Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sunday in Peking {American-Language Version}


Eddies in the East



(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.)

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There's some received wisdom about the Chris Marker filmography, that Dimache à Pékin [Sunday in Peking, 1956] is not only the first Chris Marker film but also the first Marker essay-film, and more broadly the first essay-film period. Except Marker made Olympia 52 in '52, which from the little amount of it I've seen on YouTube, I would call an essay film; and he co-directed with Resnais in '53 Les statues meurent aussi [Statues Die Too] before doing a rewrite on Jean Cayrol's narration for Resnais's '55 Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog]. Anyway, there's a long tradition of "the documentary" — in the sense of using the term. Can we say of La natation, par Jean Taris, champion de France. that it's a documentary portrait of the great athlete? I would say the essay-film or film-poem not only exhibits a display of directorial point-of-view, but additionally displays a "reasonable" (to use a term applicable in law, too) quantity of poetic juxtaposition of ideas, of narration, sound and image. Perhaps then "essay-film" is a qualitative term, and "documentary" shouldn't rightfully exist...

In advance of Resnais's Le chant du styrène, Marker employs Pierre Barbaud to compose the Eastern-accented score, orchestrated by Georges Delerue. Another credit of note: "conseil sinologique: Agnès Varda"...

From the first moments of the voice-over narration across a city balcony bedecked with an array of Chinese objets, to the quick pan upward that shows us we're in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower, and thus, probably, on the landing of Marker's own apartment, we are witness to one of the most beautiful Eastmancolor films ever made... The gesture provides a Marker-playful, though perhaps dated occidental context way-in for the joyous surprises that will abound on "the mainland" in the minutes ahead. Marker cuts to an old photo-still of the gates of Peking (present-day Beijing, the cart burdened with history wheels onward), the gates of the tombs of the Ming emperors, and intones: "It's not very often that one can step into a picture belonging to one's childhood — yet, here I was..." Thus signals the cut to Marker's footage of the gates themselves, and the title card: "PÉKIN 1955".

Marker will link the light and mist of the city's early mornings with the politesse of Chinese culture in general, and specifically with the tradition of Chinese painting. And yet: "The price of modernism does not seem so high when we see the harsh price of the picturesque."


The Revolution, though, represented not only an econo-political effort, but also one determined to combat the gradations of sheerly existential malaise: "dust, disease, and flies." Surveying the Peking of 1955, Marker wryly notes that, nevertheless, "One still finds capitalists in China — but there are no more flies." (According to Catherine Lupton in her book Chris Marker: Memories of the Future [2004], remarks like these were taken as "Communist propaganda" by the selection committee of the 1957 Berlin Film Festival, who, perhaps understandably sensitive to anything that might even be mistakenly interpreted as painting the Party in a cheerful light, demanded they be removed for the film to be projected at the good festival.) Sunday in Peking exists as a kind of fulcrum, a singularity on either side of which incessantly oscillate The China of the Future, and The Pekingese of Today (1955).




Marker films the vision of a nation that views itself as decidedly new, or at least one that puts on its best game-face. In this Tomorrowland, pre-adolescent gymnasts garbed in lantern-red sweatsuits demonstrate their maneuvers for the camera; ever Marker, he praises "these young athletes, lean as cats..." But through the filmmaker's images and narration, one perceives an irony in the very unironic, un-self-aware screen of Ersatz that seems to unfold everywhere: Peking on one hand contains a "model district" with a "model school" and its "model girls"; elsewhere, "the whole town is a display-stand for ancient China."





He continues: "Let us say no more about History — in the gardens during the afternoons History goes on. So long shut away behind its symbols, China is now called upon to reveal itself, and we are required to understand these sensitive faces: these men, these women, these children, with whom we shall have to share History as we shall have to share our daily bread." He turns to the Peking Zoo, with its lovers "chatting tenderly about the Five-Year Plan." There's a scene out of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, were he removed to the Summer Palace more than thirty years on from his death: "[T]his Mongol Versailles... [...] All this is as remote as China, and as familiar as Hyde Park."

He concludes Sunday in Peking: "I wonder whether China itself is not the sabbath of the whole world."



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Other writing about the films of Chris Marker at Cinemasparagus:

Leila Attacks
(posted in 2007, and including a note in the Comments from Chris Marker himself)


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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Wife


Notes on the Nakagawas



(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.

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The film is based on another Fumiko Hayashi novel, Chairo no me [Hazel Eyes, 1950], — it's almost to Repast what Ozu's Early Summer is to Late Spring, although Ozu's two films are superior. Here again, we have a solitary housewife Mineko (Mieko Takamine) living with an essentially chaste dissatisfied workaday husband (Ken Uehara): these are the Nakagawas. (Despite the film's title, and the fact that Mineko's inner monologue lends the opening of the film its V.O. narration, the wife's point of view is not dominant.) With regard to the title: a digression on Japanese nouns and the poetic benefits of the lack of articles to express at once the specific case and the general phenomenon... — cf. the scandal of Godard's La femme mariée vs. Une femme mariée — one could translate the title "The Wife," "A Wife," etc... But: "Wife" seems most appropriate to me, in keeping with the Japanese generality...

The Nakagawas have been married ten years. The first time I saw the film I felt it was a masterpiece, the second and third times its power and complexity diminished. I'm not ready to offer any definitive judgment, not here for that... Isn't that though what keeps us intrigued by a great director's work? Even typing this I am ready to watch the film again, and so as Nakagawa-san exits his house to head to work, Naruse assigns him his own monologue. ("I wonder why we can't make it work.") — This strikes me as almost proto-Godardian, or rather let me say: here is the literary influence carried over in part from Naruse/Hayashi and their previous entanglement Repast.

The Nakagawas run a boarding-house; the Matsuyamas are a couple who board; there's a painter too, Tanimura (Kantarô Mikuni): fine-arts, but at present he pays the bills with contract painting.

(Structural flourish: Short flashback to a job Tanimura copped decorating a bar in Ginza: his anecdote stretches on in V.O. across the soundtrack....) — He spied Mrs. Matsuyama (Chieko Nakakita) there, showing up for her secret shift to work as a hostess (bartender who accommodates the patrons' moods). — "She looks like a schoolteacher to me," offers Yoshimi (Michiyo Aratama?), a visiting neighbor. "You never know with women," Tanimura replies, then gets a bucket of water splashed on his head from the height of a balcony above; the woman apologizes: "I'm sorry, I didn't see you there..." Wife expands excitingly beyond previous Narusean confines. It's difficult to discuss the film's mise-en-scène; I feel it's more on the invisible end, Naruse-wise, which only means the intense Naruse-heads will argue the fact (but I'm open to accept all contrary appraisals).

We move to Nakagawa-san in his workplace, pissed off about his delivery-lunch while his secretary Ms. Sagara (Yatsuko Tan'ami) who delivers his meal unwraps for herself a more delicious looking bentô.

The boarder Eiko Matsuyama leaves her husband the freeloading drunk — short shots around her (when she arrives home to find him passed out, as she packs her belongings onto the moving truck).

Tanimura the painter on his way to the newest exhibition, spots Nakagawa and the secretary leaving the museum together — Sagara is a widow with child, formerly lived in Osaka.

Once evening falls, still strolling, Nakagawa discloses his feelings for Sagara, after the two see a movie together, when they're on a bench in the park. ("Bad boy / Petting in the park / Bad girl / Petting in the dark") A relatively chaste admission, for his wife awaits him home while Sagara herself is on the brink of the return to Osaka.

Skip ahead: Mr. Matsuyama, in continuation of a series of departures and arrivals, ejects himself from the house for good after drunkenly dragging Eiko back to the place and causing a row. In the days ahead Eiko will return and ask Mrs. Nakagawa if she would rent a room to a single friend who works with her at the bar; she discloses that the friend has a "patron." (So this Mineuchi will eventually move in upstairs: all mod cons supplied by her patron ("Papa-san"), Kitô.) Coming home from work, Mr. Nakagawa is indifferent to the prospect despite the new boarder's promise of a ¥50,000 deposit: he announces he's leaving on business in Osaka.

I'll take a break from recounting the intensive plot. (1) Note Tanimura's covert fascination with Mr. Nakagawa's private life and his lamentation, upon hearing of the new boarder's move-in, that women just don't like him. (2) Note that the vacillation between house-/neighborhood-space and work-/city-space trace a similar delineation to that of Repast; Uehara unsatisfied, as in the earlier film, which is not to say in Wife that he is so conflicted. (3) There's a proto-There's Always Tomorrow [Douglas Sirk, 1956] moment with a toy-truck falling off the steps at Sagara's in Tokyo; she wishes she could could return to Tokyo with him.



Mrs. Nakagawa has drawn her conclusion about her husband's relationship with Sagara upon his return from the Osaka trip. — He confirms they're lovers, and this is the midway point of the film. "I can't believe what we're facing. This is awful."

Kitô-the-patron's wife appears at the boarding house, heartbroken upon Mineko's confirmation of the intel that a Ms. Mineuchi lives there (as she learned from a hired private eye). — "And your husband fell for a woman working at a bar."

The second-half 'settles' into an alternative groove — confrontation, Sakurai arriving to cook the estranged couple halibut — some comic so-and-so —


Odd cut from her harangue to Mineko to Nakagawa's look-in from outside — moments later. She tells Mineko (she's storming off to see her parents): "Let me say this now. You're a cold-hearted person. Have you ever offered anything to others?" — she storms out, appalled by Mineko's attitude — and Mineko departs to her parents'.

Sagara unexpectedly rearrives in Tokyo, phones Nakagawa to meet up.

Sôbei Niimura — Mineko is née Niimura apparently — he shows up at Nakagawa's workplace. — He beckons him to a meeting — afterward Nakagawa goes to "Lambre" to meet Sagara: their place.


Once she's home she's urged to return to her husband — she's chided by her sister for applying too much rouge — sis advises: stick to the lips. Mineko says: "Women are pitiful.""When men fall for other women, don't they care about their relationship with their wives?" "Of course they do; they're humans too. That's why divorce court is always busy."

Mineuchi and Kitô come home. Anxious, Mineko rifles through Nakagawa's blazer and finds a card with Sagara's address — she proceeds to pay a direct visit. She confronts Sagara, they go for an extended walk. Everything comes out. — They stop at a café and order black tea. Mineko Nakagawa: "I refuse to get divorced to receive alimony from him. If you still want to be with him, I'll kill myself and haunt the both of you."



Showdown and Sagara leaves —

Nakagawa heads to Lambre and a note awaits him delivered by a hostess, from Sagara.

The very end, in bookended monologues — he wonders whether divorce can happen; she wonders the same and expresses how she could only wish to confess more of her feelings. — "Is that what being a woman or a wife is supposed to be?"

Last two shots: (1) Nakagawa walks to work, crossing the rail line. (2) Mineko dusts the house whippingly.

As you might be able to tell, for me, this is a Naruse film where I'm trying to come to something. I'm writing these pieces with the hope that one picture leads to a revelation in the next, revelations in the nest notwithstanding. My acquaintance Brad Stevens deems this his favorite Mikio Naruse film.

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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]

Meshi [Repast, 1953]


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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Le chant du styrène


L'arrivée à l'usine Resnais



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A World's Fair of modern(ist) form, Alain Resnais's short, plastic essay-poem-film Le chant du styrène [The Song of the Styrene, 1958] takes the viewer on a backward journey from the final removal of finished plastic products off the mold, through the process of manufacture, to their petrochemical concoction and elemental origin. We learn styrene used to be made from benzoin, drawn from the resin of the bush Styrax.

The film was commissioned by the industrial concern Pechiney. Resnais eluded their expectations; his effort is a Mad Men campaign run Tati-influenced riot, a Season 7 brainstorm in a Season 1 backdrop. He enlisted Raymond Queneau to write the voice-over narration (read by Pierre Dux), which is comprised wholly of alexandrines; a stanza by Victor Hugo acts as prologue. Then of course Pierre Barbeau added a rich and dynamic score for strings, itself a small masterpiece...

The film exists in versions featuring two different opening titles respectively: one maintains Resnais's original: "Le chant du styrène." The other merely announces: "STYRENE," and it's this version (a Janus Films print) that appears on The Criterion Channel and on the Criterion Blu-ray of Last Year in Marienbad. Alteration for the sake of a Pechiney in-house print, intended for screening at the corporate getaway?









The film moves from Mon oncle to Red Desert. Its structure and imagery echo that of Resnais's earlier Night and Fog. Here is a different kind of "concentration" camp, albeit one not without, to quote Queneau's script, its own "origins obscure". The film concludes on a plunge into the primordial: now proved prophetic: the siren's song of industry: "the future's in plastics"?






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There's an excellent text on the film by Pierre Lazlo viewable here as a PDF.

Here is Raymond Queneau's voice-over text in full:

O temps, suspends ton bol, ô matière plastique !
D'où viens-tu ? Qui es-tu ? et qu'est-ce qui explique
Tes rares qualités ? De quoi es-tu donc fait ?
Quelle est son origine ? En partant de l'objet
Retrouvons ses aïeux ! Qu'à l'envers se déroule
son histoire exemplaire. Voici d'abord le moule.
Incluant la matrice, être mystérieux,
il engendre le bol ou bien tout ce qu'on veut.
Mais le moule est lui-même inclus dans une presse
qui injecte la pâte et conforme la pièce.
Ce qui présente donc le très grand avantage
d'avoir l'objet fini sans autre façonnage.
Le moule coûte cher : c'est un inconvénient -
mais il peut re-servir sur d'autres continents
Le formage sous vide est une autre façon
d'obtenir des objets : par simple aspiration.
A l'étape antérieure, adroitement rangé,
Le matériau tiédi est en plaque extrudé.
Pour entrer dans la buse il fallait le piston
et le manchon chauffant - ou le chauffant manchon
Auquel on fournissait - Quoi ? Le polystyrène
vivace et turbulent qui se hâte et s'égrène.
Et l'essaim granulé sur le tamis vibrant
fourmillait tout heureux d'un si beau colorant.
Avant d'être granule on avait été jonc,
joncs de toutes couleurs, teintes, nuances, tons
Ces joncs avaient été suivant une filière
un boudin que sans fin une vis agglomère
Et ce qui donnait lieu à l'agglutination ?
Des perles colorées de toutes les façons.
Et colorées comment ? Là devient homogène,
le pigment qu'on mélange à du polystyrène.
Mais avant il fallut que le produit séchât
et, rotativement, le produit trébucha.
C'est alors que naquit notre polystyrène
polymère produit du plus simple styrène.
Polymérisation : ce mot, chacun le sait,
désigne l'obtention d'un complexe élevé
de poids moléculaire. Et dans un autoclave
machine élémentaire à la panse concave
les molécules donc s'accrochant, se liant
en perles se formaient. Oui, mais - auparavant ?
Le styrène n'était qu'un liquide incolore
Quelque peu explosif et non pas inodore.
Et regardez-le bien : c'est la seule occasion
pour vous d'apercevoir le liquide en question.
Le styrène est produit en grande quantité
A partir de l1éthyl-benzène surchauffé.
Faut un catalyseur comme cela se nomme
oxyde ou bien de zinc ou bien de magnésium.
Le styrène autrefois s'extrayait du benjoin
provenant du styrax, arbuste indonésien.
De tuyau en tuyau ainsi nous remontons
à travers le désert des canalisations
vers les produits premiers, vers la matière abstraite
qui circulait sans fin, effective et secrète.
On lave et on distille et puis on redistille
et ce ne sont pas là exercices de style.
L'éthylbenzène peut - et doit même éclater
si la température atteint certain degré.
Il faut se demander maintenant d'où proviennent
ces produits essentiels : éthylène et benzène.
Ils s'extraient du pétrole, un liquide magique
qu'on trouve de Bordeaux jusqu'au coeur de l'Afrique.
Ils s'extraient du pétrole et aussi du charbon.
Pour faire l'un et l'autre, et l'autre et l'un sont bons.
Se transforment en gaz, le charbon se combure
et donne alors naissance à ces hydrocarbures.
On pourrait repartir sur ces nouvelles pistes
et rechercher pourquoi et l'un et l'autre existent.
Le pétrole vient-il de masses de poissons ?
On ne sait pas trop ni d'où vient le charbon.
Le pétrole vient-il du plancton en gésine ?
Question controversée... obscures origines...
Et pétrole et charbon s'en allaient en fumée
Quand le chimiste vint qui eut l'heureuse idée
de rendre ces nuées solides et d'en faire
d'innombrables objets au but utilitaire.
En matériaux nouveaux ces obscures résidus
Sont ainsi transformés. Il en est d'inconnus
qui attendent encore un travail similaire
pour faire le sujet d'autres documentaires.


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More writing at Cinemasparagus on the films of Alain Resnais:

Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog, 1955]

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Monday, February 06, 2017

Night and Fog



Deportations




(All images are details from iPhone photos taken of the film playing from the Criterion Blu-ray.)


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These recent viewings of Night and Fog [Nuit et brouillard, Alain Resnais, 1955] have been my first of the CNC-funded 2015 restoration, performed at 4K from the original 35mm camera negative by Éclair Group for the image and L. E. Diapason for the sound. An opening title reads: "As digital projection and restoration rapidly invaded the film world, Alain Resnais lamented that the same respect awarded old books — despite their battered covers and worn-out pages — was painfully missing when it came to aging film prints and negatives. — Thus, the utmost restraint has been exercised in the restoration of this film, in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the archival footage. – Argos Films"

Truffaut once wrote: "The effective war film is often the one in which the action begins after the war, when there is nothing but ruins and desolation everywhere: Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and, above all, Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard, the greatest film ever made." Resnais's picture certainly established a standard point of perspective — the retrospective reckoning, the face à face projections of history and memory — that would be adopted and focused further not only in the filmmaker's subsequent work but in that of Lanzmann, Marker, Godard, Akerman, and others. A method of forensic-science: train the camera, magnify the evidence. Observe the brilliant opening shot upon docile pasture, as the camera cranes down like the very Geist or omniscient prodigy only to reveal barbed wire fences in parallax relation; beneath Hanns Eisler's ambivalent score, scenarist Jean Cayrol's voice-over intones: "Même un paysage tranquille..." / "Even a peaceful landscape..." (Side-note: Every Resnais film serves also as homage to its scenarists, here Cayrol and in an associate capacity Chris Marker. Note the owl-like visage of one particular prisoner: hybrid grotesque: strange fruit.)


Soon we see the overgrown train-tracks that, filmed by Resnais in tracking-shot (le travelling), transported the prisoners from across Europe here to Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, etc. These shots not only dramatize, attempt to replicate the 'feeling' of, arrival at this destination, disused now or rather preserved in its disuse (cf. Auschwitz I, now converted to a museum, and discussed in my piece on Comolli and Lindeperg's film Face aux fantômes), but manifest in a sense the inevitability of the narrative-line's endpoint itself. Resnais shoots Auschwitz-Birkenau 1955 in color, with cranes and via oblique high-angle tracking shots; he shoots Auschwitz I 1955 in black-and-white, using lateral tracking shots; lastly, he incorporates archival and newsreel footage and photographic documents from the 1940s. All three approaches emanate ghosts. In Face aux fantômes, Sylvie Lindeperg will raise the question of the presence and provenance of the cameras filming the Jews from the train platform as they prepare to depart to the camps. The camera-eye doesn't blink before the men, women, and children "unaware that hundreds of miles away a place has already been assigned to them."


The color images make the events hyperreal — according to Cayrol, "are all that's left for us to imagine." They also defy, silently, implicitly, "that nocturnal spectacle the Nazis were so fond of." Here lies a basis for the detail of "night and fog," a phrase used early on in the narration, some minutes before images show up of prisoners the back of whose shirts are stained with an "N N" — for "Nacht und Nebel". Such was the 'poetic' gallows-humor of the Oberhäupter and the Kapos who, in any case, were largely comprised of "petty criminals, masters among subhumans."



In 1942, Himmler visited the camps to examine progress. (In the administration's eyes, "these strange 70-pound workers are unreliable.") Cayrol tells us that the precise process of annihilation is Himmler's idea, but that "efficiency" is left up to the engineers. Work begins apace upon the furnaces. The ghoulish irony is that documents such as those made to better assess the operations' prized efficiency should lend so ineluctable a materiality to the dead: no 'ashes of time' in history, but starved desocketed corpses in piles, heaped, bulldozed into mass graves.




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