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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon on Criterion

Your reaction to Rashômon will likely be determined, at least in part, by your attitude towards Nietzsche’s assertion: “God is dead.”

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Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon on Criterion

Dan opens with a thematic overview:

Your reaction to Rashômon will likely be determined, at least in part, by your attitude towards Nietzsche’s assertion: “God is dead”. Now, if you find that possibility liberating, you could be intrigued by the puzzles of perception presented by Rashômon. However, if this pronouncement angers you because it defies your faith in absolute truth, you will probably find Rashômon to be an existential experiment that serves no purpose—a sort of cinematic self-indulgence that makes a virtue of its own doubt.

In Rashômon, a thief apparently rapes a young woman and murders her husband. A fourth person is apparently a witness. But to what? As we listen to the testimony of all involved (the dead man speaks though a medium) it becomes increasingly impossible to answer this question with any certainty. We have to wade through the contradictions, omissions and confusion to try to determine the truth, a feat made more difficult by the fact that none of the participants is particularly trustworthy. By the end of the movie, our emotions have been rubbed raw because we have been unable to empathize with a particular version of events. We finish in a moral quandary for we are no closer to determining the ’objective’ truth than we were at the start of the film.

Thematically, Rashômon is a challenging philosophical exercise. Technically, the film is a tour de force of editing discipline and dramatic construction. The actors must recreate the same scene four times, playing their characters in completely different ways. Each re-telling has its own tone, and distinct point-of-view. Director Akira Kurosawa does a brilliant job of manipulating the mood, while each of the main actors is excellent. Toshirô Mifune (Kurosawa’s long-time leading man) as the thief and Machiko Kyô as the rape victim are particularly riveting. While the style of the performances may seem occasionally strained or overly technical to unfamiliar western eyes, these portraits are fascinating and our recognition of their artifice adds to our suspicion that the truth is not being told. Or maybe it is. It remains unclear how to know. Kurosawa has some bad news for you X-Philes out there: perhaps the truth is NOT out there. And maybe it isn’t in here either.

Then Ben:

What are you going to do? Sometimes the critics are right. Sometimes the director and cinematographer remember correctly as well. Fifty-eight years later all that’s left for me to do is confirm that it continues to stand the test of time, job one for great art. The film, plus the Special Feature interviews, plus the little booklet with the original two stories, the excerpt of Kurosawa’s autobiography and the historical discussion by Stephen Prince—the whole Criterion package was an exceptionally educational experience.

Robert Altman I found especially on the money, his awareness of being a foreigner to all sorts of cultural codes readily comprehensible to the Japanese and, even more, his treatment of the “seeing is believing” cognitive rule of thumb. What his treatment implicitly explained is that, as an investigation into the subjectivity of truth, this particular investigation could only have been conducted in the medium of film. An approximation might be conducted as live theater, but this could never be as powerful because nothing can fool the eye like the camera and it is precisely this fooling of the eye which constitutes the technical basis for the philosophic problematic.

And this gives me a chance to beat on one of my favorite drums. For Kurosawa, the “tricks” of technique, the “play” in form, the matters of style are not considered the stuff of content, the substance of the film. Quite the contrary, they serve the epistemological ambiguity and moral anguish being communicated. In his essay on the film, Prince comments, “Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish.” Damn straight. Hence, Rashômon—much much more indirectly and ultimately with far greater artistic power—delivers the moral mandate for film-making itself that is front and center in Kieślowski’s compelling Camera Buff. If you are going to “fool the eye” you better be doing it to say something worth saying.

One of the things given only cursory mention by Prince that I couldn’t stop remembering was that this film was released only half a decade after the atomic bombings. That Kurosawa could not go over to total despair, that he had to provide an act of redemption to the woodcutter in the final scene, this says a lot about his personal emotional healthiness. After all, nothing of the sort happens in either of the two original stories. Or is it just the 1950’s Japanese version of the Hollywood happy ending for commercial considerations? I think not.

I won’t go on and on. But I do want to give myself credit for noticing the technical brilliance of the woodcutter’s initial walk into the forest. While watching it, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know yet that to enter the forest was to fall into intellectual confusion. This crisis of reason is a specifically rationalist take on the standard metaphor we all know from the Brothers Grimm: i.e., the forest as the ’other’ of civilization. I grasped this well enough later on, but during the scene, it seemed so long and pointless. This lapse in my interpretive ability created a space in my technical sensitivity. I began to wonder how in hell they filmed the scene. It was amazing. So I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes explanation that was provided. Brilliant! It’s just stupid how good it is. The whole film. You know the feeling you sometimes get that it is somehow rude that a craftsman crafted something so… perfectly. The guy was definitely visited by The Muse.

And Dan:

The element of the exotic is always an interesting one with Kurosawa, because he got in such hot water with his native land for being so in love with the cinema and techniques of the west. Yet, to you and I (and, I suspect, most filmgoers who first came across his work in the 40s and 50s) a film like Rashômon seems like it comes to us from another world. Imagine how exotic he would have seemed had he not been a big fan of John Ford! We westerners probably never would have heard of him.

Rashômon adheres because it is both alien and accessible. The story’s setting might as well be a fairy tale for most of us in the west; the characters are so foreign to our experience. And the acting is so far from anything we are familiar and/or comfortable with, particularly the apparent screechy excess of the female victim, that it pushes our sense of other-ness to the seeming breaking point.

BUT, this multi-foliate flower of a tale has much that we recognize as well. The character’s flaws are as familiar to us as any in western literature from the time of Chaucer onward, and Kurosawa’s many narratives remain clear and distinct despite their contradictions because he edits them together (and keeps them apart) so beautifully that it makes the journey through this confusion nearly effortless for the viewer.

So, yes, style contributes impressively to the thematic substance of the film, as the moral ambiguity and existential crisis that the narratives elicit from the characters and audience are captured in some striking imagery (the sunlight speckling through the woods being Kurosawa’s money shot in that regard). I’m not as sure as you that the happy ending works; it feels kind of forced given the despair we’ve been witnessing throughout. Then again, at this point in its history, did Japan really need another knee to the gonads?

Then Ben:

I think your treatment is quite dialectical. You are explaining a dynamic interpenetration of opposites. What is more, we are getting beyond film criticism as such and jumping full bore into cultural studies because the issue really is one of the relation between an artistic work and a non-domestic audience reception of it. I didn’t want to say a “foreign” audience because it seems to me that much of what you are explaining is the non-foreign reception of what is, dialectally, plainly alien stuff. To simply suggest that the artistic work is therefore “universal” is not incorrect but is analytically crude and ultimately empty. The dialectics you foster deal with the relation between concrete (Japanese) forms and universal (humanist) themes. I like this in and of itself, but I also like it as an all-purpose methodology; indeed, I am imposing this methodological paradigm of mine on your treatment. I won’t bore you further with my personal intellectual religion. Suffice to finish by suggesting that this dialectic is at the heart of a good relation between form and content as distinct from a one-sided, bad relation. For style is always a concrete thing. Content may or may not be universal, but we deem it more worthwhile when it is, we judge the work superior when it is. So the whole problem of style and content is derivative of a deeper, more abstract matter concerning the dialectics of the concrete and the universal.

Image/Sound/Extras: The stunning transfer in Rashômon is impressive given the importance of the film’s treatment of light and shadow in exploring the symbolism of truth and deceit. Kurosawa’s radical decision and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s ability to point the camera straight at the sun through an umbrella of foliage is rendered in a particularly impressive fashion. Speaking of Miyagawa, the Criterion disc also boats excerpts from an informative documentary on the work and life of this vital cinematographer who worked on 134 films with nearly all of Japan’s most important directors.

Robert Altman’s brief but pithy introduction is likewise useful, as well as full of the master’s wry wit. The film is a poem, that challenges our beliefs that if we see it, it must be true (“seeing is believing” is inverted, as Kurosawa seems to be positing that “believing is seeing”). Anyone who loves Rashômon will have a hard time arguing with Altman’s proclamation that the film changed what is possible and what is desirable about film. The audio commentary by historian and film buff Donald Richie, a staple of Criterion’s releases, and one of the world’s foremost experts on Nipponese cinema, is similarly thoughtful and engaging.

Finally, the disc is accompanied by a handy booklet that boasts not only both source materials (Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In the Grove” and “Rashômon”, but also two very handy essays, one by Kurosawa himself, and the other by noted film scholar Stephen Prince. Kurosawa’s work offers a fascinating and richly detailed first hand account of the crafting of Rashômon, while Prince’s academic study gives us very helpful lessons in both the film’s influences and its substantial influence. Prince reinforces the importance of acknowledging Kurosawa’s accomplishments in this film, both in its modernist narrative and the technical triumph that saw the great director bend the medium’s grammar to the uncertainty and confusion at the heart of the film’s existential agony.

Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Cinemania.

Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of Dan’s who he has been lending movies to for a while now.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that feels like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Costume Design

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us.

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The Favourite
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

In less than a week, AMPAS has successfully stoked the anger of just about every creative in Hollywood, and perhaps sensing a widespread boycott of the Oscar telecast in response to the banishment of four awards to commercial breaks, the academy has now “clarified” its latest attempt to reboot the Oscars for the TL;DR generation. Yesterday, in a letter signed by the academy’s board of governors—which includes president, director of photography, and hater of cinematography John Bailey—members were assured that the four winning speeches will in fact be included in the broadcast, but with all the walking and talking that it takes to announce the winners edited out. Also, those four categories may or may not be given the short shrift in 2020, as apparently there’s a “rotation” system in place that will, I guess, leave the door open for us to not see Lady Gaga walk on stage next year to accept the best actress award for her performance accepting the Golden Globe this year for “Shallow.”

Honestly, we’re so gobsmacked by AMPAS’s skullduggery that we can’t even see what’s right in front of us. Case in point: When I sat down to write this article, I thought this award was going to be a slam dunk for Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but as it turns out, the film isn’t even nominated for its costumes. Because sanity prevailed when voters decided they didn’t find any kind of magic in Brian May pulling out his old Queen outfits for the making of Bryan Singer’s film, maybe it will prevail again and AMPAS will take the Oscars off its planned keto diet. And if it doesn’t, we’ll take some solace in three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell—who for the third time in her career has been nominated twice in the same year—collecting this award for her gloriously ostentatious, stitch-perfect garbs for The Favourite.

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: The Favourite

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Berlinale 2019: Out Stealing Horses, A Tale of Three Sisters, & Öndög

These films suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes.

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Out Stealing Horses
Photo: Berlinale

On the way into Berlin from Tegel Airport, one of the first signs of the city you see is a large tract of land divided into rectangular plots, on each a shed in a variable state of repair. In fact, you can find such areas dispersed throughout the city. Visitors can easily mistake these colonies for third world-style shantytowns, but in fact they’re the bougiest things imaginable: privately owned allotments, known as kleingärten, that aren’t used as primary residences. It’s an institution that allows urban dwellers with enough money to simulate life “on the land,” a slice of rural life plopped down within the city.

As goes Berlin, so goes Berlinale. Several films in this year’s competition suggest the cinema as another place where we can simulate and reflect on life within and surrounded by natural landscapes. There’s a certain nostalgia in these films’ contemplation of the relationship between people and nature—in an age where our actions have precipitated an ongoing ecological cataclysm, the depiction of natural spaces almost immediately invokes the past.

A particularly wistful note is struck by Hans Petter Moland’s Out Stealing Horses, a film about—stop me if you’ve heard this before—sexual awakening set during a rural Scandinavian summer. The film begins in the dark, cold New Year’s Eve of 1999, as an aged and lonesome Trond Sander (Stellan Skarsgård) hides out in Sweden from his troubled recent past. When the 66-year-old Norwegian meets his closest neighbor, Lars (Bjørn Floberg), the film flashes back to the summer of 1948, which Trond spent at his father’s country house in Norway. In voiceover, Skarsgård’s weathered baritone guides us through his character’s reminiscences concerning the tragedy that befell a neighboring family, and how his relationship with his father (Tobias Santelmann) was altered forever when they both became entangled in it.

Although the bulk of its action takes place in the postwar Norwegian woods, Out Stealing Horses regularly brings us back to 1999, contrasting the gray-and-blue perpetual night of a Swedish winter with the variegated colors of summer. Such blatant romantic symbolism doesn’t initially detract from a film that seems at the outset to promise a thoughtful contemplation of mortality. But as the symbols start to multiply—winter for old age and impending death; summer for youth; flowers, birds, and bees for burgeoning sexuality; thunder for emotional turmoil; water for femininity—and the melodrama becomes conventional and bloated, Moland and co-screenwriter Per Petterson’s subordination of natural objects to human meanings becomes increasingly one-dimensional.

Emin Alper’s A Tale of Three Sisters opens with a car driving into a remote, mountainous area of central Anatolia in Turkey. The car, whose hood takes up the foreground of the frame, belongs to Mr. Necati, a well-to-do city dweller on whom Sevkit (Müfit Kayacan) and his three daughters rely for their livelihood. The four live in a small village nestled in the mountains, and since their mother’s death, each of the three girls has tried and failed to serve as Necati’s family’s maid in the city. Nurhan (Ece Yüksel) and Havva (Helin Kandemir) have just returned from their stint, one that ended because the irascible Nurhan was beating the Necati children, and Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya) was returned some years ago when she got pregnant, upon which her father swiftly married her off to Veysel (Kayhan Açikgöz).

Veysel, a reluctant and lazy shepherd by trade, is a hapless fool, the kind of guy who will accidentally piss on a grave, then worriedly pose to his village superiors the question: “Is pissing on graves a sin?” Sevkit and the other men regularly laugh at his expense, and Reyhan and her sisters have little patience for her husband-of-necessity. The village’s mistreatment of the earnest but perpetually outmatched Veysel will have tragic consequences.

Tale of Three Sisters isn’t interested in tidy narrative resolutions. Much of the film consists of evocative scenes set amid the glowing brown-red hues of the area’s mountains and the hearth of Sivket’s family home—one of the most memorable of which is a comic, sexually suggestive sequence involving a huge jug of ayran, a foamy yogurt-based drink popular in Turkey. The film works its way toward a kind of moral resolution, though at times the journey there is a bit of a slog. Sevkit is a domineering father, his words taking over both his home and the film, which occasionally feels as tedious as his daughters find it.

Öndög, by Chinese director Wang Quan’an, is a film that takes an elemental approach to the human condition. A good portion of its running time is made up of long exterior shots of the Mongolian plains held for minutes at a time, the frame cleanly divided between the elements of earth and sky. The action, such that it is, often takes place at dusk, which flattens the silhouettes of the diminutive human figures against the blue-orange twilight sky; at times they look like shadow puppets inching their way across an ersatz, cardboard stage. The film’s aesthetics are grandiose in the same measure that they are playful.

Naturally, Öndög is concerned with life and death, and in a manner that evokes cyclical time. It opens with a pair of deaths—a woman’s body is discovered in a field, and a sheep is slaughtered on camera—and it closes with a pair of births (no spoilers here, but, then again, it’s doubtful spoilers can exist in cyclical time). Landing upon the same symbol of eternal recurrence as Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Wang evokes dinosaur life: One character shares with another that the ancient reptiles were first discovered in Mongolia, making Mongolians their descendants, destined in millions of years to be discovered again, by dinosaur scientists.

Though the film opens with police discovering the aforementioned woman’s body and a young officer (Norovsambuu) left alone in the field to guard it until it can be retrieved, it leaves this plot thread unresolved, subsuming itself in the anti-drama of the herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) who’s asked to keep the officer company. Roaming around the plains on her distinctive camel and tending to her livestock with only the occasional help of a neighboring, motorcycle-riding herdsman (Aorigeletu), the herdswoman is a model of autonomy and self-determination. She’s faster and better with a gun than the police, and flat-out ignores the herdsman’s constant suggestions that she needs to find a man.

Quan’an addresses eternal, cosmic themes through a portrait of rural characters living in a desolate setting, but even if his interest is in the primeval, he doesn’t make his characters “primitive.” They live closer to death and to birth, but they still play Elvis songs on their cellphones, call the police when they’re in trouble, and have medical abortions. And Öndög’s portrait of the human condition also isn’t portentous or overly self-serious; for one, this is a film that will give you a new appreciation for the inherent humor of camel sounds. Slow but never tedious, set under sky and stars but not in the least bit sentimental, Öndög is the festival’s most profound story of human life on the land.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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