Saturday, January 26, 2013

Matteo Garrone | Gomorrah

cemetery of garbage
by Douglas Messserli

Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, and Robert Saviano (screenplay), based on the book by Roberto Saviano, Matteo Garrone (director) Gomorrah / 2008, released in the U.S. in 2009

Given the rhyming title of the Neapolitan crime group Camorra, Gomorrah is a rambling narrative of five different sets of characters in and about Naples, all of whom can be tied to the notorious gangs of that region, and all of whom are destined to kill or be killed themselves.

     The film centers—if there can be said to be a central focus—on a young boy Totò (played by Salvatore Abruzzese), a wide-eyed urchin living in the vast apartment compound Vele di Sampi where most of the film's action takes place. Totò's mother survives through a small grocery, and as a delivery boy for her, Totò visits various units of the apartment complex, getting a close-up view of more violence and suffering than any child should have to endure. Like other, slightly older children of this world, he clearly sees the violence around him as a natural phenomenon.

     Two other boys, Ciro and Marco, soon to be young adults, play a kind of theatrical game of imitation, miming scenes and imaginatively recreating the events of the American gang movie Scarface. When these boys later discover a cache of guns and other weaponry hidden by the Camorra at a nearby farm, they turn their games into deadly action, shooting up the empty backwaters of their neighborhood. Garrone's film relies more on memorable images than upon a coherent story, and one of the best of these is a scene in which the two boys, stripped to their underwear, meaninglessly shoot off their Uzi's in mad imagination of the day when they will overtake the local Don—a wretched unshaven and (so the boys claim) unclean thug whom it is not hard to imagine is a vulnerable as anyone else in this hellish spot.

     Garrone refuses to glamorize any part of the Camorra. Hardly anyone, not even the wealthy gang leaders, live better lives than anyone else. And most characters are trapped in the confines of small, dark rooms, allowed to continue living by small financial handouts provided by the Camorra, some of which is put right back into the Camorra economy through the purchase of coke and heroin or a trip to the local sex club—the only pleasures this world seems to offer.

     One of the major figures we fellow, in fact, is the money runner, Don Circo (Gianfelice Imparato), who, like Totò, is privy to each household as he delivers mob money to those deemed worthy of support. His job may seem, at first, to offer some sense of purpose or even power, but we soon discover, like everyone else, he too is forced to live life at the edge with the possibility of being killed by rival ("secessionist") gangs and being hated by those to whom he delivers the money for the mob's penurious offerings. As one recipient shouts each week, how do they expect me to live on this? Don Circo's attempt to leave the mob ends in another round of murders.  

      Even the local haute couture designer, given a contract to produce several gowns—including one, we discover later, that will grace the body of actress Scarlett Johannson on Oscar night—lives in near-destitution and all night working sessions. His top dressmaker lives so poorly that he is willing to sell his knowledge, night by night, to the owner of a local Chinese dress factory, who sneaks him in an out of the shop in the trunk of his car. As a so-called "traitor," he too is nearly killed, and escapes with his life only by leaving his previous occupation behind, becoming a truck driver.

     Perhaps the only man who seems to live life a little better than the others is Franco, who with his new assistant Roberto, plans to turn an empty quarry into dumping ground for garbage that will cover over a bed of dangerously toxic containers of chemicals. When one of the truck drivers delivering the barrels has a mishap, bleeding and fearful of the chemical's effects, Franco unflappably orders the regular drivers out of the trucks, temporarily leaving the scene to bring back young street boys who are more than happy to drive these mammoth machines down to the pit where they will be dumped. When a local farmer, who has previously sold Franco land offers him pears, Franco kindly accepts them, but once on the road demands Roberto dump them: they are polluted like all the land of Campania thereabouts. Roberto (perhaps a stand-in for the author, Roberto Saviano), refusing to rejoin Franco in his determined destruction of the region, is perhaps the only individual in the film who escapes unscathed—although in real life Saviano must live in hiding, fearful of the mob's wrath.

      It is inevitable, accordingly, that the young, innocent Totò must ultimately be entombed in the Camorra's codes of behavior. Hit by a secessionist group, a younger fringe of the Camorra followers determine to kill the mother of a rebel. As a delivery boy, Totò is the only one for whom she will open her door. Desperately trying to remain uninvolved in these treacherous acts, Totò will not answer their query: "Are you with us or not?" But as he knows, there is no ground in between, and he has no choice but to call the woman out to her murder.

     So are Circo and Marco lured to a country spot and shot, their bodies loaded into a forklift of a giant caterpillar truck and dumped, perhaps in the very cemetery of garbage created by Franco and his kind.

      Dramatically speaking, Gomorrah is nothing but a mish-mash of different stories weaving in and out of each other, much like the unfocused images of Garrone's background figures throughout the film. Yet the implications of these character's purposeless acts, where human life has no more or less value than a bottle fly buzzing around a room, are absolutely mesmerizing and memorable.  The only time death means anything for the figures of this film is when the gun is aimed at their own heads. But as members of such self-destructive cultures everywhere, the moment they survive the heat, they seem utterly to forget—just like the boys who are told they have been transformed into men by letting a mob henchman shoot them, a bullet-proof vest pulled over them for probable protection, directly in the chest; the force of the bullet momentarily flattens them upon their backs, but eventually they stand up again to blindly face the bullets of another day. Let us hope that readers of Saviano's book and movie will remember, and help to put a halt to these internationally destructive acts.


Los Angeles, February 19, 2009
Reprinted from Nth Position [England] (March 2009).




Irving Reis | The Big Street

stepping on him
by Douglas Messerli
Leonard Spigelgass (screenplay, based on a story by Damon Runyon), Irving Reis (director) The Big Street / 1942

Watching The Big Street again the other day, I was struck at just how close to camp this film was. Indeed, had Runyon gotten his desire to star Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard in the lead roles, the film would fallen off the cliff of ridiculousness; as it is it might have been the perfect target for a Charles Ludlum play.

      Lucille Ball’s characterization of the mean-hearted and slightly course, money-grubbing night club singer, Gloria Lyons, is almost “over the top,” as she attacks her maid Ruby and a busboy, who in the first scene has saved her dog.  Soon after, she turns on her current boyfriend, the local mafian, Case Ables (Barton MacLane), trading in his favors for the wealthier society cad, Decatur Reed (William T. Orr). His gruff reaction, hitting her in the face, sends her hurling down a staircase and into a hospital bed as a cripple.

      Fortunately for her, she has the secret admiration of Little Pinks (Henry Fonda), the busboy, who secretly sends flowers and, with Ruby, sells Gloria’s jewels to pay her hospital bill. When they run out of trinkets, Pinks moves Gloria into his own tiny room. Forgot the absurdity of situation: in 1942, evidently, any sexual activity between the two in that snug little apartment was not even a question. It’s only because Fonda is so straight-forwardly serious and honest-Abe-faced that the script doesn’t evoke giggles. What’s more, there are plenty of Hollywood character actors, including the wonderful Agnes Moorehead as the thin but heavy-eating Violette Shumberg, Eugene Pallette as her unexpected boyfriend Nicely Nicely Johnson, a dynamic Ray Collins as Professor B, and Sam Levene as Horsethief, who distract our attention from Pinks’ moonstruck antics. These down-and-out figures, featured in many a Runyon tale, are seen here somewhat beyond their prime, mostly semi-retired from their former shady lives. They hardly have enough money to gamble. But they are legitimately humorous and, as always in Damon Runyonland, entirely loveable.

 When Gloria sends these men and women, Pink’s loyal friends, packing, she might be compared to Dorothy’s Wicked Witch. Defiantly, Pink loves the ungrateful singer, to whom he subserviently plays Jeeves, even mimicking the role of butler he’ll be expected to bcome once she gets well and traps Decatur!  Yet things get even stranger when she suggests that the poverty-stricken bus boy wheel her down from the big street of New York City to Miami where she can get warmed up and meet up with Decatur once more.

      Of course, and to prove it, there’s Pinks behind her wheelchair trying to enter the Holland Tunnel. To settle the confusion of the toll taker and nearby police officer, a truck driver gives them a free ride to Washington, D.C., but the rest of it, apparently, is up to them!

     Fortunately, the plot has arranged for Violette and Nicely Nicely to marry and move down to Miami to run a hot dog stand! Despite her dismissal of Pink’s friends, at least Gloria at least has a place to stay. Violette, having given up trying to make sense of Pink’s love interest, even hands over enough money so that he can buy Gloria a little something in which she can lay out on the beach hoping to attract Decatur’s attentions. Miraculously swimming nearby, he quickly spots her as the two strike up a conversation as if no time has passed; but when he encounters, by accident, Gloria soon after in her wheel chair, it’s curtains for that affair!

      To call her ungrateful would be like suggesting that Camille has a little cold. Runyon and Spiegelgass diagnose her problem as “paranoia,” but their definition of that term is a bit odd: “It’s what happens to people when they get to believe they’re something they’re not.” Well, perhaps…. Surely her “highness” has never been very serene, as she finally, in a fit of madness, sends even Pinks away. But like the “worm” she’s described him as, he faithfully returns when told by Violette that Gloria is deathly ill.

      If it’s been hard, so far, to perceive any credibility in this fantastic tale, we now have to stretch out imaginations even further. For, although Pinks has found a job, it’s in a casino owned by Gloria’s former mafia friend; meanwhile, for some inexplicable reason, nearly all of Pinks’ gambling friends have descended upon the “Magic City.” True to form, Gloria has another delusional vision: she’s in a large hall with all of Miami society, dancing at a special event dedicated to—who else?—herself.

       To make it all come true, the formerly honest Pinks turns to robbery, stealing a gown and— after overhearing an attempted con-game involving the same woman’s jewels—pockets several diamond necklaces, before demanding the couple hand over rubies from another heist. With the evidence of the rubies in hand, he approaches mobster Ables, behind the swindle, with a deal he cannot refuse: throw a big party for Gloria or he’ll straight to the police!

      Once again Pinks’ old friends attempt to throw a shindig for the unappreciative Gloria. Ozzie Nelson and his band accompany the songstress in yet another version of her famed “Who Knows,” and Pinks sweeps her up into a waltz by allowing her, quite literally, to walk all over him, her feet planted firmly on the top of his! One last wish—she wants to see the ocean—is granted by the incredibly, incredibly nice Pinks, who picks up his now dead lover and takes up a grand staircase for a midnight look at the sea. The end.

    I can see it now: Carole Lombard hanging on the hulky mass of Laughton! That surely would surely have brought down the house!

Los Angeles, January 26, 2013

Jack Smith | Flaming Creatures

creatures afire
by Douglas Messerli

Jack Smith Flaming Creatures / 1963 / The screening I saw was presented with a talk by J. Hoberman at The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatrer (Redcat) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 9, 2009.

For years I'd been hearing about the sensational film Flaming Creatures which seemingly influenced filmmakers and dramatists from Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Federico Fellini to Cindy Sherman and Richard Foreman.

     From the beginning, after its New Bowery Theater showing in 1964, screenings were rare, and in the late 1960s Smith took the film out of circulation. For all these years, accordingly, I had been seeking an opportunity to attend a rare showing, and despite the fact that I was scheduled to teach a literature course on November 9th, I arranged from the first day of class that we would skip the week in question.

      Listening to J. Hoberman's historical recounting of the film, which was deemed pornographic on its release and was denounced in the media and even in the halls of congress (one congressman being outraged that it was not even being good pornography (evidently he couldn't get an erection"), it is difficult not to let out a hoot of laughter.

     Indeed, in today's world, Smith's orgiastic figures of mostly gays and transvestites seems almost innocent. Yes, from time to time, one or another shakes a flaccid penis in the camera's face, but, for the most part, the figures of this pastiche of scenes and music reminiscing from Maria Montez to Josef Von Sternberg's films and numerous other popular cultural references, seems utterly innocent. Hoberman himself describes the film in those terms:

                  Flaming Creatures' forty-five washed out, dated minutes 
                  depict a place where a cast of tacky transvestites and other 
                  terminal types (some costumed as recognizable genre 
                  faves—a Spanish dancer, a vampire, an exotic temptress),
                  accompanied by recordings of popular music, shrieks, and 
                  snatches of Hollywood soundtracks ("Ali Baba is coming!
                  Ali Baba is coming!") dance, grope, stare, posture, and wave 
                  their penises with childlike joy. The marriage
                  of Heaven and Hell presented with playful depravity.

      The creatures in Smith's film are aflame with buried desires—blindingly bright passions to show off, to love, to dance, to cry out, perhaps even to die—the creatures burning up before our eyes. What makes this film so troubling to some I believe is that it is almost a screed simultaneously to life and to extinction, a kind of mad portrayal of Heaven and Hell: not St. Peter's Heaven paved with good acts nor Lucifer's burning inferno but internal heavens and hells within each of us, often so potent that coherent language and expression cannot be reached. Smith himself described the work as "a comedy set in a haunted movie studio," which at first, given the very ludicrousness of the actor's portrayals, I dismissed.

      Clearly, however, there is something comical about the full throttle simmering of this heap of human flesh at the center of the short film. And yet, it is a haunted, ghostly world left behind by the cheap and gaudy reality that Hollywood directors have awarded us as alternative spaces in which to exist. And in that sense Flaming Creatures is an inevitable product of filmmaking itself. In a strange way this silly, tawdry, outrageous depiction of a hopped-up bacchanalia is no more or less unbelievable than hundreds of scenes from Cecil De Mille epics such as his 1949 Samson and Delilah, Bible-tales turned into fantasylands for a world of displaced souls. 

Los Angeles, November 13, 2009
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (November 2009).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jean Vigo | Zéro de conduit (Zero for Conduct)

the wild ones
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Vigo Zéro de conduit (Zero for Conduct) / 1933

From the very first scene of Jean Vigo’s short feature, Zero for Conduct, the director establishes the battlegrounds, as two young boys traveling by train to return to their boarding school, take out their new “toys”—in a sort of menacing version of “I can do better than you”—before pulling out cigars, lighting up and smoking—all in the presence of a sleeping adult, who, as the train stops falls to the floor, described by the boys as a “dead man.” The sleeping man is their new teacher, who, although more spirited than the soulless freaks who also teach at the boy’s school, is clearly, in their minds, already dead.

 The two boys, Caussat (Louis Lefebre) and Colin (Gilbert Pruchon), join their friend Bruel (Coco Golstein) and a new “pretty” boy, Tabard (based, so it is reported on Vigo himself)—ogled and touched by several teachers—who befriends them, to immediately plan a revolt. The various “professors” include the dwarf headmaster, a slimy supervisor who follows the children about to spy on them and steals their possessions, an obese chalk-covered science teacher, and mindless housemaster, whom the boys, in their later orgiastic march of rebellion, tie to his bed, upend it and, symbolically, crucify him. Only the new teacher, who entertains them with drawings and a Chaplinesque strut around town, shows any possibility of offering them an education.

     Through most of this 41-minute film, the boys do little but conspire, as they, like school boys everywhere, pass notes, secretly meet, magically escape from one teacher’s attention as they march through the city, and are awarded seemingly endless “zeros for conduct,” restricting them to the school even during weekends.

      Yet, by framing everything through the eyes of the boys, Vigo creates a magical landscape which seems to be always fulminating with real violence and a sense of wonderment. The ease in which the boys slip in and out of beds, climb into and of mysterious windows, and simply mock their superiors behind their backs is in stark opposition to the freakish inadequacies of the adults, making the film seem both comic and slightly horrifying at the very same moment.

       The revolt is planned for the school’s commemoration day, but gets underway, apparently, the night before as what begins as a pillow fight among the school’s boys suddenly turns into a mock procession—not unlike the mardi gras celebration in the director’s À Propos aux Nice—as the camera goes into slow motion, a snowfall of feathers streaming down upon everyone. It ends, appropriately, with the crucifixion I described above.


The commemoration ceremony of the next morning, presided over the Toulouse-Lautrec lookalike, seems to have no children in attendance, merely stuffed dummies, representing various French dignitaries. The young foursome is seen moving, by rooftop, off into the distance seemingly having escaped their insane oppression.  The freshness of his vision, combined with Vigo’s obvious distaste for authority, helped to get this film immediately banned after its showing in 1933 in Paris for “creating disturbances and hindering the maintenance of order.” It would not be rediscovered until 1945, and was not shown again until 1946, twelve years after Vigo’s death. But its influence has been extensive, with François Truffaut paying homage to it in his The 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson using its structure for his If….  

Los Angeles, January 20, 2013

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jean Vigo | À Propos de Nice

the living and the dead
by Douglas Messerli

Jean Vigo À Propos de Nice / 1930

On the surface Jean Vigo’s 1930 work, À Propos de Nice, is similar to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a whirlwind tour through various aspects of a city from morning to sunset. In fact, Vigo’s photographer for this film, Boris Kaufman, was the brother of Vertov’s busy cameraman, Mikhail. Like Vertov’s loving presentment of Odessa, Vigo’s valentine to Nice begins in aerial shots, with the almost travelogue-like feeling.

        As the camera descends to the surface, almost like sliding down one of the many palm-trees dotting the Nice landscape, everything shifts as the director focuses on the idle rich, enjoying the casinos and mostly strolling, in full-dress regalia, along the boardwalks and beaches. Dressed to the hilt, these wealthy men and women seem to be impervious that there is a long beach with enticing waters rolling in; rather, they sit in beach cafes, benches, and beach chairs, their suit pants rolled up, long dresses discreetly lifted to catch a few rays of the sun. Mostly they walk, checking out each other as if in an endless Easter Parade. Perhaps it is near Easter, after all, since a carnival, presumably a Mardi Gras event, is in the air. Early on Vigo gives us a glimpse of one of the masks being created for the event. In a sense, the large mask is similar to the numerous masks of paint and haberdashery upon the heads of Nice’s wealthy, walking dead.

      So far, Vigo has only satirized his figures, but he soon begins to point up what that wealth hides, highlighting his silent and unspoken figures against a far more political context. As the camera dips into some of the Nice side streets where peasant women are busy washing their clothes in public fountains, we begin also to spot local teenagers, some of them gathering to play games of chance—a cruder version of the casino games—others simply on the run, bicycling, racing through the streets—a far cry from the careful strollers—in wild abandonment.

Suddenly it is almost as if Kaufman’s camera has become energized as he now parallels these poor-boy activities with the pleasures of others of the upper class. The beaches are filled with swimmers, sailing vessels and small yachts appear on the horizon, a water-plane dips into the ocean, tennis matches are cross-cut with bocce bowls. The sun shines across the Riviera paradise.

       Just as suddenly the carnival springs into action with a series of images of outlandishly large and grotesque masks. If the wealthy treated Nice cautiously and gingerly, more interested in themselves than in their surroundings, the course youth of Nice go wild, singing and dancing interminably, throwing their torsos into the air to reveal nearly everything. A large part of the film has been given over to pure pleasure, as marchers, singers, dancers, and masked figures go wild. In comparison the cold arcades of the casinos seem like tombs, which Vigo underscores by showing us several gravesites and other city statues surrounded by stone angels. By comparison, the revelers are pure flesh, ready to throw themselves, so it seems, into the hell of an apocalyptic fate, with which Vigo and Kaufman end their short film: a flurry of huge smokestacks and raked fires, hinting at the energy of the workers who, in their labors, allow the city to stay alive. In Vigo’s proposition of Nice, Hell is surely preferable to the heavenly carved casinos and hotels.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2013
Copyright (c) Douglas Messerli, 2013

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cllint Eastwood | Flags of Our Fathers / Letters from Iwo Jima

flags and letters
by Douglas Messerli
William Broyles, Jr. and Peter Haggis (screenplay), based on the book by James Bradley and Ron
    Powers, Clint Eastwood (director) Flags of Our Fathers / 2006
Iris Yamashita (screenplay), Clint Eastwood (director) Letters from Iwo Jima / 2006

True to my pattern of doing things, I saw Clint Eastwood’s magnificent diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in early 2007 in the reverse order from which they were released. After seeing Flags of Our Fathers (the second film of my viewing), I observed to my mate, Howard, that had I seen that film first, I might not have been so eager to see its companion. That is not to say that Flags is not a significant film, but simply that, without the context of the more coherent and darker second work, it functions in a much more scatter-gun, even disjunctive manner that is simply not as fulfilling to its audience.

      Actually I believe Eastwood has made an important statement in the structural differences between the two films. Recognizing these two works as opposing representations of the same series of incidents—the battles at Iwo Jima occurring from February 19 through March 24, 1945—we quickly perceive that the American version, Flags of Our Fathers, is presented from the viewpoint of how Americans in general perceived the event at the time, as part of a grand heroic effort to defeat the Japanese.

    Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal’s picture of six men hoisting the flag into position atop of Suribachi mountain quickly consolidated the actual battles into an icon of the hallowed values for which American soldiers were fighting.  The three individuals in that picture who survived the Iwo Jima invasion, John “Doc” Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes, accordingly, were immediately recognized as representatives of what most Americans sought, living manifestations of the heroism of their young men and women in World War II. Higherups, moreover, recognized these men as the perfect salesmen in the pitch for American War Bonds to raise monies desperately needed to continue the war effort.
     The truth of these events was quite different. Forgetting for the moment that in a matter of 37 days nearly 30,000 men (6,891 Americans and close to 22,000 Japanese) had been killed and another 18,070 wounded, and focusing only on the famed photograph, there had in fact been two flag raisings, the first, a more instinctual act of claiming the island with a smaller flag tied with rope to a shell casing, the second, a military-ordered raising of a larger flag (to be rewarded to an observing congressman)
carefully staged for the camera. Moreover, one of the men reported to have helped to raise the second, now iconographic flag, actually helped raise the first, and the name of a marine raising the second flag was omitted in military reports. The men who had survived the ordeal all recognized that there was little “heroism” in raising that second flag (or, for that matter, in raising the first), while the acts of all the soldiers—including their own—involved in actual battle represented what might really be thought of as heroic. Of the three survivors, Ira Hayes, of American Indian heritage, wanted nothing at all to do with the wartime pitch; the other two, medic Bradley and Gagnon—the latter presented as a naïve and somewhat dim-witted solider (assigned the position of a “runner”), participated with a sense of increasing disdain and distress for their ballpark reenactments and celebrity status.

    In the American experience of the event there is little coherency. While the three soldiers relived nightmarish scenes from the battle, the public in general saw the battle only through the lens of a split-second photograph. The press conjured up “a truth” out of unrelated events (such as Gagnon’s marriage and Hayes’s apparent alcoholism) before completely dropping their coverage. It mattered little to the military, the press, or the public that these men’s lives had been utterly transformed or that perhaps their real heroism related less to the war than simply withstanding the onslaught of publicity heaped upon them.

    Ultimately, it was left to their sons and daughters to piece together—through interviews and a book publication—any sense of reality of the Iwo Jima battle. Heroism, Bradley’s son suggests, was not a unifying force; it meant fighting with and saving, if possible, the men immediately closest to one in battle, protecting and saving one’s friends. For the individual soldiers, the public displays of nationalism were not what they had fought for. There is a strange (if predictable) homoeroticism to the young soldiers’ oceanside swim soon after the battles that Eastwood presents as the image of friendships behind some of these men’s  heroic exploits.

     The Flags version of Iwo Jima, accordingly, presented in disjunctive pieces and viewed from various angles and perceptions—from the viewpoints of individuals, friends, the military, the national public, the families, and history—is a narrative without the possibility of a unifying vision.

     Contrarily, Letters from Iwo Jima reveals events primarily based on the letters of three soldiers writing their loved ones back home and other unmailed letters later discovered buried on the island, and for that reason presents a much more intimate portrait of military men, many of whom knew they were doomed to die in the battle.

    Unlike the American presentation of the Iwo Jima slaughter, moreover, Letters has at its center two great military leaders, Lieutenant General Kuribayashi Tadamichi (stunningly portrayed by Ken Watanabe), commander of the Empire of Iwo Jima, and Baron Nishi.

     Nishi, a great horseman, winner of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and celebrity of Japanese culture, knew English and had befriended, before the war, numerous American film actors such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

      Kuribayashi, assigned by Hideki Tojo to defend Iwo Jima, had spent part of his education in Canada, and, in 1928-29 served in the United States as a deputy military attaché, traveling throughout the country. Kuribayashi, accordingly, knew well the American state of mind, and through careful study of US military strategy, was able to determine on which shore the Americans would land. As opposed to the standard strategy of entrenching opposition soldiers near the landing point Kuribayashi catacombed the local mountains as a fortress, thus allowing for a longer survival time for his soldiers and a high ground from which to shoot and kill the American enemy.
Even though he was of samurai and aristocratic descent, and was one of the few soldiers who was granted an audience with Emperor Hirohito, Kuribayashi had opposed the war with the United States from the beginning and had fallen into opposition with numerous colleagues. According to scriptwriter Iris Yamashita and director Eastwood, moreover, he opposed the traditional self-immolation upon failure in battle, arguing that instead of destroying themselves, the troops should move forward or retreat to a place of better advantage.

     One of the most terrifying scenes in both films is the reference to and depiction of the self-destruction of a Japanese platoon as, one by one, they discharge grenades against their heads or torsos. Two soldiers in that group do not choose to “die honorably.” One of the major figures of Letters, Saigo, formerly a student in Japan’s prestigious military school, along with Shimizu save themselves and, ultimately, rejoin Kuribayashi’s forces, only to be threatened with death by a lieutenant of the old school. Saigo’s and Shimizu’s lives are personally spared by Kuribayashi, representing, in Saigo’s case, the second of what will be three of Kuribayashi’s interventions on his behalf.

     Eastwood painfully demonstrates the horrors of war when these two soldiers later determine to surrender. Shimizu escapes and is captured by the Americans, only to be killed by two American soldiers under whose protection he and another man have been assigned. Although there have been many films of the past that revealed the absurdity of war, the brutal killing of this young man by Americans reverberates in a way that can only call up similar shocking events in Viet Nam and our current Iraqi invasion. Americans, we have had to recognize, are not always the “good guys” we like to think they/we are.

     In the United States it is amazing that Eastwood’s eloquently sympathetic presentation of enemy combatants has received so little negative reaction. Japan, one must recall, was one of the few countries ever to actually attack Americans on their own soil! Perhaps it is a testament to the director’s honesty and integrity. One wonders, moreover, how this film is being perceived in Japan, where it is still generally believed—although his body was never discovered—that Kuribayashi committed seppuku, the ritual suicide of the samurai. In Eastwood’s version the general dies before he can destroy himself, to be buried by the loyal Saigo, who, recognizing the general’s gun hanging from the belt of a conquering American, springs into his first actual attempt at combat with “the enemy” before he is quelled, to become one of the few Japanese survivors.

      The letters, intimate communications between wives, sons, and others, create a coherency not to found in the American version of war. While the Japanese Kuribayashi goes to his death knowing that he has attempted to communicate with his beloved son Taro, for the American soldier Bradley, up until the last moments of his death, there is a feeling of having been dissociated from his own son, of having so buried the war within his own being that he has remained at a distance from one so loved. It appears, Eastwood suggests, that a culture that prefers flags to letters, a culture which offers up symbols as opposed to simple human expression—the culture of my own father—is doomed to estrangement.*

Los Angeles, January 19, 2007
Reprinted from Nth Position [England], February 2007.


* One must recognize that Japanese culture is also highly involved in and enchanted by symbols, a point Eastwood brings up in his film. As a young military student, Shimizu is commanded to enforce the rule that all houses display the Japanese flag, an incident which, when he also is commanded to destroy the family’s dog—an order he disobeys—results in his dismissal from military college and in his being posted to Iwo Jima. It is particularly notable, therefore, that the three major figures of Letters from Iwo Jima spend their last days in epistolary communication.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Yasujirō Ozu | Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story)

the disappointment
by Douglas Messerli
Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story) / 1953

The elderly couple with whom this film begins, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama (Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama), certainly do not seem to be expecting too much as they prepare for a journey to Tokyo to visit their two children and daughter-in-law, catching a glimpse in Osaka, along the way, of yet another son. Like many old couples, they sit packing their bags, gently scolding one another and occasionally arguing about a missing object. A neighbor stops by, wishing them a good trip. Their children, we are told, have turned out, particularly in the post-war period—with one, Koichi (So Yamamura) becoming a pediatrician with two sons, and a daughter, Shige (Haruko Sugimara) running a hairdressing salon. A second son in Tokyo has died during the war, leaving his wife, Noriko (Setsuko Hara) living in poverty; she works as an assistant in a trading company.

      The voyage is a long one, a trip the elderly parents have never made, but they seem in good spirits and look forward to encountering the children in the big and slightly frightening city.

      Even before they arrive at Koichi’s home we sense some tensions: as Koichi’s wife, Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), busily cleans up, her elder son, Minoru, is irritated with her having moved his desk. He needs a place to study, he insists, to which she scoffs, “you never study.” When the grandparents do arrive, both the boy and his younger brother almost ignore them, accepting none of their loving attentions.

      The other members of the family gather at Koichi’s and Fumiko’s, each bringing small gifts (crackers, tea) but the dinner is a simple one. Noriko arrives from work a bit late, ready to help out in the kitchen, but her offers are dismissed by Fumiko and Shige, and it is clear that neither of the women is particularly fond of her.

       Indeed, both Shige and Noriko are made to feel, at dinner’s end, that they may have stayed too long, as both hurry home, leaving the older couple, despite their not feeling that tired, to retire to bed. Their bedtime conversation reveals their amazement that their doctor son lives in such an isolated and suburban location. He is clearly not as successful as they had thought him to be.

     The next day, Sunday, the entire family is scheduled to take a tour of downtown Tokyo, but a visit from the father of one of Koichi’s patients, reporting that his child’s fever remains high, forces Koichi to have to cancel the trip. His wife, she declares, is also busy and unable to take them around the city. The children, particularly the elder, are stubbornly angry at their father’s cancellation of their outing, with Minoru refusing even to take a walk with his grandmother. It is apparent that part of Minoru’s rude and disobedient behavior has to do with father’s continued absences. This is quite obviously not the only outing that has been terminated.

      In short, nothing much dramatically happens in these early scenes. In fact, one might argue, hardly anything happens. But in the subtle gestures and flow of events, Ozu is telling us something far more profound. And particularly when the elderly parents change venue, staying with Shige and her husband, these issues become more evident. If Koichi has been polite but preoccupied, Shige is clearly openly selfish and penurious, scolding her companion for bringing home “expensive” cakes for her parents; crackers are “good enough” for them. Shige has even less time to entertain her parents than Koichi. Perhaps they will attend a theater performance that evening, she proclaims, but nothing comes of it, and the couple is stranded in the Kaneko home. Refusing to do anything for her parents, Shige calls Noriko, suggesting her sister-in-law take a day off from her job to tour them through the city.

     Unlike the blood relatives of Shukichi and Tomi, Noriko is absolutely pleased to be to tour the couple, ending the day in her simple, one-room apartment, where she serves up a full meal along with borrowed sake. Clearly she cares for the couple, who are also pleased for the existence of a displayed photograph of their long-dead son.

     Koichi and Shige, meanwhile, conspire to send the parents out of town, the two sharing the costs in order that their parents may stay at a hot spring spa at Atami, while they go on with their daily lives. Despite the parents’ hopes to spend time with their family in Tokyo, they are suddenly being sent away to live in isolation just as they have since their family has grown up.

     Although the views from the spa are quite lovely, the hotel where they are staying has a busy night life with young people loudly partying, allowing the couple little sleep. The hotel halls are filled with flirting women and men, beer bottles strewn throughout. Outside one door stand only the couple’s empty shoes, making clear just how alienated they are from the world in which they have discovered themselves. The next morning, in self-reflexive acceptance of the facts, they determine to return to Tokyo in order to travel back to their distant house. As they rise from the seawall upon which they are seated, the stolid Tomi momentarily feels dizzy and cannot stand: Ozu’s subtle indication not only that she may not be well, but that the inattentive responses of her children have had their effect!

     If until this moment, Tokyo Story has been an extremely polite, even conventional satire of shifting family relationships, it now becomes a tale of disappointment and pained resignation that the children they have raised have grown up without qualities with which they had hoped to have instilled in them. While many Japanese works play out generational conflicts—most of them centered on values of the past as opposed to the present—Ozu’s work brilliantly escapes such simple dichotomies, making it clear that it is not just generational changes at work here, but failures in personality. Shige, shocked by the couple’s return, scolds them for not staying at the spa, lying even (although Ozu, once again, goes out of his way not to not confirm the obvious) in telling them that she is hosting a gathering of beauticians in her house and has no longer any room for them.

     Like proud vagabonds, now suddenly homeless, Tomi determines to stay the night with the loving Noriko, while Shukichi visits the home of an old friend from his hometown, hoping to be invited in for the night. His friends would gladly have him, but rent out their spare room. His friend Hattori (Hisao Toake), meeting up with another old friend, invites Shukichi to a local bar, where the three proceed to get terribly drunk. In that drunken state, Hattori berates his son, while the other mourns his children’s death in war; and for a few moments, Shukichi seems in agreement with them before turning on the other two to declare that perhaps they are all “expecting too much,” that life in the giant city is economically difficult and allows the citizens little time for anything or anyone else. The police ultimately return Shukichi back to Shige’s house. Her anger far out-weighs any concern for her father’s condition or health.

     At Noriko’s, at the other hand, Tomi is served a good meal and is given money (much needed by the younger woman) for their travels. The elderly woman is overwhelmed and similarly is joyful to be sleeping in the very bed where her son slept, and in appreciation—and clearly with bitterness for her other childrens’ treatment—quietly cries herself to sleep. Noriko’s kindness proves, if nothing else, the lie of Shukichi’s explanation of events; if anything things are far more difficult for Noriko that for the two siblings.

     So does the couple return home. But the rest of the family soon hears that at Osaka, meeting their son Keizo (Shiro Osaka), Tomi has become sick and has had to spend a couple of days there before proceeding home. Soon after, Koichi and Shige receive telegrams reporting that their mother is seriously ill, and they begrudgingly prepare to travel to the home where they have never returned. When called, Noriko joins the trek to her husband’s childhood home.

     Tomi dies within the night, cared for by Kyoko—the couple’s unmarried, school-teacher daughter who has remained in the small to care for them—and by Noriko. Keizo arrives too late. At the dinner after the funeral ceremony, Shige demands from Kyoko two of her mother’s kimonos, as she, Koichi, and Keizo all plan their hurried returns to Toyko and Osaka. Only Noriko remains for a few days, caring, once more, for her father-in-law and helping Kyoko. While the parents have said very little in open condemnation of the selfish children, the quiet Kyoko, once they have left, speaks out to Noriko of their despicable behavior. Noriko responds far too kindly, insisting that everyone has their own life to lead, resulting predictably to a separation between parents and their children. But again, her own selflessness, reveals the lie to her niceties; and when Kyoko, who has spoken hardly any words in the entire film, declares life to be “disappointing,” even the gentle Noriko can only agree.

      Recognizing Noriko’s kindnesses to both him and his wife, the now widowed Shukichi encourages his daughter-in-law, as Tomi has formerly done, to forget his son and remarry. In appreciation for her love, he awards her Tomi’s old-fashioned watch, a gift which links her to the elderly couple’s past while simultaneously freeing her for a new future, permitting her to move forward in time.

      As critics have noted, however, even here Ozu does not simplify his narrative as he might have if he ended merely with Noriko traveling back to Tokyo to face her own future, but, rather, pulls his camera back into the bay outside Shukichi’s window where we see a ferry, as in the very first scene, shuttling back and forth. His life will be a lonely one, as he tells his nosey neighbor, “Living alone like this, the days will get very long.” But Ozu demonstrates, as well, that life will go on; things predictably continue.

      What began as a subtle satire on generational changes, accordingly, ends, in Ozu’s stunning vision, with a statement of both tragic resignation (for Shukichi) and transformative resilience (for Noriko and Kyoko). The others are now free to lead their very ordinary lives.  

Los Angeles, January 10, 2013