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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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.