A question that I’ve heard a lot recently (at least 2 or 3 times a year) is how come I stopped blogging?  Was it because I no longer care about films?  Too busy with family or school?  Lack confidence in my rapidly decaying writing abilities? Lost the initial buzz and couldn’t rediscover some motivation?

The answer to all of those questions is yes and no.

I set a high bar for myself.  I wanted to write engaging, thought-provoking and convincing analyses of all sorts of films, from obscure silents to this year’s blockbusters.  I found the process of formulating my thoughts on a film and committing them to writing immensely rewarding but it took an inordinate amount of time and effort to execute.   Watching a film now required much more attention to detail which was difficult to muster while still enjoying the film for what it was.  On top of that, I’d have to watch parts of the film several times, read others’ commentary to see if there were issues that I was missing, grab screenshots and most importantly string it all together into a uniform review that was entertaining to read, even by people less enthusiastic about the film than me.

I often considered writing shorter, simpler more “magazine-friendly” reviews but always ended up deciding against it.  Why bother doing something that doesn’t have much inherent value and is already being done by thousands of people who can probably do it better than you?  My only hope of obtaining relevance is by writing in the genre in between the vacuous commercial reviews and the ivory tower formalistic essays of the high-brow film world.  I’d like to argue that there is another way to watch films.  You can be more serious than the passive blockbuster attendee without recourse to the voluminous and  tenuously relevant world of “film studies.”  There’s room in the world for a cinephile.  If you read Truffaut’s “The Films in My Life” you’ll find he was somewhere in this in-between world.  I don’t intend to hold him up as some gold standard for how things should be done (though that wouldn’t be a bad way to start) but his success demonstrates that a fertile middle ground exists.

In the time since my last blogging I’ve watched many tens of hours of film, learned to appreciate new facets of filmmaking from technique to broader context and reformulated for myself what exactly I’m doing here.  With this added experience,  the next crop of reviews promises to be more entertaining, deeper and more circumspect than the first.

So what’s in store?

  • The long awaited Dark Knight review, incorporating a review of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman
  • A survey of Japanese cinema based on the late Keiko McDonald’sReading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context.” Using this book will provide me with an eye-opening path through films I haven’t seen and a new perspective on ones I have.  Also it provides me with a persistent interlocutor for the duration.  The first installment, a review of Mizoguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion” is half-written already.
  • More posts on non-film subjects.  As this is my only soapbox (for the time being), I may as well exploit it for all it’s worth.

I hope that my readers old and new will enjoy accompanying me on this next phase of souls on the road.

It’s more or less agreed upon that the period between the advent of sound (early 30s) until the advent of television (1950s in America, later in other countries) was a “Golden Age” for cinema.  That isn’t to say that every film produced in that period was of outstanding quality or that any product of another time period is not of high quality.  But it was during this time that filmmakers around the world really hit their stride.  Not surprisingly, the character of the Golden Age was felt differently in different parts of the world.   Nevertheless, in all the world’s Golden Ages, there was a shared coming together of commercialism and art.  The films that gave the age its name were golden in both senses of the word–they were of high quality and also made a lot of money.

Perhaps our chief pitfalls to avoid in this tidbit are the tendency to say that “everything was better in the good old days” and the knee-jerk opposite tendency to say that “everything is the same always and at all times–now that we’ve settled that I’d like to continue to post malicious comments on YouTube and 4chan.”  Indeed, the second pitfall seems to be more prevalent here in our home town of the blogosphere.  But I think that if we consider a number of simple factors we should be able to get a fairly clear picture of what characterized the Golden Age.

Truffaut, though often cast as a defender of commercial (or at least popular) movies, described the difference between the Golden Age and what came after it in the introductory essay to his classic compendium “The Films In My Life” (p.6, part of What Do Critics Dream About? 1975):

André Bazin could not write today that “All films are born free and equal.”  Film production, like book publishing, has become diversified and specialized.  During the war, Clouzot, Carné, Delannoy, Christian-Jaque, Henri Decoin, Cocteau and Bresson addressed the same public.  This is no longer true. Today few films are conceived for the “general” public—people who wander into a movie theater by chance, attracted simply by the stills at the entrance.

Today, in America, people make films that are directed to minorities—blacks, Irish; there are karate films, surfing films, movies for children and for teenagers.  There is one great difference between the productions of today and those of former days: Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck, Lous B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle and Harry Cohn loved the films they produced and took pride in them; today the owners of major companies are often disgusted by the sex-and-violence films they throw into the market so they won’t be left behind by the competition.

Truffaut  eschews any questions of why or how the Golden Age started or ended.  But he points to an interesting symptom: the people who are responsible for bringing the films into existence are not happy with the films that they make.  Rather than attempting to appeal to different temperaments (as has always been common with genre pictures, especially in Japan), the later film producers played an “identity marketing” game with the most vulgar of attractors.

I mentioned the Japanese print once before to help understand film paradigms and I’ll probably do so again in the future.  The combination of shameless commercialism (many of the prints were literally just advertisements for kimono shops, tea houses or the likes) with breathtaking beauty, all imbued with the subtlest of gestures towards the infinite make them a natural companion to the cinema.

Here the most dominant factor that we will consider is technology.  More advanced printing technologies led to the boom that was the late 18th through mid-19th century ukiyo-e.  Even a cursory chronological scan of printmaking in Edo period Japan reveals a complexification of materials and process which culminated in the mid 19th century—just in time to be made obsolete by the advent of photography, lithography and a viciously modernizing political agenda.

It is perhaps inescapable that a medium created by technological progress will ultimately be destroyed by it.  Unlike static media (e.g. literature, painting, sculpture), a technologically induced medium is always changing as its technology changes.  And in the process whole artforms are created and destroyed.  Silent film is an obvious example.  Anyone who’s watched silent films extensively can identify a certain magic that was erased, or at the very least drowned out, by the advent of sound.  Silent film is not just a talkie on mute.  It had its own laws, conventions, strengths and weaknesses.  Ozu was famously resisted switching to sound because he felt he was on the brink of mastering the art of silent film.  It wasn’t the novelty of sound that destroyed silent film.  Unlike technologically static media, silent film had identified itself with a new technology and when that technology advanced it disappeared.

To a great extent,  I think that the relationship between ukiyo-e and photography was similar to the relationship between film and television.  In neither case did one really prove a substitute for the other but the newer and cheaper technology sufficiently crippled the older industry so that it never really came back.  The response to the Japanese prints continued in a radically more “artistic” vein, in the “creative print” movements of the 20th century.  And the film world split: artistic films became more and more austere and even anti-commercial at times while “mainstream” films were commercialized in a soul-extinguishing way that needs no description for readers today.  (Once again, I’m not talking about all films but rather “your average film:” the box office leaders and what have you.)

In Japan, the effects of television were striking.  The watershed event that changed the cultural landscape of Japan was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  (Of course, for many of us the cinema died on December 12, 1963 but we’ll save that discussion for later.)  In 1958, only 10% of the population had television sets but by 1964, over 80% of the population watched the inaugural ceremony of the Olympics, many on television.  According to Anderson, by the mid-60s 60% of Japanese homes had televisions and by 1970 over 95%.  Though the economy was strong,  the film industry suffered tremendously and attendance fell directly with the adoption of television:  in 1958 annual movie attendance was 1,127 million but by 1975 it was only 170 million–a fall of 85%. (See this interesting article for more on the history of TV in Japan.)

Daiei, which produced Rashomon (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1950) and other classics, went bankrupt along with many other small companies.  Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho survived thanks to their diversified interests.  Thus the rise of Shochiku bowling alleys and Nikkatsu office buildings.  The justifiable panic which engulfed the studios was translated into a harshly commercialist attitude which alienated all of the great directors and arguably drove away even more viewers.  Until the advent of TV,  the “studio system” reigned.  That means that the directors were retained by a studio and given more or less creative freedom.  As part of the TV panic, they switched to the “producer system” in which the decision of what gets made and how devolves to someone who is selected for their business sense alone.  After 1964, Kurosawa almost stopped making films.  Gosho and Naruse were crushed by the new rules.  Ichikawa had to switch off between masterpieces and plebeian crowdpleasers in order to eat.  Now, in 2009, with Okuribito taking the Best Foreign Film Oscar, there’s talk of a national cinema revival.  I hope it’s true.

The golden age was born when film technology plateaued in the 1930s and kept enough of a lock on the crowd that the studios could comfortably support directors and producers who made what they wanted to, what they believed in.  As that comfort slipped away, the film industry has settled into a much more ruthlessly commercial enterprise.  Television is in many ways a further development of the film medium–cheaper, more convenient–and its rise put the film industry through a trauma from which it has never recovered.

In closing, I’d pose the same question about television.  Namely, we see today a growing irrelevance of TV as a medium because everything can be obtained less painfully on the internet.  What will this mean for the future of TV?  Will anyone care about HDTV when you can stream HD quality video on your fiber optically linked computer?  What will the media companies do in response.  Here’s one prediction.  Have any others?

The first shot.  The quaintly phrased "background" implies that a legend is about to be told.

The first shot. The quaintly phrased "background" implies that a legend is about to be told.

131 min. WB/Malpaso Productions.  Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood.  Screenplay by David Webb Peoples.  Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Jaimz Woolvett.

Amazon DVDBlu-Ray.

Synopsis

The action is set in motion with a scene of a drunken cowboy attacking a prostitute in a small town “billiards hall.” The female staff of a small town brothel, disgusted by the objectifying response of the Sherrif (Gene Hackman), offer a $1000 bounty for whoever kills the cowboy and his accomplice.  William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a reformed and retired superkiller, is tempted to get back in the game by a young and vindictive “assassin” (Jaimz Woolvett). He eventually agrees to go and brings his friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) along.  The film follows uses the cover of their vendetta to uncover subtleties about each of their characters and ultimately, to make some serious statements about violence and justice.

Commentary

This film is clearly steeped in “old Eastwood” folklore.  In it, he reprises the quintessential Clint Eastwood character.  Cool and removed, he violently dominates all the other characters.  He’s not a particularly good person, but everyone else is really bad.  That would apply to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly(1965, dir. Sergio Leone) and Dirty Harry(1971, dir. Don Siegel) to name only his most famous roles.  Though he never sunk to playing just a tough-guy gunman and he always added just enough humor to keep you guessing what he was really thinking, Unforgiven is different.  He doesn’t just play the role of the tough-guy, he destroys it.

The film opens with a legendary type of scene: a few lines in 19th century American style describing Munny’s dead wife.  The lack of detail and storybook tone of the prose clearly evoke events that are not quite natural.  Munny is introduced to us not as a man but as a legend; a myth.  What is he?  I think that most basically he is violence.  Not some notion of necessary violence in the world but the perpetuation of violence that man cause with his actions.  Unforgiven offers no way to break that cycle, it just follows it through to its bitter end.  This is what happens in a world created by three decades of Clint Eastwood movies.

What Eastwood did with Unforgiven, to retrace the implications of his former self to their painful conclusions, bears a striking resemblance to the “American” comeback of Johnny Cash.   In 1994, Johnny Cash began his series of “American Recordings” with Rick Rubin.  Cash (or Rubin, as the case may be) capitalized on the classic myth of “The Man in Black” in order to reexamine the foundations upon which that myth was founded.  They ended up producing five of the best albums of Cash’s long and illustrious career.  In them, Cash dealt with the long term consequences of being a star of his stature–the drugs, the degradation and his ultimate salvation.  Beyond just the usual “it’s so hard to be famous” routine, Cash speaks about regret for the life that he lived, the pain that he caused people and describes the real solace that he found in his wife and the salvation that he found in Jesus.  He didn’t change his symbolic language but by reexamining himself with new eyes he uncovered the sadness and pain that were always festering behind his stiff virile persona.

The campfire fulfils its traditional role of catalyzing cathartic and terse man-to-man conversatioins

The campfire fulfils its traditional role of catalyzing cathartic and terse man-to-man conversatioins

Eastwood forges a similar path.  William Munny was once all the nasty sides of ‘The Man with No Name,’ ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘Josey Wales’ all rolled up in one.  But he’s left that, or so he thinks.  He’s been saved by his late wife.  Now he’s a man of peace, counting hogs and raising his children.  But, as is shown time and again, he is haunted by his past.  The dozens of men that he killed visit him in visions and nightmares and when given the encouragement, he sets out on a violent mission again.  Significantly, when trying to convince Ned to join him, he exaggerates the wrong that requires their revenge.  He adds on a few more violent touches (cut off her ears, other parts of the body) in an almost pathetic attempt to make his violent nature coincide with justice.  He’s lying to himself and he knows it–once The Kid kills the last cowboy and tries to justify it as “he had it coming,” Munny replies (in the most quoted line of the film) “We all have it coming.”

The pretense of justice as a cover for pure violence is revisited with the character of Sherriff ‘Little Bill’ Daggett.  Daggett is clearly the villain in the film even though it’s clear that he not only abuses his role as sheriff, he actually provides justice for Big Whiskey.  Without him, even more violence and injustice would reign.  But his behavior is unpardonable.  It’s clear that he’s driven first by sadism and only secondly by any sense of justice.  Even worse, he doesn’t realize the monster that he’s become.  In the final showdown he begs for his life, saying “I don’t deserve to die like this, I was Little Bill…”  But Munny understands what he was and who he is.  “Deserves’s got nothing to do with it,” he responds–the glory of violence is nothing but an illusion.

One the most telling scenes in Unforgiven is also seems to be one of its most uneventful.  After deciding to go after the “whores’ gold,” Munny tries to get back in to shape.  He tries to hit some cans with a handgun from a few yards away and misses time after time.  Not only is a scene like this almost unavoidable in a Western, it is inescapably similar to a scene in Eastwood’s earlier The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  In that film, he plays a farmer who is out for revenge from the hooligans who raped and killed his wife.  Out of necessity, Josey Wales consciously assumes the role of the murderer in order to set things right; he becomes an outlaw.  William Munny can’t.  Josey Wales quickly develops (or regains) the preternatural marksmanship that defines any Western hero.  (You can watch that scene here.) But William Munny, the most feared killer in all the land, can’t manage the most basic exercise of shooting cans off a fence.

Munny isn’t a character, he’s a force of nature.  He’s not meant to be “real,” in any classical sort of sense.  That’s established by the legend-like intro and coda.  Throughout the film he refuses to become the persona that he “should be” according to Western logic.  He doesn’t talk like a killer, ride like a killer or drink like a killer because he’s not a killer–he’s death itself.  In an interview quoted in John Saunders’ passable book The Western Genre: From Lordsburg to Big Whiskey , Eastwood said that the film was about ‘repercussions.’

The cowboys whose childish cruelty begins the film aren’t evil.  But they must suffer consequences.  “The Englishman,” Bill the Sheriff, Ned–they all suffer the repercussions of their actions.  Not because any of them are particularly good or bad but because all actions have consequences.  The only one who never pays the final price is William Munny.  Is that because the unending torment of living is worse than death for him?  Perhaps.  Or is he superhuman, in some sense?

Though most of the film takes place in poorly lit houses and at night, we are reminded of the frontier with vistas like these.

Though most of the film takes place in poorly lit houses and at night, we are reminded of the frontier with vistas like these.

The Western is always characterized by being set on the frontier, on the border between civilization and the wild.  The ensuing anarchic culture has proven itself to be quite amenable to the film medium.  Depending on the approach of the author or director, this is used in different ways.  In the old fashioned Westerns, it was to amplify the presence of the hero.  In the more subtle Westerns, like Eastwood’s other classics and The Searchers (1956, dir, John Ford), the frontier and its lawlessness unmask the parts of human nature that are perforce covered in more developed societies.  Only in such a setting could Ford confront racism so directly. Kurosawa gave a similar reason for choosing to set many of his films in the pre-Tokugawa period of the “warring states:” human nature is more visible when society has subsided.  But this is the last Western.  This is the end of the line.  There’s something lethal in Munny’s character–not just for his enemies but for the mystique of the West itself.  You can see more about human nature when society isn’t as strict but what you see is devastating.

Saunders also points out the conspicuous lack of the definite article in the title.  Who isn’t forgiven?The cowboys?  The whores? The sheriff? The Kid? Ned? Munny?  A plausible case could be made for any one of them.  There are no winners this time and the losers have no glory.  This is the ugly side of the West, the inescapable repercussions of violence.

The most devastating scene in the film.  The ambivalent assassins must suffer the dying cries of the essentially innocent young cowboy.

The most devastating scene in the film. The ambivalent assassins must suffer the dying cries of the essentially innocent young cowboy.

Often times you’ll see a film and someone (possibly yourself) will ask you what you thought of it.  For many, myself included, that can be a pretty difficult question.  Even if you have some sort of feeling about the film, it’s often hard to turn that into a defensible opinion.  Before you begin to try and understand a film, you have to answer for yourself: was it any good?

Sometimes it’s easy: The 400 Blows (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut) is good–you may not know or care to know why, but it’s pretty obvious that the film is good.  The Life of David Gale (2003, dir. Alan Foster) is bad; very bad.  Once again, though you may not want to know how bad it is (indeed the breadth and depth of its badness are quite disturbing) but it’s pretty obviously bad.  But then you have all those other films.  Films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008, dir. Danny Boyle) or Ida Lupino’s the-popcorn-in-the-theater-cost-more-than-the-budget-of-this-film The Hitch-Hiker (1955) or Kurosawa’s oddly balanced I Live in Fear (1955) where it just isn’t that clear whether the film is any good.

I found a partial answer for this, more or less on the spot, when I had to give an intelligent response to the new remake of Yoji Yamada’s Yellow Handkerchief (1977).  I must confess that I have not seen the original and probably would not have seen the remake had I not been invited to a special screening of it.  Yellow Handkerchief (2007, dir. Udayan Prasad) was exactly that sort of in-the-middle movie.  It’s a sentimental but elegant story of a convict being released from prison and looking for his pre-prison wife.  She is to signal that she wants him back by displaying a yellow handkerchief on the post by their old house.  On his way he meets some misguided teenagers and together they travel through the countryside towards the film’s predictable, though well executed, climax.  The film is proficiently constructed, the cinematography is appropriate, the acting believable (if not outstanding) and the various ingredients well mixed to pave the way for the climactic end.  Everyone in the theater cried (myself included) and we went home.

The test that I developed in response to this film was as follows.  A good estimate of a film’s quality can be assessed by when the emotional climax takes place.  In Yellow Handkerchief, it was exactly at the end.  It kept our interest until that point but when it ended it ended.  The truly great films, on the other hand, continue to grow long after the lights in the theater go on.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that the emotional climax of a film can come long after the film ends simply has not watched enough good films.  Batman: The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) easily grows for a good couple of weeks before it really peaks.  It took me several months after seeing Sansho the Bailiff (1954, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi) until its emotional power really hit me.  Returning to the above examples, I’d say that the Hitchhiker passes.  The story is compact and brief, but the suspense and fear continue to develop after the film ends.  I Live in Fear probably doesn’t–it has its intense moments but by the end you just ask yourself, “where was he going with all that weirdness?”  If I had seen Slumdog Millionaire before its ridiculous hype build-up, I might say that it passed.  But since I spent the whole film looking for something that could justify it being considered a “great film” I couldn’t appreciate it for the above average film that it was.

This test isn’t objective–Kurosawa’s Red Beard(1965) and Ikiru(1951) affected me for a very long time when I first saw them but no doubt they would affect me for far less time were I to see them again today.  It isn’t wholly original either.  Rather, it stitches together at least two time-honored principles: a great movie should not leave you when the lights come back on and a bad movie won’t keep your attention until the end.  This test further fails in that it maligns the ability of a film to merely maintain its power.  Plenty of excellent films build some sort of structure within the film that merely continues to exist in the viewers mind long after the film ends.

But next time you see a film, think about it.  If you suspect the film may have been of exceptionally high caliber, wait a few days.  And see if it waxes or wanes.

Next tidbit:  “What made the Golden Age Golden?” – Film scholars, cinephiles and your grandmother all agree that the quality of the films released in the middle of the last century is better than any later period.  Are they correct?  If so, why?  Featuring the insights of Francois Truffaut, Donald Richie and more!

Upcoming reviews: UNFORGIVEN, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT and THE 400 BLOWS

This post is in the same vein as xkcd 258, an attempt to come to grips with people’s insatiable appetite for “conspiracy” theories of one sort or another.  In Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she deals with the same issue in a slightly less facetious and slightly more enlightening manner.  Before reproducing the relevant quotations, I’ll sum up her point in a few sentences.  People are drawn more to consistency than they are to truth.  To whit, people are more likely to believe a “plausible” apparently complete system even if it is at odds with reality.  Thus believing that a small cabal of Jewish bankers was intentional destroying Christian civilization is more attractive than recognizing that a myriad of different factors had contributed to the disintegration of the social and political fabric of European civilization.  That it is simply not the case is of little interest to many.  In discussing Benjamin Disraeli’s self-aggrandizing Jewish conspiratorial mythology, she states:

It is well known that the belief in a Jewish conspiracy that was kept together by a secret society had the greatest propaganda value for antisemitic publicity, and by far outran all traditional European superstitions about ritual murder and well-poisoning. It is of great significance that Disraeli, for exactly opposite purposes and at a time when nobody thought seriously of secret societies, came to identical conclusions, for it shows clearly to what extent such fabrications were due to social motives and resentments and how much more plausibly they explained events or political and economic activities than the more trivial truth did.

She returns to the same issue in the context of totalitarianism, per se.  Totalitarian propaganda has always focused on the “mysterious,” the conspiratorial as a way to undermine a reality that is clearly at odds with their ideology.

The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears
but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which
they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.

What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.

As one might guess, she involves man’s need for a sense of self-respect as well.  It is easier to accept that you have been victim of some superhuman calculated plot than it is to face a reality in which bad things happen beyond the control of any man.  Of course, even these comments run the risk of being radicalized into some ideology of “self-respect”–in which all actions can be explained by man’s need for that warm fuzzy feeling.  Actually, I think they have been.

These thoughts represent a powerful response to classical anti-semites as well as many modern conspiracy theorists.  Do you really think Bush was competent enough to have executed all the evil that one hears about him?  “No, but Cheney was!”  *sigh…*

As usual, the worst consequence of these theories lies in their diversionary powers.  Not in any sort of premeditated way (if I claimed that, I’d be making the same mistake that I’m berating) but just in the natural way that if people are too consumed in an ideological explanation of the world, they’ll fail to see what’s really going on.  If people are so caught up with the Jewish bankers, the Jesuits, the Communists (outside of communist countries), the global imperialists and the Trotskyites (inside communist countries), the Freemasons, the Israel-Lobby, the Neo-Cons or whatever else might happen to be the crackpot conspiracy of the day, they blind themselves to the reality. Pre WWII it was the rise of totalitarianism, then Stalinism and the better but still awful Soviet Union that followed after him.

Though it seems that this sort of thinking has gone out of style compared to the turn of the 20th century, one never knows.  Maybe twenty or thirty years from now we may discover what it is the current conspiracies are diverting our attention from.

Looks like I’m beginning a trend of reviewing films directed by non-directors.  That’s probably fitting, seeing as I’m not really a film critic.

Sallah Shabati is one of those few films that have had such a strong impact on the culture that from the contemporary perspective, it becomes difficult to discern to what extent the film is imitating or lambasting its world and to what extent our collective memory of that world has been shaped by the film itself.  Given the circumstances of its creation–no film industry to speak of, the country barely staying afloat–it’s hard to quite pin it down.  But I’ll give it a try or at least to explain why it is difficult.

Israel, 110 minutes.  Golan Productions.  Written and directed by Efraim Kishon.  Starring Haim Topol, Geula Nuni, Arik Einstein and Shraga Friedman.

Amazon Link to ‘Sallah Shabati’

Synopsis

Sallah arrives with his large (and growing) family from an undisclosed Arab country to Israel.  Somehow he figures out that the government housing project, called “shikun” (שיכון) is the good place to live and tries to get housing there.  Despite his attempts, he is sent to the “maabarot” (מעברות) –temporary dwellings erected by the state until proper shikunim can be made available.  He tries half-heartedly to work but ends up just playing shesh-besh (backgammon) with his Ashkenazi neighbor.  In his struggle for the 1000 lira that he needs in order to get a shikun he butts heads with everyone from the neighboring kibbutz to corrupt politicians.  He tries to get a mohar (“bride price”) for his daughter, only to have to pay it back for his son to get married.  In the end, the only thing that works is for him to protest being moved into the shikun–on the principal that you never get what you want, only what you don’t want.

Commentary

Cinematically, the first thing that strikes the viewer of Sallah is its complete lack of style.    The shots are effective but for the most part not beautiful.  Given the Israeli mentality of that era, one is tempted to believe that a full de-stylization of the cinema would have fit the prevailing Zionist-socialist mindset.  It would be interesting to see how the social realism pioneered by Eisenstein, Vertov and Dovzhenko was accepted by the cinematic community of the extremely leftist early state of Israel.  Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about it.

Perhaps the destylization was ideological or perhaps it is just evidence of inexperience.  Kishon had never before made a film–and unlike Charles Laughton (see The Night of the Hunter), who had starred in over 50 films before he tried his hand at directing–Kishon had no idea how it’s done.  In an interview released with the DVD version of Sallah, he says that when he first got to the set he asked everyone, “Does anyone know how to make a film?” No one knew, so he began “the way an intelligent person would do it:” he sketched storyboards for each scene and took it from there.  In the interview, Kishon shows the original notebooks that they used to plan the film.  We see the script and the sketched scenes alongside them.  It is very interesting to compare these with the similar notebooks that Yasujiro Ozu and Koga Noda made when they wrote all of their films.  Selections from them are reprinted in Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films and their (at least external)  similarity to Kishon’s seem to vindicate the latter”s claim that there’s really only one “intelligent” way to make a film.

The film is a comedy and as such, it offers us the chance to discuss some of the general features of the genre much as we did with horror and The Night of the Hunter.  At the heart of comedy lies the following problem.  The things which happen to the people on screen are, for the most part, horrible.  We might even call them tragic (using the term casually).  And yet, we are supposed to find them funny and enjoyable to see.  In Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Alfred Hitchcock made a film which, though well veneered with light-hearted comedy, had such a powerful and disturbing undercurrent that it overpowered the overtly comic element; thus returning the film to Hitchcock’s home territory–insanity, violence, the way two people can take romantic love and…well, I guess you’ll just have to see it to find out.

Many of the most successful comedies (Chaplin, Keaton) show events that in any other context would be considered awful–when buildings fall on people or when trains derail and plummet into a river it’s really much more awful than funny.  One of the main jobs of the comic director is to make sure that you are involved enough in the story to keep watching but not involved in a way that you sense the horror of what’s going on in the film’s world.  Keaton and Chaplin exploited a tradition of clowning–by looking different and acting oddly, they let the viewer relate to them as not-quite-human characters.  But in Sallah Shabati, the hero is a very real character (half the country acts like him to this day!) and his tribulations become increasingly realistic as the film progresses.

At the beginning of the film, Sallah is more or less a clown.  He explains to the driver that the old lady traveling with them must be a relative, (she came all this way, what else could she be?) He tells the housing bureau that he is a shoe-maker (after seeing the shoe-maker in front of him get sent to shikun) but that he’s never actually done it before (a recurring joke in the film).  But as the story progresses he becomes less like a clown and more like Job.  In a scene that is more acerbic than funny, he is fired from his tree-planting job after protesting the fact that the government sold the same forest to multiple donors.  Incapable of introspection and unwilling to compromise on his principles, he is reduced to a truly pathetic state.  This culminates in a scene in the rain where he calls out to the Lord, begging for a miracle to save him.  Though it fits the comic narrative (a poster for the elections is immediately lit by a lightening bolt, leading him to another bungled attempt at making money via selling his vote), the reality of the scene makes it painful to watch.  No longer happy-go-lucky and clueless, our clownish hero is dirty and broken.

And in true tragic fashion, it is unavoidable–both he and the system under which he suffers lack the adaptability/insight necessary to make things right.  After things are at their absolute worst, the story is turned around by an absurd ploy in which Sallah and co. protest against being moved into the shikunim.  This brings the authorities against them (nod nod wink wink) and they are forced to move into the shikunim. This whole subplot is so absurd, so sloganistic (“you never get what you want, always what you don’t want” is the oft repeated maxim) that it stands in stark relief to the painful realism of the rest of the film.  I understand this as an artificial attempt to make a tragedy into a comedy.  The world that has been created onscreen has proven itself as being purely antagonistic towards Sallah.  But few films as bleak as the first two thirds of Sallah are successful at speaking to anyone aside from the usual group of cinephiles (and Japanese)–so another fantasy world is tacked on to save him.

One gets the sense that Kishon’s worldview is ultimately one of pessimistic despair, a sort of victimization.  Unlike Mizoguchi (who often dealt with very similar themes) he tries to dress it in comedy to make it more palatable.  But the result is uneven at best. I disagree with the 1965 NY Times review which derides Sallah’s jests as “old.”  The film has many really funny moments.  Its percentage of funny screen time far surpasses such “classics” as The Producers or Blazing Saddles in which the repeatability of a handful of jokes is supposed to compensate for the other hour and a half of feeling like you’re supposed to be laughing but not.  But, unlike films like To Be or Not to Be (1942, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), in which every element from the pacing, to the characters, to the overall plot and sentiment contribute to a unique and powerful comic atmosphere, Sallah Shabati leaves the viewer confused.  I’m made to love this character, for his charm, his unique morality–and then I see how what I love in him is the very thing that destroys him.

I don’t mean to say that tragedy and comedy can never coincide.  Tragicomedy, black comedy–on the surface these might seem to be equivalent to what I find lacking in Sallah. But there is a significant difference.  Black comedy (and tragicomedy if I understand what it is) takes a situation and shows how the same incongruities which make it tragic can also be seen to make it funny.  In Sallah, one might be tempted to say the same thing.  The plight of the Sephardic immigrants in the 1950s was really bad but through the character of Sallah we can see that there was a humorous side to it as well and, through that, we can process the trauma and move on.  But in a certain sense, the film goes full circle and returns us to the tragedy from which we began thus undermining whatever new perspective we may have gained.  Perhaps that was the film’s intention, to sucker us in with a lovable character and then make us really feel the immigrants’ pain by showing him humiliated.

One of the responses that I got from my first review was: “How do you know that he really had this stuff in mind when he made the film?”  That is one of the most central questions when it comes to analyzing this or any other work of art.  With Laughton it was clear.  The whole film had such a continuity of style, the apparent themes were carried so masterfully by the acting, the photography, the music and the script, that there was little doubt that he had some ideas in his head and was doing his best to communicate them.  But with Kishon, I really don’t know.  Was the film meant to be read two or three layers deep?  Or was it meant to be a good laugh that took a couple of stabs at the establishment but ultimately got derailed by its own inner logic?

So if I had to sum up my opinion bottom line:  the film is really funny, it successfully skewers a whole host of 50s Israeli institutions but the amateurish style and the ultimate dissonance between the story and how it is told keep it from being a true comic masterpiece.

PS: I found this Chinese television site with a really funny synopsis of the film.  When you see how little they understood the situation of the film, it gives you a hint on how the world can be so clueless about so many other aspects of the modern middle east.  Be sure to check out the mms trailer!

As I mentioned in my tag-line for this tidbit, the benshi were the not-so-silent side of Japanese silent film.  Before we jump right in to the benshi and all their gritty details, let’s just paint the basic background.

Film came to Japan in the 1890s and by 1920 there was already a fledgling industry.  By 1925, film was tremendously popular.  In that year there were 813 theaters in Japan and 155 million admissions.  Not bad for a country with a population of less than 60 million.  The domestic products dominated their imported competitors (an anomaly on the international scene) and the Japanese directors and even the audiences were resistant to the new talkies.  Ozu famously felt that he was nearing perfection of the art of the silent film and didn’t want to start over with a new medium.  The first successful talkie was Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1932) but before that there was a very long history of what some of dubbed “talking silents”–the benshi.

The benshi used to sit to the left of the screen and narrate what was happening on screen.  More than just describe, they would invent, embellish, explain, even sing or chant if they saw it fit.  In their heyday they received first billing–before the stars, the directors, sometimes even in larger characters than the title.  Recordings of their narration were turned in to best-selling records, even without the film.  They held on quite tenaciously to their positions in the face of sound but ultimately all their unionizing and threatening couldn’t save them from the sinking ship that was silent film.  When sound came, they fought hard and at times even comically.   (The Japanese Film: Art and Industry , p. 75)

The benshi had been thrown into complete confusion by the coming of sound. At first they kept silent, hoping that the talking films would go away. Then they decided to take the offensive and tried to narrate over the sound. This was difficult because they had no public-address systems and were forced to shout as loud as they could. Soon they learned to cut down the volume to let themselves be heard, and, finally, some benshi turned off the sound altogether, showing the film as though it were silent and, as always, faithfully narrating. Some even narrated strictly musical shorts which had only songs.

To understand this phenomenon better, we must consider the Japanese storytelling tradition.  In all three of the major theatrical trends of the 19th century (kabuki, noh and puppet theater) it was common to have someone like a benshi at the side of the stage explaining, commenting or singing as the case may be.  Functionally, he seems to have fulfilled a role similar to the choruses in the ancient theater.   In contradistinction to the European tradition, the Japanese aesthetic tradition has throughout had great tolerance for textual information alongside its images.  Perhaps it is a consequence of the importance of calligraphy to an ideogram language, that’s beyond my ability to say.  But consider the famous Zen artists, like Shubun, or the print-artists or painters of the Edo period.  It is not at all infrequent to find passages of poetry, religious texts or whole stories printed alongside the image.   Indeed, by the time the world of the ukiyo-e (perhaps a subject for another tidbit) was reaching its end, we see prints like the following, from Yoshitoshi’s series ‘Mirror of Beauties Past and Present (1875-1876):’

The combination of textual information alongside the visual is downright dizzying in Yoshitoshis Tomoe onna.

The combination of textual information alongside the visual is downright dizzying in Yoshitoshi's 'Tomoe onna.' (1875-6)

So when film came to Japan at the turn of the century it was only natural for it to be accompanied by a textual, if you will, accompaniment. There are for more intricate connections to be made, and Anderson’s “In Praise of Benshi” in the appendix of The Japanese Film: Art and Industry is a good place to start if you are interested in them.  Richie connects the benshi with the Japanese fear of “not getting it” which drove them to subtitle Cousteau films with the genus and species of the fish or to print programs for foreign films that would contain all the facts that you might expect in a program as well as a a complete synopsis including “spoilers.” It was not uncommon to see theater lobbies full of moviegoers preparing for the movie by reading these thick pamphlets.

As far as the progress of cinema as an artform goes, the benshi were an impediment.  The very textuality undermined the visual artform as well as the unity of vision of the film’s creator(s).  This is never easy to maintain in an essentially collaborative product but imagine the situation with benshi: You could see the same film twice with different benshi and get a totally different interpretation of what happened.

And yet, there is something so quaint, so transitionally modern about them that you can’t but feel just a tinge of regret that you’ve never seen a film with one.

Stars scattered across a lavender sky

Blossoms Fallen like snow on the green earth

Spring, ah, spring

It is Spring and romance is in the South.

[Fade out.  Over The End:]

The title is ‘Southern Justice’.

Complete in five reels.

A benshi”s narration from the end of ‘Southern Justice,’ a Universal picture (under the Bluebird Photoplays name) from 1917, when the two lovers are at last united in the hills of Kentucky.  As quoted by Anderson p.449.

The next tidbit will actually not be about film at all but rather about evil conspiracies and  secret societies.  I will, once and for all, uncover the truth about everything.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.