To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

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To Live Is To Learn: Kenji Mizoguchi on Screen, on DVD

E-mail I: Unveiling Myself

Hey Steve,

So I bought the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff blind and told Keith Uhlich I would write it up. After watching the film two times now, about a week apart, I still have no idea what to write. To be honest: I know it's a marvel of a film but it still doesn't touch me the way I've read people describe it as having affected them. My mood is changed, and I am wholly devastated, but I do not know why there is a value in that any more. I've long thought that when a movie provokes such a depressed response it should be to show you the world is alive, and substantive, despite the sour times, but both Ugestu and Sansho, the two Kenji Mizoguchi films that I've seen, only appear a series of denials. Freedom is only ever achieved at a price, the price of a loved one's death, in both films. Perhaps this is realism? It certainly is crushing.

Let me be clear: I am fascinated by these films, and this director. All the visual rhymes and storytelling patterns—the overall structure—are glorious, and perhaps genius. Sansho opens with the mother telling her son to be careful in the world, to remember his father and his father's teachings, after which the film then travels back in time to show you those precise, compassionate moral teachings. Sansho closes in a minor beach community, ravaged by a tidal wave, attempting to secure itself anew. Here, the covenant between mother and son is reconstituted thanks to the son's faithful devotion to his father's moral teachings, proving their worth and resonance. Mizoguchi's ability to synthesize his morals into the structure of the film and its varied, complex and shifting storylines inspires awe. Yet, I am not moved as much by this ending as I am by the final shot of, say, Ugetsu; or, really, the whole of, say, Rear Window, another film from 1954; or, say, the finale of Breathless, an often hilarious downer film made by one of Mizoguchi's famed trumpeters, Godard; or, possibly most damning, another Japanese milestone from 1954, Seven Samurai, by Mizoguchi's celebrated former assistant, Akira Kurosawa, who has clearly eclipsed him in terms of Western fame since then.

To further unveil myself: I bought Ugetsu blind, too, when it came out from Criterion Collection in late 2005, and while I was blown away by its images and structure, I found it hard to figure out what I liked about it beyond its visual flair and formal precision. Indeed, I am still having trouble understanding why I own the films. I really do not want to watch them again (that often? ever?) no matter how great they may be. And while their packaging is delovely, and the essays insightful (Lopate's essay accompanying Ugestu is better than the one Le Fanu wrote for the Sansho disc), and the supplements worthy of the cost, I'm still nagged by how difficult it is to actually watch these films. Perhaps it's a similar thing to your Antonioni problem: on a small screen, the majestic images and structural genius are not as imposing, or evident, or something. I imagine watching these films in a theatre is an entirely different experience. It's funny, too, that I have this problem as I keep missing the retrospectives that have been popping up around the country in the last year. While I prepared to leave New York (for the West Coast) last summer, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley was running “Seven Classic Mizoguchi”. After I was back in Berkeley, the Film Forum in New York played a series of Mizoguchi classics. And then, after I left Seattle last winter, the series traveled to the Northwest Film Forum. It seems I'm fated to watch the films on DVD, like most of the rest of the Region-1 world, which is a shame.

I know you attended the New York Film Forum retrospective last year and I was curious what your take on both of these films, and any others, might be. Have you seen these Criterion discs? Are there other films of Mizoguchi's you like more? you think work better? you find more joy within? Why do you think, perhaps, Kurosawa is more famous? Simply because his films are more immediately satisfying and less austere? I am wary of all of this. But I trust you.

later, ryland.

E-mail II: The Plasma Can't Cut It

Ry,

Like the nerd I am, I still have the tickets for all the Film Forum Mizoguchi screenings I saw last summer: Story of Late Chrysanthemums, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Life of Oharu and Street of Shame. I love them all, but have no desire to own or view a DVD of any of them. These are pure theatrical experiences. I can't imagine sitting through Chrysanthemum's epic, super long, room-to-room master shots while eating grilled cheese in my apartment. In the theater, the last pan-and-crane shot of Ugetsu gathered up the audience and lifted us into the sky. It was pure religion. Mizoguchi is one of the all-time masters at designing shot sequences, not just for the big screen, but for public consumption. Like those dag-blasted superhero flicks y'all mysteriously champion, Mizoguchi's working with national myths and parables; they don't really resound so well unless you're watching with a packed house of neighbors and strangers. (Imagine watching an immortal performance of a great stage play in an empty playhouse. The audience electricity is a crucial ingredient.) When the father in Sansho, a politician banished for doing the right thing, gives his son a lesson in compassion and mercy before being taken away, I was moved to leave these comments on a film geek forum:

“In just the first five minutes of Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi hands you a treasure you wouldn't trade for a trillion yen: An official in feudal Japan has gotten into hot water by defying his superiors on behalf of aggrieved peasants. He's about to be jailed or exiled for doing the right fucking thing, so he takes his last few moments at home to impart some wisdom to his son, who it's clear he will never see again.

“The advice he gives his boy stands in sharp contrast to every father-son talking-to in Western cinema. Take, um, Conan the Barbarian. Conan's dad tells him to trust no one or nothing but his sword. Trust nothing but an instrument of death. Thanks, dad. By the end of the flick, Conan has survived by trusting only his sword, killing hundreds, and has worked up the balls to defy even God (Crom): “Don't like it? To hell with you.”

“The father in Sansho delivers to his son a clear, stirring set of virtues comparable to Jesus' sermon on the mount. But shorter. Mizoguchi is drawing from tenets of Buddhism and elements of Japanese myth, but I don't see any western filmmaker from that time engaging so directly and intimately with the meaning of, say, the Gospels. Over here it's greeting cards.

“John Wayne and Mel Gibson and all the other soldiers of Christ trust their swords first. Alls I'm saying is, I would trade all the Westerns and DeMille epics and morality plays gaudying up Ho'wood's history for just those three minutes of the father-son lesson in Sansho. If we had more stuff like that in our culture, who knows what we'd be?”

This trans-Pacific cultural communication I perceived wouldn't be so forceful if just me and maybe a homeboy/girl or two were sitting at home staring at the flick on the 50” plasma.

Speaking of plays, I'm starting to question the whole notion of a good film as something you can revisit frequently and see something new in each time—the return-to-the-well theory. Those five Mizoguchi films live in my mind the way a performance of the play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom still marks my soul. I know I can be a drama queen with the hyperbole, but I mean it here: I can recall those hauntings as vividly as the time I got stuck up on 241st Street. No need for a refresher.

Ry, if you had been there for the Mizoguchi fest, I think you would know why you own those discs. You'd have them for the same reason that those ticket stubs are in my wallet: to trigger powerful memories, to go over the crime scene occasionally, to figure out how the whole thing was brought off. At this point, DVD is my ongoing film school. I might put on a disc of Ugetsu if I'm planning to shoot something and want to see how the director handled a particular sequence. Even though the world doesn't know it, films on DVD and all their supplemental material are really for filmmakers, scholars and critics. Film buffs and fanboys might get something out of hearing a director's commentary, but the ideal presentation format for most films is theatrical. In the last few years, despite all the valuable schooling, I've fallen out of love with DVD as a way of experiencing flicks for the first time. I do my best to get my ass to the theater if something rare comes to town. (Easy for me to say, right? So many great venues in NYC.) The 50” plasma still can't cut it.

Kurosawa? A few months ago, a complete stranger who liked my online writing heard I was too broke to catch a screening of Ran at MoMA, so she comp'd me a ticket. She said I haven't seen it if I'd only seen it on tape or DVD. I'd attempted to sit through Ran many times on cable and home video over the years; glanced at and been impressed by the famous battle sequence. But watching the whole thing hovering above me, 20 feet tall, I finally saw the film as the epic poem that it was (and, ultimately, Kurosawa's perfect valediction). Toru Takemitsu's score riding across the cutaways to the sky during the battle scene moved me more than any Ozu pillow shot I've yet seen.

And, yes, I do suspect my problems with Godard, Antonioni, The Life Aquatic and that goddamned Superman flick have much to do with the fact that I've tried engaging them on DVD first. I have to make more time for priceless theatrical screenings in this town, despite tickets that now cost more than my shoes. Also, whoever that nice lady who treated me to Ran is, I'm gonna find out if she's single.

Steve

E-mail III: To Live Is to Learn

My friend,

A day after my first missive, I am renewed. Your response helped me locate not just my own thoughts on the films, but myself in relation to the films; I even re-watched pieces of both. Those final shots of uplift are wondrous, in particular the finale of Ugetsu: it is the formal echo of the film's opener, opening the film back up to the world, offering the viewer the world. The final shot of Sansho, while still magical, is more subtle a move. First, the camera is not as choreographed as in Ugetsu; it is simply a crane and pan, without any tracking, and without worrying about capturing movement through the frame (by a child actor). Second, in lieu of the protagonist's child as the preserving, sustaining humanistic life force Mizoguchi invests us in, it is seaweed scattered on the beach: gathered from the ocean, associated with death and patience and separation throughout the film, it is, here in the end, what will provide sustenance for this wrecked hamlet—and this renewed family. That, I think, was where I found Sansho so devastating: its humanism is less overt than that of Ugetsu. At first glance, the beach is empty and the frame is dominated by that island smack in the middle of the frame. Yet, if you follow the contours of the image, from the mound in the middle down along the beach to the seaweed-gatherer and his odd flock of leaves, you find yourself at once drawn into the metaphor of renewal (invested in an item gathered from a previously devilish entity) and shown the world outside the film. As I said in my earlier email, Mizoguchi's ability to tie theme to structure and form is dazzling, and complex. And yet, still, the films are rather dour to watch alone. In a way, after reading your response, I felt, for a minute, that I had hardly—that is, actually—seen the films.

Another peek behind the curtain: both initial viewings of both films saw me briefly nod off. “What?!” you may be thinking. To answer, I must first say this is outright not a bad thing. As Keith Uhlich has relayed to me, Abbas Kiarostami once said, “I love a film that affords me a nap.” That's a delicious bit of endorsement. I have fallen asleep in many of my so-called favorite films, from time to time, including the first time. Perhaps I'm just a nut, but perhaps it's something else—perhaps the naps force me to question why I slid a little lower and pay better attention. Perhaps a nap is worthwhile. And yet, perhaps a nap is an outright sin on a first viewing. I'm still not sure about that; it warrants more investigation. If it means I am drawn back into the film, or the film has somehow seeped into my pores as a result—an odd, spectral osmosis—then, okay, I'm sold. If it means I'm just lazy, I am sorry. I am apt to think the films I return to after a nap are the ones I usually enjoy more, and further, in time. Some films appear designed to facilitate a nap.

Last weekend I indulged in Jacques Rivette's near-13 hour Out 1 at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive over Saturday and Sunday. I napped for a bit of, I think, one episode on each day. It is one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever. Last December I saw Sátántangó at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum and after an early nap about two hours into the seven-and-a-half hour picture I was wide awake the rest of the way. It was a defining experience. (However, given the opportunity, I would much rather revisit Rivette's film than Tarr's film any day, or pair of days, as the case may be.) There's a magic to the theatrical experience, it is true. In fact, after reading Walter Chaw's recent blog post “Ten Films That Changed The Way I Look At Film” I made a list, for myself alone, of “Ten Defining Movie-Going Experiences”. Both the marathon films are on the list, but neither can top seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at The Castro in San Francisco in the summer of 2005. I remember walking out of that screening practically yelling that it was the best film ever made and I refused to watch it on DVD ever again. So I thank you for clarifying the Mizoguchi run(s) as those kinds of defining cinematic experiences. I know I'm missing something here at home on my laptop. (Yes, I do not have a television anymore; I watch films on a 13” laptop monitor with headphones when not attending the theatre. Yet, this does not diminish a great film, in general; instead, intimacy works better for some films rather than others, as watching Kiarostami's Taste Of Cherry last week—my first encounter with his films—alone in my room was as close to a religious film experience as I've encountered with a computer-viewing. On the flip side, I have only watched The New World once on DVD.)

To bring it back to Mizoguchi, and the two of his films we are discussing, I should also like to say, in addition to reading over your response, I received two other emails about my conundrum I would like to share, in parts:

“I was to see a triple feature of Mizoguchi once. Started with The Life of Oharu and was so devastated that I couldn't bear to watch the others. It's funny: Naruse I couldn't get enough of. But Mizoguchi, for me at least, needs to be taken in slowly, with space in between.”—Keith Uhlich

“Watching Mizoguchi films in those [undergraduate] days, I was struck by the combination of formal and thematic beauty. It caught my own sense of the world, or of the world as I wanted it to be, not sad and painful (I took that for granted), but powerful and profound in its sadness and pain. I continue to admire Mizoguchi's films tremendously. I know a lot more about film as an art form now, and I admire his films' formal properties more and more articulately than I did back then. I have to admit, however, that I'd rather watch Kung Fu Hustle.”—low proFile

I think this insistence on letting Mizoguchi's films sit, to allow them to work on one's mind over time, is crucial, for me. His films (or at least these two I've seen) rigorously foreground temporal space, and actions through time, as when he shoots scenes without edits, like the hillside ambush of Miyagi, the potter's wife, in Ugetsu. As it happens, after reading D K Holm's appreciation of the man last week, I checked out Robin Wood's Personal Views from the UC Berkeley library (further distracting me from many projects) and immediately skipped to the final essay (in this early edition) titled, “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed-Gatherer: Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho Dayu”. It was a pleasant entry into Wood's work. He has a keen, discerning eye and offers insightful reads. (Perhaps an additional element of my resistance to write anything is that Mizoguchi already has so much good written about him, and that it is, in general, written so well.) This passage from Wood's essay, describing the sequence of Miyagi's ambush in Ugetsu that I mentioned above, seems the most relevant to our discussion:

“Miyagi, trying to return home with her child, is attacked on a mountain path by three starving outcasts (perhaps deserters) who steal the rice-cakes she has been given. When she protests, one of them drives a spear into her. Her little boy still on her back, she staggers on, supporting herself on a stick. Here, there is no cutting: the scene is a classic example of what the French call the plan-séquence, the 'sequence' organized within a single shot. But the preservation of spatial reality within the image, and the preservation of the spectator's distance from the action, are again crucial to the total effect.

“...Mizoguchi's long take hold the spectator at a distance throughout, preserves the unity and continuity of the action, and preserves the sense of environment—of the action situated in a real world governed by the realities of time and space. We are not asked to respond simply and directly to the physical horror of a spear entering a woman's belly, but to an event existing in a context. The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming, but also much finer and deeper: we are free to contemplate the scene's wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.

“The organization of the complex action over a large area within a singe take is remarkable: one would call it virtuoso did not the word carry connotations of display, the technique here being self-effacing in the extreme. The staging has many of the features one thinks of as characteristically Mizoguchian. The camera position is slightly above the action, in the interests of clarity: from it, we can see not only the path and the hut, but down into the valley below.”

Wood's synthesis of how Mizoguchi's long-takes work (in tandem with his deft compositional eye) can help us understand why it may take more time for one to deal with his films, especially in the home setting. It's that phrase, “we are free to contemplate the scene's wider implications, to reflect on the events that have preceded it and its likely consequences.” However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take. I know that's why I'm so enamored with Tarkovsky's films. What I don't know is how those films feel closer to me than these. I want to refuse the notion that it is simply because of skin-tone and ethnicity but that may be the root, no matter how much I tell my (other) friends, “I just watch movies; foreign movies don't feel foreign to me as much as intriguing. I feel more at home watching Mirror than I do watching Manhattan—but I love both films.” That said, I also like Pirates and Superman Returns and EPIII so who knows what my problem is with calculating and articulating my somewhat tempered response to Mizoguchi, an artist I prize and admire. Perhaps it's that temporal element.

Which is not to say initial reactions are useless. Or that one must return to films to understand them. My point is more about being open to changing one's mind; or to recognize that one's mind has changed over time. I think to allow that is a part of being human, and part of valuable criticism: the ability to refine and focus one's attention to an object as well as to life. So it's not that I feel too optimistic to appreciate the Mizoguchi films, or his world view—I believe in Zushio's father's teachings, too—it's more that I feel I need some time, like Zushio. An education is never finite. I am, regrettably, a latecomer to this criticism practice, as I was to the values of a college education. And, as I've said before, I am willing to risk making mistakes: I think to live is to learn. And I love learning. Especially at the movies, over time.

word up,
ry.

E-mail IV: Unguarded

Ry,

I will go out on that limb with you regarding dozing off at flicks you love. My initial reaction to your theory was hell naw, that you wouldn't accept such a rationalization regarding a lapdance or a milkshake. After a little thought, however, I realize that you're only acknowledging your specific personal response in flux. Maybe a film that you can love and drift away from/with and allow to seep into your dreams (it happened to me watching The Lady from Shanghai once—“Michael, do you think the wooorld is coming to an end?”) is like a lover you're comfortable with, comfortable enough to curl up beside, unguarded. Maybe the charm/attraction of some films is their calm and patience.

Wait, no “maybe”: I just saw such a film tonight, Rolf de Heer's aborigine epic Ten Canoes. Oh, Ry, you have to see this one when it hits your town. The film is all about stories that are so ancient and embedded in the fabric of daily life that pauses, jokes, asides and detours do nothing but add to their already tensile strength. The narrator calls his stories trees. He openly teases us for our presumed impatience and coaxes us to stay with him, advising us that there is something useful even in the apparently random ethnographic scenes of tribesmen on an egg hunt or constructing canoes. Ah, man, I can't wait to hear your take on this, the most charismatic film I've seen in a while.

Getting back to Mizoguchi's trees: You were right to correct Robin Wood's statements about what that killing scene in Ugetsu was doing to us. Wood: “The detachment with which the camera compels us to watch the action makes the emotion it evokes much less immediate and overwhelming…” Hogwash. Ry: “However, I would argue, we are not simply free to contemplate, we are forced to contemplate, and pay attention, to the action on screen with the aid of the long take.” Right on. The key to all the Mizoguchi masterpieces I saw last summer is that his restrained camera gets us ever more desperately invested in the fate of his characters. Seen on the big screen, these films are as intimate as a sonogram.

your friend,

Steve

Ryland Walker Knight and Steven Boone first met under aliases on one such film geek board. Ry said, “You got style, and smarts,” and Steve said, “You got smarts, and style.” Since then they have collaborated off and on, here and there: both on Vinyl Is Heavy and Big Media Vandalism and, of course, here, at The House Next Door.