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July 21, 2006

Mix-Up, 1985

mixup.gifFive years before Abbas Kiarostami would blur the delineation between documentary and fiction in Close-Up by casting underemployed laborer and accused Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator, Sabzian to participate in a re-enactment of his fateful encounter with Mrs. Mahrokh Ahankhah and his subsequent deception of the Ahankhah family by ingratiating himself into their company, Françoise Romand would channel the spirit of dramatist Luigi Pirandello's recurring preoccupation with the interpenetration between art and reality in the thoughtful and poignant, yet fascinating, idiosyncratically offbeat, and whimsical first feature, Mix-Up to explore similar Pirandellian themes of identity, destiny, and absurdity. The maternity ward of a small, Nottingham hospital in 1936 serves as the literal and metaphoric stage for the story, as Blanche Rylatt, one of the two mothers involved in the "baby mix-up affair", recounts her admission into the delivery room to fill out the necessary documentation in preparation for the birth of her first child, only to be asked if she would voluntarily vacate the room (leaving all of her paperwork on the table in the hastily arranged move) in order to accommodate another patient, Margaret Wheeler, who was already in a more advanced stage of delivery. Ingeniously shot from the waiting room of a hospital nursery, the now elderly women take turns in front of the viewing window to recount their birth stories, punctuated by the appearance of their respective daughters beside them ...or so it seems, as a disembodied hand reaches over to tap the arm of Blanche's biological daughter, Valery in a pre-arranged cue to stand beside her foster mother, Margaret, while Margaret's biological daughter, Peggy, in turn, once again returns to the foreground, this time, standing beside her foster mother, Blanche.

Already discomfited by the hospital staff's frequent misdirection of flowers and correspondences between the two mothers, Margaret becomes immediately convinced that the daughter given to her was not the baby shown to her during the delivery, a misgiving dismissed by the hospital staff as a common uncertainty expressed by many mothers overwhelmed by the birth of a new child. Without conclusive proof, Margaret sought to insinuate herself into the Rylatt family's life by any means necessary in order to maintain contact with the family (and above all, Peggy), asking Blanche's husband, Fred to become Valery's godfather, paying occasional visits to the family (as well as surreptitiously sending family and friends to view baby Peggy in the hopes of gleaning conclusive information from a third-person opinion), and even sending several photographs of Valery over the years as a courtesy to the family. In contrast, Blanche, placated by their family doctor's reassurances that Peggy was the child whom he had helped deliver, and frequent comments from family and friends on Peggy's resemblance to other members of their extended family (as well as Fred's own conscious attempts to insulate her from Margaret's skeptical instigations), never truly doubted that Peggy was her biological child and showered her with the a kind of over-attentive, doting affection parents often have for their first-born child.

Composed of first-hand accounts of the daughters' childhood (and in particular, Valery's bittersweet expression of her youthful insecurities and incongruous sense of place within the Wheeler household), dramatized re-enactments, impressions and recollections by family and friends (cleverly shot as they all ride the same double-decker bus that underscores the themes of chance and convergences in seemingly random situations and interconnected degrees of separation), and interstitial tableaux that visually illustrate the complex dynamics of the families' relationships, the film straddles - if not, upends - the bounds of documentary and fiction in its idiosyncratic fusion of first-person testimonial narrative and Romand's creative infusion in her reconstruction (or rather, reconstitution) of the life-altering - and enriching - aftermath of Peggy and Valery's accidental switching. Romand's repeated incorporation of sharp geometries and mirrored images serve, not only to symbolize the irony of the perturbated, parallel lives of the Rylatt and Wheeler households (a consuming and seemingly irreconcilable predicament that would embolden Margaret to initiate such uncharacteristic acts as corresponding with leading scientific and legal experts of the day on finding conclusive proof of the children's parentage, and even seeking advice and emotional support from famed playwright and Nobel Prize-winning author, George Bernard Shaw), but also to illustrate the irreparably altered trajectories of their destinies. Inevitably, it is through these enlightened observations, comic asides, and eccentric tangents that Mix-Up incisively illustrates with liberating humor and pathos the refractions of fate and arbitrary chance that reinforce the poetry and absurdity of everyday life.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006


Acquarello, this sounds like a fascinating film!

I was reminded of the Imamura "Great Directors" essay at Senses (written by Nelson Kim) that discusses the blurring of doc and fiction in this Imamura film, which I've never seen. It sounded interesting, so let me reproduce the passage here:

"Imamura made his first detour into documentary filmmaking with A Man Vanishes (1967), a highly original blend of documentary and fiction techniques (and a worthy precursor to Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf's later experiments). Imamura was interested in studying a Japanese social phenomenon: every year, many men disappear from the lives they've constructed, leaving behind jobs and families, vanishing into anonymity. A Man Vanishes follows Yoshie Hayakawa, the fiancée of one such man, as she tracks down leads, pokes into rumors, searches for the truth about her missing lover. Eventually she reveals that she has fallen in love with the “investigator” Imamura has paired her with, a professional actor (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi, the rapist in Intentions of Murder). In the film's central scene, Imamura, onscreen, provokes a confrontation in a teahouse between Hayakawa and her sister, who she believes played a part in her fiancé's disappearance—and then, at a moment of high tension, the director shouts a command to his hidden crew as the walls of the “teahouse” collapse to reveal a film set. “Real people” and actors, unmediated reality and staged scenes, the world and its soundstage imitation: in this sly, provocative, and puzzling film, Imamura muddies the boundaries and relishes the mess that results."

Posted by: girish on Jul 22, 2006 3:27 PM | Permalink

Hey Girish, I haven't seen the Imamura film either, but yes, the evocation of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf makes it sound as though it's in the same ballpark (Gabbeh, in particular, in its formalism). If the Imamura film is anything like his The Man Who Left His Will on Film, it doesn't quite have that film within a film vibe, but there's definitely that consciousness that you're watching a film.

Hmm...your comment about the disappearing men also reminded of something else - Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map which Hiroshi Teshigahara made into The Man Without a Map. In that one, a detective is hired by the missing man's wife to find him and becomes more of a psychological puzzle on identity. I wonder if Abe got the idea from that phenomenon as well.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 22, 2006 5:12 PM | Permalink

Yeah, oddly enough, Gabbeh is probably the Makhmalbaf film I connect with the least...

I've never seen the Teshigahara. And, um, Man Who Left His Will...Oshima, no? I saw it long ago; I remember it being pretty tough going, I just wasn't ready for it at the time.

Posted by: girish on Jul 24, 2006 1:15 AM | Permalink

Acquarello, the only Oshima I've seen is In The Realm Of The Senses, which I admire a great deal. I'd love to see more. Got any recommendations?

(I also picked up the Maureen Turim book on him because it looked really good.)

Posted by: girish on Jul 24, 2006 7:58 AM | Permalink

On second thought: I've also seen Taboo, which I liked.

Posted by: girish on Jul 24, 2006 7:59 AM | Permalink

I've been meaning to say this sounds like a fascinating watch, Acquarello (as does everything else you write on!).

It's been a long time since I've seen it, but I do remember Imamura's A Man Vanishes being a truly mind-boggling film. It's composed almost entirely of interviews with its 'cast' and 'random' people on the street, and towards its end, Imamura acknowledges the fictional nature of the film. Yet, despite Imamura's emphatic statement that it's not a documentary, his actual interviews with the true officials about the issue (of disappearing working men) at the very end, does bring the film close to some kind of a documentary state. I think there's a consistent (and more playful?) self-reflexivity to Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film, which is only there for A Man Vanishes on a second viewing, or with prior knowledge of Imamura's design.

Posted by: Mubarak Ali on Jul 24, 2006 8:18 AM | Permalink

"And, um, Man Who Left His Will...Oshima, no?"

Duh, umm...yeah. Did I mention that Best Buy delivered my new TV at 6:50 that morning? :o Lack of sleep, yeah, that's the ticket! ;)

I don't connect with Gabbeh much either, but Mix-Up is far more interesting than Makhmalbaf's live Persian rug drama. :)

I really like Oshima's 60s films much more so than his 70s work. In the Realm of the Senses was a false start for me because it was my introduction to Oshima and it turned me off to his work. Violence at Noon is the one that changed my mind about him, and particularly, how he was integrating sexual psychology and violence (which, like in Taboo decades later, is still something that continues to surface in his work). Cruel Story of Youth and Streets of Love and Hope (available in a Hong Kong DVD) also introduce the "scam theme" that runs through a lot of his work, like Boy. My favorite Oshima so far though is Death By Hanging which is perversely funny and disturbingly true.

I remember that there a debate recently in the US about cruel and unusual punishment because of an appeals case involving a convicted killer diagnosed as borderline retarded who was to be put to death and the argument was that there is no responsibility of guilt without the consciousness of it. That's also what Oshima argues in Death By Hanging because the killer develops amnesia, so they can't execute him unless he can remember what he did.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 24, 2006 8:49 AM | Permalink

Thanks for the insight on A Man Vanishes, Mubarak! It's been a while since I read the monograph, but wasn't there a theme in there about how the "consciousness" of being filmed itself affects the very actions of the subjects being filmed.

I agree with you about the self-reflexity of The Man Who Left His Will on Film, there's definitely a theme of voyeuristic impotence running through the film (coupled with ideological inertia), and Imamura, even though he also wrestles with similar themes of art and voyeurism (as in The Pornographers), his approach is more objective behaviorist than self-critical.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 24, 2006 9:00 AM | Permalink

Oh those sound good. Thanks for the tips, Acquarello.

Posted by: girish on Jul 24, 2006 5:23 PM | Permalink

"...wasn't there a theme in there about how the "consciousness" of being filmed itself affects the very actions of the subjects being filmed."

Yes, exactly! I didn't completely trust my memory of the film, so I just went back to some random scenes and there's definitely a palpable sense of 'performance' and staging, such as the scene when the sisters visit the shaman.

(By the way, just noticed that japanesenewwave.com is preparing to release A Man Vanishes soon, though I'm not at all sure what the image quality on these discs are like.)

Posted by: Mubarak on Jul 25, 2006 3:48 AM | Permalink

Mmm... those "Coming Soon" Imamuras are mighty tempting. Their Oshimas looked to be from the DVD releases in Japan, and they overlaid their own subtitles on them. I'm guessing a similar situation for the Imamuras.

Posted by: acquarello on Jul 25, 2006 9:54 AM | Permalink

Thanks, Acquarello. It's certainly reassuring if that's the case. Really looking forward to Profound Desire of the Gods from their future releases!

Posted by: Mubarak on Jul 26, 2006 7:40 AM | Permalink

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