The large questions are tough to answer. Cinema as a medium has two conflicting truisms; it is the most realistic presentation of the so-called human condition, but the most unrealistic representation of the space that engenders.
Or is the opposite true?
Is classicism the answer to this problem? Is the melodrama the eternal form of cinematic “purity”?
By definition melodrama must attain realism in a form lacking reality. Ozu forsook melodrama in his move to sound. Mizoguchi amped it into overdrive. Naruse excelled, but was it specifically because his career was able to slide in-and-out of mediocrity? The large questions…
The overall arc of As a Wife, as a Woman is simple. In Naruse’s sixties period he became an experimental filmmaker. He combined narrative elements of his earliest films, with narrative elements of his largest successes, took the actors he knew best and asked them to reinvent the melodrama. In As a Wife, As a Woman Naruse takes No Blood Relation and reforms it with Floating Clouds. What do we have?
Naruse understands he’s making a film about a people that never experience what these characters experience. The narrative is meaningless. What Naruse infuses the film with is moments. Hideko Takamine’s crying face alone provides the film its punch; the surrounding events don’t matter. Takamine is in the film specifically because she cries like no other person ever captured.
Is cinema just that silent moment, in a dark room, watching a barely visible face pour our its heart without saying a word?
I haven´t seen “No Blood Relation” yet, but I can definitely see the link between “As a Wife, as a Woman” and “Floating Clouds”. In fact I think that in “Floating Clouds” he mishandled the melodrama, the ending seemed a bit excessive and forced in that regard, while “As a Wife,..” is arguably the more balanced and coherent film. But if we talk about cinematic “purity”, in terms of melodrama the three Naruse films that instantly come to my mind are “The Sound of the Mountain”, “Yearning” and “Flowing”. The constant feel of dolorourness resulting from the protagonists´ entrapment and their futile attempts to find a way out pervade these films and cause a feeling of solicitousness in the spectator that becomes almost unbearable toward the end (especially in “Yearning” which has one of the most heart-wrenching ending sequences that I´ve seen).
Have you seen Morning’s Tree-lined Street? Because the final section of Yearning is based on the narrative arc of that film.
When I talk of purity that’s sort of what I’m talking about. Naruse reuses his older works and reinvents their context and usage for a modern culture. He could do it so blatantly because his older films weren’t still being shown at that time, but today the similarities are striking.
He’s reducing narrative in a manner that Ozu never considered (the more often cited in terms of so-called ‘purity’). Ozu just deleted the elements, or introduced them so flippantly that they seemed meaningless, even when they become the central aspect of the film. In Naruse they are essentially devalued because of their heritage elsewhere. What becomes important is the interplay of actors creating this world that becomes real, not through narrative, which is implicitly unreal, but through emotion, which is undeniable.
The melodrama works specifically for this purpose, because the narrative determines little in success of the overall work. Melodramas live and die in their explication of emotion. Hence the greatest melodramas being argued as the purest films.
Or that’s my reasoning anyway…
I haven´t seen that one either, in fact I still know little of Naruse´s earlier work and have already been considering to order Criterion´s “Silent Naruse” set at some point. Not sure I quite understand the concept of purity in terms of reusing his older work which you refer to, though perhaps I really need to see those earlier films first to make a comparision.
When I think of cinematic purity, I consider a paring down of superfluous structural elements and the absence of ornamental flourishes which do not add anything constructive to the unity of form (which is maybe what Falderal means by “reducing narrative”?), which are the kinds of things Ozu and Bresson excelled at.
I’m not sure how this ties in with melodrama because from what I understand of it, melodrama is more concerned with stereotypical characterisation and manipulation of base emotions rather than the subtlety of expression in aesthetic form appropriating the way in which we symbolically perceive the world and appreciate the poetic, the ineffable.
Cinema as a medium has two conflicting truisms; it is the most realistic presentation of the so-called human condition, but the most unrealistic representation of the space that engenders.
I don’t think that any artistic “space” is inherently “realistic”, in that an artistic medium expresses the symbolic form of human feeling rather than human feeling itself. Cinema certainly has a unique potential for exploring the human condition in the art of story-telling and characterisation (or, more to the point, “moments” such as a crying face within a certain context), even if other artistic mediums can do so but with a more visceral appropriation. For instance, great pure music can subconsciously symbolise the rhythms of the human body, feelings and thoughts, and how we symbolically perceive reality, which of course has the potential to be quite profound for the listener.
The question then becomes, reframed, is emotion the most pure? Accepting that narrative is largely a contrivance that communicates transient details.
I would argue against that. It’s a reaction to conditioned phenomena.
Cinematic purity for me in particular rejects emotion, and thrives in the examination of perception.
You know at some point I was under the impression that melodrama, though now given its current connotations, used to mean the specific genre where a rich girl and poor boy get all loverly on each other, causing of course no small amount of horror and tragedy when the family finds out.
I do not know if that is accurate but it does put into question what we mean by melodrama.
Which I think we’ve discussed here before, though it’s been a long time.
Anyway, there’s that ‘purity’ again.
To the OP: Your last sentence made me think of the last shot in Vive l’amour, even though the crying face is in sharp relief. Even if you know nothing about the rest of the film there is so much there in that shot. A woman cries her heart out in a public place. A man sits nearby but doesn’t even react. When she finally stops crying, in an almost post-coital manner, she lights a cigarette. It’s the entire film in microcosm.
“Anyway, there’s that ‘purity’ again.”
“Not sure I quite understand the concept of purity in terms of reusing his older work which you refer to…”
“When I think of cinematic purity, I consider a paring down of superfluous structural elements and the absence of ornamental flourishes which do not add anything constructive to the unity of form…”
“The question then becomes, reframed, is emotion the most pure? Accepting that narrative is largely a contrivance that communicates transient details….
“Cinematic purity for me in particular rejects emotion, and thrives in the examination of perception.”
Alright, in risk of making this less about Naruse and more about a term…
What is ‘purity’? The paring down of superfluous structural elements? Alright, let’s look at that.
How did Ozu pare down? He got rid of all formal elements beyond just simply putting the camera on a tripod and recording. And he got rid of essentially all major narrative elements. Richie correctly mentions that his narratives are “the heart of anecdote,” not trues structured narratives.
How did Naruse pare down? In his late period he made narrative meaningless. Not by directly paring it down, but by realizing that the structural aspect of the medium isn’t found in storytelling, at all. It’s found in structuring the sense of transience in the emotional aspect of the characters created.
And yes, that is the aspect of his cinema that the new-wave generation rejected. Their cinema definitively focused more on ‘examinations of perception.’ So I’m not arguing this as a definitive, just as a counter to the more common definition of so-called “purity” or “transcendence.”
… by realizing that the structural aspect of the medium isn’t found in storytelling, at all. It’s found in structuring the sense of transience in the emotional aspect of the characters created.
So what you’re saying is that your idea of “melodrama as purity” involves structuring characters’ emotions as opposed to structuring narrative points? Interesting.
For the record, I haven’t seen much Naruse and it’s been awhile since I viewed one of his films, but I’m definitely interesting in viewing more now.
“So what you’re saying is that your idea of ‘melodrama as purity’ involves structuring characters’ emotions as opposed to structuring narrative points? Interesting.”
Pretty much. Or at least that’s the general aspect.
It’s something like this.
If we say Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos are masters of “transcendent” anti-genre cinema, with Ozu being the most stylistically conservative and Angelopoulos the most stylistically expansive. Then we could say Naruse, Ophuls, Visconti and (say…) Almodovar are the masters of “transcendent” pure-genre(melodrama) cinema, with Naruse being the most conservative and Almodovar being the most expansive.
What matters in all of their works isn’t actual narratives. They pretty much all concentrate on the same, repetitive themes. What is important in their works is their concentration on character and their relationship to larger concerns.
Naruse did this, specifically in his very late period, by relating Japan in its distant post-war landscape to the era pre-war. The world of economic expansion and waxing western wonderment with economic depression and waning western wonderment. So the axis in his work is always WWII, which is the “larger concern.” Japan’s response to that buildup period and their defeat.
Yes this interests me a great deal because I subscribe to the notion that there is no single way for a narrative to be stylised so as to elicit a poetic response, or in other words what is more important is the way an artistic medium expresses a symbolic form of human feeling in how we perceive meaningful pattern and order, whether with characters’ emotions or with more abstract techniques. That is, there’s a difference between a well-made film and a poorly-made film no matter what the style or genre or narrative.
It’d be very interesting to analyse the structure of a particular film – say, a Naruse film – with this idea of “melodrama as purity” in mind.