Conversations with Ben
Ben Livant is a jazz lover and good friend of mine who I have been lending movies to for awhile now. His appreciation knows no bounds. Well, actually, his willingness to talk talk talk, usually about himself, knows no bounds. But he's a bright fellow and an all around good chap, so I asked him if he'd mind if I published some of our email conversations about film. I present to you now the first of many such chats.
Ikiru (Japan, 1951, Kurosawa) AKA Live and Let Die
I am a wreck. I couldn't sleep last night after Ikiru, literally could not sleep. It didn't help that I had had a nap the afternoon beforehand, always a stupid move on my part. And it didn't help that it was 1:30 in the morning when the film finished. But none of this addresses what Chairman Mao refers to as "the principle aspect." The film messed me up. Messed me up good.
I have yet to hear from the Special Features. I am hoping that the historical and analytical discussions therein will provide me with some sort of intellectual sanctuary from the overwhelming emotional damage I am experiencing. Simply put, I am depressed. The film depressed me. It is only because of a weakness in my personality, my particular mode of insecurity, that I need to talk as if I am not devastated inside. This time, I tender my review in order to initiate my own therapy.
It hurt me too much for me place it above Rashomon, although part of me suspects it is somehow the superior artwork. I guess it all depends on what poison you pick more often than the other, total head case (Rashomon) or spike to the heart (Ikiru)? Certainly this is a vulgar oversimplification. Even so, RA resonates morality secondarily, strongly, very strongly, but ultimately as an epiphenomenon of the epistemological study at the center of it all. And it is very much a study, an intellectual exercise, almost a scholarly investigation - but still socially situated, (which is why it is genuinely ethical too). IK, on the other hand, is a shotgun blast of existential desperation. It is also very moral and actually more overtly political than RA. But we are deep into Camus territory. The singular person isolated in the universe, confronted by the sheer fact of personal death. Thus, the point of departure is itself the destination, let's just call it, shivering naked unto darkness. This is gut level man; to be or not to be, and by the way, whatever. And yet, IK is really two films at once, isn't it? But that deserves another paragraph. (Another chapter of a book is more like it). What I am attempting to glimpse in this paragraph is a defense mechanism in my own taste. I "like" RA more than IK for the same "reasons" I like Stalker more than Rublev. Stalker is a mind-fuck. Rublev is bleeding all over the place. Turns out I really am squeamish, in the deepest sense of the term. But in my heart, I know Rublev is the gold-medal masterpiece, just that inch above Stalker. And I am feeling that the same must be true of IK over RA too. (Or will the Seven Samuria wipe the floor with everything? I know Ran will not.)
Another reason why I cleave to RA was addressed by Altman; the literally foreign cultural style involved. Ironically, because Japanese medieval history, cultural norms, acting techniques and so on are alien to me, at a certain level I am not emotionally challenged by them. I can allow myself to be impressed by them because they are relatively non-threatening psychologically. I don't want to exaggerate this line of thought. It's not as if I regarded RA as an exotic curiosity from my condescending point of view. Hell no. It's just that I was conscious of being an outsider.
Nothing of the sort occurred for me watching IK. Of course, the depiction of Japanese society in the early 1950s was far removed from my own experience. The government office, the nightlife, the wake, yadda yadda, all of it. But at the same time, the film was intensely familiar as a film. It reminded me of a Frank Capra movie, except, you know, way way way deep, without the bullshit candy coating, turned inside out and on its ass. It also reminded me of Citizen Kane. (With respect to technique, I am not educated enough to put my finger on why, although thematically there are some rather striking parallels.) The upshot of this is that I did not feel like an outsider looking at IK and this speaks to how it managed to affect me so thoroughly. I guess this is what critics mean when they talk about such-and-such art having "universal" meaning.
I don't feel competent to discuss the two-films-in-one that is IK. All I want to report is that it works, it fucking works, and it's a monster artistic achievement. As well, there is all sorts of wonderful shots and staggering editing and powerful acting and... I can't comment coherently without additional viewing. All I do want to mention, in general about Kurosawa because this is equally true of RA and IK, his use of silence is beyond compare. He employs degrees of silence - no music, no sound effects, no ambient sound, no dialogue, and sometimes no sound track at all. I swear, sometimes he films with the audio turned off. It's as if he returns to the silent era. And of course, he is entirely intentional about this. Everyone pays lip service to the degradation of cinema with the advent of the talkies. But Kurosawa truly walks the walk and doesn't talk the talk.
Second last paragraph. Content. I have already acknowledged the centrality of lonely mortality in the picture. And I think that some version of existentialism is underneath this. Whether or not this should be interpreted as a manifesto of despair is, well, a matter of interpretation. At the end of RA when the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby, the monk thanks him for restoring his faith in mankind. Clearly, KI doesn't even come close to handing us this ice cream cone. Nevertheless, the man does build the park. He does! And we do get to see children playing in it. When he has the epiphany that he can do something, the other people in the restaurant sing Happy Birthday in an incidental scene but it is clear, Watanabe is born again. Kurosawa alludes to the tune in the background music later on as well. The man ends his life on a swing, a happy child. He dies with the Zen wisdom of one who "doesn't know any better", doesn't know that "it can't be done". Hence, it got done.
Last paragraph. While there is much about existentialism that I respect, ultimately it cannot provide the philosophic or political grounds for a socialist bearing on life. (Relax, I am merely asserting this here. I won't argue it.) Now, I won't suggest that IK is a socialist film but I do want to point out that Wantanabe's activism does not take place in a social vacuum. That the film presents a scathing critique of civil service and public institutions in the supposedly "new" Japan of the post-war period is impossible to miss. That this reconstruction of Japan is under the thumb of US imperial design is not as plain but still evident. When the women finally complain after being given the bureaucratic run-around that this is bogus "democracy," they are turning American ideological warfare against itself. And speaking of these women, they are not trivial in this film. In fact, the role of womanhood is serious business throughout the film. Nevermind a socialist reading, a feminist reading is leaping off the screen. The dead wife, the girl who quits the office, even the dancehall whores - but I confine myself to the community mothers in relation to Wantanabe's existential turning point. They are a unified collective. They have social consciousness. They bring a practical problem forward and in doing so, they give Wantanabe the opportunity to actually do something with his life, they give him a second chance. And what is more, they acknowledge him. They are the benefactors of his life's work and to this they are his witnesses. And as I write this I realize that I have managed to cheer myself up a bit. Because these women really did come to know Wantanabe. They genuinely mourn his death at the wake. He is not an unknown soldier. They will tell their children who built their park.
Plenty to chew on here, Ben. Unfortunately, I'm battling an intestinal bug, which makes me unwilling to swallow.
Really, though, I think you'll find the commentary quite interesting (I've only heard part of it) as it does indeed touch a bit upon the social context of the film, which is clearly vital to any reading of it. Given it's rather savage critique of conditions in post-war Japan, the film could not have been made even six months earlier, when all films needed governmental (and American) approval. And I think you are definitely onto something regarding the housefrau's, who are a vital humanizing influence on this faceless bureaucracy, as well as the conscience of this community. And I do think there are small moments of hope. While it is tempting to get all cynical and remember that all the bureaucrats backtrack on their promises to become more involved and constructive in honour of Watanabe's memory, one of them DOES stop to look at the playground. One does remember him. And yes, certainly, the women will carry on his memory through their children.
Still and all, the film's iconic image--of Watanabe on the swing--is just so awesome and beautiful that, years later when you think back on the film, you will almost forget that this is one of the saddest movies ever made.
Yes, one of the (minor) bureaucrats does stop on the bridge to look at the playground. It is the same guy who most sincerely spoke of Wantanabe's achievement at the wake and who later attempted to do something on the job, momentarily challenging the authority of the new supervisor. But this outburst comes to nothing. And it is AFTER this incident that he is shown on the bridge with the sunset Wantanabe discovered again behind him, watching the children in the park. Of course, it's ambiguous. But for me, this individual does not represent hope. All I've got is the mothers (no Frank Zappa) and their kids, especially the kids. They are the future, after all.
Yeah, but how long have we been saying THAT? And to what end? No, no, no, I take that back. I love kids. They're so much better than people.
And don't give up on that bureaucrat! At least he has a conscience, which distinguishes him from most around him.
About children being given a moral priority, or not, you're just pissed 'cause you daughter gave you a bug. Truthfully though, I know where you're coming from. (Hello, we are high school teachers.) I hate those little yield signs people hang in their cars: "Baby On Board." Like I give a shit. Makes me want to kill the kid and let the driver live just to spite the driver.
As for that bureaucrat, yes, he has a conscience. And he once tried to take action. Will he try again?
A swing is a hell of thing isn't it? When was the last time you rode one? My kids have outgrown playgrounds. It's all about sports fields now. But every now and then, when we used to go, after they learned to pump for themselves, I would take a swing. I was never one to go very high, made me feel as though I was coming down with an intestinal bug... sorry; but you know, that feeling in the belly. But a swing ride... what more is there really? A swing ride - oh man, the problem with me is I just don't know when to take a drink.
I have always been gravitationally challenged. Acceleration challenged too. Never enjoyed rides at the fair and the like. I'm even centrifugally challenged. The merry-go-round? Only for a brief, mid-tempo moment. So a swing ride for me was always poignant. Even as a kid, I rode it like a middle-aged person, reflecting on the experience instead of just having it. Still, even though I could not stand a thrill, there was enough motion through the air for me to feel free... for a brief, mid-tempo moment.