Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Yasujirō Ozu | お早よう Ohayō (Good Morning)

the dog is not the cat: a suburban satire
by Douglas Messerli

Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay), Yasujirō Ozu (director) お早よう Ohayō (Good Morning) / 1959

As several critics have reiterated, along with Rick Prelinger, writing in the new Criterion edition of the film, Good Morning is the “wildcard” of Yasujirō Ozu’s films. It doesn’t quite look or behave like Ozu’s other works, and appears, as Prelinger suggests, more like a kind of American TV comedy series of the same period of the late 1950s, than any other Ozu movie. At moments, Good Morning has the feel of a colorized Leave It to Beaver (running at the same time on American TV sets), except that in the Japanese version, the houses of this suburban community are much smaller and coexist in a space that seems a bit more like a commune than the Mapleton and Pine Street houses in the US television series. (My family lived for several years on Maple Drive in just such an American suburb).

     Indeed, Good Morning is, at least in part, about television itself. If the mothers of the boys and their friends are all agog about the scandal of their neighborhood dues not having reached the proper source, and the boys’ fathers are all facing retirement age and unemployment, the two boys of the Hayashi household, Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) are angry, not only because their mother won’t allow them to visit the neighbor’s house to watch TV—the seemingly bohemian couple who  wear their pajamas all day, sing scat songs, and have posters of American films on their walls—but refuses to even consider the possibility of buying them a television set. Their father, Keitaro (Chishū Ryū) insists that the new device “will produce 100 million idiots.” And when, after their open rebellion against his viewpoint, he demands they keep quiet, the two boys determine to become permanently silent to all adults, rebelling as nearly all adolescents eventually do, in a manner that threatens not their not only their education, but their very survival, since they refuse to share in family meals—the very center of home activity. Dobie Gillis did the very same thing, at a slightly older age, in the series that bore his name.

      Unlike Ozu’s 1932 silent film, I Was Born, but..., upon which this film was very loosely based, the father no longer has much significance in the family life. Instead, the mother, Tamiko (Kuniko Miyake) is the center of family life (again not so very different from what I have previously argued about American TV situation comedies, including Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show, all putting the maternal images at the center of control [see My Year 2004]).

     Yet Mrs. Hayashi, given her gossipy behavior, has other problems: she has accused the Treasurer of the neighborhood dues, Mrs Haraguchi (Haruko Sugimura) as perhaps having used their payments for the purchase of a new washing machine. And when it turns out that Haraguchi’s senile mother simply forgot to pass on the payment envelope, all the neighbors begin to turn against  Hayashi, returning anything they may have previously borrowed in order to be free of her viperous tongue.

      Subtly, the boys not only somehow assimilate this, but recognize that all their elders say little about truth in their daily polite expressions of “Good morning,” “How are you?” and  “Have a good day.” A bit like more adolescent Holden Caulfields, these two youths, in fact, are rebelling against the banal suburban life in which they are forced to live, despite the fact that their desires—the ability to watch sumo wrestling matches on the TV—are not so very different from the adult males surrounding them.

      To make his point, Ozu goes beyond what any American situation comedy might have portrayed. As the adult males perpetually release flatulents, sometimes even expressing a kind of private language to their wives, the boys play games in which they fart when pressed by their peers on their foreheads. Yet, obviously, their pressed foreheads also represent a kind of “turning on,” just like a television set, which immediately results in their seemingly comic actions. Only one of their group, who regularly “messes” his pants, cannot join in this mockery. In a strange sense, they are repeating the process of their consumer-culture society, literally performing like the machines which they wish to possess.

      In Ozu’s world, the regular walks around neighborhood blocks of a TV comedy such as Leave It to Beaver is replaced with a series of linear structures where people come and go, on several different levels, from right to left, and left to right. The neighborhood women incessantly open and shut the bamboo sliding doors of their friends. As in a hundred stories of suburban living, a drunk neighbor shows up late at night in the wrong house. Ozu presents us with a series of seemingly linear worlds from which there is truly no escape. Each member of this society remains trapped in their own strata.

     The boys finally get their television set, of course, and will surely watch all the Sumo  wrestling bouts they might have wished for. But we do have to ask will they ever truly learn their English lessons (“The dog is not the cat.”) that might demonstrate to them the dangers of American culture? Ozu does not answer the question, but suggests that at least the boys’ rebellion has brought their English-language tutor and their aunt to together by film’s end—even if they can only begin their courtship by talking about the weather.

     Maybe this most Japanese of all directors was far more American than we might have imagined him.

Los Angeles, August 23, 2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Michael Cacoyannis | Otan ta psaria vgikan sti steria (The Day the Fish Came Out)

the metamorphoses
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Cacoyannis (writer and director) Otan ta psaria vgikan sti steria (The Day the Fish Came Out) / 1967

Michael Cacoyannis’ 1967 film The Day the Fish Came Out has probably received the worst reviews of any film of a noted international director. It came out of a period in which campy, sometimes over-the-top comedies such as Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966) were quite popular. And it shares some of the political satire of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and the even earlier Jack Arnold piece of nonsense The Mouse That Roared (1959)—both films for which I, myself, have little admiration, and neither of which I see as truly “funny.”

     Yet critics were particularly mean when it came to the Cacoyannis work, since he had previously made grander epic realist productions such as Zorba the Greek and Electra. The New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, for example, described it as “flabby” and “foolish,” going on to evaluate it as “a witless farcical account of how an unnamed, far-ranging power tries to cover up the fact that one of its planes has accidentally dropped some fissionable material on a barren, sleepy Greek island.” That “unnamed country,” quite obviously was the USA.

      Tom Milne of the usually insightful Time Out summarized: “Cacoyannis turns it all into hideously lumbering farce, so unconvincing that one is heartily glad when the unprepossessing characters at least seem likely to be overwhelmed by radiation.”

      Even the bland TV Guide called it a “silly and pretentious nuclear disaster drama.”

Based partly on the factual 1966 loss by the American Force of 4 hydrogen bombs while flying over Palomares, Spain, the “McGuffin” of the film is a similar loss of two atomic bombs and a nearly impregnable metal box containing something so noxious that we are not even told what it is. The pilot and navigator of the plane (Colin Blakely and Tom Courtenay) drop their load this time on the nearly uninhabited Greek island of Karos before themselves parachuting from the plane and swimming ashore now, somewhat inexplicably, dressed only in their skivvies. And a special American force, headed by a Greek-speaking Mr. Elias (Sam Wanamaker) is quickly transported to the island to seek out the deadly missiles and the mysterious metal box. As Milne’s review, quoted above, suggests, the film ends with the death of the fish in the surrounding waters and the likely destruction of all living in and visiting the island’s small village.

      This is the baseline story, but no one with any sense of humor might care about this silly series of scary events. Cacoyannis makes it clear from the very beginning, through an epilogue comically spoofing the Spanish event and with slickly clever credits by Maurice Binder, that signals the fact that his tale is not really about bombs and human destruction but is about an entirely different issue: in this case a kind of metamorphosis of everything and everyone in this dystopian world. If Karos begins as a sleepy village of mostly old men and a few women, it ends up as a kind of sheik tourist and gay paradise that, having achieved such a new identity, is simply required to be destroyed given the moral judgments of the film’s audiences. In presenting his theme, accordingly, Cacoyannis almost invites his viewer’s disdain in a way that might at least reveal their own hypocrisy. But that’s taking a big chance, which, in this case obviously, just didn’t pay off.

       Perhaps seeing it in hindsight is fortunate; today we can perceive the campy celebration of this film within a different sexual context, if nothing else. Yet, it’s hard to even get hold of a CD. I bought one of the very last copies off of Amazon to be able to view it. Although I heard it sometimes appears on TV film channels, I’ve never been able to catch it.

      To accomplish his ends, the director immediately determines to transform all the military straight men into gay simulacrums. The survivors of the plane crash, both of whom describe themselves as married, are immediately forced to run around the rocky island not only in underpants, but particularly in the young Courtenay’s case, in what is almost a cotton jockstrap. His camera comically strokes the two men’s bodies, revealing even the size and shape of Courtenay’s small un-cut cock and the more hirsute chest of Blakely, both of whom, without clothes, without money, and without even the ability to make a telephone call to explain that they are still living, have certainly become something “other” than they had been before. Indeed, Cacoyannis almost immediately shifts them from being stock-comic figures into representing voyeuristic images to his audience. By showing them almost as nude, and commenting on the fact over and over again—at one point the two even show up on screen with their underpants upon their heads as a substitute sunblock—forces us to perceive them in a new context. They are no longer pilot and navigator but two grown men living nearly naked in the wild. No wonder so many viewers of the day squirmed at the sight! And the slightly stupid character that Courtenay is particularly an appetizing morsel, playing a kind of gay version of Marilyn Monroe or Brigitte Bardot.

      If that isn’t enough, an entire squadron of hunky military advisers is asked to pretend it is visiting the island to scout out new places for a large hotel. The director is also credited as the costume designer. In the name of “going casual,” he  clothes them in the outlandish pants, shirts, and sunglasses—with large mesh cutouts in their pants, mesh-woven shirts, posing them even without their shirts for most of movie, Wanamaker’s hairy chest being a particular focus of the camera lens—that they look like the gayest of gayest travelers that one might imagine.

      Upon witnessing their descent upon the island, the pilot and navigator can only suppose they are a gay contingent of visitors, and one of the outrageously dressed squadron members, spotting the boys in underwear, presumes they have having sex among the rocks. Throughout, Cacoyannis shows as many male ass shots as Hollywood films have always portrayed, if somewhat more subtly, of their female sexpot heroines.

      Like any good group of gay boys, these want to be alone (they need to search the island for the missiles and deadly box, if you recall)! And, eventually, to establish that separateness, they buy up an entire part of the island and fence it off, suggesting that they are testing soil samples, etc. for their new solar hotel. To please those in the island who do not own this valueless property, they put them to work on creating a meaningless highway to the site.

      Although the military men might see the local peasants as backward and uninformed, they quickly ring up the Greek national government with the news of the proposed transformation of their island, determining to spiff up their village for the deluge of possible new tourists. Their bare, white washed walls are suddenly painted with bright pinks, blues, greens, yellows and other colors. Numerous homes overnight become hotels. The road workers suddenly uncover a beautiful ancient sculpture. The small island town, just like the military men, also experiences a metamorphosis. Things here are suddenly very “gay,” in the older meaning of that word.

      Boats and boats of tourists, dressed in equally outrageous Fellinesque-like costumes, suddenly descend upon the port of Karos. These are the real gay boys along with their sexy girlfriends and wealthy women “benefactors,” who further transform the island into a truly sexual paradise whose visitor-inhabitants dance ridiculous Mikis Theodorakis-composed songs far into the night. Suddenly the sleepy little island has become the mega hot-spot its elderly citizens had always imagined was out of their reach.

      Too bad there are still a few stubborn peasants, particularly one fisherman and his wife, who, having discovered the large metal box are determined to open it and find what they greedily believe is a cache of gold. When they finally succeed, they discovers only a few redish-brown egg-shaped containers, probably holding deadly viruses, most of which the fisherman throws into the sea and a few of which he wife unknowingly tosses into the village’s water source. The fish rise to the surface, dead (“fish,” one might remember, was once a derogatory name for women in gay circles), and what looks like an eclipse of the sun appears out of nowhere as a public broadcast microphoned message is drowned out by their music. Tomorrow the US will see just such a sight.

       There will always be, suggests Cacoyannis, a few hold-out cretins who cannot enter into the current of joy and pleasure. These are called critics, I suspect, who always rip into all the fun.

       Yesterday, when I shared the story of this film with my thirty-seven year-old friend, Pablo Capra, he suggested it sounded much more interesting than Zorba the Greek, a movie I’d dragged to a few weeks earlier. Enough said.

Los Angeles, August 20, 2017