Sat Apr 8 01:45:22 EDT 2000
I think one of the deciding factors when I left academia was the
incessant need for categorization. I understand the dilemma: how can you
teach something -- in a manner which bears some critical merit -- when
you do not categorize?
However, I was fortunate enough to have had Mizoguchi films reserved for
a time in my life when I was no longer academically inclined. Now I am
merely an actor an a writer trying to see into the heart of my craft. I
saw "Sansho the Bailiff" this past January at Columbia University as part
of their Mizoguchi series. I think the large screen helps, but I was
entirely unprepared for what was to follow. After the film was over, I
sat in Ollie's Noodle Shop (across the street) for almost an hour,
wordless, staring out the window, trying to come to words with what had
just happened to me.
The most astonishing thing, for me was that -- beyond any "realism"-- the
story approached me like a wave and propelled me forward with it. From
the moment the priestess sells the family into slavery, I was compelled
to discover: "how will this work out?" And there is a real fear behind
The opening sequence gives evidence of entering a moral world -- but it
is still the world of men, a social world, in which redemption is
possible: the exile can be recalled, the family reuinited, and life can
go on only a little worse for the wear after a temporal injustice.
However, once the moral world is inverted on a cosmological level -- the
family being scattered, sold into slavery by a priestess -- the social
injustice is superceded by a mythological dimension. The ancient Greeks
would well understand this film: we have entered the realm of fate.
I think a great number of the elements which make Mizoguchi's films so
powerful are the same components found in Greek tragedy or Shakespeare.
If we consider the various levels of human interaction being like
ever-widening concentric circles, the self is the small circle at the
center, the next ring is the family, the next community, the next the
state, and the largest the cosmos. The Greeks spoke of the harmony of
the spheres, and there was the notion that allegiance was always owed to
the largest circle before the one beneath it -- thus Antigone was right
to bury her brother because the laws of the gods supercede the laws of
men. The point of all this circling is merely to encounter that in
Mizoguchi which stands beyond the ability to categorize.
In "Sansho the Bailiff," as well as "Ugetsu," "Osaka Elegy," "Sisters of
the Gion," "A Geisha," "The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum" -- there are
various rings in which a realism is circled by a social criticism wrapped
in a myth compelled by a narrative. To Buddha the expression is
attributed that "Life is suffering under blue skies." I have never been
so powerfully aware of the truth of that statement as during the uncanny
moments of great suffering in Mizoguchi's films that were framed and shot
like the most exquisitely beautiful of paintings. What I love most about
the films is how inordinately human they are: characters who are weak and
flawed struggle toward what is beautiful -- and sometimes (i.e. "Ugetsu")
even arrive at the beautiful only to discover its illusion.
For those who "teach" Mizoguchi, I can only add this: I came to love
Shakespeare because I sat down in a classroom with a teacher who so
passionately cared about the subject matter, that I had to see what moved
him so. It mattered to this man whether or not Shakespeare had actually
written a comma. He did not pass on to me any categories for
understanding Shakespeare -- to this day I can't stand any of the
contemporary critical approaches in which the philosophy of the critic is
more important that the work under-going criticism -- however, he did
pass on to me his love, his passion. And the rest I learned for myself.
If you do not love Mizoguchi, you are only have sex with him. And your
class will know it. And that goes for those who try to diminish the
power of his films by attributing their best qualities to others.
Chuck McMahon, M.O. (Master of the Obvious)
no affiliation, thank god, but a man of my word
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