Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tokyo Story, the Limits of Ideology and Some More Biography

“Plato makes the perfect ideal being tremble in me. But that's only a bit of me. Perfection is only a bit, in the strange make-up of man alive. The Sermon on the Mount makes the selfless spirit of me quiver. But that, too, is only a bit of me. The Ten Commandments set the old Adam shivering in me, warning me that I am a thief and a murderer, unless I watch it. But even the old Adam is only a bit of me. I very much like all these bits of me to be set trembling with life and the wisdom of life. But I do ask that the whole of me shall tremble in its wholeness, some time or other.” D. H. Lawrence

It is no secret that I am student of Ray Carney's. I just finished an essay of his entitled “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Visionary and Pragmatic.” It is described on his website as “the longest and most ambitious essay he has ever written about film and philosophy.” I have not spoken to Ray about when he wrote the essay, I know that a lot of the ideas and examples came up in a course I took with him in 1997, but my concern is that the essay was first publish in a book called A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States that came out in 2000. That means that Carney waited an awfully long time to set down some tenets for an aesthetics. He had already published books about Cassavetes, Dreyer and Capra in addition to numerous essays and interviews. This suggests to me that I need to get back on track writing about films instead of always letting myself be drawn into debates about the nature of cinema. It is hard not to get side-tracked by these arguments, because I have always been on the defensive. It seems every time I say one movie is bad and another is good, I am asked, by teachers, by would-be publishers, to insert a detailed aesthetic breakdown that makes clear how I reached such a conclusion. Over the past ten years this has become practically instinctual. I have published two essays in cinema journals, one about why it is wrong to understand Tarkovsky's Nostalghia as an anti-feminist harangue and the other about why Kiarostami's Taste of Cherries is a cinematic masterpiece while a movie ostensibly interested in many of the same questions, Mendes' American Beauty is kitsch. Then there is the content of this blog! Where are the movies for people who hate movies?

So I want to thank 13 Kangs for getting us back on track even if he chose a particularly silly idiom. I would ask readers not to judge him by his appropriation of techniques invented by sports hackery, but by the content of his criticism. 13 Kangs is a great student of Bergman, and I know that he did not get that from his screen writing teacher; he learned painstakingly over time. In any event his recent post is a damn sight better than my discussions of run of the mil documentaries about great thinkers and abstract speculation about the nature of Cinema or the makeup of the canon. There has been too much abstract discussion about the nature of art and the particular potential of cinema lately, and it is distracting me from writing about works. Not that this discussion is unimportant, just that I need to make sure I am still writing about works and artists. The films are the real teachers.

I was reminded of this by a recent viewing of Ozu's masterpiece, Tokyo Story. I actually watched it before writing the second blog about Žižek! and the one about Derrida. I must admit it was extremely difficult to bear down and finish those, because Ozu will take the wind out of those intellectual sails. It made me think about how I treat people, particularly how I treat my parents and my grandparents and how disrespectful and ungrateful to them I am. It showed me what generosity looks like. It showed me selflessness and forgiveness. It made me think about how people deal with profound loss. Tokyo Story is about getting old and dying and trying your whole life to do right by people and knowing that in many instances you failed. And when I say that art is about life and not about ideas about life, that's what I mean. Tokyo Story is not ideas; it is not so much in the mind. Ozu's films are always behavior and human experience. His work is also camera angles, empty spaces, pacing and other important aspects of visual and narrative style, but I want to focus just on the matter of ideological consent for the moment. Tokyo Story is daily life; more specifically, it it the daily life you and I ignore because we are too busy thinking about big ideas. When my father looks up from his lunch and tells me, with my mother siting next to him and my wife sitting next to me, that he figures the family name will die with him because his one male cousin only had daughters and it doesn't look like I'm going to have any kids, there is no philosophy to help me make sense of that.

But there is Ozu. I could have forgotten what art was for if not for watching that movie. I came up with the name for this site thinking about a former English professor who absolutely hated movies because he thought the medium was inherently pornographic. I convinced him to take part in programming a film series with me, and I consider it one of my happiest achievements to have won him over to Mother and Son, Stalker, Late Spring and Sans Soleil. I forgot about him. I forgot about that impetus. From now on I hope to fill this page with more criticism and commentary of movies that the average web wanderer my have never heard of.


In A Year of 13 Kangs said...

Bravo, Knecht. And thanks for the flattery. I've always felt the most compelling criticism was confessional in nature. Way to steal the thunder of my big Ozu post, tho... (don't worry, he's ranked in the top... 5?)

Fraser Orr said...

Lately I've been mourning the loss of Ray Carney's website, and was searching for his views about Tokyo Story when I stumbled on to this site. It's good to see their are other people on the internet with an intelligence equal to his, especially on a film blog!

J. Knecht said...

That's very flattering, Fraser Orr; we do our best here. Thanks for the compliment. As to Carney's views on Tokyo Story, he's got them. I've heard him call it "the greatest film ever made." I took a course about Ozu that he taught in 1998. I'm sure he has an unpublished book about Ozu laying around or sitting in his hard drive. Perhaps some day we will get to read it.