Tuesday 09 March 2004

About nothing

…so boring despite its intriguing possibilities (Christoper Null)

…might appeal to you as long as you’re willing to accept the ludicrous premise (David Nusair)

…one of the most boring and tedious films I’ve ever seen (Rob McKinnon)

There were 3 main things that were so bad about this film. 1: The way it was filmed, 2: The premise behind it, 3: The execution of this premise. (Amazon reviewer)

They’re talking about Kore’eda Hirokazu’s After Life (Wandafuru raifu), a movie that—like Iwai Shunji’s Love Letter—I never tire of watching.

After Life’s total US gross receipts were $801,985 in 1999, a year when The Sixth Sense grossed $293,501,675. Negative reviews, like the ones I quoted above, were atypical—most critics regarded the film favorably without being wildly enthusiastic.

There are other, better films—classics, for want of a better word—I never tire of watching but After Life and Love Letter exert an emotional pull on me that’s disproportionate to their box office success or critical reception.

Pale diffuse light flooding an open doorwayThe premise of After Life is simple. Every Monday, people who have died walk through an open doorway suffused with pale light into what looks like a derelict boarding school. Each is issued with an ID number and assigned to a counselor who will assist them in preparing for the journey to the other side. Much of the film is taken up with these counseling sessions, which commence with an explanation of the rules:

You’re going to stay here for a week.
Everyone gets a private room. Please feel at home. But while you’re here there’s one thing you must do.
Out of the __ years of your life, we’d like to ask you to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most.
There is a time limit. You have three days to decide.
After you choose your memory, our staff will recreate it on film as exactly as possible.
On Saturday we’ll show the films to everyone. The moment the memory comes back to you most vividly, you’ll go on to the other side, taking only that memory.

In an interview with Liza Bear, director Kore’eda recalled that when he was six years old, his grandfather died after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer’s disease:

“I watched him ask my mother when lunch would be served not even one hour after he had just eaten lunch, or calling up the police to ask them to help him get home… And finally he died no longer recognizing me or himself in the mirror. So I have a very powerful memory of fear, thinking that people forget everything just before they die.”

Drawing on his a background as a documentary filmmaker, Kore’eda interviewed 500 ordinary Japanese, asking them which of their worldly memories they would most wish to preserve. About half the 22 deceased souls who arrive at the halfway house at the beginning of the film are played by non-actors whom Kore’eda discovered during the interviews.

“I did not control what they said or give them lines to read; they told their own stories, in their own time and in their own words, and I recorded them on film… The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors, but even among them, only half of them speak dialogue that I gave them.”

Four characters from the film After Life

Shooting on 16mm film stock, frequently with a handheld camera, Kore’eda blends scripted and unscripted dialog, delivered by amateur and professional actors, into an elegiac meditation on death, memory, love, loss, the illusion of filmmaking, Japanese social relationships, and the cost of the Pacific War.

“My goal this time was to record the wonderful things unfolding before me on location and on set,” said Kore-Eda. “I wanted so-called real life to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision.”

I had no idea, before I started writing this entry, that the cast of After Life included non-actors telling their own stories. The next time I watch the film I might—for a while—play a guessing game, looking for clues as to who is an “amateur” and who is a “professional”. But only for a while. Before long I’ll lose myself again in the joy and sadness of the memories they struggle to recall, taking heart from the emotions that arise from the collision between real life and the artifice of film.

That these emotions are so convincingly evoked is due in no small way to Kore’eda’s knowing reliance on the artifice of documentary film techniques: the soft grainy images, subdued colors, natural (looking) lighting, and occasionally unsteady camera all contribute to the illusory foundation upon which our emotional engagement is constructed.

Or not. The negative responses to After Life are based mainly on two objections: that the film’s premise is ludicrous and the recollections of the characters’ lives are boring. For example, David Nusair:

After Life’s premise is incredibly unappealing – really, who wants to relive the same moment over and over ‘til the end of time? – which makes the movie almost impossible to relate to. And the structure of the movie doesn’t help matters, either. Much of the flick has been shot documentary-style, with the various dead folks talking about their lives and their memories. While some of this is interesting, this much dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about eventually gets tedious.

Nusair’s response is fascinating: the qualities of the film he dislikes are, for me, fundamental to its success. I love stories that blend fiction and documentary, though that’s got me into trouble before; and I share the Japanese preference for narratives in which plot—central to so much of western storytelling—is highly attenuated.

I’m not suggesting that David Nusair is clueless about movies, just that he’s uninformed about and unsympathetic to this kind of film. In his favor, he appears to have eclectic (rather than predictable) tastes, he has a good understanding of mainstream commercial movies, and—as far as two films I’ve recently seen are concerned—I shared his enthusiasm for 21 Grams and thought he was critical of The Last Samurai for the wrong reasons.

In fact, Nusair’s reviews of those films plus his response to Kore’eda’s first film, Maborosi, suggest why he so much disliked After Life. He writes about 21 Grams:

Part of what makes the film so great is the way it requires the viewer to assemble facts as time progress[es]; 21 Grams has been edited in such a way that we’re constantly jumping through time, but it never becomes confusing.

21 Grams is easily the most emotionally devasting movie to come around in a long while, and though the movie’s mid-section could’ve used tighter editing, there’s no denying that it’s an extremely accomplished piece of work.

And about The Last Samurai:

…we’re nevertheless forced to endure countless sequences featuring Algren chatting with Katsumoto and his family. And while some of that stuff is interesting - helped in great part by Watanabe’s fantastic performance - it finally gets to the point where enough is enough; we get it already.

Having said that, The Last Samurai is still worth seeing primarily for the performances and amazing combat sequences. About an hour into the film, there’s a fight between the Samurai warriors and a group of ninjas that rivals anything in Kill Bill in terms of sheer coolness. And then there’s the final battle between the Japanese army and the Samurai, which is gripping and involving in ways that everything preceeding it is not.

One could deduce from these opinions that David Nusair prefers films that move along at a fast clip and yet, about Kore’eda’s Maborosi, he writes:

There are different types of “good” movies. There are good movies that you enjoy like a rollercoaster ride, and there are good movies that make you think. Maborosi is the latter.

It’s the type of film that, while you’re watching it, you do get drawn in to the complexities of the characters, but the plot takes a backseat. In fact, this film is truly “about nothing”. Once the central character gets settled, we have no further major plot points brought up. The majority of the film follows one character, and how she handles her different emotions of grief, and happiness.

Given that Nusair believes that Maborosi is a Japanese film “about nothing”, it doesn’t take long before the acknowledged master of films about nothing, Ozu Yasujirō, is roped in to support the argument:

The director of the film, a man by the name of Kore-eda Hirokazu has obviously been influenced by another Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. Now, I’ve only seen one film by Ozu, the magnificent Early Spring, but in that movie, the shots are set up the same way as in Maborosi. The camera never moves, and is always a fair distance from the characters, so as [not] to interefere in their lives. Kore-Eda is quite obviously paying homage to Ozu, and, with Maborosi, he has created a film that Ozu could have easily made 50 years ago.

Higashiyama Chieko in Ozu's Tokyo StoryIt is clearly foolhardy—having seen only one film—to make blanket statements about a director’s style. Admittedly, Ozu employed tracking and crane shots far less often than most directors but he did use camera movements throughout his career. Moreover, he frequently brought the audience close to his characters (as in this shot of Higashiyama Chieko in Tokyo Story). It’s neither useful nor interesting to speculate whether Ozu could easily have made Maborosi 50 years ago. What’s important is that Nusair then reveals his lack of understanding of how Ozu and Kore’eda encourage viewers to participate in constructing the meaning of their films:

My only complaint with the film is that it contains many scenes without any dialogue, we are just exposed to what essentially amounts to pretty scenery. During those scenes, my focus completely wavered, and I found myself thinking about how much I was looking forward to Alien Resurrection and would it measure up to the previous three films, etcetera. I think Kore-Eda should have edited some of those scenes down to a minute or two, and not the 5 minutes that they are.

It is precisely in these scenes “without any dialogue”, with this “pretty scenery”, that Kore’eda reveals his debt to Ozu.

In To the Distant Observer, Noël Burch calls them “pillow shots”. Donald Richie, in his book Ozu, refers to them with a variety of terms—transitions, pivotal objects, empty scenes, hiatuses, still lives—suggesting that they function as “containers for our emotions”. Tadao Satō calls them “curtain shots”, noting that the term was first used by the prewar film critic Nanbu Keinosuke. In Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, Kiju Yoshida describes Ozu’s technique as “floating montage”; in other words, “a kind of montage in which limitless meanings float around in deep space”. Ozu, writes Kiju,

consciously inserted shots of unusual images that seemed irrelevant to the film’s story line, causing his viewers to feel uneasy. His method was meant to strongly stimulate their imaginations and spur them to create more meaning for the images seen on the screen. His technique allowed more space for new meanings to emerge.

So when David Nusair suggests that “Maborosi is certainly worth a look, but only if you have the patience to see it through”, he’s saying that Maborosi is one of those “good movies that make you think”, but that it would be a better film if it didn’t make you think so much.

Which brings us back to After Life, with its ludicrous premise and tedious dialogue about nothing by people we couldn’t care less about. But what if you simply accepted the premise? Just as you accepted that Will Hunting is a mathematical genius who works as a janitor at MIT and spends part of his night shift solving the abstruse math challenges that Professor Lambeau leaves on the blackboard. Just as you accepted that the Ring which was forged in the fires of Mt. Doom has the power to control all Middle Earth and can only be destroyed if it is returned to the fires from whence it came.

Where would you be then? In a situation where, together with the 22 deceased souls, you felt encouraged (if not compelled) to choose one memory, the one you remember and cherish most, from all the moments in your life. What could you do but move back and forth between the events unfolding on the screen—as minimal and unsubstantial as they appear to be—and the memories floating up from your subconscious, memories that must in part be prompted by the recollections of the characters in the film? Might you then find yourself feeling close to these people who have managed to find something radiant and beautiful in the most prosaic of everyday events? And might not such a film send you back into your own everyday life with a renewed appreciation of the people and things that populate it?

Although I don’t go to church, I understand and accept the value of going to church, something that Halley Suitt articulates perfectly:

First of all, it’s about going some place on a given day of the week—not work, not Starbuck’s, not the health club—where you meet people of all ages who want to think about spirit. They are not doing spreadsheets, they are not ordering Cafe Americano Venti with extra ice, they are not doing bicep curls—all worthy endeavors I spend time on other days of the week. They are trying to figure out how they might love others better and improve the spirits of those around them, and, perhaps selfishly, but probably not, improve their spirit as a result.

I guess you could say that I worship at the Church of Art about Nothing.

I started out wanting to defend Kore’eda’s After Life not because it needs defending but more because I wanted to mount an argument for films (or books or paintings or photographs) in which “nothing happens” apart from a space opening up that allows us to reflect on what is actually important; art ostensibly “about nothing” which, paradoxically, turns out to be about everything.

But I allowed myself to be distracted by another issue—the fact that someone who lacks even a rudimentary understanding of how to approach modest films like Kore’eda’s Maborosi and After Life (let alone Ozu’s films) can dismiss them out of hand; saying, in effect, “I don’t know the slightest thing about this but pay close attention while I forcefully express my opinion”. Is it my imagination or does the Internet (and do weblogs) encourage this confidence based on ignorance? And do they also encourage a constant demand for attention by/from all of us who can’t/won’t pay attention. I don’t know (which is a polite way of saying “I do know—or rather I’d like to think I know—but I’m not going to belabor the point any longer”).

I do know this though: one of the most valuable qualities of art “about nothing” is that it teaches us to pay more—and demand less—attention.

Empty corridor in Kore'eda's After Life

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour