Posts Tagged 1930s
They called him a “lyricist of light and shadow” – and as Shanghai Express attests, they weren’t wrong. Josef von Sternberg’s frivolous jaunt into civil war-era China is an illimitable cavalcade of exquisitely-crafted images, each one conceived as if it were his last. For this devoted cine-artisan, the sensual interplay between the lucid and the obscure assumes a paramount role, ripening his frames with an elegance that veers into the orgiastic. Compositions therefore double as aesthetic stimulants, their irrational allure pandering to the viewer’s palate with a seductive vigour that effortlessly effaces all resistance. Filtering these meticulous visuals through a soft-focus lens, and seamlessly weaving them together with a series of multilayered dissolves, the director cultivates a process of beautification which gives rise to a chiaroscuro dreamworld: a shimmering landscape of abstruse shapes and figures, carved into splendour by his magisterial manipulation of light. With his sumptuous artistry, von Sternberg orchestrates the perfect antidote to a wildly exotic, though dramatically tepid narrative; a charmingly flavourless cocktail of adventure, mystery and romance that’s so emblematic of the high-concept cinema within which he participated. This dichotomous relationship between script and direction fails to detract from the film however, serving only to aggrandise the extraordinary transcendence of the imagery at hand. Accordingly and beguilingly, Shanghai Express revels in its status as a slice of escapist confectionery, eventually unveiling itself as the ultimate triumph of style over substance.
Or is it? As tempting (and popular) as this diagnosis is, it bypasses the complexity behind von Sternberg’s intent and outright ignores the ambiguities so visible on-screen. Towards the film’s climax, one of its characters revealingly states: “…I’m sure there’s a whole lot more behind this than appears on the surface,” – and when viewing Shanghai Express with those words in mind, its complexion alters most considerably. The apparently throwaway story now proves fundamental to our understanding of the director’s visual essay with its fluid morality, its suspensions of disbelief and, most crucially, its observance of duplicity. Few, if any, of the film’s characters conform to the archetypes that they depict in their initial scenes, and von Sternberg uses this plotting device as a launchpad from which to fashion his own exercise in artificiality. Shanghai Express doesn’t merely celebrate the cinematic image – it’s completely and utterly infatuated with it; dissecting and critiquing it whilst concurrently elevating it onto an unreachable pedestal from which mere mortals can only admire from afar. As his scenes liberally deliquesce into one another, the director lingers longingly upon his flawless constructs before allowing them to fade into obscurity. These stark affectations hint at a world of confused feelings, constantly intermingling, in erratic motion (much like the title’s eponymous train). More incisively however, they point towards our fascination with beauty – quietly contemplating its transience and the processes of memorialisation and exaltation engendered by this most subjective of characteristics. The director’s pictorialism thus becomes as self-analytical as it is resplendent, the images sourcing the film’s substance from within themselves. His luxurious stylisations dare us to locate meaning behind the façade, only to then reveal that the façade isn’t a façade at all, but an objective reality unto itself – and therefore there is no meaning… (or is there?) Outrageously gorgeous yet infuriatingly distant, not to mention unsettlingly devoid of allegory, von Sternberg’s imagery asks us to question its purpose, to evaluate its worth – all the while remaining stubbornly impenetrable, denying us our innate desire to rationalise the pleasures that it offers in such exuberant abundance.
And then, of course, there is Marlene. The greatest pleasure of them all, the implacable core around which the entire conceit is built. Cast as notorious maneater Shanghai Lily (“It took more than one man to change my name…”), Dietrich under von Sternberg’s direction is not so much an actress as she is a model – albeit one with a unmistakable, otherworldly aura. Swamped with artifice (has any star ever been so impeccably-coiffured and lavishly-attired?), she finds herself so firmly enmeshed within her director’s mise-en-scène that the two become impossible to differentiate. Her diction is stilted, her body language mechanical, and her entire demeanour unconvincing – and yet she is never less than wholly bewitching in the role. As she struts and pouts her way through the film with one hand on hip and the other cherishing a cigarette, her director endows her with the best of his cinematic wizardry: lighting her as if she were a celestial life form gracing a vulgar world with her virtuous presence. Dietrich’s thespianic abilities are of scant relevance here, for von Sternberg (typically) is interested solely in her appearance. Thus, she is a mirror upon which his concerns are projected – and in a film so preoccupied with constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing visions of beauty, she is its key exemplar: a walking extension of the director’s finesse, the very embodiment of his glory. Who can resist such perfection? As the audience helplessly surrenders to the myth of the star, we once again find ourselves yearning for meaning behind the surface – vainly over-interpreting her every inflection and gesture as if it were a minor miracle. Little does it matter, for as Shanghai Lily enquires in the film’s most important line (an indirect confrontation of the viewer): “Will you never learn to believe without truth?” von Sternberg’s art is founded upon the opacities within our fantasies, upon pictures that tantalize and tease whilst resolutely clinging to their abstinence. His brilliance is built upon venerating beauty beyond all discernible reason, whilst embedding the critique of that reverence within the beauty itself. With the film grinding to a halt following a Hollywood ending performed with irreverent flippancy by its pre-eminent star-as-image, one can’t help but wonder: what is genuinely real in this director’s world, and what is mere illusion? Then again, surely the great joy of Shanghai Express is that we’ll never really know.
Transgression – or perhaps a lack of it – illuminates the soul of Humanity and Paper Balloons. Sadao Yamanaka’s exquisite swansong finds the prodigious director casting his gaze upon a bustling tenement in Edo-era Japan and spinning a rich, vibrant yarn that flows with altruistic tenderness as he charts the fluctuant rhythms of everyday life within its confines. Though careful to maintain a respectful distance from its colourful inhabitants, Yamanaka’s observations are nonetheless textured with the warmth of his unconditional compassion and the furore of his liberal indignation. As his camera ensconces itself within the nooks and crannies of this humble milieu, the director captures what he perceives as the essence of the underclass experience – the exploitation, the profiteering, the suffering – and moulds his findings into a condemnatory treatise that quietly seethes over the iniquities inflicted upon the impoverished by those further up the feudal hierarchy. Yet his criticisms aren’t reserved solely for the privileged stratum: Yamanaka’s rage extends towards the disenfranchised themselves, mindlessly clinging on to the archaic traditions that impede them (the opiate of these masses) and allowing themselves to be consumed by the same greed that’s so rampant amongst their oppressors. Complicit in upholding the archaic social order that curtails their every prospect, the film’s characters find themselves locked in self-incarceration; their inability to successfully transgress partnering their taskmasters’ numerous transgressions against them to create a portraiture of sobering pessimism – the end result begging only the question: where did all the humanity go?
Although ostensibly a jidaigeki with prominent roles for samurai and ronin, the film effectively discards the baggage of its generic conventions – and in doing so refines its artistry to a vertex at least equal to those scaled by the genre’s more renowned exponents of the 1950s. Shorn of the spectacle and elaborate stylisations that one might expect, Humanity throws its weight firmly behind the lucidity of its spirited characterisations, thereby achieving a level of poignant clarity that tempers the potential velocity of its melodrama (abductions, gangsters, suicides, murders and even forbidden love grace the sclerotic screenplay). Yamanaka’s precautionary measures thus exercise control over the unruly currents of his narrative, channelling the plotlines into more manageable ebbs and flows that allow him to narrow in on the intricacies of detail. Seemingly insignificant minutiae subsequently find themselves veraciously chronicled by a director cherishing the intimacy of his environment: a wife’s knowing response to her husband’s cowardice; a blind man’s cunning strategy to counter his inevitable manipulation; the ominous yet inconspicuous malice assumed by the phrase “going to the herbalist”. Imparting such particulars does little to forward the story’s momentum, but everything to enrich the viewing experience; the egalitarian perspective of Yamanaka’s camera ensuring that all members of society are gifted the opportunity to be seen and heard, if only momentarily.
Feeding into this intimacy are the surprisingly comical threads designed to ameliorate Humanity‘s despondence – though it’s telling that much of the film’s humour is of the wry, blackened variety, sourced directly from the despondence itself. Notice how Yamanaka almost affectionately paints the notion of characters drawing lots (albeit unknowingly) for the right to carry a dead man’s coffin; or consider the jocose manner in which he recycles his introductory scenes during the finale: the same residents pulling the same outlandish expressions in the face of death. Given the tenement’s abnormally high suicide rates and the adversities confronting its downtrodden populace, it’s little wonder that such morbid topics are treated with bold irreverence – can we really judge these people (as Yamanaka invites us to do) for turning a funereal wake into a drunken celebration? What eventually emerges through the director’s organically-melded scenarios is the image of a community enfeebled by its inability to progress; a community whose daily existence proves as ephemeral and precarious as the paper balloons crafted out of financial necessity by its increasingly destitute members.
Cramped, congested and cluttered; Yamanaka’s depiction of the virtual slum at Humanity‘s heart endeavours to replicate the realities of life inside these lower depths. Overloaded with inanimate objects and restless people, the tenement’s narrow passageways become constraints unto themselves, exacerbating the difficulty of any possible escape. The director’s most potent motif – recurrent shots of nocturnal rain showers in desolate backstreets – reinforces this idea whilst throwing the unforgiving forces of nature into the equation. Meanwhile, his elucidative use of deep-focus photography intensifies the issue; the ensuing depths of field allowing each shot to nurture a compelling interaction between foreground and background (dramatic intensity populates the former, whilst acts of subservience are forever visible in the latter). The visual transparency available to him finds Yamanaka actively tailoring the film’s spatial dimensions to fortify his arguments: note how the expansive interiors of the middle-class abodes contrast with the claustrophobic domesticity of the tenement homes – a discord amplified by the director’s decision to frame his wealthier characters across comfortably horizontal planes whilst recording the poorer citizens along obstructive vertical axes. His camera witnesses all these set-ups via the predominant use of medium shots and long takes – takes which linger incisively, desperately willing his subjugated beings to revolt (though the futility of this desire is such that any hint of dissidence is either dismissed or quickly disposed of). All too often, we watch forlornly as browbeaten characters suffer in reaction shots, only for Yamanaka to then cut away to a distanced vantage point from which he imprisons them inside their own loneliness, compounding the isolation of their socially-unacceptable sorrow.
Bathed in the soft hues of the director’s cine-poetry, Humanity‘s characters find in Yamanaka a worthy champion for their cause; his inimitable creativity not so much aestheticising their misfortunes as recognising their endurance under duress. And what duress this is, for Yamanaka exploits the mechanisms of the jidaigeki to obliterate all nostalgia for the past, emphasising instead the hardships, turmoil and social immobility of a cyclical world founded upon hollow ideals. His vision takes the long venerated code of the bushidō and tears it apart; the very concept of ‘honour’ exposed as redundant in a society stringently controlled by the dishonourable. Though the director may not have a solution for the misdeeds of the rich, he implores the rest of us to remain weary of the archaic creeds and mores designed to curb our development. Humanity thus poses an affront to the bellicist ethos of its makers’ era, diverging wildly from the then-state’s emphasis on order and militarism (the film gives neither principle much credence) and soaring as a thunderous lamentation for the absence of the humanism that it so vainly seeks to unearth in the national past. Maybe then, the greatest transgression of all belongs to Yamanaka himself – serene in his artistry, incomparable in his integrity and, with Humanity‘s transcendental pathos doubling up as his weaponry, rebelling on behalf of all those denied the opportunity to do so themselves.
“If I had my way, not one negro would be allowed in the country!”
– “The Old Lady”, Borderline
“She worked hard and did well, paid off her mortgage and began to put something by for her old age. Then the immigrants moved in.”
“…we affirm that non-Whites have no place here at all and will not rest until every last one has left our land.”
“2 fkin rite the fkin immigrant bastards go fuk off bak n giv us our country bak n our money ya fuuuuuuuuukers!!!!!”
If France was once infected by the cinéma du papa, then the UK continues to be plagued by the cinéma du mama: a cinema whose commercial success and everlasting appeal resides predominantly in the purses of middle-aged, middle-class housewives beguiled by the gratification and security that its features can promise. This is a disease that manifests itself in two definitive strains. First, there is the ever archaic “heritage film” – a nostalgic fashion trend that beautifies the inevitably right-wing national past with its lavish veneration of mise-en-scène, whilst immobilising the viewer’s intellect with a recycled brand of doomed romanticism. Then, perhaps even more disturbingly, there are the attempts to create a stock of British “social realism” – championed by privileged white males who understand nothing of the “gritty” milieu which they sporadically inhabit, and defined by its timid aversion to any meaningful engagement with the problems confronting the disenfranchised groups whom it seeks to represent.
Together, these dominant bloodlines tighten the garrotte around the slender neck of the British film industry. And by their lack of ambition, they compel the admiration of the foreign press, defending the national colours on an awards circuit where they regularly corral nominations and prizes. What use is a picture that panders so desperately to such a vainglorious, rabidly innocuous market? The answer is none. Such inanities do not personify the vestiges of imagination and ingenuity that lurk within the forgotten corridors of our cinema – and yet they dementedly persist in stifling the enfeebled arthouses of the nation with their ill-gotten prestige. Imitators aspire to replicate their success, thereby upholding the un-impeachable tradition of audience nullification whilst maintaining the vicious cycle of vacuity that saturates our passive minds. And thus, the culture of filmic disengagement is perpetuated; reprocessed and diluted until the British “cinema” is rendered nothing more than a British vacuum, vainly masquerading as a purveyor of artistic integrity. Where then, in so mephitic an environment, do the filmmakers of tomorrow (integral to any potential revolt) find the inspiration necessary to emancipate our country from this contemptible beast that refuses to surrender?
Enter Borderline. Had Kenneth MacPherson’s 1930 feature not itself been strangulated by the consumerism of yesteryear (its theatrical release was never becoming), then perhaps the pestiferous vermin of the mama would be nothing but a creative abortion; a minor blip in the character of a thriving and pioneering national cinema. Instead, it occupies a peculiar hideaway in the annals of film history. An exemplar, and possibly the sole exemplar, of the avant-gardist tendencies that once existed here (and can yet be unearthed), Borderline is relentless in its formalism and shameless in its virtuosity. Taking heed from the Soviet montage school of thought, MacPherson incites action and reaction through a bravura demonstration of editing that wilfully distorts the viewer’s grasp of his visual rhetoric. The film bemuses with its expeditious cutting rates and its excisional framing – the latter’s reduction of human figures to dissected body parts powerfully accentuating the characters’ physical detachment from their internal desires. Together, these core tenets invoke an overwhelming tsunami of kineticism that obliterates the audience’s understanding of the film’s spacial and temporal dimensions until all that’s left for us to cling to is an immediate, raw visceralism; the ultimate purification of the cinematic experience.
Lest it give the impression of nothing more than a conceited experiment, it should be stated that Borderline is as grippingly radical in content as it is in style. Though it spitefully rejects the post-Griffith developments in narrative exposition, it cogently deploys associative montages to convey the psychological undercurrents of its disturbed characters. Torrents of passion and malice thus satiate the film, exacerbated and inflamed by the presence of that most toxic of evils: blacks. Yes, Borderline‘s real intransigence is a socio-political one – an earnest affront to Western xenophobia, and a valiant dismissal of the tendency to scapegoat minorities in times of turmoil. MacPherson contrasts the decadence of his white characters with the relative dignity of his so-called “negroes” (consider also how carefully he frames them against natural idylls), and emphasises the grotesqueries of racial hatred by recording those that uphold and enforce the status quo at their most repugnant. With this approach, the director audaciously upends the comfort and satisfaction that we seek from our modern, advanced society; his subversive portrait of an Occidental utopia revealing itself as a cutthroat mundania where all those that challenge the norm (the film’s few sympathetic whites are implied to be homosexual) are compelled into a precarious existence, forced to renounce their sense of justice in the name of the majority’s self-preservation.
MacPherson is perhaps too oblique in his approach and too callow in his sentiments to offer a parable of assiduous complexity for the 21st-century viewer. Yet the basic impetus of his tale is one that continues to transcend time (however unfortunately). Eight decades may have passed, but Borderline remains as recalcitrant now as it almost certainly did then: its fundamental concerns with the issues of immigration and integration still unnervingly prescient, and its refusal to pander to the prevailing prejudices of its era eliciting only admiration. Indeed, the film goes so far as to celebrate the very notion of dissimilitude by incorporating our fear of the subject into the form – playing out like the cinematic equivalent of an improvisational jazz piece, infectious in its exaltation of the medium’s possibilities. In the context of our national film culture, it stands alone in its compassion, its foresight and its innovation. A sign of what was to come it definitely was not, but one prays for the day when it can be commended first and foremost as a historical artefact rather than a sui generis of contemporary relevance. In the interim though, the burden lies solely with the present generation of cinephiles – it is we who must embrace progression (however paradoxically ancient) in the same manner in which our superficially-inclined brethren lust after regression. From MacPherson’s example we must draw only hope, for it is now evident that there once was a way forward for the British cinema – and, for as long as Borderline exists, there always will be.
A melodrama that refuses the melodramatic, a romance that discards the romantic, but a tragedy that wholeheartedly embraces the tragic – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) marks an early crystallisation of the tendencies that have come to epitomise Kenji Mizoguchi’s immeasurable contributions to film art. Scaling a summit of stylistic delicacy that he himself wouldn’t reach again for over a decade after its release, the director furnishes an archetypal tale of forbidden love with the intimacies and intricacies of detail, thereby negating the predictability of preordained heartbreak. His ill-fated lovers are cut from a familiar mould: Kiku, affluent (but talentless) heir to a popular theatrical dynasty, falls for Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse, after the latter breaks a wall of silence that shields the former from his professional inadequacies. A now standard Mizoguchian journey follows; a pathetic, poignant prolapse into poverty and perpetual misfortune that will eventually sever the coupling and leave each party stranded beyond the point of reconciliation. Throughout this plight, the director will launch deceptively indignant critiques against the codes and conventions of a society that so blindly sanctions such hardship, whilst casting a particularly sceptical eye on the rigidity of outmoded gender roles.
With his cinematic vocabulary at its most complex, Mizoguchi restrains his story’s dramatic tumults whilst nourishing areas of thematic agency that would otherwise remain concealed by the exuberant bathos of his narrative. Chrysanthemums consequently finds its emphasis shifted to length: both in terms of the duration and the framing of its shots. Aided by the director’s seamless dollying and unobtrusive pans, the film’s remarkable fluidity creates unbroken streams of passion that threaten to overwhelm with their raw power. Yet Mizoguchi is careful to maximise the potential of his newly-elongated dramaturgy, and so he studiously upholds the text’s aloofness: a respectful distance is maintained between the viewer and the intense, piercing sentiments of our woebegone heroes – and within the expanse of visual and figurative space that subsequently emerges, the director constructs his own running commentary upon on-screen action. The vicissitudes of Chrysanthemums‘ subtexts are thus explored with remarkable dexterity; the nuances within Mizoguchi’s technical mastery illuminating his lovers’ travails whilst simultaneously consecrating their interiority. Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.
This exquisite, extended take is also a key exemplar of a decision that’s to become the central component in Chrysanthemums‘ stylistic framework: the adoption of what can only be described as the societal gaze. Mizoguchi’s camera here comes into its own as an independent analyst, assuming an active yet objective perspective that definitively reshapes his emotionally-florid scenarios whilst imparting reams of information that elucidate the internal workings of their environment. Thus, as the lovers take their midnight walk, the director makes a simple choice – to film them from a low angle – and, in doing so, immediately reinforces their social status (particularly in Kuki’s case), according these protagonists a modicum of respect that will swiftly dissipate in later scenes as their misfortunes escalate; this adversity reflected in Mizoguchi’s switch to high angle shots as they slide further and further down the socio-economic hierarchy. The chasm that the director enforces between character and audience now possesses an ulterior motive: to doggedly marginalise the heroes’ love story, thereby replicating society’s own condemnation of their inter-class affair. We peer at them from behind doorways (often with their backs to us), or in compositions that obfuscate their presence by foregrounding inanimate objects. Most stunning of all are the dynamic flights of fancy embarked upon by Mizoguchi’s camera, which effortlessly traverses through walls and even entire buildings in order to stay attuned to its subjects – the gesture augmenting the sheer artificiality of their man-made barriers; the Mizoguchian conception of “civilisation” thus exposing itself as yet another synonym for repression.
Transcending one’s social limitations is an aspiration that informs the very foundation of the director’s oeuvre, so when his camera soars his characters’ dreams soar alongside it. But these lovers’ torrid yearnings are undone by the constraints of Chrysanthemums‘ universe – the pressures of which Mizoguchi scrupulously articulates, even outside the successful implementation of his societal gaze. Note that the film’s narrative is divided into segments which observe Kiku and Otoku’s odyssey through criticial junctures over a five-year period. Each of these stages opens with a depiction of life inside the theatre to which Kiku happens to belong at that point, and a number of the director’s most inventive flourishes are to be found in centrepieces that recreate the art of Kabuki performance. Kiku’s inescapable theatrical background doesn’t simply allow the director to flaunt his stylistic flair though, it reinforces the film’s key theme by underscoring the idea of role-playing. Kiku’s familial tribulations exist because he refuses to conform to his father’s wishes as a man and fails to perform to his father’s expectations as an actor, thus leaving him no choice but to reject the patriarchal inheritance endowed to him – and along with it, the power of social status and the adulation of fickle audiences. Otoku’s dismissal by her employer is not unrelatedly brought about because she’s erroneously viewed as too “ambitious”, therefore breaking the code of conduct that’s silently imposed upon women of such lowly ilk. (Naturally, social mobility is discouraged at all costs by the ruling classes.) Mizoguchi is careful to forge a link between performance and predestination and, once established, he adroitly applies it to the romance itself. Neither protagonist here is particularly likeable: Kiku is a selfish narcissist almost through to the final scene, whilst the lachrymose Otoku’s predilection for total abnegation is as frightening as it is offputting. The film’s dramatic framework is recoloured accordingly – relentless in his impulsion of these archetypes, the director’s characterisations beg the question: where does this sorry tragedy lie? Is it a tale of forbidden love quashed by a ruthless society of oppressors, or is it a saga of two losers cruelly thrown together and making the best of a miserable situation? Mizoguchi’s bitter coda wisely elects to preserve the ambivalence, but it nonetheless reveals more than we could possibly wish to know about the world that he enshrines: no matter how fast we run, the roles that we were born to play will always catch up with us in the end.