Tidbit


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?

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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.

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.

Reviews are cool but they take a long time to formulate, compose and revise.  To make this blog a bit more “happening” without stopping all other activities in my life, I’ve decided to add tidbits about all sorts of things.  These aren’t necessarily original thoughts of my own and many of them may seem trivial to the professional film scholar.  Some won’t be about film at all.  But they will all be brief ideas that I’ve recently encountered (that means a lot of Richie, at least for now) and that I think are interesting enough to be worth sharing.  I’ll also give a hint about what the next tidbit will be, in order to keep you coming back!

Amongst the eccentricities that plagued Japanese film music in the “Golden era” (say 1949-1965 perhaps?) of Japanese cinema, was the general tendency not to use traditional Japanese music.  Japan has numerous rich musical traditions but they are all associated with the drama of Kabuki and Noh in the minds of the average viewer–at least that’s what the decision makers at the studios thought.  To hear a samisen or a koto in the middle of a film, even a pure jindai-geki would be confusing or even offensive as it would evoke the other theatrical arts and their established reliance on such instruments.  As in many aspects of Japanese film, Kurosawa was an exception; especially in his jindai-geki classics.  But even he more-or-less believed in the separation between the traditional theater and film–he just consciously brought films like Throne of Blood closer to the Noh style and exploited that dissonance to dramatic effect.  As usual, Donald Richie said it first and best (Anderson and Richie, p. 343):

No matter how exotic the style and action of period-films appear to Western audiences, to the Japanese this film style is a part of the realist tradition that was adapted from the West and therefore has only the slightest of connections with the classic Japanese drama.  Because so much Japanese classical music exists only in relation to the classic drama, the use of this music in films would present a severe stylistic clash.  The music is identified with classical acting but the acting on the screen is not.

Next time, the benshi.  Some strange facts about the not-so-silent side of Japanese silent cinema.

Amazon link to “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (Expanded Edition)”