They Shot Pictures: Yasujiro Ozu

This week, I was happy once again to join the They Shot Pictures podcast for a discussion of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.  We focused on three films (Tokyo Chorus, Early Summer, An Autumn Afternoon) but covered a lot more.  Check it out over at Sound on Sight or download via iTunes.

The Laurel & Hardy Project #12: Sailors, Beware!

The boys’ ninth film of 1927, released barely two weeks after Sugar Daddies, finds them on an ocean liner.  Hardy is the ship’s purser, enamored of the ladies but pretty much sidelined for most of the film.  Laurel plays a taxi driver who finds himself mistakenly aboard ship (his parked cab is loaded on the liner while he’s attempting to put out a cigarette fire in the backseat) and forced by the captain to work as a steward.  The villains are a thief and her husband, a dwarf (Harry Earles) who dresses like a baby to help with the crimes.  Most of the film chronicles Laurel’s fights with Earles: the two become antagonists after Laurel loses five dollars to him playing craps with what he later discovers are loaded dice.  Earles is particularly hilarious, you probably know him best as Hans in Tod Browning’s classic Freaks where he is victimized by an evil trapeze artist.  His baby-as-grifter is performed beautifully and the times when he one-ups Laurel leading to the now-trademark “weeping face” provide a clever contrast: one grown man dressed like an adult but acting like a baby, one grown man dressed like a baby but acting like an adult.

Laurel’s character is more sharply edged here than in any of the previous films.  He’s a bit smarter and a bit meaner.  One great little sequence finds him at the ship’s pool where a fancy rich lady walks up to him and haughtily gives him the cold shoulder.  In turn, he calmly pushes her into the water.  Her indignant boyfriend rushes up to him shouting, and he pushes him in too.  This kind of chaotic malevolence is new for the Laurel character, who in most of the previous films has been more of a naive rube.  The capper to the scene provides Hardy’s best moment: after Laurel runs away, he bumps into Hardy and tells him the girl in the pool wants to see him.  Hardy rushes to the pool only to be doused with buckets of water.  In response, he looks directly at the camera, wearily sighing.  This is the first instance I can recall of this kind of fourth wall-breaking aside, but I suspect it won’t be the last.

The film as a whole doesn’t really hang together all that well.  In the opening we see a feuding rich couple (one of whom is played by Lupe Velez) who disappear from the rest of the film, and Hardy really isn’t given much to work with (the horniness of his character as established in the opening never pays off, so to speak).  But the individual gags are pretty great, and I don’t know, if you don’t think Harry Earles smoking a cigar dressed as a baby is funny, or the thought of Stan Laurel pushing said baby in his cart down a grand staircase in a gleeful moment of Eisensteinian destruction doesn’t make you laugh, then this film probably isn’t for you.

Ozu’s Fun with Salt

Here are a few shots from Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, notice anything strange?

In the first shot, the wife walks off-screen towards the camera:

The second shot continues her action, now seen from a perpendicular angle, with her husband lying on the floor in the foreground:

Note the position of the low table and the red, white and blue salt shakers (or whatever they are) in each shot.

Here they are again a few minutes later, in a reverse of the second shot:

They’re in a different order in each shot: red, blue, white; blue, red, white; white, red, blue.  Not by magic, it’s a trick of depth (or rather, of the flatness of the image) and the way they’re arranged on the table, not in an even line, but in some kind of weird triangle (a more mathematically minded person than I am could probably graph it easily).  It’s a neat little joke, rhyming with the film’s overall playfulness in its color scheme (almost every shot in the movie contains each red, white and blue).

1957 Awards

The Endy Awards for 1957:

Best Picture:

1. Funny Face
2. Throne of Blood
3. What’s Opera, Doc?
4. The Seventh Seal
5. Pyaasa
Best Director:
1. Samuel Fuller, Run of the Arrow/Forty Guns/China Gate
2. Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood/The Lower Depths
3. Budd Boetticher, The Tall T/Decision at Sundown
4. Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo Twilight
5. Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal/Wild Strawberries
Best Actor:
1. Richard Burton, Bitter Victory
2. Tony Curtis, The Sweet Smell of Success
3. Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown
4. Glenn Ford, 3:10 to Yuma
5. Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood
Best Actress:
1. Tatyana Smojlova, The Cranes are Flying
2. Giulietta Masina, Nights of Cabiria
3. Patricia Neal, A Face in the Crowd
4. Angie Dickinson, China Gate
5. Audrey Hepburn, Funny Face
Best Supporting Actor:
1. Sessue Hayakawa, The Bridge on the River Kwai
2. Hidari Bokuzen, The Lower Depths
3. Gunnar Bjornstrand, The Seventh Seal
4. Bengt Ekerot, The Seventh Seal
5. Adolphe Menjou, Paths of Glory
Best Supporting Actress:
1. Isuzu Yamada, Throne of Blood
2. Kay Thompson, Funny Face
3. Joan Blondell, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
4. Carol Haney, The Pajama Game
5. Ruby Dee, The Edge of the City
Best Adapted Screenplay:
1. Throne of Blood
2. Bitter Victory
3. Le notti bianche
4. The Tarnished Angels
5. Witness for the Prosecution
Best Original Screenplay:
1. The Seventh Seal
2. Pyaasa
3. Funny Face
4. Run of the Arrow
5. What’s Opera, Doc?
Best Cinematography:
1. The Cranes are Flying
2. Jet Pilot
3. Throne of Blood
4. Funny Face
5. Paths of Glory
Best Editing:
1. The Cranes are Flying
2. Funny Face
3. Men in War
4. Tokyo Twilight
5. Run of the Arrow
Best Music:
1. Funny Face
2. Pyaasa
3. What’s Opera, Doc?
4. 3:10 to Yuma
5. China Gate
Best Art Direction:
1. Funny Face
2. Throne of Blood
3. The Seventh Seal
4. Le notti bianche
5. The Incredible Shrinking Man
Best Non-Fiction Film:
1. On the Bowery
2. NY, NY
3.
4.
5.
Best Short Film:
1. What’s Opera, Doc?
2. A Chairy Tale
3. Show Biz Bugs
4. Steal Wool
5. Ali Baba Bunny
Best Non-English Language Film:
1. Throne of Blood
2. The Seventh Seal
3. Pyaasa
4. The Cranes are Flying
5. Tokyo Twilight

On Good Men, Good Women

Part of the fun of Good Men, Good Women is piecing together the narrative as it unfolds.  Hou Hsiao-hsien doesn’t exactly withhold information, but rather, like in his previous film The Puppetmaster, he tends to explain events only after they’ve gone on long enough that, if you’ve made the effort, you’ve probably figured out what’s happening anyway.  So, be warned that there will be spoilers here as I’m going to try to sketch out the different layers of a narrative that folds the past and present in on themselves and reflects them back out again like a disco ball.
The several layers of Good Men, Good Women:
1. An actress (Liang Ching, played by Annie Shizuka Inoh) gets anonymous faxes of her stolen diary entries and phone calls with no one on the other line.  She sleeps a lot and drinks too much and hangs out with unsavory gangster and government types.  She also falls asleep watching Ozu’s Late Spring on the television.
2. She recalls her relationship with her now-dead gangster boyfriend Ah Wei (Hou regular Jack Kao).  They were in love, she was a bar hostess, he helped her kick a drug addiction, he was murdered, she accepted a payoff from his killers for which she now feels a bit guilty.  She often thought/thinks about having a child with him but as far as we know has never been pregnant.
3. Liang gets a job playing the lead role in a movie based on the (apparently) real life of Chiang Bi-yu, who went to China with her husband during World War II to fight the Japanese with Mao’s resistance, was initially suspected of being a Japanese spy (because they were from Taiwan and didn’t speak the local Cantonese dialect), eventually was allowed to join the struggle and was then forced by circumstance to put her first child up for adoption, returned to Taiwan after the war to settle down with her family, and was imprisoned (and her husband killed) when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (the Koumintang) took over and started rooting out Communists (much of this crackdown (the “February 28th Incident”) is dramatized in Hou’s A City of Sadness, which I’ve still, sadly, not seen).  Throughout the film we see scenes from this (now finished) movie, indicated by washed-out color, a blueish black and white.
4. There are also apparently “real” depictions of Chiang’s life, shown in full color and played slightly differently than the “film” versions.  This kind of thing Hou also did in The Puppetmaster, where an event unfolding on screen would be followed by the subject of that event telling us a slightly different version of it in a documentary-style interview.*(See Below)
5. Finally, we learn the film about Chiang is called Good Men, Good Women, which is also the name of the film we’ve been watching, making it both essentially a “documentary of its own making” and raising the question of whether the film within the film also contains present-day sequences: how much is “fictional” fictional and how much is “real” fictional?
If the film within the film is also the film itself, then Good Men, Good Women is both within and without, just as Chiang’s past is both real and depicted, as Liang is both Liang and Chiang (through the act of acting a role) and as Liang’s story with Ah Wei is both past and dominating her present (especially as we come to believe that her mysterious phone calls and faxes are being sent by Ah Wei’s ghost, literalizing the stranglehold her past has on her present).  It’d be silly to reduce this to some kind of metaphor like “time is a river” or pithy articulation like “the past isn’t dead — it isn’t even past” or something like that, and Hou doesn’t bother to do so in any kind of Malickian voiceover.  Instead, he just gives us the flow, with all the currents and eddies, branches and backwaters that go along with it.
This is one of the warmest Hou films I’ve seen, both in technique and in his attitude to the protagonist.  This is the first time I recall that I’ve seen Hou’s floating camera actually move into a frame.  Usually he’s content to let his long takes float around a single, middle-distance frame, which keeps us at a safe, theatrical distance from the action.  In Good Men, Good Women, however, he occasionally moves into the screen space, either to get a closer view (as in a shot that moves from a club’s dance floor to shoot through a window into a private room where some gangster business is being conducted) or simply to pivot and reframe a location from a different, closer angle (as in one of the first shots of the film, where the TV playing Late Spring is used as a pivot point to reframe Liang in her apartment as she goes through her morning (hungover afternoon?) routine.
What we take from the film is even more than is usual up to us as viewers.  Like Liang Chiang, we have to decide what role the cinematic experience of the past will have on our present lives.  In one reasonable interpretation of the film, it is through the process of re-enacting Chiang Bi-yu’s life that Liang gains the strength to confront her own past/ghost and thereby move on with her life.  Significantly, this breakthrough is a specifically cinematic/narrative one: by experiencing the narrative of another person’s life mediated by film (or filmmaking) she is able to contextualize/understand/deal with her own issues.  It’s by making a story out of history that we begin to understand our own lives.
(Contrast this with Michael Haneke’s approach to a similar dynamic in Cache, where a bourgeois man is confronted with anonymous messages reminding him of a crime from his own past that is heavy-handedly symbolic of Haneke’s belief that the French should suffer collective guilt over their ancestors’ colonization of Algeria.  Hou is sympathetic to his damaged, dissolute heroine and asserts cinema as a means to help her overcome her guilt and make her life a little happier; Haneke seeks to punish his hero and uses film as a means to assert our own complicity in his guilt and brutalize us, to “teach us a lesson”, in the process.)
Good Men, Good Women is very similar narratively and thematically to my personal favorite of Hou’s films, Millennium Mambo, whose heroine follows much the same progression as Liang: a bar hostess breaks up with a gangster boyfriend, has issues with drugs and apathy and eventually experiences a cinematic epiphany.  Like that film as well, the breakthrough, moving as it is, is also a potentially hollow one.  We’re not really sure when the filming of the film within Good Men, Good Women takes place.  It seems to run concurrent with the events in Liang’s home, where she is stalked by phone calls and faxes and which are apparently resolved with her confrontation of the “ghost”.  But that can’t be the case as the film shoot is on-location, and thus Liang would have to be away from her apartment.  The shooting of the film has to take place after Liang has confronted her past.  Conversely, the joy Shu Qi’s Vicky in Millennium Mambo experiences in the snow of the Hokkaido Film Festival is a memory, something that happened somewhere in the middle of her story between her petty gangster boyfriend and her older gangster protector (played by Jack Kao), all of which is seen through the lens of a much older Vicky thinking back on her youth in the film’s voiceover.  
It’s possible that the key scene in Good Men, Good Women is only alluded to in voiceover, when Liang tells us about meeting and interviewing Chiang Bi-yu shortly before her film shoot began.  It maybe that this interview, the inspiration from meeting the aged heroic woman, was the point Liang resolved to confront her past and that her phone call with the ghost took place after this interview but before filming began.  Hou then simply elided what should have been the dramatic high point of his story: the direct confrontation between past and present, when the old lady looks at the young woman and calmly demonstrates the moral authority gained by the difference between suffering for a cause and suffering from indolence.  That would have been the Oscar scene, but it would have grounded, concretized the movie.  It would have drawn sharp lines between past and present and it would have encouraged us to choose sides, to privilege one woman’s experience over the other’s, to separate and isolate and categorize.  What he’s given us instead is something much more elusive, more mysterious, more lifelike.  It floats.

Added August 27, 2012:  One of the many fun and frustrating things about Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films is that he never really makes it easy for you as a viewer to understand everything that’s unfolding as it happens.  Often, only once a film is completed will all its elements begin to make sense.  This effect is seen in miniature in a sequence from The Puppetmaster: after twenty minutes or so of scenes in which we witness a loving courtship between the protagonist Li Tienlu and a pretty young courtesan, including an elaborate ruse in which she tests his fidelity by tempting him with another woman and which he passes with flying colors, we get a scene of Li himself narrating the next chapter in their story.  At the very end of his interview, as an almost throwaway aside, he mentions that the while he was seeing this woman, he had a wife and children back home in another city.  Suddenly the romance is seen in a new light and the fidelity test becomes darkly ironic.  
This narrative strategy necessarily makes it difficult to catch anything like every nuance of a film on a single viewing, and sometimes even basic plot or style elements can get jumbled in a confusion of memory and speculation.  Hou’s films request and reward rewatches as much as any director I know.  Which is to say, I wrote this after having seen Good Men, Good Women only once, and watching it again, I realize I was very much mistaken about this point.
The film within the film of Good Men, Good Women is shown throughout in a blue-tinged monochrome.  What I initially thought were “actual” depictions of the historical events, though, I now am pretty sure are just “present day” footage of the rehearsals for the film Liang is undertaking.  I believe the film’s present is in the rehearsal period for the film, as Liang is studying her character, reflecting on her past life with Ah-Wei and receiving mysterious faxes of her old diary entries.  At one point, near the end of the film, as Liang’s character Chiang Bi-yu is mourning her executed husband in the film, the monochrome image bleeds into color.  The is the climax of the film: when the film within the film merges with present day reality.  Just as the film posits a fluidity in the relationship between past and present (and history and memory, as in most Hou films), this morphing creates a fluidity between cinema and reality, prefiguring some of the redemptive and transformative power cinema has in Hou’s later films like Millennium Mambo, Flight of the Red Balloon and Café Lumière.