David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: japan (page 2 of 5)

Nagisa Oshima: More Films

Violence at Noon (Oshima, 1966): Aesthetics triumph. Oshima aggressively shoots black and white Cinemascope in almost exclusively close-ups or wide shots, most of them quite short, and combined with a dissonant orchestral score (not familiar with the composer, but it is in line with Takemitsu’s excellent film scores of the period), the film builds up momentum through craft alone. Which is good, because the plot is a mess. It’s the story of a love triangle (or square) in which one of the men has killed himself and the other has begun sexually assaulting and killing women. The two female characters provide varying degrees of rationale for his actions and not much else. That they all lived on a collective farm years before the main plotline implies some kind of political message, but next to Night and Fog in Japan, it’s pretty weak stuff. There is more analysis of the plot at Strictly Film School, which does more for it than I can do. Technically brilliant but morally questionable.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (Oshima, 1967): Not to be confused with Masahiro Shinoda’s beautiful but completely different Double Suicide from 1969. Here Oshima abandons realism completely and tells the story of two youths, a boy who just wants to die and a girl who just wants sex (this is Oshima, remember), who get mixed up in some sort of allegorical gang war and end up hiding out in a barn with a bunch of cowardly thugs. Not as technically impressive as Violence at Noon, there are still some gorgeous and abstract scenes on some odd sort of beach. The vaguely apocalyptic plot and characters throw off sparks without ever really gelling (think of Godard’s Les Carabiniers), but it keeps your attention, particularly the ending, which involves an American sniper who does not speak one word of Japanese.

Death By Hanging (Oshima, 1968): Humor, not especially noticeable in the earlier films, shows up here and it’s surprisingly effective. A Korean man is hanged but instead of dying suffers amnesia, and so the warden and others have to cause him to remember his crime so they can hang him again. Ostensibly a parable about the death penalty, Oshima can’t stick with one subject and things spill over into Japanese colonialism, racism, and bureaucracy. It’s effective satire; even when you can’t figure out what point Oshima is exactly trying to make, it’s biting anyway. It’s the colonial message that is clearest for me, making depressing observations on Japanese discrimination against Koreans and the alienation forced on them. Not as visually striking as the two above films, it still has some of the strongest content of any Oshima film.

The Ceremony (Oshima, 1971): Another nasty parable, this one telling the story of the extended family that constitutes part of Japan’s ruling class. Everyone is corrupt; redemption is impossible. The younger generation listlessly follow in the vile footsteps of their megalomaniacal parents, acting out all the self-absorbed and reprehensible pageantry funded by imperial and capitalistic thuggery. The famous setpiece is a wedding that goes ahead even though the bride has failed to show, but the film has a consistent brute-force power, and the actors convincingly portray hollow, soulless aristocrats. Appropriately gloomy and typically good score by Takemitsu.

Nagisa Oshima and Other Japanese New Wave Films

There have been two retrospectives of Oshima recently in New York, as well as a brief New Wave overview at the Japan Society. Most of these films aren’t readily available, and for Oshima at least, people’s opinions of him have been skewed by only watching his late work, particularly In the Realm of the Senses (which is really not my thing). So here are quick takes on what I’ve seen. First, three early Oshima films.

The Sun’s Burial (Oshima, 1960): Assorted gang members and other lowlifes in Osaka try to make money and kill each other. Even here, though, Oshima is not concerned with realism. The film is essentially a melodrama and the plot contrivances are designed to generate theatricality and brutality. Oshima is technically fluent, but the film’s construction pales next to Imamura’s contemporaneous Pigs and Battleships, which takes a more anthropological view toward its lower-class subjects.

Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960): At a wedding, students, professors, and activists argue over what happened during the student movement against the Japan-America security treaty ten years earlier. There’s a lot of political talk without much background, but the depiction of a dead-serious Communist student movement, complete with censure and autocracy, is compelling. The flashbacks and camera movements are vaguely dialectical (the camera has a habit of swinging horizontally backwards and forwards), and it’s clear that the political content is meant seriously, not satirically, even if Oshima is ultimately pessimistic about the movements and their hollow leaders. It’s a more literal version of what Godard did in La Chinoise.

Pleasures of the Flesh (Oshima, 1963): Based on a book apparently entitled Pleasures of the Coffin, this is another over-the-top melodrama. Our hero murders a man who raped the teenage object of his obsession/love/lust, then comes into a fortune through hard-to-figure circumstances. He spends a year spending money by hiring assorted women as prostitutes. Things go very badly. The material seems to be tongue-in-cheek, but the rampant misogyny (the women just want money, they betray him, they don’t have feelings, etc.) is still hard to take. Best example of such: our hero secretly watches a pimp rape his prostitute, but doesn’t intervene until the pimp is about to pour acid on her face. Yeah.

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

I never thought I’d get the chance to see Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. The Japan Society’s production is the first since the premiere almost 40 years ago, and I get the feeling there’s not going to be another one anytime soon, since Partch wrote for his own unwieldy instruments and the requirements he placed on performers were rather strenuous. (Partch’s recommendation that his instruments be wheeled around on the stage during the performance, adding to their “corporeality,” was dropped in this production.) So I consider myself blessed to have the experience of getting some idea of what Partch had in mind, even if his full intentions were probably unrealizable. Partch was something of a magpie in stealing bits and pieces from other cultures–gamelan here, gagaku there–but the synthesis is so intensely personal as to be an unrecognizable miscegenation. His vaunted excursions into microtones are only a small part of Partch’s outre gestalt.

It’s because of the private nature of the work that I can’t easily assess my own reaction to it difficult. Partch may have thought that he was tapping into some universal mythos and music, but I have to say that at least in that regard, he failed. All of his work, and Delusion is perhaps the most fully realized work but not any more or less accessible than the others, springs from his willfully cultivated outsider status and mostly solitary development of his own musical theories and dogma. Partch was far from untrained, but he was not a social man, and it seems that estrangement came to him naturally, particularly from “The Establishment” and high culture in general. There are a number of other American composers that fall into this category, and they rank among the best the country has produced: Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese (not actually American, but tried his damnedest to be), Sun Ra, Lou Harrison, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. All of them resisted (and continue to resist) easy assimilation into a larger historical context, and many actively tried to divorce themselves from being associated with any larger movement. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that many of them, including Partch, also happened to be queer, but that’s all I’m prepared to say on that subject. See also Percy Grainger, who ironically was too establishment to make the list.) Partch, himself quite the curmudgeon, extended this autonomy to the very instruments themselves, ensuring himself an even greater degree of personal control over performance. The resultant effect, no doubt intentional, is that there is more work to be done to get inside the corpus of these composers than those who exist closer to the mainstream horizon of recent times.

So here’s the plot, in Partch’s words:

It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The “Exordium” is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end — with the supplication “Pray for me!” — he finds reconciliation.

There is nowhere, from the beginning of the “Exordium” to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but — due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness — a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.

Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.

The near-total lack of narration and speech (partly for copyright reasons, apparently) does not make it easy to understand what is going on without the accompanying program notes, and the partial doubling of the actors in the main roles in the two parts is more puzzling than anything else. To the extent that Delusion reaches for universality, it is to a totality of musical performance. Watching it, I could only feel that narrative and thematic drive had been subordinated to the physical performance of music (and dance) itself, which struggled under the heavy responsibility of evoking those very traits. There’s a hint of this in Partch’s own description of his aesthetics:

The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Where one might expect narrative, there is only raw experience and ritual, which I gather Partch intended to place in a prior and more fundamental place than what constitutes modern storytelling. The Residents, hugely influenced by Partch, drew upon this aspect in their own early work, particularly in the nonsense narrative of Not Available and the instrumental “narratives” of Eskimo and above all “Six Things to a Cycle” (off of Fingerprince), which is so Partch-like as to constitute a tribute. The plot: “Man, represented as a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly.” Its (entire) lyrics?

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

[Smack Smack Smack]

So yeah, I think that says it all.

Sviatoslav Richter: Musical Strict Constructionist

It is at once ridiculous and absolutely fitting that Richter was an originalist (i.e., a believer in the original intent of the composer) in his views on music:

Following an absolutely frightful concert that I gave at the Fetes
Musicales de Touraine, when I played eight of Liszt’s Transcendental
Studies, and a recital in Japan, where I took fright even before launching
into Beethoven’s Op. 106 Sonata, I made up my mind never again to play
without a score.

It any case, what’s the point of cluttering up your brain when there are far
better things to do? It’s bad for your health, and it also smacks of vanity.
True, it’s not as easy to retain the same degree of freedom with a score
open in front of you – it doesn’t work straight away and requires a lot of
practice – but now that I’ve got used to it, I find that it has lots of
advantages. In the first place, I’ve never made any distinction between
chamber music and music written for a solo performer. But one always plays
chamber music with a score; why should one have to perform without one as a
soloist? In the second place, it’s easy enough to memorize a Haydn sonata,
but I prefer to play twenty while reading the music, rather than limiting
myself to two performed from memory. As for contemporary music, there are
only a few exceptional artists who are able to memorize a piece by Webern,
or Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis, but it’s a waste of time and effort. It’s not
*practical*. Moreover, even if the element of danger and risk aren’t totally
foreign to music, you feel more secure and can concentrate better if you’ve
got the score in front of you. Finally, and above all, it’s more honest to
play like this: you’ve got how it has to be in front of you and you play
exactly what’s written. The interpreter is a mirror, and performing music
doesn’t mean contaminating the piece with your own personality, it consists
in performing *all* the music, nothing more and nothing less. Who could ever
remember *all* the performance markings indicated by the composer? Failing
that, performers start to ‘interpret’, and it’s that that I’m against.

By freeing the brain of the useless task of memorizing the music, you can
also stop inflicting the same endlessly repeated programmes on audiences –
and on yourself.

(from Bruno Monsaingeon, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, tr. Stewart Spencer)

This also makes him a Romantic Hermeneut (diagram c/o this link):

Except without those messy contexts:

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s
intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the
work. If he’s talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that
is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t
dominate the music, but should dissolve into it. I don’t think that my way
of playing has ever changed. Or if it has, I didn’t notice, Perhaps I simply
started to play with greater freedom as I threw off the shackles of
existence and rejected the superfluous and all that distracts us from the
essential. It is by shutting myself away that I’ve found freedom.

I might have had doubts about the extent to which I managed to play what I
intended, but from the beginning I was always certain that, for each work,
it was in this way, and no other, that it had to be played. Why? It’s very
simple: because I looked closely at the score. That’s all that’s required to
reflect what it contains.

Kurt Sanderling once said of me: “Not only can he play well, he can also
read music.” That wasn’t such a bad way of putting it.

This is, of course, insane, but who am I to question the ethos given the results? Likewise with Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, two of the more articulate eccentric musical wonders of the age.

On Formalism: 5 Films

None of these movies merited a whole entry, but maybe we can find an interesting gestalt amongst them. I watched them in a 24-hour period last weekend in an attempt to clear my mind of impinging quotidian matters.

Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri): Ferreri copped Godard and Bunuel’s provacateur attitude without putting much substance behind it. Everyman Michel Piccoli comes home from his job, puts his wife to bed, putters around the house for about an hour, then shoots his wife dead and takes off for Tahiti as the cook of a ship. But Ferreri doesn’t have the chops to move beyond the overt cinematic critique to something more interesting; you’re always at a distance from Piccoli, especially when you shouldn’t be. Godard could have pulled off an involving and alienating portrait of such ennui; hell, Bresson should have! (Am I the only person who thinks it would have been hysterical to see his non-acting and serious-serious-serious approach applied to modern domesticity?) Ferreri can’t, and the thing turns out to be a relic of the 60s in which edginess was charmingly naive and free of the tired shock tactics that Haneke, Noe, Von Trier, and others would bring to popular art film later on.

Anguish (Bigas Luna): And speaking of shock tactics, this is a film about a dentist who kills people and extracts their eyes under the hypnotic suggestions of his mother. Actually, no, that’s The Mommy, the movie that is being watched by a movie audience in Anguish while a killer stalks the theater. Then, of course, mother’s boy goes to a theater and much self-reference ensues. Were it merely a horror movie, the characters and settings would be all at the mercy of frights and gross-outs. Here, the characters and settings are at the mercy of the metafictional gimmick. Unfortunately, good horror movies know to provide payoffs every 10-15 minutes or so, and after Anguish shoots its metaphorical load in its first reveal, Luna runs out of tricks, though he tries his best.

Of Freaks and Men (Alexei Balabanov): A gang of S&M pornographers in turn of the century St. Petersburg wreak havoc on families and a pair of Siamese twins. Very formalistic, down to the sepia-toned film, it resists any but the most superficial psychologizing of its characters (the arid plot description that the link gives does not disguise any deeper depths). Spurred by dissatisfaction at what the film appears to present, I drew my own interpretation that the film is an analogy of exploitation and art film. By giving the (presumably highbrow) viewer all the signifiers of classicist, formalist “art,” it serves the same purpose as the short pornographic reels shot by the characters do for their intended audience. I’m pretty sure this was not Balabanov’s intent. Nonetheless, a beautiful final shot.

The Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski): Considerably chewier than the above. Based on the Jerzy Zulawski’s science-fiction trilogy The Lunar Trilogy about the colonization of the moon (published in 1903-1911!), the film was never completed due to government interference. It’s a bonkers tale of astronauts founding a primitive civilization on the moon, who then receive a later astronaut as their savior, who saves them from the hostile, animalistic bird creature civilization that is native to the moon. Fascinating but endlessly problematic, the film’s entire first hour is presented as documentary footage shot by one of the original astronauts via his helmet-cam, and everyone speaks in leaden, impenetrable metaphors. There’s much that could be construed as some sort of criticism of Communism, but the film is such a mess that its ultimate statement against Communism is the idea that such a whack film could be made in Poland in the 70s.

Street Trash (James Muro): I actually only saw the last half of this one, which probably wasn’t such a bad move. It bears all the markings of its time: 80s splatter gorefest about homeless people exploding and beating each other up. I wasn’t aware, but apparently the whole genre dried up when the Japanese banned the films after some serial killer claimed inspiration from them. Anyone have a cite? Anyway, I’m not much of a fan of splatter films because they all blend together, but this one has a few tricks. The standard schlock double irony is there (the film towards its material, and the audience towards the film), but the aggressively random plotting (mafia and Vietnam vets, but they never meet up)sends it into slightly more memorable Ray Dennis Steckler territory, even as the higher-than-usual puzzlement of the actors over how seriously to take themselves signals a death knell for the genre.

What I will say is that these films left me with little that I could take back with me as a writer, and with the exception of The Silver Globe, they left me with little that I could take outside of the realm of film itself. (The Silver Globe is something of a special case, as the movie text is mostly incomprehensible but its literary origins still show through.) So leave aside Zulawski’s film. Of the remaining four, even Ferreri’s film, supposedly about modern everyday life, is subsumed by the overwhelming sense of “Can you believe what they’re putting on the screen?!” For me, they all point out the fallacy that formalism must restrict itself to addressing the limits and variations of its own form. It cannot; instead, formalism must invoke other media and forms–real life being only one of them–in a way that is not explicitly representational. This is evidently not easy to do, but one glance at Godard and Jancso reminds me of the ever-fruitful possibility. But for formalism to comment on its own form alone: this is the point at which film becomes a fetish rather than an art.

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