This from David Thomson’s article on John Ford in his Biographical Dictionary…The whole article is of great interest, but this bit strikes me most powerfully:
…to take Ford properly to task may be to begin to be dissatisfied with cinema.
Adherence to legend at the expense of facts will ruin America—the work is well under way. And lovers of the movies should consider how far film has helped the undermining.
Reading that today, in May of 2015, evokes the legend-mongering, the betrayal of history and experience in Kathryn Bigelow’s & Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty–but the betrayal isn’t timely or modish, not connected to any particular film, it’s evergreen and truly American…
On August 9, 2014, Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department encountered a dark fate – a grim, unrelenting, vigorous Fate – in the person of Michael Brown, aged 18. Brown wasn’t yet a man, really, at that age. But he possessed a physical strength capable of emasculating even big men like Wilson; and he had in him an evil vast enough to blot out his own humanity, a murderous shadow over all the human qualities people in his life thought they saw in him. Wilson stumbled under that shadow, almost found his death there…
This is all more or less as Wilson described it in his potboiler pitch to the grand jury.
“You know in Africa…no white man ever bolts.”
“I bolted like a rabbit,” Macomber said.
Ernest Hemingway published his short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in 1936. The story’s yet another précis of Hemingway’s bullshit pursuit of blood spoor and virtu, with the Macomber of the title pinched, on his African safari, between the ruddy pro white hunter he’s retained (Wilson’s the name) and his own hard, cruel wife.
Mrs. Macomber wears the hard and cruel virtues of the“Memsahib” well, on their trip. But Mr. Macomber is armed primarily in the bush with his cowardice–no matter whether the gun-bearer loads him with the Springfield or the big gun.
But of course Macomber can’t stay the man who was punked by a lion on his Vacation of Shame: he needs a redemption from cowardice, to enter the shadow and to be tried.
“How far is he?” asked Macomber, raising his rifle.
“About seventy-five. Get out and take him.”
“Why not shoot from where I am?”
“You don’t shoot them from cars,” he heard Wilson saying in his ear.
Macomber fires on the lion with “muscles fluttering,” and he hits him a few times. The mighty beast stalks off into the tall grass:
All of [the lion], pain, sickness, hatred and all of his remaining strength, was tightening into an absolute concentration for a rush. He could hear the men talking and he waited, gathering all of himself into this preparation for a charge as soon as the men would come into the grass.
Macomber hauls ass, when the grass stirs; and white hunter Wilson kills the beast. In the refractory period between the shooting, Hemingway makes a little fetish of the way a shot beast keeps coming:
That was the story of the lion. Macomber did not know how the lion had felt before he started his rush, nor during it when the unbelievable smash of the .505 with a muzzle velocity of two tons had hit him in the mouth, nor what kept him coming after that, when the second ripping crash had smashed his hind quarters and he had come crawling on toward the crashing, blasting thing that had destroyed him…
Then the white hunter cuckolds Macomber.
And finally they fall in pursuit of buffalo:
…Macomber fell forward onto his feet, slammed his bolt forward and fired as far forward as he could aim into the galloping, rounded black back, aimed and shot again, then again, then again, then again, and the bullets, all of them hitting, had not effect on the buffalo that he could see. Then Wilson shot, the roar deafening him, and he could see the bull stagger. Macomber shot again, aiming carefully, and down he came, onto his knees.
…and so on. Entering the shadow, the trial of hard experience, involves firing weapons at creatures whose vital murderous energy won’t let them drop–which even draws them to the source of the attack. Bloodthirstiness of the shooter is offset by his limp humanity, when compared with the preternatural, armored drive of the beast/prey. These murderers weigh fear and courage in the act, and thus are truly human.
The narrative of Darren Wilson’s brush with “a demon” in Michael Brown is one for the history books, now. It’s a twice-told tale that is tedious and dehumanizing for many of us, and yet seems compelling for the bodies in culled juries and for folks in white-flight bedroom communities all across America.
The probity of fiction – and not of sworn testimony regarding a fatal shooting as offered to a grand jury – lies in its having been told before: its rehearsal, development, elaboration; the ways in which it has sprung and meandered from its source. A tale springs, meanders, develops…and in this way becomes a better tale. Certain details of common experience proliferate in the tale, come unmoored from time and our senses as true experience never allows, to become timeless objects of contemplation. And the fisullae of true experience, the bits we’ve missed (how do we even know we’ve missed them?), widen to become poetic enigmas evoking awe, fear, regret, etc.
From Officer Wilson’s yarns, we know now that Michael Brown was more vital force and armor than he was human; that he was a weapon in himself. (And in this way Brown is disarmed of his having been unarmed.) Brown’s aura of menace hovered higher than his 6’4″ of bone and muscle–How old was he, exactly? Couldn’t tell. How big? No taller than me, you say? Seems impossible–if only you’d been there…How many times did I fire? I dunno – but he just kept coming…
The human quality rests in fallibility, in fear of death, in fumbling with the Sig Sauer .40 on one’s belt…in shuttling between panic and fear and the resolve to kill. That quality rests in Wilson. The shooter is all-too-human–not least because our species is the one that spins stories, like the weird and counterfactual tales of powerful evil Darren Wilson presented to the grand jury. And these stories encase their own special conditions, their own valuations; and urge moral judgments peculiar to what’s come before in the story.
Officer Wilson’s act of murder blossoms into the tale of Officer Wilson’s Survival Against Evil. The narrative spins Wilson’s acts of bullying, stalking, harassment and assault leading to his fatal violent attack on Brown into…a battle with a Very Bad Guy, the ineffable Michael Brown, uncovered in confrontation with Wilson as a menace. In the story, Michael Brown is essence – his physical destruction is the means for the survival of Darren Wilson. Brown is a wraith of bigots’ bad faith. Human fear is thereby reified. This is the source of thrill and satisfaction some get from the story Wilson has told to a grand jury and to media.
The formerly undistinguished former-Officer Wilson, provincial ne’er-do-well and son of a convicted thief, has distinguished himself.
His testimony is hunting lore.
Substitute “movie press” for “music press” in this bit from Mary Harron’s 1977 interview with Brian Eno for Punk Magazine, and it’s all just as apt:
Punk: Can I ask you about the music press? Because I think they’ve been so used to dealing with a particular pattern of success, and what happened in the ’60s, and they tend to use the same standards for what’s happening now. What do you think of the music press?
Eno: I’m not very interested in them, actually.
Punk: Well what do you think is the function of a music press?
Eno: Well it seems to be to annoy artists. The only think I feel if I read the music papers these days is sort of like that [making a gesture of strangulation]. They really make me angry. Because the function should be to look at what’s going on and actually try to see the ideas that are around at the moment. Not what the personalities are. It’s alright, you know, you could have that as a gossip column feature, as a joke, but the personalities really aren’t the interesting thing.
What’s interesting is the flow of ideas and why, for example, suddenly the idea of a four piece band becomes viable again. Why the concept of skill starts to erode in music. Why bands aren’t being formed with flash guitarists anymore but with kids off the streets. Or why, on the other hand, on a purely technical level, reggae is starting to work by subtracting sound rather than adding it, and what differences that makes to the Western tradition of making music.
There’s a million questions that are really very, very interesting, and have – as far as I’m concerned – major sociological implications. Because music doesn’t change with whim or fashion. It changes for good reasons. I’m certain of that.
I think they may be frightened. If they’re aware of any of these questions they might be frightened they’re going to bore their audience. I think you can give the public much more credit than they presently get. They’re probably sick of being treated like fools.
Instead of doing that, they talk about the most insanely… useless transient details of people’s attire and personality conflicts and so on. Absolutely worthless rubbish. I think that on a level of reporting they’re worse than any of the bad daily newspapers in England. You know the papers like The Sun? Well they’re strictly on that level. They take news items to see what kind of visceral sensation can be extracted from them. And that’s why their focus is always on a particular brand of success, as you say. It’s the same way that gossip columns in papers like The Sun always talk about what Lords and Counts do. Not because Lords and Counts do anything particularly interesting, but because it is considered funny by people who write this sort of thing to point out that Lords and Counts actually behave like us. And do stupid things and get divorced and have affairs.
They’re dealing not only with trivial things, but they’re dealing with trivial things badly. You could deal with trivial things very interestingly.
If I do an interview – David Bowie was saying the same thing – if either of us do an interview and we throw out twenty ideas, whichever two are most banal will get the most space in the papers.
The whole attitude of people who work on big papers is “Well, it’s what they want, isn’t it?” Now it interests me that if they find this attitude typifying music they condemn it absolutely out of hand. If they find groups who say “Well, we’re only playing what they want,” they condemn that as the worst kind of charlatanism.
Really, they should simply apply the same standards… they’re in the art business. They’re part of the art business. That’s the problem, they don’t take themselves seriously. They regard themselves as peripheral and of no interest. As long as they do that they’re going to stay there.
Punk: It’s misleading when you’re writing about music now to just concentrate on the artist, because you’re missing a whole other world. You’re missing the record companies’ part in it, and the whole way in which people become successful.
Punk: Less sophisticated? I mean the music business.
Eno: Yeah. Umh. I must think… I’ve lost my train… The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t interest me very much, the music business.
Punk: You don’t have to talk about it.
Eno: No, I just meant that there seems to be this big block of machinery that actively – not intentionally, but by the very nature of its construction – subdues what’s interesting. And what’s interesting either is peripheral to it or accidental.
You know, there’s a vast business involved in music, a vast business. If you not only consider the part we’re involved in, but the classical music business, which is very big, and you consider all the folk and ethnic music businesses, and then you consider a company like Muzak which is supplying music all over the world, there are hundreds of thousands of millions of pounds involved in generating music. Making it a much bigger business than the Space Race. And the number of interesting ideas that are generated by this vast complex is really very small. In fact, if you analyse it on a kind of cost-efficient basis you’d find that you weren’t doing too well.
Punk: As far as production of ideas to size?
Eno: Yes. So it makes me think that this large organism is one whose express intention, or claimed intention, is to generate ideas, but whose mechanism is such that it can’t help subduing them. Its interest is in prolonging itself. By so doing, since its structure militates against the future, it militates for the present and the past. By attempting to prolong itself it does subdue those futures. They come out, sure enough, but they have a hard time.
I don’t feel bitter, I’m not saying this in bitterness. I think it’s the way most other systems work as well – the Civil Service…
Punk: It sounds like politics generally, doesn’t it?
Eno: It is, the implications are quite political.
Punk: What, the hostility to change?
Eno: Yes. Yes. Human beings have two orientations. One is towards the desire to participate in a predictable world, and the other is the knowledge that the world isn’t predictable, and that it constantly changes in a novel fashion…
“[the industry] militates for the present and the past“: this is the movie journalist corps, in a nutshell – careerism, making deadlines and paying the bills, issuing overheated and ephemeral proclamations about movie events and innovations (every last one digested from PR releases), dilettantism and so on…
[By way of some notes around Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – ]
“ China is here, Mr Burton. The Chang Sing, the Wing Kong. They’ve been fighting for centuries.”
“What does that mean? ‘China is here’”?
Without trafficking in causal theories of cultural history, one can say that there was a popular trend in American film of the 1980s of reviving some retrograde dime-novel tropes: Piers Haggard, grandson of H. Rider Haggard (creator of Allan Quatermain, the progenitor of Indiana Jones) directed The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu (1980), starring Peter Sellers in Lon-Chaney-Chinaman get-up. Lucas-Spielberg’s faith in the eternal return of hoary old narrative tropes (Lucas’ Joseph Campbell connection was only ever an academic fig leaf) yielded Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). And 1981 also saw the release of Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (dir. Clive Donner), this time with Peter Ustinov wearing prosthetic eyelids and with pidgin in his mouth. And then Haggard and Kipling came roaring back, when George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz cooked up the anachronistic, stupid, brutish story and script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)–a film Spielberg has since more or less disavowed. The success of the Indiana Jones pictures in turn led Golan/Globus to seek to cash in by returning to the source material, with King Solomon’s Mines (J. Lee Thompson, 1985)…and its sequel…and so on…
If John Carpenter’s gripes about the theatrical run of Big Trouble In Little China are any indication, he clearly failed to see any involvement of his film with the trend I described above:
” The ad campaign for Big Trouble was one of the reasons that the film essentially bombed, Carpenter believes, playing for no more than a month and a half in the nation’s theaters.
‘They positioned it absurdly,’ Carpenter says. ‘They tried to sell the picture like Raiders of the Lost Ark; and they tried to deemphasize the Chinese element. The film’s about the Chinese. It’s about Chinese mysticism, and that’s what you have to put up there.
‘Their (advertising) illustration was a lot like the illustration from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, the same artist did it. Which gave it this idea of a pulp movie. But the problem was that that had been done before. Raiders had been done, Raiders II had been done. So we just looked like another one. And that wasn’t going to do it. This was a unique film…'” Eric Taub, Gaffers, grips, and best boys (90)
A few weeks into the 1985 theatrical run of Michael Cimino’s The Year of the Dragon, MGM/UA chairman Frank Rothman announced that a disclaimer would be attached to the nearly two hundred prints then being exhibited in the Los Angeles and New York areas, and, eventually, to all prints of the film. (Not coincidentally, a coalition of Asian-American organizations filed a massive class-action suit against the studio that very day.) The disclaimer read as follows:
This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian-American and specifically Chinese-American communities. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any associations, organization, individuals or Chinatowns that exist in real life is accidental.
Dennis Dun, co-star of Big Trouble in Little China, had appeared in the Cimino film as a fresh-out-of-the-Academy rookie who, no sooner pledges to Mickey Rourke’s Captain White his determination not to be a faithful-to-the-death “Chinaman Joe” [sic] than…he’s bloodily martyred for White’s cause, faithful ’till his last breath. Dun’s role as written by Cimino and Oliver Stone is hollow of any semblance of true identity, and written with a stone-deaf social sense–as are all of the “Chinese” roles in the film.
(Dun and Big Trouble… co-star Victor Wong were fellow travelers across a number of projects for a while, at the time: from Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) – in which Wong was a star and Dun a production assistant, they worked together on Year of the Dragon, Big Trouble In Little China, The Last Emperor, and Carpenter’s next film Prince of Darkness.)
Bernardo Bertolucci: “ I will never forget Victor Wong, who in [The Last Emperor] is the first tutor of Pu Yi, who is a Chinese-American coming from San Francisco. The second or third night, we had dinner together. I’ll never forget the childish amazement in his eyes; he was saying: ‘that’s incredible to be here, have you seen how many Chinese there are in the streets…’ He’s a Chinese, and he was looking at the Chinese with American eyes. It would have been very nice to do some video work about all these Chinese-Americans coming to China for the first time, discovering their roots for real. They’re used to their Chinatowns…” Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews (Conversations With Filmmakers)
The film/TV acting career of star James Hong (Lo Pan) already extended back thirty years by the time of Big Trouble in Little China; and his filmography yields up certain patterns. He played son Barry to the Orientalized Irish-American star of TV’s “New Adventures of Charlie Chan”. He waited tables in sundry Chinese restaurants for decades—not in reality, say to augment the income from his steady acting work–but in roles as an actor. He was on many occasions A Man Without a Name Credited Only To His Function. His CV is littered with roles bearing titles/honorifics: he’s been “Corporal Lee” and “Major Chong” and “General Chao”; and Drs. “Hong,” “Chen Lin,” and “Lee”; and Messrs. “Chang,” “Wong,” “Shaw,” “Chung,” “Lee,” “Hong,” “Nguyen,” etc. He was even on a few occasions Hop Sing’s #3 Cousin. By dint of his long career, he’d become something like a pan-Asian Diaspora-in-a-man.
Jeff Adachi’s 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen is full of very compelling talking-head interviews with Asian-American actors – veterans and current performers alike – all frankly describing the peculiar frustrations of their professional careers due to their ethnicity–or, rather, to the industry’s formulation of their ethnicity and its effects. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, now a familiar actor but in Big Trouble In Little China only an extra, speaks in the documentary of his personal philosophy of playing stereotypes only to move beyond them:
” To me, it’s about how to effectively create change. If it means we have to pass through this to get there, then I’m willing to go that far with it. I have a purpose, it is to make change. And if it means playing stereotypes at this moment, I’ll do it…and we’re going on…My goal is to effect the change of our images.”
A few choice bits from Colin MacCabe’s only occasionally credulous Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy:
In many interviews that [Godard] is to give to underground leftist journals in the late sixties and early seventies, the linking of his own oppression to the struggle in Vietnam is a constant theme. His solidarity with the Vietnamese is not born from a liberal sympathy for their predicament, but from his own experience of the very same predicament [emphasis mine]. Godard is careful to note that the oppression of a 35-year-old successful film-maker in the West is not as grievous as the Vietnamese direct experience of imperialist aggression, but he is nonetheless insistent that the oppression is the same [emphasis mine]. And that oppression is understood both as economic and aesthetic. (182)
and also this:
[Claude] Nedjar now persuaded Godard and [wife Anne] Wiazemsky to join him in a trip to the frozen north [i.e., Canada] where they broadcast selections from Mao’s Little Red Book and invited the local population to come and make their revolutionary demands known. But after only three days, when no members of the town had come forward to seize the microphone and Wiazemsky was unable to cope with the temperature of 25 below zero, their atttempt at Canadian revolution was abandoned. On the drive south, Nedjar and Godard planned a book on the links between Maoism and climate. (214)
A writer named Eileen Jones from the erstwhile (and incorrigible – “God bless ’em!” as Sarah!™ would say) eXile has unleashed her wrath on Pixar; and I couldn’t agree more…
This Time, Pixar Has Gone Too Far
By Eileen Jones, eXiled Online
June 3, 2009
The latest Pixar film Up is being received as if it were better than the Second Coming. It represents the Pixar team’s effort to be even more lugubrious than in their last animated film — more lugubrious than in their last five animated films — hell, more lugubrious than their personal god Walt Disney ever dreamed of being in his thirty years of lugubrious filmmaking. It’s a high-stakes game: we’ll see your Jiminy Cricket and raise you five Pollyannas, says Pixar. We’ll throw in ten-thousand dalmations and the ghost of Old Yeller. We’ll stuff you with sunbeams, choke you with hugs, smother you with the warm chuckles of reformed curmudgeons, waterboard you with the gushing tears of a million pathetic orphans.
The public loves this, it goes without saying. But the critics have gotten so besotted they’re egging Pixar on to dangerously high glucose levels….[more here]
To be honest, staging an approach to Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu from the West – decades of precedents and even the share of this part of the incipient Cineastes project notwithstanding – feels a bit like taking the place of a marauding warrior in the film: hungry, hasty, scanning for a scrap of received wisdom. With some research I can find, for instance, summary explications of mono no aware, the poignant quality of impermanence latent in all things; and I believe that this concept is a key to understanding this film–to feeling it, even. But I feel a bit presumptuous in marshaling this concept, and also whatever bits of received wisdom regarding Buddhism I carry in my head, as a critical solution to the film.
–but only a bit presumptuous. Are explicit statements of the transience of all things in a film (in words and dramatic action) rendered somehow opaque and obscure, when couched in a Buddhist context? If I were to think so, how would that notion differ from the cataractous idea of an Inscrutable Orient, after Forster? In any case, Ugetsu is for any viewer stalking the earth totally pellucid and in no way fogged with metaphysics. This quality could stem from the technique of Mizoguchi and screenwriters Matsutaro Kawaguchi and Yoshikata Yoda; or from the lucid and direct quality of Buddhism or the aesthetic principle of mono no aware; or (best of all) from the vision of a crystal-clear aesthetic principle as seen through the orthoscopic lens of an elegant technique.
Donald Richie counterposes the characters of Japanese and Western cinema in simple axioms in his “A Definition of the Japanese Film” (in A Lateral View):
|The Japanese realize that the only reality is surface reality. They have no sense of hidden reality, no sense of conscience. They are a people without private guilt, though they do have social shame.||The West refuses to believe that surface reality is the only reality. For this reason Western religions suggest after-life and stress private conscience. Westerners have little sense of social shame but a great sense of private guilt.|
Even in the unlikely case that Richie’s generalizations hit askance of every other bit of Japanese cinema, I’m certain that here he’s hit the virtues of Ugetsu dead-on. More helpfully, what he’s said about the West gives some clue as to the peculiar virtues of the film relative to any Western film involving material ambition, marital infidelity, and ghosts.
Ugetsu has the ingredients of a domestic tragedy–but it doesn’t develop from that and doesn’t terminate there. As the film is faithful to Genjuro’s plight (with interludes of Tobei’s kyogen/comic-like storyline), it hits the road to Nagahama right at the start. The film begins with war threatening and Genjuro and Tobei hot for the opportunities it affords, peppered weakly by their wives’ chiding…until finally the war rolls over them and there is no longer a home-front to defend against ambition. No sooner does the domestic principle of hearth-and-home enter the frame than it’s behind us. (And in this respect Ugetsu reminds me a bit of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt [published 1867]–though, again, with Richie’s cultural-aesthetic comparisons in mind. The rough shape of Peer Gynt can be found in other places in cinema c.f. Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth .)
Miyagi is herself in a way already a spirit even when alive, a domestic hearth-spirit, the voice of principle: happy not for the kimono her husband buys her with his first windfall, but as she says “for the kindness of [his] heart.” She preaches sufficiency.
Genjuro’s kiln is like a burlesque of the hearth, as he tenders and frets over it. But his hearth burns brightly and quickly, and besides baking pots also kindles an insatiable material lust, and chases him back out on the roads to town with his wares. As Miyagi is a domestic hearth-spirit, Genjuro is a restless peripatetic creature. The world of the film accords with Genjuro, who has directed his path forward by the lights of the war. The world is made peripatetic, moving by back roads, and making and striking camp; and it’s absolutely inhospitable to women. Ohama’s stint in the whorehouse is like a proxy for the domestic arrangement she’s lost to the war. The song she sings earlier, while rowing on the lake, that “the world is but a temporary abode,” carries a literal significance beyond the religious one: “home” is destroyed, and families routed. Marauding troops forage like rats, are raping and murdering women, and stealing the men away as slaves. Principle is trounced under the weight of silver pieces. “Wisdom,” such as it is, rests on the palpable example: Genjuro knows only that the war’s a boon to his trade in pots. The dangers are profound – it’s an impossible situation these people are in – but the film doesn’t belabor the fact.
One mark of Mizoguchi’s mastery on this film is how, in his treatment of the ghost stories, he tips his hat as a matter of technique: how he tamps the sort of resonating ambiguities (is she real, or is she a ghost?), and shocks of suspense (she’s a ghost!), which many another filmmaker would have loaded into his/her narrative. (Dreyer’s Vampyr  is another great example of a film matter-of-factly introducing its supernatural elements.) Every ghost-movie which bloats its economy with ambiguities and shocks like these is hijacked, even if only a bit, by those devices. Mizoguchi makes the entry into dream or spirit realms patently clear with an hypnotic cue in Fumio Hayasaka’s score, where harp and celesta play arpeggios (a device Benjamin Britten used similarly to introduce the character Quint in his opera setting of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which premiered a year after Ugetsu). When it sounds, this musical cue – communicating as it does some kind of mental transport – leaves no ambiguity as to whether or not we’re on firm ground.
Genjuro “finds” the shade of Lady Wakasa along the path of his material delusion traced from the lust for quick money to reveries over a merchant’s luxurious kimonos. From the reverie over those kimonos he falls into the Kutsuki Manor illusion, where his pottery and those fine kimonos are apt–where not only the product of the work of his hands, but also his dreams win a sublime, rarefied context, out of nowhere: ” The value of people and things truly depends on their setting,” he says, coddled in the manor’s luxury. And here the lines of Genjuro’s and Tobei’s stories run parallel, with both men kind of falling up to become usurpers: Genjuro as the Lord of the Manor, seeing his wares through different eyes as high-aesthetic artifacts; and Tobei as a grand Samurai, instructing young aspirants in the Great Samurai’s curriculum (“Tactics: The Koshu school. Firearms: Karamaru school.”) . The kimonos for Genjuro and the armor for Tobei begin as fetish-objects, but those objects in turn spawn palpable, self-reflexive fantasies.
The approach to Kutsuki Manor is like the approach to Charles Foster Kane’s decrepit Xanadu behind its “No Trespassing” sign: the trio of Lady Wakasa, Genjuro and the old nurse walk behind high reeds which tower in the foreground and occlude the shot. The ragged gate swings creaking in the wind, and opens onto a neglected stone path. The screen doors are rotted and stripped, and the walls crumbling.
Her gates are gates of death, and from the entrance of the house
She sets out towards Sheol.
None of those who enter there will ever return,
And all who possess her will descend to the Pit.
— Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q184
Genjuro’s entrance into the manor behind the old nurse reveals the screen doors and the courtyard’s stone paths whole again, arranged just so; and, again, the film doesn’t play the restoration for illusion or shock purposes. Mizoguchi’s sovereign illusion up to this point in the sequence has been to render the decrepit face of Kutsuki Manor. The heart of the manor’s illusion is immaculate: mannered, high-cultural, contemplatively and idly poised towards beauty. Lady Wakasa’s statement that “the fruit of experience is beauty,” directed ostensibly at Genjuro’s pottery, is enriched with irony when one reflects that this woman died young, is forever young, and has rejuvenated a ruin around herself. The ruin of the manor isn’t in fact decorous, whether in the form Genjuro sees as they approach it or when the illusion has completely gone, and he sees the kimonos hanging on the charred beams. I believe that the film doesn’t belabor Genjuro’s personal and moral dilemma of marital neglect/infidelity because it is dwarfed by the age-old natural struggle indexed on the ruined face of the manor.
Ghostly Miyagi’s last go-round at the hearth fire on her husband’s return is burlesqued, I think (though almost certainly not consciously) in a scene in Juzo Itami’s comedy Tampopo (1985) in which a distraught widower orders his newly-dead wife back alive to go in the kitchen and prepare her family one last meal–after which the woman promptly dies, again.
Miyagi reaches her apotheosis as what seems to me an instance of the nebulously-defined ewig weibliche, or “Eternal Feminine.” This is as it seems to me, anyway; but I have to note that Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), author of among many other things the stories on which Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) is based, denies that the Eternal Feminine (by which he means the idolization of women, and feminine beauty as an essential aesthetic principle) had ever taken any hold in Japanese culture or society. But her voiceover in the last scene, studio-recorded with just a touch of reverb, has the pervasive air of divinity (“I’m not dead. I’m by your side. Your illusions are gone now.”).