Words Unspoken: On Mikio Naruse’s Films Screenwritten by Yoko Mizuki and Sumie Tanaka

In September the Arsenal-Kino in Berlin screened a series of films by Mikio Naruse. The emphasis of the programming was on two of his screenwriters; Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka. Kayo Adachi-Rabe likened these two women to the great matriarchs of Japanese literature, Sei Shōnagon and Murasaki Shikibu, in her introduction to Ukigumo (Floating Clouds). It was unlikely for two women to get a break into the industry at that point in time, and it was a collaboration Naruse’s films benefited from greatly.

Naruse is a very difficult filmmaker to write about. I’d seen all the programmed films either once or twice before, but they stupefied me all over again quite swiftly. Nothing is pronounced. There don’t seem to be any distinct stylistic qualities to latch onto. The films seem foreign, vague even. Small gestures that we would consider extemporaneous, like a woman scooping rice, sprinkling water on the street, or plucking her nose hairs, have as much weight as the actions that move the story forward. And it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two. I wonder if I am even fit to interpret them; they present the critic a film he isn’t prepared for. I could attribute part of this to their Japanese qualities. The names, customs, foods, habits, cultural practices and social codes are all strange to me. An example of this is a repeated motif where characters assess a stranger’s social standing and background from their accents. It’s a a nuance that goes missing on me and is more read than it is felt. These films are from a different time, too; the aftermath of World War II. The mother in Inazuma (Lightning) exaggerates that the ratio between single men to women is 23 to 1. There’s a lot of competition between women, they don’t have much solidarity with one another, and most of the men live with a defeated attitude. But all these conventions alone are not what make his films so distant, not at all.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

The stories they tell are not that foreign, either. They don’t uses ellipsis and hardly ever contain flashbacks: they move forward. They’re typically domestic dramas about couples or families or small social groups living in a larger community. Each film is an extended stay with one of these social units as they interact with their extended social universe through their work as shop-owners, laundresses, business-men, geishas, tour-guides, housewives, bicycle-delivery-men and so on. Most of them struggle to make ends meet and are constantly having to make sacrifices. All the occupations overlap between films, you’ll see the bicycle-delivery-men pick something up from the laundresses, laundresses buying from the shop-keepers, lawyers visiting geishas: all these workers are present in all the films even when they’re not the primary characters. It’s always implied that the drama in the film we are watching is just one of many taking place in those suburbs. Nagareru (Flowing) and Bangiku (Late Chrysanthemums) are distinct in that they lack a protagonist. The narrative just flows through geisha houses, attaching itself to different characters at different moments as they struggle with money and slowly, imperceptibly, experience their own ageing. Naruse’s films revolve around these imperceptible phenomena. And the stories are porous; they don’t have clear cut beginnings or ends. Thus they have had the tendency to blur in my memory. In the “Against all odds” retrospective, seeing this selection presented consecutively night after night, I had the sense each film wanted to all add up with all the others, such that their sum total would become a mosaic-like portrait of a neighborhood (ignoring the obvious geographical differences between the films, which take place in different cities). The physical make-up of the neighborhoods, the alleyways, exteriors, balconies, windows, backyards and gardens, all play important roles in the stories. Most of the films take place inside closed, domestic spaces, but these semi-public spaces where neighbors see one another and interact link the characters and the stories together. Men meet up in the morning and make idle chatter over the fence, children play and light fireworks in the alleyways, girls stand on the balcony waiting for boys to come by to flirt with, knife sharpeners and umbrella salesman walk through announcing their trade, traditional Japanese parades and musical processions weave through the neighborhoods, and the noises from the streets always permeate through the houses as the scenes shift back inside.

The characters all live difficult lives. Suffering is the only constant. If they aren’t enslaved by economic destitution then they suffer emotionally. The well-to-do are psychologically repressed and act out through cruelty and sabotage. The social contract doesn’t benefit anyone. It’s a wonder how this world keeps going on. Many people dream of death as the only escape from it. Some commit suicide, some attempt it and fail. Others wrestle with their unhappiness, some take it out on their spouses, others yet bear it like a martyr. They all live with profound doubts and uncertainties. Kierkegaard wrote that paradox of modern life is that it must be lived forward but can only ever be understood backwards. Naruse’s characters exemplify this fate; they’re all in situations they’re unprepared for. They’re forced to negotiate between their needs and emotions and the social world they’re bound to. Experience rarely accumulates; whatever was learned yesterday gets contradicted today. It’s these qualities of unpreparedness and uncertainty that guide Naruse’s films. Their truth-content unravels furtively, just beneath the surface, as they slowly sketch the outlines of a character’s inner life. His formal precision is a means of sustaining a kind of ambiguity. Through it we can experience some of the doubts and things his characters cannot admit to themselves.

I think it’d be commonplace to say that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka’s contributions to Naruse’s films were to provide a female perspective. The same could be said of Fumiko Hayashi’s novels that the two screen-writers adapted. Something reductive is always implied here, as if there were a such thing as a coherent, unified female perspective, as if this could somehow be known or demonstrated in an art work. In Naruse’s films the opposite is true. “You think because you’re a woman you understand all women’s struggles?”, the father in Yama No Oto asks his wife. We don’t know his characters because the characters in the scripts Mizuki and Tanaka wrote don’t know themselves. Naruse’s films focus on the atmosphere around people, on their social situations and the characters’ limited realm of agency within them. This focus is a way of sustaining the opacity of the other, of not keeping them from being reduced to another person’s perception of them. Empathy gets stretched out. For Naruse everyone is opaque, most especially to themselves. Film cannot violate this surface but has to operate on its edges. Any attempt to circumvent this boundary results in a reduction and a lie. The closer we think we come to knowing someone, the further away they recede. The painter Johannes Vermeer was motivated by the same dynamic between seeing and possessing, between appearances and the substance they hide. His “The Art of Painting” in Vienna stages this relationship self-consciously. Like Naruse, Vermeer’s primary concern was a precision of detail. Detail was a means of finding distance, precision a way towards estrangement. “His detachment reveals itself as a quality of love,” Lawrence Gowing writes. “Its lucid surface holds suspended a contradiction; its purpose is as near to concealment as revelation.” Vermeer’s painter is a transmitter; his eyes are fixed on his model as his his hand paints freely. How to sustain this form of perception, such that perception doesn’t dominate that which it beholds by reducing it? Most of the history of Western painting is a performance of possession. Vermeer’s achievement, Gowing claims, is to overturn this. „From the grossness of the traditional subject, the force of erotic circumstance, Vermeer has distilled his pure theme: he has discovered the virtue of female existence, its separateness. We gather from the process the understanding of an intimate sense in which style and substance are one: we see his development again from this other standpoint as the uncovering of a love which leaves its object unimpaired.“ There is the utopian dream of a reconciliation in his dated language we are apt to recoil from.

Mikio Naruse, Ukigumo

Unlike Vermeer’s static images, Naruse’s move and tell a story. They call little attention to themselves and work in the service of the narrative. His technique doesn’t displace us amidst the characters through a series of cuts as Kenji Mizoguchi does with his constant reframing, and he doesn’t pare movements down to accentuate the movement of time the way Yasujirō Ozu does. Akira Kurosawa wrote that “Naruse’s method consists of building one very brief shot on top of another, but when you look at them all spliced together in the final film, they give the impression of a single long take. The flow is so magnificent that the splices are invisible.” Everything is subdued. The difficulty Naruse faced in making aesthetic choices was always one of temperament; how to come close without closeness becoming the subject, how to emphasize something missing without pointing to it and making its absence explicit. We’re not omnipotent as viewers, we don’t exist outside of time, and we don’t know the character’s inner thoughts. (I can only attribute the bookending voiceovers in Inazuma and Okaasan and the sparse internal monologues in Bangiku to studio demands.) He tends to use wide to medium shots; we stand at the edges of the room, near the walls, just outside of where the action is taking place. We’re not eavesdropping, but we’re not part of the conversations either. Naruse worked within these parameters because he wanted his films to approximate to the viewer the distance his characters experience towards one another. This is Naruse’s ethical mandate: to work within, not against, the vast space that keeps us separate from one another. He accentuates this space, he gives form to its negativity. This presents us with a difficulty, an awkwardness. Emotions aren’t always disclosed, things get left hanging. We can accept this in ever-day life, but we’ve been trained to have different expectations with films. It takes a bit of work to tune ourselves into what Naruse is doing, to learn to listen to what is getting left unsaid.

His most brutal film, Yama No Oto (Sound of the Mountain), begins with an affectionate conversation.* Kikuo (Setsuko Hara) happens upon her father-in-law Shingo (So Yamamura) as they’re both returning home. She asks him what he’s looking at and he points to a sunflower. “Whenever I see a sunflower I think of man’s head. I wonder if the inside of a man’s head could be as beautiful as a flower. Wouldn’t it be great if you could send your brains off to be cleansed? You could remove your head take it down to the hospital and say, “Wash this for me,” like at the laundry…The best part would be, as the hospital got on with cleansing the brain you could just sleep for a week while you waited. The body could just rest, without getting up, without dreaming.” The sun is shining, and some foliage casts a shadow on Shingo’s back as they continue their walk. There’s something light-hearted about this conversation that covers over the fatalism of Shingo’s daydream; a reprise from the exhaustion of everyday life, a nothingness that can only be found in death. Shingo’s comments are like a condensed representation of Naruse’s technique. It is only in the utterance that one realizes part-way through that they mean something quite different than what is actually being said. And this excess is rarely acknowledged out loud; sentiments surface just to get buried. This scene in Kawabata’s novel, the one Yoko Mizuki adapted, operates differently. Shingo is staring at the sunflowers, and the narrator writes that the first thing Kikuko notices upon seeing Shingo is that her husband Shuichi isn’t with him, understanding therefore that he must be with his mistress. “They’re fine specimens,’ he [Shingo] said. ‘Like heads of famous people.’ Kikuko nodded, her manner casual. Shingo had put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him. He had not been searching for one. With the remark, however, he felt in all its immediacy the strength of the great, heavy, flowering heads. He felt the regularity and order with which they were put together. The petals were like crowns, and the greater part of the central discs was taken up by stamens, clusters of them, which seemed to thrust their way up by main strength. There was no suggestion that they were fighting one another, however. They were quietly systematic, and strength seemed to flow from them. The flowers were larger in circumference than a human head. It was perhaps the formal arrangement of volume that had made Shingo think of a brain. The power of nature within them made him think of a giant symbol of masculinity. He did not know whether they were male or not, but somehow he thought them so. The summer sun was fading, and the evening air was calm. The petals were golden, like women. He walked away from the sunflowers, wondering whether it was Kikuko’s coming that had set him to thinking strange thoughts.” A similar dialogue to the one quoted from the film takes place about sending one’s brain to the laundry, and the narration continues; “He had thought on the train of sending his head to a laundry, it was true, but he had been drawn not so much to the idea of the laundered head as to that of the sleeping body. A very pleasant sleep, with head detached. There could be no doubt of it: he was tired. He had had two dreams toward dawn this morning and the dead had figured in both.”

Mikio Naruse, Nagareru

The breadth of Kawabata’s description of the unconscious at play in Shingo’s associations is quite intense, and it is suited to the novel’s capacity to represent a stream of consciousness. But there is an important discrepancy between the level of detail the narrator lends the sunflowers and Shingho’s perception of them; they are not synonymous. He first makes an association without knowing why, and then studies the formal qualities of the flowers to find the source of his thought. He felt their regularity and order, how they were put together. He traces them backwards. There is a lag between speaking and thinking. Even his dreams pointed forward, „toward the dawn.“ Shingo, beside himself, is trying to catch up with everything on the peripheries of his consciousness. Yoko Mizuki’s reduction of this literary tour-de-force to a brief, light-hearted interaction, coupled with Naruse’s detached treatment of the bizarre thought, translate this interiority cinematically. “He put no thought into the words. The comparison had simply occurred to him.” Speaking without thinking. Somehow this is also what is implied in the film, only rather than giving us a schematic of Shingo’s coming-to-terms with his associative formation, the eerie qualities of his remarks get sustained in an awkward conversation afterwards, which only dances around its implications. Naruse doesn’t explain Shingo’s thoughts or try to trace them back. Cinema can’t really do this, it stays on the surface. So Naruse decided to elongate them. We remain, therefore, in a state of suspension. Naruse’s films take on a poetic countenance through such inexplicable movements. Their masterful pacing and rhythm are attenuated to what remains unresolved.

In many of Naruse’s films a character comes to visit. These intrusions triangulate a relationship in crisis. In Meshi (Repast), Shuu (Sudden Rain), and Yama No Oto, the unstable dynamics between partners, which might have persisted however uneasily otherwise, begin to unravel. In Meshi, Hatsunosuke’s (Ken Uehara) cousin Satoko (Yukiko Shimazaki) gets cold feet before her marriage and runs away to stay with him and his unhappy wife Michiyo (Setsuko Hara). Michiyo complains about her married life and her chores. She says she has nothing to look forward to anymore. Her only love is her cat, whom she treats better than the husband she’s starting to resent. We sense she feels destined for greater things, for a more luxurious life that her husband can’t provide. Despite his humble nature, he’s not at all stupid, and much less abusive. Though emotionally distant, he loves his wife and does what he can to make her happy. He tries to get her to come out with him and his cousin on a guided tour-bus ride through Kyoto. He buys three tickets for them all, but she changes her mind at the last minute, claiming she has too much to do. She’s sabotaging whatever chance of happiness she could have, and she doesn’t realize it. The husband and cousin stand there with a truly confused look. They want her to be happy and they don’t understand why she doesn’t want to be happy as well. She’s incredibly stubborn. Even when things go her way, she rejects the outcome if she’s not the one setting the course of events into motion. This happens when Satoko decides, after all, to marry her fiancé, and says that she hopes this will make Michiyo happy. Michiyo laughs and rebukes Satoko’s attempt at an emotional connection because it tacitly acknowledges that Michiyo had been jealous of Satoko, which she would never admit to. Michiyo herself runs away to spend time with her family back in Tokyo. She sleeps the whole day through and refuses to write her husband. She meets up with a friend who has become a single mother and, her welfare running out, cannot manage to find work. This clearly affects Michiyo. She walks through the town along the river by herself before returning to her parents. She sees Hatsunosuke’s shoes at their house and turns right around, not yet ready to reconcile with him. While walking she looks at a woman selling newspapers, her child sitting on a fence right next to her, facing away at some train tracks. She freezes up, a profound emotion comes over her face. She then walks away, meets up with her husband, and decides to return home with him. What happened inside of her upon this sight we will never know. We might assume she sees an image of herself as a single woman trying to make ends meet, but she has no child, and she could live with her family if she needed to. She’s not in danger of being put out on the streets. It’s possible this scene is connected to some memory buried deep inside her that we don’t have access to. We only see the outer effect of some inner transformation, which is later manifest in the decision to commit to her husband. This, for me, is a quintessentially Narusian scene; a scene where the inner life of a character manifests itself in a glance, a gaze, a small gesture that doesn’t signify anything other than the depths it conceals. A similar scene occurs at the beginning of Inazuma, when Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) sees two people, a man and a woman, on the street. Her face changes; she is curious and then saddened and distant. We later hear her tell her mother, a bit after we’d forgotten about the sight and its effect on her, that she saw her brother-in-law with a mistress. This gaze finds a belated explanation. Michiyo’s never does. Whatever is going through her mind, so transportive and meaningful, remains forever unbeknownst to us. A great deal of the frustration between characters develops within this chasm. They feel unheard and unlistened to, their inner life gets suppressed, or they get treated as though they are known and get reduced to another’s perception of them.

Resentment is a common theme in Naruse’s films. „From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us,” the director once said. Many tend to interpret his films as pessimistic, but this is lazy and takes his words at face value. Pessimistic people don’t make films about how difficult our social condition is. Only people who think humans are capable of changing themselves do. His films are full of hope. The resentful characters don’t experience a normal course of life, they’re not victims of circumstances, but people who have made terrible decisions, behaved selfishly without regard to their effects on others, and have to live with the consequences of it. Most crucially, they represent an antithesis to Naruse’s philosophy: they cannot distinguish between love and possession. There is a terribly haunting, lonely scene in Ukigumo. Kengo’s (Masayuki Mori) estranged wife has died of consumption. He’d had an affair with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) while in Indo-China during the Second World War and promised her he would divorce his wife to be with Yukiko, but he finds himself unable to, either out of guilt or obligation. He later has an affair with a barmaid, who in turn gets murdered by her jealous husband. He still won’t commit to Yukiko despite her persistence and attachment for reasons unclear, both to us and to himself. He is living in the storage unit out back of a shop and the shop owner, a young girl (Sadako Kimura), comes in after he rejected Yukiko yet again. He says he can’t talk, he’s too busy. We assume he has nothing to do, but just wants to bear his sadness in solitude. “Why did you kiss me when you were drunk?” “I’m busy. Please go.” Sober, we can tell he regrets the decision, but is also just depressed, annoyed, and tired of his drunken-self, the one who made the decision to kiss her last night. He’s given up trying to say that this character wasn’t him; he’s resigned himself to nothing and sees how ugly a person he is. He can’t change. We assume he wants to just sit there alone and let time pass, to spite it by means of endurance. It’s clear his problems are somewhat opaque to himself, as well. He might be able to put part of the blame on the loss of the war, his unemployment, or other material causes, but he knows he himself is largely responsible for his fate. He isn’t sure why, though. He doesn’t know what he has done wrong, what his fatal flaw is. It’s too late to rectify any of these problems, anyways, so he doesn’t try too hard to figure it out.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

The only film in the program that wasn’t centered around the domination of one person over another is Okaasan. Interestingly enough it was the only original screenplay, written by Yoko Mizuki. It’s not without tragedy; the characters all deal with financial issues, loneliness, uncertainty, and death. But in this film hardships are not caused by interpersonal conflicts, avarice, or hate. They stem from the frailty of mortality. The mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) is an angel. The daughter (Kyōko Kagawa) introduces her as the kind of woman who still uses a hand-broom. She bends over close to the dirt and the dust she’s sweeping away. A lot of directors avoid dirt but Naruse doesn’t. His dirt isn’t erotic, it’s not bloody or valiant either. It’s a commonplace dirt, just the stuff that lingers around and has to be maintained. We see repeatedly through the films a curious gesture; women splashing water onto the unpaved roads out front of their houses. I can only assume, based on having seen wagons dumping out water before the parades in John Ford’s films, that this is a matter of keeping the dust from getting kicked around. The mother is unselfish, she never thinks of herself and never tells her husband (Kyôko Kagawa) what to do. But when he is sick and refuses to go the hospital, claiming they don’t have enough money, she orders him to go. He doesn’t concede, and she has to live with him knowing he’s going to die next to her in their house. I sense that part of him wants to die. He has set out to re-open their laundry-shop after a hiatus as a security guard. It failed the first time; I think something in him fears it will fail a second time. He doesn’t know if he has what it takes for another go. A difficult scene ensues between him and his wife. On his sick-bed, he is reminiscing about old times when they first opened their laundry-shop. “After four years we had a phone. You used to give out cards that said: We already have a phone. Call us whenever you want. I remember how you used to walk back then. You were young.” His wife (the mother) tried to breed weasels for their hides, but she overfed them and they never reproduced. She made a scarf for herself out of their fur. “You never wore it”, the father says. “I will when I have a pretty Kimono.” “That’s what you said twenty years ago.” She smiles; they both realize this will never happen. She keeps up good spirits, not for her sake but for his. “Yes. I liked that weasel. It brought us good luck. It lived during the best years of our lives.” “We’ll be happy again.” In a rare moment, the mother shows expression. As she leaves his bedroom, she looks over him sleeping, closes the door part way, walks outside and begins to weep profusely. It’s as though she had to go outside to weep, as though she couldn’t do it in the house she made, which depends on her holding everything together emotionally. She isn’t crying for herself, for her failed dreams, for her vanity. She’s crying because she has to see her husband weak, unable to provide for the family (and, by extension, for her) despite his best efforts and cheery demeanor. She’s weeping because she doesn’t want others to have to suffer. We sense she would gladly take all of their unhappiness and sorrows upon her own shoulders if only she could. It’s a horrible scene, the saddest in all of Naruse’s films. Hope is a difficult thing to maintain.

Mikio Naruse, Yama no Oto

His films that deal with unhappy marriages are also about hope, although in a very different way. In these films Naruse’s philosophy about human relationships, about the limits of what we know about the other, about ourselves, about our interactions which are based upon these limits, and the way we relate to them, all come to the forefront. The beginning of every relationship seems to pose the same questions: Will I repeat the same mistakes? Have I learned anything, am I capable of learning or changing anything? When will we get bored of one another and how will we deal with this? Am I settling with you, are you with me? And when did I decide to give you the power to have a judgement over me? What qualifies you to assert value here? All of a sudden, as though in an instant without our knowing it, we realize our dependency. And yet one has to pass through these doubts, sometimes together, at other times alone, to get out of this state of dependency by building up trust. To place faith in this third thing that is nothing more than what two people put into it, to do so amidst deep suspicions of the other’s commitment to that thing, and, most daunting of all, to commit to someone not just as they are now, but as they’ll be in the future, as they change into a latent version of them that will get formed through the trials life has in store for them… Are they even up for that challenge? Am I? How do they relate to the self that they are not yet? And I to my future self? “The cost is enormous. Too much for one life.” There is a loneliness that follows in the concomitant realization that tacitly, haunting our own doubts like a shadow: the other must be feeling the same. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma. How will they control their doubt? Hopefully the same as you, waiting steadfast for it to go away, but you can’t be sure. Maybe it’d be better to detach yourself before getting hurt, maybe they think the same. There is an aphorism Walter Benjamin wrote that applies here; “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” The tendency is to read this aphorism as saying that real love is only performed without hope, meaning, in a very Christian sense, without expecting anything in return. Fair enough, that is pretty good advice. But Benjamin is writing about knowing someone, which can only be achieved through love, a love that has no hope. There is a paradox, a tautology here that Benjamin is playing with, a contradiction that is the kernel of love. One cannot begin to love without knowing, without individuating the beloved from everything else. Without distinction, the beloved is nothing but an empty vessel, a smokescreen for the lover to project their desires onto. Love also expresses itself in a contempt for everything that is not the beloved, Benjamin’s friend Theodore Adorno wrote. It’s an obsession with a particularity. The phrases in Benjamin’s aphorism can get swapped in its English translation; loving someone without hope is the only way of knowing them. (Auf Deutsch it is more difficult. The original “Einen Menschen kennt einzig nur der, welcher ohne Hoffnung ihn liebt” could be literally translated as “A person knows only the one whom he loves without hope.” Thus the swap would read “It’s only the one whom a person loves without hope that he can know.”) This gets us a bit closer to the other side of the paradox, that you can’t know anyone without first loving them hopelessly. Love with the hope of fulfillment is a restriction; the beloved is thus confined and not known beyond their confinement. We’re not static beings, we change over time. Loving without hope means to attach oneself to the other as one does not know them yet to be, and this must be done blindly. Thus, loving someone hopelessly and knowing them are not mutually constitutive acts but in a constant antagonism. This dialectical tension that keeps love alive is the same as what keeps the lovers separate, it’s what requires faith. One has to work hard to get to this starting point, to not repeat the last trial all over again, to not stay stuck in yourself.

Mikio Naruse, Inazuma

For Naruse there is nothing metaphysical about these questions; love starts with a disenchantment. It’s a matter of self-mastery, of self-understanding, of accepting the terms of life and learning to negotiate with them. His film-making reproduces this process; we get a chance to see the difficult and corrupt the parts of ourselves that we don’t know and learn from them to not find excuses or run away. His films usually do this negatively. People tend to interpret a happy ending to Meshi, but I think Naruse intended the opposite. The couple’s problems will continue because Michiyo hasn’t learned anything. She only resigned herself to her husband out of fear of something worse. She’s just as selfish, stubborn, and incommunicative as when the film began. It’s really only in the ending to Naruse’s Shuu that we see a couple begin to learn something about coming to terms with their situation. But first another detour by way of painting. In the 1730’s and 40’s Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted a series of pictures depicting adolescents playing games. They’re dressed up in adult’s clothes and their games have to do with the body and its relationship to gravity. Spinning tops, building card-houses, blowing bubbles; they’re learning to set into motion an energy or a dynamic outside of themselves. Their bodies are learning about cause and effect. The self is getting projected outwards, manifesting itself in things extending beyond their reach. „Soap Bubbles“ is a particular case; the boy is creating a world, something which is nothing but a thin film of soap reflecting light.  It comes from within him; it is his breath, and this breath-world will disengage from his straw and float around a while before popping. The illusion will shatter. He concentrates on the moment of its creation. Chardin admired Vermeer’s work greatly and sought to recreate their mystery within very different historical circumstances, through different materials and different motifs. In his „Salon of 1763“ the preeminent critic Denis Diderot praised Chardin’s „Le Bocal d’olives„, writing, “Oh Chardin! The colors crushed on your palette are not white, red, or black pigment; they are the very substance of your objects. They are the air and the light that you take up with the tip of your brush and apply to the canvas.” It’s significant that Diderot claims the substance of the objects are not the things themselves but the light and the air, the atmosphere through which they’re mediated. They’re crushed on the pallet and applied to the canvas just with the tip of the brush. The painter is an intermediary. Chardin’s paintings reproduce the phenomenology of painting itself, of objects emerging out of darkness. Doesn’t this apply quite precisely to Naruse’s films? He who is entirely concerned with the emergence of something unknown and unknowable only at the moment of its surfacing. He who lays so much emphasis on the atmosphere, the sounds, the ambience through which life emerges? The husband and wife in Shuu are unhappy. He (Keiju Kobayashi) wants to move to the country and to farm. She (Setsuko Hara) doesn’t agree. She needs the comforts of a city. She calls him a little mouse. They consider separation (he sees no other way); she calls him feudal. The next day at breakfast she refuses to pour him his tea. They return to the positions they sat in at the beginning of the film. It’s another Sunday and he’s reading the newspaper; she’s taking care of some chores. She’s cut a coupon out of the newspaper before he had a chance to read the article on the other side of the page (he asked her at the beginning not to do that). Two girls, their next-door neighbors, are playing with an inflatable ball, and accidentally knock it into the couple’s back yard. He blows inside to inflate it more fully and starts batting it into the air by himself, frantically, without coordination, a bit like a child would. He smacks it in one direction and all of a sudden his wife is outside standing in the direction of the ball’s flight and she smacks it back at him. They spontaneously go through an intense volley where an exchange of all their frustrated emotions get felt in the transference of the ball, this thin film of plastic held taunt by the pressure of air held inside. Relationships are a struggle. “Do you know what a woman has to give up for marriage?” This line is said in both Shuu and Meshi; these women would like a bit of consolation for their compromises. They both indicate one of the things they’ve given up is music, which in Inazuma and Shuu is the lonely characters only connection to the world outside, to the future and to their dreams. A life without dreams isn’t worth living, especially when your husband doesn’t realize the sacrifice you’re making. But when the couple in Shuu is smacking the ball back and forth, it’s like they’re finally learning to struggle together, not towards anything but with one another. Maybe in this struggle they will discover the possibility of learning to love one another without hope. In this group of films that Yoko Mizuki und Sumie Tanaka wrote and Naruse directed I’ve learned a lot about love, mostly how unprepared I am for it.

Mikio Naruse, Shūu


*A caveat: the film actually begins with a brief scene of Shuichi (Ken Uehara) entering his office and greeting his secretary. The film then switches to Shingo and Kikuko returning home walking alongside one another. Naruse intentionally places us in Shuichi’s work place, only to take us away from it before anything happens there, such that it only stays in the back of our minds, the way it is in the back of Kikuo’s mind, as I try to demonstrate in my discussion of Kawabata’s novel.

The Prisoners of Corona Island

by Lucía Salas, Patrick Holzapfel

La vida útil meets Jugend ohne Film

Cinema doesn’t die easily. It has been declared dead for ages and by now it must be one of the undead; a ghost haunting our dreams, nightmares, hopes and lives. In a time in which we are not allowed to go to cinemas around the globe we decided to start a little dialogue about the films we see at home. We always believe that cinema is necessary and useful but even more so in these times of insecurity and when a lot of our friends face a struggle to survive within the world of cinema. Since cinema is always alive when we talk and write about it, dream and think about it, this is our contribution to resurrect what will never be lost.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Patrick: It seems quite obvious that films always react to the world around them. Recently watching films took a very abstract turn in my perception but being forced to sit at home all day, I rediscovered the life inside the frame, the touches, the sensuality. Though I don’t necessarily think that watching this or that film is an act of solidarity, I feel drawn to images of or from Italy these days. I watched Un petit monastère en Toscane by Otar Iosseliani. It’s a beautiful film portraying the life around a monastery. The workers, the monks, the nature. Like often with Iosseliani everything holds together because of music. There is a co-existence of sacral music and folk songs. The peasant’s life is touched by God and the believer’s life is touched by the world we live in. Though it is a very hopeful film it also made me sad. It’s also a film about ways of life being lost.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Lucía: It is true that films always react to the world around them, even the way the world turned out to be after they appeared in it. So I have been mostly interested in seeing what I cannot see, which is people in places, now that space-travel has become almost as impossible as time travel because of the corona-sharks outside. Your monks and peasants took me to right across the border from where I am, to the French side of the Basque Country, as I watched Un petit monastère en Toscane and then, right after, Iosseliani’s Euskadi été 1982.  France now seems a lot farther than 25 km away. In this one the crew goes around some small villages of the region recording Basque parties and practices, as well as the infinite countryside. For example, in an amazing montage, an image of one woman shearing a sheep cuts to another woman, knitting. But I have a piece of life inside and out the frame for you: almost at the end of the film many people are on a stage for a town party and in the middle of a battle scene a little trap door opens in the stage and they throw the defeated enemies there (out of the frame). That image cuts to a shot from below the stage, where two actors receive their fellows surrounded by pillows (back to the frame). It impresses me very much when, after having watched something for almost an hour, I realize there is a second camera at work, which makes this cinematic magic trick possible: to be both in the stage and in the backstage while an action that will only take place once happens. Or perhaps (I can only hope) it is fake, and they were all plotting against us, and not only the filmmakers (as usual) but the characters too. As both films were made for the small screen (although perhaps not as small as a small computer), there’s still hope of being as close to the film as you can. I am glad your monks took me to France, as I hadn’t heard anyone speaking Euskera since the quarantine started (the film is half in French, half in Euskera). What I wonder is why on earth do your monks pray in French in the middle of all that Tuscan wine?

“quarantine in the basque country”

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Patrick: Isn’t it curious how cinema can occupy places and geographies? We are writing about Tuscany or Basque Country as if we could really visit them, walk through their mountains and hills, lie in their gras and survive their cruel histories. I recall Alain Badiou’s notion about how cinema is able to possess a piece of music, to even change it. I think, he describes how he can’t listen to Mahler’s 5th without thinking of Venice (because of Visconti’s Morte a Venezia) anymore. Yet, I think this is also true for the place itself. Venice is not the same after having seen that film. In these attractive mental movements of an imagined lifelong quarantine, I wonder what would happen to all those places we know but can’t reach anymore. Would they become memory? Would they be forgotten? Or would they become cinema? Concerning your question about the language spoken in Un petit monastère en Toscane, I read a bit about it. The monastery is the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, it has a long history and has changed since Iosseliani filmed there (maybe that’s why we didn’t get the film he promises at the end of this one) but at some point the French “chanoines réguliers de saint Augustin” moved there. They belong to the Premonstratensians and their task is to pray, sing songs and help the neighboring peasants. In itself this can maybe be seen as a metaphor for how cinema at its best might transform a landscape. It brings an aesthetic or spiritual truth into what’s already there and tries to help those who have to live. This brings me to two films I have seen inspired by your Basque ventures. Both are short films by Basque filmmaker Victor Erice, both were made as part of anthology films. Alumbramiento and Vidros Partidos. For now I only want to state that I won’t accept that there is no cinema of eventuality. As Erice shows we can imagine or fear without manipulating, there is an illusion which is also a reality. Maybe that is a comforting thought, maybe it is a nightmare. However, the landscapes, buildings, animals and people Erice films are transformed, they become a memory and still, I feel, they have a capacity of healing (not only for the viewer but for those involved). So is a filmmaker a Premonstratensian?

a dog dreaming (captured by Victor Erice)

Saturday, March 28, 2000

Lucía: Sorry for the delay in my response, my friend, I didn’t get coronavirus but I sure got the corona blues. There’s a common joke between the students from the film school here in which you are either an obedient follower of Oteiza or of Chillida, but never both Basque sculptors (I know, we need better jokes around these parts). This also happens often between cinephiles, and I always wonder if that’s the case with Victor Erice and Ivan Zulueta, as they both lived in San Sebastián and Madrid for so many years. I think they are both their own kind of Premonstratensians, only they might have different definitions for what praying, songs and helping the neighbors is. My recuperation from the corona-blues came strangely from Zulueta, a filmmaker that I would have never called a healer before, although I would have called him an exorcist. But I came across some of his short films, some of them as an animator and found footage filmmaker. In his film Aquarium he starts by animating the sky. Most precisely, the clouds that float in it. It appears to be a Super 8mm single-frame animation, a time-lapse of the clouds which allows you to perceive their movements, shapes and relationship to the sunlight by making everything go faster. Curious how it usually works the other way around: to really perceive a movement it helps to slow it down and de-compose it, like in Muybridge. But here, the possibility of watching everything going faster is what makes you see how all those particles behave, and how time flies. They also look like an army of smoke slowly taking over Madrid (if only there was an anti-corona cloud). What a task, to stay still for so many hours, regularly capturing the clouds as they pass by in order to create the illusion of a new movement for them in the film strip. It seems like a perfect task for the quarantine. To answer your thought around the reality of illusion, if it’s comforting or a nightmare, for now, I will go for comforting. All the animators of the world must be saner today than all the rest of us.

Speaking of which, way down east, in Asturias, there is another monastery, Monasterio de Santa María de Valdediós. There are places that you want to visit for the first time only after watching a film, and this is one. Elena Duque made a film last year called Valdediós, about this particular place. It’s a three minute film that takes the spirituality of the place and animates all over it, bringing the world and the stars literally to its doorstep. Valdediós touches on the explosive feeling that landscape can create within you and makes shapes and forms out of that, which, superimposed to the images of the place, create a whole new explosion. I watched this for the first time in a documentary film festival, after which a friend told me it could also be thought of as a documentary about an animator, which made me like it even more. This has its own reality.

Look at this still from the film: Imagine being able to take a photographic image of a horse and have the texture of the brush at the same time? It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Patrick: Your descriptions and thoughts brought forth in me a desire to see clouds. Outside I can see a lot of them. I imagine them looking at us. They seem friendly and indifferent. They won’t bring rain but they still block the light of the sun like Diogenes did with Alexander the Great. They are wiser than us. Allegedly we have more time these days. Some people I know treat this situation as if it was a meditation. I am not one of them. The clouds haven’t changed. Neither has the way I look at them. I think about James Benning’s Ten Skies and FAROCKI in which clouds are the protagonists. I feel too close to real clouds, real skies to really understand the merit of these films that remind us what it can mean to look. We exchanged some thoughts about the necessity to travel the world with cinema and though I am certain that cinema is also a school of seeing, I remain doubtful as to whether this applies for seeing films at home. I think, If I understand Ten Skies, it is in a cinema in which I am more or less entrapped in the dark and which might allow, after a busy day, to finally breathe, see, get closer to reality. Or, as you put it, to see how time flies. At home there is no need for it. I see the real clouds moving through the window behind my screen. Especially digital clouds (and I am not sure if I can trust Benning here?) have their way of reminding me what a lie cinema can be. Maybe it is the time for lies and illusions? (I have to remember that my dreams of riding on a cloud always end with rain.)

I also thought of Drifting Clouds by Aki Kaurismäki and Floating Clouds by Mikio Naruse. In the former (which I consider the most heartwarming film by this lover of people) there is a sense of reaching for the clouds when you’ve sunk so deep that you almost can’t see them anymore and in the latter there is a sense of of reaching for the clouds we once have known. Both films are melancholic to the bone and beautiful. Yet, both films also portray defeated societies and people. Which emotions can survive a war, a financial collapse, a loss of life? Is there a space for the touch, a kiss, a gesture of love? Of course there is, you just have to decide whether it’s an illusion or reality. Do you feel that in seeing films at home, time moves differently?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lucía: We allegedly have more time, but time flies more than ever. Where did all my days go? Films also, they end quite sooner than before now from home, but they seem to be taking much more space. I think this is what they call distraction. But to answer your question, it may depend on the conditions for watching you have at home. I don’t have a TV or a projector where I am, so I watch films on my computer, and as time and space are indivisible, so is the  perception of time and the perception of space (I’m guessing here). So, in my small screen, smaller than myself, there is always less immersion, in both the space and the time of the film. Sometimes I try hard to tweak my perception to get lost (physically) in the sounds and images a little, and it works. Everything is smaller of course, but what would be the word for what happens to time? Is it more dispersed? What I would give for a screen bigger than myself (and for problems that are the exact opposite).

I was looking at some skies too, from inside two cars. In The United States of America Bette Gordon and James Benning drive from New York to Los Angeles with a camera attached to the back of their car (in the inside) in a way in which we can see them and the road ahead. In Lettre à mon ami Pol Cebé, Michel Desrois, José They and Antoine Bonfanti travel from Paris to Lille and back as members of the group Medvedkine to present the film Classe de lutte. Gordon and Benning appear to be silent, but they talk through the fragments they choose, both in image and in sound. The radio is always playing, songs and news, and we learn that the Vietnam war was about to end as they crossed the untouched territory of the losing side. Radio is almost gone, but TV is still here, still in the news and games business. Desrois, They and Bonfanti do talk, between them, to the friend who this letter is for, Pol Cèbe, and to everyone here at the house. They ask at the beginning why is taking film to the lab so expensive? And their answer is because film is a class instrument, as cinema is such a powerful tool. And joyfully (for them, for Pol Cèbe and for us) they take a good amount of film (color film stock!) and they write and capture comraderie all over the road. If time is money, then money should buy time, and it often seems that way. I wonder how we can continue to try and break that cycle now that we allegedly have more time, no space, no money, and we can’t get in the car with comrades and think or have such a conversation. I wonder this also because in The United States of America there’s a song that plays many times, as it is or was usual on the radio. It’s Minnie Riperton’s Loving You, a song I hadn’t heard in probably ten years, and I can’t help but think that this is how the new decade started. In the song she says And every day of my life is filled with lovin‘ you and, corny as it sounds and is, I am glad that we love cinema, as every day can be filled with something and some tools we have.

Speaking of time and skies, I leave you a few from João César Monteiro’s Branca de Neve.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Patrick: The beautiful clouds you sent make me think of three things at the same time: pubic hair, Robert Walser and John Wayne’s hips.

João César Monteiro has to be a companion these days. He always is. I remember reading the interview he conducted with himself and how he talks about his film Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen being a proof for the impossibility of filming poetry. In a poem of Sophia she talks about how volatile images are. She says that we are standing naked in front of living things and she asks whether any presence can satisfy the eternal urge within us. Those sentences have always reverberated in my heart. Looking at Monteiro’s clouds, it came to my mind we are not only looking at the clouds, we are also watching in the cloud. All these films that are now growing from the digital darkness like weeds, all those offers, all these films that can be downloaded, streamed. I have to run through my online garden with a hoe and scream: “Stop! Stop! I can’t see anything. I only see a big cloud!” I doubt these are the volatile images Sophia wrote about. This is an inflation, a senseless firework in which supply exceeds demand by a couple of lifespans. Who the hell is going to watch all those films? Is this the urge of cinema (culture) in times of its non-existence? Is it the purpose of cinema to be there for us or is it, as they make believe everywhere, that we are there for cinema if we continue seeing films (which films?) on this or that platform? I am not referring to the films we search for, I am referring to the ones we cannot hide from. Sometimes I wonder, whether we shouldn’t all just dream about the films we can’t see now. For example, I think I’d love it if you wrote to me about a film I have no chance of seeing at all in the near future. The cinema (cultural) world is under threat (has been as long as I remember) and I can understand certain reactions and ideas. It’s a struggle for survival, in this is certainly no time for ontological debates. Yet, the sheer speed in which after a couple of days solutions have been presented and we could read about how the crisis demanded certain reactions is a farce as far as I am concerned. The answer as to why this or that institution, festival or cinema shows films seems only to be: because if we don’t show films, we don’t exist. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The reason for showing films online is in most cases not one of solidarity but one of a digital marketplace that was very ready to be what it is now before there was a pandemic. I understand that this may come across rather cynical as there are people involved and their well being depends on these things and I am not one to talk because I also need a festival to happen in order to have enough money. It’s absurd and this is what I state. Camus wrote in his diary that people cry about and desire exactly what they are humiliated by. He calls it the great misery of humanity.

I think about Monteiro’s famous assessment that you are poorer if you don’t go to the cinema. I think this would be a start, to admit that we are poorer now instead of indulging into all kinds of cinephile euphorias, utopias, dystopias and self-important messages. Films can be a plaster for our wounds these days, they can help us, they can make us richer while we are poorer. The rest is cinema as a slave and I find it disquietingly funny that those who put everything online at the same time declare that now is a time to rethink some ideas we have about life. I hope nobody is believing into online utopias anymore while discussing things on corporate chat rooms under government surveillance. A good example for the real kind of help and plaster art and culture can offer is Krsto Papić’s Let Our Voices Be Heard, Too. It’s a little treasure from Former Yugoslavia about pirate radios in the countryside. It shows the love and resistance that goes into sharing knowledge and pleasure. Toward the end of the film we see how the equipment is confiscated by the authorities. The camera pans over cables and machines and somehow the radio suddenly seems to be a bomb. There is a difference between weeds and a bomb. I think I know which metaphor for cinema Monteiro would have preferred. But I am only guessing, of course.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Lucia: The image of you, screaming in your online garden with a hoe, opened this tab in my mind’s browser:

Young Wittgenstein, overwhelmed in Derek Jarman’s film. The fact that most things that exist around cinema (the film world) are there only to perpetuate themselves and have little to do with cinema is no news to any of us. Perhaps the news is that this is not unavoidable as we used to believe, as its permanence in the future may not be automatic and may even not be at all. I disagree with one thing you say: I do think there is no better time to be ontological, at least for us, the non-essential. What I gave up on are solitary conclusions.

I am also overwhelmed, hoe in hand, in the cloud. But, speaking of pirates, I am a film pirate (and I suspect you are too). I recently read a fellow pirate making a joke about how everyone is downloading or streaming now the things we downloaded illegally ages ago. The cloud has been there for a while, but now it’s a little more out there and in the weird shape of a mandate. Before it was a secret cloud, a whispered cloud, a word-to-mouth cloud. So, in this increasingly polluted virtual world, I keep to my fellow pirates, now a little more under the sun, and try to see what they are up to. What I mean is that, in order not to follow my current ever present urge to jump out the window (which would achieve nothing really, I live on the first floor), I ignore anything that is not organized around some form of thought or community. I agree we are poorer now (in absolutely any possible meaning) but there is still some movement out there. Film societies and clubs are emerging in different platforms, ways of collective watching and discussing. It is absolutely not the same as coexisting in a real space, which is fundamental, irreplaceable and what I desire the most. But from this, I gather that, contrary to what I believed shortly before the pandemic in my most apocalyptic cynical moments, the need to be close to films and to the people who we want to discuss them with, friends and strangers, is still essential.

This is my way of thanking you for your radio pirates, Krsto Papić’s Let Our Voices Be Heard, Too which I had never heard of before and made my quarantine worthwhile. The note on which it ends, that the things you love cannot be destroyed, is perfect for today. This made me go back to two films around radios, Gianfranco Annichini’s Radio Belén and Sebastian Lingiardi’s Sip’ohi, el lugar del manduré. Radio Belén is shot in a radio station from the neighborhood of Belén, Iquitos which they call the Venice of the Amazonas, as it is built over the water. Sip’ohi was shot in El Sauzalito, a small city in the Argentinian northeast, Chaco, and around a wichí radio station. These two films are built around the importance that the stations have for the community, concentrating in the amount of detail with which they cover the needs of everyday life (announcing and inviting to celebrations, bringing news, narrating stories, entertaining) while they reflect on how these communications have a very short range, which keeps them inside the community only. In Radio Belén, this short rage of the radio waves is contrasted with the images taken from the place, which show the precarity of life around Belén and will travel with the film. But in both of them there is also a thought or two around how, even if this short-range might seem like a menace to the permanence of the cultures they belong to, this opacity could also work as protection. Against what? In Sip’ohi, two characters have a conversation close to the river about the oral nature of wichí culture and the complexity of sharing that outside the community, especially with the white population, by recording, translating or transcribing. They ask themselves what is recognition, for a culture to be recognized, and who are the subjects on both sides of this recognition. Their problem so far has been that people had come, taken the information and never returned, leaving them with nothing. The film was released in 2011, a moment in which, at least in the Spanish-speaking world, hybridity was starting to settle as the key world in thinking about documentary film practice. The film’s answer to its time, and the character’s predicament, was that the true political agency of this hybridity was not only in looking inside the conventions of cinema and the self to difuminate or re-write them but also in thinking with others instead of about others. And that this collective thinking (with people, places and times) would create a form of its own.

I don’t have films that would be only available to me and not you right now, but I have a memory, which is similar. I grew up in a small city which is located in a sparsely populated territory in which a lot of people live far from a town or any other place where you can find people. So every evening the local radio stations would have something called “Mensaje al poblador rural” (message to the rural people) which would broadcast messages. They were usually about travels, crops and shearing seasons. I can’t count how many times I heard as a child that someone would arrive at the station on Tuesday at 9 am and wondered if, when Tuesday came, there would be someone to pick them up from the station.

I saw a few more films by Papić after your pirates. I send you these images from Halo München, shot in Zagora. It says at the beginning of the film that the area was always known as the land of the rocks and the poor and that many people leave from there. In this scene, everyone gathers around the mailman to get their correspondence, letters from all over the world. From one friend in a lockdown very far from home, to another:


Monday, April 6, 2020

Patrick: “Along with murder, piracy is one of mankind’s oldest practices.“. This is one of the first sentences said by Bud Spencer in Ermanno Olmi’s wild Cantando dietro i paraventi. I couldn’t resist putting it here, though in no way I think of murder when I think of piracy. Yet, both can be acts of love.

I am not sure if it is customary for pirates to send letters. Yet, I sympathise with the pirate who shares such beautiful memories as well as with all those pirates who share their booty. Somehow, my life as a pirate has always been on dry land. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is maybe the most important book of my life, it was given to me on the Canary Islands and I read it seven times in a row. What sticks most with me is not its sense of adventure, it is the longing for it. I remember loving the beginning so much, I lived with Jim Hawkins at the inn, I observed all those creatures of the sea coming and going like ebb and flow. I stayed in my room, heard their voices and laughter turning into desire and expectation. Imagining being a pirate, dreaming about buried gold and reading maps has always been closer to me than actually setting sail. Sometimes I wonder whether this makes me a fool or coward but then I think it takes a lot of courage to dream. We shouldn’t forget that in the Arabic language Riḥla refers to a journey as well as the written account of it. It’s maybe a more solitary occupation but dreams can be shared, too. The endless episodes at another inn of literature, in Don Quixote, are another milestone in my coming to realise that sometimes the story is the life and vice versa. I wonder if those prisoners on Corona Island, those who are fortunate enough to be healthy and to be able to move on the island, all meet at the local inn. They drink and share their stories and fears, hopes and enthusiasms. But then, I know that it is not allowed to go into an inn. Let’s take it as metaphor and think about Maurice Tourneur’s Treasure Island, a lost film, one of those we can only dream about.

So, I was browsing through all the pirates I know in cinema, from Anne of the Indies to Jacques Rivette, Paul Henreid in Frank Borzage’s The Spanish Main to Anita Morgan in Henry King’s Hell Harbor. It’s a lost genre, buried deep underground by Walt Disney. Maybe someday a group of fearless adventurers will find a map, arrive at a distant island and dig it out.

Then I came across somebody who could be called a pirate (who would defeat a whole armada of pirates though) and who surely backs my notions of Riḥla: Der Baron von Münchhausen. I watched Karel Zeman’s stunning film Baron Prášil, a otherworldly ode to fantasy, a romantic tale about the closeness of adventures and love, Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers, the moon and the earth. As we wrote about clouds I couldn’t help feeling that this is another film about looking up. Be it the moon, the clouds, some God, a radio signal, all that seems important and since you insisted on the ontological questions, I have to refer to Jean-Luc Godard’s idea of cinema as something which you look up to whereas television (and laptops) are things you look down at. Where do you look at when you are listening to the radio?

Here I send you two images from Karel Zeman’s work with animation and dreams:

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Lucía: Good question. My grandmother listened to the radio all day as she worked in her sewing, my grandfather listened to it in the car while driving all around town, and I listen to it while I do any mechanical task (less and less in my line of work, if I ever work again), knit or cook. So I guess when you listen to the radio you look at your hands and whatever is keeping them busy. Or out the window. It would be nice to have a corona island radio station where we all could hear the same things at the same time. The other day someone interviewed Godard and streamed it on Instagram, and I couldn’t pay attention to anything but the comments from the people that were tuning in (around 4000 people). Some of them were friends and we even said hi. There were three types of social media posts after it: posts on how handsome Godard looked, posts of people showing that they themselves were in the streaming when their names showed up on the screen, and people who found friends and captured their fleeting comments.

A few weeks ago, when you could go places, there was a screening of Michael Pilz’s last film in Rotterdam. The film is called With Love – Volume One 1987-1996 and it is composed of footage from his personal archive, being the personal his friends and loved ones talking and going places. He said after the screening that he found that he could not always pay attention to what people were saying when facing footage like that, as he kept mostly looking at the faces and the way they move. I felt relieved, as this happens to me often with the final result of feeling stupid, and it happened during the Godard streaming, when if I could take my eyes out of the comments and constant stream of little hearts (unblessed) I could only concentrate on his movements, especially that giant cigar. The interviewer didn’t have a cigar, he had one of those masks that are the new gold.

I miss looking up to see a film terribly. Some days ago Tsai Ming-Liang’s Rizi was available online, one of the last films I looked up to watch, as I saw it in a huge theater with probably more than a thousand people. I was very close to the screen looking up and having a terrific time while a lady breathed, deeply asleep, and people coughed every once in a while without feeling like murderers. You could look at a giant projection of the bodies of two men touching, can you imagine? As the internet shows, you don’t need space to be alone, but you do need space to be together. The longest part of the film is a sex work scene including a massage. In such a screen you could feel the pressing of the muscles as if there were your own, feel the time as it was your own, your life fugaciously transformed by the relationship between the lives of these two characters. That’s what days could be like. Going back to an old question, I do think now that time moves differently when you watch a film on a computer. It is also not the same to fall asleep in a theater than at home, watching films in bed, where you are supposed to sleep already.

But these I watched in the past and not in captivity, so one from the island: speaking of dreams, I have been reading Jerry Lewis’ biography and films. His friendship with Dean Martin consolidated also in a hotel room, a late night of four friends goofing around until daybreak. A friendship based ob crafting amusement together. In their film debut, years later, they plair their (later) usual part of a couple made out of two friends who have built their survival together, living in the same room, working the same jobs and trying to make it together as the handsome man and the monkey. Their first musical number in My friend Irma happens in a fancy restaurant where they are eating with their manager, his girlfriend Irma and her friend and roommate. Soon they realize that the deal is that they have to sing for their food, so Martin sings a song and then Lewis comes along, pretending to interrupt and asking for another song. Lewis says everything wrong, even the declination of the phrases, to the point to which Martin inquires if he’s asking him or telling him something, to which Lewis answers: I am wondering. Neither asking nor telling, nothing fixed, all in movement. Finally, Martin asks Lewis to be his human instrument as he sings the Donkey Serenade. While Martin goes handsomely into the song, Lewis is freaked out from the effort of making those sounds with his mouth, pretty much like when you have to beat egg whites until stiff but you don’t have an electric mixer. It ends on an amazingly sustained note. Monkeys and donkeys, the perfect cure for the corona-blues:

Btw, the song they sing is a version of this one.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Patrick: As far back as I remember, Jerry Lewis has always been a cure. There is something deeply satisfying and consoling about his screen presence. It’s even beyond the purity of laughter itself. I think it has to do with his portrayals of “weakness” and “strength”. He always manages to show that neither of those attributes really exists. Weaknesses can turn into strengths and strengths are ridiculous and may lead into catastrophes. The moment he shows that strength does not really exist, he gives us a political cure and once he turns to weakness he gives us a spiritual cure. The best thing, as you rightfully pointed out, is that he cures while he is dancing, singing, jumping, screaming, rolling on the floor. It’s music and music has a healing effect in itself.

I decided for an overdose of this specific cure and spend a night watching That’s My Boy, Visit to a Small Planet, The Bellboy, Three on a Couch and his appearance in Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Since I am still drugged, I can only share two observations.

a: In Visit to a Small Planet his character (Kreton) gives a completely new meaning to the moon and all this business of looking up (to it). He says that the moon was the last stop for gas before mars.

b: After a couple of hours with those films there are only two solutions. Either you go completely crazy (if you identify with what is going on, one may call this a superficial viewing experience) or you go completely sane (if you look for the details, appreciate the work, observe the virtuose anatomy of each gag). I have yet to decide where I am heading but my feeling is that I might just get insanely sane or at least, disorderly orderly.

I wonder, does cinema in these days also inspire you to live? To me, cinema means most when it teaches me about how to be, how to act as a person in the world outside of cinema.

I wanted to share this image of one of the greatest letter writers I know of: D.H. Lawrence. In one of his letters he writes: “It isn’t the scenery one lives by, but the freedom of moving about alone.” Aldous Huxley wrote a great essay on Lawrence in which he deals with the conflict between a solitary life as an artist and the need for social and bodily contact. It made me think about a lot of things. For example, about the pleasure and need of writing letters and sharing our solitary experiences. After all, as Lawrence also wrote in one of his letters, the art of writing was also a cure, a cure for the writer and (maybe) the reader.   

Monday, April 13, 2020

Lucía: you reminded me of an anecdote from Jerry Lewis’ autobiography. Things with Dean Martin are not going well, he can’t get out of unwanted contracts and he just had his first of many cardiac arrests, so he decides to call a psychiatrist friend. He goes into the office, very fancy and manly, and tells the guy what’s wrong, to which the guy says that he sees there might be a conflict in Jerry starting analysis. There is a danger that the pain may leave and therefore there wouldn’t be any reason for Jerry to be funny anymore. Just enough to never ever laugh again while watching Cracking-up. Or else, to laugh a little more hysterically. By the way, how was Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? I always wanted to watch his episode, but the normalized display of wealth that all its advertising had made me run the other way. It’s silly, we all know these people are filthy rich, but there’s something about the unfunny way in which they seem to handle that transparency that repulses me.

I go to cinema to learn how to live much more than I would dare to admit. I sometimes fear that one day I will see a film and realize I have been walking funny my whole life. My favorite make-up advice (and the only one I have) I got from Nancy Allen in Brian de Palma’s Blow Out. When I watched Hiroatsu Suzuki’s film Terra, I thought that if we all knew how natural coal was made we wouldn’t use so much of it. Today I watched Ogawa’s A Japanese Village, and as I was watching these people figure out why the crops were going so bad, I had the same feeling with rice, and as I saw a speedy image of how rise blooms -it takes it 45 minutes to open- I thought I should sprout some legumes in order to see something grow next to me, as in Spain all recreation outside is still forbidden. So I asked a few friends whether they would like to grow sprouts in their homes and then share pictures of their growth with each other. One of them said yes and immediately roasted me with a vimeo link. The film is called Lea e il gomitolo (Lea and the ball), starring the Italian comedian Lea Giunchi. It’s from 1913. Lea’s parents are telling her that she shouldn’t read but knit, and they sit her down to work. But as soon as they are gone she loses her yarn and trashes the whole house looking for it. The ball, of course, was hanging from the back of her skirt the whole time. My friend sent it as a response to the tyranny of the domestic we are living right now (us, who were not too tied to it before, as other women were before corona) and also as a viable possibility. We are trying to stay sane by creating temporary ways of life which can produce some sense of joy within the conditions of the confinement, taking time to bake obsessively, knit, reorganize the home or make things grow on lentils. But there’s also Lea’s way, just trash everything and sit down to read among your ruins.

An ambitious crossover between Ogawa and Lea: there’s a scene in Dennis the Menace in which people are gathered to watch the blossoming of a forty-year old orchid that will only do so once, that night. Meanwhile, Daniel realizes there’s a burglar in the house and runs outside to tell everyone. He starts screaming in the exact moment in which the orchid opens up, and when people finally turn their heads towards the flower, it has already withered. Like the opening poem of Joan Didion’s The year of magical thinking:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Films also help with grief, and we are grieving our future lives as much as our past ones. What about the question of self-pity?

Friday, April 17, 2020

Patrick: now you left me with the difficult task of having to dwell on two topics that provoke an ocean of thoughts: firstly, you asked about a display of wealth and secondly, you were concerned with the question of self-pity. The crux of the matter is that both topics seem to cross, to be related. I watched a couple of episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. To be honest, despite having heard about it here and there, I didn’t really know what’s it all about. I also don’t know what Seinfeld is all about and to be honest, none of that did change after watching those episodes. Nevertheless, I got the certain feeling that it’s not for me to “get it”. It’s about something else and this something else is a provocation. It’s very close to certain hip-hop artists but instead of promoting an escapist or sexist approach to political sexuality, here there is this metaphor of cars, a certain elitism and a very fake way of imitating friendship and even the feeling of comedians being one big family. It’s still funny in the way that it can be funny to hear a good joke by your tax collector. It’s a test for your individual amount of empathy necessary to laugh. Accidentally this is also a documentary about the lack of personality and reflection necessary “to make it”. It mirrors Malcolm McDowell’s capitalistic ventures in Lindsay Anderson’s allegorical odyssey O Lucky Man!. Just be lucky and smile. You look at all those smooth surfaces, this sassy slickness and with exception of the very old guests of the show (they don’t care anymore), you can feel the tremendous pressure of someone having to be funny, while being escorted in a car that costs more than almost all salaries of those combined who are supposed to laugh about it.

But then, from Chaplin on there has always been a conflict between laughter and wealth. While Chaplin as one of the richest men promoted an idea of poverty, those people in their unaffordable cars and Hollywood mansions, give the impression of being like you and me. They talk as if they had the same problems and I don’t mean those that money can’t solve. It’s intriguing. Could this be you and me? Film people at home writing emails? As to Jerry Lewis, he was rich and funny. As you said, he was not always funny. Maybe it’s also a luxury to be funny in a way that seems to transcend the class you live in? Today it becomes clearer than ever that “home” means not the same for everybody. If I look at the homes of football players sending videos from their so-called quarantine (not even funny), I get the feeling that they are not even living on the same planet. But what about the question of self-pity?

I can only say that for me the problem of that specific question is that it is already conceived as an answer. Sometimes though self-pity is a reason to laugh. Isn’t Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor a great film about self-pity? Isn’t a lot of great comedy about states of self-referentiality that we as an audience can see from the outside and therefore either laugh or cry about it?

For a lecture in self-compassion I also recommend reading the diaries of Thomas Mann. As a writer he never fails to show how close isolation, sickness and self-referentiality are. Borges once wrote that great writing is often about getting closer and closer to a character. Every step in a story is only there for us to get closer. I wonder whether getting closer automatically means getting closer to self-referentiality. Maybe, if I write or talk or make a film about myself, I am bound to pity myself. Otherwise you wouldn’t see my vulnerabilities, my insolence, my weaknesses. The poor wretch that I am! Those poor fellows in their cars getting coffee? Although I love so many books written in the first person and/or dealing with an “I”, I have to say that in cinema it’s quite the opposite. I think in cinema there is a chance of truly looking at the other. It’s just difficult. A beautiful example for a cinema of self-pity that is also decidedly a cinema about the other is Peter Nestler’s Am Siel. “To look at the little trickle that I am.”, speaks the voice of the sluice. Robert Wolfgang Schnell speaks with the voice of the sluice, it’s the voice of the other, the voice of what society ignores. In a couple of minutes Nestler proposes a different way to look at the world, not through your own eyes but through those of the other. It’s beautiful and sad.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lucía: You wonder whether getting closer automatically means getting closer to self-referentiality. I have a photo album for this lockdown situation made of images that mirror how this whole corona thing feels like. This is the latest, from The Family Jewels:

In the introduction of a collection of her essays under the title Senses of the Subject, Judith Butler writes: …”I do not always encumber the first person with scare quotes*, but I am letting you know that when I say “I“, I mean you, too, and all those who come to use the pronoun or to speak in a language that inflects the first person in a different way.” A quote that I read for the first time for a class called The Aesthetics of Politics. What the quote describes is definitely a esthetics of politics by use of the pronoun I. Some people say I in a way that is close to we, but not as assuming, and some people just mean “me”. There’s a story by Lucía Berlin called “Point of View” in which she asks the reader to imagine a story by Chekhov in the first person. We would feel embarrassed, she says, because we are all pretty insecure. And then she tells us about this woman she’s writing about, and tries to write a presentation of the character in the first person, which sounds pretty bleak. It actually sounds like something we say in Spanish to which there is no direct translation, vergüenza ajena. It’s like being embarrassed on behalf of someone else, only that saying “on behalf” sounds much more polite than the cruelty behind the term vergüenza ajena. Berlin continues to say that in the story nothing happens, but she wants to write everything with such detail that you won’t help but to feel for the woman, with some passages in which she narrates Henrietta, now always in the third person. This invented woman has habits, a job, a house, things she doesn’t own and wants, some of which are things that Berlin has, does or has seen. At the end of the story Henrietta hears a car approaching the phone booth outside her house and leans against the windows to listen to the music coming from this car. The story ends with these lines: “In the steam of the glass I write a word. What? My Name? A man’s name? Henrietta? Love? Whatever it is I erase it quickly before anyone can see.”

Between Butler and Berlin there has been a change of paradigm regarding the use of “I” in writing and filmmaking for sure, which changed fiction a lot. Still, sometimes an “I“ here or there can give you goosebumps. Or, there are many ways of being naked, and it is all a question of craft. In the aesthetics of politics sense of this matter, it’s like Judge Priest-Will Rogers says: The first thing I learned in politics is when to say ain’t.

Speaking of Will Rogers and going back to the display of wealth (and health, which commands this domiciliary confinement), one scene from John Ford’s Doctor Bull: the doctor goes to see an ill teenager servant, Mamie. It is the morning, and he’s been up all night delivering a baby. While the doctor is in the room, Mamie’s rich employers walk in with food for the people at the house. The doctor leaves Mamie’s room, as she has died, and after a while the rich ask him why wasn’t he there the night before, as he might have been able to save her. But he doesn’t think so, as 30% of the people die of this illness and you need to have the strength, as probably the rich employers would but their employees did not. As they leave, offended by his comments, they ask for his bill to be sent to them to take care of it, after all, she worked for them. The doctor answers: yes, she worked for you, there can’t be any doubt of that. I wonder if the food presents are like the lockdowns, they will help, but for something not to be deadly you need to be properly fed from the day you were born, among other things, and we are all grown up. A police car just stopped in our corner. The police went outside, played a children’s song, danced to it, screamed a few things with their speakers (I didn’t understand, it was in Euskera) and drove away. Rage and vergüenza ajena.

*What a funny name for them, scare quotes. Ah, English.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


According to one of your poems, your most perfect love was your love for the mirror. Who do you see in it?

The other that I am. (The truth is that I’ve got a certain fear of mirrors.) Occasionally we come together. Almost always when I write.

This is from an interview with Alejandra Pizarnik.

no idea what she was saying! . . till she began trying to . . . delude herself . . . it was not hers at all . . . not her voice at all . . . and no doubt would have . . . vital she should . . . was on the point . . . after long efforts . . . when suddenly she felt . . . gradually she felt . . . her lips moving . . . imagine! . . her lips moving!

This is from Samuel Beckett’s “Not I“.

It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.

This is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde“

I think I have to defend the first person as a person you know better than me. Since I am not writing in my mother tongue (a language in which the use of first person, for example in film criticism, is a sort of taboo), my first person here (and elsewhere; everywhere to be precise) is like a distorted mirror, a collection of ideas which I loose between my mirror and my bad use of language. So my first person is nobody I know, it’s just an impossibility (as if there weren’t already enough impossibilities). Still, I decided that it has to be a me that defends the first person today. I am neither a scholar nor a historian of language, we (which is also another way to say I) can say that I am a user, for user seems to be a common word that can be applied to almost anything, a word that means nothing without asking the question: what do you use? Thank you for asking, I use the I. Why do you use the I? I think it is because I want to make sure it’s nobody else and also because I want to be able to make mistakes, be uncertain, be weak. I can’t ask you or us or them to be wrong, to be me, to be lost between a mirror and a bad use of language. But I is not me either. It’s not even my point-of-view. I is somebody (I prefer I to be a somebody instead of a something) sitting in-between, in the middle, building a bridge. Let’s call I a translator. A translator for what I couldn’t say or write myself. Like every translator I has to work very hard to get it right. I might make mistakes, I might consult a dictionary and then move on freely, find words that are an approximation (for approximations are, if I am not mistaken, what Alejandra Pizarnik defined her poetry as.) I is never really there I just wants to be, I tries to exist, I is an approximation to life, to be alive, to be myself. In the best case I am possible for a sentence or two and then it is you or them or nobody who gets goosebumps.

If I am not myself, I am happy.

The opening sequence of Ruben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect translation of this impossibility into the medium of film. The camera takes the point-of-view of Dr. Jekyll (who as we/I know is not the most stable human being when it comes to be a first person only) as he walks through his house, meets his butler and heads to university. In a decisive moment he looks into a mirror (not yet distorted) in which we see the face of Frederic March, strangely displaced, as if it wasn’t really him, a distant face, a face that belongs to the I of the camera as well as the eye to the camera/the other. It’s in these first moments of the film that the whole story, the fascinating horror and beauty of being a first person is revealed in all its complexity.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Lucia: If I am not myself I am happy. So am I, my friend. What a drag it is to be trapped inside oneself at times! Plenty of that in this lockdown. All day, from the moment the sun rises -whenever that means for each one of us- we are doomed. On the bad days, I dread daybreak. On one of those days, a song by Rafael Berrio comes floating from my partner’s computer. The name of the song is Amanece, which is not sunrise but something like the sun rises, and it starts: The sun rises, ¿what for? My mind answers: for nothing, absolutely nothing.

But whenever I hear the word Amanece my mind automátically completes: y ya está con los ojos abiertos. In English, something like: the sun rises / and his eyes are already open. The beginning of each section of Juan José Saer’s The Regal Lemon Tree. Those words, the image of them as they are arranged on the page, so many times, and the pause between them, is the image of restlessness and grief:


Y ya está con los ojos abiertos

The waiting, nothing to wait for. Waiting for the dawn. ¿What for? But the song moves forward, after asking the question many times: a beautiful first question of the day. It had never occurred to me to call that question beautiful. And the song continues here and there: I don’t know why the sun rises / the sun rises. I guess what is beautiful in the question is that you don’t know, it just happens. And if you don’t ask, it also happens.

In reminded me of a scene in Ted Fendt’s Classical Period, where a friend with insomnia goes for a walk before she is able to go to sleep and runs into a friend who woke up early, as the day breaks. The sun is not out yet, so the light is very dim and the street lights are still on.  The day is no more than a possibility at that hour. Also, the opening of Jean-Claude Biette’s Le Champignon de Carpathes, dawn on the first day after Chernobyl, of which Jean-Claude Guiguet wrote: when the sky and the earth get confused with one another, where the first color cloud stretches. Yet another possibility.

This week’s program at Kino Slang is built from a film called Le monde comme in ne vais pas by Jean-Luc Godard and Cela s’appelle l’aurore, by Luis Buñuel. It’s Called The Dawn:

„The film is a remarkable adaptation by Buñuel of a fine novel by Emmauel Roblès, who took the title from the last line of Jean Giraudoux’s play Electre:

NARSÈS:  What is it called when the sun rises, like today, and everything has been ransacked, everything is devastated, but you can still breathe the air, and everything is lost, the city is burning, and innocent people are killing each other, but the guilty are in their death throes in some corner of the daybreak?

ELECTRE:  Ask the beggar, he knows.

BEGGAR:  It has a very beautiful name, Narsès. It’s called the dawn. “

Like today or every day during this thing, we see a new day start. The destruction and the terror are there. The markets are crashing, the day is still a possibility. Like in the last shot of the film, where is still dark but you can sense the light could be about to enter. Solidarity.

Rafael Berrio passed away a few weeks ago, he lived in the town where we live but I didn’t know him. I have the windows open and play the album where that song came from, called Diarios. Perhaps one of the neighbors knew him, even was a friend of his. Tomorrow the sun will rise once again, I hope.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Image from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans by F.W. Murnau.

It came to my mind as you were writing about sunrises. I always see the night when thinking about that film. I see darkness, shadows moonlight. So my idea is that the sunrise comes after the film, it’s something to wait for, to fight for, to believe in. I made a little list of how films could be titled following this strategy of giving a name for what comes after the film:

Life (Vampyr; Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Peace (Van Gogh; Maurice Pialat)

More Sand (Greed; Erich von Stroheim)

Silence (Mouchette; Robert Bresson)

Silence is what we maybe should be able to hear after every great work of art.

Our friend Andy, who presented this great program with Godard and Buñuel, recently remarked via social media that Franz Kafka didn’t write a single entry in his diary during the year 1918 when the Spanish Flu haunted Europe and Kafka who picked it up in October. Another form of silence? Nevertheless Kafka wrote letters, for example to his sister Ottla. While being too exhausted to leave his room in his parent’s home he witnessed the creation of the independent republic of Czechoslovakia (du to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire). Reiner Stach, a biographer of Kafka notes how strange it must have felt to get sick as a citizen of the Habsburg empire and to wake up as a citizen of democratic Czechoslovakia. Suddenly he was called František Kafka. He also composed his The Zürau Aphorisms in the beginning of 1918 while he was living with his sister in Zürau (he spent there 8 months after being diagnosed with tuberculosis). It’s a book I like a lot:

There is a destination but no way there; what we refer to as way is hesitation.

The crows like to insist a single crow is enough to destroy heaven. This is incontestably true, but it says nothing about heaven, because heaven is just another way of saying: the impossibility of crows.

A man was astounded by the ease of the path of eternity; it was because he took it down- hill, at a run.

You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world-that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature-but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.

What comes after? It’s a question  strongly relating to the current situation, of course, but it is also a question relating to fiction and cinema. What comes after this shot? What comes after this page? It’s a question we have to be curious about. A film I saw recently was made by another František, František Vláčil. I saw one of his first works, the stunning Holubice. It tells a sort-of fairy tale about a white carrier pigeon going astray on its way from Belgium to an island in the Baltic Sea. This white dove is a metaphor as well as a carrier of messages as well as a living being something everybody waits for. It comes next. What does it stand for, what does it bring, how does it feel? It comes ashore in Prague at a housing complex in which an artist and a young boy who, after an accident prefers to sit in a wheelchair although is he able to walk, live. They boy shoots the pigeon with an airgun. It is badly hurt but not dead. The film shows the difficult part towards recovery and the endlessness of waiting for a return. Neither the animal nor its multiple meanings belong to anyone because belonging is just another way of saying: the impossibility of doves. Or, to give this film another title: freedom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Lucía: Belonging and freedom, ¿remember that? I am now almost fully convinced that none of the new virtual activities that are here to replace life are succeeding. I refuse to engage with all of them. There is no freedom online. I am not sure if freedom is the opposite of belonging, as part of this new loss of freedom comes from the impossibility of belonging. But that’s belonging in a different sense: belonging as a sense of community, not ownership. A few days ago I stumbled across a book by Vivian Gornick which I didn’t know, The Romance of American Communism. The books starts like this: Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew I was a member of the working class. It was May the 1st, and this is a quote that belongs to the International Workers’ Day.

I wonder often about belonging when I face the fact of national cinemas. I used to belong to a country, Argentina, and I still belong to it as I am a citizen. So my cinema is Argentinian cinema, even if most cinephiles believe that we belong to humanity through a supplementary country called cinema. But legally and idiosyncratically I belong to Argentina and its films, and even with physical distance this is inescapable. Lately I rewatched the Episode 3 of Mariano Llinas’ La Flor, which is among other things the materialization of Borges’ idea that we should not fear and we should think our patrimony is the universe. In the second part of La Flor the protagonists are a group of spies who are in Argentina as a foreign country. It is set in the 80s (more late than early) and they all speak in french with one another (dubbed, they are all Argentinian actresses, the group of four actresses that changes roles almost completely throughout the film). They end up there, a remote South American country, for a final mission. They carry with them a hostage, a Swedish scientist who has no idea where he is, and he tries to guess based on landscape, ethnicity and infrastructure. He guesses wrong many times until the night comes and the sky reveals the location: he is in the south, the far south. The stars were the same, but backwards. Backwards, as his stars are the ones he can see from home. Until he finds a constellation that only we have, the southern cross. He sees it there for the first time. The stars look suspiciously bright, just as they look in Hugo Santiago’s El cielo del centauro. My partner had the idea that what happens to the scientist in front of the stars is the exact opposite of what happens to James Dean’s character in Rebel without a cause. I wonder if this has something to do with living looking at the outside or at the inside. The chapter opens with a quote from Nerval: The Universe is in the night. And it is, as most of the episode happens in one night of memories. There is infinite time for memories in the night, memories or stories. That time is invisible from the outside, and the film materializes it by calling it the universe. The operation from which this becomes the universe is by narrating: the thought and memories become a voice over spoken by the Llinas’, Mariano and Veronica.

After watching this episode it was the time to go outside, as in Spain we can leave the house four hours in the early day and three between sunset and night. I went to the beach next to my house with every other living soul here between the ages of 14 and 69, and I walked by the sea as it was getting dark. As the nightfall came, I found the colors unfamiliar. I wondered if this was an effect of confinement, as I haven’t been in the presence of dusk by the sea for two months. Was it an abnormal sunset? Was this the way it always was when the sky was clear? The shades of color went from orange to blue, and it changed by the minute. Some of them existed in the sky and others were reflected, the reflections had infinitely more colors than the sky, as that depended on movement. The waves moved, and so did the reflection in the wet sand as I was moving through it. I turned my head and I saw that all the windows were doing the same, all facing different directions and creating different lights and colors, a sunset facing the sunset. Even the ever-present mist was reflecting the light, making everything a little more green. I could also imagine the river, behind the rocks nearby, reflecting, and its rocks, shiny and covered with moss, revitalized moss from the lack of life around it. The dogs now carry lights in their collars (I don’t know if they did before), which are also reflected by everything. All of this was new. But I had seen the sun setting in the ocean the day before.

I don’t remember if La Flor has this quote by Rimbaud, I have the feeling it does: La vraie vie est ailleurs. True life is elsewhere. I think this quote is fake, and the real one is La vrai vie est absente. Truel life is absent. I left the beach as the police came down to make themselves visible, the daily reminder that freedom is not there.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Patrick: I thought about what it might mean to leave a house. First of all, as we can for example see in many Japanese films, not everybody is allowed or expected to leave a house. There are those that wait at home, that work at home. In Japanese films (and not only in them) it’s mostly women.

Sometimes it’s also children. I think in American English one says “to be grounded“. In German we use the same word as for a prisoner who has to stay at home, house arrest.

At other times people have to leave their house. Recently, I rewatched Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid and the film has a couple of scenes in which people have to decide whether they leave their house or not. First, it is a question of precaution. Should we stay and face the storm or should we escape? It’s the men who stay in this case and it is the men who die. In one scene a man is trapped in his own house. The attackers come closer and closer, climb on his roof, burn everything. Suddenly they disappear. Everything is quiet. Are they gone? The man inside looks outside. He knows it could be a trap. If he leaves the house they could wait for him outside. He still goes…

In one of the many beautiful sequences in Maurice Pialat’s La maison des bois we can see how people had to move out of their homes during World War I. They pack everything on wooden carts, drag their animals along behind them and try to ignore the sound of bombs in the distance. After a while they are allowed to return, to go home. The series is concerned a lot with the act of leaving a house. It’s also about moving out, moving on. It shows that whoever stays inside is left alone. It’s mostly the parents, those who built the house, that do not leave.

How can you leave a house? I always thought Chaplin has some genuine ways of leaving houses. He might fall or just jump out of a window, for example. Maybe you remember the opening minutes of The Gold Rush as strongly as I do. There is a sequence which is heavily concerned with the need of not leaving the house. Outside are dangers and there is a blizzard. What Chaplin shows here among other things is that it can be very funny if you try to stay inside. There has been some literature, some theatre and some films (Buñuel again) concerned with the idea of not being able to leave a house. Yet, when it comes to trying to stay inside, Chaplin is at the same time the most surreal and real.

We learn a lot about leaving a house when we look at people who don’t leave a house, I think. In many films of Chantal Akerman people (or herself) are not leaving houses. When I see her work I sometimes wonder what is outside. In her No Home Movie she films a sort of nightmare when she wakes up and runs to the balcony to look outside. She doesn’t leave, she just looks. What would it mean to leave? I also think some people never leave a house. It’s like a snail shell which in German we call a snail house. What does it mean to never leave a house?

These ideas of portable homes, houses on wheels, they are horrible, aren’t they? They are like tourism. They remind me of people travelling around the world always searching for food they know. Either you want a life on the road or you stay at home.

Leaving a house opens the possibility of a return. A return to where we belong? I am inclined to deny but then I remember a poem by Paul Celan:

Mit wechselndem Schlüssel

schließt du das Haus auf, darin

der Schnee des Verschwiegenen treibt.

Je nach dem Blut, das dir quillt

aus Aug oder Mund oder Ohr,

wechselt dein Schlüssel.


Wechselt dein Schlüssel, wechselt das Wort,

das treiben darf mit den Flocken.

Je nach dem Wind, der dich fortstößt,

ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.

(With a changing key,

you unlock the house where

the snow of what’s silenced drifts.

Just like the blood that bursts from

Your eye or mouth or ear,

so your key changes.


Changing your key changes the word

That may drift with flakes.

Just like the wind that rebuffs you,

Clenched round your word is the snow.)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lucía: As a woman I was raised to leave the house as much as possible both by my mother and my grandmother. So as we are now allowed to leave the house at a certain time, I have left it every day. But as if this was unwise to do, it started raining only during the hours we were allowed outside. It stopped raining at 10 am, the morning curfew, and started raining again at 8 pm, the start of the evening exercise hours. Are the adults grounded by the clouds? The children can go outside, as it never rains during the hours they are allowed to be, the hours in-between. So naturally I hate children right now, out of pure envy, but the images of those two boys you sent (they are the boys from Good Morning, right?) has softened me a little. Who else can you share a good fart joke with? Ozu and his children.

There’s that other Ozu child, stripped from a home until taken by a half-good-hearted lady who takes him home and then can’t stand him (he is quite annoying) in Record of a Tenement Gentleman. There’s a scene in which the poor boy, scared and clueless, has to take his mattress outside because he wet the bed. As he stands outside next to the stained piece of cloth, humiliated, he sees the furious lady and starts fanning the thing as hard as he can. One collateral damage produced by the lockdown that I hadn’t thought about yet, all the small humiliations children have to go through in order to grow up, which they usually try to hide from their parents as much as possible. Now, with the whole family secluded together, this must be impossible. I cannot imagine how horrifying it must be to have your first period with your whole family in the house, all day, every day, no place for secrets to keep to yourself.

It is terrifying, not being able to leave the house, but I get it when people don’t want to leave. This is quite different. I have been haunted by Ozu’s Late Spring these past few weeks. A woman who refuses to leave her father in order to be married. This is 1949, so she has a few points. Why leave the house to go to something unknown, if the unknown could be horrific? Why grow up at all, once all the childhood humiliations are done with? Why acquire the ones from adulthood? Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is quite happy when she leaves the house, because she will always come back soon. There can be beautiful bike rides with handsome friends, and endless sleepovers with chatty cousins, but the house and the father will stay where they are. In the film, once marriage comes as an inevitable possibility, even the outside becomes a nightmare.

While this whole virus happened I learned that one of the most beautiful theaters in Los Ángeles, the Bing Theater at LACMA, was finally demolished, as part of a project to redesign the whole museum. The last screening held there took place on June 27th of last year. The film was Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon. Unlike Noriko, Michiko’s fear is that she will not be able to leave the house, as the men around her have been sloppy towards the marriage business, perhaps too much on their own benefit. It was a sad event, as the theater one of the most beautiful I have seen, especially when full (which still happened often if they were showing a 35mm print) with its 600 seats, magnificent red curtain, wooden walls and seigniorial restrooms, with a room for nose-powdering and other majestic activities. Also, one of the few places you could see a movie without having to pay a fortune. People stood there a long time taking pictures of the theater in which they had found a partner for their cinephilia. After the screening a friend and I went to a familiar bar nearby, to have a few drinks as if, after the wedding, the daughters would also go to a bar to say goodbye to that relationship which will never be the same, as they don’t share the same home anymore.

One last Ozu memory for the day: once I went to a Benshi show. One of the films they were showing was Ozu’s Dragnet Girl. I don’t know if the annoying quality of the show was historically accurate, but under the constant screaming I could see that Dragnet Girl was a gangster film very different from the usual pre-code/pre-noir, the American ones. At the end of the film, while chased by the police, the girl (Kinuyo Tanaka) shoots her lover in order to make him slower for her and the police to catch them. A few years in jail would be better than a life running away, she says. As of tomorrow, the Spanish basque country is going into stage 1 of the post-lockdown plan. We’ll see if she was right. But in the meantime, it’s still pouring rain.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Patrick: It’s true that the images of children I sent you are from Ozu’s Good Morning. I’ve always had a difficult relation to the art of the fart joke. The sounds provoked by whoopee cushions or naughty mouths have disturbed me as a child. These fake fart sounds made me nervous. Maybe this has to do with my observation that the art of blaming, whose fart was causing smells inside class rooms, would never stop…and I was right since still everyone is blaming everybody for farts that he or she did or didn’t commit. It’s just such a tricky thing, a fart. One can hear or smell it but never see it (except for some dangerous experiments). On the other hand, the art of farting is a rich and healthy one and we should not have false morals and a red cheeked catholic upbringing (the one with a lot of shame involved) stand in our way.

As the lockdown has ended where I am (where am I?) nothing changes. A few years in chail are still better than a life running away. It’s just that a life in jail might not be better than a few years of running away. So, inspired by your beautiful screenshot of Late Spring’s bicycles, I took my bike and tried to cycle up a mountain (since the country I happen to be in has no sea). It’s a mountain which is not made for bikes. But since it was my goal to ride my bike on a cloud (just like the ones we were writing about)  I had to take it up. My intention was clear: cumulus instead of corona. At first it went pretty well. l cycled on steep roads through a forest. There was still a lot of wild garlic which caused a rather curious sensation in my nose and movements in my body that brought me in close proximities with the art of the fart. Afterwards I cycled across a beautiful green meadow on which some cows (rather hungry I must say) digested the first grass of spring. I must say that these cows didn’t give a flying fuck concerning social distancing. They were constantly bashing their faces with their nervous tails, full of flies, some were cuddling. I love cows. Then came another steep forest and a passage through some pine trees. It was horrible to go there with a bike, the thorny trees were (sorry for that) a pine in the ass. Sometimes I had to carry my bike over some rock or abyss but since I descend from the family of a bike seller, I know how to carry bikes (more so than riding them actually). In Ozu’s films there are all these bicycles. People move so casually with them. They are beautiful. If you see people on bicycles outside of cities nowadays, many seem to think that they have to wear special and rather ridiculous clothes. Some look like the bike could suddenly catch fire or the wind might bring deadly nails with it. Well, maybe they are not more stupid than me who thought he can ride on the clouds. I had a beautiful time riding on the mountain crest. There still was some snow but also a lot of rare flowers and even a bird which sings like an alarm system called goatsucker spit on my head. It’s called like that because Pliny the Elder, in a strange phase of his life possibly (who can blame him?), thought that this bird actually drinks the milk of goats. I love goats.

Arriving at the top I had to accept that the clouds were still too distant. I sat there and only took one picture documenting my longing.

I wonder if the clouds will always be there. We will probably always fart and dream about a better life. In between, if we are lucky, we watch a cloud, if we are not, we catch a cold.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Lucia: If you say cows, I think of Luc Moullet.

The lockdown is almost over here too. Soon state lines will open and, in July, the borders. Although back home the borders will remain closed for a long time. But like the farts, there is still a mechanics of blaming around.  We are supposed to use those masks, but not everyone does, and not all the time. Every day I see faces that show either pride, guilt or accusation. Except in the cafés. There we are all free (for some time).

I thought the conflictive relationship with clouds was coming to an end, but I got both lucky and unlucky at the same time. We are allowed outside as the summer approaches, meaning only friendly, calming clouds if any. But, I am moving to a basement, which means no immediate access to them. So, as if I were cursed, I will always need the movies. It will be like living inside Branca de Neve. Sounds, darkness, and some intervals of light.

I always thought “yes, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own is all you really need”. But today I found out that 500 pounds a year in 1928 are the equivalent of around 32.000 pounds a year now, so you might as well say a million. Impossible. And, which room? In James L. Brooks‘ How Do You Know? rooms speak very loudly. Reese Witherspoon is Lisa, a softball player who just lost her spot in the national team and therefore her income. In the middle of a total life crisis she meets a professional baseball player, Matty (Owen Wilson),and an executive, George (Paul Rudd, what is an executive anyway?). Lisa and Matty have almost the same profession in which they are both top athletes, but Lisa lives in a studio apartment somewhere not in Manhattan and Matty lives in the same building George lives (at least during his executive years), a giant apartment building with a doorman in park avenue, or any other almos-abstract-but-actually-real location that in the movies is meant to say: millionaire. When George is accused of fraud and loses all his assets, he moves to a smaller apartment, far from his previous home, which is still twice as big as Lisa’s. I think if you wanted to make something clearer, you wouldn’t find a better way than that. Especially now, with the new normal and its sacrifices approaching, just to picture what downgrading means for different people. Where do you even go from nowhere? I will never know that.

I have to admit that even in the worst situations, there is something good about moving into a new place. Each place carries a new life with it, which reorient your own. In Sara Ahmed’s book on orientation, Queer Phenomenology, she talks about the joy of re-aranging your things, stretching yourself in every corner, inhabiting a space for the first time, even with the discomfort it brings. There is some odd joy to the resistance the new space has, its rules are not your rules, its shapes are not your shapes. I guess the joy comes when the both of you come to a truce. The fact that apartments have a life of their own makes me think of Renaud Legrand and Pierre Leon’s Guillaume et les sortilèges, a film made entirely in an apartment in which a young man is haunted and amused by apparitions. The film has a sub-title: une feriée civile. A civil fairy tale? If there was a civil fairy tale to be done now, it would have to look like Guillaume, all the life that you can fit between a few walls. Even some musical numbers:

I lived somewhere with no clouds once. In Los Ángeles the sun shines bright almost every day. And that is the roughest place I know.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Patrick: This question of inside or outside seems not only to haunt us but also the world. It’s everywhere. Just take a random look at the news in the last week. People are out in the streets fighting for justice in the US and in many other countries. There are still warnings, urges to keep a distance, to possibly stay inside. Yet, something has to go (out) and therefore someone has to go (out). Then, in Siberia a fuel tank filled with 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaked into a river. It’s one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in history (which didn’t stop the main part of Austrian news being only concerned with Germany’s temporary reduction of VAT). In both cases there is an illusion held up by people in power. They base certain decisions on the idea that we can and should keep certain things inside. We can’t and we never could. Maybe the movies are, as you say, something we need in order to be able to stay inside. They move us over the threshold without us actually going there. We don’t have to go.

A friend of mine recently wrote with Walter Benjamin in his mind: “Cinema teaches us to learn to love our unfreedom, it gives us the illusion that we are in control of our alienation by being a voluntary activity we participate in during our free time.” He loves cinema by the way. To me, the time of being inside teaches me a lot about being unfree. I look at protests against racism on ultra-capitalist platforms with slogans and logos created by the richest companies. A system that creates inequality fighting for equality? I look at institutions more than ever using cultural enlightenment as a pretext for making money. I look at a world forced to slow down in which emergency solutions are praised as innovations and experience is replaced by convenience. I admit to be bored. I should be angry or a little bit sad or resistant. I am bored because I miss the joy or at least the possibility of coming to a truce, as you write, with the bigger place we are in. When I look at contemporary cinemas I see a lot of filmmakers trying to narcissitically succeed in the world we are living in. They are not creating a space where we could go, only a little niche for them to feel better. It can be nice, it can be stupid, it doesn’t really matter. I guess the same is true for many careers, many life decisions.

So, we are all building our little niches until we have to live underground, without light because there are so many niches that there is no space left. It’s in these dark places that cinema can really matter, I think. Yet, the question remains, what kind of cinema will lead us out of the darkness? It’s a big questions, a questions for cynics to tear apart, for romantics to delve into, for me to leave unanswered in the hope to read your thoughts on it soon. As for me, I begin to understand that staying inside would also mean to react to what’s right in front of me, for example your letters, instead of thinking about a world I don’t understand.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Lucía: There is no truce. We have been burned 100 times too many and still, we forget every time. Or worse, we secretly, unconsciously wait for the precarious equilibrium we call a truce to be back, always devalued. Sometimes we wake up and remember cops are bastards and landlords are criminals. Then, back again. When I think of the idea of coming back I always remember the ending of Lost in America, the bitterest, begging to be taken back. A film so sunk in the mud will take you out of the darkness the right way any time. The pessimist’s faith.

Thom Andersen can answer your question in his Why I Did Not Become a Film Critic:

„We don’t need more masterpieces. We need work that is useful and work that is modest. We need work that acknowledges what we know but don’t believe. We need true and valid images in which we can recognize the world and its beauty; images that teach us about ourselves and our world. Not just an image, but an image that is just, to paraphrase Godard. Such work exists, and it demands of us who write about cinema our attention and our unyielding support”.

As you say, everything seems so integrated, the protesting in ultra-capitalists platforms, the independent and the dependent. I agree with Andersen, such work exists. We may have a broken hoe, so the contemporary looks like a garden full of narcissistic weeds. To fix the hoe is our job, as it is what is in front of us and therefore what we can absolutely react to. But I do think we need all kinds of work, sometimes unuseful and unmodest too, as we need to identify enemies, and also people of other faiths. The hardest is not to cover your burns with the vitamin A of what’s not great but good enough.

I saw a film not with sharks but close, alligators. Crawl is the name of the game. In it a father and a daughter are trapped in a basement as a pack of alligators are trying to devour them during a hurricane. The film resembles the present uncannily: the flood intensifies by the minute and as the water rises, the enemy -alligators- get more powerful, as they are only half as deadly out of the water. The water orients them, makes them faster, able to see and hear, which is the opposite for humans. The particularity (which is what brings the duration) is that the woman is a swimmer, almost amphibious, so she is able to be a worthy opponent.

There is another trend, one that asks what if you are not able? I saw The King of Staten Island the other day, about unable millennials. This one is unable to deal with life in general, and with his father death and image in particular. One of the reasons for this is that his mental health is a disaster, in the clinical sense. But in the film what is apparently needed is that he has to grow up (he is in fact also a complete idiot), and this means specifically being able to adjust to what things are. The realization of this is supposed to bring us relief. I wonder who feels the relief in such a nightmare. Both films end with still waters, one so intentionally (the King) and one as you need to breathe a little (the alligators) after such a storm. I like the alligators better, but I wonder if such a mirror, so exact, is another false threshold.

We share half a defect: not cynical enough to be protected, romantic enough to be an easy target. I listen to Doris Day: Qué será, será. And I wonder exactly how numb or weak truces are. But I also wonder if, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much we could play dumb, distract and buy a little of the time we need to think. The future’s not ours to see, que será, será.

By the way, I entered a cinema yesterday, for the first time since March 7th.

Sunday, June 19, 2020

Patrick: Such work exists, no question. What I read from your observations, your thoughts on the necessity of writing about cinema reminds me of a possible history of this medium that is an involuntary history. Cinema is often discussed as a succession of ideas, inventions even. Everything seems to be so deliberate, the plots, the subplots, the casting. Yet, as Henri Lefebvre has pointed out in his discussions of Marxism, one of our main issues is that people get overwhelmed by the consequences of their actions, consequences they didn’t foresee. The same can be said for films, I think. I remember this stupid anecdote of Steven Spielberg as a child making his model railway crash and then discovering that he needs to film it because otherwise he can only see it one time. Here, an idea of cinema is at place, that claims to be able to tame the consequences through a camera or in other words: the consequences of an action don’t matter if we film it. Quite the opposite is true, of course, as we can see from recent events. So this trend you write about, the things/films that are not great but good enough, also comes from a misconception of cinema, one that looks down on its subjects, an artificial cinema that thinks that it creates images instead of looking at the world. Cinema is a toy in this perception, a technology, something to play around with time and space and movement.

I feel, we have moved past a moment of balance between image and reality long ago. I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods the other day and I feel that it’s a film which only cares about images. He wants to correct the images we know by employing different images or else putting different elements and people into old images. There is nothing real, it’s like a video game claiming to have a truer sense of history. In the end it only adds images that are born from images, not from the world. Yes, I know that he shows us some images that are disgracefully absent from most of mainstream cinema but in the end, his film is a media critique, not a fiction concerned with the world. It’s a superficial media critique that wants to become pop culture. Yet, when Andersen writes: “We need true and valid images in which we can recognize the world and its beauty; images that teach us about ourselves and our world.”, I still feel it’s possible and we both know works that achieve it. It might appear a bit stale but it’s quite obvious to me that in a world consisting of so many images, we do not see the world in cinema. The people actually being in the world, those that are able to touch things, to work with things seldomly own a camera. And if they do, a camera only appears as another something put between me and the world. It used to be a bridge but now it is just one of hundreds of devices, an empty machine that helps us to slice pieces of the world out of it; pieces of a world that is already fragmented, virtual, cut through.

So maybe one possible escape is to not be able to. I have been reading a lot of Guy Debord recently as the Austrian Film Museum has published a book with his texts. There are several passages in which he thinks about the possibilities of not making an image, not making a film. Cinema needs disturbances more than ever. I think, we now live in a time where cinema needs a reconciliation with reality. Maybe we should bury the cameras, plant some flowers inside the projectors, put the screens into the rain, give the hard-drives to octopuses, so they can build a garden. We have to touch, see, listen first, then make a film. In this regard, it really might be good to play dumb because we cannot know everything. I think today, she or he who tries to live with as few images as possible is very strong, very intelligent. There is the modesty Thom Andersen writes about, the modesty of accepting that the world is more than shot/reverse-shot, more than we will ever know and definitely more than what we can express in images. In my opinion, the promise of cinema lives in the world, not in the movies. We need filmmakers that do understand that. In Shakespeare’s words: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”.

to be continued…

Crushed Gems: When a Woman Ascends the Stairs von Mikio Naruse

In einem von Mikio Naruses großen Filmen, entstanden in der produktivsten Phase seines Schaffens, sieht man eine Frau. Man sieht ihre traurigen, verzweifelten Augen, ihren vom Kimono gerade noch zusammengehaltenen, geschundenen, ums Überleben und die Würde kämpfenden Körper, man sieht ihre Füße, die sich Tag für Tag die Stufen zur Carton Bar in Ginza hoch kämpfen. Draußen auf den Straßen blinkende Lichter, harter Asphalt, verworrene Wege. Oben angekommen, setzt sie ein Lächeln auf, dass überzeugender und falscher nicht sein konnte. Man sieht nichts, wenn man nichts sehen will. Ihr Lächeln existiert, um zu verstecken und alle die dahinter sehen, nutzen es schamlos aus. Naruse findet dieses Lächeln immer. Es ist still und tut weh. Er macht Nahaufnahmen, die direkt in die Seele blicken und dabei nichts zeigen außer der Oberfläche eines Gesichts. Er macht halbnahe Einstellungen, in denen sich der Körper um sich selbst windet, auf einem Bett wankt und wiederholt fast aus dem Bildrahmen fällt. Formen einer verlorenen Körperlichkeit, die sichtbaren Narben einer Gefangenschaft. Geschmückt von Blumen, umrahmt von Parfümfläschchen und Blättern im Wind. Sanft bleiben und alles zeigen. Wie viele Arbeiten von Naruse ist auch When a Woman Ascends the Stairs eine Geschichte der Ausbeutung, eine Offenlegung patriarchaler Systeme, die Frauen in einer alternativlosen Welt zwischen zerrinnenden und zerronnenen Träumen zurücklassen.

Die Frau heißt Keiko, wird aber von allen nur Mama genannt. Sie balanciert mit den betrunkenen Machtmännern, hält sie bei Stange, schenkt ihnen immer genau so viel ein, dass sie durstig bleiben. Sie wird 30 und steht vor einer Entscheidung, die keine ist: Heirat oder eine eigene Bar eröffnen. Für beides braucht sie in diesem Japan einen Mann und dessen Geld. Jeder Blick fällt auf Keiko. Sie muss Geld verdienen, sie muss dieser Welt entkommen. Keiko verweigert sich, dann lächelt sie wieder einnehmend. Plötzlich spuckt sie Blut. Die Spirale einer Flucht ohne Fluchtpunkt, eines Anrennens gegen Mauern, einer sisyphosartigen Manie. Die zärtliche Hoffnung einer hoffnungslosen Welt. Sich wehren, einen Ausbruch wagen, scheitern.

Man sieht viele Filme in diesem Japan der formellen Nacht. Im Vergleich zum französischen Kino finden sich in den entsprechenden Etablissements kaum die Verlockungen fiebriger Nächte. Kein Kerzenlicht, die Wärme liegt wenn dann in entspannten Jazzfarben von Toshiro Mayuzumi. Doch darin riecht man auch den Alkohol, die Müdigkeit der langen Tage, jene versumpfte Männlichkeit, die diese Frauen erstickt. Darüber hinaus ist alles statisch, geregelt, bleibt im Verborgenen. Die Bilder von Naruse oder auch Mizoguchi filmen gar nicht das, was da passiert, sondern die Risse dazwischen. Feinste Steine, die sich aus den notdürftig gemauerten Wänden der von Schulden überdachten Nachtlokalitäten lösen und auf den Boden tropfen. Stein für Stein wird so etwas sichtbar, das sich meist in Tränen, Suizid, Mord oder einem tragischen Weiterleben auflöst. Es ist die Dramaturgie des Lebens verkleidet als Spannungsmoment des Überlebens.

Schaut man sich einen Film wie den zeitweise hyperventilierenden Uncut Gems der Gebrüder Safdie an oder die bemerkenswerten Schlussminuten von La Deuda von Gustavo Fontán weiß man, dass diese absurde Art des Erzählens in einen Käfig hinein auch heute Konjunktur hat. Man zeigt Protagonisten, die sich befreien wollen. Allerdings bedienen sie sich dabei, auch weil sie keine Wahl haben, der Mittel, die sie gefangen halten. Als würde man aus dem Gefängnis ausbrechen, in dem man sich einsperrt. Der Unterschied ist, dass Naruse von einem menschlichen Schicksal ausgeht, um mit diesem Menschen die unüberwindbaren Grenzen der Gesellschaft zu entdecken während die Safdies oder Fontán diese Grenzen voraussetzen und sie als dramaturgisches Element bedienen. Es macht einen riesigen Unterschied, ob Grenzen entdeckt werden oder vorausgesetzt. Man muss dabei nur an die Politik denken. Das Lächeln von Adam Sandler bei den Safdies verhüllt den Mann, der er eigentlich nicht ist. Dass von Hideko Takamine bei Naruse verhüllt die Frau, die sie eigentlich ist. Wenn man nun durch das Lächeln hindurch blickt, kann man nur bei Naruse etwas sehen.