, but in Buñuel's hands, and given his disposition and world-view, I think it's something closer to... I was going to say "parody," but that's not it -- it's something closer to profanation. Since 'Un chien andalou' Buñuel has taken a devilish delight in not just critiquing societal mores and the sacred cows of Western civilization, but savaging them utterly. It's worth pointing out that, alone among these films, 'The Exterminating Angel' is the only one that addresses the need to use the bathroom (an obvious dilemma, with everyone stuck in that room) -- with the guests having to take their shits behind the angel painting -- a visual pun on what it means to be an "exterminating angel," but more of that later...

The guests' tribulations as the days pass come off to me (to use the word again) as a profane parody of Hardship -- in the highest sense of the word, e.g. the suffering depicted in Buñuel's early essay-documentary 'Las Hurdes.' They exist like a poisoned or profaned allegory and -- one of the radical things about the film -- in fact this mock-allegory ('the sufferers,' 'those who undergo hardship', no chance of escape possible from their station in life! -- a lavish salon) undercuts the general notion of allegory in general -- on which, needless to say, Christian tradition and ritual are so dependent. It's part of Buñuel's agenda, in every film, to show up the Church, to scandalize it, in an attempt to counter its centuries of hypocrisy, of folly, and of dangerous pre- and proscriptions. To that point, I see the "arrangements" of the guests (and the theme of arrangement) as much as a kind of mockery of religious tableaux (or nativity sets) as a censure of the rote positions or stations that their class, and those beneath them, are expected to take (or fill) in the course of everyday life -- in terms of work, of social stakes, and (endemic to the guests' class) of the triviality and repetition ad nauseum of "leisure."

Which brings us to that Repetition theme. The arrival scene plays out twice; an introduction between two of the guests occurs twice, but in variation of the reaction of the one to the other. The days themselves come one after the other with no escape in immediate sight. The two dead lovers in the closet repeat (in double now) the corpse locked up in the other closet. Repetition as "eternity" (and eternity itself, then, repetition -- and so the promise of an after-life in Heaven seems a very boring prospect, indeed). In the words of "the Valkyrie," Leticia (played by Silvia Pinal, gorgeous -- she's also the star of 'Viridiana' and appears in 'Simon of the Desert' -- her husband produced all three of these films) -- the guests are "like pieces of a chessboard moved thousands of times." They 'reassume' their positions at the end: theirs is an eternal stasis -- this sudden "discovery" that they must repeat the order of that first day following the piano recital, that this will break the spell, appears to me as probably a completely arbitrary 'solution': that they are, for once, (in contradistinction to stasis) demonstrating VOLITION, but that volition = repetition, is inherently absurd; and it's very possible that they might have left at any point. (As to why the guests on the outside could not 'enter' -- I would only say that there's always a push-me-pull-you relationship between the bourgeoisie and the "supporting" tier -- and the same goes between the Church and the faithful.) Buñuel portrays the entire situation as a sort of Black Mass. The repetition which runs throughout the film is not only an expression of the futility of Man in the stream of a constant and cyclical "eternal return," but also a sort of profanation of "the return" of the Biblical Savior -- both in terms of the Resurrection, and of the promise of Christ's reintervention at the time of Armageddon.

To that point: "the exterminating angel" -- a phrase which is a contradiction in terms, should be a paradox, but has nonetheless made up a cornerstone of the Christian mythos: when the archangel Michael asserts himself, sword in hand, against Satan in the prophecy of the Book of Revelation (written as nothing more, in all actuality, than a sustained allegory -- cf. Elaine Pagels' recent book, 'Revelations'). When the guests go behind the panel with the angel to take a dump (which I think is fucking hilarious), they report looking down into the water between their legs and seeing visions straight out of the end-times (which I also think is fucking hilarious). (The Apocalypse is later brought to visual life in the surreal succession of fever-dreams shared by the guests in that sequence near the end, where saw goes to the fingers of a hand, to cello, to mannequin head against the lightning.) An angel, then, who helps them 'evacuate' or 'exterminate' their waste, too.

(Note that the guests are so eager to be covering things up, and hiding them away -- the corpses, the lovers' lovemaking, their shit and piss in the closets/secret-chambers; blankets constantly pulled up over the exhuasted attendees; a sheet going over the box containing the morphine -- as though the covering of that can have any real camouflage effect, in the eyes of the ones who've already spotted it. A conceit that applies to the greater world at large...)

(Also re: the hiding and the sexual undercurrents: I think one of the funniest scenes is early when the hostess suggests to her lover, in a room off to the side, that they should steal away to the bedroom -- and if her husband comes in, "I'll say I was showing you the incunabula." -- An incunabula is a document from the mid-millennium or earlier which was (pre-printing-press) still "printed" via woodblock -- it can be a religious text, etc. The suggestion is that they've collected one of these artifacts which is ostensibly on display in their bedroom [that itself being funny], but there's also the suggestion with the word "incunabula", which is obviously obscure, that she's referring to her pussy.)

That said, the overarching incarnation of the exterminating angel in Buñuel's film is itself two-fold: (1) The Genteel Class, who will wipe itself out (cf. 'The Grand Illusion' and 'The Rules of the Game'). Divine providence (they're sequestered on "Providence Street") means the punishment due for vanity, cruelty, folly. (2) The Church in the social world. Divine providence means the extermination of the faithful.

The end sequence portrays the guests now piously in attendance in the cathedral for a funeral mass (missa solemnis / "solemn mass") held, apparently, for they-themselves. And of course the proto-Groundhog Day "eternal return" rearrives -- the 'faithful' cannot leave the Church; or, WILL not... The second to last shot of the film (before the entrance of the flock of sheep) is of a riot, of gunfire: a shocking cut with no discernible (on the quote-unquote "diegetic" level) precursor in the film: but of course, the entire film was the precursor to this shot: this unrest is an explosion of the outside world, of society (as opposed to Society) and the masses, to contextualize all the "interiority" which Buñuel has to this point in his film displayed and ruthlessly dissected. And it is a prophecy, a "revelation," of what the '60s would hold in store for that aforementioned world at large.

Anyway, those are my thoughts -- hope this helps sort the film out somewhat..

(Oh, last-minute thought! -- I also meant to add re: Providence Street -- when we see this earlier in the film it has the connotation that, in such a neighborhood, in such a house: 'we should all be so lucky', with the ironic suggestion too that this place is 'divinely ordainted' -- of course, "providence" comes to take a more complicated tack, cf. the previous email.)


Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Late Chrysanthemums

"Neither He Nor I Can Afford a Shot of Pork Innards for Energy":
A Précis

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)

Prefatory note: The go-to reference work in English about Naruse's films is Dan Sallitt's A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967, which exists as a WordPress site accessible from the link. I've been reading his entries on each film after my initial viewing, and have been enjoying tremendously the lucid and sensitive considerations he's drawn from his own viewings over the years.


Late Chrysanthemums [Bangiku, 1954] is among the sexiest of Naruse's Fumiko Hayashi-based pictures.

Haruko Sugimura, harridan of Naruse and Ozu, here cast as type, Okin.

The movie is about money, the need for it, the power that it itself lends to the holder or recipient, and the abstraction of its circulation. The film is unlike other Naruse pictures up to this point insofar as it is built upon a kind of hand-off/anthology-film structure that leaves Sugimura to focus on her lendees and pass-to-pass, such that the first-time viewer is disoriented until 30 or 35 minutes go by and a pyramid structure hierarchy comes into focus as the framework of the film.

(Money: initial announcement of the Sakae Shopping District Association raffle-sale. Sugimura counting her banknotes in her opening shot.)

A deaf housemaid she can feel superior to and who is her only domestic companion besides a puppy and her agent/business-manager/consigliere Itai-san (Daisuke Katô). Okin buys property and lends money: the premise is very simple: for Okin, a former geisha and tea-room girl, money made (and continues to make) money. Itai: "Can a deaf girl do a good job?" Okin: "Yes — she's quiet." Itai: "Ah, all your secrets are safe with her...!"

Naruse films nearly as many shots as Ozu or Kinoshita of the comings-and-goings through house entrances. One example of Okin's parsimony: the locking of the front door (despite her maid due to rearrive after a mere minute out) and the insertion of the shiv. Okin enters the backdoors of her debtors' establishments in case they attempt to flee — a ridiculous notion but one she nevertheless brings up to each of them in a half-joking chuckle.

The subplot involving Okin's ex, Mr. Seki (Bontarô Miake), is diaphanous. The two share a history of an attempted double-suicide, that was read by police as a homicide attempt (with little dissuasion from Okin). Now he's returned to town in the manner an American stage character or, recently, a Horace and Pete character to request money from a rebuffing, unsentimental Okin, who remarks: "He needs to get his life in order so he can bring an offering to my funeral." (If at first you don't succeed...)

Tomi (Yûko Mochizuki) and Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa), who share a house, are ex-coworkers of Okin in their former life, and now count among her debtors. Tamae has a son Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Koizumi) — they seem merely a decade apart in age... After she starts going on about his father, one suspects she is perhaps his stepmother... He shows up at the house while Tamae is receiving Okin who, in classic Naruse dramaturgy, upon Kiyoshi's arrival takes her leave and announces she'll return some other time. In the confrontation between mother and son, Naruse colors more details: Tamae wants Kiyoshi to break up with his girl ("You made me tell people you were my sister," he exclaims) and expresses her anger over not being consulted before he took a new job in a Hokkaido mining office.

Tomi's daughter Sachiko (Ineko Arima) frequently lends her mother money. She has decided to move out from her mother's and Tamae's upstairs — it takes no more than five minutes to pack — whereupon she brashly asks the visiting Okin to consider advancing her and the fiancé with whom she's eloping that very night some money towards renting a new house, before briskly bidding sayônara. It's as though this alone is a stab at spiting her mother and her money-managerial incompetence.

Having returned from Burma, Tabe-san (Ken Uehara) shows up at Okin's one afternoon, as per his letter, dressed in a schlubby suit. Upon his arrival, a delighted Okin primps till, it seems, nightfall. (The joke is an external shot showing how far the sun has set, while a spread of food and sake provide refreshment for Tabe the entire time in Okin's absence — maybe the funniest exchange in the film: Okin: "I'm sorry for the wait..." Tabe: "You look younger than my wife!") After they toast some sake, an internal monologue of Okin abruptly plays on the soundtrack: "Why did he come here today?... Seki was after me, but Tabe was my sanctuary..." Why: by now in his cups, Tabe admits he's in need of a loan. Okin won't grant the request. In three cross-cuts, Naruse contrasts this now fraught evening with the first night spent alone by a drunk Tamae and Tomi. Tomi: "You were the most graceful parlor-maid at Sanraku..." Tamae: "I remember how you used to wear your hair in the Shimada style..." ..... Tabe spends the night, passing out, at Okin's as rain falls on the city...

The next day comes: full-circle to the film's opening: Mr. Itai stops by Okin's to review finances. The restaurant owner Nobu (Sadako Sawamura), object of Okin's earlier backdoor collection tactics, rushes in to inform her that Seki is being held by the police on account of a suicide attempt? Okin: "Whether Seki goes to jail or hangs himself I don't have time to care. All men feed off of women's blood. We have to protect ourselves. It's not only men who face life-and-death struggles."

Tamae and Tomi accompany Kiyoshi at the train station to provide him a send-off to Hokkaido, when they eye two geisha flurry around their patron in anticipation of accompanying him on his departure. They observe, too, another passer-by striking a 1954 vogue — the "Monroe walk." Tomi tries her hips in imitation — sad results. Tamae: "Act your age!", and the two laugh.

Okin and Itai descend the stairs of the station to a train, en route to inspect some potential new real estate.


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Mikio Naruse:

Koshiben ganbare [Flunky, Work Hard, 1931]

Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation, 1932]

Kimi to wakarete [Apart from You, 1933]

Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams, 1933]

Kagirinaki hodô [Endless Pavement, 1934]

Ginza keshô [Ginza Makeup, 1951]

Okaasan [Mother, 1952]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]

Tsuma [Wife, 1953]

Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain, 1954]

Bangiku [Late Chrysanthemums, 1954]

Ukigumo [Floating Clouds, 1955]


Saturday, August 05, 2017


Circle of Death

(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the FilmStruck app on Apple TV; built-in screen-capturing is disabled during playback from the Web and from the FilmStruck app on iPhone/iPad.)

Prefatory note: The go-to reference work in English about Naruse's films is Dan Sallitt's A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967, which exists as a WordPress site accessible from the link. I've been reading his entries on each film after my initial viewing, and have been enjoying tremendously the lucid and sensitive considerations he's drawn from his own viewings over the years.


Okaasan [Mother, 1952]: Specific summary: "Okaasan" is not a noun for "mother" in Japanese; it is a form of address. Masako (her name only used once?) is Mother, but "Mother" is extensive in Masako's world: she is "Mei-chan,", "Okaa-chan," and so on. She's mother to Susumu (ill ostensibly from the dust in a factory for "woolens," played by Akihiko Katayama), Toshiko (Kyôko Kagawa), and Chako (Eiko Miyoshi). She's sister-in-law to Noriko (Chieko Nakakita). She's sibling. She's auntie to Tetsu (Takashi Itô). She's wife/caretaker/"Mother" to Ryôsaku (Masao Mishima) — then she's widow — and then she's courtee of Kimura (Daisuke Katô)... Then...

Victimhood or passivity in the protagonist marks a type in cinema especially in the Japanese film of the era; but a martyr type (caretaker, etc.) moulds another: a protagonist bent over the sickbed. (Masako has to be martyr to stay awake among the incandescent lights that seem never to be turned off, despite the children sleeping in the same area — her work is never done — dreamtime never comes.) As I've noted before, you can't talk entirely formally with all these Naruse pictures: more often than not Naruse's signature lies in recurring narrative tropes and dramaturgic strategies (including predilections with regard to subject material), as opposed to mise-en-scène moves — which nevertheless include such expressivity as the isometric two-people-in-conversation traveling shot, and the recessive framing of three spaces within a family home.

In Masako-Okaasan we have a woman who slides into surrounding lives and empathies, or perhaps they slide into her (the only satisfaction she might be said to receive in this her present stunted carnality. [Aside: She's been listening to father crunch his toasted beans doused in soy sauce for twenty years now...]): Toshiko's POV is established as the dominant before it too slides, away: Toshiko's narration at the outset of the film never returns until the very end, by which time we've already long forgotten about the device: one of the radical strategies used by Naruse in this great film, and only one element of a composition that Sallitt in his Mother entry deems, justly, as dipping into a strange, and fascinating, dramaturgical "abstraction." Bookends.

Three ellipses in the first half of Mother jagged and fresh:

Ellipsis No. 1: Susumu passes away. (Plus: one single flashback (no structure rooted in the device): Ryôsake playing with the little Susumu.)

Ellipsis No. 2: Papa Ryôsake dies.

Ellipsis No. 3: "The End" appears onscreen 45 or 48 minutes in: it turns out to be the closing credit of a movie the Fukuharas are watching, which occurs shortly after ruining the client's dyed hat. It's an indication maybe that we're to take Mother as Naruse's most self-reflexive (and self-reflective) expression to date — I won't go so far as to call it prismatic with regard to the interplay of points-of-view, but I will attach this sequence to the same notion that might inform the shot from the children's vantage as they look down the street bent over between their own knees, which is one of Naruse's bolder formal flourishes since his days in the silents.

Then we have the second half, with its small vignettes. cf. That few-minute-long lesson on efficiency in ironing, as told-and-sold by "Uncle POW," Kimura. This "ironing out," if you will, leads to a series of questions that permeate the remainder of the film, further adding wrinkles to the drama:

-Has Toshiko scared off Kimura (short-term or not) from proposing to her mother, Masako-Okaasan?

-What will come of Chako's aunt and uncle's successful attempt to adopt her, as seen from Chako's, Masako's, and Toshiko's respective points of view?

-Whether on the table or not, should Masako remarry? and what will the children think?

-What if Noriko — who will dress Toshiko in wedding garb for the sake of a fashion contest — wins the prize and can afford to marry and take Tetsu back into her own home?

-What does Masako stand to lose if Toshiko, herself the protestor of her mother's new wedlock, makes good on her intent to marry her beau Shinjirô (Eiji Okada)?

A new apprentice is brought to the house — 16-year-old Kunihiko — to take over from Kimura who will leave to work in Chiba for the summer and save up to open his own laundry. One night early in his apprenticeship the boy falls asleep at his desk before a letter that's only just begun: "Dear Mother..."

Toshiko's voice-over returns: "Another night deepens in silence..... Mother, my dearest Mother, are you happy?..."


More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Mikio Naruse:

Koshiben ganbare [Flunky, Work Hard, 1931]

Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation, 1932]

Kimi to wakarete [Apart from You, 1933]

Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams, 1933]

Kagirinaki hodô [Endless Pavement, 1934]

Ginza keshô [Ginza Makeup, 1951]

Okaasan [Mother, 1952]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]

Tsuma [Wife, 1953]

Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain, 1954]

Bangiku [Late Chrysanthemums, 1954'

Ukigumo [Floating Clouds, 1955]


Monday, July 31, 2017

A Straightforward Brat - UPDATED 2017

A Jigsaw Flatplan

UPDATE: A few more moments of the film were discovered in the last year or so. Criterion have now included it on their Blu-ray of Good Morning.

Ozu's earliest surviving work — or one of them — fragmentarily extant from 1929 — is a great surrealist work in its concatenation of scenes. The boy (Tomio Aoki, dead in 2004 but whom we can watch in other films by Ozu and by Kon Ichikawa, along with two films by the greatest living Japanese director — Seijun Suzuki's extraordinary Yajû no seishun [Youth of the Beast, 1963] and kantoku's 2001 masterpiece Pistol Opera) gets kidnapped by the John Carradine of Ozu's silent cinema, Tatsuo Saitô. The miscreant's false moustache finds an echo in the bald patches (malnutrition? scalp disease? they regardless rhyme with Aoki's kimono's pattern) of the alopeciac co-conspirator, played by Takeshi Sakamoto. Not-Mabuses, the unashamed pair share residence in a domestic-hovelship of crime, Sakamoto especially making a perfect target or twelve for the suction-cup projectiles launched from Aoki's pistol-toy. Clever gag in the oft-typically-lame Japanese Slapcorn Idiom, which Ozu will nonetheless hew and refine five years on for Aoki's turn in A Tale of Floating Weeds [Ukigusa monogatari, 1934].

Tokkan kozô [A Straightforward Brat] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1929:

Both the first act and the last act (separated across fourteen minutes) represent a forgotten realm, a 'nook' of city, mini-labyrinth probably not much more than five-hundred feet square, a kind of Fontaínhas for the 'passing-by.' It brings to mind reels by Essanay Studios or Max Sennett. The premise of the kidnapping is unknown, and that being such centers the premise back into the realm of kid-age anxiety over kidnapping — 'they kidnap you because they want to kidnap you!' and not because, as one realizes upon growing older, that the shadow-they want you for sexual slavery. Ozu configures the chaste childhood bedtime-ceiling-stare version, — it's a comedy, after all. All the antics find Carradine/Saitô redeposit Aoki at home-base and, soon after, his band of friends chase the kidnapper back down for revenge-pelting. A fascinating, justified early work by the Master of the Seasons.

Tokkan kozô [A Straightforward Brat] by Yasujirô Ozu, 1929:

You should watch it with volume off, or accompanied by "Audrey's Dance" by Angelo Badalamenti.


Previous pieces on Yasujirô Ozu at Cinemasparagus:

A Straightforward Brat [1929]

Friends Fighting Japanese-Style [1929]

Tokyo Chorus [1931]

A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But... [1932]

Where Have the Dreams of Youth All Gone? [1932]

Passing Fancy [1933]

A Tale of Floating Weeds [1934]

Kagamijishi [1936]

The Only Son [1936]

There Was a Father [1942]


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Farpões baldios

Entrance Is an Exit (Field-Trip) / Commanding of the Soil


Marta Mateus, the director of this 25-minute long Portuguese film, provides an English prefatory note for Farpões baldios [Barbs Wastelands, 2017], her debut, which reads:

"In the end of the 19th century the peasants in Portugal started a courageous struggle for better work conditions. After generations of starving misery, the Carnation Revolution sowed the promise of an Agrarian Reform. Mostly in the Alentejo region, these rural workers occupied the huge properties where they were once submitted to the power of their Masters. Perhaps the lost seed of other fruits...

It is said in Alentejo, when something is lost, those who are looking should start to walk back to the beginning. We must pray and ask Saint Lucy [Lucia] to clear our vision, so we can see and look better.

The protagonists of this film, resistants of this struggle, many of them illiterate, working since childhood, tell their story to the youngsters of today, in their own words."

The opening shot is an entrance or an exit: A man emerges from a slab of darkness. No arbitrary diction: Mateus posits the void as material. As a monolith. This idea will recur a few times through the rest of the film. The idea is that of the ephemeral against the material — "against" in the sense of both "up against" (leaning against; material) and "versus" (pitted against; ephemeral, relational). The emerging man drags a pitchfork in his wake — the tines claw the clay — the sound is terrible.

"When the light is mine / I felt gravity pull""Feeling Gravitys Pull", R.E.M., 1985

Saint Lucia (Luzia), the light is hers. Patron protectress of eyesight.

Black holes, infinite density: wastelands, barbs. Entryways, portals. An illusion of men emerging. Ghosts. Data. The barn is the citadel. The men are protecting their citadel. "Walk back to the beginning."

The kids are the inhabitants of the forests; they're the tourists of the forest. They cross the border of the old wall and enter the citadel ("the barns"). The two men chase them; they forbid Catarina and the boy to tell of what they saw.

A sylvan community. "Ashes from home will save the world."

"Now we weed. Then the pruning. And we sow the carnations."

In all of this, Mateus's Iberian Lucia. The eyes of the boy who attempts to stare ahead, focusing hard outward, but still kept navigating a crazed contradictory interior.

Sacrilege has been attributed to nearly every saint before her or his beatification. The boy who walks backwards can sight the road behind him.

"Maria, Teresa, Luzia. Three shoots, three flowers, three fruits. A trunk, a treetop, a life. A beam, a table, three chairs. Three days, three tales, a handful of times. Two mules and two oxen, for a tractor. A hundred steps forward, a hundred years back. An empty plate. And a shot in the back."

"The accused ascends to the high throne, the shepherd moves to the deep valley." Mateus moves the aphorism back, so to speak, into the mouths of babes, itself a tradition biblical, Huilletian-Straubian, Godardian, Costan. (Philip Roth, in a later interview, in Talmudic paraphrase: "Let the child speak.") —

The woman gathering brush and wood recounts the story of the snake around her leg, to Catarina: "Squeezing, squeezing," she inserts. The woman: "I was screaming, screaming... That day, half a leg, a pay of hunger." Her companion: "All of this was the Defesa, from the mountain, to here, where the pigsties were." The tale of an uprising. "Out of crying, my mother's eyes cut holes in the ground." They perform upon the kids a blessing of Saint Lucy/Lucia. The sounds of sheep bells. The community gathers, watches.

On that: Patrick Holzapfel's excellent essay, published last month, on Farpões baldios is here. He too senses the back-and-forth, simultaneity, whatever you want to call it, about the history and the present, the void and the open, the paradox that is the wound: he says: "It is a film in which two hearts beat: The first belongs to tenderness, the second to severity. The first belongs to the present, the second to the past. The first belongs to the young, the second to the old. Between those movements lies a shaking that opens a world of concentration." He also says: "One could argue that many shots are seen through the eyes of children or ghosts." He says: "The film looks at the stones and dirt with eyes that want more."

I have nothing theoretical to say about this movie I've watched seven times: the above are my notes mingled with my thoughts, neither closed off. Much of these little images are pointless without the sound: take:

Some of the children board the bus that penetrates the building (same threatening vector as a bar-surface in My Darling Clementine), it pulls away from Alentejo. The citadel, closed Parthenon or what you want it to be, stands silent. Fine. There is a new term they use in American media called "the optics of" something — meaning how it looks, to the media camera. I of course hate this word but I also like how simple it is to flip its letters to its antithesis: "the topics of." I'll leave this piece here then, for topics, optics, close-offs in talking, and rewatches, in anticipation when more see this masterpiece —

— That lets the cast in the titles read their respective names, one by one.

Argumento, realização e montagem: Marta Mateus.