Sunday, March 27, 2011

More Images of "Japan"

I was recently looking through a gallery of Life magazine cover when I found a couple of interesting covers from 1951 and 1964. The '64 cover takes the ubiquitous image of a beautiful woman in a kimono and combines it with the most American thing on the planet: bowling. This is quite possibly the only sport one can play with eating a hot dog, and drinking a beer, but now we’ve kicked off our bowling shoes and added some tabi socks to the mix, making this is such a quirky, kitschy image to my eye. Bowling graces the cover of the “Special Issue: Japan”, that’s the best they could do.

Lola (Fassbinder, 1981)

1a. Emotional Response after first viewing:
         Lola is a gorgeous film, a veritable feast for the eyes. Yet directly after viewing it I feel unsettled and emotionally drained. There is a carnivalesque quality to the viewing experience in the lushness of the mise en scene and chaotic, beautifully artificial use of color. Yet the film also made me feel hollow after viewing, mainly because I walked away with the feeling that nothing has changed in the world of the film. It is still an unequal world of exchange, and the final scenes in which little Marie lies in the hayloft suggest that nothing will change. It gave me a somber, disheartening feeling, which was unexpected as the film’s artful use of melodramatic codes lured me into expecting a perfect, cohesive ending. 

What's Old is New Again

"However, we need to remember at this point that the technologist is a social being and that all this is taking place within the social sphere. The social has obviously informed the model thus far. The scientist conceptualizing necessary fundamental understandings are as much social beings, exponents of and prisons of the culture that produced them, as are the technologists who have ideas for devices and build prototypes".
-Brian Winston: Media Technology and Society

An Ode to the Soap

After talking about complex narrative, I've been thinking quite a bit about soap operas lately. I found an entry on media scholar Jason Mittell's blog pertaining to the subject of complex narrative and soaps, and enjoyed reading someone else's thoughts on the matter. It just seems to me that the soap opera is the grandaddy (grandmama?) of complex narrative. Honestly, could there be anything more complex than a program like All My Children, which has been going strong since 1970 and a cast of over 50 characters? It seems that soap operas have been largely ignored (although I did find Love and Ideology in the Afternoon by Laura Stempel Mumford to be an interesting read) because of the division between "high" and "low" culture. The fact that it is "women's tv" also stigmatizes the genre and makes it superfluous and beyond recognition.

Images of "Japan"

These ads were both featured in Atlantic Monthly in 1960: the first in September and the second in December. What I find striking is the lack of Japanese in either of these ads. The first features a blonde, All-American woman, comfortably enjoying the amenities of JAL at the Kusaga Grand Shrine. The ad promises “Shoji screens, and tatami-patterned carpets, chrysanthemum designs and pine bough motifs, the taste and restraint of Japan” on every JAL flight. The early 60s borrowed “Oriental” motifs, especially in the design of “mod” furniture, and the Western interest in Japan increased following World War II. The first Benihana Japanese Steakhouse appeared in New York City in 1964, four years after JAL received its first jet. The aesthetic of “Japan” was fresh, haute couture, and this ad is inviting wealthy housewives to come to Japan to find tasteful, restrained items with which to decorate their suburban homes. 

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)

I loved Last Year at Marienbad. I’ve been struggled with writing this reaction, because every time I start writing I can’t get over how visually striking this film is. We are presented with strikingly gorgeous images and a luxurious, rich depth-of-field clarity that is simply hedonistic. Resnais provides the viewer with maddening, yet ingenious, self-referential moments in the visual language of the film, and visually alludes to the stylistic perfection of the image in even the smallest scenes. At one point, we watch two older gentlemen playing chess, and behind them stretches what appears to be a hall tiled like chess set. This same hall is shown again later in the film, and it was not until the second view that I realized that an extremely talented example of trompe l’oeil. This image really screwed with my mind; in the midst of this deep focus voluptuousness, I am confronted with this strange flatness. The hall, like much of the hotel, evokes a M.C. Escher and especially impossible objects. An impossible figure, such as a Necker cube or Penrose stair, is a two-dimensional figure that we interpret as a projection of a three-dimensional object. The film similarly uses our visual systems to blur the line between depths and even reality. The “false perspectives” and baroque excesses of the hotel again reference this theme, and we begin to distrust our eyes even as we are hungry for more image.

Detour (1945)

    While watching Detour (Ulmer, 1945), I began to consider the interplay between narrative and history that takes place within the film. 1945 marks the surrender of Japan and the official end of World War II, and I argue that this film works through the experience of war and the fate of the returning soldier. Something I found intriguing was the film’s internal timeline of events. Al (Tom Neal) narrates the story through flashback, but there is ambiguity surrounding when exactly the events took place. He informs the audience in the first flashback that playing piano in a nightclub was “pretty good work for those days”, and later explains his failed hitchhiking attempts to Haskell (Edmund McDonald), saying, “not many people stop for a guy these days. Can’t blame them; maybe they’re afraid of a stick-up or something”. I take this unnamed time, where work is scarce and people are desperate, to be a thinly veiled allusion to the Depression, sometime between 1929 and the late 1930s. By setting the action of the film before the war and pre-1945 provides a space in which to examine contemporary issues in the safety of “before-now”.

San Soleil

What really strikes me about San Soleil is the ways in which Chris Marker manipulates the medium to express the concept of time. I often hear people mention admiringly that a film passed in no time at all, that they were sucked into the story world so completely that 2 hours felt like seconds. San Soleil makes the viewer aware of the passage of time, and invites us to lovingly reflect on time even as we sit in the act of viewing. Time is marked by the recorded ceremonies- Coming of Age Day, Doll Burning Ceremonies- as well as through narration, which marks the passage of time, while retaining the ability to see beyond the present. The viewer is shown two “extreme poles of survival” in Japan and Africa, and we are guided by a woman’s voice reading letters from the cinematographer Sandor Krasna. The film, however, assumes a position that references the ethnographic gaze even while it resists this mode of viewing. The images are occasionally “clothed” in “soft focus or electronically processed textures” (Marks, 177). The electronic processing is one of the finest touches in the film, distorting the image while deepening our knowledge of the subject. It invites the viewer to employ the caressing eye and bodily relationship the haptic viewer shares with the image. We are unable to see distinctly, but the shape of a dog, the truncheon of protestors, or the gaping mouth of a television villain is plainly visible. This distortion of the image also references “how much of perception is generated by memory and longing, rather than engagement with a crisply available object” (Marks, 156). Krasna’s excitement at returning to Japan and his engagement with the country is not something that can be communicated through traditional narrative, and the electronically altered images encourages us to trace the edges of “his” Japan.

Laura Mulvey and "Peeping Tom"

I really respect Laura Mulvey for her work, force of intellect, and her efforts in forging an aesthetic of feminist/counter cinema. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema is an incredibly rich essay, but one in which the author tragically overlooks the role of the female spectator. The female viewer presents the opportunity for rupture in the narrative ideology of the film, and I think it is just this mechanism that is at work in Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960). Much of Mulvey’s comments on Hitchcock can be applied to this work (Mulvey, 722-723). Powell similarly absorbs the audience “into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene and diegisis” and oscillates “between voyeurism and fetishistic fascination” (Mulvey, 722). Peeping Tom, however, delivers a critique of viewership that goes far beyond those found in Psycho or Rear Window, and specifically addresses the female viewer in ways that challenge Mulvey’s essay.

Dziga Vertov

      I recently read Dziga Vertov's "Film Directors: A Revolution", and have been reflecting on how this work interacts with the history and contemporary atmosphere during the time in which Vertov was writing. Vertov expresses a fetishization and obsession with the new technology, more perfect than the human eye, while Benjamin seems abivalant towards the new world of technological reproduction. It’s surprising how the themes of technology and modernization are mirrored throughout the cinema of the 20s, and Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov) resounds in many ways with Berlin: Die Sinfonie der GroƟstadt (Ruttmann), which had been released two years earlier, in 1927. Both are shining examples of the “city symphony” genre, and similarly manipulate technology to reveal modern, mechanized cities. Man with a Movie Camera makes the use of filming technology even more explicit, placing the camera high above the city, and demonstrating filmic abilities in ways that recall the “Cinema of Attractions”.