Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas (1973)

30 09 2014

Thanks to the recent restoration efforts spearheaded by Martin Scorsese, A River Called Titas has become Ritwik Ghatak’s most canonized work. This might deserve some negotiation but for the purposes of this piece, it should be acknowledged the importance of a figure like Scorsese or a company like Criterion plays when it comes to forming a film canon, as well as controlling the narrative of film history. I preface my thoughts on Ghatak’s film not because it is bad and his other films are superior, but because I find framing this work as being on its own, even if unintentional, creates a wealth of problems. Ghatak’s earlier work is more restrained, while here he seems to be swinging for the fences, throwing in narrative movements that would be categorized as melodramatic in any other context. His eyes are now capable of capturing poetry in every shot. It might help to think of A River Called Titas in the same vein as Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds. Both films are reflective of their filmmaker’s career, but both films are heightened, melodramatic epics compared to their more usual, down-to-earth efforts.

1

A young girl, Basanti watches from a distance as her crush, Kishore and his best friend, Subol, learns the basics of becoming a fisherman. We jump ahead many years, and the two boys have become men. Kishore is arranged to be married to Rajar Jhi, but their honeymoon must be restricted to the fishing boat belonging to the two men. Rajar Jhi and Kilshore have one evening together before she is kidnapped by bandits. She washes up on dry ground, still barely alive, but the incident has made Kilshore unstable. More time passes, Rajar Jhi now has a son, presumably from her one night with Kilshore. She arrives in town and grows close to Basanti, who was once married to Subol, but he died the following day. Basanti agrees to take care of both Rajar Jhi and her son, Ananta, but her abusive father is constantly criticizing her decisions.

2

The narrative shifts in the first hour alone and plentiful and abrupt. There seems to be a general consensus that A River Called Titas is a victim of the arthouse cliche “it’s hard to follow.” Ghatak’s editing here is as relentlessly elliptical as the more well celebrated Nicolas Roeg. Unlike Roeg, however, Ghatak’s cut don’t immediately call attention to themselves. While Roeg might cut a sequence that actually spans a minute in the character’s time, Ghatak’s editing is so graceful and fluid that years seem to casually drift within each shot. Again, like Roeg, this is disorienting, if not entirely maddening but it perfectly underscores a film that is very much about the heavy things. What better way to communicate the precious passing of time then to make pass time so quickly that the viewer can hardly get their bearings?

3

I will admit that tonally, the more pronounced “tragic” element of the film that takes over during the second half is a bit too much. Ghatak is at his best here when he focuses on Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The two are able to build a friendship despite the fact that Rajar Jhi seems far too intimidated to make any effort in befriending anyone. This sounds critical, but the film gives us the details that make understand why she has arrived at such a closed off demeanor. It is not an uncommon narrative trope for a woman to be mysteriously quiet, but usually, this “mystery” is never mined to reveal her own past, indeed her own human-ness. Instead, it is fodder for male fantasies about “different” and “interesting” women, who often read to a more critical viewer as just a male construction of a submissive heterosexual partner. Rajar Jhi, however, is still reeling from what life has thrown at her, she seems unsure about every inch of the ground she rests her feet on. Every movement and gesture is deeply calculated, sure perhaps Ghatak acknowledging Brecht (who was a major inspiration) but also just Rajar Rhi’s personal protocol to maneuver in a world that has done everything to mute her presence.

4

Basanti, who kind of grows into being the more central figure of the film, is equally remarkable. She’s dealing with an almost identical tragic past, yet her coping mechanism is one of anger rather than reluctant acceptance. She’s got a temper, one that she manages to keep in check save for two violent eruptions. During these two instances, Ghatak confronts the audience with something frustrating: who are we to criticize a woman such as Basanti. She lashes out at her mother, sure, but she does so in defense of Ananta. Rosy Samad as Basanti, manages to shift to different levels so quickly, not unlike Ghatak’s handling with time itself, that the results can be frustrating. Fittingly, such a word wouldn’t even begin to describe the pressures affecting her inability to be recognized and viewed as a human being.

5

While Ghatak goes all out in trying to create a transcendent, epic, poetic (and so on) cinematic masterpiece, he does not exactly fail. Yet, I find the film’s angling towards this final, transcendent moment to be not nearly as interesting as the aforementioned relationship between Basanti and Rajar Jhi. The moments where their friendship is experienced are easily the happiest in the film, and it presents something rare in all of cinema. Here we have two women and young boy subconsciously morphing into a family. This isn’t about duty, as much as it about love. Their family is one on the social outskirts, absolutely not malleable enough to be squeezed into the expectations of a heteronormative family. Unlike countless European art house films about two women creating a deep connection, Ghatak never even hints at something sexual. Basanti and Rajar Jhi still say “they need a man” but they seem to be aware of this not as an emotional need, as much as a financial one. Both are empowered by their ability to see through the faults in the society that has left them completely dry.

6





La Chinoise (1967)

31 08 2014

Last week, in the middle of praising Godard’s Hail Mary, I made a reference to the disappointment I felt while revisiting Masculin Feminin. To make things short, I find the film, while not particularly painting a flattering portrait of any young person in it, particularly unfair to the women. La Chinoise, which comes only a year later, may offer something of an apology to this depiction. As opposed to the vapid women uninterested in politics in Masculin Feminin, here we have Veronique, an extremely committed radical. The film ends with her “taking the steps” towards a life of violent and revolutionary acts, although the film seems to leave her more confused and hurt than the aforementioned “vapid” women. It would be reductive to limit the conversation on La Chinoise to whether or not Godard is sympathetic to his group of young radicals. Despite the film’s strictly political aesthetic, it may only be interested in observing, not projecting anything itself.

1

While on a summer break from her studies at Nanterre University, Veronique (Anne Wiazemsky) and her boyfriend, an actor named Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Leaud) stay at a comfortable apartment that was lent to them from the parents of a friend. They’re joined by Yvonne, her boyfriend, Kirilov and a science student by the name of Henri. The five form something of a commune. They spend their days reading political texts, loudly delivering lectures on said texts, and comically re-enacting the acts of imperialism depicted in the news. The group dreams of revolution, and these dreams slowly develop into a reality. Theory isn’t enough, and the group formulates a plan to assassinate Mikhail Sholokhov, a Soviet novelist visiting Paris. Veronique is chosen to commit the crime.

2

To the apolitical viewer, La Chinoise sounds like a headache. An ideological exercise that would oppose the very thing that made Godard’s earliest work so fresh and exciting. Suggesting this film isn’t dry isn’t the right way to unpack it, but one can’t say that Godard doesn’t give his everything in making the film be as exciting as the revolution is to Veronique and Guillaume. Almost exclusively composed in one apartment, the film seems to be driven by a bunch of contradictions. The apartment is spacious, as it is normally the residence of a bourgeois family, but the compositions are tight. Close-ups seem to be individual portraits painted by Raoul Coutard’s camera, which seems to linger until the film abruptly cuts to something else. In continuing the connection with Masculin Feminin, this is Godard’s first academy ratio full length film since it, and it seems to develop a similar aesthetic. Just like there, we have a film that is (or can be) dry but exciting, open spatially yet closed off tightly by the camera. Such contradictions are confusing and messy, which seems appropriate for the film’s ideological content, which seems to be overwhelmingly present on the surface, but Godard’s own ideas are perhaps masked by his vocal characters.

3

 

Unlike Masculin FemininLa Chinoise is shot in color and it seems nearly impossible to think of the film without red, blue, and yellow all confronting your eyes in an appealing and uniform way. Frames seem to be balanced not by the continuity of actors and their physical preference, but instead by Godard and Coutard’s preference for the image itself. This, of course, echoes Yasujiro Ozu’s ideas about composition. The connection here is frustrating, because at the time, Ozu was relatively unknown and of little interest to the west. Yet, Godard seems to channeling him here. First in his portrait-like close-ups, but also in the decorations of the apartment. Like the protagonists of early Ozu comedies like The Lady and the Beard and I Flunked But…, Godard’s characters also hang photographs of Karl Marx (among others) on their walls. Interestingly, Ozu’s Marx-adorned rooms were decorated with American movie posters and other images of western influence. Godard synthesizes popular culture with ideology in the film’s humorous pop song, “Mao Mao” while Ozu saw both as part of the same force.

4

While one can get caught up in the words of the group here, it would be a mistake to label Godard’s film as a advertisement for them, or even an endorsement of their behavior. The assassination doesn’t go quite as planned and eventually, the older couple who let Veronique borrow the apartment send their kids to check on the place. It is important that La Chinoise takes place in the summer because it’s conclusion, which does not condemn the group itself, still does leave us with a sense of “now what?” Veronique and Guillaume are bourgeois leftists, but so was Godard himself. As Richard Brody notes in his book, Everything is Cinema, during the shooting of the film, Godard gave Leaud money to eat fancier meals. He had to have his idealistic, revolutionary youth be privileged to poke holes in their ways? The result is, again, a film that does not condone or condemn the group. What purpose can the film serve then? As much as it fascinates me, I struggle to find an answer myself. Maybe it is Godard’s own inward reflection on his own social standing and what that means for his interest in the radical left. The film concludes with Guillaume allowing himself to be humiliated for profit, maybe Godard is doing the same. No, not making a terrible, impersonal film for financial success but instead, one that would make evident his shortcomings as a privileged leftist.

5

The problem with all of this is that the film then leaves Veronique out to dry. We must presume she returns to her studies, yet she laments in voice over that she lacks the courage to go forth with even more acts of violence. The film gives us a sequence where her increasingly violent intentions are questioned in a level-headed way by her, of course, male professor. His reasonable reply doesn’t change Veronique’s intentions, she goes through with the plan to kill Sholokhov shortly after this conversation. While Godard allows himself (through Guillaume) to absorb criticism and vegetables, Veronique is left completely alone. Godard would make Weekend next, and perhaps give us some answers. Both the man and the woman in that film’s bourgeois couple are thrown through the ringer, but the woman adapts, though the film suggests this is spineless betrayal. He doesn’t give his women much of a choice in the three films discussed here. Veronique is a radical, but she’s “too radical.” She arguably becomes this way for her one self-preservation, just as the woman in Weekend must eat her husband to not end up dead herself. Maybe I’m reaching here, but in any case, Godard fucks over Veronique. Maybe in his self-critical approach to bourgeois intellectuals, he could have included his own misogyny. I guess one could take comfort that he would latter address this headon, but it seems to halt all of the energy in both La Chinoise and Masculin Feminin.

6





Je vous salue, Marie / Hail Mary (1985)

24 08 2014

Perhaps it is the controversy that came with its release or perhaps it was Godard’s own troubled production, but for whatever reason, Hail Mary is more infamous than it is famous. Sure, little of his post-1968 work is as iconic and ingrained in popular culture, but Hail Mary in particular seems like nothing more than a curiosity. Even those who do praise it, do so with some restraint. It seems that the context of the film’s inception has become a bigger story than the film itself. Yet, here we find Godard at his most compassionate, although his constant refusal to distance himself from his own work has never been more palpable. The result is something truly frustrating and off-putting, but for the engaged viewer who gives him a chance, they may find one of cinema’s most celebrated figures at his most daring and confrontational.

1

A despondent Joseph sits across from Mary Magdalen in a cafe. She’s pleading with him to marry his girlfriend, Mary. He refuses, but his mind appears to be somewhere far away from the conversation at hand. Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel arrives at the airport. He gives Joseph, who is a taxi driver, five hundred dollars and commands him to drive to the service station run by Mary’s father. There, Gabriel confronts Mary and tells her that she is pregnant, but the father is not Joseph. The implication is that it is not any other human in a corporeal. Joseph is overcome with jealously. For the two years he’s dated Mary, he has not touched or even kissed her. Refusing to believe in the immaculate conception, he accuses her of cheating.

2

While anyone vaguely familiar with the birth of Christ can follow the general idea of Godard’s story, the narrative’s first sharp deviation from its source text is Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Godard’s track record with women is well, let’s just say the fact that I have to construct a sentence with the phrase “track record with women” is a problem. Many might call this a simplistic assessment, but a recent revisit of a one-time favorite, Masculin feminin depressed me greatly. What I once saw as a natural observation on young people and their romantic relationships seemed a lot more hollow. Women are sexualized for the benfit of capitalism and consumerism, in particular, sure. However, throughout the 1960s, Godard’s critique fails to see the forest for the trees, women are shamed for being not just complicit in this manipulation, but responsible for it. In other words, he creates a more rarefied way of repeating the rather banal stereotype that women are superficial and dull, but ties it to a critique of capitalism.

3

Godard himself later remarked his displeasure with how he treated his characters, particularly the women of Masculin feminin. The film seeks to make them not just apolitical, but perhaps too vapid to even comprehend politics in the first place. Unlike the work that followed Masculin femininHail Mary is less straightforward about its ideological intentions. There is no quoting of Marx, no pictures of Mao, no static shots of individuals throwing their fists in the air for revolt. Yet, this might be one of his deeply political films, and the fact that its politics are interconnected with something personal may have led to a critical evaluation that seemed disinterested in probing deeper into the cinematic fabric. I hesitate to call this film feminist, but its undoubtedly concerned with a woman’s agency and control of her body.

4

It might be of interest to point that Godard frequently considered pulling the plug on Hail Mary, but continued to power on because of his collaborator, Anne-Marie Mieville. Mieville’s short, The Book of Mary, was and still is shown before Hail Mary. Godard felt he may have owed her something, in this case maybe the film’s existence is only because of and for a woman. The film is about Mary and her bodily autonomy, sure, but in addition, it is about Joseph and his unflinching desire to own her, perhaps dominate her with his own affection and love. The latter rhetoric sounds complicated and unfair on Joseph’s part, yet his manipulation of Mary’s feelings makes up the bulk of the film. The reverse tends to be the norm in fiction, that women are needlessly cruel and coldhearted to men who want to do nothing but love them. The reality is that such a line of thought is possessive and abusive.

5

Joseph is played by Thierry Rode, a first time actor, who was even more inexperienced than the film’s lead, Myriem Roussel. While Roussel (who had worked with Godard before in First Name Carmen) plays thing in an almost aloof and distant manner, Rode is awkwardly imposing. His movements feel strict, almost forced. Many have watched this film and never even had the slightest idea that he would be “abusive boyfriend” material and yet, the evidence is there on the film. He is not so different from Godard, he sports a similar pair of sunglasses if that means anything, nor is he that different from the typical male viewer that would watch the film. Some might feel that jealousy and anger is completely justified. He’s dated Mary for two years, he deserves something, right?

6

Well, no, that’s wrong. The film, with the most extreme of circumstances, gives a male audience a pill still difficult to swallow: that romantic relationships don’t equal possession. Joseph feels like he deserves Mary’s love, which in some cases might just mean love in that indescribable way but here it most likely means sex. His desire to see Mary naked sends him to his knees, akin to some untamed animal. The most striking thing here is that all of this, which is familiar and still authentic in many heterosexual relationships, is the context of the birth of Christ. So much of Christ’s life was imposed forces that depicted all the ugly potential of man. How revolutionary, then, for Godard to suggest that the birth of Christ came in the context of something still found and often unrecognized in male ego: the desire to  possess women. Throughout the  film, Mary does not waver. She calls the shots and controls her body. If Joseph feels like Mary owes him something, he is more than welcome to leave her.

7





For Ever Mozart (1996)

17 08 2014

Before one begins to unpack For Ever Mozart, it is perhaps crucial to explain the film’s origins, specifically that the film itself contains three ideas that Godard had for separate, individual productions. One about French artists and actors in Sarajevo, another about the study of filmmaking, and finally, one about music and its emotional significance. To a viewer unfamiliar with Godard’s work after 1968, the results might be alienating and frustrating, an sculpted mess of ideas. But there’s a beauty to Godard’s organized chaos, he has gracefully woven three narratives into one, and made one of his most political and yet, one of his most affecting works.

1

Camille is an unemployed professor of philosophy who receives a spark of inspiration. She seeks to travel to Sarajevo to put on a production of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance. She is able to convince her cousin, Jerome and her maid, Djamila to join her. Vicky Vitalis, her filmmaker father and an obvious stand in for Godard himself, also accepts an invitation. He eventually retreats back home while Camille, Jerome, and Djamila soldier on. They are then captured by Serb paramilitaries, and presumably left for dead. We return to Vitalis who, informed of this tragedy, tries to complete his movie.

2

 

On the surface, the slaughter of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila seems to be a warning towards those going to spaces marked as “unsafe” – one which Camille’s mother seems to foreshadow. She declares it is crazy and a death-wish to go to Sarajevo to perform a play when there’s plenty of places where one can do it in France. Of course, Camille’s desire to put on a play in Sarajevo comes with a pointed political purpose, she is after all not a student of theater but rather a professor of philosophy. The problem begins to emerge here. She basically uses Sarajevo for her own personal political plaything. There, her intentions seem oblivious to the struggle and needs of the city, she’s just going there because she knows it’s a suffering place. This doesn’t justify the violence acted upon the bodies of Camille, Jerome, and Djamila. Their deaths and unfair and tragic, but they are done in by their own desires (specifically Camille) to help without thinking that they might be invading.

3

To provide a real life example, sometime in the past five years there was a group of primarily white students from Austin, Texas who made it their personal mission to  not just visit and bring joy to Detroit, Michigan but to save it. The audacity of their intentions might be lost on someone who comes from a similar upbringing, after all they were trying to provide a positive change to a city that is so often framed in the mainstream as suffering and in need of help. However, their efforts not only resemble colonialism, they are actually a form of it. The white savior complex that is repeated throughout media and fiction influenced their ideas, made it seem possible. They wanted to help, but they were invading. Intentions are not the sole thing to measure one’s actions, especially when in this case, the “positive intentions” are something patronizing and racist.

4

I see Camille’s intentions as the same as these Texan students. She speaks a similarly positive message, but with no regard for the existence of those who live in the space they are going to be occupying. Perhaps calling this “Godard’s film on gentrification” is a step too far, but the film seems to suggest some acknowledgement of the rhetoric around “nice” colonialism. Camille’s mother is the conservative foil to the white leftists, urging them not to bother themselves with “unsafe” spaces. We can recognize this as close-minded, but the white progressive voice is just as close-minded, oblivious to the existence of natives. Godard himself, as a white leftist, has to decenter his own voice, a thing he struggles with but he acknowledges it here and in the segment Camera-Eye from Far From Vietnam.  The privilege of white leftists is so often left in the margins of their discourse, ignored because it would require to confront something uncomfortable, that you are one of the oppressors.

5

While Godard works through privilege and (perhaps) gentrification in his scenes focusing on Sarajevo, he looks for something else once Camille, Jerome, and Djamila are murdered. It becomes a film about dealing with grief, though in the process it doesn’t excuse Camille’s own imperialist ideas of “peace” it does accept that her death would be an impossible fight for Vitalis. He struggles to process the reality of losing his daughter. Although his grief is never depicted through his own words (he seldom speaks) it does manifest in his shooting of the film within a film. There, he relentlessly tasks an actress to repeat one line of dialogue “yes” but each time is insufficent. The cold weather eventually breaks her down. The repetition seems to underscore Vitalis’ mind dealing with his daughter’s death. It tells him “yes” this happened, but his heart and brain can do nothing but reject it every time. Fiction often suggests we have an “aha!” moment in dealing with a death, where we’re able to put it behind us and triumphantly move on. Godard suggests something that is closer to reality: that we must confront it everyday. We may come to accept it, but  it will take many takes and even then, we don’t stop thinking about the person in question.

6





Yi dai zong shi / The Grandmaster (2013)

12 08 2014

Wong Kar-Wai is one of only a handful of directors I feel completely inadequate talking about. After all, what is there that can be said or written about one of the most visual, tactile, and sensual filmmakers of all time? To even use words to describe his work seems to be a disservice. Maybe this all seems like a little unnecessary hyperbole, just the author gushing over a beloved filmmaker, but sometimes a work doesn’t seem to benefit from words. All great films should be able to communicate something that’s far more complicated then any possible combination of words, but it seems particularly erroneous in Wong’s case. With all that said, there’s much to say about The Grandmaster and how it fits into the filmmaker’s other meditations on fleeting romance.

1

Ip Man, a martial arts master of the South, is threatened by the emergence of another master, Gong Yutian from the Northern part of China. It is suggested that the two areas both have their separate “masters” but eventually, the conversation turns to who is the better of the two. Gong Yutian’s daughter, Gong Er pleads with her father to not fight. He does so anyway, and the fight ends in a surprisingly peaceful fashion. Gong proclaims Ip Man the winner, and retreats home. Gong Er is less than pleased with the results, and she makes it her mission to restore the honor of her family’s name. In the process, though, her and Ip Man begin to make a connection.

2

There’s something infuriating to me about the last paragraph. Perhaps I’ve done a paltry job at summarizing the narrative of the film, but even if I was better at such a thing, I would still feel that it wouldn’t quite do justice to The Grandmaster. I hesitate to call this film “more than an action film” because that suggests there is something about action films that is low-brow or to take that further, that low-brow is something we should inherently look down upon. The Grandmaster is different. Its action is crucial, but its not one of catharsis. It’s one that is just impeccably choreographed and framed, providing the sort of visual stimulation for a story of a lost love. Of course, that sounds just as corny and unwelcoming as a story about rival fighters.

3

I could say here then that part of Wong’s genius is his ability to make stories that would seem like cheesy Hollywood meet cutes into something endued with his trademark longing and reverie. This is a talent, but it’s not bad writing coupled with a crafty filmmaker to make up for it, but instead just a filmmaker who can handle such potentially shaky content. The proceedings here and throughout the rest of Wong’s career can be described as melodramatic, and I accept such a claim but reject its negative connotation. Here is a beautiful work of melodramatic filmmaking, one whose melodrama is augmented by Wong’s own poetics of cinema. His films wouldn’t work without his aesthetics, yet somehow his films wouldn’t just work if they were “all style” (a frequent criticism, actually) – all the elements of Wong’s cinema need each other.

4

My thoughts are pretty congested here, but I’ll try to explain how Wong’s frequent meditation on “missed opportunities” or would-be romances work. As a young cinephile, I saw and immediately fell in love with Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto. One of the things that hit me hardest was the fact that the protagonist meets a beautiful girl, one that would be his love interest in any other film. In Olmi’s film though, their spark leads to nothing and she seems to disappear. As a teenager, this struck a chord because in my mind, this was a reality. I might have been deluded, but it seemed real. Wong’s cinema does something similar, but it goes a level deeper. There was a time where I loved his work because I related to these poetic interpretations of missed connections. I still do it, but it registers in a different way now.

5

Watching The Grandmaster I felt something almost reassuring and calming about the sensual tension of Ip Man and Gong Er and the way it never materializes into a loving relationship. Wong’s way is always far sexier than it is real life, but I use to feel the heartache of such moments because I felt some kind of connection to this type of social phenomenon. Now, it is something perhaps more productive, the idea that these missed relationships aren’t the tragic attack on your aching heart, but instead something that normalizes these lost potential romantic partners. It captures the pain, but doesn’t dwell in it, resulting in a more life-affirming experience. Wong in one moment can sense our anguish, and in a non-condescending way say that our grieving of such a thing is grandiloquent. The rhythms of the world can’t be interrupted just for one’s own desires, the beat goes on even as we lament it doing so in a way that doesn’t favor us. We may never “get over it” but we have to keep moving.

6





Kurosen chitai / Black Line (1960)

6 08 2014

Teruo Ishii started his career as an assistant to the great Mikio Naruse. While Ishii would go on to become Japan’s most beloved cult filmmaker, there is still traces of his mentor in this early effort. The jazzy, noir qualities of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs show up in Black Line, while Ishii also seems to devote some attention to the plight of women and yet, the sensitive qualities of Naruse’s work are absent. Not because Ishii’s film seems to “miss something” but instead, because he operates on a completely different level. The aforementioned noir quality is taken to its logical conclusion and the result is a film that feels like a serviceable genre flick, with only a few isolated moments that hint at something more.

1

Koji Machida wakes up and finds himself in bed with a woman, but the woman is dead and he’s the obvious lead suspect. Machida suspects he’s been carefully framed for the murder so he begins an unofficial investigation. It leads him to another women, this one gets deliberately run over by a car while the two are arguing. Machida looks even more suspicious, but as he climbs deeper into the underworld, the women become more welcoming (if only for the fact that they read his questioning as flirting) but the men become more hostile.

2

That last sentence suggests something that is one of the few major points of interest in Ishii’s film, and that’s how he handles gender. Machida himself seems to have a gendered protocol for social interaction, one that is confrontational and demanding around men, while cool and distant around women. For the latter, he seems to have been raised on American noir, perhaps using Humphrey Bogart as a character to emulate, not unlike Belmondo does in Breathless. This isn’t the most revolutionary idea, and I’m not even sure Ishii himself is making a conscious decision to meditate on Machida’s social malleability, but instead it is something that rings true that probably just flows subconsciously from the film’s script. It’s not always a gendered thing, but it can be: being around different people can shape our interactions and even how we talk depending on context. Much is said about the performance of gender, but that’s not the sensation here. Instead, it’s one where social interactions are read and experienced through a certain filter. I find the experience a difficult one to describe, especially because the language here is so tricky. Machida isn’t vapid or empty because his personality adapts to situations, this is something that happens, in some degree, to most of us.

3

Machida’s aforementioned social protocol encounters a problem, at least through Machida’s eyes of interpretation, when he meets Kayako, a trans woman. Their small conversation, which eventually ends in Machida shouting is a small portion of the film. I have no doubt that Ishii himself thought nothing special of the sequence, it is one that might superficially convince the audience of how “deep” Machida is in the underworld, but that’s already problematic. The scene is fascinating because of Machida’s inability to recognize Kayako as a woman (the film, alas, doesn’t do this either, crediting Kayako as “gay man”) and thus, his coolness around women isn’t present nor is his hostile attitude that is reserved for men. Kayako is a woman, but Machida struggles to accept this, eventually shouting at her before storming out.

4

Before the sequence concludes, Kayako leaves us with a rather succinct observation: “I am only here to please men.” Perhaps the most recent transphobic travesty found in the New Yorker is weighing on my mind, but how often is this idea about someone’s existence taken seriously? Although, Kayako is presumably a sex worker, this doesn’t imply that her or any other sex worker exists only as a tool for a man’s sexuality. This is 100-level feminism, yet it somehow seems to be forgotten about and not applied to trans women. Instead, an argument exists that their existence is itself a sexual perversion. I don’t want to dwell in the argument because it is so offensive, but Kayako’s line seems to acknowledge this line of thinking and expose it for the error that it is. Call it, if nothing else, an unintentional moment of clarity in a film that is far more comfortable exploring more familiar noir territory.

5





What Price Hollywood? (1932)

4 08 2014

George Cukor’s 1932 portrait of the rise, but not the fall of a young aspiring actress is best remembered as providing the working template for A Star is Born. Opening with its protagonist, Mary Evans, wistfully flipping through a celebrity gossip magazine, Cukor throws us into his world – Hollywood. But instead of another tired Hollywood exposé of the system that casually pokes fun at its own infrastructure, What Price Hollywood? presents something rare even in modern film. It’s a movie whose central relationship is that between a man and a woman, but one without any romantic connotation. Mary Evans’ relationship with Max Carey is friendship, but the film wisely doesn’t see that as a limitation, but instead an entirely new type of connection, one seldom represented in film.

1

Mary Evans is a waitress at a Hollywood restaurant. Seeing stars is not unusual for her or any of her coworkers, but she spots a golden opportunity when filmmaker Max Carey waltzes in one night. Max wakes up the next night with a tremendous hangover, which we soon discover is something of a trademark. He has no idea what happened the night before but Mary is laying on his couch. She tells him it was all rather wholesome, but that he promised her a spot in his next production. Not a problem, at first, but then it soon becomes apparent that Mary can’t exactly act. With her one seemingly washed away, she returns to her apartment exhausted but gets inspired. The next day she nails her scene, and her ascent begins just as Max’s alcoholism triggers his descent.

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Cukor’s friendship-driven narrative naturally leads itself a queer reading. In one sequence, Max tries to show a distracted Mary how to properly seduce a man. I don’t think such a reading is forced, but I do think it is a little unhelpful here. While I find it’s a necessary viewpoint to consider throughout Cukor’s work, I think the personal thing here is the idea of platonic men-women relationships, which sounds so simplistic and unremarkable on paper but it plays out so beautifully, albeit tragically in Cukor’s hands. Mary does have a love interest, Lonny (who I’ll get to later) and while Lonny is a deplorable individual, his presence seems necessary to make us realize the value of Mary and Max’s friendship. With Lonny introduced, the film sets up an easy love triangle, one that would have been expected in 1932. Cukor wisely steers the movie away from this territory.

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If there’s one particularly loud hiccup in Cukor’s visions, it is Lonny himself. He quite literally forces Mary on a date, by dragging her out of her bedroom. He later has to feed her. Such a setpiece is meant to be “charming” in the man’s persistence in his love interest. Again, it wouldn’t have been that unusual to see in a screwball comedy at the time. So how can I excuse Cukor for such a character? Well, I think the fact that he does come off so negatively is a conscious move. Mary and Lonny eventually end up together “happily” or at least we would read this from the final scene’s cinematic grammar. Lonny is such a reprehensible character, though, that it feels like an error to read this so easily.

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Instead, I find Lonny’s presence and representation of romantic love for Mary to be emphasized as negative to contrast to the more positive friendship she has with Max. How often does cinema, like other forms of storytelling, emphasize the importance of finding “the one” or experiencing true love. Weirdly, this kind of grandiose sensation is one we’re suppose to both feel and try act out, which oddly enough leads to troubling and even abusive behaviors. Fittingly enough, it would not be a stretch at all to classify most of Lonny’s behavior in this film as abusive. A similar diagnosis could be made of most romantic relationships in Hollywood films at the time. The question becomes then if What Price Hollywood? romanticizes such a problematic dynamic or it attempts to deconstruct it? I think Cukor’s usual critical eye for Hollywood’s compulsory heterosexuality is present. Within this though, is a tribute to friendship. Again, it sounds corny, but how often have you seen a film about friendship that wasn’t just heterosexual men bonding? It is a vital image when other such relationships are represented, even more so when they’re cloaked in what appears to be a typical romantic situation.

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