Thursday, January 26, 2006

Shigehiko Hasumi: An Appreciation

The first time I encountered Shigehiko Hasumi's writing was in a volume on Japanese master Mikio Naruse, which he co-edited for the Filmoteca Espanol, on the occasion of an exhaustive retrospective of the director's work at the San Sebastian film festival. The volume, half in Spanish, half in English became something of a sacred text to me, having just discovered Naruse's work through the writings of Philip Lopate. As much as I owe to the latter for the discovery, it was Hasumi's glorious prose however which helped me to appraise Naruse as one of the cinema's very best directors. Hasumi's approach in this writing might be best understood as disclosing a matrix for viewing the auteur's cinema that conformed to much larger questions of medium specificity. In Naruse's case, Hasumi traced a lineage of simplicity from Griffith through Ford and Godard: the first posited that cinema was comprised of a man, a woman and a gun; the second, a man, a woman and a horse; Godard, a man, a woman and a car; and finally with Naruse, cinema had reached its base of simplicity with a man and a woman, or more accurately, a man, a woman and light. It thus became Hasumi's task to illustrate those moments which reveal this essential state in cinema throughout Naruse's work. (For this reason he found particular value in 1940s curiosity, The Song Lantern).

My second encounter with Mr. Hasumi -- actually that's professor, and not only professor, but dean of Tokyo University; indeed, a number of his students have gone on to become great directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa -- was for a panel discussion on the art of Yasujiro Ozu for the director's centenary in 2003. At this event, which also featured Robin Wood, Tom Gunning and a number of other film studies big shots, Hasumi gave one of the most compelling and off-beat presentations as he examined Ozu's women through the gesture of tossing down articles of clothing (and particularly their husband's). In so doing, he revisited the opinion that his was a socially conservative cinema, while delving into a concern central to the medium's particularity: namely, the gesture.

Interestingly enough, Prof. Hasumi returns to the throwing gesture in his latest Rouge essay "John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture". Here, he supposes that the essence of that master can be found in that same gesture, while again enlivening his auteur study with a deeper theoretical inquiry into the essence of the art. This is the best film essay that I've read in a very long time; it is indeed the sort of prose and analysis that should serve as a model for all aspiring film scholars and critics -- I know it will for me. In simply reading it, I found my own avocation elevated to a level which it rarely attains.

Monday, January 23, 2006

New Film: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World & Match Point

I am an Albert Brooks fan. A big Albert Brooks fan. To me, Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985) and Defending Your Life (1991) each rate among the best American comedies of their era, with Real Life (1979) and Mother (1996) not far behind. The lone dud in his corpus is his 1999 Sharon Stone-vehicle The Muse, which even I will concede doesn't qualify as a good film, quote-endquote.

After seeing the trailer for Brooks's latest, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and learning of Warner Brother's unceremonious dumping of the picture onto its independent label, I worried that Brooks perhaps had made something roughly equivalent to his earlier failure. I am pleased to report that Looking for Comedy... isn't the unmitigated disaster I had feared. Okay, so it isn't a great film either, but all things considered, Looking for Comedy... is a minor success for a director whom many would seem prepared to toss on the ash heap of film history. Sure, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is minor Brooks. But the mere fact that it is still an ambitious, intelligent comedy while holding that distinction confirms Brooks as a major American film artist, in spite of his small output. In other words, even minor Brooks can be quite good.

The premise of Looking for Comedy... is compelling enough: an American council, headed by Fred Dalton Thompson, has selected Albert Brooks to travel to India and Pakistan in order to learn what it is that makes Muslims laugh (as a first step in developing an understanding of that Byzantine culture). Okay, so he wasn't exactly their first choice, but they did eventually chose him -- and with the inducement of the "Medal of Freedom," for which Brooks is more than a little excited, he's sold. Plus, it's not exactly like Brooks has been working a lot lately.

In fact, Looking for Comedy... trades on this suggestion that Brooks is a has-been, who is now best-known for voicing Nemo, not for his brilliant directorial work. Having said that, Brooks's work in Looking for Comedy... remains nothing if not ambitious, as he challenges the new orthodoxy of our overtly-political present: is the US's problem that it does not better understand the Muslim world? Ostensibly, Brooks's answer seems to be that for better or worse, any cursory attempts at such an understanding cannot yield the intended results -- leading the film to its clever concluding punchline. Indeed, it is in this final bit of humor that Brooks's concerns coalesce as we are instructed on the political implications of his post 9-11 endeavors (speaking of both the film and the project depicted by the film).

Yet, it is often less the political issues that guide Brooks in Looking for Comedy... than it is the autobiographical elements of the persona that he has once again resurrected for the screen. That his project goes so horribly awry indicates not his self-pity but rather his self-deprecating humor, which it should be remembered largely separates Brooks from his East Coast counterpart, Woody Allen, and the latter's competing screen personality. Typically the punchline to many of his own jokes, here Brooks trots out his thirty year-old stage act to a confused New Delhi public, which hasn't nearly the familiarity with his smart takes on improv and ventriloquist routines that his jokes obviously demand. As a matter of fact, a companion of his later points this out to an affronted Brooks, who as always remains confident of his comedy's (and crowd's) intelligence.

Indeed, what we get yet again is an Albert Brooks unwilling to compromise his art -- he is offered an al Jeezera sitcom in which he would play the "Jew" in a Muslim apartment complex, to which he reiterates his refusal to do t.v. -- even if this means making a comedy which isn't always that funny. One might even say there is a certain avant-garde quality to Looking for Comedy... provided Brooks's willingness to describe himself on-screen as a has-been with comedy that is thirty years out-of-date. Then again, Brooks shows himself to be on the vanguard when it comes to addressing post-9/11 reality. In this, Looking for Comedy... hardly seems minor.

As I have mentioned, Brooks's natural filmmaking double has long been Woody Allen, whom I admire a good deal less, customarily. Consequently, I found myself rather skeptical when I heard all the praise surrounding Allen's latest, Match Point. Having ultimately succumbed to the hype, let me just say that this is indeed Allen's best in quite some time -- perhaps the last equivalent work is his 1992 Husbands and Wives, which of course shares a mutual interest in marital infidelity and Ingmar Bergman. Without elaborating in too much detail or giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Allen successfully weaves his operative metaphor (the tennis ball that could go over the net or fall back on one's own side in equal measure) into the narrative in an organic and I would say surprising way. Sure, he is tempted by his characteristic heavy-handedness here -- but so was his primary source for the film, Bergman, almost to a film -- but ultimately this sporadic failing detracts very little from what is ultimately an expertly narrated crime drama. If last year's atrocious Melinda and Melinda made me want to forget Allen's existence entirely, Match Point is a reminder that he can be a very good director -- even when his dialogue is hopelessly dated and his lead, Scarlet Johansson, is a black hole when it comes to charisma. What is really on display here is exceptional story-telling structure coupled with a clean, classical technique. Given the converging elements of Allen's pacing and plotting, the other player's uniformly strong performances and Johansson's rotten one, Match Point truly made me hope for its male lead's happiness, whatever that might mean -- think of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). What I will not give it credit for is an avant-garde, cringe-producing performance equaling Brooks's intentionally bad comedy. With that said, Match Point marks one of those rare occasions when Allen has been unmistakably better than Brooks. I guess that goes to show what he can still do when he stays out of the film and away from comedy.

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Year in Film

As much as a number of my colleagues seem to be convinced that 2005 was a great year for film-going, I remain somewhat unimpressed by the quality of new work which I saw during the previous twelve months. To say this is not to imply that there was a dearth of films worthy of mention as one of the year's best: I was reasonably satisfied with the quality of all ten films I mentioned for my Senses of Cinema ten best list which I submitted a couple of weeks ago, even before I saw an eleventh which I feel definitely deserves mention (which I will in my 'top 11' to follow). However, it is my belief that there has been noticeably few all-time great films released in the past three or four years. Put another way, I would say of the half-dozen or so best films that have been made since the conclusion of the 90s, only one was made after 2001 (and that was 2002's Russian Ark). And concerning these masterpieces -- Yi Yi, Werckmeister Harmonies, The House of Mirth, In the Mood for Love, I'm Going Home, Mulholland Drive, Spirited Away, Russian Ark -- I'm not sure any (save the first) would rate with the half dozen or so best films of the previous decade, which were in a few cases were made by the same directors (Edward Yang, Bela Tarr, Wong Kar-wai, Manoel de Oliveira) who had made clearly superior films during the prior ten years.

All of this is to wonder whether we are beginning to find ourselves between generations of great filmmakers -- as we did, I would submit in the late 70s and early 80s before the Asian new wave which was ushered in by such talents as Yang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tian Zhunagzhuang, John Woo, Takeshi Kitano and Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps my number one will prove to be the first great film by one of the next generation's greatest artists, Apichatpong Weerasethakul? Perhaps Lisandro Alonso and his Argentine cinema will become this decade's [early] Abbas Kiarostami and Iran? Perhaps Lucile Hadzihalilovic will experience a peak comparable to Jane Campion's in the early to mid 90s? Hopefully, 2005 will prove ultimately to be the beginning of something new, not the trough that seems from its final days.

Here they are, the eleven best films of 2005 (1-10 in order of preference, plus an 11th not in order):

Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 04)
2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 04)
The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 04)
Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 04)
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
L'Enfant (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin, 04)
13 Lakes (James Benning, 04)

And the eleventh that I saw after my initial submission of the list:
Caché (Michael Haneke)

(For more detailed analyses of the best of these, see my annual annotated 'ten best' lists with a 2005 version to follow sometime next year.)

Then again, it was less the above films that truly rewarded my love of film this year than it was the rarely-screened silent, classical & post-classical Japanese pictures I saw as part of "The Beauty of the Everyday: Japan's Shochiku Company at 110," "Early Autumn: Masterworks of Japanese Cinema from the National Film Center, Tokyo," "The IFC Center's Weekend Classics," and "Naruse: The Unknown Master." For this cinephile, 2005 was the year of classical Japanese film in New York. It is only fitting that the best of these celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this past year.

Here are fifteen of the best:

Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 55)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka, 37)
Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 69)
Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Naruse, 35)
Sound of the Mountain (Naruse, 54)
Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu, 36)
Scattered Clouds (Naruse, 67)
Late Autumn (Yasujiro Ozu, 60)
The Whole Family Works (Naruse, 39)
Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, 41)
Flowing (Naruse, 56)
Every Night Dreams (Naruse, 33)
Women of the Night (Kenji Mizoguchi, 48)
Our Neighbor Miss Yae (Yasujiro Shimazu, 34)
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Shimizu, 33)