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Elia Kazan, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa

David Hudson

The Auteurs Daily

On the Waterfront

So as not to play favorites or anything, we're simply going to take a look at three retrospectives of work by Elia Kazan, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa in Chicago, London and New York, respectively, in the order in which they're opening.

The ten-film series Elia Kazan's American Century began its run at the Gene Siskel Film Center yesterday and runs through February 3. Via Movie City News, the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips: "Kazan sought meaning in intensity and dialectical melodrama, sometimes slow-building, sometimes explosive, activated by opposing human forces or the interior battle between a character's illusions and a character's reality." Example: "The devil in Kazan thrived on pitting the Method stammer and mumble of James Dean against the stalwart, 19th century hambone of Raymond Massey in East of Eden [1955]. The actors hated each other, and Kazan knew it. In fact, he fomented it, to stimulating results."

Of course, Phillips also addresses "the eternal asterisk on a remarkable directorial career," Kazan's role as a namer of names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. Arthur Miller did not name names and Allan M Jalon, blogging for the Los Angeles Times, not only notes the ways the playwright and director, former friends, carried on their argument in their work but also asks, "Did writer Budd Schulberg draw from The Hook for On the Waterfront? [1954]" The Hook was a screenplay Miller had written based on his own research of the Red Hook waterfront in Brooklyn. "It's a matter of dispute. But it is clear that Schulberg had long immersed himself on the subject on his own and vigorously denied he took anything from Miller's work. Schulberg worked closely on the screenplay with Kazan. Schulberg had also cooperated with HUAC."

"Kazan, who had a huge part in shaping the careers of [Karl] Malden and Schulberg, was always open about the relationship between Terry Malloy's turning 'canary' in the film and the director's own choice to inform," writes Anthony Giardina in the New York Times Magazine. "'When Brando at the end yells... "I'm glad what I done!",' Kazan wrote, 'that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I'd testified as I had.' But Schulberg took an opposite tack, insisting that the movie was solely about the struggles of the longshoremen whose trials he witnessed. 'To see the film as a metaphor for McCarthyism is to trivialize their courage,' he wrote."

Meantime, for IFC, Vadim Rizov enjoys a controversy recently kicked up by a TCM screening of another Kazan-Schulberg collaboration, A Face in the Crowd.

Update, 1/7: Blogging for the New York Times, Joseph Berger reports that James T Fisher, author of On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie and the Soul of the Port of New York and "a professor of American studies and theology at Fordham University, said that he had located the first draft of the screenplay for On the Waterfront among Mr Schulberg's papers at Princeton University and found that it was completed six weeks before Mr Schulberg testified on May 23, 1951, before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in Hollywood.... 'The mistaken assumption that has guided critical approaches to this superlative film may now be turned on its head,' Dr Fisher said in an interview. 'The issue is not whether Schulberg's testimony shaped subsequent versions of the Waterfront screenplay but whether the act of composing the original screenplay shaped his decision to testify or the character of that testimony.'"

Tokyo Story

There are two strands to BFI Southbank's Ozu season, "a retrospective of the complete surviving work of one of cinema's greatest masters," opening tomorrow with Tokyo Story (1953) and running through February 27, and "Ozu and His Influence," opening on Thursday with Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train and running through February 28.

"In 2003, Hou Hsiao-hsien created an Ozu homage in his film Café Lumiere," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "and last year German author and filmmaker Doris Dörrie paid a direct tribute to Tokyo Story with her film Cherry Blossoms. Later this year, there will be a full release [in the UK] of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking, a movie in the 'family drama' genre that Ozu made his own. Decent and heartfelt though all these are in their various ways, they cannot approach the transcendental simplicity and heartbreaking humanity of Ozu's great work."

"[H]is actors don't seem to be acting at all, they're just living," writes the Independent's Anthony Quinn. "Ozu only has to train his camera on a face to uncover a sense of resignation, or longing, or loneliness, and the mood, if you allow it, becomes quite overwhelming."

Suggestions for further reading: Midnight Eye's "The World of Yasujiro Ozu" and Jasper Sharp's discussion of Ozu with Donald Richie.

Updates, 1/4: "[T]he way Ozu builds up emotional empathy for a sense of disappointment in its various characters is where his mastery lies," writes Wally Hammond in Time Out London. Not that the film is without irony, lightheartedness or downright comedy - No Weddings and a Funeral, anybody? Ozu had fun - and an estimated 43 bottles of sake - collaborating with scriptwriter Kogo Noda on Tokyo Story, and his films are as full of spontaneous insights and significant personal detail as those of Ozu-admired Hollywood comedians Ernst Lubitsch or Leo McCarey. But, like Hitchcock, Ozu planned and storyboarded everything with minute precision; no cutaway to a stone lantern or line of washing is accidental and the slow arc of his film must be attentively imbibed for the film's overwhelming force to be truly felt."

More from Time Out London: "The A-Z of Ozu A bluffer's guide to the films of Yasujiro Ozu." Better than that sounds.

Update, 1/7: "Ozu pioneered the use of off-center framing, a technique that exploited the centrifugal force of an image to guide the viewer to the edges of the frame and, thus, the conclusion that the real world existed beyond them," writes David Parkinson in the Oxford Times. "In order to achieve this, he devised a fully circular film space around which he could construct alternative axes of action and, thus, create totally new spatial contexts throughout a scene. Although requiring painstaking graphic matching and disallowing even the most basic pans, this method ensured the complete integration of action and location. Off-screen space was also fashioned through the 'pillow' or 'curtain' shots that Ozu used as transitions. Devoid of figures, these 'empty scenes' were usually lingering 'still lifes' of urban landmarks or objects in the mise-en-scène - in other words, poetic digressions, which, while virtually meaningless in terms of theme and narrative, prompted the viewer to contemplate the nature of events already occurring elsewhere in the film's world."

Update, 1/9: "Given the fame of his later movies, it is easy to forget that Ozu's cinematic roots are not traditionally Japanese at all, but firmly planted in Hollywood screwball comedy," writes Ian Buruma in the Guardian. "The best-known Ozu film of the silent era, I Was Born, But... (1932), still shows more traces of Chaplin or Keaton than of anything typically Japanese. But once he found his groove, Ozu rarely veered from his fascination with ordinary Japanese urban family life. His prewar films were often set among the shopkeepers and artisans of plebeian Tokyo. The focus of his later movies was more on the wealthier bourgeoisie. These were recognised genres, by the way, which still survive on television, as they do in the west.... Ozu's genius was to lift an essentially middlebrow genre to the level of high art, without losing the broad, natural audience for family dramas."

Update, 1/12: A tweet from the Mystery Man on Film reminds me that David Bordwell's book Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema is available as a free download.

Update, 1/13: The BFI posts three videos of Tony Rayns discussing Ozu.

Update, 1/14: Via Cargo, Ozu's "pillow shots" at Ozu-San.

Update, 1/15: David Thomson in the Guardian: "You may say, don't be so solemn, don't pose the history of the movies as that blunt choice - Ozu or Avatar - when clearly there is room for so much more. But I think the cultural dilemma is as acute as this awkward choice suggests, and I fear that a culture – especially a culture of the young - will forget the existence of Ozu, and those whose films were always the fullest engagement of movies with this awkward but irresistible subject matter."

Stray Dog

2010 is Akira Kurosawa's centennial year and Criterion has already marked the occasion with its monster release of AK 100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa (see Dave Kehr's review in the New York Times). On Wednesday, New York's Film Forum opens a four-week 29-film retrospective with a week-long run for Stray Dog (1949).

"Of the 30 movies Kurosawa directed, better than half tell stories of present-day Japan, and a fair number of them, including Stray Dog, rank with his greatest works," writes Terrence Rafferty in the NYT. It's "a kind of police-procedural thriller, in which a young Tokyo homicide detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) roams the crowded streets of the postwar city in search of his stolen gun.... The world of Stray Dog is one in which anything can happen, in which people no longer know with any confidence how to act rightly: a world whose standards of behavior have become dangerously slippery." Among the other films Rafferty considers: No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), Drunken Angel (1948) and High and Low (1963).

More on Stray Dog from Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York: "Kurosawa, like the Italians picking through the rubble in The Bicycle Thief, is held rapt by the details of a ruined society rebuilding itself. And still, his movie is wedded to the satisfactions of by-the-book genre plotting - Kurosawa never forgets his audience."

Update, 1/4: Anthony Lane's quick take in the New Yorker.

Updates, 1/6: "His style was a watershed of international influences, borrowing from Soviet kino-punch cutting, Russian novels, and John Ford Westerns," writes Nick Pinkerton in an overview of the series for the Voice. "The cross-cultural formula he created isn't relegated to film history; you can draw a direct line between the battle panoramas of The Seven Samurai to The Wild Bunch to Michael Bay. Approaching 100 if he were still alive, Kurosawa is less towering Shogun and more a sometimes inspired, sometimes lousy filmmaker."

"Like so many other filmmakers in their twilight years (Fellini, Godard, Bergman), an octogenarian Kurosawa took to looking back on his own personal mythology before passing away in 1998." Michael Joshua Rowin for the L: "The final films can be pedantic and mannered, though controversial penultimate statement Rhapsody in August (1991) offers a poignant, lasting metaphorical image of Kurosawa's defiance against a self-destructive, unyielding modern world that once seemed to him so full of promise: an elderly Nagasaki survivor raging against a typical Kurosawan howling storm she takes to be an A-bomb attack, her frail body wielding only a ravaged umbrella against the driving rain."

Update, 1/7: "Kurosawa has gone from preeminent mastery as Japan's best known filmmaker to near obscurity, overshadowed by passing vogues for artier directors like the great Mizoguchi and Ozu and the lesser, in fact minor, Naruse." Armond White in the New York Press: "That's what makes Kurosawa's 1949 police drama Stray Dog the perfect series opener; relatively unknown, it confirms why Kurosawa was, for so long, top dog. Its example should inspire the new decade."

Updates, 1/13: "Perhaps ironically, the earlier films presented characters caught in the swirl of a rapidly shifting society, only to be denied transformation and reconciliation," writes Bilge Ebiri in Moving Image Source. "By contrast, the later films present rigid, unchanging worlds, and suddenly, transformation seems possible, even if it's delusional and tragic."

The L Magazine's Mark Asch: "Society itself is a character in Kurosawa's films, to an extent perhaps rivaled only by Ford: the way people go about building their worlds, their values, and the internal and external threats to them - this is the grand subject to which Kurosawa returns throughout his samurai origin myths and historical revisions, and contemporary crime and medical dramas."

More from Margaret Eby for Interview.

Update, 1/19: R Emmet Sweeeney for TCM on Stray Dog and The Idiot.

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