David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: October 2005

Yasunari Kawabata: The Sound of the Mountain

It sure is difficult to focus on books when you’re eagerly watching Patrick Fitzgerald’s every move, but here are a few notes on Kawabata’s quirky take on old age. Neither as grim as Soseki nor as perverse as Tanizaki, The Sound of the Mountain is about an old man named Shingo, distant from his wife (who he married only after her sister, his first wife, died), with grouchy divorced daughter and a louse of a son who’s cheating on his wife Kikuko, to whom Shingo feels closest.

Shingo’s interventions accomplish little over the course of the book. His son doesn’t especially reform, and mostly he’s just left agape at the sadness that everyone seems to be going through: abortions, infidelity, abusive husbands, war widows, and so on. Shingo himself doesn’t have it so bad, but his failing memory and the uselessness he perceives in his aging self produce dreams and a desire to bond with young women. If this were a Tanizaki novel, his involvement with these women would turn to unrequited lust that would drive him crazy (see: The Key, Diary of a Mad Old Man, etc.), but here he’s never overcome with much at all. If anything, he identifies with the plight of his son’s wife, as she seems to occupy the closest position to his, one lacking all authority. When he eventually confronts his son, his son is dismissive and seems unaffected by Shingo’s words.

The family situation may be superficially reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but Kawabata is more subversive and less complacent. Where Ozu showed the elder parents in the eyes of their children as troublesome and disconnected, Shingo is made more aware of his surroundings by his increasing inability to be involved with them (a Proustian theme). The decadence of the younger generation is not, as is de rigeur, connected to a loss of parental authority (due to the war or other reasons) or a culture in decline. Shingo and his son work in the same job. The ending effects a resolution, but it is not one in which Shingo is included. The son gives up his mistress through no action of Shingo’s, and the family communicates more than it has in the entire book, yet Shingo is mostly silent and has, if anything, acquiesced to his declining fate.

The ultimate effect is something like watching a soap opera through the eyes of someone who has become unhealthily involved in the lives of the characters. Shingo fades throughout the book; his interactions with others, particularly the young women, promise more than they deliver. I wouldn’t call the book elegaic, because it’s too particular and detailed for that. But nor is it hopeless; it’s just that by the end the main character has ceased to be the subject of the plot.

Keiho Oguri: Sting of Death

A friend and I saw Sting of Death recently and were bewildered by it. An ex-soldier in 1955 or so confesses his infidelity to his wife. For two hours, they alternate between robotic interactions drained of inflection (Bresson on Haldol) and histrionic fits of attempted suicide, murder, etc. There is little of psychological depth actually said, and little plot. I did not enjoy the movie and I think the film unsuccessful and unnecessarily opaque. Normally this means I wouldn’t write about it, but since (a) there is almost no English reference to this movie on the web, and (b) I have already written a letter to my friend describing my eventual interpretation of the movie in response to his, I am posting on it. Because I am lazy, at least when it comes to things I don’t like, I am going to post the letter mostly unaltered, without explanation for some of the scenes that I refer to. I think it still gives a decent impression of the movie to someone who hasn’t seen it. And anyhow, isn’t it good to undercut occasionally the hegemony the reviewer holds over a reader who has not read the book or seen the movie under consideration?

Dear A–

What keyed me into the psychology of the film were the regressive aspects of parts of the film: at one point, the wife calls the husband Lieutenant and he throws water on her, while at others she calls him Papa. Both regress to the state of children several times over the course of the movie. Likewise, there are role reversals where one partner compensates for the others, such as the scene where the husband runs to the train tracks and lays his arm on it, and the wife has to hold him back.

From what I know of Japanese view of psychology based on the novels of Soseki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki, it’s one that puts the focus squarely on interpersonal trauma and disability: things such as infidelity, violence, sexual inadequacy, and jealousy. It does not play out in the form of repression (ironically, given the repressed aspects of Japanese society) but in various pathological forms of “insanity,” such as those seen in the film. There is, as you say, very rarely any “cure”–the process is one-way. The traumas in this film seem to be twofold: first, the infidelity, and second, the husband’s military past, which presumably ended in ignominious defeat. Connections between these two are speculative, since the movie is cryptic about his military career, but based on the water/Lieutenant scene, it seems that he also has some past demons based on his military experience.

The husband suggests at one point that they leave so that they can “create a new past”–most of their actions over the course of the movie seem to indicate that they are trying to erase the trauma of the past (the husband’s infidelity) and fail to do so, though how they fail is usually left quite vague. The wife will be acting normal and sedate in one scene, then inexplicably insane in the next. I don’t see this as repression per se, but rather a reaction to the removal of the previous context in which they existed. The “island,” and of course the hospital at the end, underscores their isolation from the world (i.e., the past), and the kids seem to function as a chorus for them.

The neighbor said, when interrupting the wife and mistress trying to kill each other, that she didn’t know who was right or wrong and that it wasn’t her business. I took this to imply that the couple’s business is indeed too private and they have succeeded in isolating themselves from the rest of humanity. Whether they are aiming for death or avoiding it–they alternate between the two–I think the movie is supposed to display this sort of quasi-death state as they isolate themselves from everyone else. They can’t achieve actual death because they still retain the desire/hope that they can erase the past, yet by attempting to do so they erase themselves. I see the movie as more a portrait of a culture that, having not recovered from a terminal loss of dignity, can no longer embrace death as a purifying force (a la seppuku or kamikaze). In the larger sense, Oguri seems to say that Japanese culture desires to erase itself by trying to ignore the past. But this only produces increased anomie and ultimately stasis.

As for the success of the movie, I simply found it too repetitive and too stiff. The fact that the movie is open to such wildly differing interpretations is not a factor in its favor. The artificial hyper-exaggerated acting of the two leads did not “work” for me in any noticeable way. It is perhaps the director’s homage to butoh and noh theater traditions, and possibly if I was more familiar with them I would appreciate the film more, but as it is, the film drifts fatally and the lack of realism undercuts the point he is trying to make. Since they aren’t believable as everyday people, they have to function as abstract extremes, but their artificially limited emotional vocabulary left the film feeling didactic, overdetermined, and ultimately tiresome, as though the director were completely unwilling to let the material breathe or offer a single sign that there might be more beyond his thesis.

In contrast, I would say, a film such as Vengeance is Mine (or any Imamura film) teems with the raw material of life and does not have a rigid, claustrophobic agenda to pursue, and for me this above all makes Imamura a far greater artist. “Sting of Death” doesn’t even seem open to the possibility that things could be otherwise. I find this absurd and arrogant.


Aleksandr Sokurov: The Sun

I am not a great fan of Sokurov’s movies. Unlike his loose predecessors Tarkovsky (his sometimes mentor) and Sergei Paradjanov, both of whom I love, Sokurov’s emphasis on aesthetics-above-all gives his films a decadent quality lacking in his predecessors. Russian Ark was a staggering technical achievement that takes too oblique a view of Russian history. Father and Son pulls out one visual trick after another, but fails to take its premise (a near-sexual bond between father and son) anywhere. The Sun, about the day Hirohito announced he was not a god, is much more coherent, but Sokurov’s expressed avoidance of the political is at times myopic.

But there is one area in which I cannot think of a rival for Sokurov, and that is in sound design. I cannot think of another director who orchestrates the sound of his movies with such meticulous depth and attention to minute detail. The detail is so great that there were points in The Sun where I wished the actors would be quiet so I could take in the layers of sound behind them. The “score” of the first half of The Sun is a disorienting mixture of birdsong, faint but shrill electronic tones (recalling Artimiev’s scores for Tarkovsky), and brief strains of decontextualized classical music. I don’t do it justice by describing it; Sokurov and his sound crew–composer Sergei Yevtushenko and soundpeople Sergei Moshkov and Vladimir Persov–construct scores that rank with the most experimental and successful of the modern electro-acoustic movement.

In The Sun especially, the score is crucial to the success of the first half of the movie. Hirohito’s ancient position in the very modern world is portrayed uncomfortably with the electronic intrusions insinuating themselves into his relentlessly formal and regimented life. Seen in a theater, it’s an enveloping, unnatural sonic environment that marks this uneasiness. Much has been made of Sokurov’s increasing difficulties seeing, and whether or not the grayness of the first part of The Sun is an allusion to this, the richness of the audible aspect of the film is an implicit answer to the dilemma Alexander Kluge proposed in The Blind Director.

Update: It looks like Mr. Wheeler has beat me to the punch, as Androgynous Turtle waxed rhapsodic on Sokurov and sound over a year ago. I must say that I found Beau Travail to be a much more successful film than Sokurov’s Father and Son, but I was happy to find Mr. Wheeler’s comments. Please come back!

Samuel Beckett: Watt

I intended Watt to be a palate cleanser after reading Proust. One doesn’t take away characters, stories, or ideas from Beckett in the normal way. Rather, it’s a certain effect that he creates, and it’s one that’s intimately involved with the reading of the text; it’s less easy to carry around with you. So his books make for better rereading than most.

Watt isn’t as focused and abstract as Beckett’s post-Molloy work; nor is it as borderline-normal as Murphy. The extensive lists and permutations make their first big appearance here, but they’re at their most pointless. The title character, a man of no imagination but much logic, relentlessly explores possibilities for every small event as he enters the employ of Mr. Knott as a servant. He doesn’t meet Mr. Knott while a servant on the first floor, giving him plenty of time to form hypotheses about the circumstances of Knott’s life and habits. He moves to the second floor, but we only hear of his experiences there through what he tells the narrator. There is much pedantry, but every so often there is stark beauty. Of Knott, Watt says the following sentences in reverse (I have reversed them for reader convenience):

Abandoned my little to find him. My little to learn him forgot. My little rejected to have him. To love him my little reviled. This body homeless. This mind ignoring. These emptied hands. This emptied heart. To him I brought. To the temple. To the teacher. To the source. Of nought. (106)

People (including me) think of Beckett as a terminal figure, like Godard, someone who pushed an approach as far as it could go, so that his successors had to turn back and follow other approaches. But after three-thousand-some pages of Proust and the trappings of Parisian high society, the empty nought Watt finds after leaving behind his “little” reads as distressingly liberating. Hardly a good freedom, but one in which language no longer carries the incredible weight which Proust invested in it; where, rather, it can hardly be tied down.

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

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