One more photo of a family theater, this one taken at a war bond rally and furnished to me by my brother Alvin. My parents, standing on top of the marquee, are just above the letter E; my grandfather, on the ground, can be seen under the second S, in front of the one-sheet advertising the current attraction, Thank Your Lucky Stars. [2/17/11]
Written for the British Film Institute’s DVD release of this film in early 2011. — J.R.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to call A Hen in the Wind (1948) one of the more neglected films of Yasujiro Ozu, especially within the English-speaking world. Made immediately before one of his key masterpieces, Late Spring (1949), it has quite understandably been treated as a lesser work, but its strengths and points of interest deserve a lot more attention than they’ve received. It isn’t discussed in Noël Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema (1979) or even mentioned in Kyoko Hirano’s Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945-1952 (1992), the English-language study where it would appear to be most relevant. Although it isn’t skimped in David Bordwell’s Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), its treatment in Donald Richie’s earlier Ozu (1974) is relatively brief and dismissive. It seems pertinent that even the film’s title, which I assume derives from some Japanese expression, has apparently never been explicated in English.
It may be an atypical feature for Ozu, but it is stylistically recognisable as his work from beginning to end, especially when it comes to poetic handling of setting (a dismal industrial slum in the eastern part of Tokyo, where the heroine rents a cramped upstairs room in a house) and its use of ellipsis in relation to the plot. Ozu himself was more than a little disparaging about it; Richie reports that a decade after its production and release, he wrote, ‘Well, everyone has his failures. There are all kinds of failures, however, and some of my failures I like. This film is a bad failure.’
Perhaps because the film testifies so powerfully to the fact and circumstances of Japan’s shattering defeat during the American Occupation, Ozu may not have been disposed to recognize its truths years later, during a sunnier period. By then, one should note, the film had been widely written off by others as a failure, and chided for its lack of verisimilitude in certain details (such as the cleanliness and tidiness of a room in a brothel), as well as its violations of certain norms associated with other Ozu pictures, especially his usual avoidance of violence. One hardly expects to witness a rape or brutal spousal abuse in an Ozu picture, and this film shows us both.
Tokiko (Kinuyo Tanaka) – a young wife and dressmaker with a sick child, in financial straits while her husband Shuichi (Shuji Sano) is away in the army – is forced into a night of prostitution by her son’s hospital expenses, and the plot charts the couple’s slow reconciliation after the husband returns and discovers what has happened. If we momentarily ignore the unusual constraints of the American censors during this period – which, according to Hirano’s book, required a line of dialogue in Late Spring to be changed from a statement that the daughter’s health had deteriorated ‘due to her work after being conscripted by the Navy during the war’ to ‘due to the forced work during the war’ – it’s tempting to hypothesise what other Japanese masters of this period might have done with the same basic story. If Akira Kurosawa had treated this subject, one would expect him to focus more on the husband’s war experience; Kenji Mizoguchi would likely have devoted more attention to the wife and her brief episode as a prostitute. Ozu, accepting the viewpoints of both wife and husband in turn, maintains a certain balance between them by showing us nothing of either the husband at war or the wife as a prostitute. Both of these essential elements are left up to our imaginations and the imaginations of the characters: we ‘see’ the husband at war through his wife’s sorrows at home, just as we ‘see’ the wife’s prostitution only through the husband’s visit to the bordello much later. Both unseen experiences are ultimately viewed as devastations that have to be accepted, digested, and ultimately worked through – although significantly, it is the single night of prostitution, not the much longer period of the husband at war, that the film addresses and focuses on.
Tokiko had to sell her own last kimono shortly before her little boy Hiroshi became ill, and had previously resisted the advice of Orie (Reiko Mizukami), the woman who purchased it, that she turn to prostitution. But once she finds it necessary to take Hiroshi to a hospital, she discovers he has an acute catarrh of the colon, and even though one of the nurses kindly offers her a handout, which she accepts, Tokiko concludes that she has to follow Orie’s suggestion in order to pay for the medical expenses, even without discussing the matter with her best friend, Akiko (Chieko Murata). She does this only once, with a single customer – an event kept off-screen, although we hear the customer complaining afterwards in the brothel that she wasn’t very good. Significantly, Ozu also keeps her confession of this act to her husband off-screen, and we learn about it only when she tells Akiko about it afterwards.
Shuichi becomes increasingly despondent about Tokiko’s revelation at his job, and back at home becomes obsessed with learning more, pumping his wife for information, including the location of the brothel, and then, after raping her (an event shown elliptically), going to the brothel himself, pretending at first to be a customer and quizzing Fusako (Chiyoko Fumiya), the 21-year-old sent to his room, about why she has succumbed to this profession. After leaving the brothel, he runs into Fusako again by chance and promises to find her another job. He tells a colleague, Kazuichiro (Chishu Ryu), also back from the war, who agrees to hire Fusako and urges him to forgive his wife just as he has forgiven Fusako; Shuichi accepts his advice on principal, but in fact is still in such a rage that when he eventually comes home he winds up shoving Tokiko down the stairs after she begs him not to leave again. But once he finally agrees to forgive and forget her transgression towards the end, it is her gesture of accepting him – her hands clasping one another behind his back – that seals their reconciliation, before Ozu ends the film with everyday exterior shots of the neighbourhood.
Despite the film’s chequered reputation, it has been persuasively defended by the two most influential and distinguished contemporary Japanese film critics, Tadao Sato and Shigehiko Hasumi, albeit in very different ways. Sato, who also observed that the brutal wife-beating in both A Hen in the Wind and The Munekata Sisters (1950) two years later were striking exceptions in Ozu’s work, has suggested, according to Bordwell’s summary of his argument, that ‘Tokiko’s becoming a prostitute symbolises a loss of national purity’ that was central to Japan’s sense of itself and its own spirit during the war:
Shuichi’s violence toward her becomes emblematic of the ingrained brutality of the war years, demonstrating that he has lost the noble purpose that had been used to justify the war. The film’s lesson, Sato concludes, cuts deeper than those contemporary films that sloughed blame off onto villainous militarists and weak-willed collaborators.(Bordwell, 302-303)
Supporting this theory is the fact that in the films of so many other countries under occupation or totalitarian rule, political issues, when they crop up at all, are commonly and covertly transposed into sexual issues. (Three examples of this tendency would be Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Raven in France and Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath in Denmark, both in 1943, and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Calle Mayor/Main Street in Spain in 1956.)
In further support of Sato’s analysis is Ozu’s pungent and highly suggestive use of sordid settings – not merely the claustrophobic rented room, in a blocked corner of which the husband will rape his wife, but the stairs leading up to it from the ground floor, and, in a wasteland where the husband goes to brood, a large, gaping, exposed pipe, all of which contribute a great deal to the film’s emotional dynamics. And it is in this general arena – architecture, settings, the cutting between interiors and exteriors – that Hasumi’s own analysis of the film is especially illuminating.
Hasumi’s highly original 1983 book about Ozu, which lamentably isn’t yet available in English (I’ve read it in its French translation), addresses and responds to Sato’s defence of the film in some detail, agreeing that the film is ‘an important work,’ even though he concedes that ‘it is impossible to believe in Kinuyo Tanaka’s character,’ but focusing more on particular aspects of its unusual physicality. The film’s climactic moment of violence – conceivably the most shocking single moment in Ozu’s work – shows Shuichi shoving Tokiko down the flight of stairs and painfully shows us this moment frontally, from the foot of these stairs. Hasumi stresses the disturbing fact that Ozu focuses so often and repeatedly on this staircase long before this event happens, always from the same angle.
Part of the shock comes from Tokiko’s acceptance of her husband’s abuse, even to the point of masochism. (Her denial about what happened afterwards to her landlady, with the face-saving alibi that she had an accidental fall, is probably easier for most of us to understand, perhaps because we find this latter gesture more familiar.) But no less shocking is the fact that, as Hasumi points out, it is extremely rare for Ozu to show any stairs at all in any of his films; even when he implies their presence in various households, he almost invariably keeps them off-screen, Here he’s not only showing us a particular staircase countless times; he even prepares us for the climactic moment of violence in another way, by showing us an earlier scene in which Shuichi angrily kicks a tin can down those same steps and makes sure we hear the thuds as it hits every step.
Part of what makes Hasumi’s book so provocative is its way of countering and at times even contradicting most of the other critical studies of Ozu that we have. In response to the frequent claim that Ozu was the ‘most Japanese’ of Japanese filmmakers, Hasumi maintains that he may actually have been the least Japanese because of his (well-documented) obsession with Hollywood films, already evident in the movie posters seen in his features (including A Hen in the Wind, which has three of these in a single room). As a result of this fixation, Hasumi argues that even the weather in most of Ozu’s pictures is the weather of Southern California rather than that of Japan. And when it comes to the climactic moment of violence in A Hen in the Wind, Hasumi conjectures that this may have been inspired by Scarlett O’Hara’s fall down a staircase in Gone with the Wind (an accident that causes her miscarriage) – a film that Ozu saw in Singapore during the war, when he was viewing Hollywood films on virtually a daily basis.
It may seem paradoxical that Ozu’s strategies for conveying Japan’s sense of humiliation from the American occupation might have been drawn from the American cinema, but this possibility is supported by other things that we know about his taste. According to Richie, Citizen Kane was his favourite film; and he once famously remarked, ‘Watching Fantasia made me suspect that we were going to lose the war. These guys look like trouble, I thought.’
The film, in any case, is suffused with a sense of defeat, but it ends with some rays of hope, however characteristically elliptical Ozu makes their expression. Once Shuichi finally agrees to forgive and forget Tokiko’s transgression, it is significantly her gesture of accepting him – her hands clasping one another behind his back – that seals their reconciliation, before Ozu ends the film with everyday exterior shots of the neighbourhood.
Note: Unlike some of my colleagues, when I say “available,” I mean in this case available on region-2 discs that can be played on multiregional players, which are easy and inexpensive to come by.
By the Law aka Dura Lex (Po kanonu), directed by Lev Kuleshov 1926 from a script by Viktor Shklovsky that’s adapted from a Jack London’s story (”The Unexpected”), packaged with an 18-minute fragment of Kulshov’s 1927 Your Acquaintance and a bilingual, illustrated 16-page booklet, is available from www.edition-filmmuseum.com for a little under 20 Euros via PayPal.
The other two DVDs are of Alexander Dozhenko’s first two masterpieces, Zvenigora (1928), seen above, and Arsenal (1929), seen below. (In both cases, as in By the Law, these frame-grabs come from my own reviewer copies, and were selected almost at random.) The two Dovzhenkos are currently available from an English company, Mr. Bongo that previously released an excellent version of Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), the final feature in what is sometimes called his silent war trilogy, which my west coast colleague Doug Cummings was kind enough to alert me to. From February 14, when Zvenigora and Arsenal are being released, English Amazon is offering each for just under 8 pounds (a little under $13), an incredible bargain.
Second note: I hardly know Zvenigora at all because, until now, seeing a decent copy of this has been almost impossible to do in most parts of the world, although friends and colleagues who love Dovzhenko as much as I do, such as Gil Perez, tell me it belongs with his other masterpieces (Arsenal, Earth, Ivan, and Aerograd). And I can’t say I know By the Law much better, but many of Kuleshov’s biggest fans (e.g., the late Tom Milne) have described it as his greatest film.
It’s more than a little unnerving to discover that the “canonized” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. collection that Library of America is bringing out on June 11 excludes my favorite work of his — his mind-boggling second novel (1959), The Sirens of Titan, by all counts his wittiest and most profound — as well as Mother Night (his third, 1961), another major work.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Library of America is planing one or more other Vonnegut volumes, thus theoretically making room for the first three novels (Piano Player in 1952 was his debut effort) as well as more of the late and relatively weak ones, along with his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, and other stories. But the weird thing about LOA’s canonizing is that it creates contestable and uncomfortable groupings, even when they’re simply chronological; for me, Cat’s Cradle (1963) belongs squarely with the two novels preceding it, not with the three that came afterwards. This isn’t quite as grotesque as collecting William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in the same volume as his Soldier’s Pay, Mosquitoes, and Flags in the Dust (the longer version of Sartoris), which the Library of America also did, but it’s still bothersome.
One of the things that’s special and perhaps controversial about The Sirens of Titan is that it comes closer to the turf of the pulpier SF epics with which Vonnegut subsequently usually preferred to disassociate himself — an aspect reflected in all but the last of the book jackets reproduced here, which also reflects some of the thematic range of the plot. By and large, LOA has so far shown itself to be far more hospitable to thrillers than to SF; room is made for James Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Cornell Woolrich, but not (yet) for Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, or Theodore Sturgeon. [2/11/11]
This started out as an essay commissioned by Criterion for their recent DVD release and submitted to them last February. They weren’t happy with the result, so we agreed to disagree. — J.R.
When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. – Umberto Eco on Casablanca
My nightmare is the H Bomb. What’s yours? – Marilyn Monroe’s notes for her responses to a 1962 interview, first published in 2010
As I wrote in my capsule review of Insignificance for the Chicago Reader,
Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film adaptation of Terry Johnson’s fanciful, satirical play — about Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell), Albert Einstein (Michael Emil), Joe DiMaggio (Gary Busey), and Senator Joseph McCarthy (Tony Curtis) converging in New York City in 1954 — has many detractors, but approached with the proper spirit, you may find it delightful and thought-provoking. The lead actors are all wonderful, but the key to the conceit involves not what the characters were actually like but their clichéd media images, which the film essentially honors and builds upon. The Monroe-Einstein connection isn’t completely contrived. Monroe once expressed a sexual interest in him to Shelley Winters, and a signed photograph of Einstein was among her possessions when she died. But the film is less interested in literal history than in the various fantasies that these figures stimulate in our minds, and Roeg’s scattershot technique mixes the various elements into a very volatile cocktail — sexy, outrageous, and compulsively watchable. It’s a very English view of pop Americana, but an endearing one.
The two small bits of information about Monroe and Einstein that are cited above can be found in the first volume of Winters’ entertainingly gossipy autobiography, Shelley, Also Known as Shirley (1980). Combine them with (a) some vague assertions in a conference lecture about some correspondence between the actress and scientist that remains perpetually out of reach and (b) an ingenious and popular optical illusion that manages to merge black and white photographs of the two, both readily available on the Internet, and, given the irresistible allure of postmodernist reverie, these tidbits encourage many bloggers to assert with confidence that an affair between Einstein and Monroe is now an established fact.
There’s surely even less factual basis to the notion that McCarthy found himself impotent with a hooker in a midtown Manhattan hotel room when Johnson’s play is said to be taking place, or that DiMaggio, on the same evening, recited all 13 of the baseball card series that he was in. Or that Monroe illustrated the Theory of Relativity to the scientist with the aid of some toy props, turning it into a piece of performance art. But it’s fantasies of this kind that provide two playful Brits, playwright and screenwriter Terry Johnson and director Nicolas Roeg, with their starting points. For the former this yields what he has called “nuclear consciousness,” even more pronounced in the film than it was in the play; for the latter, it’s partly an occasion for characteristically fragmented Roegian crosscutting — a sort of update of Intolerance featuring pop 50s icons. For both artists, it’s part of the wave of stage adaptations on film that came out in the 80s, along with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Betrayal, Streamers, Secret Honor, Fool for Love, Cries of the Heart, and ‘night, Mother, among others.
Johnson’s play originally featured Howard Hughes instead of McCarthy, but Johnson changed his mind halfway through the first draft, after what Rob Ritchie, his literary manager at the Royal Court Theatre, described as “an impromptu visit to the Theatre Upstairs to see what Sam Shepard’s Seduced was about. It was about Howard Hughes – exit Terry Johnson in a cold sweat — it’s a long stagger down from the Theatre Upstairs. Exit Howard Hughes to make way for Senator Joe McCarthy.”
According to Wikipedia’s DiMaggio entry, it was on September 14, 1954 that Monroe was filmed in front of the Trans-Lux Theater on Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, where her dress was supposed to be billowed up by a gust of wind from a subway grate -– an incident shown in the film Insignificance, but not in the play, precipitating (reportedly in life, but in neither the film nor the play) a loud argument afterwards with her husband, Joe DiMaggio, in the theater lobby. According to Wikipedia’s entry for The Seven Year Itch, this sequence then had to be reshot on a Hollywood soundstage, and the latter footage “is what made its way into the final film, as the original on-location footage’s sound had been rendered useless by the over excited crowd present during filming whistling over Monroe’s see-through panties.” The play is set in 1953; the film updates this to 1954, but by placing the action in March (according to a calendar seen in a bar), this is still half a year prior to the date when Monroe actually had her skirt blown up in front of the Trans-Lux.
For that matter, insofar as Insignificance hovers around the notion that Einstein had something to do with the development of the Atomic and Hydrogen bombs, it’s worth noting some supplementary information that has come to light more recently. Two decades after Johnson’s play opened in London, Fred Jerome, who sued the U.S. government to access a relatively uncensored version of Einstein’s FBI file, wrote that the Army in 1940, apparently in response to a report from J. Edgar Hoover that threw doubt on the great man’s politics and his loyalty, declined to give him security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project.
How much do facts of this kind matter? Quite a bit if “real” history is at stake and hardly at all if it’s a matter of mythology. And it’s typical of our postmodernist confusions that we often can’t distinguish very well between the two.
A game and a provocation built around this dilemma, Insignificance implicitly dares us to sort out the differences between fact and fantasy by playing riffs with the images we already have of DiMaggio, Einstein, McCarthy, and Monroe. Thus paranoia, apocalyptic visions, and cartoon-like notions of sex are invited to intermingle and merge — as critic Raymond Durgnat once described this blend, in relation to the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly, “the apotheosis of va-va-voom,” and what Eco has described as a conversation between clichés.
Insignificance pointedly doesn’t sort out the differences between fact and fancy; it’s more interested in playfully turning all four of its celebrities into metaphysicians of one kind or another. My favorite illustration of this is when the Actress — offering a sexual bribe to the Senator, who thinks she looks like Marilyn Monroe — existentially concludes, “What the hell — it’s her you want, not me,” thus summing up our own ambiguous and contradictory relation to her character.
All this sport, to be sure, has specifically English inflections. These crazed American icons are being viewed from an amused and bemused distance, and much of the talk qualifies as fancy mimicry. Even some of the measured and formal civility that periodically shines through the banter between the Professor and the Actress might be said to emanate from an English drawing room more than a suite at the Roosevelt:
Actress …If we stand on the tracks a little longer you know what happens?
Professor We get run over? (Pause.) I stay behind afterwards and clean the blackboard.
Actress I don’t like to be patronized.
Professor I’m sorry.
Actress Your apology’s accepted…
Johnson is presumably enough of a researcher to know that McCarthy helped to hound Paul Robeson out of the U.S. But if he also knows that Einstein was an important ally of Robeson a few years earlier, he and his Einstein character aren’t letting on. Clearly they have other fish to fry. And they’re no less mute about the fact that twice in 1953, in June and December, Einstein urged witnesses called before McCarthy’s Committee, the HUAC, and similar “inquisitions” (as he called them) not to testify — a fact reported both times on the front page of the New York Times, but not in Johnson’s bittersweet comedy.
Furthermore, “I didn’t write Insignificance because I was interested in Marilyn Monroe,” Johnson avowed in a 1985 interview with Richard Combs for the Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1985). This film occasioned an extensive rewrite and expansion of the original by Johnson, but even then he couldn’t be sure whether or not he’d ever seen The Seven Year Itch. He also admitted that his “interest in film, which is now quite strong, came out of the experience of adapting the play for Roeg….The whole structure and nature of a play is to do with objects and people and movement. Whereas, in a film, you just cut and get to the next good bit. Plays are essentially about space, where films are essentially about time — to be a pundit.”
One perk of his lack of interest in Monroe is complicating and confounding the popular notion of her as a dumb blonde — a stereotype that she’d helped to create herself — in order to shape and justify his outlandish plot. And as we know now from a recent collection of Monroe’s writing (Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe, edited by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), she was a curious mixture – an atrocious speller who was completely self-taught, but also someone who was reading Proust’s Swann’s Way on the set of Love Nest in 1951, and can be seen reading the end of Joyce’s Ulysees on the back jacket of Fragments. As the editors of Fragments note, Proust, another faulty speller, once wrote, “Each spelling mistake is the expression of a desire,” and indeed, an important part of the achievement of Johnson, Roeg, and the four lead actors of Insignificance is to see how they manage to collaborate in expressing, repressing, denying, or discovering their characters’ desires as well as their fears, in each case typifying the 50s zeitgeist.
The play stays glued over its two acts to Einstein’s hotel room. The film adds crosscutting and incidental characters, including Monroe’s driver (Patrick Kilpatrick), a hooker with a blond wig who comes to McCarthy’s room (Desirée Erasmus), and, elaborating on a speech by Einstein that was already in the play, a Cherokee elevator man (Will Sampson) who adds another metaphysician to the cast of characters. The new locations include not only the Trans-Lux, but also a bar where McCarthy and DiMaggio nurse their separate grudges, and the shop where Monroe buys her demonstration toys. Perhaps the most significant additions are the brief, telegraphic, and sometimes cryptic flashbacks pertaining to the respective youths of Monroe, Einstein, and DiMaggio, and last but not least, the Elephant in the Room, the H-Bomb itself — which one might say puts in a crucial, last-minute appearance as the celebrity to end all celebrities, dwarfing and making irrelevant all of the others.