L’inhumaine (1924)

18 05 2015

Starting in 1927, Walter Benjamin began documenting the city of Paris with his Arcades Project. Unlike such studies before or after, he was concerned with the interior of Paris’ buildings. It was not the urban outside that provided the most interesting story to him, but rather the new inside corners that acted as a controlled simulacrum of what many considered to be “real Paris.” Like Benjamin, Marcel L’Herbier wanted to tell the story of Paris through interiors, and L’inhumaine, even if it does venture outside on occassion, tells the story of a city through a gothic, art-deco set that may not have had any basis in reality. It is a fantastical film, but it talks about things that exist in reality.

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Claire Lescot is an aging but still beloved opera singer. She lives far away from the city in a rural but post-modern fortress that is occupied by her and a group of servants who hide under grotesque paper mache masks. Claire hosts a great deal of suitors, one of which is Einar Norsen. Einar is an impulsive and emotional scientist and when his longings for Claire aren’t reciprocated, suicide seems like the only response. Leaving her mansion, his car slips off a cliff. Einar can’t be found but he is presumed to be dead, which sends Claire reeling. A few days later, she is asked to identify his mutilated body. She finds him very much alive in a mansion as imposing as her, where he labors away on an instrument that could possibly broadcast her voice across the world.

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While L’Herbier’s more celebrated follow-up L’Argent is loaded with energetic camera movements, it is a film that seems to have been composed by a gymnast. L’inhumaine, on the other hand, is controlled by a steadier hand, most likely the work of an architect. The space of Claire Lescot’s mansion is somewhat fictitious, her privacy is housed in an area that comes out of a fairy tale. Her fortress is one of a solitude, visibly marked as separate from the confines of the urban. Yet, within her lies all of the things that occupy the politics of the city: capitalism, colonization, and the body all partake in a dance (literally) in Claire’s fortress. Black servants perform entertainment for her as rich men bid for access towards her sexuality. Despite the negotiations that are happening all over her body, Claire is able to maintain some control. When the camera shifts to the top of the ceiling, her performance space takes on the appearance of a chess board, which complimented by the paper mache servants, imply that can manipulate things to her desires at will.

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Of course, all of this is done to paint Claire as the “inhumane woman” of the title. The film intends to paint Einar as a tragic figure, one who feels great pain in being rejected. Of course, the irony is everybody feels the pain of this rejection. Threatening to kill yourself is not a very smart way to endear yourself to the person you’re interested in, but L’Herbier seems to insist that all the men here are playing on the same, potentially abusive field. Claire warms to Einar, ironically only after he fakes his death which coincides with a complete personality shift. The film makes a shift as well: it becomes a film about modernity and science, specifically the implications of Einar’s new broadcasting device. In one of the film’s most crucial scenes, Claire is able to see those who are listening to her broadcasted voice. She is greeted, at first, with two images, both of what many would consider “third world” countries. The “Other” appreciating her music provides her validation, but L’Herbier wants us to know that this is a cheap moment. Minutes later, she encounters a peasant woman who appears earlier in the film. Her pain is too much for Claire to bear.

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L’Herbier loves sequences with audiences, and they seem to provide a nice opportunity for him to comment on and subvert our expectations. In L’Argent, the trial of a banker consumed by greed is treated with applause from an audience that is just as rich. The key scene here is when Claire’s concert following Einar’s (faked) death. The audience, as the intertitles tell us directly, are conflicted by her presence. Some continue to love her, while others are disgusted by her perceived indifference. This is all silly because 1) it was not her fault and 2) she wasn’t indifferent, but rather overwhelmed with grief. The chaos of the audience cuts through all of this, Claire can’t even present herself as either “humane” or “inhumane” (an awfully demanding binary!) because the public has already decided for themselves. It doesn’t matter how rich she is, as a woman, the audience is able to quickly wrestle back control of her persona. For all the modernity of Paris (or any western city), the celebrity woman is still scrutinized. Through this interior-based “story of Paris” L’Herbier has revealed a personal one. Claire is given a happy ending, but to a more perceptive viewer, it is a bitter one. She is granted access to an ideal heterosexual relationship, but considering how she was manipulated to get there, it can’t be healthy.

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Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol / Black God, White Devil (1964)

13 05 2015

Karl Marx’s most frequently recycled axiom is “Religion is the opium of the masses.” It’s unfortunate, of course, because it might be least insightful and most banal. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to hold much weight today. Sure, a majority of the world identifies as religious in some manner, and power structures are defended and held up in the name of religion. Yet, the drug of the choice might be pop culture. I won’t descend to the level of some trite condemnation of the multiplex showing endless superhero films. The superhero film, Marxism, and Christianity all splinter into a unifying vision for Glauber Rocha. Emancipation is his chief concern, but there is many ways in which it can be envisioned.

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Receiving the ire of his wealthy boss one time too many, Manuel bursts out in a violent fit of rage. The ecstasy of breaking free from his oppressor is short-lived and he realizes that he and his wife, Rosa, must immediately go on the run. They seek the guidance of Saint Sebastian (the title’s Black God), who has provided the hope of salvation for the country’s poorest individuals. Meanwhile, Antonio das Mortes is sent, by a more respected and “conventional” priest to take care of Sebastian and his followers. Tragically, this pushes Rosa and Manuel into the arms of Corsico, the title’s White Devil.

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While Glauber Rocha’s hallucinatory aesthetic is unique, there is a impulse to ground the experience of the film itself. We must, in order to feel, comfortable, find some sort of link between his images and that of other filmmakers. A common one seems to be Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’m no big fan of Jodorowsky, but I’ll ease up on him here. The Jodorowsky film is one that realizes that images, despite the power they hold, have no center. There is no connection between an icon’s power and the experience of real life, thus Jodorowsky himself sends forth countless images. One that provoke and even enrage, because they have to be unique. Realizing the lack of a center, Jodorowsky must demolish the old images and erect entirely new ones. Thus, shit and fire become key ingredients in his palette, the former so vile that it presences threatens to unseat the power structure of icons. Meanwhile, the fire becomes the thing that does destroy.

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I think Rocha does have something in common with Jodorowsky. Both filmmakers come to the understanding that icons don’t have a center, but Rocha is not demolishing their power. Instead, he shows reverence for this. If images have no center then they, like language, are arbitrarily embedded with a meaning. This arbitrary assignment means they are powerless for Jodorowsky, but they are proof of their power to Rocha. He shows reverence for them not because they mean something to people, which is their greatest power. In one of the film’s most impressive sequences, Sebastian stands before the cross of his temple. Surrounded by the chaos of the world he finds solace in his worship, not by hiding from the suffering but confronting it head on in prayer. The scene ends with violence, which is all the more shocking because we’ve been guided by a filmmaker who has given these images the chance to breath and have power over the individuals who confront them. He is not positioning them around, emotionlessly, in order to provide the most striking visual moment.

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Black God, White Devil is critical of images, symbols, and icons but it does not throw stones in their direction. Instead, it takes the time to critically acknowledge how and why they are important to us. Corisco, the White Devil, is comically inept, a crass parody of a revolutionary figure. He can’t see the need for images. Fittingly, he ignores the warning of a wandering blind man. He sees the people’s need to believe in him as a means to wield his power, a sign of their weakness. This give us the film’s most sensual moment: a protracted kiss that is heavy on beard, but it also ends his reign. There is no need to be cynical if one’s emancipation is at stake.

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Keiko desu kedo / It’s Keiko (1997)

11 05 2015

Many artists have tried to capture the essence of time. Time, which is measured, but feels immeasurable in the way we experience. Time lingers and blasts through with such swiftness that we sometimes struggle to remember how it ever passed. In her latest book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso confesses that she kept a daily journal as a means to combat time’s progress. She writes, “The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d miss it.” While Manguso’s strategy was to fight this daily, Keiko tries to do this by the minute.

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Keiko spends most of her evenings in her apartment, counting off the sixty seconds in order to measure (and be conscious of) each minute. The death of her father is behind her, but she seems uncomfortable addressing her feelings. She instead focuses on her looming twenty-second birthday, which she sees as a crucial marker in her life’s timeline. In addition to counting each minute, she hosts a news program, composed mostly of her reciting the telephone numbers she called. Keiko, it seems, is struggling to make sense of time. A minute, an hour, a day – all seem like forces imposing on her, especially as she continues to reel from the loss of her father.

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Keiko desu kedo is one of the earliest efforts from Shion Sono, who, in recent years, has transformed into one of Japan’s most beloved directors. The flash found in something like say, Love Exposure or Suicide Club is absent here. “Minimalism” has become overused in film circles, and I personally lament grouping all films composed of static shots and limited “action” together. Sono’s minimalism, if we prefer to call it that, does not function in the same way it would come to function throughout most of East Asia in the late 90s and early 00s. The films of Hou and Tsai are observant, while Sono’s (through Keiko Suzuki) is confessional.

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While the film is presented as confessional, Keiko herself confesses very little. She gives us the facts that one might find useful, but she does not reveal the pain that she is likely hiding through her dedicated attempts to capture and cage time. The film’s grammar suggests, at every turn even, that she is revealing something personal even if she never offers up what this is through language. Sono fixates on Keiko’s face to the point of abstraction. It does not feel claustrophobic, mostly because the camera seldom grants us access to the space around her. Indeed, her apartment, with it blood red walls sharply contrasted with bright yellow lamps seems to become an abstraction on its own, ready to transform into a cartoon.

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Many will find themselves frustrated by a film that is built around one character who is frequently shown counting to sixty. The final ten minutes could be maddening, but they are something of a revelation. Keiko finally steps outside of her apartment, the space opens, and the camera becomes more mobile. It tracks her as she skips in unison with her counting down the city streets. Her body’s performance seems to clash with the walking of passerby’s. Pardon the banality, but Keiko has to march to her own beat. That sounds corny, but consider this: Keiko has grieved, which is out of step with how our bodies are meant to perform and act out. Trauma, and our ongoing struggle to deal with it, goes against the state’s preference for our bodies. We need to do it, though. We need to be like Keiko, who continues skipping and counting far beyond the city’s streets, braving her way into a literal snow storm. Sometimes it isn’t even productive for dealing with loss, but we all deserve the opportunity to find that out for ourselves.

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Subete ga kurutteru / Everything Goes Wrong (1960)

4 05 2015

Frustrated by the cathartic images of war that the local cinema is treating him to, a despondent Jiro mopes around the city. His friends are enthralled by the images that they see, however they all leave the dark room of the cinema and enter the bright, bustling street corners of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood. It is easy to read Suzuki’s jazzy, fast-paced tale of teenage angst with Godard’s Breathless and Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, yet Suzuki has an investment in his city. An interest in the infrastructure that is more literal than Godard’s meditation on style and language or Oshima’s poetic interpretation of public space. This might be less visually stimulating than those two and we might be stuck with a flatter protagonist, but Suzuki surveys a city in transition. He reveals a truth: all cities are always in transition.

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Jiro drifts around with his wanna-be gangster friends, they drink, they smoke, they fraternize – anything to distract themselves from school and their lives at home. Jiro, on the other hand, is still very much emotionally invested in his mother, Misayo. The family’s father was lost in the war, leaving Misayo as the only one responsible to provide for her son. She’s done so with  help from Keigo, a married businessman. While it would be accurate to describe their relationship as an affair, it is still one build on respect and trust. Jiro sees the relationship as only physical and financial and he scrutinizes his mother for sinking so low. “You’re basically a whore” he charmlessly declares just as he dramatically darts out of their home. Jiro’s unreasonable expectations of his mother translate to his would be lover, Toshimi.

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Along with Breathless and Cruel Story of Youth, one feels an impulse to bring Rebel Without a Cause into the conversation. The characters in Ray’s film are, like Suzuki’s,  frustrated teenagers who only register events as either being or leading towards an emotional climax. There is one crucial distinction to be made here. The world of Rebel Without a Cause was suburban, the parental anxiety of teenagers’ “freedom” was evident in their access to cars. Space in Ray’s film is readily available, but it is in high demand for Suzuki. There’s a nervous energy the first time the camera whips across a crowded city street, and it is to the film’s credit that this same excitement is present even in private space.

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The private vs the public is the most fascinating relationship in Everything Goes Wrong because they aren’t presented as in conflict. Oshima’s early “sun tribe” films (the aformentioned Cruel Story of Youth but also The Sun’s Burial) were only interested in the public space. It was here that Oshima could find violence, sure, but also visual poetry. Pop culture was on the periphery, it was simply a thing in which the film’s subjects were involved. Pop culture is part of the architecture for Suzuki, though. A poster of Coleman Hawkins is prized, if not fetished, as it seems to preside over the gang’s local bar. Suzuki, who would became a far more “pop” filmmaker than Oshima (at least only in retrospect, Nikkatsu still had no idea what to do with him) and maybe he recognized that pop culture was not just a thing, but part of the history. Denise Scott Brown’s essay Learning from Pop advocates for a serious consideration of popular culture within architecture, Everything Goes Wrong feels like it would be a perfect case study for her.

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But, of course, pop culture is just frivolous nonsense, isn’t it? Suzuki wasn’t even the first Japanese director to acknowledge the presence of western culture. Tokyo itself translates into “Capital to East” (as opposed to the West) which suggests that those who named the city realized its relationship to the rest of the world. The structures we see in the film are all Western-influenced, even if they aren’t. Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Goodbye Asia (written in 1885) saw a country transforming itself into the modern as a means of protection from Western imperialism. This process involved demolishing old structures and displacing many place, an act that is erased by said demolition. The “pop” images bring this history back to the surface, and suggest that America’s occupation (and influence) of Japan was anticipated long before the war ever started.

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