Thursday, January 31, 2008

Qu'est-ce Que Le Cinéma? Une Réponse #1

The first in hopefully a series of images, sounds, and videos that, for this moment, capture the essence of "movieness" for me. Shout-out to if charlie parker was a gunslinger... and André Bazin for inspiration and a title.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm Not Mishima: Artistic (Auto)Biography

How to present a real person’s life? This is the central quandary of the biopic genre, and too often the answer according to filmmakers is to smooth out the unquantifiable human experience to fit the constraints of traditional dramatic structure. While not fully eschewing this linear, arc-filled mode of storytelling, I’m Not There (2007) and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) take more holistic, personal approaches to the biopic, envisions a plethora of existence within the artistic individual, full of mystery, complexity, symbol, and contradiction. The ostensible subjects of the films are Bob Dylan (born Robert Zimmerman), American folkie-cum-electrified rock star, and Yukio Mishima (born Kimitake Hiraoka), prolifc Japanese author and intellectual; both writers, performers, and celebrities with ambivalent ties to the political and artistic worlds of their day. Each film is divided into intertwining but discrete segments with their own stylistic idiosyncrasies. I’m Not There presents six individuals who represent, to put it simplistically, the “personas” of Bob Dylan, ranging from a black boy playing Depression-era folk songs to an aged, hiding Billy the Kid; and Mishima weaves straightforward dramatizations of Yukio’s final day and private and public lives with stylized visualizations of three of his major works, that sometimes verge on Dogville-like abstraction. Both movies illustrate that truism from Midnight’s Children that, in order to understand someone, “you’ll have to swallow a world.” Those who deem either film as too challenging or academic are missing the immediately sensual and intellectually gratifying rewards that come with the experience of one artist grappling with, and finding camaraderie in, another. Neither film is the epitome of the traditional biopic, but the choices made by the makers of I‘m Not There and Mishima could nonetheless be learned from when approached from that context.

The directors and co-screenwriters of the films are Todd Haynes (writer with Oven Moverman) and Paul Schrader (writer with his brother Leonard, along with translation assistance from Leonard’s wife Chieko), and the films represent clear intersections between director and subject. A semiotics graduate, Haynes treats the many elements of Dylan’s existence as signs to be playfully reinterpreted in various settings (like he previously did by making Karen Carpenter into Barbie or by pushing the limits of Sirkan melodrama) in just the same way that Dylan himself capitalized on classical and cultural allusions, or maybe just the sound of the words themselves, in his songwriting. As others have pointed out, I’m Not There moves not unlike a Dylan song, riding cadences and feelings of the visual rather than verbal variety to arrive at a point unencumbered by the limits of conventional logic and drama. It’s not that the songs steer clear of stories or sense, but that his hyperliteracy forges fascinating connections and synthesizes influences in a way that is indebted to poetry rather than to songwriting. Yet there is a tradition being followed, from Thomas to Rimbaud to Guthrie to Elliott, and the past and the present converge in Dylan’s oeuvre just as the phases of Dylan’s own life interact in I’m Not There.

That said, I don’t believe that watching the film is like reading a factual written biography on the singer just with the pages rearranged. A world is, after all, impossible to really swallow, and similarly I never found I’m Not There particularly enlightening as to the whys of Dylan’s artistry. Both it and Mishima feature scenes of the protagonist writing, yet the work is less output than outgrowth, less a compiled end product of experience than a fragment of that experience itself. For Haynes, Dylan’s work is as much grist for his semiotic investigation of DYLAN (as a thing, as a representation of the person/time/place/forebears/influence) as Zimmerman’s real biography is; for Schrader, who took his material in a more rigorously formal direction, Mishima’s unabashedly autobiographical literature is but one facet of his life (and death), the committed, personally cohesive artistic statement of honor and individuality that ultimately pitted him against the politics and culture of his day.

Paul Schrader’s cinema encapsulates manhood and morality, stemming most likely from his Calvinist upbringing but entailing secular repercussions in such films either written or directed by him as Blue Collar, Taxi Driver, and Affliction. Yukio Mishima, about whom out of the four artists intersecting in these films I know the least, combined politics, history, and discipline into a controversial but celebrated career that refused to separate art and life, which ended in ritual suicide following a failed political coup. Despite a dramatic through line that unfolds regarding his sexuality, beliefs, and stringent self-restraint, Schrader’s film rearranges chronology and designates certain sections of Mishima’s life with stylistic motifs that almost do more to present the man’s life than plot points ever could. Opening with a reserved but portentous scene of Mishima dressing for what he knows may be his last day of life, the film slowly builds a somewhat impressionistic portrait of a man fashioning his own artifice out of the world around him, not unlike Dylan, and facing the consequences. The incarnations of Mishima, ranging from a scrawny kid to his literary alter-egos to the stately central performance by Ken Ogata, coalesce finally at the time of death, a life having been lived uneasily yet unapologetically. Where Dylan continues to wander the byways of America in the guise of a resurrected outlaw, Mishima finds peace in the outmoded traditions of imperial Japan.

If every person is made up of a world through associations, connections, and history, this doesn’t mean that every person controls what world he or she is made up of; it took calculation and authority for Mishima and Dylan to construct themselves as they did. The films depict artist-celebrities who both shun and crave attention on their own terms, at times antagonizing their audiences (and themselves) for failing to keep up. Some may feel that Schrader and Haynes similarly forge their personal, literate portraits of heroes or kindred spirits without worrying about audience reception, but both films are as much cinematic autobiographies as biographies. Perhaps this is what ultimately separates I’m Not There and Mishima from the standard biopic fare: just as the most creative and cogent forms of criticism illuminate the critic as much as the work being criticized, so too some of the most enthralling, fascinating films visualize the entangled intersections of artist and subject. As illustrations of influence and creative possibility (the working title for I’m Not There was Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan) the movies resonate by positioning their subjects as founts of inspiration, the filmmakers moored with one foot in the dirt of “facts” and the other in the pool of freeform imagination.

There's more than a fair share of I'm Not There articles online, but here's the recent Great Movies entry for Mishima by Roger Ebert.

Additional thoughts, as of 1/19:
-The stunt casting of Cate Blanchett as electrified rebel Jude Quinn goes surprisingly unremarked upon in the film considering the director of Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. Schrader of Hardcore and American Gigolo on the other hand presents all of the sexually contradictory sides of Mishima, even if they spring from his literary doubles.
-Both films mix and match music while relying on a single source: the multiplicity of Bob allows for originals and covers to stand side by side (except for the intrusion of a Monkees track), and Philip Glass's magisterial score for Mishima uses varying instruments depending on the segment.
-Haynes' freewheeling (sorry for the pun) visual tactics include aping such Dylan docs as Don't Look Back and No Direction Home, as well as referencing Fellini, another artist whose career's formal shifts perplexed some and delighted others. Schrader picks from a more conservative set of influences, especially Japanese theater.
-Although a mere mix-up over narration recording prevented a Japanese speaker from hearing a Japanese narration, at least until the most recent DVD release, Roy Scheider's voice actually speaks to the multicultural nature of the project: two American brothers, steeped in Japanese culture (both writers of The Yakuza), tackling a figure quite controversial in his native country. Spiritual affinity is more the issue than cultural similarity. Ben Whishaw's ruthlessly quotable Arthur Rimbaud on the other hand serves as a distilled example of Dylan's penchant for wordplay and ambivalent spokesman status.
-Both films rely on certain standard narrative filmmaking techniques, most notably match cuts on faces and entrances/exits, in order to effectively conjoin the various worlds on display into at least a visually coherent whole.
-Another challenging, formally daring cinematic autobiography: Takeshis' (2005).

Here's a mash-up I made of the Schrader and Haynes films, illustrating some visual motifs and parallels, as well as favorite moments and sometimes intuitive musical editing: