31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-One, Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three: “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” | “Nostalghia” | “Beau Travail”

In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, an early film from Japanese legend Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the title flowers is Kikunosuke Onoe (Shotaro Hanayagi), the presumed last in a long line of kabuki actors. He works in 1880s Tokyo and is thought to be an artistic-genealogical cul-de-sac because, besides being adopted, he has no talent. The onstage performance in the opening scene and the subsequent gossip make that clear. When the family’s wet nurse Otoku (Kakuko Mori) makes an improper—perhaps romantic—advance on Onoe to encourage him to improve his acting, both are shunned from the family, and Onoe flees to Osaka to follow Otoku’s advice, and to consummate his love for her soon enough. The film is tinged with nostalgia for an era lost and an art form dying amid unspoken historical change. Theatre is very much a common man’s art, a communal experience shared between actors and audience. Cinema is more privileged for its performers, more accessible across time and space, but not as ethereal and distinct, and lacking—as Walter Benjamin reminds us—the “aura” of theatre. Mizoguchi knew that film technology risked making theatre, kabuki and otherwise, obsolete—and that risk is still present today—but he accepted film as the up-and-coming storytelling medium and used it to tell a motive story that theatre in its stasis could not. What else besides film can appropriately reveal and convey such backstage dramas, or such insights into how theatre is prepared and received? Thus, Mizoguchi expertly plays on the contrast between film and stage, and the ironies of their interaction herein. Also a source of much profundity is the ironic and tragic injection of privilege into the universe of kabuki. Another contrast occurs between the refined, popular upper-class theatre of Tokyo and the poorer, more amateur traveling troupes of Osaka. This is one of the film’s many elements that are still relevant in today’s world, in which popular stage productions are confined to our greatest urban metropolises (New York, especially) and forsaken everywhere else—an astonishing universalism, given the isolationism of Japanese culture and cinema. Paralleling this is the film’s mixture of static (i.e., theatrical) and panning (i.e., traveling) shots, which were long and impressive for the time, 1939. (My favorite part of the film was likely a juxtaposition between a search for a major character on a store-filled street and a similar search, years later, across a row of train carriages.) The long takes do get ponderous at some points, but reducing them might have diluted the impact of the ending, in which the story culminates in a classical tragedy executed to near-perfection. This was my first Mizoguchi, and a splendid introduction to his vast body of work.

Grade: A

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There’s an infographic somewhere online—I can’t find it but still hope to—showing and interpreting one still from each shot of Nostalghia, the late-career film that Russian great Andrei Tarkovsky made in Italy. The very concept of such an infographic should tell you how refined a style of filmmaking it is, to weave just a handful of long takes into one story as Tarkovsky made his specialty. With films like these, I have made it a pastime to count—or at least attempt to count—the number of shots. Here, I counted 117 shots, give or take a few, in just over two hours, making an average of just over a minute per shot; that math of course neglects to convey the story’s climactic crux, which plays out in one nine-minute-plus shot. Frequently, Tarkovsky tricks us into thinking that a particular shot will end quickly, as it starts off with some falling action—a character or two walking away; a face, place or fact being established; the camera of Giuseppe Lanci zooming out. Yet, far after these falling actions have made their points and dissipated from their pinnacles, the camera lingers, yearning for more, conjuring life beyond a constructed false end. There’s a sense of winding down to the whole project that becomes all the more poignant knowing that this was Tarkovsky’s second-to-last film. He was dead three years later, due to cancer that he contracted working nearby nuclear ruins on Stalker, which he made before Nostalghia. The plot itself is threadbare and a little bloated: a Russian biographer Andrei (Oleg Yankovsky), clearly modeled on you-know-who, and his Italian guide Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano) head to a Tuscan bathhouse where a late Russian composer whom Andrei is researching spent a brief but crucial sojourn. A local madman (Erland Josephson, a muse of Ingmar Bergman) gets involved, in ways on which I won’t elaborate. The narrative is stodgy and confused, and it’s going to take me a second viewing to comprehend it all, but the film works as a tone poem because its mood is innovative and assured and comes from a genuine, wise and palpable sense of mortality. And it is more than worth watching for two brutal scenes at the end, which involve different degrees and uses of fire. One of them is the nine-minute take I referred to, and it shows Andrei trying to make it across a bath while keeping a lighted candle aflame. It sounds banal, but trust me: when it happens, you will understand why it is happening, why Andrei is doing it, and it will be suspenseful, and you will be rooting for him to achieve his goal. What a beautiful scene.

Grade: A-

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Beau Travail was the second film in a row I watched that with a somewhat flawed body and a perfect ending—a wobbly routine that somehow sticks the landing. I hope to write more on this film later, because I want to re-view it in the context of its source, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, once I’ve read it. I’m aware it’s a loose adaptation, but it’s still a curious one. The director Claire Denis moves Melville’s tale of British naval impressment to a modern-day brigade of the French Foreign Legion being trained in Djibouti, a city-state on a strategic point of the Horn of Africa. The narrator is one Sgt. Galoup (the subtle yet versatile Denis Lavant), who for reasons unexplained develops an intense hatred for one of his group’s most popular and charismatic soldiers, Gilles (Grégoire Colin). The film is sublime as an ethnography of the Legion’s training regimen and interplay with the surrounding African color. The inclusion of Muslims into the Legion receives much focus and delivers much insight; observe their stamina in how they refuse to nourish themselves during Ramadan, even in the desert. Yet, as a psychological drama, the story feels quite vacant, too open to interpretation for its own good. Even in the hands of an actor as strong as Lavant, Galoup is all action and little if any motivation or context; he’s a muscled walking cipher, a stoic—appropriately, for the military—but a bizarre and blank one. His one-man war against Gilles comes out of nowhere yet gives the whole film its impetus. It works on the level of poetry, but how? Much is staked on the music of one Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, which samples Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd, and I worried at some points that I was being manipulated into showing interest and provocation at this thin plot.

Alas, here is my interpretation, and it is a subjective but valid one: Melville is thought to have had Asperger’s, and his works come up often in discussions of autism theory. Denis’ female gaze on the male body is said to lend the film a heavy homoerotic, homo-social subtext—a feminine takedown of masculine lust and aggression (which Kathryn Bigelow later riffed with The Hurt Locker) that bluntly uses feminine sexual interest to turn casual masculine/martial camaraderie on its head. The motif of oft-topless male bodies moving in harmony in the desert, performing grueling exercise, ought to make no secret of this, even to the layman viewer. Not to go out on a limb, but I as an Aspergerian have always felt a strong kinship with and esteem for LGBTQ persons and their human rights. That is not least because they grow up in a heteronormative world that refuses to contextualize their homosexuality, and that confuses and conditions them into a warped, dishonest heterosexuality. Not to mention, that same conservative world impelled the young me—a literal-thinking Aspergerian, too trusting of authority—to think that it was wrong to be in touch with myself on any sexual level, while everyone around me was throwing their virginities to the wind. Enough has been written about Galoup’s repressed homosexuality. Would it be fair to view him as an Aspergerian—cold, stealthy, loving of firm military routine, jealous of Gilles’ social aptitude? Or is Gilles the Aspergerian—compassionate in a tactless way, prone to abrupt violence, too obedient towards Galoup to protest his castigation? My reading of Billy Budd may decide how I answer these questions. Suffice it to say: I began this month’s challenge with The Rover, which had one abrupt use of pop music that was too jarring to work. The sudden soundtrack choice that concludes Beau Travail, on the contrary, is a stroke of genius, and wraps up the film on a big emotional high. Man, that song’s stuck in my head now.

Grade: A-

To Do: Reviews of Tsotsi and Eternity and a Day are imminent. Off to watch In the Name of the Father.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Twenty-One, Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three: “The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums” | “Nostalghia” | “Beau Travail”

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”

For a description of my “31 Days of Cinema” challenge, as well as the complete list of films I’ll be watching for it, click here.

In his true-life mystery Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano—last year’s Nobel Literature winner—writes:

In 1942, my father and his accomplices had plundered the SKF warehouse on the Avenue de la Grande-Armée [in Paris] of its stock of ball bearings, loading their lot onto trucks and transporting it back to the den on the Avenue Hoche from which they operated their black market business. According to German decrees, Vichy laws, and articles in the press, they were no better than vermin and common criminals, so they felt justified in behaving like outlaws in order to survive. For them, it was a point of honor. And I applaud them for it.

I must disagree with the Laureate on that. Sure, one with a prejudice often holds onto it regardless of how wrongheaded it is or how much proof there is against the myths it produces. But is there not more strength in defying a preconception one has about you than there is in confirming it? The latter risks perpetrating stereotypes and justifying (to some) the hatred you face; with the former, even if it does not diminish that hatred, at least you’ve shown you can stick to your principles. There will always be the moral question of whether Modiano’s father could have survived, or fought back against Vichy France and the Nazis, without resorting to the black market.

Modiano came back into my mind as I was watching The Asthenic Syndrome, an ambitious but in the end dubious take on the Soviet Union’s collapse from Ukrainian auteur Kira Muratova. Critical to reading the film is understanding the title in the context of Soviet psychiatry. Irina Sandomirskaia, in her essay on the film*, explains that the Soviets used the power of neurological diagnoses to inflict patients with constant self-doubt as to whether their distrust of, or dispassion towards, socialism indicated a rational mind. Asthenia herein “referred to minor dysfunctions of socialization, i.e. smaller, negligible breaches in the discipline of Soviet subjectivity […] [that] the subject was supposed to eliminate […] by himself” (66). Syndrome has two main characters who, among others, appear to suffer from this disorder. We see the first, Natasha (Olga Antonova), in a forty-minute sepia film-within-a-film, burying her husband (an ominous omen for Russia) and devolving into hysterics in her widowhood. When that film ends, we move into the arc of Nikolai (Sergei Popov), a struggling writer and religious schoolteacher who has narcolepsy, and who was hence asleep throughout the screening of Natasha’s film. Muratova thus emphasizes the falsity of her camera’s perspective; if no character inside or outside the meta-film shared its point-of-view, then where does it come from?

You can tell that the director seems to be constructing a Brechtian distance from the audience, yet that doesn’t strike me as the best, or even the most appropriate, tone for this material. An Orwellian satire may have been more effective in questioning what society would look like if politics really did determine pathology. Muratova does show some knack for satire, as demonstrated by the overacting of the extras who surround Nikolai in the various vignettes that he walks into—which Sandomirskaia links to the use of nonprofessional actors and their hackneyed, hyperbolic reliance on the dogmas of Russian theatre. Characters and actors alike appear trapped in the immobile sterility of Soviet culture, and I can sympathize with Muratova’s Brechtian choices in exploiting her art to reflect this; observe the scene when Nikolai recites to his students Soviet philosophical creeds as if from a script—which is to say, literally from a script.

What makes the film troublesome, notwithstanding, is its portrayal of Natasha’s and Nikolai’s asthenias as almost pure neuroses, with no clear political cause. To the extent that these are political metaphors, they’re vacant and rather glib. Natasha breaks wineglasses, acts out at passersby, prostitutes herself and displays savage mood swings insofar that being widowed seems a feeble excuse for such behavior, while Nikolai’s abrupt bouts of sleep usually do not signal any moments of political burden or upheaval. In depicting asthenia as pathology while forsaking satire for a sort of Godardian hyperrealism, Muratova acts as if Russian politics have had no effect on her co-protagonists’ mental states. Though she may do that to scoff at the idea of asthenia as disloyalty, the effect is of an unwillingness to confront the trauma of Soviet socialism—and, worse yet, of a view of psychosis as antisocial that mistakenly buys into the contrived doctrines of Soviet psychology. Not unlike Modiano’s father, Muratova takes the official party definition of asthenia and attempts to use it to reflect the inability of her characters to live under communism, as if to say that we all have the title disorder. But in pathologizing Natasha and Nikolai and refusing to give them any political dimension (except for when Nikolai is rushing through his aesthetic scribbles) and to give us any political alternative, she essentially gives the remaining Soviets a blank canvas on which they can use the asthenias to confirm their neuro-political ideologies, at a critical juncture in history when the Russian government really needed its feet held to the fire.

The effect of this backfiring is to make the characters’ antics tiresome, and that is a shame, as the film does contain some pointed commentary on meta-cinema, and on Russia in the liminal Gorbachev years. The teachers’ meeting, at which one teacher implies that the suppression of kids must not just be “physical” but also “psychological,” and a principal states that school must be like “military” and a “prison,” is harrowing and still relevant today, not least for how it reveals the grip that Stalinism and totalitarianism still holds on these lives. Muratova’s other shock tactics—which (as Sandomirskaia tells us) depend on the vast divergence between official and ethnic Russian speech, and which mean to be a counterpoint to Soviet mind-numbing—have grown dated (unless, I suppose, you are from Russia or know Russian) and made the film itself numbing and wearying. (Nowadays, I feel, the political elite uses shock and sensory overload to control its subjects, whereas art with a methodical, meditative tone can be a tonic to that.) From historical and meta-filmic standpoints, The Asthenic Syndrome is worth watching, even if merely as a case of a filmmaker trying to use the techniques of an oppressive regime—not least of which were glasnost and perestroika, under which this film was notably banned—against that regime, only to find herself further trapped in it.

Grade: C+

*Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1(2008): 63-83. Accessed via EBSCO Host.

Tomorrow: Sticking with the Eastern Bloc, we head to Poland to meet the Man in Marble.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Two: “The Asthenic Syndrome”