Nothing But the Hours/Rien que les heures (1926, Alberto Cavalcanti)

A young, careworn-looking woman takes off her hat and sighs; when she looks up, she breaks into a smile; a young sailor is grinning at her in anticipation. Each face is held in close-up, shots alternating between the two so that we are invited to view each almost through the eyes of the other―almost, but not quite, because the camera is positioned just to the side of where a truly subjective placing would be. The woman starts to undress; the man looks to the side; there is a shot of a bed. The man turns his head back towards his companion, but the following shot is not of the woman’s face but of her legs and hands as she unlaces her boots. Returning to the man, we see his gaze tilted downwards, his expression a picture of lust. The next shot of the woman is of her head and shoulders, which are now naked; her back is towards the camera, and she slowly turns her head to meet the man’s gaze. We see him regarding the object of his desire before turning his head towards the bed again. A shot of the bed ends with a fade-to-black, suggesting eyes being closed, but before the screen turns entirely black, there’s a cut to the next shot: the woman turning her head away and closing her eyes in apparent pleasure. At first, cued by the turning of the man’s head, we might assume the shot of the bed to be his subjective view, but by ‘rhyming’ the fade-out with the woman’s closing her eyes, the film opens up the possibility of it being her subjective view. The next cut is not to the young man, but to the woman’s leg as she removes her boot and lets it fall; this time, as her arm swings for a moment by her side, her movements seem less seductive than exhausted. There’s one last shot of the bed, but the camera has moved closer to it this time. The last shot in this sequence is again of the woman; she winks, at the young man, and―almost―at the viewer. As the camera holds her in shot, her gaze maintains it focus, but her expression subtly changes: she purses her lip, shifts her lower jaw, and smiles somewhat shakily. While can read all sorts of things into this final close-up if we choose―bitterness, resignation, weariness, cynicism, sexual desire, love―no definitive reading is insisted upon, or possible. The camera’s playing with subjectivity and objectivity, with the sexually charged gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman as she observes that gaze, involves us closely with the characters yet also holds them at a distance, not allowing us to arrive at a settled response to them. The sequence of shots is further disrupted by the insertion of documentary footage of homeless men entering a shelter, a shot of a window, a doorbell etc., things bearing no obvious relation to the small human drama in the bedroom.

This scene takes place near the end of Alberto Cavalcanti’s luminous masterpiece Rien que les heures/Nothing But the Hours (a.k.a. Nothing But Time, 1926). Our experience of watching it is complicated by information conveyed by previous scenes. First, the young woman is a prostitute―something made clear near the beginning when we see her unsuccessfully trying to attract a potential customer. Is, then, the young man a paying client, a lover, or something else? His being a sailor might argue against a close attachment, but this is not something of which we can be sure. Another earlier scene showed the pair gazing at each other in apparent adoration at a dance hall―an image of contented romance contrasted with the intense expression of jealousy on the face of another man also present at the dance hall. Jealousy is, at least, the most obvious explanation for the intensity of this man’s expression (an earlier scene showed the same man kissing the same woman), but it’s not an explanation the film confirms. Do we see the dancers in a subjective shot from the other man’s point of view? Perhaps, but we can’t even be sure that he is looking at them, for the three are not shown in shot together. They do in fact share the screen at the same time, but it’s a tripartite split screen with the dancers in the middle, the intense-looking man on the left, and an accordionist on the right. Cavalcanti refuses us the grounds to be sure of the spatial relationship that exits between these characters (are they even in the same dance hall?). The dancers are framed in such a way as to suggest a proscenium arch; multiple exposure creates several copies of them dancing at once. A subjective shot conveying the emotional state of an observer? But both the intense man and the accordionist are facing away from the ‘proscenium’. A close-up of the intense man is followed by a second two shot of the dancers, the image in extreme soft-focus, which again suggests the emotional subjectivity of an observer. But then we return to the split screen, which disrupts again the connection we have drawn between the dancers and the intense man. Our attention might also be drawn to the fact that the sailor and the prostitute are not the only dancers in the middle portion of the screen; there is another, unrelated couple. What are they doing there?

cavalcanti4

The other complicating factor is that, before her meeting with the sailor in the bedroom, we have seen the young woman apparently acting as an accomplice to a crime resulting in murder. In this scene, she stands watch while, in an alley, the intense-looking man from the dance hall robs and then kills a newspaper seller (another recurring character, whose death had been foreshadowed by an encounter with a fortune teller). Indeed, it is the sailor’s inopportune arrival that causes the prostitute to lead him away from the crime scene and to the bedroom. When we later watch the young woman undressing, the not-quite-subjective shot underlines the fact that we do not see her through the sailor’s eyes because we have information about her he does not share, information that affects our response to her. At the same time, we have information that she does not share, for she is unaware that the planned robbery ended with an unplanned homicide. We are not granted a position of privileged knowledge, however, because there is much we do not know, much that remains puzzling. None of the characters is given a name; the prostitute is introduced with a title card referring to her as ‘la fille’. The nature of her relationship to the intense man, and the degree of her complicity in his crime, is unclear; her relationship with the sailor is likewise not elaborated. Can we even be sure of the chronology of events? The film gives us merely the fragments and hints of a melodrama, declining to provide us with enough detail to enable us to arrive at a stable understanding.

cavalcanti5

One of the claims often made of Rien que les heures is that it inaugurated the movement or genre known as the city symphony film, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s extraordinary Man with a Movie Camera (1929) being the two most celebrated examples. Others include the Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis (Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig, 1929) and Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle (José Leitão de Barros, 1930), as well as the shorter works Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927, Robert Flaherty), Skyscraper Symphony (1929, Robert Florey), Rain (1929, Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken) and À propos de Nice (1930, Jean Vigo). Manhatta, directed in 1921 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, might be thought of as a kind of precursor. But what is a city symphony? Do the films share enough common features for us to consider them a coherent group? It’s certainly a very varied bunch. Skyscraper Symphony runs for under ten minutes; São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis for an hour and a half.  Études sur Paris is almost entirely documentary in approach, fictional vignettes being absent except for one brief scene of a thwarted assignation. At the other end of the spectrum, a title card at the beginning of Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle denies that the film is a documentary at all, preferring the term anecdotal chronicle on the basis that it features several famous actors (although it is clear that many of the people who appear on screen are not professionals). The films of Ruttmann, Kemeny and Lustig, Leitão de Barros and Vigo are avowedly portraits of individual cities, their names included in the titles, while Vertov’s city is a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv, and Rain seems only incidentally to be about Amsterdam (it could just as easily have been filmed in Rotterdam). The frenetic montage of Man with a Movie Camera is not in the least like the leisurely grace of Études sur Paris; Vigo’s droll mockery of Nice’s wealthy tourists could not be further removed from the boosterish qualities of São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis. Many of these filmmakers were associated, to one degree or another, with left-wing politics; stark scenes of urban poverty in the films of Vigo and Cavalcanti highlight the miseries suffered by the losers in a capitalist economy. The poor, by contrast, are largely absent in São Paulo and Lisbon, neither of which is interested in offering an overtly political critique―indeed a disturbing strain of militaristic nationalism is evident in both. Also absent from São Paulo are non-white faces; a few are featured in Lisbon, but with no acknowledgement of the violence of Portugal’s colonial project. Some features are common to most city symphony films, notably a fascination with industrial machinery (plenty of shots of factories) and modern transport (ships, trains, cars, trams, chaotic or smooth-flowing).

cavalcanti2.jpg

One of the things that elements distinguishes Rien que les heures from the other city symphony films is the development of its fictional elements into dramatic story lines (oblique and elliptical though they may be) integrated with non-fiction scenes, the emotional power of melodrama combining with the truth-value of documentary (then a relatively recent concept) to give the work its sense of fullness and depth. In addition to the recurring characters already mentioned, another important figure is an old woman who staggers through alleys and across building sites, perhaps in search of food or shelter, or perhaps simply driven restlessly by despair or mental disturbance. This woman stands for all the ignored, disdained, downtrodden citizens of Paris, the ones who are usually left out of the familiar glamorous, romantic, sophisticated representations of the city, which are explicitly rejected near the beginning. Title cards announce that we are to be presented not with the fashionable and elegant life, but the daily life of the humble, the low-class (although the film does in fact include scenes of the fashionable and elegant life). To demonstrate the point, a shot of chic young ladies is frozen into a photograph, the image ripped up by a pair of hands into implausibly numerous small pieces. Next, a swanky car transforms by dissolve into a tired donkey and cart laden with bags. Such bold, even crude, transitions and contrasts are characteristic of the film: shots of attractive flowers and vegetables at a market are intercut with shots of flowers and vegetables discarded in bins; a well-dressed young man eats a steak while, framed by his plate, we see a scene at the slaughterhouse. Alongside effects such as these, there are beautiful shots of clouds moving across the sky, the rising and falling of a woman’s chest as she sleeps, morning light streaming through a grille, smoke ascending delicately from chimneys.

Rien que les heures is a collection of disparate fragments: fragments of a seamy melodrama, of a socially conscious record of the lives of the poor, of a rapturous and impressionistic cine-poem. As well as the Parisian setting, another thing these fragments have in common is an ever-present awareness of the inexorable passage of time, an awareness that adds poignancy to the brief, ecstatic moments of captured beauty; to the fleeting pleasures of alcohol, the swimming pool, the carousel, that provide relief from the grim routines of work; to the embracing lovers; to the consideration of the fragility of life (the murdered newspaper-seller) and the onset of old age (the wandering woman). ‘We can fix a point in space, freeze a moment in time,’ proclaims one title card; a bit later comes the reply, ‘but space and time both escape our possession’―an observation both tragic and charged with wonder. It’s also an observation made in the shadow of Einstein’s upending of the old certainties of physical reality, and the shots that occur between these two title cards play with this temporal and spatial disorientation. On a spinning globe, only two cities are marked: Paris and Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West), linked by a shared first letter, but in different time zones. We see postcards of Peking landmarks, referring back to the film’s opening statement that all cities would be identical were it not for the monuments that distinguish them. There follows a strange little scene featuring a Chinese woman being chased around a room by a Frenchman. In the background there is a folding screen decorated with images suggestive of contemporary European art, an ornamental blend of two cultures. The man and woman enter screen right, the woman apparently anxious to get away from the man. They exit screen left, but then immediately enter screen right again; this impossible circuit is repeated.* When we next see the spinning globe, it is first rotating at tremendous speed; there’s a slow dissolve to an image of oscillating back and forth hesitantly, the speed reducing until another dissolve shows an unmoving map of Africa and Eurasia, with Paris marked at one end of the screen and Peking at the other. During the second dissolve, a ghostly Paris is seen adjacent to Peking, as if the two cities were about to merge. Time is distorted in the next shot of a clock face, its hands turning at heightened speed; the image dissolves into one of the clock hands swinging like a pendulum. Next, the clock is physically reordered, the numerals in a horizontal strip at the bottom of the screen, the face shattered into multi-screen fragments, each showing a different scene. One of these scenes is of the city’s traffic; after a dissolve, the whole screen is taken up by this traffic, except that different shots are superimposed, so that cars appear to be travelling into each other at tilted angles. The confusion and disorder that Cavalcanti sees as the key condition of metropolitan modernity is viewed ambivalently: there is the scandal of crushed and thwarted lives, the violent, brutal underbelly of the clichéd falsities of the city of light, but here, in confusion and disorder, might also be found a breach in the defences of society and the possibility of reform or revolution. I don’t know whether the film is pessimistic or optimistic about this possibility, or whether its pessimism and optimism can be disentangled, but its freshness and fascination lie in part in its commitment to boldness and freedom of artistic expression as part of the social struggle. It is only 45 minutes long, yet the richness of its aesthetic and political radicalism is treasurable.

cavalcanti1

*Is the woman in danger? So we might think, but we are wrong-footed when the woman sits down laughing on a sofa in the foreground; this is light romantic comedy rather than grim melodrama.

Advertisements

Fogo (2012, Yulene Olaizola)

Between 1954 and 1975, the Canadian government resettled thousands of Newfoundlanders living in remote, impoverished communities, many of which were deemed unviable and abandoned. Such a fate threatened the small island of Fogo. In the late 1960s, while the outlook was still grim, the director Colin Low shot a series of short documentaries known as the Fogo Process, which sought both to record aspects of an everyday life with extinction looming over it, and to address community concerns by giving islanders a platform to discuss them. These were films made by an outsider (from Alberta) in collaboration with locals, and which were then publicly screened on the island. Many of them were overtly political: plainly-shot discussions of the state of the fishing industry, reliance on welfare, religious divisions, education, the role of women, the lack of opportunities for the young, etc. A few others recorded weddings, parties and musical performances, while one―the delightful The Children of Fogo Island (1967)―allowed Low to indulge his more poetic impulses. Funded by the National Film Board of Canada and the Memorial University of Newfoundland, what emerges most strongly from these films is a collaborative ethos and a sense of community; they were primarily made for local audiences, and maintain a focus on the issues that mattered to those audiences. In the end, the residents won their battle to avoid resettlement, their cause aided by the films they collaborated in making. Today, a little over 2,000 live on the island. The fishing industry has declined, but tourism provides a new source of income, encouraged by some swanky new architecture.

Not having been to Fogo, I can’t report on the current state of the community or speculate as to its future, but it’s safe to say that no visitor today will encounter the extreme desolation depicted in Yulene Olaizola’s mesmerising pseudo-documentary. In this film, the community is on the verge of dying out; houses are dilapidated and abandoned; most residents appear to have left; a man announces the departure in a few days of the last ferry―presumably the last ever ferry. Norm, the main character, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to leave his lifetime home or stay behind with no hope of a future. No information concerning the cause of this desperate situation is given; it could be the end point of a gradual, localized decline, or it could be apocalyptic in nature. The clothes, buildings, furniture etc. on view might as well indicate the 1960s or 70s as the present or future. It’s a fictional scenario, but doesn’t announce itself as such; the absence of a plot, the natural lighting, mostly static shots and observational study of the lives of ordinary people are features that together suggest a documentary. Norm is played by Norman Foley, a real islander; his friends Ron Broders and Joseph Dwyer also play versions of themselves (and what beautiful performances the three of them give).

Yulene Olaizola is, as was Colin Low, an outsider, though from a different country: Mexico. In her film, there are no overtly political discussions; the only visible community is that of one in irreversible decay. The film was funded by an artist-in-residency program run by the Fogo Island Arts Corporation, a body that didn’t exist in the days of the Fogo Process. The corporation strives to meet the cultural needs of the island, but Olaizola is also aiming at international art-house audiences (though there’s little evidence of commercial calculation in such a determinedly non-mainstream work), who may not know very much about the real Fogo, and so may not realize that they’re watching fiction and not a documentary. Whereas the majority of the 60s shorts are specific and functional, Fogo is elusive, puzzling, elliptical. It is both rooted in place (the contemplative attention to landscape; the use of residents as non-professional performers; the imagining of the terrible fate narrowly avoided by the island, and which might loom again) and general (the scarcity of detail regarding the scenario turns Fogo into an exemplar of similarly remote communities, and its decline emblematic of wider civilizational anxiety in the face of economic and environmental catastrophe). Its low-key naturalism might appear to be in the service of verisimilitude, but in fact the Fogo that appears on screen is the result of a distorting process of selection; in an interview, the director explained how she avoided shooting the modern Fogo―its houses, its roads, its vehicles―in order to realize her vision of a broken-down, all but deserted community.

yes - Fogo 9

Why are the characters so attached to their tiny island? The question isn’t answered. Olaizola and her remarkable cinematographer, Diego García, contrive to make Fogo an astonishingly beautiful film, but they don’t make Fogo seem a particularly beautiful place, at least not in a way that commonly wins the approval of tourist boards. Filmed in winter, there is just enough snow to impress the cold on the viewer, but not nearly enough for the kind of gleaming, picturesque snow-scape the camera loves so much. We see little other than a bleak, boggy, windy tundra―hardly an inviting terrain. There may well be more conventionally pretty scenes to be found on Fogo, but if there are, Olaizola has chosen to ignore them. Instead, it is in the midst of the bleakness that she shows a sensuous appreciation for nature: the wind blowing through the long grass, the pressing of boots and paws into wet mossy ground, a breathtaking low shot of the wind blowing little wispy trails of sand-like snow across frozen water. Perhaps the ability to find and cherish natural beauty where it is not immediately apparent, where all around at first sight appears barren and featureless, is one of the things that binds Norm and his friends to their birthplace, which will strike many as inhospitable. ‘We’re staying here,’ says Ron to his two dogs, Thunder and Patch, in the darkness of the kennel, his voice expressing at once defiance, solace and uncertainty. A single beam of light sunlight illuminates him, to which he turns his head: religious lighting, it might seem, except that there is no intervening heavenly power here, just the indifferent sun.

yes - Fogo 6.jpg

The hopeless intensity of the bond these men feel to their island is evident in Norm’s meeting with his older friend Joe, which mixes wry comedy and an aching sense of loss in two exquisite scenes. The first scene is mostly comic, as Joe’s awkward attempts to trade a scavenged tin of spaghetti for a beer are rebuffed until Norm agrees to give him a beer for free. Underlying the humour, however, is the scarcity of food and drink: the tinned spaghetti is the only one Joe has, the potatoes Norm is peeling are mostly rotten, the beer is home brewed. In the next scene, as the two men drink together and lament, the comedy largely retreats (exception: Joe’s reference to the weather-beaten Norm as ‘a young fella’) and the despair engendered by their situation comes to the fore, especially in close-ups of their careworn faces. The friends derive some pleasure from reminiscences of happier times, but talk of the good old days also brings pain (Joe: ‘Oh, my son. They’ll break your heart, my son’). Norm considers whether to stay or go, but Joe is so wedded to Fogo that for him leaving is not an option. The older man starts to sing in a hoarse, cracked voice (sample lyrics: ‘You can’t take a man from the soil that he knows/Tear off his roots and expect him to grow’*), but fluffs his lines, swears, and mumbles that he can’t remember anything anymore: memory, song and language fragmenting and disappearing along with the community of which they are part.

Norm takes two walks around the island, during the course of which Olaizola and García linger on the landscape. The first is an apparently brief stroll Norm takes after Joe’s visit; after walking for a bit, he stands in the snow with a troubled face before returning via the same route we saw him follow earlier. Does he need the air to ponder the situation and reach a decision? Is he taking a last look before he’s forced to leave? Or does the walk (which ends with him heading back home) illustrate the impossibility of his leaving? By the time he takes his second walk, we know that he has decided to stay. After discussing his decision with Ron, the two men decide to set off for an isolated, rudimentary cabin, with Ron’s dogs in tow. We do not see them return. Around half the film is taken up with this expedition, the purpose of which is unclear. Do they have some notion of holding out or hiding in the heart of the island, retreating still further from society while the one they have known all their lives crumbles and vanishes? Is there even something of a death-embrace to it? The last ferry has, after all, left by now.** The two men spend the night in the cabin talking about the past while they finish off a small bottle of whiskey―as with the home brew, alcohol is prized for its scarcity and consoling powers. ‘Good to the last drop,’ says Ron, and follows it with ‘So’s life,’ which may or may not be ominous.

One curious anomaly about our first sight of the cabin is that there is no snow visible on the ground in front of it, whereas the ground we saw over the course of Norm’s and Ron’s journey has a light, patchy, but extensive cover of snow. Nor is there any snow on the clothes the two men wear. Does this indicate that they have been travelling for such a long time that the snow has melted? This is not very likely on such a small and cold island (25km long and 14km wide), especially as they are not seen carrying any provisions. Could one tiny patch be entirely free of snow in contrast to the rest? It’s possible, I suppose, although it would have to be a very small patch, because when Ron goes off to find water, there is snow on the banks (and yet again, not too small, because the establishing shot of the cabin shows quite a wide area). Perhaps their arrival comes after a different, later journey (though they are wearing the same clothes). Of course, it is quite possible that the absence of snow around the cabin is simply the unavoidable result of the weather during shooting, but while that might account for the anomaly, it does not dispose of it. Furthermore, the shot of the cabin is preceded by an instance of one of the most striking formal features of Fogo: its use of fades-to-black to transition between scenes. The shot prior to our first view of the cabin is of the men and dogs crossing the snowy tundra; the fade that follows lasts about 15 seconds from the moment the screen begins to darken to the next shot. This ellipsis not only opens up the possibility of considerable time having elapsed between Norm and Ron setting off on their journey and them arriving at the cabin (and so opens up the possibility of there being two separate journeys), it also undermines the surface realism of the documentary style. Rather than seek a narrative solution for the anomaly, or shrug it off as a continuity error, or mark of budget constraints, the absence of snow on the ground might be regarded as a deliberate, playful disruption, resistant to explanation―prominent enough to arouse curiosity and provoke a few questions, but no so glaringly unsubtle as to knock the film off balance.***

yes - Fogo 12.png

Fogo 10.png

I counted seven fades-to-black over the course of the film, in addition to the opening, which is of a black screen. These fades range in duration from around 4 or 5 seconds to around 20 seconds. Some, but not all, mark the transition from an evening to the next day. Sometimes the screen fades quite slowly, as it does before the arrival at the cabin, while at other times it turns black quickly. The two longest and slowest fades occur after the shot of Ron with his dogs in the kennel, and at the very end of the film. In the latter instance, there’s a cut from Norm looking ahead into the distance to a gorgeous shot of the dawn sky, with a pillar or sword of pink light seen between purple-grey clouds; this shot is held for about a minute before the screen begins to darken. The power of the image is heightened by its gradual fading into black, the cinematic technique decreasing the light even as the natural phenomenon it records is increasing it. On one level, the paradox is perhaps Norm’s subjective experience of an astounding beauty, both familiar and revelatory, soon to be denied him. More generally, it provides a haunting visualization of time’s dissolution of all things, a dissolution which, crucially, does not operate on all things with equal speed, for the natural world so wonderfully captured by Olaizola and García―the landscape, the sea, the sky―will endure far longer than any mere human who lives within it.

yes - Fogo 1.png




*It is worth noting in passing the very male-centric focus of this film. We only see five people on screen, four of whom are men: Norm and his friends, and the unnamed man who announces the departure of the last ferry. The only woman to feature is Ron’s elderly mother, and we only glimpse her wordlessly gazing out of the window. It is Ron’s concern for her welfare that prevents him from leaving Fogo; when it is revealed that her view is of no more than some kind of cliff or rocky outcrop resembling a large natural wall, the idea of confinement or even entombment extents to both mother and son. It’s a powerful shot, and makes one regret the absence of any further consideration of societal collapse on the island’s women. By contrast, the women who appear in Colin Low’s 1960s documentaries are given the opportunity to express themselves with a strong voice.

**Unfortunately, I was not able to make out what may be a key line said by Norm in response to Ron’s stated wish not to see his mother die in their house: ‘Fuck it, let’s go to… [inaudible]’.

***Another unexplained anomaly occurs earlier in the film. A man knocks at the door of a very tumbledown-looking house and announces the departure of the last ferry in two days; there is then a cut to an interior shot of Norm seated at a table by the window, seemingly pondering the announcement; the next shot returns to the first man walking away from the tumbledown house. From this sequence, it would be natural to assume that the house we see is Norm’s home, and that while the man stands outside announcing the ferry’s departure time, Norm is at that moment seated inside the same building considering what he has just heard. However, after a further few shots of Norm at his table, there is then an exterior shot of a house that, while resembling the first house to such a degree that an initial glance might take them to be one and the same, is actually a different building. The first house we saw from the front, while the second we see from behind. The architectural style is the same: a simple, two-story wooden structure, but the color of the wood is subtly different, as are the shape and location. So which is Norm’s house, the first or the second? If the first, why cut away directly from Norm at home to this house which has nothing to with him? If the second, that would mean that Norm did not hear the news about the ferry while he was at the table; the man conveying the news was at another house altogether. Olaizola is creating minute fissures in both the fictional and documentary surfaces of her film, undermining the viewer’s complacency about both. Another example: before Joe breaks into an abandoned house to retrieve his tin of spaghetti, we see him look around before he applies a crowbar to the door, as if to ensure that no-one is watching. If the film really were a documentary, as it pretends to be, then this action would be completely unnecessary, as the real Joseph Dwyer would have no need to be furtive about an act he knows is being recorded.

Two scenes from ‘The Masseurs and a Woman’

I’ll be looking here at two scenes from The Masseurs and a Woman, which contain ample evidence of the skill, intelligence and fluidity of Shimizu’s film-making. First, the opening. As the film begins, Toku and Fuku are making their way along a country road to the resort village, canes in hand, but walking at a confident pace, evidently familiar with the route. The camera retreats as they advance, keeping the same pace, almost as if it, and we, were walking alongside them―except that, if that were the case, we’d be facing the wrong way, unable to see in front of us. Toku extols the beautiful view (“It’s as if we could see!”), turning his head to the side as if he really were looking at it. Wonderfully, we are as reliant as Toku on the power of imagination, because the camera retains its focus on the walkers, keeping the beautiful view off-screen. We can infer, however, that there is indeed a view to be seen precisely at the spot Toku imagines one, because we can see that the road has a sheer drop at the side; moments later, as the two continue ahead, trees rise up on the same side, blocking any view into the valley below. Toku isn’t simply letting his imagination run wild; he knows when splendid scenery lies before him, and he isn’t going to let the small fact of his blindness prevent him from appreciating it. The two men’s blindness is apparent as soon as the film begins, but any sense of pity we (as sighted viewers) might feel for their condition is quickly nipped in the bud, as it is plain that two men are more than capable of looking after themselves. The old cliché about blind people compensating for their disability by developing their other senses to a heightened degree seems to be making another appearance. Subtly, however, Shimizu suggests that the two men’s abilities are not quite equal, and the difference has a bearing on their personalities. We can see this in the way they walk, for that of Toku is just a little bit more assured. His cane, extended straight in front of him, occasionally taps the ground, but you get the impression that Toku would manage pretty well without it. Fuku, meanwhile, uses his cane somewhat more tentatively, holding it closer to his body, sometimes bringing it around to his side in a small curving motion, and tapping the ground more often. He’s almost always fractionally behind his companion. Their conversation confirms the visual impression. Fuku wonders how many people they’ve passed; Toku knows the answer, taking pleasure in the fact that they’re able to overtake sighted people. Fuku remarks regretfully that he bumped into a few animals, which Toku blames on his carelessness. Both men express a certain degree of resentment towards the sighted society that may act kindly towards them, but which will readily kick them into a ditch. Toku’s resentment, however, is keener, the result, perhaps, of longer experience; he takes on the role of mentor to Fuku, advising him to rely on neither people nor his cane. Suddenly Toku stops his companion, and challenges him to guess how many children are approaching. The camera stops, too―but not immediately, as if it takes a moment for it to realize that the two men have stopped, and waits for them to continue. The viewer can’t see the children, and has been given no indication of their presence; while Toku and Fuku stand listening, only then do we begin to hear, very faintly, their voices―our hearing lags behind Toku’s superior senses. Shimizu cuts for the first time to a closer, stationary shot of the two men listening intently. Eight kids, says Fuku; eight and a half, says Toku, sure that there’s a baby among them. Another cut, back to Toku and Fuku advancing, the camera reversing; sure enough, eight children, one with a baby tied to its back, walk from behind the camera and pass the two masseurs. Fuku may be good, but Toku is something else.

masseurs-a-400

vqrwv

vqr2b2b

Having displayed the acuity of his ears, Toku next makes use of his nose, halting Fuku abruptly. Again, the camera stops to wait; Fuku, thinking there’s danger ahead, wields his cane like a sword, while Toku, with an expression of disgust, uses his cane to point down in front of him at something the viewer can’t see. Fuku by now has realized what’s wrong; there’s a bad smell, and as they veer to sides, the camera too resumes its journey, and we now see a pile of horse dung in the middle of the road. Fuku’s sense of smell is good, but were in not for Toku, he’d have stepped right into the dung. The viewer can’t smell anything; what’s more, looking backwards, we can’t see the dung either, until Toku and Fuku have successfully passed it. The camera does not veer to the side with them, but keeps to the middle of the road, so that we get shit on our shoes. Cunningly, Shimizu has set this up with a series of subtle shot changes. Before they stop to listen to the approaching kids, we see the masseurs either in full shot, or with only their feet cut off at the bottom of the screen. When the two men stop to listen intently, the camera gets closer, just above waist height, prompting us to look and listen more intently. When the camera starts moving again, all of the men’s bodies are again visible, only this time the camera is slightly further away, allowing us to see the children pass. Toku and Fuku stop again, turning their heads back in the direction of the children; there’s another cut, and now we see them from above the knees only. When they, and the camera, start moving again, the shot remains the same, so that we can’t see the horse shit at our feet. The same shot is maintained until the two of them stop when Toku catches a whiff; when they proceed cautiously, the camera pulls back to show their full bodies again, and to reveal the shit we’ve just stepped in.

This full-body shot is a brief one; there’s then a cut to a shot with the camera around waist-level (the reason for this will be apparent later). Fuku complains that he’s tired and wants to slow down, but Toku insists that they press on in order to reach their destination before nightfall. When his friend objects that travelling in the dark is hardly a problem for them, Toku reveals the real reason for his haste: a competitive desire to arrive ahead of a group of students who earlier passed them by. Fuku is sceptical, but Toku is adamant that he can do it, that his blindness is no handicap. Again, we are gently made to appreciate the differences in character between the two: Fuku is the more demure and circumspect of the pair, while Toku is more combative, determined to prove himself against sighted people, to demonstrate that he is every bit their equal. Toku, the film suggests, is someone frustrated by the constraints of his employment, which forces him to play the part of servant, something alien to his nature. It is his seeing customers who hold social power over him; it is their society that all but forces him into working as a masseur, to accept the role that rigid tradition, seeing him only as a blind man and nothing else, would thrust upon him. Fuku may be reconciled to his lot, but Toku aims to break free of it, and so strides ahead of his colleague, vowing, as he does so, to beat the students to the resort. Here there’s a cut, and the camera once more shows the pair in a full-body shot, the two of them walking silently, Toku at the front. What we can see, and the two of them can’t, is that there is a large rock in the road, and Toku is heading straight for it. Cutting to mid-shot for the conversation about overtaking the students has enabled Shimizu to point our attention to the rock in the foreground when he then cuts to long-shot, which would not have been so noticeable had the whole conversation been filmed in long-shot. It’s something of a reversal of the situation with the horse dung; the viewer, with the privilege of sight (over which, the director, nonetheless, exerts control) is able to know what lies ahead (which, for the viewer, is also behind)*, while Toku cannot. We watch as Toku stumbles, his cry as he falls frightening Fuku into wielding his cane as a weapon, just as he did when Toku’s nose detected the smell of horse manure. For all their independence and abilities, neither man is invulnerable. While Toku scrambles to right himself, a horse-drawn carriage passes them by, enabling Toku to regain something of his dignity by displaying his olfactory expertise in being able to tell from the lingering scent of perfume that a lady from Tokyo is on board the carriage. The focus then switches to the passengers, as we see Michiho, Shintaro and Kenichi looking back in the direction of the masseurs as the driver explains who they are. A fade-out marks the end of the scene, which has lasted five minutes.

tumblr_nbd6z3lNbV1shetito1_500

tumblr_nfas3oOF0u1sg7pxco10_540

The second scene I want to examine is my favorite in the film, and one of the most magical two minutes of cinema I know. We see Michiho walk down the street towards the camera, evidently watching something that’s going on in front of her. A cut reveals the object of her interest: Toku, in long-shot, bumping into a pair of bathers. He is on his way to Michiho’s hotel, where he is supposed to give her a massage. The collision with the bathers is an unusual mistake for him (the carelessness of the bathers notwithstanding), perhaps suggesting that his senses have become compromised by his developing feelings for Michiho, or even that they are affected by his being unknowingly observed by her. Shimizu cuts back to the observer, a slight smile on her face; she turns away and retreats, then looks back and stops. As Michiho turns her body around so that she is facing Toku again, there is a change of shot so that the camera is behind her. Both characters are now visible in long-shot, Michiho at screen left, Toku walking towards the camera at screen right. As he passes her, she turns her body so that she is always looking at him. He stops, sniffs the air, detecting her scent. He turns back towards her, and there’s a close-up of his face as he turns. At first it seems as if his face is going to ‘look’ directly at Michiho (and the camera), but instead his head keeps turning until it’s facing downwards―abashed, confused, frustrated―we can’t tell. Shimizu cuts back to Michiho, smiling more broadly now, as she slowly backs away while so that she keeps looking at him. Shimizu keeps cutting back and forth between Michiho and an increasingly confused Toku, the former slowly moving away from the masseur, frequently stopping and looking back at him. Michiho keeps leading him forwards in this manner, until, at around the same spot where Toku earlier bumped into the bathers, she almost bumps into four masseurs (including Fuku). Toku continues to follow Michiho, until he passes the other masseurs, stops, and turns towards them. Not wishing to be detained, and anxious to catch up with Michiho, he continues turning so that he is back facing the camera (a 360° turn), but he still isn’t decided, and starts turning again towards Fuku and the other masseurs. This time, while he turns, the camera briefly switches as well, so that it is on the other side of Toku, before switching back to show Toku facing screen left, at an angle of approximately 90° relative to both the other masseurs and to the direction taken by Michiho. As Fuku approaches him, Toku turns away, then back towards Fuku, and finally once again towards where Michiho wandered off. The scene ends, and there’s a cut to show Michiho at the river, looking around her as if to check whether Toku has been able to follow.

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h37m59s78

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h38m15s231

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h38m25s76

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h38m33s164

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h39m04s203 (1)

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h39m10s21.png

vlcsnap-2011-03-10-16h39m16s84

This marvellous scene, played for the most part in a haunting silence (apart from a few eerie notes from a flute-like instrument at the beginning, and some dialogue between Toku and Fuku at the end), is a kind of teasingly erotic dance, with the camera as a third dancer, along with Toku and Michiho. Shimizu superbly choreographs both Michiho’s playful, faintly cruel seductiveness and Toku’s helpless, bewildered desire,** placing the viewer, through the camera reversals, alternately in the position of seduced and seducer, eroticizing both male and female characters. Michiho and Toku can’t have the same experience of eroticism, of course. Michiho, as a sighted character, can see the handsome Toku as the viewer can see him, whereas Toku can only imagine Michiho’s visual beauty. As an object of desire, he experiences her through sound, touch and smell―here only through smell, which is denied to the viewer. That this desire is an unfamiliar feeling for Toku is suggested by his uncharacteristically confused dealings with physical space―a hesitant and uncertain gait, halting, turning around. As a masseur, he would have been expected to deny himself any erotic desire, for the expectation that any such desire would not be expressed is what allowed blind masseurs to handle exposed flesh. His familiar environment is male, blind and celibate, hence perhaps his indecision on meeting his fellow masseurs: should he stick to the life he has known for years, a life that seems to dissatisfy him, a life he has been more or less compelled to lead, but which for all that offers the compensations of homosocial camaraderie and regular travel? Or should he break free from his designated role and explore the new sensation of desire, with all the risks of failure and humiliation involved? For her part, as a woman, Michiho too is constrained by a rigid patriarchal society (we don’t discover her story until the end), and her flirtation with Toku, a man who intrigues her even though she doesn’t seem to seriously entertain the prospect of romance, is enlivened by the thrill of transgression. But trying to unpack this little scene like this still doesn’t get to the core of what makes it so special, for, in the end, the greater part of its delicacy and mysteriousness resist explanation; as much can be said of the film as a whole.

*The rock lies slightly to the side of the road, unlike the horse shit, so we’re not put in the position of having stumbled over it as we are made to tread in the horse shit.

** His helplessness and bewilderment accentuated by his white jacket, which makes him look especially innocent. In case the contrast between naïve male and worldly, seductive female sounds misogynistic, it is part of the film’s success that it portrays Michiho not as a clichéd vamp, but as a complex and sympathetic human.

The Masseurs and a Woman (1938, Shimizu Hiroshi)

Its running time barely exceeds an hour. Its plot is light, meandering, almost trivial. The director’s approach to his material might, at first glance, seem leisurely and off-hand. Yet I would not hesitate to call The Masseurs and a Woman one of the finest films I’ve seen, reaching as close to perfection in its 66 minutes as any I know; watching it for the first time was a revelatory experience. The director, Shimizu Hiroshi, had an enormously prolific career, but much of his output has been lost, and only a handful of titles have been made available in the West. A few years ago, the Criterion Collection released a DVD set of four films (including this one) as part of its Eclipse series, but his work has yet to attain the international profile that the work of his contemporary Naruse Mikio has established in recent years, after a long period of obscurity. The enduring problem with classic Japanese cinema is that, in spite of all the lost films, the surviving ones are still considerable in number, but many of them remain difficult, in some cases almost impossible, to see, especially in decent copies with subtitles. What other treasures lie in Shimizu’s body of work that might interest Criterion for another DVD set?

Here are the basics of the story in The Masseurs and a Woman: two blind masseurs, Toku and Fuku, make their way to a mountain spring resort village.* Also staying there are two groups of hiking students, one male and one female; a young man named Shintaro and his nephew Kenichi; and a mysterious young woman from Tokyo called Michiho. The boy grows attached to Michiho, while both his uncle and Toku develop romantic feelings for her. There is a series of thefts, but the mystery is not handled with any great tension. Shimizu takes a relaxed, low-key approach to narrative, his modest mixture of comedy and drama proceeding with little sense of urgency. Instead, a spirit of open-ended freedom presides; nothing much appears to be at stake; we are simply presented with a few situations and characters, and invited to observe them. It’s all very easy-going, humorous and congenial to begin with, but a melancholy tone starts to creep in, and the film ends on a note of quiet devastation. What elevates it to the level of a masterpiece is the director’s wonderful sensitivity and intelligence in constructing his scenes and joining them together: his elegant tracking shots, use of natural sound, and mastery of editing and rhythm.

That rhythm is partly created through patterned repetition and variation, in which a situation or vignette will be replayed with small differences. I’ll trace a few of these repetitions and variations here. One beautifully controlled scene shows Kenichi silently teasing Fuku while his uncle is receiving a massage. It opens with Shintaro lying on his side, with Fuku seated behind him; both are facing towards the camera. While they engage in small talk, the boy, who is seated with his back to the camera in the foreground at the left of the frame, fiddles with a blade of grass. Viewers, if they notice Kenichi at all, might be mildly curious about what he’s up to, but they will at first probably focus on the conversation between the two men. When Shintaro closes his eyes to sleep, his nephew, seeing his chance, creeps forward and delicately tickles the masseur under the nose with the blade of grass. Fuku, thinking that it’s an insect, waves his arms about; after he resumes his work, Kenichi then uses the grass to tickle Fuku’s ear. When the boy does this for a third time, there’s a cut to a close-up of his face, which is curiously devoid of malice or even amusement, displaying only intense concentration. While his actions are cruel in effect, they are not consciously cruel in motivation; the blind man, for Kenichi, is primarily an object of fascination. The next cut is to a shot of Fuku’s reaction; we can see that this time, the boy has been a bit rougher, poking the grass right into the masseur’s nostril and leaving him with an urge to sneeze. Fuku’s facial gestures are slightly exaggerated, almost to the point of being funny, so that we might understand why a child might want to torment him. At the same time, we are encouraged to sympathize with Fuku’s vulnerability, his being at the mercy of the kindness and compassion of others. At the fourth provocation, Fuku sneezes loudly, awakening the uncle. He tries to continue with the massage, but his arms are soon flailing about again, more frantically than before―only this time there is nothing there at all, for Kenichi is doing nothing more than sitting down and watching. The scene has mostly been shot from a fixed position behind the boy, with a low camera that matches Fuku’s eye-level, which creates a sense of intimacy, as if we were present in the room to observe the action. Fuku, of course, can’t see a thing, and neither can Shintaro with his eyes closed. The only seeing character has his back to us, and in quietly observing his harassment of the masseur, Shimizu’s camera invites us to feel a certain complicity, as if we were there watching the harassment without intervening, hoping that Kenichi isn’t caught out. Later on, the boy tries a similar trick with Toku using a fan, but Toku immediately senses that something’s up, and punches the fan, causing Kenichi to burst into tears. This time, Shimizu shoots his characters side-on, with Toku to the left and Kenichi to the right of the screen. There isn’t any tension as to whether Kenichi will be caught, as his trick comes to an abrupt end. It’s a less intimate and ambiguous, more purely comic moment―a punchline that serves as an effective counterpoint and highlights the differences between the two masseurs: Fuku gentler and more liable to being mocked and goaded, Toku more quick-tempered, impulsive and better able to fight back against his tormentors.

If we can excuse to some extent Kenichi’s attempts to tease and provoke the masseurs, it is harder to be as forgiving when grown men do the same. When Fuku crosses a low bridge over a stream at night, the four male students, sitting or leaning against the sides of the bridge, mock and confuse him by making animal noises as he passes. Fuku turns around, pokes with his stick, and exits uncertainly; the young men burst into laughter. Shimizu then cuts to a shot filmed from the other side of the bridge―a slightly disorientating change in angle of 180°, which enables us to see Toku approaching from behind the students. He roughly barges his way through them and chides them to watch out―not the most reasonable of demands, given that the students could not have seen him. When one of the men objects that it was Toku who bumped into them, the masseur wheels round and challenges the four to a fight. There’s another 180° shot change at this point, so that we see Toku’s face and the backs of the four students surrounding him menacingly. Toku’s choleric behavior is far from mature, and it is not the first time he has been pointlessly antagonistic towards the students: in the first scene, he hurries to the spa resort in a competitive effort to arrive before them, and later all but cripples them with an overly thorough massage. Nonetheless, the film’s sympathies are clearly with him rather than with the mean-spirited students. As Toku and his opponents square off, Shimizu fades to black; the next scene shows the students walking slowly and stiffly along a road, sticking plasters on their faces, having obviously come off worse in the fight. This echoes an earlier scene in which the students hobble along a road after having received Toku’s massage. Shimizu has also repeated the pattern earlier set by the boy, who first played a successful trick on Fuku, only for Toku to hand him his comeuppance. Furthermore, Toku’s collision with the students points back to and contradicts Fuku’s remark in the opening scene that when blind people bump into sighted people, it is always the latter who are at fault. The concision with which Shimizu (who wrote the script in addition to directing) uses repetition and variation to connect multiple points in the film is masterly.

The same bridge that serves as the scene of Toku’s confrontation with the students is used again by Shimizu in a brief daytime scene that extends some of the same repetitions and variations. With the camera planted at one side of the bridge, we see four masseurs walking towards us. Kenichi runs out, as if from under the camera, and heads straight for first masseur. As the latter steps to one side in order to pass the boy, Kenichi blocks his path, and does so again when the masseur steps to the other side. This time, he is quickly satisfied with his trick, and walks on ahead, looking behind him at the masseur as if in admiration of the blind man’s ability to sense his presence (again, he seems to be acting out of curiosity rather than malice). By turning his head back, however, he is unable to see the second masseur, and there is a collision. When he sets off again, he looks back at the second masseur, and so bumps into the third, and in the same manner bumps into the fourth, who angrily chides him. Again, we have a sighted character pestering a blind character, and coming to grief shortly after. The fourth masseur, who cries out in pain when Kenichi collides with him, also suffers, this time bearing out the truth of Fuku’s remark about the carelessness of sighted people. It’s a reversal of the earlier night-time episode on the bridge in that this time a sighted person, and not a blind one, is responsible for the collision. Visually, the scene presents further repetitions and variations. It is filmed from the same side of the bridge used to film Toku barging into the students (the bridge also features in other scenes), and again we see four men walking towards the camera, though this time they seem to walking separately, rather than as part of a group. Toku collides with the students from behind, so that we see his face, whereas Kenichi collides with the masseurs at the front, so that we do not see his face. Both scenes show isolated characters at the centre of the screen outnumbered and perhaps threatened by four men, and in each case Shimizu uses the color white (Fuku’s coat, Toku’s towel, Kenichi’s shirt) to contrast them with the darker colors worn by their antagonists. With these carefully arranged correspondences and differences, Shimizu artfully threads together the loose, leisurely and episodic storyline, avoiding both rigidity and formlessness.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its use of sound. Shimizu developed an early enthusiasm for exterior location shooting, often involving roads (the Criterion box-set is entitled ‘Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu’), but it is the sounds to be heard at the river next to the spa that are most prominent: flowing water, birds, frogs, insects. The beauty of the natural world is not only visual, after all. The spa resort is a tranquil haven from the bustle of city life,** almost (but not quite) a paradise, and the natural sound is key to establishing this. At critical points, however, Shimizu manipulates the sound for effect. For example, while Michiho and Shintaro are engaged in tentatively flirtatious conversation, the background noises of the river and its fauna are loud and clear; when the conversation ends inconclusively and with Michiho in a pensive mood, there’s a cut to a more darkly-lit shot, with the sound suddenly muted. An even more striking instance of sound manipulation comes later. While Shintaro waits in the street for his nephew, who has run off to speak to Michiho, the street is virtually silent―unnaturally so. When he strikes a match to light his cigarette, however, the sound is unnaturally heightened, only to be muted again while Shintaro smokes. Now, of course, there’s an obvious symbolism available here in the poignant brevity of the flame bla bla bla, but while he doesn’t refuse such symbolism, Shimizu is canny enough not to make a meal of it, so there’s no close-up of the match, which is struck just below the edge of the frame. What registers instead is the eerie stillness of the moment, its offering of a chance for pause and reflection. How wonderful that in such a brief film Shimizu finds the time to be able to offer moments like these!

tumblr_nfar4dA19q1sg7pxco2_540

In such a small, delicately balanced film as this, one bad performance might have spoiled the whole thing, but I have yet to see a single bad performance in any Japanese film of the 30s. The actors here are particularly wonderful. Takamine Mieko is understated, graceful and soulful as Michiho, while the actors playing Shintaro, Fuku and Kenichi are also first-rate. But the honors go to Tokudaiji Shin as Toku, who gives the most brilliant portrayal of blindness I have ever seen in a film, and along with Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase, one of the most brilliant portrayals of a disabled character I have seen. Tokudaiji’s achievement is to be at once naturalistic and stylized: the naturalistic aspects of his performance are in harmony with the tone of the film, while the stylized aspects are consonant with the exceptional nature of his character. At times, his acting suggests that of an outstandingly good and subtle mime, which seems somehow just right in a film so concerned with the senses.

themasseursandawoman3

tumblr_mpob4uiX1d1qaqhbwo1_540

*Blind men traditionally found employment as masseurs in Japan, as their blindness made it easier for customers to expose their flesh to them. The film hints at social changes afoot, with talk of the increased popularity of female masseuses (I don’t know whether blind or sighted) at seaside spas threatening the job security of blind male masseurs. This is discussed as part of a wider trend, to be seen especially in Tokyo, of women taking jobs away from men. The story and title link two groups, women and blind men, traditionally marginalized and assigned strict roles by society, with the former in apparent ascendance and the latter in apparent decline.

**It’s important for the plot that Michiho, the uncle, and his nephew are all visiting from Tokyo. City and country form another of the oppositions in the film, along with sighted/blind, male/female, staying/going and appearance/truth.

Carnival Night (1956, Eldar Ryazanov)

The wispiest of plots―Ogurtsov, the bumptious temporary head of a Soviet ‘culture palace’, attempts to change the planned New Year’s Eve show into something more serious and educational―forms the basis for what is essentially a series of revue sketches in this gently satirical comedy. At the time of the film’s release a few years after the death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s leadership had inaugurated the famous ‘thaw’ in Soviet society, represented in Carnival Night by the ultimately victorious struggle of the modern, free-spirited younger generation against outdated, stuffily authoritarian redoubts such as Ogurtsov. But this is hardly a penetrating political critique. Carefree fun is the order of the day, an ideal embodied in the heroine, Lena: a confident, capable young career woman in a position of some authority at her workplace*. She has a teasing will-they-won’t-they relationship (spoiler: they will) with her shy colleague Grisha; together with their co-workers, they rush to thwart Ogurtsov, whose idea of an opening act is for a scientific lecturer to give a short speech of no more than 40 minutes.

Ogurtsov is certainly not to be taken as an accurate portrait of overbearing Communist officialdom. In a nice irony, the staunch defender of dignity and earnestness is a caricature so grotesque that there never seems to be any serious possibility of his winning, while the other characters (either young and modish, or else older but accommodating of young people’s values) seem so utterly normal precisely because they know how to let their hair down. The cartoonish array of harrumphs, gurns, pratfalls and ridiculous poses employed by famed comic actor Igor Ilyinsky are in stark contrast to the performances of the rest of the cast, who (with the sole exception of Sergey Filippov as the dry academic who gets smashed and ends up giving a drunken dance instead of a lecture about life on Mars) act like ordinary human beings. It’s a measure of Ilyinsky’s skill that he can go so completely over-the-top without being unbearable; his pantomimic extremes are in any case necessary to offset the possibility of the audience feeling any sympathy towards his character, because the film is quite relentless in using Ogurtsov as its punch-bag. Director Ryazanov and writers Boris Laskin and Vladimir Polyakov, no doubt mindful of the short running-time, don’t want to risk the light-hearted tone being complicated by subtle shadings they haven’t the space to develop, and so there’s no hint here of the ambivalence of Malvolio’s humiliation in Twelfth Night; Ogurtsov is basically inhuman, therefore the indignities he suffers cannot elicit sympathy.

Some examples of Ogurtsov’s stupidity and outlandishness. He thinks of himself as an upholder of high culture, yet mistakes Grisha’s clichéd declaration of love, accidentally broadcast to the whole building, as a speech from Shakespeare. The self-professed admirer of Gogol and Shchedrin is so clueless regarding the nature of satire that not only does he fail to recognize himself as the target of a fable recited during the show, he also requests that in the future the name and workplace of the target be given to remove any ambiguity. After hearing a singing quartet rehearse a comic song, he calls for the number of singers be increased, brushing off the objection that it would no longer be a quartet with the observation that quartet with a few extra members is a mass quartet. In one of the funniest scenes, a mildly risqué skit by a pair of clowns is steadily stripped on Ogurtsov’s orders of all suggestiveness and humour, until the duo enter in suits and without makeup to deliver a moralistic homily.

The effect of Ogurtsov’s preposterousness on the film’s politics is to ensure that the Soviet system is ultimately endorsed. Any criticism of bureaucratic heavy-handedness, censoriousness and repression cannot help but seem mild when such evils are embodied in one ridiculous, middle-ranking figure whom it is impossible to take seriously, and who is easily defeated. Tellingly, Ogurtsov’s superior is clearly on the side of the young, giving the impression that Russia’s Ogurtsovs are thin on the ground and out of step with official government thinking. What’s more, appearing alongside professional performers, the employees of the Culture Palace, whether economists or librarians or waitresses, are so full of talent that you might think that the U.S.S.R. under Khrushchev was bursting with gifted singers, dancers and musicians calmly going about their day-to-day jobs. I must confess that many of the songs seemed rather tuneless and exhausting to me, but they might not seem so to someone more familiar than me with Russian popular music, and there’s no doubting that they are performed with tremendous brio. It’s clear why Carnival Night was such a success on its release, and why it has retained its popularity in Russia: sunny, populist entertainments combining songs, gentle satire and physical comedy are not easy to bring off, so an example that gets the balance as right as this is bound to be received fondly. Its brevity is definitely in its favour: a few more minutes and it would have felt over-extended. My favourite bit: when Ogurtsov, after some difficulties, finally makes his way onto the state to deliver his speech only to find himself applauded (for reasons I won’t reveal) as an unwitting comic genius.

c night 3

carnival night g.jpg

*I don’t know how common it was for such women to feature in Soviet films of the period, but Hollywood in the 1950s was hardly falling over backwards to provide alternative models of womanhood to the dutiful wife and mother archetype, so it’s refreshing to see one here. The role briefly made a star of Lyudmila Gurchenko, but her career struggled for a while in the face of official disapproval before she made a comeback some two decades later. See her obituary here.

Kōchiyama Sōshun/Priest of Darkness (1936, Yamanaka Sadao)

While Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) may be the best-known of Yamanaka three surviving films, Kōchiyama Sōshun (the alternative English title, Priest of Darkness, makes little sense), another kabuki adaptation, is almost as good. The two leads from the later masterpiece, Kawarazaki Chōjūrō and Nakamura Kan’emon, play not dissimilar roles here: ordinary, down-at-heel men who become friends as they are forced to confront powerful forces of oppression. Kawarazaki stars as the title character, a shady gambling operator, while Nakamura plays Kaneko, a limping ronin in the employ of a ruthless gangster.* Both actors belonged to Zenshin-za, a left-wing theatre group whose members included several other repeat performers for Yamanaka (Kurosawa fans may recognize among them a young Katō Daisuke); by casting them here and in HAPB, Yamanaka avoids both established screen personae and more ‘official’ kabuki actors, who might have brought too much of their different kinds of baggage to their parts. The Zenshin-za troupe are the ideal performers here, completely at ease with both the theatrical machinations of the plot and the seamy naturalism of the mise-en-scène.

priest of darkness 1

Above: Kaneko and Kōchiyama

As for that plot… I’ve seen it suggested the surviving print is missing some footage, which may account for one or two apparent lacunæ. In spite of these minor confusions (which may not all be unintentional), the plot remains a marvel of cunning construction. I understand it differs radically from the pair of kabuki plays from which it derives, and so assume the credit must go to Yamanaka and co-writer Mimura Shintarō for the skill with which they handle its various characters and complex twists and turns. Daringly, after all this painstaking workmanship, the film finally throws everything up in the air to end in irresolution, the last image being of a lone fugitive running desperately down a deserted street into an uncertain dawn. What follows is my attempt at a summary of the set-up.

Kōchiyama runs a gambling joint together with his wife (or perhaps concubine), Oshizu. Disguised as a priest, he swindles Ushi out of 50 ryo at a game of chess. Being a lackey of local boss Morita, Ushi is accustomed to doing the swindling himself. Another of Morita’s employees is Kaneko, an indolent former samurai who walks with the aid of a stick due to one leg being shorter than the other. Among his few duties is collecting money from traders, which allows him to visit the sake stall of Onami and flirt with her. Onami is worried about her good-for-nothing brother Hirotaro, who, it turns out, is a regular at Kōchiyama’s gambling house under an assumed name. When Hirotaro opportunistically steals a small knife from ageing samurai Kitamura, he unknowingly takes possession of a valuable heirloom, entrusted to Kitamura by his late lord, who himself received it from the shogun; failure to produce it on request would oblige Kitamura to commit seppuku. So long as these threads remain loosely intertwined, the tone is light and comic; even the grim fate hanging over Kitamura’s head is the occasion for levity, as Kaneko observes that, at 53, the older man has lived long enough already. After about thirty minutes, however, a minor character dies, and this death seems so bizarrely unmotivated, the character so minor, that it at first fails to register (I wouldn’t be surprised if missing footage is to blame here). Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the death has prompted a tightening of the threads, which, as they draw closer together, start to enmesh the characters, inexorably leading to a (thrillingly staged) violent climax. Yamanaka visualizes the lack of room for manœuvre by framing his figures in narrow passages, either outdoors in the narrow streets and alleys of an Edo slum, or inside, with walls, screens, doorways, columns and staircases hemming them in, often leaving them able only to go either forwards or back.

priest of darkness 2

Above: A narrow Edo street, with objects of everyday life.

In Kōchiyama Sōshun, as in Yamanaka’s other surviving films, the narrative revolves around a disputed object―in this case the stolen knife, which, as it passes from hand to hand, becomes deflated and inflated in value, its status as a genuine artefact brought into question. The uncertainty that unexpectedly comes to surround what is supposed to be a priceless masterpiece takes on a wider social significance when an auctioneer remarks that such a knife, of a quality higher than one would associate with a merchant or farmer, would never have appeared on the market in the past; now they turn up more often. This fixes the action during the decline of the samurai class, when many men like Kaneko were forced to take on jobs that would have been considered beneath them. It’s significant that the knife has been passed from shogun to lord to retainer, the whole samurai hierarchy from top to bottom being thereby indicted for carelessness and irresponsibility, so that a layabout teenage thief is able to steal it with a minimum of effort or skill. We see nothing of the ruling classes until near the end, when the young lord, out of his depth, frets cluelessly over the knife, having exerted no influence over events. The real wielder of power is the brutish Morita, the lord’s frivolous irrelevance leaving ordinary people undefended against his tyranny.

The knife has a human counterpart in Onami (wonderfully acted by a teenaged Hara Setsuko), the beautiful young sake seller who becomes a kind of disputed human-object, fought over by those with both good and bad intentions while her brother treats her with callous indifference. With great delicacy, Yamanaka ensures that the true nature of the feelings Kōchiyama and Kaneko harbor towards Onami are not made explicit, making their combined efforts to assist her all the more moving. Whatever part romantic attachment might play, it doesn’t detract from the nobility of their defence of someone facing oppression and mistreatment. The hints of self-loathing and bitter self-knowledge that Kawarazaki and Nakamura lend to their performances give additional depth―the sense of men who understand that their lives have not been well lived, and that they now have a chance to redeem themselves. This is given its most poignant expression by Kaneko, who says to his ally that a man who can gladly die for another person can truly be called a man. As he departs, he leaves behind the toothpick he has been chewing (a habit he is repeatedly shown indulging, the toothpick visually rhyming with the walking stick he uses); after an amazing facial reaction shot of Kōchiyama, there’s then a cut to this toothpick in close-up, snapped and bent―one of the standout moments in a very fine film.

*In Humanity and Paper Balloons, the roles are somewhat reversed, with Kawarazaki as an impoverished samurai and Nakamura as a shady barber. Based on their roles in these two films, I would say that the pair deserve to be counted among cinema’s greatest double acts―what Lancaster and Douglas ought to have been.

Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)

A man takes off his jacket and hangs it on the back of a chair: in itself, the simplest, most insignificant of actions, but here it carries an electrifying charge. The man in question has been passing himself off as an acclaimed film director to a trusting family of cinephiles; he has just realized that the game is up and that he is about to face the consequences. The removal of a layer of clothing, as well as signalling his acceptance (or at least awareness) of the inevitability of his impending downfall, thus also becomes a stripping away of his assumed identity, a shedding of his false self to reveal the more vulnerable true self beneath―the true self being the one that must meet with punishment. Even as he takes off the jacket, however, he is not yet ready to give up the pretence entirely, for he is still talking about rehearsing a scene from his new movie―his words a defiant, doomed last show of make-believe in tension with the submissive self-revealing of his action. What’s more, the actor, Hossain Sabzian, is playing himself, the real-life Hossain Sabzian, for the events depicted in Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable Close-Up are based on a real-life incident: Sabzian really did impersonate director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, despite not bearing a particularly close resemblance to him. So the real-life Sabzian is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf, waiting to be exposed as Sabzian.

close-up 3

Above: Sabzian and Mehrdad regard each other while Sabzian removes his jacket.

The targets (if that is the right word) of Sabzian’s deception were the Ahankhahs: a cultured, apparently well-off family, who invited him into their home, lent him money, and put themselves and their house at his disposal, swayed by his talk of casting them in his next project and using their property as a location. They, too, re-enact their roles in the affair, alongside the suspicious friend, the journalist who reported the story, the judge in the ensuing court case, etc. As Sabzian removes his jacket, he reminds Mehrdad, one of the family’s sons (whom he’d promised a part in the non-existent movie), of the rehearsal that had been scheduled. But Mehrdad, who by now has stopped believing Sabzian’s lies, tells him to eat his breakfast and wanders off. The slight note of irritation in his voice and body language is all he can show of the anger and resentment concealed within―concealed for the purpose of keeping Sabzian in place until the police arrive. The latter, in turn, knows or at least strongly suspects that Mehrdad no longer trusts him, and only feigns belief in Mehrdad’s continued trust to prolong the performance he knows must end. As both men regard each other warily from opposite sides of the room, neither of their faces clearly visible to the viewer (Mehrdad’s is too far in the background, while we only see the back of Sabzian’s head), each knows the truth, but suppresses it, together outwardly maintaining an illusion when, inwardly, each is disillusioned. It’s a moment of exquisite poise and tension. The two sensitive, intelligent young men almost present, in their differences and similarities, mirror images of each other. One is worried about his deceit being exposed; the other is bitter about having been deceived. Sabzian is working-class, unemployed, struggling to stay afloat; Mehrdad is middle-class, also unemployed, struggling to find a suitable job since graduating in civil engineering (in any case, he has no enthusiasm for the subject, presumably having studied it in the mistaken belief that it would lead to a solid position). Both turn to the cinema and to performance as a means of briefly escaping, or enjoying the fantasy of escaping, their constricted social and economic realities, but it is not a flight into pure fantasy, nor is it an outright rejection of reality, for the ideal of cinema pursued here is of an art that portrays the sufferings and frustrations of ordinary people, that does not stray too far from the realities experienced by its viewers, that is born of them―art and fiction born of reality and truth. This ideal is shared by Mehrdad and Sabzian; it is what both of them value in the cinema of Makhmalbaf (and of Kiarostami); it is what Sabzian seeks to realize in make-believe by assuming the role of Makhmalbaf; it is what Mehrdad seeks to realize by collaborating with the man he believes is Makhmalbaf; it is what both of them seek to realize by collaborating with Kiarostami.

When Sabzian finishes adjusting his jacket on the chair, a boom comes into view at the top of the screen, serving as both an intrusion of ‘reality’ and an affirmation of ‘artifice’. It looks like an accident, of the kind that would be derided as an embarrassing gaffe in an average mainstream movie, and while the viewer can’t be sure that isn’t just that (an accident), there’s also the suspicion that the appearance of an accident has been artfully constructed. The reminder of the presence of an actual crew at work, with Kiarostami at the helm, is an acknowledgement that the action we are watching belongs as much to fiction and artifice as it does to reality. Sabzian and Mehrdad may be playing themselves, but they are not simply reliving events as they in fact happened; they are re-enacting them fictionally, according to another’s direction and scripting. They are actors even as they are themselves. At the same time, by exposing the workings of production, the drooping boom brings into view another reality to be interrogated―that of the making of the film, the process of making it. Reality and artifice lead into and away from each other like M.C. Escher’s impossible stairways.

As well as dramatic re-enactments, Close-Up presents scenes that at least purport to be straight documentary, most notably recordings from Sabzian’s trial. But how much of even this, one wonders, has been shaped by the director? To what extent have the participants been nudged by Kiarostami’s promptings? His searching inquiry into the nature of the documentary form might in other hands have made for an arid post-modern exercise or, more happily, a light-touched post-modern divertissement. Kiarostami sets his sights higher. A cruder, more conventional film would have portrayed the Ahankhahs as spoilt, self-absorbed members of the bourgeoisie, whose smoothly complacent and privileged existence is disrupted by the proletarian trickster hero or anti-hero; their gullibility would have been mocked, their humiliation crowed over. Kiarostami, though, is careful to emphasize that even the Ahankhahs, in their spacious, comfortable home, are not immune from the economic pressures that weigh so heavily on Sabzian. Mehrdad, as I’ve already mentioned, is unemployed, his peers on his course having fared no better; the other son, Manuchehr, with a degree in mechanical engineering, is meanwhile stuck in an unfulfilling job managing a bakery. Kiarostami, profoundly humanistic, extends his sympathy to the family as well as to their deceiver, whose own crushing despair in the face of his seemingly hopeless grinding penury is given wrenching testimony during the trial. The Ahankhahs and Sabzian are united too by their love of cinema, of its capacity to both transcend reality and bear witness to it, like Stevens’ blue guitar. For Kiarostami, this capacity can be realized in something as ordinary as an empty canister rolling down the street, captured in a justly celebrated shot that is at once hypnotically beautiful and utterly banal, accidental and contrived.* Or it can be realized in a more emotionally charged scene like the magnificent conclusion, which brought me close to tears. The climactic reconciliation is not any the less moving for the nagging questions to which it gives rise―would it, for example, have been possible without Kiarostami’s intervention? Is such manipulation of real people justifiable?** What happens next? The note of soaring hope on which the film ends is qualified by doubt, but such doubt is an ethical necessity to keep the hope from soaring too high into potentially pernicious wishful thinking. And the doubt isn’t enough to undermine the transcendent beauty of the ideal captured in the final image: of an interplay of artifice and reality leading to forgiveness, understanding, compassion and (perhaps) to a kind of truth.

close-up 6

Above: The famous rolling canister.

*Contrast this with that piece of junk American Beauty, in which the Wes Bentley character’s clumsily acted, awe-struck pseudo-philosophical idiocies, delivered in a grating, dull monotone and underscored with showily un-showy music, scupper any serious attempt to find beauty in a shot of a plastic bag blowing in the wind. You can see here the difference between an artist like Kiarostami and a pretentious hack like Mendes.

**Viewers might remember at this point the earlier words of the Ahankhah patriarch: ‘Mr. Kiarostami, everyone who’s become involved in our case so far has tried to use the situation to his own advantage’. Mr. Ahankhah resents the misrepresentation he believes his family has suffered, particularly at the hands of the journalist who broke the story. The complaint might be taken as a warning shot to Kiarostami, who, in the scene, is visiting the Ahankhahs for the first time in the hope of persuading them to take part in his film. Except he isn’t, because the whole scene is a re-enactment, and not one that attempts to be accurate―for also in attendance at the actual first meeting was Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the real one), who is not present here. Was the line then scripted, or suggested, by Kiarostami? I don’t know. But that ‘everyone’ pointedly encompasses the director(s)―not to mention the Ahankhahs themselves.