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Kenji Mizoguchi (#110 of 8)

Review: Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema

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Review: Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema
Review: Steven Chung’s Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema

Split Screen Korea exemplifies a kind of necessary scholarly monograph that will never go out of style. Instead of seeking to construct yet another fashionable revisionist history, Steven Chung writes fluidly and directly, establishing “film and nation” as the basic binary from which his research emanates. To achieve this, he references prior writings by Fredric Jameson and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto and explains how film and nation function as “mutual reinforcement” for one another, using Japanese cinema as the most direct comparative model. Thus, Chung avoids treating Korean cinema and Shin Sang-Ok, the central auteur up for examination, as ars gratia artis by homing in on geography, capital, and their inextricable influence on the art that actually makes its way on screen. Moreover, by selecting Shin’s films as metonymic for larger concerns within postwar Korean filmmaking, Chung provides an accessible, workable theory addressing the totality of one’s historic concerns, from production to exhibition to reception, without ever losing grasp of an economic impetus that informs the work.

Nothing better demonstrates Chung’s abilities than his first chapter on the “Enlightenment mode” in Korean cinema. By this, Chung refers to a filmmaking ideal that thought it “the responsibility of the modern, radicalized intellectual elite to enlighten the poor, backward, primitive masses for a specific purpose: social, spiritual, and political awakening.” However, Chung complicates this model by explaining the resiliency of artists and that this mode’s desires do not necessarily equate to automatic hegemony. Although he doesn’t explicitly evoke Stuart Hall’s “encoding/decoding” model of dominant, negotiated, and oppositional readings, his suggestion that these films’ effects lie in “their invocation of language and style of instruction and conversion” indicates a similar understanding of cultural interpretation to Hall’s.

Review: Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian

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Review: Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian
Review: Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian

While Daniel Morgan’s fantastic 2012 book Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema devotes a significant portion of its pages to Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Michael Witt’s Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema Historian offers a book-length study of this singular work, filled with color still frames and images, in what’s unquestionably the most comprehensive English-language examination of Godard’s endlessly complex work of video historiography.

Such comprehension doesn’t solely result from close readings, however, as Witt goes to extensive lengths to tease out the theoretical, historical, and even autobiographical details which enveloped Godard during the film’s construction. In taking his study to these lengths, Witt probes the ontology of Godard’s work, suggesting the film as a work of film history, above all else. That is, Witt seeks to legitimate Godard’s role as a cinema historian, even at the expense of elevating him as a “cinema poet,” as has often been the claim. Godard, himself, rejects the notion that Histoire(s) du Cinéma is an “audiovisual poem,” and has remained insistent that his work is more concerned with the intersection of poetry and history, rather than being exclusively a work of either. Witt carefully examines Godard’s claims in this regard, the film’s use of montage, and even Godard’s vehement hatred for television (he once referred to it as “absolute evil”) as a means to move past simply an identification of references within the film and toward a polyvalent illumination of Godard’s multifaceted intentions.

History As Thriller Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

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History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema
History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

Film-history texts can often be dull, lack real insight beyond a litany of factual information, and plod along to foregone conclusions, structured as simply a lecture, where content overrides form. Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema isn’t only an exception to these rules, but establishes a benchmark for which contemporary film-history research should aim. What separates Miyao from the rest? Numerous qualities, but above all, he’s constructed a historical work that isn’t simply another recasting of Japanese film, replete with a discussion of numerous auteurs and production stories as evidence; rather, Miyao is after the heart of the matter—the very circumstances, through Hollywood and Japanese interaction, which cultivated predominant visual styles, and how these processes of “transnational and cross-cultural negotiation” ultimately yielded certain aesthetic expectations, from producers and viewers alike. Moreover, he achieves this, at least in part, by structuring his scholarship as more of a thriller, than merely the standard (and soporific) fact-upon-fact approach.

Miyao’s begins with a fluid, though rigorous foundation of previous historians and theoreticians, which he appropriates in order to weave together his complex historiographies. Drawing upon the likes of film studies staples such as David Bordwell, Stuart Hall, and Noël Burch, but not simply trotting out their arguments as stand-alone methodologies, Miyao instead juxtaposes and employs them as means to unpack the geographical explanations that are central to linking an aesthetic (and its invention) with a specific time period, particularly on an international scale. Thus, Miriam Hansen’s “vernacular modernism” and Harry Harootunian’s “coeval modernity” are ultimately the kinds of historicizing concepts that compel his line of questioning—especially Haroontunian’s, which Miyao values for its emphasis on “contemporaneity yet the possibility of difference.” Nevertheless, though I have made Miyao’s setup appear to be thoroughly academic (in a theoretical sense), fear not: The bulk of Miyao’s work revolves around historical figures within a system, with recourse to numerous film titles and close-readings. Herein lies Miyao’s keenest eye; rather than having to consistently recall terms and provide extended definitions, the analysis balances the individual and the international. If there were something akin to an academic page-turner, Miyao has produced it here.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Steven Boone’s Top 10 Films of All Time

There are simply too many amazing films—thousands, really—that could occupy every slot on this list just as confidently as the ones that are here. So I chose great ones that, whether or not it was the authors’ intent, protest the way systems, traditions and institutions threaten to break or trap individuals. Some celebrate how people manage to hold onto themselves or each other during the assault. Others dramatize defeat (see numbers five, six, nine, and 10). This quality in movies is more desperately needed right now and more enduring over time than such film critic checklist items as technical virtuosity and screenplay structure. The vast majority of people who watch movies are the ones who bear the yoke, and last century’s problem was too many films made to satisfy those who wield the whip. We, the people, are still stuck in that false reality of virtual freedom, every time we turn on the TV, click through a corporate banner ad, or look up and see more billboard than sky.

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
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.

5 for the day: Authority and Subordination

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5 for the day: Authority and Subordination
5 for the day: Authority and Subordination

D.A. to Callahan: “Where the hell does it say you got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the fourth amendment!”

Back in school, my friends and I routinely joked about making compilation videos of certain formulaic scenes that appear in movies, so you would have, for instance, a four hour video of episodes where the good guy cop visits the captain’s office to get his orders or a (new) partner or an ass chewing. That’s more or less where this 5 for the day topic starts: the relationship between an authority and its subordinates - police chief and beat cop, captain and sailor, lord and vassal - there are infinite manifestations of this relationship expressed in countless genres beyond cop thrillers. Each picture has something a little different to say about authority and the people below it—though invariably, when discord between the authority and the individual develops, sympathy goes to the the individual, never the authority.