Yasujiro Shimazu - Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934)

As we all know, history is written by the winners. When we think of early Japanese cinema, we rightfully think of Ozu, Mizoguchi, and, to a lesser extent, Kurosawa. While a lot of Ozu’s and Mizoguchi’s early films are lost, they produced an impressive body of work after the war which enabled them to profit from the industry’s postwar growth and its discovery by westeners. This is not the case for Yasujiro Shimazu who died in 1945. Considered the first real master of the shomin-geki genre, Shimazu directed well over 100 silent films, which are lost for the most part. And of the films that survived, only a tiny fraction is available with English subtitles.

One can’t help but wonder what this “loser” of history has in fact contributed to Japan’s early cinematic landscape as we perceive it today. Shimazu’s films have a reputation to have been starting blocks for many Japanese film stars and it seems like the director was mainly interested in “slice-of-life” narration and outsider characters (his debut First Steps Ashore involves seamen and prostitutes - no pun intended). Stylistically, it seems like he was a major player in implementing the use of the long lens and, it might be argued, the seamless tracking shot. But one can’t know for sure as our sampling size is simply too small to tell.

Which is frustrating. Just as I am terribly curious what an Ozu period film might look like (the lost The Sword of Penitence), delving deeper into Shimazu’s filmography would surely prove to be fascinating and maybe shed a new light on pre-war Japanese cinema and beyond. I was able to source and see two Shimazu films and am very impressed. History might be written by winners, but exploring the niches is very rewarding.

Our Neighbor, Miss Yae opens with a masterful lateral tracking shot establishing the suburban lower middle-class setting of the film. The shot ends on a pair of brothers playing catch in the back yard. We get a meticulously mounted and edited sequence in which the brothers throw around the baseball, which culminates in the ball flying over to the neighbor's property and smashing one of their windows. I was struck by the amount of coverage Shimazu gets. The editing is less rigorous than Ozu's, but more systematic than Shimizu's. The shots follow each other very deliberately. There are, however, a lot of shots that are never repeated and simply stand as stylistic flourishes. There are also quite a few cut-aways that Ozu would later use systematically but are employed more casually, it seems, by Shimazu.

This opening sequence not only immediately establishes Shimazu as a very considered filmmaker but it also introduces one of the major themes of the movie: characters interactions depend on damage, spoilage, harm. Shortly after the baseball sequence, one of the brothers responsible for the breakage, Keitaro, goes over to the neighbor's house because he locked himself out.  He is given something to eat and spills it on the pillow he is sitting on. At that moment, the neighbor's girl Yea-chan comes home with a friend, and Keitaro tries to hide his mischief. When she wants to offer the pillow to her friend, Keitaro has to admit to his clumsiness and the two girls make fun of him. Next, Yea-chan notices that Keitaro's socks have holes in them. She offers to mend them, but the student is clearly embarrassed. When he finally agrees and takes off his socks, Yea-chan comments on how dirty his feet are. Also, his socks stinks. That's why he didn't want to give them to Yea-chan in the first place.

The effect of this focus on imperfections is that the film feels very lived in. The relations between the characters are instantly believable because Shimazu shows them interacting in everyday situations that root the narrative in a very distinct sense of veracity. Everything in this movie rings true. This is especially valid for Keitaro and Yea-chan's timid courtship. Shimazu doesn't make a big fuss out of it and the two never really get to take their relationship to the next level but it is a delight to observe the two flirting gleefully and having a good time. There is an emotional honesty on display here that is rarely found when it comes to love and relationships in films.

Drama arises when Yea-chan's sister Kyouko comes home because she wants to divorce her husband who has been unfaithful. She and Keitaro are attracted to each other which, in turn, attracts Yea-chan's jealousy. But even here, where Shimazu would have had more than enough material to cook up simple minded melodrama, the director mostly exhibits restraint in the tear-jerker department and contents himself with showing how the character's actions change subtly from the point of Kyouko's appearance.

Yea-chan's father, for example, drinking buddy with Keitaro's father, grows increasingly frustrated and unhappy. In the end, the family moves to Korea. There is also a wonderful sequence in which Yea-chan and Kyouko go out on a double date with Keitaro and his brother, which, you guessed it, entails quite some instances of breakage, skin burns and other missteps that fuel the character interactions. Strictly speaking the night out sequence doesn't add a lot to the already meager plot, but it brings emotional heft to the table and what the actors do with simple looks, and what Shimazu accomplishes with shot composition to underline the characters' standing in relation to each other is remarkable.

A lot more could be said about Our Neighbor, Miss Yae. For instance, I haven't even delved into the film's thematic richness. But I found myself so thoroughly absorbed by the film's deliberate pacing and emotional honesty that I don't even want to get any more academic in discussing it. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae is a delightful and very entertaining film that proves that history's losers have plenty to say and that we would fare well to listen to them more often.

The Deleuzian Century V: Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1928) and Earth (1930)

An explosion on an empty field.

A woman stands immobile in a sparsely furnished room.

A title card: "There was a mother who had three sons."

Another explosion. Two dead soldiers on a rolling train. Empty, desolate trenches.

The same woman, still standing immobile in her comfortless room.

Smoke emerging from the trenches. Obscuring our view.

Another title card: "There was a war."

A woman stands on an empty field, next to a dilapidated hut.

A village street. Three women stand immobile in front of their poor houses. An amputee crosses the screen trailed by a small child.

Another street. A Young woman leans against a house. An old officer walks towards her. Stops. Examines her. Smiles. Touches her breasts. And then walks away.

A third title card: "The mother had three sons no more."

On a vast desolate field, an old woman throws seeds. Alone. And then falls to the ground.

If Alexander Dovzhenko is frequently called the poet among the Soviet formalists, it is precisely because of evocations like the one described above, found at the beginning of Arsenal. In a three minute sequence, the Ukrainian director manages to convey all the hopelessness, the senselessness, the dread, the bleakness, the horror of war without showing us a single gun shot or wound. Fragments are assembled, meaning is created. Dovzhenko is "obsessed with the relation between the parts, the unit and the whole" (Cinema 1, 58), writes Deleuze. Or as the French film critic Barthélemy Amengual puts it, Dovzhenko is capable of expressing himself "outside of time and space" thanks to fragmented montage.

Dovzhenko is out and out dialectician. The parts of his elliptical films are always expressions of the whole. Where the director doesn't create meaning within the scene, we creep towards a slow realization of a central idea, of a bigger meaning. In Zvenigora, a frequently hard to follow allegory, two stories run along each other, sometimes intersecting but remaining separate entities always. One is the story of a "Grandfather" who tries to protect a century old treasure, the other one is a confusing disquisition about war and industrialization. At the end, Dovzhenko joins both narratives in a sublime instance of a "qualitative bound" and we come to realize that what was at stake the whole time was Ukrainian national identity. The propagandist element is well there, except Dovzhenko takes a lot of detours to get there.

As Deleuze remarks, Dovzhenko, far more than Eisenstein, knows how to douse the parts and their unity into a new whole "that gives them incomparable depth and extensiveness within their own boundaries." (58) If Deleuze is interested in how the école soviétique combines the parts to express a new whole, Dovzhenko gives him a run for his money. Story is never narrated, it is constructed with disjointed elements. The whole is slowly assembled, the elements melt into the bigger picture. In short, there is a purpose, even if we don't always know what that purpose is.

Earth, on which the consensus seems to be that it's Dovzhenko's best although I found Arsenal  to be oftentimes more engaging, pushes the "qualitative bound" to its limit, I would dare to say. If Eisenstein concocted his milk separator sequence to turn a narrative page, Dovzhenko builds and builds anticipation but subtracts narration. When the tractor arrives to the village, separating its inhabitants into two fractions (pro or contra modernization) we get a long sequence in which the appearance of the machine produces incredible exhalation among the population and seems to be integral to the village's survival. It is almost a slow build from hope to triumph like in Old And New. But that build-up is never resolved.

Similarily, the film begins with an old man announcing that he is dying. But he still converses a bit with some villagers and eats an apple. We build and build and build towards his death, but once his life really does extinguish, we haven't had a narrative eureka. Dovzhenko just doesn't operate on those terms. The "qualitative bound" occurs once we as an audience make sense of all these elements, once unity emerges and the whole begins to transpire. Montage here is not used so much on a micro scale as with Eisenstein, but applied to the whole film text. The parts always point to the whole. It is Dovzhenko's genius that he approaches montage on his own terms.

The Deleuzian Century IV: Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm Over Asia (1928)

We have seen the dialectical spiral, we have seen the section d'or, we have seen the qualitative bound - all expressions of Sergei Eisenstein's masterful command of "dialectic montage" as described by Gilles Deleuze. But, reminds us the french philosopher, "everyone knows that dialectics are characterized by several different laws". (Cinema 1, 57) "If we can talk about an école soviétique, it is not because its auteurs resemble each other, but because they are all different, every one having a different affinity to the dialectic conception they share". (57)

Eisenstein has a didactic approach to historic process and uses "opposition montage" to stage said process without having to rely on individuals too much to advance the narration (with exception, of course, of Ivan The Terrible). Vsevolod Pudovkin, even more of an overt and unambiguous propagandist than Eisenstein, is very much involved in the business of selling us history as approved by the socialist dominions as well, but uses individuals as symbols, although we are still miles away from a Hollywoodesque hero-driven narrative.

We find the qualitative bounds employed by Eisenstein, but in a different context. As history is symbolized by people in Pudovkin's work, the qualitative bounds in his films, argues Deleuze, are mainly changes in conscience. Through carefully edited POV shots, that serve as a sort of puzzle for the characters and the audience alike, Pudovkin builds to a realization, to a change in consciousness that gives the scene a new meaning, a new quality, and that calls for action from the protagonists.

In Mother, for example, we have an early scene in which the titular mother observes her drunk husband glaring at a wall clock. With every POV shot from the mother, intercut with close-ups of her face, we come closer to the realization that the husband is considering how he can sell the clock's parts in order to pay for more booze. As soon as the mother realizes it herself, she jumps to action and tries to prevent him from doing so. Through simple shots of one character observing another, the scene changes its meaning completely. Just as the mechanics of the milk separator in Old And New served as a narrative tool transforming hope into triumph, piecing the elements together in Mother means realizing what the scene really is about.

The End of St. Petersburg, in my mind a superior offering than Mother in many aspects, pushes this concept a little further. Looser and more sweeping in its narrative, the chronicle of St. Petersburg's fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks during the Russian revolution is not presented solely as a linear advancement of history. Rather, Pudovkin gives us many different pieces to the story, highlighting different social malaises. Piecing them together gives us not only the full story, but a new outlook on things. Just as individual scenes can flip once all the different elements taken together make sense, history can be fully appreciated once the different relevant points of view have been presented. The question becomes, of course, what is perceived as relevant.

The qualitative bounds in The End of St. Petersburg, are there on the micro scale as well, and we get recurring motives that offset changes in consciousness (the clock, the vast open skies that represent hope and death at the same time, the black smoke) but even more so than in Mother, Pudovkin tries to trigger changes in consciousness in the audience and not only the fictional characters on the screen.

In Storm Over Asia, in my opinion the best movie of the three, Pudovkin exhibits his most refined use of montage yet. A sort of Russian Lawrence of Arabia (there is even a desert scene in which a point on the horizon reveals itself to be a rider on a horse as he advances towards the camera, predating about 35 years the similar iconic scene in David Lean's classic) we get a lot of prolonged scenes that show Mongolian customs, Buddhist religious ceremonies, and explosive battle sequences. In order to render them fully, Pudovkin shows us a succession of close-ups that convey the atmosphere of each scene as experienced by the protagonists. He calls on all our senses. We see the faces of the people present, their clothes, sources of noise or music, fire, decors, the list goes on and on.

These signifiers are clearly meant for the audience. Pudovkin doesn't render one protagonist's point of view but gives us a god-like overview slowly revealed through intricate montage. With each new bit of visual information, our understanding of the scene is enhanced, altered, completed. The qualitative bound occurs in the audience's mind when the full extent of a scene is realized. Some associative montage is to be found in Storm Over Asia as well, but these sequences are stylistic flourishes and not a necessity to convey a certain plot point. In that regard, Pudovkin is decidedly uneisensteinian, so to speak.

Both are interested in awakening a certain state of consciousness in the audience. Both use montage to do so. But where Eisenstein combines point A with point B to create a heightened point C, Pudovkin slowly pushes his audience towards the realization of what point A, B and C are in the first place. It is also interesting to consider how chronologic narration is employed to wholly different ends. It's not like Pudovkin is less of a realist than Eisenstein. But where the director of Battleship Potemkin uses linear narration to show progress and consequences, Pudovkin combines disjointed elements to produce new meaning that, in turn, advances the story.

The Deleuzian Century III: Sergei Eisenstein's Strike! (1925), October (1927) and Old and New (1929)

In Sergei Eisenstein's cinema, writes french philosopher Gilles Deleuze, we not only find "an organic link between two moments but a qualitative bound where the new moment gains additional power." (Cinema 1, 52). Where Griffith and the école américaine had two story points running along each other without really influencing each other, Eisenstein used point B as a result of point A, constructing narratives that explained as well as told stories. Story advancement wasn't a necessity but the logical result of specific plot points that set up new story movement, et cetera.

October and Old And New, both sometimes horribly overt propaganda films that certainly have to allow the question why Eisenstein is heralded a great stylistic innovator while Leni Riefenstahl, arguably not a lesser filmmaker, is shunned today, exemplify perfectly how this "organic link" between two plot points can be elevated to a "qualitatieve bound". What Deleuze means with "qualitative bound" is process. If point B results from point A, how do we get there? As in one of Louis C.K.'s stand-up routines where his daughter asks him what 6 plus 6 equals, and, upon receiving the correct answer, demands to know how because she has to show the work ("draw a picture of me telling you that it's 12!", C.K. exclaims), Deleuze wants to go deeper into the "organic link" between two moments and see how it works.

If one looks at films from the bird's eye view, almost all of them express a certain "process". In Hollywood tradition, the hero has to overcome or solve a problem and, in the process of doing so, changes in a fundamental way. Hollywood films process their protagonists, if you will. In Eisenstein's work, however, story results from process, as opposed to being the process. Consider the milk separator sequence in Old And New, given by Deleuze as the prime example: "we witness the passage from one moment to the other, from distrust and hope to triumph, from the empty pipe to the first drop, a passage that excellerates the more we approach this moment's new quality, the triumphant drop: it's a qualitative bound." (54)

It's a narrative device Eisenstein uses a lot. A new situation arises and the director finds visual means to show us how. If the milk separator represents hope (and resentment) for the milk cooperative in the film, its launch transforms the hope (point A) into triumph (point B). The intricate shots of the device's mechanics and how the farmers present at its first try-out bridge the gap between hope and triumph, providing visual proof of a change in nature of the situation. Eisenstein charges an otherwise inanimate object with a specific meaning. Bringing the machine into service changes the meaning - the story turns a page.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Eisenstein often discards personification for a more anonymous approach that enables him to represent historic movements more accurately. Historic movements are all about process. They don't just arise out of thin air, they are born through different machinations and are themselves a process of change. In that regard, Eisenstein's style clearly mirrors his narrative choices.

October, a stylistically brilliant but otherwise very uneven offering, is the perfect example. Almost everything here is process and we don't get to know any characters even obliquely, as we did in Battleship Potemkin. The famous uprising sequence at the beginning of the film that climaxes with a soldier opening fire on the protesters in a bold use of - literally - quick-fire cutting, uses the same method as in the milk-separator sequence. On a title card we learn that after 5 month of "bourgeoisie government" there is still "no bread, no peace, no land". Another title card announces the "people's wrath". They shout: "down with the provisional government!" Meetings are held, strategies discussed, people gather - again, it is hope that Eisenstein stages here. Hope for political change. It is not a drop of cream the "Bolsheviks" hope for but a new government. The soldier opening fire on the people crushes this hope but not after a good five minutes of building up to that ultimately anticlimactic  moment. Again, it is not the story of individuals who brace themselves for political upheaval that matters here, but the mechanics of how the protests translate to a wholly new situation: a "qualitative bound".

But, again, Eisenstein uses this technique on a smaller scale as well. His "associative montage" combines two otherwise unrelated images to create a new meaning. Deleuze: "a qualitative change doesn't only mean a change in content on the screen, but also a formal change. The image has to acquire a new potency, attain a superior power" (54). Deleuze cites Eisenstein's use of close-ups that represent "absolute change" (54) and the visual passage in Old And New from milk flowing to water spurting (passage from slickness to sparkles) to fire works (introducing colors), each step elevating the image to a new quality.

But we can go further and include Eisenstein's use of juxtaposition, of "associative montage". The iconic final sequence in Strike! is a perfect example of how Eisenstein creates new meaning and elevates a sequence to a new level by association. The workers who instigate the titular strike are being chased by the authorities and they run for their lives. Many are beaten to death, someone falls from a balcony to his death, and they finally try to escape over an open field, where fire is opened on them. Eisenstein intercuts this intense sequence with very graphic images of cows being slaughtered. The message is clear, and by combining two otherwise unrelated images, Eisenstein has created new meaning, has created a "qualitative bound".

Tabloid/The Interrupters

For those of you so inclined you can read my review of the new Errol Morris documentary Tabloid here and my review of Steve James' excellent new documentary The Interrupters here. Both via Big Vision Empty Wallet.