Monthly Archives: November 2013

Silent Naruse – geishas in desperate straits

In the U.S. we call racy, daring “women’s films” of the 1920’s and early 1930’s pre-code, referring to the dampening effect of the morality code instituted by the Hays’ office.  To my surprise, I’ve found that other countries had their own version of the honest little melodramas and comedies that dealt with women’s issues, and that these grapple with equally risky themes.  I was even more apart from you geishas2 surprised to find that some of these are Japanese, which made me confront my own assumptions about what Japanese women’s lives were like eighty years ago, and, especially, what could be dealt with in films of the period.  (Actually, I have been struck over and over again with just how socially daring and progressive that art was then, and how far we have regressed.  But that’s for another essay.)

mikio_naruseFor now, I’ll talk about the silent films of Mikio Naruse.  Throughout his career, Naruse’s films focused on the travails of working class women, and, often, on geishas.  These are not high-end geishas — they work in bars and men’s clubs, and only a few play musical instruments — and it’s strongly implied that they are prostitutes.  This isn’t a prettified geisha world, and there is actually a contrast between their natural beauty at home with their children and the more artificial painted beauty that adopt in the workplace.  In both of the silent geisha films I watched — Every-Night Dreams (1933) and Apart From You (1933) — the women are ashamed of their work.  And the work is strictly something they have to do for money to support their streetwithoutend geisha wifefamilies.  In every Naruse film I saw, there was a weak or struggling man who forced the woman to become a working girl.  That these films were directed and written by a young man in his twenties was really quite remarkable to me, as the focus is primarily on the women and is completely on the women’s side.  Naruse is never judgmental, and in fact is quite the opposite.  He puts the blame on the men and, sometimes, on a family matriarch.  In a less direct way, the blame is also placed on society, in particular a rigid class structure that forces people into roles and perpetuates poverty.  This, too, parallels concerns that come up in American pre-codes that often would probably be considered “socialist” if made today.  The world was in the grips of the Depression in the early 30’s — it wasn’t just us in the States.  The themes of jstreetwithoutend couplemountainoblessness and poverty ran through all four of the Naruse silents that I watched.

Mikio Naruse himself grew up poor; both of his parents died when he was young.  He began working in film as a prop manager while a teenager and directed his first film at 25.  One biographical account claimed that his father left the family for a geisha.  If that’s so, he certainly had sympathy for the geisha.

Just as with Tatsuo SaitoAmerican pre-codes, Naruse’s films were specifically created for and marketed to young working women who would often bring friends and family to the theater with them. The basic plot devices are familiar to anyone who has watched a D. W. Griffith melodrama or a contemporary romance on Lifetime: The husband-boyfriend is weak or a jerk; someone (child or protagonist) is hit by a car or gets a hideous disease and may or may not live; someone needs money for an operation (or medicine); someone is threatened by a boss or by a customer; men can’t get jobs and may turn to crime or alcohol; girls have a good laugh at the expense of guys — and women are more comfortable with one another; mothers-in-laws are bitches; girls will do a lot to help/protect their younger siblings and/or children; women will sacrifice their own lives for others.  While I would be bored silly with such hackneyed plots if that was all there was, I was completely pulled into the Naruse films.  The reason for this is not just in the fascinating differences in culture and time period.  It’s that the films are just so beautiful and apart from you boy 2compassionate and are filled with many small, touching moments that have little to do with the broader storyline.  They are wordless glimpses that tell us volumes about a character’s mental state or situation.  They are not dramatic, but are more rueful and reflective, which felt to me to be emotionally realistic.  Some of my favorite of these came in the film Every-Night Dreams, the most successful of the four “working girl” silents I watched.  In one, the geisha Omitsu, played by the funny-faced Sumiko Kurishima, must pin up her hair in preparation for going out on the job.  She stands in front of the mirror, resigned to her fate, while the act of pinning her hair is in itself gracious and lovely.  Another moment comes when her husband Mizuhara, who can’t find work, must discuss his situation in front of his wife’s pretty friend; he is embarrassed, and turns away, then looks up quickly and apart from you hairlaughs just a little.  Mizuhara has other touching scenes, especially when he plays baseball with his young son, or when he realizes his son has fixed a hole in his shoe by using a card and chewing gum (a motif that comes up in other Naruse films).  Actor Tatsuo Saito does a wonderful job of showing the fellow’s shame as he attempts to look for work and always fails, yet meets his defeats with melancholy good humor.  (Tatsuo Saito appears in many films by Naruse, Ozu, and Shimizu, among many flunky work hard kidsothers; he is a familiar, good-humored, downtrodden dad.)  The landlady has her own quiet moments, too, as she tries to help Omitsu leave her geisha life; she is played by Choko Iida, who was in four of the Naruse silents and whose face is instantly recognizable.  Here she is worried and thoughtful as she quietly observes the struggles of this young family, and she provides calm in the center of what looks to be growing trouble.

Naruse is not a straightforward director.  He has an odd style flourishes that I found sometimes jarring.  Sometimes he’ll do a distant shot of a character and then very quickly streetwithoutend actress mirror 2flow into a close-up.  He will also quick cut from one character’s face to another, bam bam bam, to make a point about a conflict.  It’s quite strange, especially in this kind of film, which generally has a more naturalistic, realistic style.  I got used to it after awhile, and certainly give him credit for having a signature, but I did at times find it intrusive, even while I was thinking, well, yes, that’s pretty cool.

In all of these films Naruse would step back to give us a full, detailed look at the cultural apart teahouse 2.jpgsurroundings.  This, too, separates his work from standard family melodrama.  Apart From You, Naruse’s other silent geisha film that is still in print, shows in some detail the actual activities at a risque “teahouse.”  While Omitsu in Every-Night Dreams worked in a seaside bar, these geishas and their patrons looks and behave in what we Westerners see as more traditional geisha fashion.  The teahouse has tea and food, and geisha musicians, and “games.”  The women entertain the men in small compartments by talking with them, sharing food and especially liquor — the sex is implied in a few scenes, as when a young Harry Potter-ish-looking guy sets his coin purse of bills beside Kikue’s leg, sticks his tongue out, waggles his  eyebrows, etc. (The scene is actually a bit creepy, though the kid is clearly painted as harmless.  Another man does a sinister dance.)  In another subplot, an older geisha who is supporting a resentful teenaged son has a long-time patron who wants to dump her for a younger one; he clearly is helping to support her. apart from you jerkThe teahouse is not remotely classy; the women share camaraderie there, but are clearly hungry (one girl fantasizes that she’s eating a bowl of rice) and/or depressed, and the manager is shown smoking and counting money.  The male patrons are for the most part portrayed as lecherous buffoons.  Kikue, our protagonist, is financially forced to work as a geisha as a way of keeping her younger sister out of the profession; her father is a drunk.  The older geisha works to support her hateful son.

Two other silent Naruse films I watched featured young women who were not geishas, but who were still forced to work in blue collar jobs and suffered the contempt of others because of it.  Street Without End I particularly liked for its contrast between working class people in Tokyo andstreetwithoutend smile the more traditional, snobby, rules-bound rich.  Though it was full of the standard “pre-code”-type cliches (I kept thinking of early Joan Crawford movies where the tough chick is picked on by her boyfriend/husband’s family), it was well worth watching.  I liked getting a look at the waitresses, artists, and movie-makers of early 1930’s Tokyo; they gave the movie a real energy.  I especially like Naruse when he goes outside his sentimental plot structures to show us the details of how people lived.  The behind the scenes look at early filmmaking (following a subplot involving Sugiko’s friends) was a particular kick, and I wish there had been more of it.  I apart dancing jerk 3did, though, find it interesting that when the heroine Sugiko “marries up” she moves from Western-style outfits into the more traditional clothing — very geisha-like.  I could only see this as a commentary that marrying for class mobility is a kind of prostitution.  Naruse simply gave no nods to tradition in any of the films I watched, and indeed implied that tradition was repressive for all concerned. Those who fought to retain traditional ways were in fact rather horrible.

Through all of the Naruse movies, I felt that I gained a real sense of Japan in that time period.  The impression — which is quite streetwithoutend bridge factorymodern, fast paced, industrial and tough — was actually very different from other Japanese films I’ve seen.  They lack the contemplative, kindly, dignified sensibility of the silent Ozu films, which also often explore modern family life.  Naruse takes a more distant, setting-oriented stance, making the films less intimate than Ozu’s, but in some ways more interesting in terms of the social backdrop.  The settings in Naruse included both apart husband seathe very urban (Tokyo) and the small town seafront. Every-Night Dreams has many long shots of docks, ships, the sea, as well as factories and vacant lots.  It felt quite hardscrabble.  The sailors in the bars looked every bit like real sailors.  The docks looked like a lonely place for a geisha to smoke a cigarette.  A kid looked isolated sitting on top of a large concrete pipe; the same kind of pipe appears among flowers in the only silent Naruse comedy, Flunky, Work Hard.  In contrast, the film Street without End showed crowded, busy, sign-strewn Tokyo streets in great detail and in a lingering way.  People are busy doing things (running, fighting, bustling around, throwing things, even robbing people), while behind them cars, trains, and buses threaten and take people away.  (Every Naruse I watched included someone being hit by a car or train — a hokey device, but also a nod to the suddenly overwhelming presence of vehicles.)  Naruse’s Tokyo felt quite contemporary, actually, like Scorcese showing the streets of New York.  The environment of streetwithoutend moviethe films imparted a realistic, almost documentary sensibility.

(I ought to slip in that Naruse’s first short film, Flunky, Work Hard, was the only film of his that was a family comedy with a male protagonist.  It reminded me of an early Ozu film, except actually funnier.  The shlubby insurance agent who’ll do anything to sell a policy was goofy and endearing.  Being Naruse, it has its melodramatic twist, but the emotion remains true.  It made me wonder why his studio so consistently directed him toward women-oriented films.)

streetwithoutend narusestreetwithoutend women on street

Despite the melodrama and plot devices of the Naruse films, I found myself drawn in, even hooked. Perhaps because I’m female, I’m not willing to dismiss them as women’s films, which they actually were.  Films aimed toward working women, whether made in Japan or America, shouldn’t be rejected, ignored, or demeaned because of that.  I like seeing these nice, upbeat, struggling apart from you  manwomanwomen sorting out their roles, working out their place between old and new society. The focus on women allowed directors of the period to indulge in emotional content and close character development that they might otherwise have had to avoid.  (Gangster films were other big thing in the late 20’s and early 30’s.  In fact, Ozu did some gangster films and they just aren’t up to his other work.)  At least in these films the women aren’t just passive sidepieces or nagging shrews.  And I also sympathized with some of Naruse’s male characters who are trying and usually failing to make money.  Sure, there’s a soap opera quality to his films at times (as there are in many American “women’s films” of the era), but that’s just plot.  Every existing silent film of Naruse’s has moments that are genuinely touching, funny, weird, and sad.  The films are also beautifully shot.  I’m going to seek out as much Naruse as I can find.every night dreams baseball

The Naruse films I watched are all included in Criterion’s terrific box set Silent Naruse as part of their Eclipse Series.  What would we do without Criterion to restore and distribute great foreign films?

apart from you flowers

 

 

 

Earth – the weirdly compelling silent classic

dovzhenko earth fruitLast night I watched Earth, a Russian silent film that appears on many lists of the all time greatest movies.  When I read that this film, by the Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko, was about the Russian Revolution, I envisioned a film full of action and Russian humor.  Earth is not that.  Earth is, though, strangely fascinating;  I haven’t seen anything remotely like it before.  It’s like a slowly unfolding, beautiful dream with lingering closeups of faces, bodies, machinery, wheat in many stages of use, fruit, horses, cows, and, yet again, faces.  Horses and cows square off.  Horses race away.  Couples stare at the sky.

dovzhenko earth horsesThe storyline is almost like a joke; at first, I was reminded of that early SNL skit, Bad Playhouse, with Ackroyd’s Leonard Pith-Garnell.  Earth displays a ponderous seriousness about, of all things, the arrival of a tractor in rural Russia. I laughed for about a minute and then found myself sucked in to the point where I was unwilling to stop staring long enough to reach for a glass.  What the hell is this? I kept wondering. Why?  What does it mean?  And the film kept defying my attempts to categorize or historicize it.  It became for me an almost hypnotic series of images, even while I would comprehend that I was seeing Russian peasants, Russian farmers, the onset of the industrial revolution, the ways that the Communists used machinery to draw in workers and to propagandize their work, the reasons that peasants might embrace the revolution and its sweeping change, and the violent reaction of the dovhenko earth skylandowners.  What I felt was a vague sense of joy and doom.  As I watched I kept thinking, you poor guys — you Russians of 1930 — you don’t know what you’re in for.  You don’t yet know that Stalin’s purges are going to kick you in the ass.  You don’t know that the loss of your hands-on, rural life will ultimately devastate you.

earth dovzhenko boys in graveyardI’m uncertain about what the director felt about the situation.  The very long, lingering shots of wheat, trees, and fruit — and of those who harvest — might be read as a celebration of the simple rural way of life before the coming of mass machinery.  On the other hand, the film’s cheering of the mighty tractor seems awfully sincere.  The film seems to tell us that both are simultaneously true.  It defies linear, logical interpretation.earth dovzhenko dancer

The allegory of the revolution — the war between the landowning farmers and the workers — was clear to me, yet I didn’t entirely understand it.  Maybe a Westerner in our own time really can’t.  As I watched, though, it was enough to see the images and to wonder where it would all lead.  And at a point, the film develops an absorbing story; there actually is something of a plot, and it is a symbolic one that resonates far more deeply than the simple tale of an idealistic young man killed by his wealthy rival who wants to keep his farm.  I did find it helpful to watch the film more than once; situations that seemed confusing or obscure on first viewing became much clearer, and the dovzhenko earth man and bullsexperience for me became more emotionally moving.

The film’s nature imagery is especially striking, and I felt a personal attachment to it.  I grew up in a rural area, and Dovzhenko perfectly captures the quietness and the slow movement of that.  The juxtaposition of people and animals in a number of montages clearly demonstrates that we are the same.  I very much liked these.  The animals and the humans sense and react to one another, and the humans sometimes inflict a startling cruelty upon them to which the animals seem resigned.  The humans are no less cruel to one another.  Dovzhenko grew up in the rural Ukraine, among the very kinds of illiterate peasants that he depicts, and this lends the picture a lyrical honesty.  He isn’t  judging.  Life is hard and simple.  I felt that I was seeing through his eyes, much as if I were reading a poem.

It is because of its incredible artfulness that the film is still watched today; were it a standard Soviet dovzhenko earth girl with fruit 2propaganda film, we would hardly care.  I was surprised to find that in its day, Earth was controversial, viewed by the government as subversive.  Then, the very art that we so appreciate led to suspicion.  The instances of small rebellions (as with a father who laughs at the younger men’s obsessions with “the party”) got the director in some trouble; he was denounced by the “Kremllin poet” and felt forced to leave the country.  The film’s beauty and its quirky bits (as when a group of men pee into a tractor to put water in the radiator, and some glimpses of full female nudity) were enough to get the film censored.  That these small subversions in what seemed to me to be a strongly Communistic film — a film that denounces religion and embraces technology and the people’s unity — could create controversy shows just how doctrinaire the government had become.  (Not that films weren’t also censored in the States.)  Again, I was reminded that things would only get worse with the growing repression of Stalin’s regime and World War II.  I felt sad for both those thrilled that a tractor would lessen their work and break the hold of the feudal landholding system and for the landowner who tries to literally bury his head in the sand.  Both sides would meet with tragedy, though the director didn’t know this yet.  None of “the people” would win, yet the fruit would return with the season.

 

Westfront 1918 – the German side of war as told by G.W. Pabst

westfront 1918 1Westfront 1918 is a thoroughly grim but generous film about German soldiers and the women left behind.  The director is the great Austrian G.W. Pabst, never known for his upbeat perspectives.  Westfront 1918 reminded me of his easier-to-find film The Joyless Street in its view of women under the stress of war’s deprivations.  Westfront 1918, though, is much more invested in the fate of a particular group of soldiers who have little choice in their lives.   Although the characters are mostly German, this group of men could be interchangeable with types found in any number of American/British/French war films of the period.  The lesson of these films tends to be that the trench soldiers are innocently trapped in something they can’t change; the evil lies with commanders or, more broadly, with the vague forces that created the war in the first place.  Pabst doesn’t conjecture; he keeps his lens squared strictly on the victims.

The film has a number of unusual storylines.  Or, well, perhaps it isn’t the stories that are so westfront 1918 2unusual, but the particularly stark and uncompromising ways they are examined.  There are several striking, even unforgettable, scenes.   One comes early in the film when a group of soldiers is trapped underground in a collapsed trench while above them, their troop is being shelled in “friendly” fire.  This scene is intensely claustrophobic, yet highlights a moment of strength and bravery that is not melodramatic, but necessary — a big brute balances on his head the few boards that keep all the dirt from caving in and smothering them.  Another comes later in the kind of scene that Pabst is so good at — the depiction of the fallen woman and how she meets her fate.  This section has some gripping moments involving the cheated-upon husband, played by Pabst regular Gustav Diessl.  There’s also the story of “the kid” (or “the student”), a sweet and brave sort who wants to marry his French sweetheart.  Speaking of that sweetheart, there are some fairly overt sexual westfront 1918references that swirl around her; she is always surrounded by these German soldiers who have encamped in her house, and she seems pretty happy about it.  The film opens with a drunken scene of soldiers groping her — in a friendly way, of course, and she doesn’t mind — that we probably wouldn’t see in a film today.  Yet it somehow feels realistic in the context of the film, and the men have a protective attitude toward her and toward her lover, “the kid.”yvette 2

The dire circumstances surrounding war are brought in directly, but in a way that didn’t feel to me  too heavy-handed.  They fit the storyline.  There is a quick but pointed reference to the consequences of fleeing the service (“we’ve found a deserter; you’d better oil up your guns.”).  There are many touching, sad examples of the food shortage in Germany; the home situation is so grim, in fact, that the soldiers would prefer to fight rather than to stay there.  Going home on leave brings more grief than respite.  There is no refuge.  I admire this about Pabst.  He just does not quit.  He gives the viewer no pleasant out and little humor.   His film The Joyless Street is similar in this regard — women and men will do anything when food is involved, with the men using the women’s starvation as a means of leveraging power over them.  Anyone who doesn’t understand the situation in Germany during and after the first world war, and why that led to the rise of the Nazis, would do well to watch these films.  While The Joyless Street had Garbo around to pretty up and class up the town, there’s none of that in Westfront 1918.  There is not a hint of glamour.  Even the French girl lives in poverty.

soldiers westfront 1918 2What makes this all tolerable is the warmth of the soldiers toward one another.  There is a kind of matter-of-fact camaraderie and understated love.  Nobody gives speeches about it.  It’s shown primarily through the visual interactions between the characters — the way they help one another and work together — and through little jokes they make and songs they sing.  If there is redemption, it is in these small moments of humanity.

yvette westfront 1918Westfront 1918 was made in 1930, well after the war, but with the economic conditions still in place.  The film was resented by both the right and the left — by the right, for its clearly negative views about war — by the left for its unwillingness to delve into the political conditions that caused it.  Some viewers found Westfront 1918  too graphic in its violence, although this isn’t a problem for us now, since almost fifteen minutes were cut by the censors.  The random way that the men come under fire — the constant sense of doom — and the fact that this could come from either side of the battlefield is shown again and again.  It put me on edge for much of the movie.westfront 1918

While this is an early sound film, and the sound is used effectively, the cinematography, pacing, and the emphasis on “showing” over dialogue demonstrated that Pabst didn’t sacrifice his usual techniques and way of seeing for the new medium.  The singing, joking, and whistling in the trenches were natural and effective.  The only time the sound got in the way was in an extended stage show that appears in the middle of the film — and while it’s a rather creepy stage show, given that there is a clown involved, and while the sound slides nicely into the following juxtaposing scene, it is still an awfully long demonstration of “here’s what we can do with music!”.  But for the most part, sound is used well and doesn’t sound messy, muffled, or awkward.breadline westfront 1918 3

This was a striking and disturbing movie.  I’d love to see a good version of it.  I have no idea why it is so hard to find.  I found a DVD copy with English subtitles on Amazon, but it is a bad print and clearly was just duplicated by some guy off of some old video.  That the film was great enough to transcend its fading and bad duplication says much in itself.  If someone would take the time to clean this up and put it out in a good edition, I’m sure it would be viewed as often as All Quiet on the Western Front.  It is at least as good.  With the interest in Pabst’s work (and many critics list it as among his top five films), and the general interest people have in war films, it’s perplexing to me that this hasn’t been resurrected.  Too bad Pabst didn’t just toss Garbo in and have her stand beside the trench.  Then we’d get a good print.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.

G.W. Pabst directing Mack the Knife.