Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pale Flower & Human Desire

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pale Flower - dir. Masahiro Shinoda, Anthology Film Archives

Hip Japanese existentialist noir about a yakuza's (Ryo Ikebe's) brief spell out of jail between two murders, during which time he resumes a life of aimless gambling, has a briefly rewarding friendship with a new protege, and falls for a death-driven younger woman (Mariko Kaga).

Shinoda's a demanding filmmaker. You remember the endurance test that was the last quarter of his Double Suicide--the movie we saw at MoMA the night me and my friends decided to go to Japan. What impressed me most about Pale Flower was how it tested my visual attention.

There was often lots of negative space in the frame, with the main object or person of interest often in a far corner or the side of the frame. The sense of isolation this created was intensified by the extremely shallow depth of field. Often, when two people were in the same frame talking  to each other, only one would be in focus, even if they were standing just a few feet away from each other. It creates a feeling of alienation: atomized individuals suspended in void, each trapped in their own two-dimensional planes.

Shinoda almost never shows the same shot twice. If two people are having a conversation, the camera will be placed differently with every shot. The same character is rarely ever shown from the same angle, elevation, and framing more than once. In this way, the characters become multifaceted but also mysterious, fragmented, "given in adumbrations" as phenomenologists say. Every character is fighting for his or her life, for coherence, against the fragmenting tendency of the cinematic mechanism. It's not just that, like many New Wave films, this film violates the grammar of Hollywood continuity editing. It had its own kind of anti-grammar. The 180-degree rule was reversed: instead of keeping the camera inside a 180-degree arc between shots, the camera usually moved at least 180-degrees with every shot. Moreover, it did this without keeping people in the same position in the frame, which would produce a more coherent sense of space, like in Ozu, for instance, who did not use the 180-degree rule, but maintained an orderly sense of space by keeping his actors centered in the frame, at very clean angles in relation to the camera. Pale Flower has an aesthetics of opposition, opposed spaces and perspectives creating a vibe of social opposition, friction, antagonism. I am tempted to say that this aesthetics reflects the uncomfortable position of our protagonist, fresh out of prison, in a hostile world, but I think what the film is doing is too radical to be confined to be made sense of in terms of identification. It is more about constructing a milieu, an underworld.

The creation of this vibe depended upon exceptions. After all, if the film was all wild, fragmentary, non-continuity editing, then these techniques would not necessarily have created the poetic connotations I described; they would just be the way the film shows things (which they also are). The film's restless construction of a shifting, fragmentary milieu finds anchor points in two characters who are repeatedly shown in similar compositions, usually in eye-line match cuts from the point of view of the protagonist: Mariko Kaga, who is repeatedly shown centered in the frame, in profile, in an eye-level close-up; and the dangerous junk addict/double-murderer Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), who is repeatedly seen in similar mid to close shots skulking in a corner of the gambling den frequented by the protagonist. In both cases, the repetitions cast a spell of desire and fear on the protagonist and audience, and in neither case is the protagonist's (the camera's/the audience's) gaze reciprocated: Kaga is shown in profile and Yoh is always looking off in the distance with the cool, contemptuous, zero-fucks-given sneer. The dialectic between the continuity editing and the more experimental, fragmentary editing pays off at the emotional climax of the film, when Kaga shows up at Ikebe's apartment to say goodbye to him before he goes off to do a hit that we all know will end him up back behind bars. When she arrives, we get a pair of eye-line matched shots of Kaga and Ikebe looking directly into the camera/at each other, a construction that combines the spatial coherence of the eye-line match cut with the 180-degree oppositionality that has mostly dominated the film. I don't know, maybe that's a bunch of bullshit, but I feel like it happened.

The characters in this film are interesting. They are unusually reflective, and their relationships with each other are surprisingly (for organized criminals) earnest and emotional.
- Ikebe is far too thoughtful to really be the kind of simple, cynical thug he claims to be. I can't tell if this is a fault of the screenplay or a virtue.
- The head of the gambling den seems at first like an intimidating, sunglasses-wearing Cool Guy but is gradually revealed to be more just an amiable fuck up.
- Ikebe's protege seems at first to be a Japanese variant on the Angry Young Man. The first time Ikebe meets him, the kid tries to kill him--it turns out the last man Ikebe killed was his mentor. In their second encounter, the kid drops by Ikebe's apartment to give him his finger, which he has cut off to apologize for trying to kill him earlier. Now the kid is bright and happy as a puppy. Ikebe reluctantly takes him on, and they develop a sincere senpai/kohai relationship that is really the only reliable, positive relationship Ikebe has in the whole film.
- Ikebe's boss is an old man with an effeminate face whose style of rule is more maternal than paternal. He gets people to do his bidding indirectly, not by invoking his authority and just commanding them to do what he says, but by manipulating them with affection and suggestions so that they volunteer to carry out his will. He subtly forces Ikebe to volunteer for a killing by insisting, at clan meeting, that anyone but Ikebe take the job. After Ikebe volunteers for the job, the boss makes a show of encouraging Ikebe to take his time, to settle his affairs before he does the job and is inevitably sent back to prison for it. The boss lets his impatience be known by telling Ikebe not to rush. What makes the boss such a bad guy, in this universe of emo gangsters, is that he does not appreciate the sacrifices his underlings make for him.
- Kaga's irresistible death babe comes off as much more authentically dangerous than Ikebe's tough guy. In one particularly moving scene, Ikebe and Kaga argue about heroin. Ikebe's violent aversion to drug use of any kind reveals how his stoic, gangster persona disguises neurotic insecurity, even a kind of chastity. Kaga's attraction to boundary-pressing drug experiences--and to the nihilistic drug dealer, Yoh--bears the mark, beyond rich girl irresponsibility, of an invincible will to die. She is ultimately too much for Ikebe. He can kill others, but not himself. It makes for an interesting narrative choice that, rather than walk this love story down the road to double suicide, the script keeps Ikebe and Kaga's relationship platonic. At the end of the film, an imprisoned Ikebe learns that Kaga went ahead with her destiny, acting out with Yoh the sordid, death-bound melodrama we thought we were going to see between her and Ikebe.

Jesus, I almost forgot two of the coolest things about the film. First, an awesome, menacing, Modernist, electro-moan film score by Toru Takemitsu. Second, the intensely ceremonial gambling scenes, which came off more like religious rituals than games of chance. People played some incomprehensible game that involved flipping over small cards featuring finely etched images of flowering trees while a dealer incessantly incanting what sounded like a cross between a Buddhist funeral chant and old-fashioned cattle auctioneer nonsense.

Human Desire - dir. Fritz Lang, BAM

Noir adaptation of Zola's La Bête humaine from Lang's Hollywood period. It is a story about the oppression of workers by industry and the oppression of women by men. The plot is the most interesting part of the film, so I will describe it in more detail than usual.

Rail yard foreman and fat slob Broderick Crawford is wrongfully fired just before retirement because the boss is a capitalist pig who doesn't want to pay his pension. Crawford asks his suspiciously sexy younger wife, Gloria Grahame, for help. Grahame's mother used to be a maid for some sort of Big Man who has sway with the company. Crawford asks Grahame to use her feminine charms to get the Big Man to help him get him his job back. "You said he always used to like you," says Crawford, and from Grahame's terrified reaction, we can tell exactly how the Big Man liked her. But somehow Crawford can't. His dialogue is so thick with innuendo, it is all but clear that he's asking his wife to prostitute herself. And yet from the expression on his face, he really does not seem to get the hint when Grahame says that she couldn't possibly trouble the Big Man for a favor. The contradiction between our understanding of Crawford's words and his apparent understanding of them is undecidable.

Anyways, Grahame relents. It is implied that she sleeps with the Big Man. Crawford gets his job back. It all goes smoothly--too smoothly for Crawford. Only now does it dawn on him what his wife had to do to get his job back, what he asked her to do to get his job back. But instead of blaming himself or just being grateful, he gets angry. He smacks her around and forces her to promise that she will help him kill the Big Man.

Crawford and Grahame's relationship is an amazing portrayal of male chauvinism, of the imperceptibility of male chauvinism to men. Crawford made his wife prostitute herself in order to get him his job back in order, ultimately, to repair his self-image. Crawford's desire to kill the Big Man is also a matter of repairing his own self-image, not primarily of avenging his wife's honor. Did he really not realize that he was pimping out his wife? Was he so narrowly concerned about himself that he couldn't realize it? Or did he just not care?  Perhaps the opacity of Crawford's psychology is the point. Intentions are not what matter, only the reality of male domination, of male narcissism, of the moral blindness of men. Men do not see what they do to women because they are always just looking at themselves.

So Crawford and Grahame kill the Big Man on a train one night and set it up to look like an accident except that Crawford's coworker, train driver Glenn Ford, catches Grahame red handed right after the murder. It's love at first sight for Ford, so when the police make an inquiry, he keeps schtum. Ford is a pure-hearted, All-American, hardworking Korean War veteran. A protective, caring, sensitive man, precisely the kind of man Grahame needs in order to get away from the bullying, abusive, increasingly dissipated Crawford. So, Grahame leaves Crawford for Ford, just as she once left the Big Man for Crawford. We come to see her as a prisoner of gender, a woman who, having been treated like a sexual object all her life, found her best option for survival in making herself into a seductress. And while Ford is ostensibly the Good Guy, he ends up using her just like every other man has used her. The rest of the details are not so important. Things end badly.

It is thanks to Zola that the basic story of the film achieves a remarkable synthesis of psychology and sociology: you see both the individual characters acting and, simultaneously, larger social forces acting through them. Fate is encoded in the character's life experiences and social positions, but Chance is what brings them together in the particular combinations that will ultimately undo them. Thinking about it makes me want to go back to Zola and renews my appreciation for what realism and the novel were once capable of as technologies for representing and understanding life in the age of industrial capitalism.

The film itself is not so terribly great. One cannot watch Lang's Human Desire and not spend the whole time thinking about Renoir's superior 1938 adaptation, La Bête humaine, starring Jean Gabin in the role played by Glenn Ford. Visually, Lang is stark and graphical, Renoir is lush and impressionistic. Narratively, Renoir's adaptation is quite a bit dirtier. Renoir's version is the canonical train-entering-tunnel-as-visual-metaphor-for-fucking film, and it uses this imagery so often, so obviously, so obscenely that it almost ceases to be a metaphor. In the Lang, Ford and Grahame have their first hookup in a railyard shack. As they smooch, Ford grab's Grahame by the hair with both hands and the lights of an oncoming train flood the shack. It's powerful, aggressive, but nowhere near as tawdry as in the Renoir, where the couple slips away to bone during a rainstorm and after they enter the shack the camera pans away to show rain gushing out of a gutter into an overflowing barrel. The most significant difference between the Lang and Renoir films is in the characterization of the protagonist (the Ford/Gabin character). In the Lang, Ford is an infallibly decent apple-pie kind of guy. In the Renoir, Gabin is his usual soft-eyed sensitive self with the added twist that he has some sort of bullshit congenital madness that every once and a while makes him black out and turn into a sex-murderer. You can guess how that changes the ending of the film.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Wow got really inspired by some of your viewpoints on Pale Flower. I don't really see how Saeko has a will to die, but again nice job! I like your post a lot.