Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tokyo Story

We often perceive flash and art as the same thing--snappy lines and colorful characterization, startling cuts and tricky angles, yes yes yes. Not only do we go to the movies to get zapped, but we think we ought to. We value the vivid moment, the apercu, and as long as terms like "sensationalism" remain unequivocally pejorative, that is a value we should preserve. But there really is such a thing as sensory overload, and no matter how conventional it sounds, the idea that art can glow as well as sparkle happens to be true. In fact, it may even be that the best art is the glowing kind. We forget that too easily.

Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story glows. Generally considered a master of world cinema, Ozu made some fifty films, most of them about middle-class life in Japan, before he died in 1963, but although his work was very popular in his homeland--it has been compared to I Love Lucy in that respect--only three of his movies have been released commercially here. Tokyo Story, reputedly one of the best, is the first Ozu I've seen, but it makes the reason for his lack of American exposure clear enough--he eschews flash. The plot is hardly a plot at all: an elderly couple travels to Tokyo to visit children and grandchildren, and when the wife dies upon their return home the family goes dutifully to mourn her. This content is rendered in a carefully unprepossessing style: the camera doesn't move much, the angles are straightforward, and most of the movie is shot from a floor mat. Even the compositions, which are often very beautiful--I recall one brief scene in which the old woman moves to play with her grandson only to endure his scampering away with a child's cruel, casual indifference--never call attention to themselves. They are just there, like everything else in the movie, presented with an unpretentious impassivity that seems almost majestic in retrospect.

There is something novelistic in the sweep, pace, and themes of Tokyo Story, yet when I go down my list of appropriate parallels--most of them 19th-century masters like Balzac, Eliot, Austen-- I can't think of a novelist whose tone is at all similar. Instead, the equivalents that occur to me are cinematic--namely, Bresson and the Rosselini of The Rise of Louis XIV. Something about the nature of words themselves seems to force the novelist to interject or overlay his own commentary, but Ozu, exploiting all the camera's potential plasticity, successfully avoids both irony and sentimentality. When a novelist is described as having vision, the term is usually an evasion of a clumsy idea on the order of "manifest world-view," but Ozu's vision is just that. At some level he must prefer the serene, self-effacing old people to their pleasantly venal descendants, yet his preference, such as it is, can only be inferred--it's just that it's impossible to imagine the human who has put such observations together not being moved to affection for the naive tolerance of these particular provincials and disdain for the ordinary time-hoarding greed of these particular semi-successful megapolitans, just as we are.

None of which is to argue that Ozu's films don't say anything--once we begin to talk about them, even Erection and Empire say something. The message, though, is obvious, and even more bound up in medium than is customary: namely, that life as it is lived is sacred and a little mysterious, if only we choose to look at it that way. That's easy to say, of course, Ozu makes it not so hard to see.

BRIEFLY: The Museum of Modern Art recently introduced the work of ten new directors, nine of them from Europe, at a special festival. I caught four of the films and liked three, two I liked very much. Dear Irene, a Danish film by Christian Braad Thomsen, is one of those dissection-of-modern-love movies, done so much better than the Hollywood variants that the comparison embarrasses me in all my defiant chauvinism. I was impressed by three images of loneliness which punctuate the film, making the heroine's fluctuating desperation seem more realistic and poignant--especially the first one, in which a middle-aged lady tries to give away a hat from her attic on a bus but manages only to inspire muffled giggles and sidelong glances. Alain Tanner's Salamander, from Switzerland, falls into a similar category, but whereas Dear Irene has a cinema-verite look about it, Salamander resembles nothing so much as a nouvelle vague film from the early Sixties. So much so, in fact, that at first the film annoyed me--the understated whimsy of the two writers who are its protagonists seems wilfully anachronistic, and the fact that the film was a commercial success in Paris suddenly became suspicious. Gradually, however, the alienated working-cum-peasant-class girl about whom the writers are trying to do a script comes to dominate the film, which turns out to be one of the few really intelligent explorations I've ever seen of what alienation is really like--which is to say, neither horribly depressing nor desperately gay, but boring and not unpleasant, like everything else. The American film, David Schickele's Bushman, is real cinema-verite about an African professor at San Francisco State who was veritably arrested shortly before the film was completed. It had its moments anyway, but that accident definitely adds a new dimension of feeling even as it destroys the movie's formal elegance, which may not be such a bad point, eh? Finally, The Anguish of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick, by West German Wim Wenders, is a slow, uninteresting existentialist document that is worth avoiding. Actually, it doesn't have a distributor as yet, but then, neither does Dear Irene. Apply pressure at the appropriate places and maybe something will happen.

Fusion, June, 1972