Posted by keith1942 on 17 April 2012
Ménage à Trois in The First Born
This British silent film from 1928 was re-discovered and restored by the British Film Institute. The film is a subtle and witty parable on married life and the bourgeois mores of the period. It adds to the re-evaluation of British silent film in recent years, joining a growing list of productions that are both intelligently scripted and made with a distinctive style and noticeable technical quality.
The film is also interesting because it benefits from the talents of a number of extremely able filmmakers. The film was produced for Gainsborough under the auspices of Michael Balcon. He is a producer whose impact over decades on British film is equal too or greater than many of the valued auteurs who usually garner the most attention. The film was designed by W. C. Arnold, whose distinctive sets gave such impact to an earlier Gainsborough film, The Rat (1925). And the film stars Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll.
The film was directed also by Miles Mander, less well known for directing than for acting. He was a character actor whose typical role was as ‘a moustachioed cad’: he plays a bigamist in Hitchcock’s early silent The Pleasure Garden (1925). However, Mander had some experience in theatre, as an actor-director. He had also worked with the Swedish film director Gustaf Molander. Both The First Born and later directorial outings show a continental influence in the use of the camera and in editing practices.
Mander adapted the film from his own stage play Those Common People. In some ways his fellow-scenarist in the adaptation is the most interesting, Alma Reville, usually listed as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally regarded as the auteur par excellence. In fact, as with many other noted filmmakers, his work relies to a great degree on the talent of his collaborators. His British films benefited from the scriptwriting talent of Charles Bennett. He worked with notable cameramen, designers, editors and gifted actors like Peter Lorre, Robert Donat and indeed Madeleine Carroll. Michael Balcon was his mentor. Quite possibly though Alma was his most important muse. She was already established in the industry when Hitchcock entered it as young man. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter, but her career was subordinated to that of her husband: very much the norm in the industry of that time. Hitchcock always acknowledged that he discussed his films daily with his wife. So there is a tantalising question mark over the status of Alma Reville.
Some light will be shed on this by the introductory talk before a screening of the film at the National Media Museum (April 25th). The talk is by Nathalie Morris from the British Film Institute. She has written on ‘The Early Career of Alma Reville’ (in the Hitchcock Annuals, 1 to 15, 2009). This should bring an added dimension to the film, as will the live music performed by Darius Battiwalla. He has already established a high standard of accompaniment at earlier Bradford screenings such as The Rat and Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). The film screens as part of the Bradford International Film Festival.
Posted in British Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Silent Era, Womens Film | Tagged: BIFF 2012 | 2 Comments »
Posted by Rona on 24 October 2011
James Howson as Heathcliff
It’s difficult to know where to begin in relation to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; except to say that within minutes I knew whatever else was missing, this version would not leave out the hanging of Isabella’s spaniel. In playing the race card, by casting a two black actors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James Howson) Heathcliff, Arnold has not subsequently backed away from making him and Cathy the elemental creatures of cruelty and obsession that underpins the brutality of Emily Brontë’s imagining. And it is all the richer for that act of faith in realising all the parts that make them compelling protagonists.
From the start, the elements play a vital role visually. Whilst previous British versions have to a greater or lesser extent ‘prettied’ their subjects, this film is distinguished by the real, visceral realisation of how these two characters inhabit the outside better than they do the inside – the sparse moorland scrub is their wordless playground and these are children who grew up in all weathers, knowing the mud, the rain, the gorse and often wearing it on themselves as a second skin. Cathy’s wasting away inside Thrushcross Grange is entirely logical.
If you are able to see the film you won’t need, so I won’t waste time, on lengthy descriptions of its cinematography (focussed on setting you into the middle of the action) and the powerful editing. Those of us who are lucky to live near the Brontës’ Haworth home – and get to walk on those moors – can recognise the bleakness that Arnold and Robbie Ryan (her long time collaborator) have realised in the best kind of visceral filmmaking. The wordlessness is important – in this stripped down imagining (it’s pulling away from the word adaptation) – the kind of characters Arnold has conceived of here would not be given to nineteenth century verbosity and witticism. The supporting players are convincing – Hindley is especially important since the narrative restructuring places more emphasis on the surrogate Cain and Abel rivalry and bitter hatred. (An honourable mention for Nichola Burley who did much with the usually insipid Isabella). The filmic language consistently places you in the perspective of the main character – because this is Heathcliff’s story told from the perspective of the outsider who enters a world and tries to determine to make it his own. All the performances are strong, I think, notably the non-actors/new actors in the two Heathcliffs and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). The moment where Heathcliff (Howson) beats his head against the tree in anguish – a usually uncomfortably theatrical and unconvincing moment certainly in some of the previous British adaptations –is, well, exactly how this man might express his emotions.
A love story, a revenge drama, a story of a rise to power? It encompasses all of these. I loved the stillness that was at the heart of the film – there is no non-diegetic music used during the narrative – a stillness that reminded me of Red Road and how Jackie’s (Kate Dickie) world was silent, alone and contained until Clyde (Tony Curran) introduced noise and chaos. As in that film, and in Fish Tank (which by comparison was a much ‘noisier’ story generally) there is great sophistication in moving sympathy and/or comprehension between the different protagonists – particularly those characters who do not fit typical moulds of heroism or sympathy or (like Clyde, like Heathcliff) act in a way that should deny it. One of the great pleasures of the original novel is how your sympathies shift as you re-read – particularly on getting older – so Arnold’s text promises the richness of rediscovery. It also has an aesthetic I felt was familiar from Andrew Kötting’s work, especially This Filthy Earth – which reminds me of the relevance of the more European novelistic tradition such as found in the novels of Zola. However, Brontë’s original protagonists are figures out of time and society, and her novel comments on the individual and the psychological – not on class or social systems. Andrea Arnold’s interpretation, though, appears to examine those constructions of power and how they dominate even within small societies. Just as Heathcliff enters the torpid village, steeped in adherence to old ways of religion and ownership, so the wider world seeps into this gothic and elemental classic tale through her bold construction of a real outsider.
Posted in British Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Womens Film | Tagged: Andrea Arnold, London Film Festival | 1 Comment »
Posted by Rona on 8 September 2011
Interior to Exterior - dramatising internal character in 'Jane Eyre'
Filmed amongst the rolling moors of the Derbyshire Peak District (to recall the moors around Haworth in Yorkshire), starring a German-Irish Rochester and Polish-Australian Jane – the new film adaptation of English Charlotte Brontë’s novel might tempt questions about authenticity. It seems that film reviewers look for modern reimaginings in relation to classic texts as much as to closeness to the original. However, in many crucial ways this film remains very loyal to the book, clearly intending to please its many fans rather than challenge their perceptions and showing an authentic eye for the detail of the period and for the core emotions of its characters. Visually, it’s very arresting at times. Light is (as described by cinematographer Adrian Goldman) bounced off the surroundings onto characters’ faces to create a more suffused and gentler effect – capturing the period and constructing a more naturalistic palette. There is subtle expressionism in its use to change mood (e.g. after the fire in Rochester’s bedroom) but this is never allowed to dominate and the emphasis is on the drama and interaction.
Stand it next to the 1943 version (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) and some very interesting distinctions and similarities start to appear (avoiding comments on plot structure as this inevitably brings ‘spoilers’). The earlier film expresses the gothic more liberally for example, in the use of lighting, emotion is rendered through the stark contrasts of the black and white and the atmospheric use of key lighting.
Expressive shadows: Orson Welles as Rochester (1943)
Both preserve much of the language – vital because it is through their dialogue that the central relationships (with Rochester and Rivers) live. (The ITV version – with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton – makes this critical mistake of completely modernising much of the speech, which jars oddly against the period dress). Where Moira Buffini (the book’s adapter) has elided speeches, the underlying tone or the intention in the speech generally remains preserved. I think there is a real attempt to keep the wrestling between person and soul which defines the original – and, specifically, there is one moment where Jane speaks of maintaining her personhood and self-respect. Whilst not directly from the book, this deftly picks out an aspect that is part of its appeal to modern women readers and interpreters.
These are not meant as carping nitpicks of a ‘yes, but is it like the book’ variety (for starters, Brontë herself sets in “___-shire” avoiding realistic references to place and the idea of fidelity to the original literature is much less an emphasis these days). The film, interestingly to me, actually seemed to assume a substantial knowledge in the audience – often apparently playing off what we already remembered.
Director Cary Joji Fukanaga also concentrated on that conundrum of how to bring the central character’s interiority to life on screen (sometimes done through conventional montages) – and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) has a great capacity to render the conflict and her struggle passing across her at crucial moments in her face. Jamie Bell creates a convincingly repressed, and repressive, St.John Rivers. Michael Fassbender delivers the Byronic hero with a tortured soul, looking properly dissolute. There have been criticisms of a lack of chemistry – and there is something, for me, about the lack of close-up and two shot that I want to think about – creating a distance that emphasises her independent resistance of him more than her seduction? There was an occasional dramatic emphasis on his potential danger (a gothic touch) but generally (and this is despite aspects of the marketing) the film seemed to move much more towards the picaresque journey of its central character – her coming of age – rather than move towards a genre style.
This has been described as an outsider’s viewpoint on Jane Eyre, made by the director of Sin Nombre (2009) and it certainly has a clean, unfussy visual style that de-emphasises the traditional pleasures of the costume drama (BBC Films appears as a producer. No immediate info re budget but it does not appear lavish or beyond $20 million? Focus Features – the U.S. ‘Indiewood’ company is also involved). In fact, textures are used dramatically – the moment of the wedding dress arrival used very effectively to communicate more about characters than an opportunity to drool. It has a freshness of perspective in its naturalism – from the Japanese-Swedish Californian director – which places it alongside the modern versions of the literary adaptation such as Pride and Prejudice (2005), with a soft Byronic-style hero at its core (for its modern female audience). It’s the early notices for the girl from Kent’s Wuthering Heights that suggest where a taste for more radical reinvention might be found (See reviews from the Venice Film Festival of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights).
Posted in American Independents, British Cinema, Womens Film | 4 Comments »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 September 2011
The CinemaScope framings are well used in Women Without Men
This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)
The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.
The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.
The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.
The black of the women is isolated against the white of the men (and of the desert)
What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.
I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.
There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.
Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers:
Posted in Diaspora film, Films by women, Iranian Cinema, Politics on film, Womens Film | Tagged: coup détat, magic realism, Mossadegh | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 July 2011
Jill Clayburgh and Kristen Wiig in 'Bridesmaids', photo: Suzanne Hanover/©Universal Pictures
I watched Bridesmaids partly out of a genuine attempt to research what is popular with contemporary audiences and partly because my partner was intrigued enough to want to see it. We were part of a mainly female audience in a small auditorium (100 seats half full). The audience appeared to have a good time. I laughed out loud a couple of times but I’m obviously not the target audience. I never got completely bored but I did close my eyes and wish some scenes would end sooner than they did.
I haven’t seen many (perhaps even any) truly ‘gross out’ comedies before and I’ve avoided Judd Apatow comedies and so-called ‘bromance’ movies so that probably gives me a different perspective on this (Apatow-produced) film. Let me first put aside the silly debate that the film has generated among some journalists. To even ask a question like “Can women be as funny as men?” is baffling given that two of the funniest shows ever on US TV were the Lucille Ball shows in the 1950s-70s and Roseanne in the 1980s and 1990s. A more pertinent question is how do US film and TV get to remain such sexist institutions in which women have far less clout than men? Bridesmaids is written by two women but directed and produced by men – why? (This extends to all the other creatives on the film – i.e. all men except for the usual female costume designer.)
The film is long for a comedy at 125 minutes. I’m not sure why it has been extended like this. I suspect that the narrative is caught between the demands of a short gag-packed comedy and a longer comedy drama. I enjoyed the drama elements but I was surprised at how sentimental the film was. Even the villain of the film was redeemed in the final reel alongside the conventional happy ending of a traditional romcom. I had been looking forward to the final humiliation of the villain and/or a more realistic ending for the central protagonist. I know that was expecting the impossible but there you go. As for the vomit jokes etc., the first time they were funny but then it got boring (one reviewer I read suggested that these were additions by Apatow et al).
Kristen Wiig is the standout figure in a film in which she starred and co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo). I remembered her from Whip It and she created an interesting character I could have followed through a more streamlined comedy drama. It was great but rather sad to see Jill Clayburgh as her mother in her last film. (Clayburgh was in some ways an iconic figure in the 1970s for her performance as An Unmarried Woman.) I also enjoyed seeing Chris O’Dowd though I couldn’t figure out why he was cast or how the narrative justified the inclusion of an Irish character. On the other hand, I was less happy to be confronted by Matt Lucas. Presumably there is some kind of mutual appreciation society involving US comedians from Saturday Night Live and UK comedy performers? Overall I thought that the SNL-style sketches in some scenes weren’t fully integrated with the larger narrative and I would have liked more exploration of the whole cake-making narrative thread
The film is shot in CinemaScope and the opening credits promise a specific location – Milwaukee or possibly Chicago. Yet the whole film appears to have been shot in California. Again, why? Comedies always work better for me when they are rooted in a recognisable community. I think that the producers missed a trick here.
Can we now have Ms Wiig as the star of a film directed and produced/photographed/scored by women? Drew Barrymore has shown she can do two of those roles.
Posted in Hollywood, Womens Film | 2 Comments »
Posted by Rona on 10 May 2010
A Moment out of Reality for Noriko and Hattori - in Late Spring
Banshun (Late Spring) is often regarded as the first of the late cycle of Ozu’s films and defines the style that is regarded, especially outside of Japan, as defining his work. It contains a number of those traits that have come to be seen as classic Ozu: from the visual traits such as sequences of travelling by train, the famous ‘pillow’ or ‘intermediate’ shots, which pepper the opening sequence or an elaborate tea ceremony that introduces the women of the story to the narrative pace, the focus on the intimate spaces of the middle class Japanese home and the narrative elision of important events. This last is a powerful means of skewing the structure to make those small moments and details the focus of screen time and, therefore, to allow the development of the drama through the intimate exchanges and not external drama. As part of this, the rhythms of daily life capture the emotional temperature and are used symbolically. The familiar greeting “tadaima” (“I’m home”) alters for Noriko as events threaten her happiness; the return of Somiya after his daughter’s wedding recalls an earlier scene of his homecoming and disrobing with some stark changes. What Ozu does so masterfully is to weave so subtly varied emotions into ‘set pieces’ that might on the surface appear very familiar, not least because of the reappearance of actors. Both Hara Setsuko and Ryû Chishû appeared in many of these late cycle films, Ryû was Ozu’s actor on most of his features (apparently all but two) and their playing of the emotions maximise the feeling of small moments that have deeply-felt repercussions for each of these characters. At times, it is in the nuance of an expression – at other times it is in a dramatic heartfelt outpouring. An observation of Hara (in character) is that she smiles when she is unhappy and cries when she is happy – adding to her enigmatic appearance, since her emotions are often contrapuntal when they are not hidden.
Something to appreciate about Banshun in the cinema, is how it is as much funny as it is dramatic or even tragic. Noriko (Hara) is a young women out of joint with her time – finding her father’s close friend and fellow widower ‘unclean’ for marrying again (although, in discussion at Bradford, we wondered whether something had been lost in translation there from the original Japanese?) for which she is constantly teased by him. Professor Somiya (Ryû)’s sister is played by another regular Ozu actress (Haruko Sugimura – the daughter, Shige, in Tokyo Monogatari) in a comic turn as the match-making aunt. Ozu jokes directly with us by leaving out narrative elements (as he does in other films in the visual language) – when he withholds certain information from us – Hattori’s engagement, for example.
As part of a Western audience, I can find things that are ‘very Japanese’ about the film – the noh play, for example (which is apparently Kakitsubata based on the Tales of Ise? If so, it performs a second function as a metaphor as a tale of loss and longing, of being banished on a journey. However, aside from recognising that what might appear representative of a culture to outsiders has a far more complex position within the culture itself, it’s also worth remembering that in Late Spring as elsewhere in these films presents us with a world that is Ozu’s own rigorous creation. Part of effect of this is the way in which the emotions are incredibly ‘globally’ resonant – the relationship between the daughter and the father is entirely recognisable and affecting. Ozu is involving in a way that can (whether it should or not) lead us to ignore the specific cultural setting and talk about the characters – as people. In the end, does Noriko move towards something that is ‘natural’ and necessary – the right course of action to start a life with her husband. Or should she have been left to choose her own, completely contented (and free) life, with her father?
Posted in Japanese Cinema, Melodrama, Womens Film | Tagged: Ozu | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 20 April 2010
Tanaka Kinuyo as 'Lady Oyû'
Unusually for a film by the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, I found Lady Oyû quite difficult to get into. Oddly though, I now find myself thinking about it quite a lot. Viewed by many critics to be one of the weakest of Mizoguchi’s films and disowned to some extent by the director himself, it still has much to offer and according to Tadao Sato in Mizoguchi Kenji and the Art of Japanese Cinema “Every single scene [in Lady Oyû] is like viewing a masterpiece of Japanese painting” (2008: 66-7).
I would agree with Tadao, especially in relation to the first sequence in the film (from which the still image above is taken), but there are quite a few other issues here. Mizoguchi made three films for three different studios in 1951 and this one was for Daiei, with whom Mizoguchi would have great success overseas in the next few years. (This DVD is one of the twin packs of Mizoguchi Daiei releases from Masters of Cinema.) Mizoguchi was faced with a studio job that was frustrating in several ways. The problems began with the property itself.
Lady Oyû is an adaptation of a novella by Tanizaki Junichiro, one of the most important figures in 20th century Japanese literature. The novella appeared in 1932 as The Reed Cutter. It is a ‘tale’ told to a traveller by a reed cutter on a moonlit night. The tale is about a marriage triangle in which a young man goes to a marriage meeting where he falls in love immediately, not with the young woman who has been chosen for him, but with her older widowed sister. The younger sister eventually marries the man, but refuses to consummate the marriage and explains that she agreed to wed in order that the man could be close to the widow (who shouldn’t marry in deference to her in-laws because she is bringing up her small son). The story is about the obsessive love for a beautiful aristocratic woman who is on a pedestal. Mizoguchi was faced with two changes imposed by the studio – the title was changed and the narrative structure of a tale told in flashback was replaced by a linear narrative. The title change seems a commercial decision to draw audience attention to the image of obsession – but it does mean that the images (and songs) which reference the reeds become puzzling. The shift to a linear narrative is more problematic however. My main criticism of the film is that it has three distinct aesthetics which for me don’t blend together. If they had been presented as flashbacks this might not have been such an issue.
The three different types of sequence presented in the film are: (i) the formal and highly ritualised meetings which include musical performances as well as the initial marriage meeting and the wedding (ii) interior and more intimate scenes, shot in the studio, involving the three main characters and (iii) location shots by the sea and river bank or in the woods. The mix between studio and location seems quite abrupt and reminded me of many Hollywood films of the 1940s (with some quite unconvincing background shots of railways which I thought might be models). On the other hand, scenes are separated by quite long fades to black.
Mizoguchi is best known for two aspects of his work. His wonderfully fluid camera, sometimes adopting a slightly high angle, often follows characters as they move diagonally across the frame. This has been likened to the unrolling of Japanese scroll paintings (emakimono). This camera movement is part of a ‘long take’ style which in more confined spaces becomes translated into what the French call a plan-séquence. In Tadao’s book he offers an anlysis of a single take of 6 minutes and 57 seconds from one of the interior scenes in Lady Oyû. I intend to use this analysis in a class so I’m going to watch it again a few times. The stunning cinematography is the work of Mizoguchi’s long-time collaborator Miyagawa Kazuo.
The other well-known aspect of Mizoguchi’s work is his fascination/obsession with the lives of ‘suffering women’. Partly this was connected to his own early life spent with his mother and older sister (who was forced by economic circumstance to become a geisha in order to support the family). In 1946 women in Japan got the vote for the first time as a result of the ‘democratisation’ process set in motion by the Occupation Authorities. Several of Mizoguchi’s films of the period featured protagonists struggling for women’s rights. Some of these films, like Lady Oyû were set in the later Meiji period (i.e. between 1880 and 1910). One was My Love Has Been Burning (1949) starring Tanaka Kinuyo. Tanaka was a major star in Japanese Cinema throughout the 1930s and into the 1960s and since 1940 she had become Mizoguchi’s ‘go to’ star. But as Tony Rayns, in the useful intro to each of the films in this MoC series, points out, she was known as a ‘strong woman’, positively animalistic in her vigourous portrayal of women fighting for what they believed was right. She was therefore not well-cast as a reserved aristocratic beauty – the kind of woman a young man would put on a pedestal and admire from afar. Much as I respect and highly rate Tanaka, I cannot see her as an ethereal beauty. In Lady Oyû her usual star persona comes to the fore in a remarkable scene where she ‘joshes’ and tickles the young man, laughing joyfully and mischievously all the while.
While I can see these problems with the film, I’ve enjoyed researching Mizoguchi in this period and I’m now looking for the other films that I’ve not seen made around the same time. Does anyone know of an (English-subtitled) DVD of A Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950) made by Shintoho?
Posted in Japanese Cinema, Melodrama, Womens Film | Tagged: Mizoguchi Kenji | Leave a Comment »