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July 25, 2005

Sakura-tai Chiru, 1988

sakura_tai.gifA somber retrospective on the final days of the Sakura-tai theatrical troupe that had arrived in the island of Hiroshima to begin preparations for the staging of a play and, at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, became victims of the atomic bombing, Sakura-tai Chiru is a thoughtful examination of artistic imperative in a time of uncertainty and national crisis. Using the 1987 commemorative ceremony in Hiroshima and the dedication of a memorial to Sakurai-tai at Gohyaku-Rakanji Temple as a springboard to the re-examine the life and careers of the actors (and in particular, the troupe's director, renowned film and theater actor Sadao Maruyama who had appeared in such notable films as Mikio Naruse's Wife! Be Like a Rose!), the film is composed of a series of interviews with friends, family, and colleagues (among them, Nobuko Otawa, Eitaro Ozawa, Haruko Sugimura, and Osamu Takizawa) and re-enactments of the remaining survivors' tragic fate (four actors had survived the immediate bombing - Maruyama, Keiko Sonoi, Shozo Takayama, and Midori Naka - only to inevitably succumb to death days later). The film traces the evolution of the theatrical troupe within the context of Japanese history, from its early permutation as a government-mandated propaganda tool in the 1930s, to established actor, Maruyama's creative directorship of the splinter organization, to the Great Tokyo Air Raid of March 10, 1945 that caused several (predominantly male) actors to take indeterminate leaves of absence from the troupe in order to help their families (and city) rebuild, to the troupe's decision to send out two of the four remaining male actors in order to scout for replacement actors for their August Hiroshima engagement. These seemingly mundane operational decisions - to continue with the performance despite personal hardship and wartime uncertainty - would inevitably lead to the fate of Sakura-tai in light of the tragic context of world history. Tracing the fates of the four survivors as they sought the safety of family and friends after the atomic bombing only to endure lingering, agonizing deaths from incurable radiation poisoning, what emerges from the film's harrowing and deeply personal account is a sense of exploited and trivialized humanity in the face of military aggression and inhuman politics.

Note: A series of un-narrated photographic stills bearing only the Sakurai-tai actors' names and ages at the time of the bombing provide a simple, yet moving evocation of the human faces behind the senseless tragedy: Sadao Maruyama (age 44), Keiko Sonoi (age 32), Shozo Takayama (age 21), Midori Naka (age 36), Ayako Morishita (age 23), Kyoko Habara (age 22), Tsuyako Shimaki (age 22), Kiyo Komuro (age 30), Keiko Ryu (age 41).

Posted by acquarello on Jul 25, 2005 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2005


July 21, 2005

Girish's Music Meme Non-Tag

Girish picked up the ball on an ongoing music meme, so I thought I'd join in on it too.

  • 1. Total volume of music files on your computer.
  • Not a lot, about 500 MB. I'm not as voracious about buying music as I used to be.
  • 2. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.
  • The Blue Nile, High

    The Blue Nile only releases an album every 7-8 years, and somehow, I missed this one. I just found out recently that this was released last year.

  • 3. Song playing right now.
  • Xavier Cugat, Sway (actually, it's the entire The Best of Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra CD). I was inspired to pick this up by the music from Wong Kar-wai's voluptuous 2046.
  • 4. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs).
  • All time favorites (which are interchangeable with personally meaningful for me):
    Railwayed - Kitchens of Distinction
    Let's Go Out Tonight - The Blue Nile
    China - Tori Amos
    Pleasure and Pain - The Chameleons
    Dreams Never End - New Order
  • 5. Tag Five People.
  • For the same reasons are Girish, I'm putting out a "non-tag" too. No virtual pressure.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes


July 20, 2005

Naked Island UK DVD

naked_island.gif

The DVD of Kaneto Shindo's elegant film poem, Naked Island, has now been released in the UK by the fine folks at Eureka/Masters of Cinema Collection, which includes an essay that I had written on the creative (and philosophical) influence of the atomic bombing on the Hiroshima-native filmmaker and in particular, its implicit manifestation in this elegiac and deeply moving pure film.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes


July 17, 2005

Savage Innocence, 2001

savage.gifIn an early episode in the film, a struggling filmmaker, François (Mehdi Belhaj Kacem) meets with a producer named Hutten (Jean Pommier) in order to obtain funding for his proposed, self-described anti-heroin and anti-mafia film that serves do demythologize drugs called Sauvage Innocence that revolved around the tragic life of a presumably fictional character named Marie-Thérèse (and whom his friends and family instantly recognize as a thinly veiled characterization based on François' former lover, Carole, a fashion model who had died of a drug overdose). Appearing eager to collaborate with the young filmmaker whom he considers to be a genuine auteur, Hutten offers to fund him an advance in order to help defray preproduction costs before leaving the room to attend to some unspecified matter, assuring François that his personal assistant is in the process of issuing him a check and will be handing it to him shortly. François continues to wait in the emptied office into the late hours for the check that never materializes until he is chased away by the night watchman. The brusque encounter would prove to be a turning point in François' obsession with the realization of his film. Contacting a disreputable businessman named Chas (Michel Subor) for funding, François agrees to smuggle a suitcase full of heroin into the country in exchange for the financing of his entire film budget. However, the irony of situation proves inextricably deeper than the tainted money. Casting his new lover Lucie (Julia Faure), a drama student and aspiring actress in the role of Marie-Thérèse, Hutten's description of François as an auteur proved eerily prescient and disturbing. Like retired detective Scottie Ferguson's manipulation and transformation of department store clerk Judy Barton into the tragic image of his dead lover in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, François becomes equally haunted in the pursuit of the illusion - the fictionalized reality - of his tormented, unrequited vision. By tracing François' increasing obsession and emotional withdrawal with the consuming idea of capturing the essence of Carole's troubled soul, embodied through the fictional reincarnation of Marie-Thérèse, and interpreted by his current paramour Lucie, Philippe Garrel creates an intricate, yet nuanced psychological deconstruction, not only of a pliable, self-destructive, addictive personality, but also the obsessiveness and controlling mentality (and to some degree, a kind of megalomania) innate in an auteurist personality. Rather than illustrating the innate disparity between performance and real-life that underlies the filmmaking process Savage Innocence presents an ingenious permutation on the narrative structure of a film within a film in which the myopic pursuit of the artistic ideal leads to a Pirandellian madness and self-prophecy. It is within this context that Chas' decision to recruit François for the clandestine task because of his "virgin" qualities in being neither a drug user nor a trafficker can be seen as a manifestation of the film's metaphoric title, the savage innocent who carves a corruptive path but remains pure in ideal, unscathed in the wake of his own emotional destruction.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 17, 2005 | | Comments (8) | Filed under 2005


July 11, 2005

Hélas pour moi, 1993

helas.gifAn ancient tale of forefathers journeying to a secluded, sacred ground in the forest in order to perform a solemn ritual of prayer and meditation underscores the film’s sense of disconnection and longing, as each passing generation represents a spiritual, ancestral, and cultural dilution of the observance until the ritual is reduced to words without meaning, gestures without cognition, landscapes without rooting.

The theme of spirituality is presented within the framework of a contemporary Greek myth as Zeus descends from the heavens in order to seduce Amphitryon's faithful wife Alcmene, this time, transfigured into the lives of Simon and Rachel Donnadieu - the faceless, disembodied voice of the descended god evoking, not omnipotence, but disarticulated frailty, a reflection of his seeming (ir)relevance in the modern world.

Jean-Luc Godard explores the nuances of the word faith to reflect, not only on eternal love and marital fidelity, but also intrinsic spirituality. However, as prefigured in the opening narrative, the word has become estranged from the consciousness of meaning: an utterance that is neither a prayer nor an invocation, but merely a casual expression ...a wistfulness.

The modulation between tragedy and comedy provides tongue-in-cheek whimsicality to the seemingly somber cerebral exposition. Dylan Thomas' elegiac poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is juxtaposed initially against a highly formalized, dramatic shot of a lone Rachel pining for her absent husband, then subsequently, against an understatedly humorous shot of a sluggish bar patron reluctantly leaving the premises for the evening: the former, a poetic evocation of unrequited melancholia; the latter, a mundane caution on the perils of intoxication. The bifurcated juxtapositions further reinforce the idea of the importance of contextual fidelity (the ritual) rather than simply achieving a textual fidelity that can prove to be false (a surrogate).

Posted by acquarello on Jul 11, 2005 | | Filed under 2005


July 9, 2005

El Dorado, 1921

eldorado.gifIn the book Alain Resnais, author James Monaco cites a comment by the filmmaker on Last Year at Marienbad that his idea for the film was to "renew a certain style of the silent cinema", for which Monaco expounds that this overarching vision contributed to the film's multifaceted syntax that "any particular shot can be read as either present tense, past tense, conditional or subjunctive, or pure fantasy. This too is realism, but of a different sort... Robbe-Grillet called it 'mental realism'." It is within this context of creating mental realism, a hermetic, immersive sensorial experience that seems to exist solely in the personal realm of human perspective - a figment of the imagination - that the seminal influence of Marcel L'Herbier's El Dorado may be seen in Resnais' realization of Last Year at Marienbad. Tactile, voluptuous, and otherworldly, the ornate, impeccable architectures and visual geometry of the cabaret El Dorado and the clandestine meeting grounds of the desolate L'Alhambra also reflect this elaborately conceived imaginary construction, a meticulously rendered, but irresolvable fictional aesthetic that is similarly manifested in the baroque interiors and mise-en-scène of Last Year at Marienbad and invariably serve as an essential projection of the characters' own psychological reality and unarticulated desire: a sickly, illegitimate child is confined to a Spartan room adorned with a large cross, a constant reinforcement of his seemingly incurable illness and near death; the smoke-filled, unbridled hothouse of El Dorado, visually distorted under the influence of the patrons' intoxication and lust for the cabaret's feature performer, Sibilla; the recollection of a seduction and ill-fated love affair appears clouded and unfocused, sentimentally diffused by years of estrangement, frigidity, and fading memory; an artist pining for his lover envisions her materialization in the symmetric framing of an arcing fountain, in essence, a figurative mental projection of ephemeral desire onto physical architecture. The influence of L'Herbier's stylistic subversion of melodrama through plot distillation and integration of metaphoric imagery is also evident in Resnais' fractured narrative and metamorphosing imagery, introducing archetypal characters that eschew human complexity in favor of representational acts (note the denouement that occurs behind a translucent stage backdrop, creating a grotesque superimposition of spasmodic shadows). It is this narrative compression through the integral conflation of performance and mise-en-scène that inevitably defines the bold, idiosyncratic spectacle of El Dorado, a film in which the tale of the human condition is revealed, not through expressed character insight, but through the loaded imagery of evocative gestures and malleable architecture.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 09, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005


July 7, 2005

The Best of Youth, 2003

best_youth.gifAfter having missed the first hour of The Best of Youth when it screened at the 2003 New York Film Festival, I had constructed a mental scenario of what happened in that first hour that would have reconciled the way the film eventually unfolded. I had thought that Giorgia, the institutionalized young woman, was Nicola and Matteo's childhood friend (and perhaps Matteo's unrequited first love), the wedge between the brothers created when they became romantic rivals for her affection. I had also thought that this rivalry had somehow led to Giorgia's nervous breakdown and institutionalization, Matteo's enlistment in the military (in a defiant gesture to avoid following his heart again despite demonstrating a seeming penchant for academia in his youth), and catalyzed Nicola's decision to become a psychiatrist (after some transcontinental soul searching "at the end of the world"). As it turns out, none of these imagined scenarios actually happened in the film, and in real life, the course of human existence is never neatly predefined or reducible to that one transformative puzzle piece that reconciles everything. The implicit encapsulation of that underlying truism in such an epic and unhurried film as The Best of Youth is inevitably what makes the film so perceptive and satisfying. Eschewing the overt politicization and sensational cataclysm that could easily pervade any film that chronicles contemporary world history (particularly in the 1970s), the repercussions of history, nevertheless, remain palpable but indirect in the film (the Arno flooding of Florence, May 68-inspired student protests and worker strikes, Red Brigade terrorism, Fiat factory closures, mafia executions, Sistine Chapel restoration), and what remains is a more personal and insightful document of a middle-class family's assimilative quotidian through malleable history. In this regard, the film is closer in spirit to Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness in the peripherality of the characters with respect to the national and cultural trauma of their environment. However, while Hou's film reflects the repercussions of an irreparable national struggle, filmmaker Marco Tullio Giordana's vision is one of acceptance, resilience, and the innate imperative to carry on with this process - the ritual - of living. For Giordana, the testament of human history is not told through the annals of revolutionary social struggle, but in the lifelines of average, unremarkable hands and faces made intimately familiar - and all the more indelibly beautiful - by time and briefly intersecting destinies.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 07, 2005 | | Comments (9) | Filed under 2005


July 5, 2005

Revised Mid-Year Favorites

» La Blessure (Nicolas Klotz) - Alternately enraging, moving, haunting, and affirming, I can't seem to shake the lingering impact of this film.

» L'Intrus (Claire Denis)

» State of Fear* (Pamela Yates, Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy)

» Seoul Train* (Jim Butterworth, Aarin Lubarsky and Lisa Sleeth) - The kind of film that shakes your consciousness.

» Tomorrow We Move (Chantal Akerman) - Elsa Zylberstein's role elevated this film.

» Compadre (Mikael Wiström)

» Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel)

» The Colonial Misunderstanding (Jean-Marie Téno) - The genesis and evolution of African colonial history from an African perspective. Eye opening.

» Videoletters (Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek)

» Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso)

Posted by acquarello on Jul 05, 2005 | | Comments (6) | Filed under 2005, Quick Notes


July 3, 2005

Ten Minutes Older: The Cello

Histoire d'eaux (Bernardo Bertolucci) - A whimsical, cross-cultural melding of east meets west romantic comedy presented in highly fractured (if unremarkable) ellipses that chronicle the couple's chance encounter, marriage, extramarital temptation, and bizarre separation.

About Time 2 (Mike Figgis) - Multichannel split screening in the vein of Timecode, sometimes converging towards the encounter, other times intersecting temporal planes between childhood and adulthood, life and death. At each transection, the incompleteness of connection, the failure of intimacy, the painful awareness of intranscendable distance.

One Moment (Jiří Menzel) - Poetic, affectionate, lyrical, and elegy for actor Rudolf Hrusinsky composed of a wordless montage of slowed film footage spanning Hrusinsky's entire career that embodies the human experience: toil, rest, education, romantic love, rejection, desire, aging, frailty. A recurring interstitial black screen with the words "ten minutes" becomes a constant reinforcement of transience, a career and life distilled to the precious few minutes of the film, a reflection of its brevity.

Ten Minutes After (István Szabó) - Jeanne Dielman meets Joseph K. (by way of Michael Haneke) surreal nightmare tale of a meticulous, bored housewife who is aggressively confronted by a drunken husband. Neither the cinematography nor the narrative, however, is particularly memorable or engaging.

Vers Nancy (Claire Denis) - A train conversation between an immigrant French woman and novelist Jean-Luc Nancy centering on the idea of intrusion within every foreigner (a more philosophical precursor to L'Intrus). denis.gifA social commentary on the inherent fallacy - particularly in nations with a strong national identity like the U.S. and France - of the social notion that assimilation and integration embrace cultural differences; rather, it erases them. The idea of intrusion is also present in the creation of the Schengen Zone which allows for free movement of people from European countries within the agreement signatory countries (note the opening sequence in L'Intrus), creating a buffer between Old Europe and the "other" Europe (an exclusion similarly explored by Aleksandr Sokurov in Russian Ark) that flouts the idea of globalism and a unified Europe, essentially establishing a segregated European "homogenous zone" where populations from outside the zone become "intruders" within it. Themes of transplantation, assimilation, rejection, and identity expound into broader cultural and social themes beyond Nancy's medical heart transplant.

The Enlightenment (Volker Schlöndorff) - Based on Augustinus (A.D. 354-430), the film is part philosophical meditation on the malleability and ephemerality of time, wryly (perhaps even cynically) set against a trailer park family barbecue. The point of view from the unidentified, seemingly all-seeing narrator is never still: always moving, floating, weaving, impermanent as time.

Addicted to the Stars (Michael Radford) - Hyperstylized time travel and homecoming, a transfigured, Einsteinian space-time odyssey, an Odysseus returning - not to his beloved Penelope - but to an aging Telemachus, the loneliness of returning after a long separation, the consciousness of time passed.

In the Darkness of Time (Jean-Luc Godard) - Brooding, ponderous elegy on the death of cinema. Juxtaposed images of disposability and history (shots of garbage collection cuts to images of Holocaust victims being loaded into a truck) underscore the confluence, obsolescence, and marginalization of film as a tool for social document. A micro-version of Histoire(s) du cinéma punctuated by a Kenneth Anger-esque, clandestine, sinister ritual, filtered through the aging filmmaker's cynical, contemptuous, and impotent gaze.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 03, 2005 | | Comments (4) | Filed under 2005


July 2, 2005

In Praise of Shadows

(Junichiro Tanizaki, 1933)

"One need only compare American, French, and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and coloration in motion pictures. In the photographic image itself, to say nothing of the acting and the script, there somehow emerges differences in national character. If this is true even when identical equipment, chemicals, and film are used, how much better our own photographic technology might have been suited to our complexion, our facial features, our climate, our land. And had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voices and our music. Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere. When recorded, or amplified by loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses. Yet the phonograph and render these moments of silence utterly lifeless. And so we distort the arts themselves to curry favor for them with the machines. These machines are the inventions of Westerners, and are, as we might expect, well suited to the Western arts. But precisely on this account they put our own arts at a great disadvantage."

The preceding passage from Junichiro Tanizaki's unstructured essay In Praise of Shadows presents an interesting frameworkpraise_shadows.gif for the causality and evolution of indigenous culture. On the one hand, there is clearly an isolationist tone to his argument (although it should be noted that this was not an uncommon sentiment in 1930s Japan): one that proposes that a nation, left to its own devices, would have inevitably developed analogous technologies that similarly solve the presented problems of modern civilization, but more importantly, would do so in a manner in keeping with the aesthetics and philosophy of that culture. On the other hand, Tanizaki also raises a provocative question on how the assimilation of "borrowed" technology, in itself, is not only a subconscious act of cultural dilution, but also prescribes a certain integral, non-native conformity in its implementation and usage. In other words, people learn to adapt to a technology in which the parameters and specifications are externally defined by dissimilar societies, and as a result, those characteristics that fall outside the limitations of the technology are suppressed, while those that complement - or at least work within - its limitations are cultivated and preserved.

In another passage on the Japanese adoption of the fountain pen over a modern adaptation of the traditional, Oriental writing brush, Tanizaki ruminates on the idea of altering the course of national literature as an extrapolated consequence of changing the method of writing. In essence, by changing the mere act - and therefore, the ritual - of the manner of writing, the substance and content of the writing - and in turn, the indigenous culture that has produced it - also becomes irreparably altered.

Characterizing the Japanese aesthetic as an overall penchant for impureness, irregularity, agedness, and asymmetry, Tanizaki describes traditional Japanese architecture as a culmination of these factors, integrating natural materials as a means of diffusing (and regulating) natural light (such as those from paper lanterns) and creating spatial design based on the structural casting of shadows. According to Tanizaki, minimal decoration is not, in itself, the aesthetic but the integrated design to avoid detraction and fragmentation of continuous shadows cast on blank walls.

The essay introduces an intriguing perspective with respect to the evolution of Japanese film. Setting aside issues of distribution, availability, and even prewar and postwar censorship, has the mere fact that film is a Western invention already filtered and transformed the "natural" evolution of the Japanese film? What would Japanese film look like had the technology and artform developed independently? In particular, is it more appropriate to describe Yasujiro Ozu, often described as "the most Japanese of filmmakers", as instead perhaps the most adept at subverting the Western medium in order to retain the most indigenous aspects of the culture? In this case, how would Tanizaki reconcile the implicit "technological distillation" of Ozu's films with the philosophical validation inherent within them? Does not the articulation of loss, inevitable change, and cultural transformation conversely validate each other's sentiments?

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2005 | | Filed under 2005