Monday, March 14, 2011

Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu

Our understanding of pre-World War II Japanese cinema has been limited not merely to those few films in distribution, but to those even in existence. Between unstable nitrate stocks (used for early films), poor preservation and earthquakes - not to mention World War II — most of those films are irrevocably lost to history. Contemporary American audiences' conceptions, in particular, are formed almost exclusively by Yasujiro Ozu's playful formalism and Kenji Mizoguchi's tragic heroines. All of which makes Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu not only an exciting, long-overdue release, but also a historically redefining moment. For the first time, American audiences will have access to one of the foundational artists of Japanese cinema, whose prolific output between 1924 and 1959 (166 films) well exceeds the combined filmographies of Ozu and Mizoguchi.

The sole representation of Shimizu's silent films, Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933), is also the most genre-specific movie in the box set. A mash-up of pulp melodrama and what Paul Schrader has termed "transcendentalism" (in which directorial style elevates the film to an almost spiritual plane beyond the realm of the narrative), the story concerns two young girls, Sunako and Dora, in the port of Yokohama. Best friends, they're both in love with the same boy, a motorcycle-riding lad named Henry. Unbeknownst to them, Henry has another woman on the side. Expectedly, such a secret can't remain hidden forever, and when Sunako discovers Henry's infidelity, she shoots her rival and begins moving from port to port as a prostitute.

Traces of Josef von Sternberg's silent The Docks of New York (1928) are present throughout, particularly in the symbolic use of latticed shadows and shooting through bars to "trap" the characters. But the film is anything but a genre-knockoff: Shimizu's characteristic use of location shooting and lyrical photography are unlike anything von Sternberg or Hollywood studios were offering at that time. (The total transition to talkies in Hollywood had, by technological necessity, moved most of their stories indoors; Japan had yet to make the total leap from silents to talkies, and silents would be produced in Japan for several more years). And while expressionistic gestures appear now and then, Japanese Girls at the Harbor is largely a naturalistic work, attuned to the rhythm and textures of both nature and urbanity. 

The three sound films included — Mr. Thank You (1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), and Ornamental Hairpin (1941) — all share a similar narrative construction. Like extended anecdotes, they are confined to a single location and feature ensemble-type casts. Plots are but series of vignettes, with major events handled in ellipses and preference given to the passing minutiae of chitchat and everyday gestures. As Chris Fujiwara explains, "Shimizu favors a gradual and rhizomatic expansion of plotless incidents, whose critical points can be perceived only through hints, indirections, and cries and confessions that come too late. The plotlessness of Shimizu's films gives them a strikingly modern quality." Indeed, the almost real-time bus trip that comprises Mr. Thank You feels like an even more minimal version of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996).

Much like the bus itself, Mr. Thank You is a vessel for stories almost told: a mother is escorting her daughter to Tokyo where she is to be a prostitute; another man is on his way to a wake; a lecherous man with a fake mustache is trying to pick up girls. And then there are the dozens of pedestrians whom the bus-drivers stops to chat with: a woman stuck in a small town that asks for the driver to pick up a dance record for her; Korean immigrants building roads who cannot afford to take the bus. On or off the bus, Shimizu's characters are all migrants, deeply affected by Japan's economic depression, the severity of which lies beneath the surface of a charming, comical travelogue.

Both sharing a spa setting, The Masseurs and a Woman and Ornamental Hairpin reverse the situation of Mr. Thank You. Instead of being in perpetual transit, these characters are in permanent stasis. While both movies may explore the same themes of human alienation (all the more ironic considering the close quarters of the spa) and missed chances for love, they hardly seem repetitive and are distinguished in their own ways. Two shots in particular stand out as masterful. In The Masseurs and a Woman, the point-of-view shot of a blind man imagining a woman staring at him is made all the more exquisite and gut-wrenching due to the total silence of the soundtrack — a sacred cinematic moment, if ever there was one. And in Ornamental Hairpin, the the comic stumbling of a wounded Chishu Ryu (an Ozu favorite) as he attempts to walk without crutches create a tragically ironic counterpoint with love interest Kinuyo Tanaka. She will have to separate from Ryu once he is able to walk because of her own secretive past. 

Seen together, the four films in Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu reveal that we have been missing out on a major director for all these decades. Shimizu's visual sensibility is completely distinct from Ozu and Mizoguchi. He has the tendency to use a double-fade in which first the characters disappear from the frame, leaving an empty set which then fades to black. His penchant for tracking shots also recalls Max Ophüls, but without the Austrian director's formal classicism — instead, Shimizu's camera moves like a blind man's hand over surfaces, objects, faces. And his narrative structures have a flexibility like few other films — in fact, Mr. Thank You, based on a story by future Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, was shot without a shooting script. The simplicity of these films is disarmingly delightful — the quirky humor hides Shimizu's mastery of craft and subtle, but biting, social commentary.

Eclipse Series 15: Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection

[This review originally appeared in The L Magazine on March 17, 2009.]

Friday, February 25, 2011

Remembering Janet Gaynor

For a decade, she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors. In the seventy years since she retired from the limelight, however, Janet Gaynor’s legacy has been overshadowed by the work of her collaborators, her contemporaries, and especially her two best directors: F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, both of them visual stylists of the highest caliber. The very characteristics that endeared her to audiences—her delicate charm, and an innocence seemingly out of place with the Jazz Age that created her—may also provide clues as to why she has gone overlooked and underappreciated in the annals of film history. Her wholesome image doesn’t fit the loose girdles and looser morals of Pre-Code Hollywood that modern audiences are eating up these days. However, two screenings last year—a three-day matinee run of Borzage’s Street Angel (1928) at the Museum of Modern Art as part of their Auteurist History of Film series, and a weeklong residency of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in a new 35mm print at Film Forum—reminded us of Gaynor’s reticent grace, and how integral her performance was to both of these masterpieces of the silent screen.

The Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties was the capital of elegance, extravagance, and excess. Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920 left behind suggestions of suicide, STDs, and debauchery; 1921 saw the arrest of beloved comedian Fatty Arbuckle, accused rape and murder; 1922 opened with the still-unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor; and it was only 18 days into January of 1923 when Wallace Reid died, exposing a history of morphine addiction and alcoholism. Theda Bara was vamping up the screen, Clara Bow and her bobbed hair were all a-wiggle, and a host of other glamour girls paraded about, draped in jewels and furs, and sipping martinis with their pinkies extended.

Into this gaudy zoo walked Janet Gaynor, whose deceptively simple and natural acting and down-to-earth persona put her at odds with the cultural zeitgeist. Born Laura Gainor in 1906, she and her sister began working as extras in short films soon after graduating high school. A watchful producer pulled the renamed “Janet Gaynor” out from the background in 1926. One year and several forgotten (and presumably lost) films later, she found herself in the hands of Hollywood’s greatest import: legendary German director F.W. Murnau, whose Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924) were already world-famous for their striking and evocative visual innovations.

Murnau was lured across the Atlantic with the promise of an unprecedented carte blanche from studio head William Fox, and he took full advantage of this opportunity. Sunrise is one of those rare miracles in which the near-limitless technical capabilities of the Hollywood studios converged perfectly with the ambitious, personal, and unrelenting vision of a director. Deliberately artificial sets and expressionistic lighting transform pastoral landscapes into paranoid, nightmarish dreamscapes through which Murnau’s mobile camera lurks like a phantom. Murnau’s direction is anticipatory: at times he uses long shots to shadow characters’ movements through alleys and swamps, while at others the camera remains immobile, awaiting with anxiety and dread the action it knows will come. Though it was only a minor hit when first released, the ensuing eight decades have seen mountains of praise piled upon it—and Sunrise continues to more than live up to everything that has been said about it. (Plus, who doesn’t love the drunk pig sequence?)

Its fable-like story concerns nameless characters in highly symbolic settings: the Country and the City. Janet Gaynor plays The Wife, who husband (The Man, played by George O’Brien) has recently taken up with The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston). Though Sunrise is based on a story by Hermann Sudermann, it’s hard not to notice the shades of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, published just two years prior in 1925. While George O’Brien—with his lumbering walk, his body literally weighted down with surmounting guilt (he also wore leaden shoes to emphasize this)—is more showy, Gaynor’s performance is more reserved and nuanced. Her disquieting demeanor is introverted where O’Brien is extroverted, and though she is the casualty of her husband’s wayward attractions, she never plays the victim.

It’s easy to forget that such a demanding role was placed on a 21-year-old actress who had never faced a starring role this challenging before. Playing against type, Gaynor wears a garish, but wonderful, artificial wig—replacing her natural brunette curls with homely, pulled-back blonde hair—that makes her seem more like a grandmother than a young bride. She looks old beyond her years, with a weariness and vulnerability that Gaynor manages to pull off.

The premiere of Sunrise was delayed to accommodate the shooting and release of Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), a love-conquers-all story about a transcendent romance between Gaynor, alone and abandoned in the gutter, and Charles Farrell, the street cleaner who rescues her and brings her up to his seventh floor home. While the influence of Murnau could definitely be felt in Seventh Heaven, it was even more prevalent in Borzage’s follow-up, Street Angel, the second and best partnering between the director and Hollywood’s newest love-team of Gaynor and Farrell (who would go to on to pair -up in a total of 12 feature films). Borzage’s camera stalks the alleys of Naples (recreated on the Fox studio’s backlot), at first following Gaynor’s panic-stricken flight as she escapes from the police after being arrested for stealing and “solicitation” (it was to help her sick mother, forgive the girl!); later it follows itinerant artist Farrell after he discovers Gaynor’s hidden past, giving up his career and descending into the crowded gutter from which they originally fled.

Gaynor’s youthful enthusiasm and endurance, absent from in Sunrise, reappears in Street Angel. Her attempts to woo men like so many other prostitutes is a perceptive bit of physical comedy, while her flight through the streets is thick with anxiety. Plus, it’s hard not to be won over by her cherub cheeks and optimistic smile.

Visually, Borzage (along with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and set designer Harry Oliver) seem to push the limits of cinema past their boundaries. The frequent tracking shots and long- takes scream for a use of deep focus that wouldn’t be technologically possible for several years to come; so, the film has to suffice with the occasional cross-fade in order to keep the shot in proper focus. Still, those looking to see the heights of backlot artistry under the decided influence of German Expressionism need look no further than Street Angel: it’s a dizzying, shadowy world of desperation, betrayal, and—in true Borzage fashion—a romance that can purify even the dingiest gutter.

At the first Academy Awards in 1928, Gaynor was awarded the Best Actress Oscar for all three of her performances in all three of Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. (That’s something that has never happened ever since.) Her career would continue to rise with Borzage’s Lucky Star (1929), much of which is a two-person chamber drama with crippled veteran Farrell, and which is only marred by a magical, redemptive closing that goes too far in search of a happy ending. (A 1928 reunion with Murnau, 4 Devils, is sadly lost—the possibilities of its greatness are damn tempting, however.) Though her paycheck increased, Gaynor wasn’t happy with her choice of roles, many of which were restricted to naive ingénues in musicals, much to her dismay. Fed up with her career, she left Fox until the studio agreed to meet her demands.

However, when Gaynor returned, the studios didn’t meet their end of the bargain. Her career continued as usual, with Gaynor being assigned roles that seemed like rehashes of Mary Pickford’s forever-young, spunky juveniles. When Shirley Temple effectively took that spot in the mid 1930s, studios lost faith in Gaynor, until she was cast in William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which garnered her another Oscar nomination. Here, she plays an aspiring actress whose ascent parallels the demise of her mentor (Fredric March), a drunken actor in the midst of his own fatal fall-from-grace. While she still plays the good girl, she brings an unadorned dignity to the role. Her ability to hold back the drama in a story that seemingly aches for emotion is what makes the film hold up so well today (and the same can be said for March’s performance, as well).

After The Young in Heart in 1939 (in which she plays a con-artist with a heart of gold, another role in which she gets to exercise her knack for sophisticated comedy), Gaynor retired from the screen to be with her fashion designer hubby Adrian. For a while the couple moved to Brazil and, according to a Films in Review profile by John Nangle, ran a coffee plantation. She made a few TV appearances in the 1950s, as well as a return to the big screen to play Pat Boone’s mother in Bernadine (1957), and even a stage appearance in a theatrical version of Harold and Maude in the early 1980s—but these were just kicks for Janet. Her acting career had ended decades earlier. Regrettably, the studios had decided her career was over long before either she or her fans thought it was. The three movies she made with Frank Borzage, and the one existing film with F.W. Murnau, however, are reminders of not only Janet Gaynor’s potential, but also the heights she reached.

[This article originally appeared in The L Magazine on April 1, 2010]