segunda-feira, 14 de agosto de 2017


quinta-feira, 27 de julho de 2017


Galeyev, B. M.

Abstract cinema is a specific branch of cinematography, a marginal and experimental art in relation to cinema art itself (which is figurative art in its basis). It is regarded as part of cinema art rather due to their common technical equipment than common art means, language and purposes. But abstract cinema uses this equipment (camera - film strip- projector - screen) in a specific way. Traditional cinematography is based on "reproduction" technology, when photographic images of real objects, recorded on the film, are then reproduced on a screen. On the other hand, in abstract cinema, the "productive" technology is used (the artist creates abstract images first in imagination, then transfers them to the film strip by means of animation and multiplication technique).
From an historical point of view, the experiments with abstract films were inspired by the search for true features of the cinema art, at its beginning. This led to a situation described in an ancient Indian parable about blind men disputing an elephant's nature. Just in the same way, in the absence of reliable knowledge, artists and theorists were giving quite different views on the nature of cinema art. Some of them regarded cinema (especially films with actors) as a sort of mechanical, electric extension of theatre, as a "recorded" theatre play. Others focused attention on the obvious closeness between cinema and literature (cinema as "visual literature"). The next group emphasized even more close links between cinema and figurative art (cinema as "moving pictures"). And, at last, a dynamic action and expressiveness of cinema images, an important role of rhythm, plasticity and light, naturally led to one more extreme definition of cinema as "visual music", reflecting its closeness to music and dance (even in the first silent period).
This formed the basis of such concepts as "photogenie" by L. Delluc, "music of movement" by V. Lindsey, "visual symphony" by P. Wegener, "music of light" by S. Eisenstein, "integral cinema" by G. Dulac, and "cinema-eye" by D. Vertov. Most often the practical embodiment of such concepts of "pure", "absolute" art resulted in a plotless montage of moving photoimages, that sometimes were deformed intentionally, during either the shooting or film developing process. The abstract tendency in these experiments is obvious, though, strictly speaking, most of them were of rather surrealistic character (like "Emak Bakia" by M. Ray, "Ballet Mecanique" by F. Leger, etc.).
It is more natural to assign the term "abstract" to the cinema school that uses multiplication technique for abstract images animation. The leaders of this trend saw the way out of a "borderline" crisis in figurative art at the beginning of the 20th century exactly in assimilation of movement. W. Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, also dreamed about it. But he saw the possibility for this assimilation only in the stage in "abstract" theatre, and, strangely enough, had overlooked the great chance given by immaterial, ephemeral cinema projection.
As early as 1912, the French artist L. Survage began to work on an abstract film "Colored Rhythms" (which remained unfinished due to the beginning of World War I). The first real result in this area was obtained by Swedish artist V. Eggeling (silent black-and-white film "Diagonal symphony", 1917). Then a series of short multiplication films were made in Germany: "Rhythms" by H. Richter, "Opus" by W. Ruttmann, "Etudes" by O. Fischinger. Even the titles of these works show their music genesis and attitude.
But, for all the refined plasticity and dynamics in the "dance" of abstract images, they were received by the common audience as merely "experiments for their own sake". They did not justify the declared merit of "music for eyes", being rather formal abstract pantomime, somewhat resembling the nonsense verses from L. Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There":
Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe...
No wonder that the estimations of these films were usually negative - such as "asocial" (given by W. Ruttmann himself later on), "tedious" (S. Krackauer), "meaningless" (B.Balacs, E.Toeplitz), "trinkets" (S. Eisenstein), "child's kaleidoscope" (J. Epstein).
The merits and corresponding appreciations of abstract films changed abruptly, when cinema ceased to be "silent". Now the artists began to make films to specific music. (In his later "Etudes" O. Fischinger used music of "Sorcerer's Apprentice" by P. Dukas, and "Hungarian Dances no. 5 and 6" by J. Brahms). Such films appeared to be "visual portraits" of music, being enriched with music intonation, content and meaning. (In a similar way, sound and gesture are united in dance, which becomes "senseless" and "dull", taken separately from music). Actually, in this case the pioneers of abstract cinema solved problems of not only cinema art, but that of new adjacent art - light-music. (As it is known, light-music is "instrumental" development of dance). Just as Columbus, trying to find a new way to India, discovered a new continent instead, the abstract cinema artists in their sometimes inarticulate experiments actually discovered the language of a new arising art, a true "music for eye and ear". They were often unaware of that, resembling well-known personage who did not know that he spoke prose throughout all his life. The first sound abstract films by O. Fischinger draw much attention from light-music experimentators, and were demonstrated at International Congresses "Farbe-Ton-Forschungen" (Germany, 1927-1931).*  O. Fischinger achieved results which were even closer to light-music, when he went to the USA and had the opportunity to make more color films. During this period he created such great works as "An Optical Poem" (1938) [1937] to the music of "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" by F. Liszt, and other films, ending with "Motion Painting No. 1" (1949) [1947] to the music of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3" by J.S. Bach.
Very far from ordinary cinema and closer to painting and light-music were the films of English-Canadian artist N. McLaren (1914-1987) who deserved the title of "great" cinema multiplicator from his contemporaries. He abandoned the use of a cinema camera completely and developed an original "manual" technique, scratching colored images by hand onto the surface of the film strip. It's worth noting that this technique was a further development (to the extreme possible limit) of previous attempts made by L. Lye (New Zealand) and A. Avraamov. N. McLaren achieved his greatest results in such films as "Begone Dull Care" (1949) to music by O. Peterson, and "Lines: Horizontal" (1962) to music by P. Seeger.
In our country the first experiments with plotless (though object, landscape) visualization of music were made by G. Alexandrov in the film to music of "Sentimental Romance" by A. Archangelsky (1930). Later, in 1931, M. Tzechanovsky made another object film "Pacific" to music by A. Honegger. The first true abstract film, only 50 seconds long, was made by N. Voinov (1931) to the music of "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" by S. Rachmaninov. Although this film was black-and-white, it undoubtedly belongs to light-music genre.
The next attempts of this kind were undertaken in the design office "Prometheus" (Kazan). These experimental films from the very beginning were aimed to light-music applications. Some of them were made "to music" (of Scriabin's "Prometheus", 1964-1965; of Sviridov's "Small triptych", 1975). The rest were made using "reverse method". In this method, silent colored abstract film is prepared first; then either newly-made musical accompaniment or appropriate music play is compiled with the visual part ("Eternal Motion", 1969; "Space Sonata", 1981). In the opinion of the producer of these films B. Galeyev, the "reverse method" allowed one to avoid some shortcomings inherent in trivial visualization of music, and to use in a more fundamental way the "sight-hearing polyphony".
The elements of abstract cinema (including light-music) can be readily inserted in science-fiction films, especially those connected with "outer space" themes ("2001: A Space Odyssey" by S. Kubrick, 1968; "Space-Earth-Space" by B.Travkin, 1970). The active assimilation of video and computer animation technique provides new possibilities for synthesis of abstract images with music. This can be seen from the programs of recent festivals of experimental art ("Imagina", "Siggraph", "Ars Electronica", "Impakt" in Western countries, and "Anigraph", "Third Realm" in Russia).

Light-music in cinema and on TV (theses). - Kazan: KAI Press, 1989.
Schamoni V. Das Lichtspiel: moglichreiten des absoluten Films (Diss). - Munich, 1926.
Cremerius U. Der abstrakte Avantgardefilm. Ein Beitrage zur Filmpoesie (Diss). - Koeln, 1986.
Poetique de la couleur. Une histoire du cinema experimental (Anthology). - Paris: Auditorium du Louvre/Institute de l'image, 1995.
CVM notes
* The final Farbe-Ton-Forschungen Kongress was held in 1933
Eggeling's "Diagonal Symphony" is elsewhere attributed to 1921, 1924, or 1921-1924
Corrected dates for Fischinger's films are shown in brackets (source: Fischinger Archive)

Luís Miguel Oliveira sobre Léonce Perret

Léonce Perret (1880-1935) é um daqueles pioneiros cuja obra foi caindo num semi-esquecimento (ou mesmo num esquecimento total) ao longo dos anos, em parte acentuado pelo desaparecimento dos materiais e dos filmes. Teve um percurso com aspectos curiosos. Menos por ter começado nos palcos de teatro, como actor, transitando daí para o cinema, ainda como actor, e passando depois à realização (no que é um trajecto bastante comum). E mais por ter sido um dos primeiros franceses a tentar a sorte no cinema americano – para onde seguiu em 1917, chegando a fundar sua própria companhia em 1921, a Perret Productions, que no entanto teria vida curta. Na América, mas já depois de fechada a sua empresa, Perret assinou (para a Famous Players-Lasky) um Madame Sans Gêne, em 1924, hoje um “lost movie”, que deu que falar e que era um dos filmes preferidos de Gloria Swanson de entre todos os que fizera. Le Haleur, realizado em 1911, é um filme da fase inicial da carreira de Perret, que se caracteriza, segundo podemos saber, pela insistência nos cenários naturais e pelo à vontade que neles Perret revelava. É evidentemente, um dos factores que mais salta à vista no visionamento de Le Haleur, sobretudo pelo seu tratamento simbólico. Filme fatalista sobre a “reversibilidade” da carga simbólico da natureza e dos objectos, é o facto de ser tão curto e tão despojado que o torna surpreendente. Só há dois movimentos: primeiro, a felicidade, com os noivos e o casamento; depois a noiva cai fulminada, abruptamente, como que atingida por um raio, e entra-se no segundo movimento (a infelicidade), com a dor do noivo a ser acompanhada pelos mesmos cenários e pelos mesmos elementos (as árvores, as flores), agora exprimindo emoções e sensações de sinal contrário. Como exploração do poder “transfigurador” do cinema trata-se de uma curiosíssima (e sequíssima) experiência.

Cinephilia in the Age of the Post-Cinematographic (Malte Hagener, 2015)

This article first appeared in L’Atalante. Revista de estudios cinematográficos, issue 18, July-December 2014. We are very grateful to the editors for allowing us to republish it here.
One can describe the era we have entered – the period of DVD and VoD, of LCD and LED, of smart-phones and tablets, of streaming and files – as the post-cinematographic age in which the film has become immanent to our lives, thought and behaviour, while the traditional site at which spectators would encounter images and sounds, the cinema, is slowly but steadily shifting into obsolescence.1 If the cinema in its traditional sense is vanishing, what then is happening to cinephilia? Rather than being nostalgically tied to a specific space and place – the auditorium – or to a specific carrier and method for presenting moving images – projection of 35mm on a reflecting surface before a paying audience – I want to propose that cinephilia is rather characterized by a specific attitude towards the filmic and a way of experiencing audiovisual material. After outlining the classic period of cinephilia – the 1950s and 1960s – I want to sketch how we might begin to understand the transformations that “cinephilia” has undergone in the age of the post-cinematographic. I consider cinephilia to be a practice always exceeding the fixity and stability of meaning, an active way of appropriating the world and its images in an idiosyncratic fashion. My take on cinephilia therefore looks to the past in order to attempt an outline of how cinephilia in the 21st Century might be shaped.2

I. Cinephilia 1.0 – Cinémathèque, Cahiers and Nouvelle Vague

“Classic” Cinephilia, a socially and culturally situated practice, first emerged fully blown in 1950s Paris as a specific attitude towards films. In his cultural history of cinephilia, Antoine de Baecque characterizes the practice as a view (“un régard”), a way of watching films and speaking about them, and a certain manner of spreading a discourse which provides the cinema with a context.3 In the screenings at the Cinémathèque française, where the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma gathered, but also in other Parisian theaters such as the MacMahon, a taste culture developed that took the cinema seriously both as an art form and as a specific manner of experience. Cinephilia was supported by magazines and tied to sites and places – the cinemas itself, the seats which individuals occupied by habit, cafés and editorial offices as meeting points and arenas for debate. These configurations gave birth to relatively rigid group structures that were most often, it has to be said, heterosexist, patriarchal and hierarchical. Watching films at the cinema, often several per day, counted as a substitute for film schools which the later protagonists of the Nouvelle Vague did not attend, while writing about films initially took the place of making films; in fact, launching and defending specific positions in public was often meant to be understood as making films with other means. And indeed, for Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer and Chabrol, it proved to be only a small step from being a critic to being a filmmaker, from a cinephile to a cineast.
A central aspect of classic cinephilia is the often idiosyncratic and original perspective on films that went hand in hand with a similarly personal style of visiting the cinema. Indeed, spatial as well as temporal aspects of watching films became an integral part of the cinema experience. Telling in this respect is the self-characterisation of Jean Douchet, a fellow traveller of the Nouvelle Vague, key author of the Cahiers du cinémaand teacher at the film school IDHEC in the 1970s, who describes the cinema visit as a cultish and ritual experience in which every action has a significance and nothing can be left to chance:
I have to enter the auditorium by the right-hand stairway and aisle. Then I sit to the right of the screen, preferably in the aisle seat, so that I can stretch my legs. This is not just a matter of physical comfort, or the view: I have constructed this vision for myself. For a long time, at the Cinémathéque, I sat in the front row, in the middle, with no one in front to disturb me, in order to be completely immersed in the show, always alone. Even today, it’s impossible for me to go to the cinema with anyone; it disrupts my emotion. But over the years and after many films, I’ve drawn back a bit, off to the right, and I’ve found my axis toward the screen. At the same time, I’ve positioned my spectatorial body with minute care, adopting three basic positions: streched out on the ground, legs draped over the seat in front of me, and, finally, my favorite but the most difficult position to achieve, the body folded in four with the knees pressed against the back of the seat in front of me.4
Jean Douchet’s favoured body posture acquired legendary status – or how else could a British cinephile like Thomas Elsaesser have heard about it in London before coming to Paris, as he confesses in his own éducation cinephilique: “Stories about the fetal position that Jean Douchet would adopt every night in the second row of the Cinémathèque Palais de Chaillot had already made the rounds before I became a student in Paris in 1967 and saw it with my own eyes…”5 The attention to the space and time of projection, to the specific experiential aspects of visiting the cinema, coupled with an adherence to the faintest detail, is central to this form of cinephilia.
It is important to keep in mind that every projection of a film is a singular event. The site- and time-specificity of film viewing – at what time do I watch which copy of a film, in which auditorium, on which seat, with whom, and under which circumstances – exceeds the meaning that a text can generated semiotically. The meaning of a film is not only constituted by textual cues, but also by aspects of transmission and contagion, of intensity and interaction between film and spectator, between audience and projection that depends as much on the specific disposition of the individual as on the film as an aesthetic object. To rephrase Heraklit: No man ever steps in the same film twice.
Yet again, if the film experience is so singular, how is it possible to achieve intersubjectivity, to communicate about it? A key to understanding cinephilia is its capability of connecting subjectivity and objectivity transforming a radically subjective practice into an intersubjective experience that enables communication. On the one hand, cinephilia implies a radical centering of the self, on the other hand stands the search for shared value judgments which opens up identity towards others. The affirmation of the self in its insular solipsism meets with a (verbal, written) externalisation of ideas that have to prove themselves in the eyes of others. It is on this field between radical individuality and connoisseurship or taste culture as social marks of distinction that French-inflected cinephilia developed in the course of the 1960s. Not only Antoine de Baecque marks 1968 as the endpoint, when the so called “affaire cinémathèque“ turned out to be the dress rehearsal for the failed revolt of spring and summer 1968. The removal of Henri Langlois in February 1968 as head of the Cinémathèque by the French cultural minister André Malraux led to public protests by artists, intellectuals and cinephiles that lasted until Langlois was reinstated – a victory over the state apparatus that did not repeat itself three months later in May 1968.
In the 1970s then, academic film studies took over and substituted libidinous affection with a deep-seated mistrust that found perhaps its most formative expressions in Jean-Louis Baudry‘s apparatus-theory and in Laura Mulvey’s theses on the male gaze.6 Both theories argued against the significance of the single film instead turning towards the overriding structures dominating the cinema as apparatus and dispositif. Baudry claimed that the spatial and apparative configuration of the cinema, no matter which film was being shown, was part of a potent machinery of power and domination to which the spectator readily subjected him/herself in a search for pre-symbolic happiness and wholeness. Mulvey, on the other hand, related the different gaze structures inherent in the cinema as a technical medium but also as a storytelling machine to the century-old social discrimination of women. One can see these strongly negative, dystopian ideas about the cinema as expressions of disappointed love and, therefore, as a reaction to the (perceived) failure of 1968, the missed chance of radical political and social change that many hoped for in the late 1960s. Cinephilia, in any case, until the mid- to late 1990s was not a term that promised political or cultural surplus value, but it was used – if at all – as a disclaimer for a romantic and apolitical attitude towards the cinema which had to be overcome.
Cinephilia can be seen as a theoretical practice – or, vice versa, a practically applied theory. As in the case of photogénie, the unrepeatable and therefore unique experience of the cinema projection is highlighted. If we follow this idea that film is not a stable text or a reproducible artifact, but a unique event, film is not anymore a commodity of the entertainment industry or a medium of social communication, but it becomes part of a biography like accidental meetings and other supposedly contingent things of life. In this perspective, cinema is the place where energy is liberated connecting the individual with the film and thus coupling and short-circuiting him/her with further discourses and affectivities. In this sense, cinephilia sees the cinema as trans-subjective, as a medium that is capable of questioning, deconstructing, and reconfiguring the boundaries between individuals. This also hints at the processuality and instability, even the contradictory nature and the necessary failure of any process of subjectivisation that the cinema uncovers and thematizes if taken as a means of expression capable of reflexivity. Cinephilia then can be seen as a paradoxical structure of feeling, a specific disposition that is both radically subjective, but strives for communication and understanding. In a way, cinephilia corresponds to the peculiar viewing situation in the cinema when one is at the same time alone with one’s feelings and thoughts while being situated within a group of strangers that might temporarily turn into a community through shared laughter, tears, and emotions.

II. Immanence of the cinema and the post-cinematographic

It is by now widely acknowledged that the cinema has lost much of its material, textual, economic and cultural stability, instead giving way to a fuzzy and ubiquitous omnipresence. The cinema in its traditional configuration is losing cultural significance, while film as a specific form of affective address, temporal structure and narrative organization has become the implicit norm of moving image culture. As Francesco Casetti has argued, the cinema as medium is not anymore tied to a specific apparatus, but rather to the memory of an experience and to a cultural idea which he described as follows:
The traits that define the form of our experience of cinema are […] a relationship with images in movement, mechanically reproduced and projected onto a screen; a sensory intensity, tied most closely with the visual; a constriction of distance with the world; the opening up of a fantastical universe which is just as concrete as the real one; and finally, the sense of collective participation. These are the characteristics that allow other situations to appear or to be understood as cinematographic. However, these traits do not come to light only in theory – we extract them from our habits. Film theatres still exist and we continue to attend the cinema; every time we do, we experience the same cardinal elements and engage in the same behaviors. In essence, we can count on a consolidated experience that at every step confirms what cinema gives us and what it asks of us.7
What follows from these observations is that the cinema has penetrated the fabric of everyday life to such a degree that it appears senseless to talk of the relationship between reality and cinema in any traditional way (real/copy, signifier/signified, sign/referent, condition/symptom). We can no longer claim that there exists on the one hand a reality untouched by media while on the other hand there is the media which is depicting or representing this world. We live in an age of the immanence of media in which there is no transcendental horizon from which we can evaluate the ubiquitous mediatised expressions and experiences.
The term immanence evokes Gilles Deleuze’ philosophy which attempts to break out of the binary logic between subjectivity and objectivity, between percepts and perceiver, between inside and outside. The plane of immanence – as described by Deleuze and Guattari – forms the absolute ground from which one has to start thinking, an immanence not opposed to transcendence, but immanent unto itself. In this sense, the media could be said to form a plane of immanence since there is no possibility of thinking outside or beyond it. Our experience – our memory and subjectivity, our percepts and affects, our images of ourselves and the world – are always already mediatised, so we are in the cinema, even if we are not physically there. We have entered an era of media consciousness in which our sense of self and world are guided by frameworks related to the cinema and media at large. It is in this sense that Deleuze has referred to his cinema books as “a natural history of images”, in which the cinema becomes the (second) nature and life we all inhabit.
If this is true, then there can be no fundamental doubt about the audiovisual world that has become so pervasive and omnipresent in our world because there is no outside position, no place where one can escape mediated images. As Patricia Pisters, paraphrasing Gilles Deleuze, has put it: “we now live in a metacinematic universe that calls for an immanent conception of audiovisuality and in which a new camera consciousness has entered our perception.”8 This moves us beyond the classical philosophical opposition of pitching ontology – something outside the subject in the world – versus epistemology – everything being located in the perceiving subject. Instead, this position argues for the immanence of mediatised images in us and the immanence of us in these images – the distinction between an act of perception and the perceiving subject breaks down as the plane of immanence offers a realm that is beyond the traditional opposition between transcendence and immanence. This is something that cinephiles always already knew – the cinema is not a world apart unto itself, separated from life as a representation or a mere shadow of reality, but it is part of the same substance and it does not make much sense to draw any clear distinction between life and film. Finally, it seems, the immanent reality of media has caught up with cinephilia (or vice versa) – and this could be at least one reason for the revival of the concept.

III. Art Appropriating Film: Theft, Reverence or Blissful Ignorance?

While traditionally, film attempted to borrow the mantle of art from literature, painting, sculpture and music in order to be recognized as a serious form of expression, this relationship has been radically reconfigured, if not turned upside down, as contemporary art of the past twenty years has increasingly appropriated film and cinema as its source material. This is a further argument for the immancence of the cinema as visual artists increasingly discover film not only as a reservoir of visual imagery, but as a central aspect of the world one has to deal with. The remediation of film in installation work can be found in many already classic examples since the late 1980s – and this list is very far from complete: Matthias Müller’s reworking of 1950s Hollywood melodrama, Douglas Gordon’s treatment of classic movies by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Henry King and others, Steve McQueen’s homage to Buster Keaton and others, Pierre Huyghe’s examination of temporal aspects of film, or Monica Bonvicini’s work dealing with power, space and gender in the cinema. Many of these installation works walk the line between cinephile practices and art traditions, but all share an understanding of how the canon of film from the 20th Century provides a cultural reservoir of images, characters, situations and narratives that have become our second nature.
I want to discuss one specific work to exemplify how cinephile practices have entered the mainstream of cultural production. I am aware that it is probably not particularly innovative to evoke Christian Marclay’s blockbuster installation The Clock which made the global round at art festivals since 2010, winning one of the main prizes at the Venice Biennale and creating buzz everywhere it was shown. It has garnered similar amounts of praise and criticism and I am not interested in putting myself into either camp, be it the detractors or the fan boys.9 What I rather want to propose is to look at the kind of relationship to filmic material the installation allows for or even requires. Marclay‘s work, a montage of shots from (mainly) commercial feature films, is based on a simple, yet highly effective premise, that of real time which is transposed onto the cinema in its entirety. The projection consists of clips from films that deal with time, that show clocks or other markers of diegetic time. These hints can be subtle and hidden as a clock tower in the far background or open and direct as the insert of a wrist watch, while someone mentions the time. Intradiegetic time always corresponds exactly to extradiegetic time, so a shot that shows the time to be 2.37pm is being shown in the installation at exactly 2.37pm. Quite logically, the installation has a running time of 24 hours, so film becomes a second nature reproducing the daily routine of work, sleep, eating and leisure time, while also perpetually renewing itself incessantly because a new day always follows the old one. Just like life, The Clock never stops. It has an almost irresistible draw, but it also shows the banality of every day being exactly the same as the one before.
The Clock has been shown exclusively as an installation piece within art institutions, never at cinemas or film festivals, even though one could imagine the work to be marketed on DVD or as a video stream. Marclay consciously controls and limits his work (which is, in principle, endlessly reproducible) to specific contexts; it was widely reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma) paid close to half a million Dollar for a copy of the work, mixing indignation about the allegedly inflated price with the knowledge of exclusivity that results from it. Apart from limited runs at galleries, museums and art festivals, only six copies exist in museums around the world (among them such seminal institutions as the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and Centre Pompidou).10 Somewhat paradoxically, this artificial limitation of a (reproducible) work which refers to the logic of the art market, implies, even demands, a spectatorial disposition that foregrounds the uniqueness of the filmic event, something seemingly lost in the digital age. As one cannot buy The Clock on DVD or have access in other ways, one is dependent on specific places and times to see the work. Interestingly, most reviews mention the context of encountering the work, the travel involved, the wait and anticipation, the time one entered and left again, the battle against fatigue and other contextual factors. In former times, this was part and parcel of cinephilia when one often had to travel to see a particular film or retrospective. Generations of cinephiles have experienced tension and anticipation before a projection – the knowledge that this will be possibly the only chance to encounter that specific work for a long time renders the experience specific. The resulting attitude attempts to absorb every sound and image because one consciously knows the uniqueness of the event – The Clock supports a similar mindset, as the piece is hard to see and almost impossible to watch in its entirety at a single occasion.
Clearly, the work uses two key elements familiar from modernist aesthetics which are central to cinephilia if seen as a specifically modern practice – fragmentation and montage. Cinephilia is less interested in the rational understanding of a plot or in the logical reconstruction of the motives of characters, but it rather uses details and juxtapositions in order to pry open a work towards new significance and meaning. Marclay himself readily admits that he hardly ever watches whole films, but is rather interested in the unexpected connections and contrasts he finds when channel-surfing in a foreign hotel room late at night. Just as Jean Epstein highlighted the detail in his thinking about photogénie and the close-up11, just like the surrealists would walk in and out of films in order to forge new and unexpected connections12The Clockunderlines the particular temporal logic that comes with these practices.
In a different way, but similarly related to (classic) cinephilia, The Clock supports a manner of reception that focuses on the recognition of actors and films. In this respect, the work is based on a very direct structure of gratification because one is constantly asked to guess the titles and actors. Since the fragments are invariably short (unlike, let’s say Andy Warhol’s or Douglas Gordon’s durational pieces), this game is highly entertaining. With longer viewing, other questions move into the foreground – sometimes one sees within minutes the same actor in films shot decades apart and within an endlessly recurring day aspects of aging and decay are foregrounded. Or, the relationship between one’s own life and the installation move into focus when one leaves the installation to eat at lunch time, while one sees many food-related clips. In these respects, Marclay’s work is a complex reflection on different forms of temporality and subjectivity in a world of the immanence of film and media because time (the daily routines, the logics of plot construction, the different ages of a human life) cannot be thought separate from media. Time, of course, has been a core concern of film studies for many years – from André Bazin to Gilles Deleuze, from Jean Epstein to Mary Ann Doane – but here it is coupled with the specificities of the installation and the peculiarities of the art system, as well as with new forms of access and availability which raises a whole set of new questions.
Of course, the many ticking clocks, the inexorable onslaught of time can also be seen as a memento mori, a stark reminder of our own mortality. In The Clock it is no longer clear what my relation to time is – am I master of my own life as subject or am I subjected to the installation which only shows me time passing, reminds me of the many hours and days I have spent in the cinema and now I am spending in an installation consisting of film fragments? In this sense, the subject-object-relation is being questioned and reconfigured as the grotesque repetition of the clock face incessantly manifests itself on the screen – unlike a film in the cinema, it does not anymore have a beginning or an end, it just continues as the stream of life.

IV. Cinephilia and the politics of film criticism

A controversial example might help to focus in closing on the question of the political ramifications of film analysis and the future of cinephilia in the age of (seemingly) unlimited access. Room 237 (US 2012, Rodney Ascher) is a documentary offering five interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, from the comprehensible (the film is an allegory of the genocide on the Native Americans) to the hilarious and outrageous (Kubrick’s apology to his wife for staging the fake moon landing). Some critics have reproached the film for refusing to take a position, even as it presents absurd interpretations as a result of critical and theoretical, one might say: cinephile, reasoning. Here is Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Unlike his five experts, Ascher won’t take the risk of being wrong himself by behaving like a critic and making comparative judgments about any of the arguments or positions shown, so he inevitably winds up undermining criticism itself by making it all seem like a disreputable, absurd activity.”13 And star blogger Girish Shambu seconds this argument: “There are at least two problems with Room 237’s depiction of criticism. First, it is an activity that often comes across as outré, freakish or crackpot. […] Second, and more important, film criticism here is a largely apolitical, hermetic activity that moves inwards, carving out a self-enclosed space, the space of a cognitive puzzle, a puzzle to be solved based on clues well hidden by a genius filmmaker.”14 Both Rosenbaum and Shambu criticize the film for not drawing a distinction between an acceptable critical activity and a practice that they deem inappropriate, whereas I would claim that the film is not even concerned with criticism per se in the first place.
It is helpful to turn to David Bordwell’s assessment of the film who relates it to his earlier reflections on interpretation and meaning making.15 Bordwell, in his blog entry on Room 237, notes how the film hovers between a documentary about cinephilia in its more pathological guise (think of Angela Christlieb’s and Stephen Kijak’s Cinemania here) and the videographic film essay, as can be found on Catherine Grant’s Vimeo-channel “Audiovisualcy”.16 Without wanting to side completely with Bordwell, I nevertheless believe that he is correct when portraying interpretive activity as a matter of degree on a scale between the obvious and the ludicruous with salience, coherence, congruence and authorial intention as relevant categories for making intersubjectively transferable value judgments. While I do understand the argument against the political vacuity of the film (at least, on first viewing), I think that the film is ultimately aiming in a different direction.
Room 237 shows, in a densely layered and complex audiovisual montage, what one can do with a film in the times of unlimited access and digital tools, even if a lot of it appears to be grotesque in its absurdity. The film very consciously starts by stressing the circumstances and contexts of encountering the work, with all five protagonists telling where, how and with whom they first saw the film and then takes turns in presenting five interpretations of the film. The film never shows the faces of the protagonists, it is a constant montage of voices on the soundtrack, while the visuals provide a running – and quite complex – commentary which reverses the usual hierarchy between vision and sound. The division between audition and vision asks of the spectator to simultaneously process the interpretation being advanced verbally and the vision track which appears to be the personal expression of the filmmaker illustrating the arguments, but also commenting on them.
Stylistically, the film presents a baroque array of techniques – freeze-frames, slow-motion, and digitally animated floor plans, re-editing and computer animation, effectively using the digital tool box now easily available to everyone at consumer level. At the same time, the film also goes to great length to find images in other Kubrick films for what the protagonist describe as their fascination with the film – Tom Cruise (from Eyes Wide Shut) stares in disbelief when one of the protagonists relates his astonishment, you see Ryan O’Neill (from Barry Lyndon) reading a book when the voice-over talks about the impact of a particular book, while Jack Nicholson (from The Shining) grimaces at a particularly ridiculous claim we hear in voice-over. It is as if the film was continually signaling that anything can be visualized from Kubrick’s universe, underlining in an ironic way the hermetic nature of the protagonists’ readings. Here, I depart from the criticism against the film quoted above, as a running commentary on the image track accompanies the voices, sometimes broad and obvious, sometimes subtle and ironic. Indeed, the frenzy of images that the film presents is very reminiscent of Marclay’s incessant clock montage rather than the essayistic pondering of Harun Farocki or Chris Marker. Instead of scolding the film for failing to take a stance, one could see the quick succession of images as problematic because the incessant visual stream makes it difficult for the viewer to reflect on the complex relations between image and sound. Nevertheless, the way the film frames the fascination with the film as highly personal, but simultaneously as moving towards intersubjective understanding is in line with other cinephile practices.


Cinephilia as a temporally and spatially situated practice that is capable of bridging the gap between individual and collective spectatorship, is not dead, but has – under the present conditions of digital networks – transformed markedly. Whereas in the past, one needed to live in (or, at least, visit) Paris in order to be a cinephile (with London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Rome and other cities as distant seconds), one now has a much broader range of films available, but also of criticism, commentary and specialized information. There are many websites and places online that show healthy and active communities gathering around specific topics and groups of films. Nevertheless, it would be naïve to reduce the postcinematographic state of cinephilia to a matter of websites, portals and platforms. What I have proposed instead is to also consider works that are enabled by the conditions of the digital – the ideas, tools and capabilities that characterize early 21st Century image culture. While it is impossible to chart the transformations and novelties of present-day cinephilia in total, these examples hopefully show some possible avenues in which cinephilia might develop.
Cinephilia is characterized by its capability to reframe and repurpose the different temporalities and emotional registers that the cinema has offered in the past, but is increasingly opening up in the digital present and future. Both the object of affection as well as the manner of reception are flexible and malleable through new digital techniques, manners of circulation and a different configuration of the field in general. No matter if we cherish a blockbuster installation such as Marclay’s Clock or if we enjoy the deadpan absurdity of Room 237, cinephilia can be seen as a mode to appropriation that ignores dominant readings and instead offers idiosyncratic routes into complex audiovisual works. These practices are not progressive or enlightening in and of themselves, as the case of Room 237 illustrates, but at least cinephilia offers tools and perspectives that can be used for appropriating and using films in individual contexts and situations. The significance of cinephilia is to be found in offering such a potential.


  1.  See as further extensions of this argument Patricia Pisters: The Matrix of Visual Culture. Working with Deleuze in Film Studies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2003; Malte Hagener: “Where Is Cinema (Today)? The Cinema in the Age of Media Immanence“. In: Cinema & Cie. (special number “Relocation” edited by Francesco Casetti), no. 11, Fall 2008: 15-22; Francesco Casetti: “The Relocation of Cinema”. In: NECSUS – European Journal for Media Studies, no. 2 (autumn 2012): (20.9.2013) 
  2.  For recent takes on the transformation of cinephilia see Malte Hagener, Marijke de Valck (eds): Cinephilia. Movies, Love and Memory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2005; Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin (eds): Movie Mutations. The Changing Face of World Cinema. London: BFI 2003; Scott Balcerzak, Jason Sperb (eds): Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction. Film, Pleasure and Digital Culture. London, New York: Wallflower 2009. 
  3.  Antoine de Baecque: La cinéphilie. Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944-1968. Paris: Fayard 2003: 11. [“La cinéphilie, considérée comme une manière de voir les films, d’en parler, puis de diffuser ce discours, est ainsi devenue pour moi une nécessité, la vraie manière de considérer le cinéma dans son contexte.”] 
  4.  Jean Douchet: „La fabrique du régard“. In: Vertigo, no 10, 1993: 34. Translated by Timothy Barnard and quoted in Christian Keathley: Cinephilia and History, of The Wind in the Trees. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 2006: 6f. 
  5.  Thomas Elsaesser: „Cinephilia or The Uses of Disentchantment“. In: Marijke de Valck, Malte Hagener (Hrsg.): Cinephilia. Movies, Love, and Memory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2005: 27-43, here 29. 
  6.  Laura Mulvey: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In: Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (autumn 1975): 6-18; Jean-Louis Baudry: “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”. In: Film Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2 (1974): 39-47 and Jean-Louis Baudry: “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in the Cinema”. In: Camera Obscura, no. 1, Fall 1976: 104-128. 
  7.  Francesco Casetti: “The Relocation of Cinema”. In: NECSUS – European Journal of Media Studies, no. 2 (autumn 2012); online at (5 September 2013) 
  8.  Patricia Pisters, The Matrix of Visual Culture: Working with Deleuze in Film Theory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2003: 16. 
  9.  See, as examples, Thom Andersen: „Random Notes on a Projection of The Clock by Christian Marclay“. In: Cinemascope, issue 48; online at (5.12.2011); Zadie Smith: “Killing Orson Welles at Midnight”. In: The New York Review of Books, 28.4.2011; online at; Bert Rebhandl: “Raum-Zeit-Kontinuum. 24 Stunden sind alle Tage. Christina Marclays Filminstallation ‚The Clock’“. In: Cargo, no. 11, September 2011: 32-35. 
  10.  Daniel Zalewski: „The Hours. How Christian Marclay created the ultimate digital mosaic“. In: The New Yorker, 12 March 2012. Online at (5.9.2013) 
  11.  See the essays collected in Sarah Keller, Jason N. Paul (eds): Jean Epstein. Critical Essays and New Translations. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press 2012. 
  12.  See the essays collected in Paul Hammond (ed.): The Shadow and Its Shadow. Surrealist Writings on Cinema. London: British Film Institute 1978. 
  13.  Jonathan Rosenbaum: “Room 237 (and a Few Other Encounters) at the Toronto International Film Festival, 2012”, online at 
  14.  Girish Shambu: “On ‘Room 237’, Criticism and Theory”, online at 
  15.  David Bordwell: Making Meaning. Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1989. 
  16.  David Bordwell: „All Play and No Work? Room 237”. In Observations on Film Art, 7 April 2013, online at 

terça-feira, 27 de dezembro de 2016

Mizoguchi and freedom / Tag Gallagher

Mizoguchi and freedom

Tag Gallagher

How inadequate I feel, watching Kenji Mizoguchi's movies! I want to feel closer to his people, the way I feel close to John Ford's cowboys, Jean Renoir's cancan dancers, Carl Dreyer's bigots, F.W. Murnau's Polynesians, King Vidor's blacks, Roberto Rossellini's partisans - any of whom feel no less "alien" to me than Mizoguchi's Japanese, medieval or modern. It is not a "cultural divide" that makes me feel like a distant observer.
Of course I feel inadequate not understanding a word of Japanese; I don't even relate well to its intonations or songs. Of course I feel inadequate peering at players placed so far from the camera in prints so dupey that their faces are white smears, without visible expression.
But there is no difficulty for me with Mizoguchi's pictures, his compositions, his blocking of characters, his use of body language, his long takes, his instrumental music, or with the conflicts, emotions, themes and philosophy of his cinema. There is no doubt that Mizoguchi, even though his subjects were all but exclusively Japanese, conceived his work also in the expressionistic traditions of Western cinema and French romantic naturalism, and as an expression of outrage rather than affection for traditional Japanese culture. Had Mizoguchi not been Japanese, his movies would probably be labeled "anti-Japanese."
I suspect that I do not feel closer to Mizoguchi's people because his is a cinema in which artifice is not only the style but the theme, and the search for authenticity the obsession. I do not feel closer to Mizoguchi's people because often they are not quite "there" on the screen, but are sought for, and are themselves characters in search of an author, as in Pirandello.
There are two aspects of this cinema: cutting and everything else. 

Part 1: Everything else

Yuki fujin ezu (Madame Yuki, Japan 1950) starts off, like most Mizoguchi movies (and most Ford movies) with someone arriving: Hamako, a young woman arrives from the country to serve the glamorous and aristocratic Lady Yuki, whom she has adored from a distance since childhood. And few beginnings could be more inviting than the prospect of Mizoguchi doing a movie with so delightful and serious an ingénue as Yoshiko Kuga. One anticipates something akin to what Max Ophüls and Alfred Hitchcock did with Joan Fontaine, in Letter from an unknown woman (US 1948) and Rebecca (US 1940). Indeed, we start out that way, with Hamako gazing in wonder in every shot, as we tour Yuki's country estate with her. Left alone for a moment in a hallway, she cannot help staring up and down and all around. Mizoguchi even treats us to her interior monologue, voice-over, as she takes a bath, a bit as Vidor would do with Audrey Hepburn in War and peace (US/Italy 1956).

But Mizoguchi, having seduced us, immediately denies us. He cuts us away from Hamako to see what she is seeing, and in the next scene, as she chats with Seitaro, we cannot even feel her impressions, because Mizoguchi puts her too distant to be seen: she is there just to listen.

 A bus and train ride start out as her experience, but her companion Kikunaka takes over her scenes,
and eventually Yuki does the same.
Hamako, no longer our associate, has become a supporting player of no significance, a "person" no more, compelled by Mizoguchi to turn her back to us. She has one more good scene, when Yuki's husband forces her to come into his bedroom while he has sex with Yuki, after which Mizoguchi dumps her deliberately into long shot sweeping a broom, with Kikunaka and the housekeeper saying "tsk tsk" and changing the subject. In effect, all the magical scenes of Hamako's fascination have served merely to set the stage for Yuki herself.

And then Yuki turns out to be a nonentity! Like Citizen Kane. And Kikunaka too turns

out a nonentity, without will or substance, as is Yuki's husband, who is gross and repulsive to boot. Degenerate aristocrats all. Why has Mizoguchi deprived us of Hamako, who, in Yoshiko Kuga, radiates so much essence with so little effort and so much grace? Michiyo Kogure, in contrast, incarnates Yuki as a void, her energy drawing inward, an addict of her own nothingness, who can find no higher purpose than her own extinction. Her response to pregnancy is to dissolve herself in the floating mists of the lakeside, then in the lake itself. Whereupon Hamako - speaking for the women of postwar Japan but now relegated to long shots almost infinitely distant - denounces her erstwhile hero: "Madame Yuki, woman without courage!" Why does Mizoguchi not let us see Hamako's face?

The best American movies are character driven, meaning that events, like plot, lighting and staging, are concocted to further our interests in the character. If the movie should happen to tell us about Napoleon's invasion of Russia or some other event, and should the movie also meditate like Tolstoy upon all sorts of issues of love, morality and fate, so much the better; but the value of any of these matters will depend on their emotional value to the characters.
Not in Mizoguchi. In his cinema what counts is the deed.
Youth is always denouncing age in Mizoguchi. Youths tell us aristocrats have had their day also in Shin Heike monogatari (New tales of the Taira clan, Japan 1953), and that time it is the twelfth century. It is hard to think of a Mizoguchi movie in which women do not denounce their helplessness and men are not brutes - and equally helpless. It is always a time in Japan when, as the credits of Sansho dayu (Sansho the bailiff, Japan 1954) inform us, people have "yet to awaken as human being". Yuki perhaps associates a strong patriarch with her lost childhood identity and for this reason is powerless against her husband. Hamako's denunciation of Yuki thus has an eternal, even a generic quality that, for Mizoguchi, renders Hamako irrelevant as an individual, except in her deed.
Ironically, an actor of Yoshiko Kuga's quality is exceptional in Mizoguchi's movies precisely because she gives her characters such definitive individuality. She becomes a character physically and mentally to such an extent that it is impossible, while watching her in one part, to think of her in another - in Mizoguchi's Shin Heike monogatari and Uwasa no onna (The woman of rumour, Japan 1954); Yasujiro Ozu's Ohayu (Good morning, Japan 1959); Akira Kurosawa's Yoidore tenshi (Drunken angel, Japan 1948) or Hakuchi (The idiot, Japan 1951); or in her movies for Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa or Nagisa Oshima.
In contrast to Kuga, Mizoguchi's actors usually have a commedia dell'arte side to them, a Pirandellian awareness of playing, and of playing within a stock role. Thus the theme of artifice. It seems the besetting sin in Mizoguchi's Japan that everyone is always assuming a role, and a posture appropriate to it, and that personalities and names and clothing and social position are nothing but constructs concealing nonentities and voids. Some characters search for identity (the heroes of Sansho dayu and Shin Heike monogatari), most others seek to assume one, and still others, like Yuki or Oharu in Saikaku ichidai onna (The life of Oharu, Japan 1952) seem never to have formed personalities beyond memories of childhood - like Robert Bresson's donkey Balthazar (in Au hasard, Balthazar [France 1966]), except that everyone is a donkey in Mizoguchi, brunts of the world's cruelty, not yet human, just constructs.
Evil is systemic in Mizoguchi, not individual: we have not "awakened" yet. Thus the actors seem to be speaking to us, not just to each other, and are not afraid to be hammy, like Chaplin; they come alive flirting with us; they circle constantly around each other, playing to us, telling us - like commedia, Brecht and Chaplin - that social constructs are persecutive rather than preserving.
Tradition is for the most part institutionalized brutality. A tea ceremony in Gion bayashi (Japan 1953) is the subject of one of Mizoguchi's loveliest shots, but the tea ceremony is being staged by the madam of a geisha house, as part of a school for adolescent girls training to be prostitutes, as a demonstration of Japan's successful selling of itself to foreign tourists. Family relationships are constructed with similar corruption: in Chikamitsu monogatari (A story by Chikamitsu, Japan 1954), a mother who has to sell her daughter to avoid bankruptcy is terrorized by the idea that the daughter might kill herself and not because she loves her daughter, but because the scandal would demolish the family. Meanwhile the daughter (though fleeing for her life), is dutifully sending borrowed money to the mother, who through fear, denounces her daughter to the police. The daughter is put her to death by the police - on a cross - for the crime of love, even though the love is chaste.

Virtually every relationship in Mizoguchi is humiliating, hierarchal, enslaving, with space expressing the power of one person, the nullity of another: endless bowing and kowtowing and scraping across floors in self-abasement. And despite all these shots of people walking in rooms and passageways, we get no sense from Mizoguchi of what it is like to be in these houses, because these are sets, designs, formed of rectangles, cubes, lines and blocks, and their space is fictive, part of the nightmare of power. The grace of the architecture, the clear lines of buildings, the comforting sensation of a storybook Zen order radiated by structures, all are geometric forces of imprisonment and oppression, owing as much to Caligari as to Japanese


Percussive soundtracks often echo the geometry of sets. Even Mizoguchi's exteriors are constructed: the famous fog-covered lakes in Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu, Japan 1953) and Yuki fujin ezu, sparking ponds in Yuki and Sansho, country streams and villages that echo Dutch landscapes in Utamaro o meguru gonin no onna (Utamaro and his five women, Japan 1946). Reality is subjective, emotionalized. Movies are basically atmosphere, Mizoguchi maintained, citing Vermeer.

At times Mizoguchi's Japan is not much different than Dreyer's Denmark, where witches are burned in Day of wrath (Denmark 1943) and the dead resurrected in Ordet (Denmark 1955), apparently for no other reason than the quality of the light. As for the really "real world", it is like freedom or love or liberty - something beyond reach: heaven.

If tradition sustains or inspires, it does so as hope: a reverence for keeping troth to father's "words". Anju sacrifices herself by drowning, in Sansho dayu, in order that Zushio fulfill father's words. After passing through a gate where streaked light suggests infinity beyond, in a pool of water whose ripples spread those "words" outward in a movement echoed an hour later by the ever-retreating movement of the camera while Zushio messianically liberates the slaves, moving grandly outward until at last he learns of his sister's deed, of which his great deed has been merely the end point of the ripple. Similarly motivated is Kyomori's defense of his father in Shin Heike monogatari (after resolving the crisis of which man is his father); the devotion of the forty-seven samurai in Genroku chushingura (A tale of loyal retainers in the Genroku era aka The 47 ronin, Japan 1941) and of Mohei in Chikamatsu monogatari; the heroism of Okita in Utamaro; the fortitude of Munechika in Gubijinso(Poppies, Japan 1935); the grave offering by the little boy at the end of Ugetsu. In all cases, keeping troth means doing a deed. Self identity is one's deed. "Personality" is a void. We construct ourselves according to father's words and devote ourselves samurai-like to single-minded accomplishment of ideological purpose.
Thus, on one level there is no difference in Sansho dayu between the slaver and the liberator: the slaver's refusal to feel pity for the slaves he brands with an hot iron is also founded on purity toward a father's words. Thus the self-consciously Pirandellian side to these people, beautifully exemplified not simply in the ease with which Zushio switches his pose from slave to imperial governor without a blink, but even more in his contempt for poses - the Pirandellian enslavement to artifice, to the need to put on a face in society in order to survive or command - and employs authority against itself. But Zushio is capable of doing all this only because he realises that he himself is nothing: it is his deeds which count. Contrariwise, if Hakamo disappears from our view in Yuki, it is simply because she no longer has anything to do.
Mizoguchi's heroes are few and exceptional; they remind us that most people are cogs in the system, equally brutal and terrorized. It seems like a Brechtian joke, in The life of Oharu, when someone is arrested for counterfeiting in this geisha-like world where every relationship is counterfeited and the only authentic emotion is fear; the entire movie is an iconoclastic rage against all authority, power, position, and manner. Thus Mizoguchi's great themes are the great passions: love, duty, honor, and suicide. And petty ones: money and greed. The people he concentrates on are obsessive, even hysterical in their needs, like Balzac's demonic profligates - Goriot, Hulot, Eugènie Grandet. Heroes like Zushio and Kyomori move their bodies as though propelled by coiled springs. But Yuki and her husband sink deeper and deeper into languidness. Villains are as extravagant as the heroes, seeming far beyond redemption, creatures of melodrama and commedia, if not Punch and Judy. And yet only a few days before liberating the slaves, Zushio was such a brutish cog himself, branding an old man with hot irons, pitilessly. He had not "awakened".
"Describe for me the implacable", Mizoguchi once instructed his longtime scenarist Yoshikata Yoda, at the time of Naniwa hika (Osaka story, Japan 1936). "Describe for me the implacable, the egotistic, the sensual, the cruel...There are none but disgusting people in this world". Naturalistic melodrama was the ideal: "everything has to be crystallised, concentrated... You have to write a great work, like Balzac, Stendhal, Victor Hugo or Dostoyevsky". [1]
If "acting" of the quality of Yoshiko Kuga's is exceptional in Mizoguchi, it is maybe because she is so successful in constructing new persons for herself, and is thus the ultimate justification, at least artistically, of the very system of artifice that Mizoguchi is intent on denouncing. Performance styles that are more self-doubting, more "Brechtian", better signal the artifice of social repression, and the primacy of deed over personality. Mizoguchi's interest is less in the individual than in the design containing the individual, the design which both defines and restrains, from which there is always the danger that the individual will burst out, and do cosmic violence to the design. And yet, it is only when the deepest emotions burst through the Caligari-esque constructions that moral innovation redeems the intolerable regimentation of life.

Mizoguchi's interest in icons and in designs containing individuals, produces many of his magic moments. His players have only to pose, as here in Gion Bayashi.

And long shots often only amplify their emotion. Murnau's awesome influence is evident in this sort of body language; compare, for example, this model of despondency in Murnau's Tabu (US 1931). And William Wyler, whom Mizoguchi
admired, began Dodsworth (US 1936) similarly.

In Uwasa no onna a prostitute need only lean against a post for all her emotions to be plain. In Saikaku ichidai onna, the suffering of Oharu staring desperately for a peek at her son depends equally on posing. One could cite hundreds of similar moments. Their pathos is external, however - a conflict between them and the world. Whereas what gives Genroku chushingura such surprising excitement and power - despite its three-hour-thirty-six-minutes duration and only one hundred and sixty shots virtually without action - is that the conflict is internal. Not only is much of the "acting" modeling, but the conflict between actor and model is clear, and this is the drama. Long takes contain the tension, as do the cubes and rectangles, and like time,

amplify it beyond endurance.

The conflict begins in 1701 when Lord Kira provokes Lord Asano into attacking him during a court ceremony. For this sacrilege, Asano is sentenced to hara-kiri and his house is suppressed. Asano's family and followers agree with the justice of this sentence, because they are obeisant to order. But their samurai codes demand that Kira also be condemned, else there is no order; the emperor as well regrets Asano's attack failed. The conflict of orders is resolved by Asano's forty-seven samurai killing Kira, placing his head on Asano's tomb, and committing hara-kiri on themselves. Thus is revolution from within. Their deed inspires the suppression of Kira's house and establishes a moral innovation, like Zushio's liberation of the slaves in Sansho dayu.
At the same time, it exacts a heavy personal toll, prompting us to wonder how much possibility there is for a society whose most virtuous citizens feel obliged to kill themselves. Critics are forever writing that Genroku chushingura, made at enormous expense during World War II, exalts militarism, obedience even to death, subservience of individuality to a code of honor, and thus Japan's fascistic war. But when, nine years after Hiroshima, in Sansho dayu, Anju walks calmly into the water so that her brother may escape to bear troth to father's words, no critic charges a continuance of fascist sentiment. In fact, deliberated suicidal actions are endemic in Mizoguchi in the decade after the war: UtamaroYuki fujin ezuOyu-sama (Miss Oyu, Japan 1951), Musashino fujinSansho dayuChikamatsu monogatari and Shin Heike monogatari. And, as in Genroku chushingura, suicide is always a protest against the prevailing order, and justified as necessary to purify that order, to "turn the lie into truth", as a young woman who elects to join the mass hara-kiri of the forty-seven samurai puts it.
Mizoguchi leaves out the blood. Perhaps it is immoral for him not to make us watch the actual murder of Kira in horrifying detail, so that we may see what all this fine abstract talk actually comes down to. But neither do we see the disembowellings. It is not pain they fear, or death, which are too negligible to count on the moral ledger; what they fear, like Christians awaiting the lions, is that they may flinch (as Asano did). "Keeping up [courage] is much harder than one would think", Oishi remarks. This is what is tearjerking. This is the tension Mizoguchi's long takes extend. At every moment we can see the actor threatening to destroy the model, the individual almost breaking through the ritual. It is because they have lost everything and cannot control themselves that these people impose iron discipline on themselves. Asano's wife cutting her hair in mourning solidarity with perfect grace and style is passion raw, like Dreyer's Joan.
Theirs is not, as some have claimed, a conflict of duty and feeling (giri versus ninjo). Oishi's deed is his feeling, his identity, his self. The unbearable feeling is the fear of not keeping troth. These are love stories: Oishi was Asano's companion since boyhood; the young woman cannot not join her fiancé. And in both cases these suicidal lovers "correct" their loved ones' failures, turning lie into truth.
Scorn for troth, accordingly, regularly incites Mizoguchi's people to erupt in violence. In Uwasa no onna, Yukiko (Yoshiko Kuga) is as placid as a sheep, until she goes after her two-timing lover with a pair of scissors. Mizoguchi loathes two-timers also in Gubijinso,Naniwa ereji (Japan 1936), Gion no shimai (Sisters of Gion, Japan 1936), UtamaroYuki fujin ezuOyu-samaMusashino fujin (Lady Musashino, Japan 1951), and Ugetsu (and I can account for only twenty-one of Mizoguchi's eighty-five features). Utamaro is almost a remake of Genroku chushingura: Okita justifies her murder of her two-timing lover as keeping troth to herself, for which, just like the forty-seven samurai, she is willing to accept the legal consequences, and all around her applaud; an aristocratic woman declares that now she knows the path a woman must follow, and the artist Utamaro, overwhelmed by Okita's mythos in the same way as centuries of Japanese poets at the mythos of the forty-seven samurai, exclaims: "I want to draw [her]!". 

Part 2: Cutting

It is this language, and not Japanese, that has to be learned to understand "Mizoguchi".
- Jacques Rivette, speaking of mise en scène [2]
The succession of shots below, from Gubijinso, would never have been permitted to leave the cutting rooms of any Western film company, and yet they are typical of Mizoguchi not only here in 1935 but all of his career.

1. 2. 
3. 4. 
5. 6. 
In America or Europe, the camera placement for the six shots would be as diagrammed below:
Whereas what Mizoguchi does is this: 
Mizoguchi's shots do not "go together": each cut is disruptive, at an angle unexpected, requiring each time that we orient ourselves anew. The Western way would not jump to a lower angle for shot 2, or shift for no apparent reason to behind the characters' backs for shots 2, 3 and 5, then jumping back to their fronts for shots 4 and 6. The Western way would have preserved the characters' emotional spaces, allowing us to experience their feelings as they gaze at each other and exchange gazes. In Mizoguchi, in contrast, the shifting compositions suggest the boy and girl are posing for us rather than for each other. Mizoguchi looks for the most romantic way of composing, pictorially, each stage of their conversation, as separate events, and the result is exciting and delightful, much worth running and re-running for itself. But it keeps placing us newly outside the characters, in favor of their deeds. Mizoguchi's shifting perspective resembles the way Humphrey Jennings jumbles surrealistically divergent images of Britain during the Blitz, except that Jennings cuts all over England, whereas Mizoguchi cuts around a love scene.
Somewhat similarly, Mizoguchi jumps all over the compass inGenroku chushingura during the long conversation between Oishi and the young woman, and in Ugetsu, high and low as well, while Genjuro is seduced by the phantom enchantress:

Naturally a conversation between three people in Gion bayashi is viewed from three perspectives - something which has probably never occurred in an American movie: 

For Mizoguchi, it is absolutely the norm to "cut across the axis" so that characters exchange position in the frame,
but even though "cutting across the axis" is technically the correct term for a procedure which, in the West, every editor is taught to avoid, it is not an appropriate description for Mizoguchi's style.
Imagine a big floor-map of North America, and place a couple in the middle. The Western way would keep the camera in Mexico, shifting right or left to the boy or girl, or showing both together, within a coherent perspective. Mizoguchi might start in Mexico, but would then switch to Canada, and might add a shot from Hawaii. In this way he disrupts not only our empathy with the characters, but also the dialectical (or conversational) mode of Western cinema. Instead, by shifting up, down, and all around, Mizoguchi wraps his characters within a community, enclosing space which is essentially shared space. This is one reason it is difficult for us to figure out the layout of his houses and rooms, and why space in his movies seems so fictive and to relate more to design and psychology than to reality. It is not that Mizoguchi is deliberately "cutting across the axis" and confusing us spatially. It is that he encloses the space physically, within his narration. Because it is deeds that count, not individuals, and Mizoguchi's conception of space favors the deed, not the individual. A bit like Rossellini, Mizoguchi gives us the illusion that events are occurring beyond his intervention and that he is trying to film them. Thus he keeps us further outside a character than we are used to - or than we want to be, in the case of Yoshiko Kuga especially! But the result, as Fred Camper puts it, is that "the relationship between an individual and his culture is in part the result of the way we see space itself". [3]
Gion bayashi is an unusual Mizoguchi movie in its concentration on two women who want to be the protagonists of their lives, in contrast to Oharu in Saikaku ichidai onna and most of the director's ladies in distress, who are abused objects viewed in long shot. But Mizoguchi's cutting transforms the sort of empathetic relationships we form in Western cinema.
When sixteen year old Eiko first arrives at the geisha Miyoharu's house, she opens the slatted gate, a geometry marking her application to be a geisha, and hears Miyoharu talking with a client:
Miyoharu: I hate people like you. You owe all this money. Still

you come to play around with the geisha. You should only go
to a geisha house when you have money.
Client: But I want to marry you. That's not playing around with
a geisha.
Miyoharu: I have no intention of marrying you.
Client: Then you lied to me?
Miyoharu: Geisha don't lie, they talk business. Don't you
know that we just agree with everything? ...Work and pay
your debts. Then we can meet again.

But the shot that follows - of Miyoharu and her client -

is not from Eiko's perspective, as it would be in any American or European movie. Why?

Because the scene gives Eiko a false definition of geisha life as woman power. Eiko envisions Miyoharu and herself as liberated, postwar women with Constitutional rights to inspect and reject clients, to take their money, and not to fall in love. Eiko, like Gigi, sets out to become a geisha oblivious to fatality not only in the world but in her own character; one of Mizoguchi's more magical sequences follows her wonder and delight as she dresses for her first day, scampers across Kyoto, and nods happily during her hairdresser's wisdom:
Maiko always come here their first day. I bet you were so

happy, you couldn't sleep last night. It's all business from
now on. You have to look your prettiest. [Eiko nods yes!] But
don't fall in love, that's bad. [Eiko nods yes!].
Later she banters: "Obligation? Love? I don't know anything about that.... Men ought to serve us".
Returning to Miyoharu and her client: the sharp American-style crosscut in the middle of their dispute is the only such cut in the movie until the end, when Eiko's education will be completed in a similar crosscut with Miyoharu, who then again will spin around to incarnate in motion a rebuke - a device typical of expressionist moviemakers:

At film's end, Eiko rebels -

shot 1. 
Eiko: Everyone lies. Kyoto's geisha, Maiko, it's all lies. If you sell yourself well, you succeed. Otherwise, like me, you're locked out...

shot 2: 

Eiko: ...If I cannot live without selling myself, I'll quit.

-[whereupon Miyoharu spins around in rebuke, then retreats]:

shot 3:

And once again, as at film's beginning, Eiko stares

shot 4: - but does not see: [the shot that follows of Miyoharu is not from Eiko's perspective] -
shot 5: - as is clarified by the next shot:
shot 6: Instead of giving us the cross cut we expect to rhyme with shot 4, Mizoguchi has simply pulled back his camera in shot 5, enclosing his characters' space rather than placing the camera between them, maintaining his own angle, not switching to Eiko's.

This sequence also began like the film's opening sequence, with the slatted gate, but this time the gate closes on Eiko.

And Miyoharu, returning home after being compelled to have sex against her will, appears imprisoned in
Mizoguchi's Caligari-like set. And no sooner is she home, than she is set upon by Eiko's rebukes, as Mizoguchi's high angle geometrically details (Eiko is on top, Miyoharu her victim):
This high angle (of Eiko and Miyoharu) appropriately echoes the high angle (of Kanzaki and Miyoharu) which Mizoguchi used in the scene, just before this one, of Miyoharu's humiliating prostitution.

Miyoharu was forced to prostitution because otherwise she and Eiko were barred from employment as geishas and, more to the point, because Eiko would have been raped by one of the bosses. Miyoharu thus finds herself in a position similar to Dr. Cartwright's (Anne Bancroft) in John Ford's 7 Women (US 1966), who also walks a dark corridor on a similar prostitutional mission to save her friends.

But Ford emphasizes Cartwright's courage and fear, whereas Mizoguchi's high angle over Miyoharu (with Kanzaki) emphasizes her victimization - and anticipates the high angle of Eiko's damning condescension toward her in the subsequent scene.
But all high angles show victims in Mizoguchi's cinema, where everyone is eternally bowing or low or raising themselves on platforms. Thus, the high angle of Miyoharu over Kanzaki places Kanzaki, Miyoharu's apparent persecutor, in his position as an even lower victim of the same ridiculous artifice. And the high angle of Eiko over Miyoharu, shows Eiko also as victim. No one is on top.
And Eiko cannot be saved. The nature of the geisha system, as explained by Miyoharu at film's beginning, is exploitation and power - whether of geisha over client, or client over geisha. Miyoharu's prostitution only reinforces the system. Now she wants to be Eiko's protector, preserving her from prostitutional sex as a sort-of Constitutional prostitute, in effect working for Eiko, who is thus, through the matching high angles, appropriately compared to Kanzaki as part of the corruption of power.
Returning to the confrontation between Eiko and Miyoharu, shot 6 continues as Eiko, finally breaking out of her dollhouse, recognizes her corruption to power, and runs away to the rear of the frame:
shot 6:

shot 7: With one of his Mexico-Canada crosscuts, Mizoguchi enclose their space, and then echoes the expansion of space between shots 5 and 6, by pulling back his camera to shot 8.

shot 8:

Eiko has retreated from Miyoharu, and from the realities of a cruel world that forces us to assume roles which are not of our choosing, to become cruel ourselves, to corrupt our consciousnesses, so that ultimately our selves (like Madame Yuki) have no existence, no deed. The nature of the geisha (like that of the lady) is to be a doll with no more personality than a doll: a void. Mizoguchi's postwar women think they can change this. In Josei no shori (The victory of women, Japan 1946), a female attorney actually declares that her opponent's "formalism makes his point void". She is arguing more from Mizoguchi's sense of the world as misdesign than from tradition. Change costs dear. Mizoguchi's revolutionaries are all Christ figures, who sacrifice themselves. "What good does it do you to face the world proudly?" asks one of Eiko's predecessors in Gion no shimai. None of the forty-seven samurai are there to reply.
To all of this, Miyoharu replies with compassion. Her compassion is expressed is the actors' Tabu-like body language in shot 8: Eiko a figure of defeat; Miyoharu a pietà who has failed to save her child from life.
And Miyoharu's compassion is expressed also in the movement within the shot. Miyoharu coming forward from the rear of the frame to the proscenium - to us - continues the same coming-forward movement begun in the transition from shot 7 to shot 8. It is this movement by which Miyoharu's compassion replies to Eiko's despair. It is the deed that counts.
And thus Mizoguchi's shifting camera - the freedom of his point of view - annuls the constrictions of constructed space. We are free.


(To return to your place in the text, simply click on the endnote number)
[1] Ariane Mnouchkine, "Six entretiens autour de Mizoguchi", Cahiers du cinema 158 (August 1964): 24, 26.
[2] Jacques Rivette, "Mizoguchi viewed from here", in Jim Hillier (ed), Cahiers du cinema volume 1 – The 1950s: neo-realism, Hollywood, new wave (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), 264.
[3] Fred Camper, "Adventures in space: the loyal 47 ronin", Chicago reader (7 February 1997).
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