Saturday, September 08, 2018

Mizoguchi, The Good Distance

Mizoguchi, The Good Distance 
Kenji Mizoguchi, Street of Shame (Akasen chitai
Street of Shame is Mizoguchi’s last film. At the end of this TV retrospective, we move away from the idea of the humanist and cosmic Mizoguchi and see with more precision the Sadean maker of films with women, speed, killer camera angles and the worn human machine. 
Before spelling out why we much watch tonight Mizoguchi’s last film and the last in this retrospective (Street of Shame, 1955), I’d like to bring up a personal memory. A week ago, exactly the same evening, I had resigned to the idea that once again an emotional tsunami would leave me gasping in front of my televisual fish bowl. The big fish (“Wait for your turn, no need to sulk” goes a zen saying quoted by Vuillemin) was called Sansho the Bailiff (1954). A melodrama of the type that we don’t make anymore but that we knew how to make, which begins in the 11th century, in an undergrowth, and finishes on a beach, in Japan. Watched many times.  
Following with my gaze the camera of the great Miyagawa Kazuo, which itself was following the members (particularly mistreated by fate) of a noble family in pre-feudal Japan, I observed that my eyes remained dry and that the camera itself often had the wish to flatten characters. It used any pretext for this: a flashback, a dolly shot, a shortcut, soaring music (by the great Hayasaka Fumio). 
I wasn’t surprised since it was precisely this that had overwhelmed me (and not just me) when the film was released. This art to modulate the distance between gaze and bodies, to make the gaze a body and the body a ghost. This art to take some distance (as we say), to place the pathetic detail back into the wider glaze, to film only to verify that what was irremediable has indeed happened, that defeat is the only reality, and that compassion is the last remaining possible feeling. 
Last Friday, I had the courage to confess to myself (in a low voice) that the characters in Sansho the Bailiff never really touched me (except two: Anju and Taro), that the irritating Tanaka Kinuyo had rarely minced so much, that the character Zushio-Mutsu-Waka was rather bland, and that Sansho was but a schematic puppet. Worse, hadn’t I been always delighted by their misfortunes?  
Even worse, wasn’t Mizoguchi himself, as a Sadean filmmaker, delighted to send his characters to the firing line, never tiring of their eternal suffering grimaces? Deciding to be honest and, if needed, iconoclastic (we no longer need to fight for Mizoguchi to be recognised, everybody knows he’s one of the greats – it’s for Naruse, Kinoshita, Gosho, Yamanaka that we should make an effort), convinced that real cinephile events happen on television and, after I gave a call to Marguerite Duras who, in a small voice, admitted that she had found the film “a bit long” (before talking about the only recent cinema event: the umpteenth showing of The Night of the Hunter), I dared ask the question: what if Mizoguchi was moving away from us? And what if a few shots by Ozu, recently gleaned while channel hopping, had suddenly seemed closer, more vibrant?  
What is moving away is perhaps the all too universal idea of a humanist, cosmic, ample Mizoguchi. We have discovered his films in the reverse order: Street of Shame, his last film, was the first one released in France. We have rightly admired the costume dramas of his ‘late period’ which are those where Mizoguchi, in the name of a very exalted humanism, tries to stay the distance of the great, minutely calligraphed sagas, with real breathing and story-telling problems (that’s how we should re-read the comments from his script writer, Yoda, published in Cahiers).  
There is a risk of academism in these films, especially the costumed ones. We do find in them the most beautiful camera movements in the history of film making (along with Murnau’s) but it’s because the camera is tired to stick with characters plagued by eternal bad luck or fake heroism. There are no contradictory characters with Mizoguchi: good one are too good, evil ones are truly horrible. There’s only one moving character in Sansho the Bailiff: Sansho’s son, Taro, who becomes a monk.  
What appears with more precision though, is the real Mizoguchi. The Mizoguchi of the modern films, the women films, the films of the immediate post-war period (The Lady of Musashino, Women of the Night, The Woman in the Rumor). The Mizoguchi that hasn’t yet taken any distance or height, the sex maniac who can only invent (climax) at the heart of the cruellest traps, when filmed women and filming camera behave like turtles and hares, nailed to the floor, to paper walls, to mats stained with tears and sperm. Mizoguchi’s passion (singular as any passion) had been to find the killer angle, the salutary corner, the redeeming detail, the speed that avoids the blows, the elegant jolt, the tiredness of the human machine.  
It’s all this that begins for the last time, in a terrifying calm, in Street of Shame, tonight. 
First published in Libération on 10 April 1987. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde. 3. Les années Libé 1986-1991, P.O.L., 1991, pp. 149-151.