Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nearly integral Realism – Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking

Plot summaries of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking are invariably misleading.  By nature a plot summary implies that the narrative it sums up has a skeletal, reductive plot arc, and that every other technical or narrative element serves to further the plot’s impetus.  Many films accommodate such an Aristotelian form, but Still Walking is not one of them. 

Rather than plot, Koreeda’s quiet film is about characters and relationships.  It is not even a character study, but an observation of complex relationships.  Despite being ultimately constructed and fictional, the film mirrors as closely as a subjective construction can an objective observation of a family dynamic.  Unlike more traditional narratives, it does not accommodate quick categorization of characters.  None of these family members can be succinctly summarized any more than the film as a whole can.  No member of this family an be encapsulated in a single scene, rather the complexity and weight of the entire family’s history and imperfect communication becomes more apparent with each passing scene. Passing judgment on any character becomes difficult and rather irrelevant.

Brecht declared that Realism was determined by how, when, and for what class a narrative was made.  Koreeda is said to have made this film to voice his sentiments after the death of his mother.  Such an exploration of the pedantic side of grief, blunted but not extinguished by time, creates a very universally applicable mirror, a very democratic tool for any viewer to look into and see shadows of themselves and people they know.  Other than a brief epilogue, the entire film takes place within 24 hours, with no overtly important events occurring within that span.  The most definitive event relative to what we see is the death of the Yokoyama family’s oldest son, Shunpei 12 years prior.  By temporally removing this observation of life from the event that defines it, and by temporally restricting us to one day’s interactions, the film forces us to focus on the nuances of the interactions of the living family members in order to find meaning or understanding in what we see.

Interestingly, Koreeda includes the cinematically neglected demographic of the elderly, another element making this film more reflective of reality. Certainly the aging parents Kyohei,, the reluctantly retired doctor, and Toshiko, the powerhouse of domesticity, are the center of the relational dynamics in the film.  Their quirks of old age are perpetually counterpointed by moments of unexpected passion or softness. Their grief at losing their son is still palpable, but their very lived-in home is visually filled with ghosts of all three of their children as well as their younger selves.

The film embraces prosaic moments and never hurries them along.  There is a distinct lack of editing-out or pacing.  Many things are allowed to occur in real-time with a minimum of cuts or angles. We see people talking with their mouths full, and we listen to complete conversations that do not arrive directly at their destination, if they arrive at all.

In this sense the film is very Brechtian in its purpose and its relationship with its audience.  But it also embodies the preservation of life by a representation of life discussed by Bazin.  Especially in the many prosaic details of Toshiko’s food preparation, the film captures a copy of real living, in a way even more immediate than a still photograph.  Despite it’s inevitably subjective, constructed nature, the film attempts in earnest to look at a high-fidelity version of reality from the outside, establishing and revealing relationships through the observation of physical interactions within the frame.  We begin to see how these people spend their time, how they choose to self-edit in different company, and what worries they carry around with them.

Bazin said that true realism recognized the need to give a significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence. So many of the minute, concrete details captured in this film accomplish both ends.  They both serve as a near-perfect mimesis of the actual events that occurred in front of the camera, representative of a billion domestic chores accomplished quietly around the world, and they serve to capture the essence of the reality Koreeda is attempting to represent: the complex organic microcosm that is a home, filled with dynamic memories and complicated by countless previous interactions. The moments when that essence is most effectively captured are electrifying forays into the potential of realism. 

There is one very Renoir-esque shot when Ryota, Yukari, and Atsushi arrive at the Family home.  The shot begins after we have seen Toshiko head to answer the door.  In a long, deep focus, static shot we see her answer the door, see the bustle of everyone removing their shoes, and then eventually see everyone leave the frame to continue further into the house.  The shot itself is remarkably like-life.  If we, a viewer, were standing in that spot watching those events transpire we'd have a very parallel image to ingest.  There is no expositional dialogue in this scene, but by viewing it in this less-altered way we are able to identify the nervous energy in the interactions, the nuances in the fronts put on by different individuals in front of certain others, and a terrific sense of the space this is all transpiring in.

At one point Ryota, the surviving son complains, ""Normal," everyone keeps using that word." As much as anything singular, this may well represent the essence of the film.  There is no attempt to draw out the extraordinary, or to create or resolve conflict in this film.  It is largely an observation of “normal” that allows us to contemplate how loaded, complicated and fragile “normal” can be.  Brecht talked of how realism changes the hunter into the quarry.  Rather than hunting for a satisfactory catharsis, the viewer is invited to engage with this film as a quarry.  To dig and sift and hold on to what resonates.  This exploration of characters without an agenda of how the audience should judge or interpret them was especially evident in Kyohei and Toshiko.  Their characters seemed to become more rich and complicated as scenes passed.  Kyohei started off seeming rather broodish, but as he somewhat helplessly watches his neighbor taken away in an ambulance his sense of contradiction and fallibility is palpable.  Toshiko seems initially to be a power-nurturer, but when she admits to wishing she had someone to hate for her son’s death, and to intentionally causing anguish for the awkward young man who was saved at the expense of her son’s life, she becomes remarkably human.  She, and the entire Yokoyama family, become so very real.  The film is about real life, real grief, real death, real aging, real disappointment, and real relationships. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Semiotic Tricks in 500 Days of Summer

500 Days of Summer opens with a standard disclaimer, “Author’s Note: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblances to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.”  But then follows with, “Especially you Jenny Beckman.”  And then “Bitch.”  The initial statement is rote, expected, and part of the established expectation for works of cinematic fiction.  The latter two parts take what is a standard film procedure that slips by most film viewers almost unconsciously, and makes it a pronounced, formalistic, self-aware statement. 

Following this, there is an aural cue for the film opening, a whistle, it begins wildly reminiscent of “Moon River” from Breakfast atTiffany's. (Almost identical to the Andy Williams version), but after just the first 2 notes whistled, the melody turns to a minor key, and sound effects accompanying a visual sketch of a city skyline are creeping over it.  (A lot of things about the film are set up to make the two films seem parallel.  But then they run amok.)  The film immediately introduces its device for helping the viewer navigate its nonlinearity – a day counter.  It spins and lands us anywhere within the 500 days of the title.  We begin at day 488, and with no orientation of what has come before, we are unable to tell in this scene, taking place on the park bench overlooking downtown L.A., what the status of the relationship between the two main characters is.  We see them sitting next to each other on the bench, we see Summer’s character smiling, (match cut) Tom’s character smile back weakly, and we see her be-ringed hand on top of his.  With no context for these images, a viewer is likely to draw from similar visual cues in previously experienced films and assume these two are romantically involved in this scene.  But we immediately get an omniscient voiceover stating, “This is a story of boy meets girl,”  which proceeds to introduce the two characters by pointing out their fundamental differences over the point of love.  Then tells the viewer, “This is a story of boy meets girl.  But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

Thus the film has immediately begun by using conventions and codes of the romantic comedy genre, and also “abused” them or “played with” them by relying on the viewer’s misreading of the text as a romantic comedy.  Interestingly enough, the film actually is a love story in that it is a story about a romantic relationship, but it is not a love story with a concise, anticipated resolution, which is to say it does not conform to IMR or the viewer’s expectation based on experience with films that do conform to IMR practices, but rather takes a post-structuralist approach.

(500) Days of Summer Video Shot Analysis from Heather Frymark on Vimeo.

The film consistently plays with the viewer’s tendency to cognize, as described by David Bordwell, and to hypothesize about what will happen.  Despite having told the viewer at the offset that this is “not a love story,” the film proceeds to use conventions and norms of film language to indicate otherwise, creating a tension within the viewer between what is known and what is expected.

The film essentially tells us in the opening sequence that Tom’s paradigm for romance is based on IMR.  He “grew up knowing that he would never truly be happy until the day he met “the one.” This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie, “The Graduate.””  Thus as the film proceeds to use IMR methods, they are perceived as being congruent with Tom’s own experience and perception of his relationships. 

The way that poststructuralist methods shake up the experience of an IMR accustomed viewer can be seen as representative of how Summer’s non-conformity with Tom’s romantic ideal and expectation shake up his reality, or even in the differences between their compatibility-as-perceived by Tom and their actual incompatibility.

Tom’s perception of their compatibility is displayed as being identical to cues used in IMR to signify compatibility.  Their similar taste in music, their willingness to display quirky behavior in public together, and consistent uses of “the gaze” in matching reverse shots.  However, as the film progresses cyclically and disenchantment sets in, we see less and less of this blatant “compatibility.”  In fact, after the scene wherein Tom’s younger sister asks him to try to remember things less infatuatedly and to remember the warning signs, we see an altogether discontented, disconnected, and ennui Summer.  We experience David Bordwell’s forgetting and remembering as we see the same scene or same shot in a newly framed context over and over. 

By the time we arrive at the end of the 500 days, we are back at day 488, back at the park bench, and we have forgotten and remembered that this was how the film opened.  We now know that Summer has married someone else, that Tom is still attached to the cinematic ideal of her that he’s created in his mind, but that never actually existed embodied in the world of the text.  Tom was in love with the idea of Summer, but never actually with Summer, though the two initially looked identical according to IMR conventions, especially the use of music over montage.  And depending on the viewer’s attachment to conventional genre norms, they too may

Have been fooled into thinking that Summer was “the one” for Tom.   But by ending the film with Summer happily in love with and married to someone else, the lack of reality in IMR, and the lack of closure in reality.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Spellbound, the divided eye, and Baudry's dream screen.

Spellbound was released in 1945, only 6 years after the death of Sigmund Freud.  At the outset, it portends to offer some type of earnest exploration of psychoanalysis, as it opens with the statement, “Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane. The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind. Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear ... and the evils of unreason are driven from the human soul.“

However, the film proceeds to treat psychoanalysis somewhat flippantly, and there are no remotely realistic representations of the practice within the film.  As Hitchcock insisted when these incongruities were objected by the advising psychoanalysts, “My dear, it's only a movie.”  If the film does not, in fact, explore psychoanalysis with any depth, it does at length plumb the depths of the Oedipal fantasy and Oedipal guilt complex.

But with rather clumsily constructed characters, how does this Oedipal exploration work?  It would appear that this narrative relies heavily upon the division between reality and perception, as much in the viewer’s phenomenological experience as in the experiences of characters within the plot. The idea of division is rife in the film, with overt binaries between old and new practices, between youth and old age, parents and children, conflicting identities, conflicting female roles, agency and fate, material reality and psychical reality, and the conscious and the subconscious.  Ultimately all of this division points to the division between the desire within the text, and the desire of the text, and how the film ultimately becomes about the latter rather than the former.

Spellbound came to be made largely out of producer DavidSelznick’s own experience with psychoanalysis and his desire to make a movie about it.  Psychoanalysis went on to become a popular plot device in suspense films later in the 1940s, but in this case its use was innovative.  He purchased rights to the novel, The Houseof Dr. Edwardes, and hired his own psychoanalyst, May Romm, to advise Hitchcock.  Hitchcock and Selznick appear to have had fairly incompatible visions for the film though, and their dissonance over this film irreparably damaged their working relationship.  Selznick (and film censors) appears to have insisted on the removal of the bulk of the dream sequence designed by surrealist Salvador Dali, leaving only what was necessarily for plot propulsion.  The images of multiple eyes, and of the pair of scissors cutting through an eye are the only strong surrealist images that remained, and they are appreciably symbolic of the duality inherent in the film. The film, or rather it’s score by MiklósRózsa also pioneered the use of the Theremin in the score. (See: Spellbound Concerto, approx 4:22-7:55) The instrument is played without actually touching the device, and the pitch alters based on the proximity of the instrumentalist’s hands to it.  By adding this unfamiliar instrument to scenes involving dreams or repressed memories, an uncanny effect is evoked, as what had seemed familiar in the score (always repeating motifs previously introduced) becomes unfamiliar when played on the theremin.

The film plays with Baudry’s idea of double space of the subject.  Both the conscious and unconscious are explored in the character first introduced as Dr. Edwardes, but who later turns out to be an amnesiac John Ballantine.  The film is also, more subversively, playing with the conscious and unconscious of the viewer, providing them with the “desire of desire” by fulfilling Ballantine’s Oedipal fantasy.

The film opens with the pretense that Dr. Edwardes is arriving to take the helm at Green Manors, a psychiatric inpatient hospital.  The current director, Dr. Murchison, is being forced into retirement by his own mental breakdown, from which he appears to have recovered.  Dr. Constance Peterson, the only female psychoanalysis on staff, is firmly platonic and professional (even cold) in her interactions until the supposed Dr. Edwardes (John Ballantine) rather abruptly sweeps her off of her feet.  She immediately abandons any semblance of professionalism and spends the rest of the film trying to cure his amnesia through psychotherapy and prove his innocence in the death of the real Dr. Edwardes.   

In keeping with Freud’s criteria for “the uncanny” the viewer is left in uncertainty about whether Ballantine is guilty of the murder.  (Freud referred to uncertainty whether an object or character is familiar or “other”, such as dead/alive, animate/inanimate) Freud said this should be “done in such a way that attention is not focused directly upon this uncertainty, so the matter is not cleared up directly.”

This was the first of Hitchcock’s films to question visual perspective, displacement, and guilt.  He went on to explore these devices (arguably with more finesse) in Rear Window and Vertigo, both as cinematic devices and as subject matter within the films.  Seeing him toy with it here is revealing.

The plot sets up John Ballantine with an overt, unmistakeable Oedipal conflict. Constance is a blatant mother figure, and the role of a father figure is divided amongst male characters in the film. There is guilt for the death of one father figure, Dr. Edwardes, who was Ballantine’s psychoanalysis prior to his death.  Fear of a punishing father (both in Dr. Murcheson and in the law), and ultimate identification with a good father (Dr. Brulov, Constance’s mentor who says “any husband of Constance is a husband of mine.”)

Constance’s maternal nature is referred to repeatedly.  One other doctor says that he can “detect the outcroppings of a mother instinct” in her relations with Balantine/impostor Dr. Edwardes.  Brulov reprimands her “You are not his mama.”  Yet Brulov and Constance both hover over Ballantine like concerned parents, despite his alarming behavior, and Brulov even says to him “I am going to be your father figure.” 

Despite the uncanny themes of Ballantines involuntary repetition of psychotic episodes whenever confronted with parallel lines or the color white, the film seems overwhelmingly designed to accommodate pleasure, rather than fear in the viewer.

Baudry claimed that by it’s very nature cinema puts viewer into regressive, passive, oral, narcissistic state and that films are dream screens, like a mother’s breast for an infant after nursing.  That cinema is inherently Oedipal, leaning toward a state of complete satisfaction parallel to the oral phase in infant development.  By its repeated, overt oedipal references, this film seems rather self-aware of its function as a fantasy for its audience. 

Ultimately, it is not Ballantine, but rather the fantasy constructed for him that becomes the motivating force behind the action in the film. Ballantine himself is a rather passive character.  He is more acted upon than active.  This allows a viewer to split the vision of the film (as perhaps alluded to by Dali’s scissors?) and appropriate himself in the fantasy created for Ballantine.  In this context, the bizarre behavior of Constance makes more sense.  For a film that claims to be about psychoanalysis to portray a psychoanalysis behaving so contrary to her profession only makes sense if her character exists not to illustrate psychoanalysis accurately, but to satisfy the viewer’s oedipal fantasy completely.  Her transition from a mother/caretaker to a romantic trope is inevitable in this context.

Ultimately, and none-too-subtly, the film changes from being about the Oedipal issues of John Ballantine to being about the Oedipal fantasy of the viewer.  There is a shift from desire as represented in the film to the desire of the film by the viewer.  This is most clearly evidenced by Ballantine’s absence for nearly all of the sequences involving exposition or conflict resolution.  After his arrest, Ballantine disappears from the film entirely, but the fantasy constructed for him remains and continues of its own volition for the viewer’s pleasure. 

This seems like an easy example of Baudry’s  “Desire of Desire.”  The viewer’s desire to see Ballantine’s fantasy completed becomes more important to the film than Ballantine’s own presence.   “Symbol becomes merged with what it represents,” and Ballantine seems to represent the viewer’s fantasies.   The film invites “transference of identification” from Ballantine’s experience within his cinematic world to the viewer’s own interaction with the entire fantasy.