Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2014

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kurosawa,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm
In Search of a Marxist Method for Film Criticism

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa


A couple of weeks ago an Australian friend and fellow Marxist raised some interesting questions about film:

I have just moved to the capital city of the state and attended my first film festival. I have always enjoyed movies but in the past have been living in regional centers.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a “good movie” and yourself and David Walsh are the only two Marxist movie critics I can think of. David never seems to like anything very much and his discussion of culture – which is interesting- relies heavily on Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’.

I know you have written in passing about the sort of movies you like but wondered if you’d written more systematic about Marxism movie criticism.

Despite having written over nine hundred film reviews in the past twenty years or so, I have never really given much thought to the question of “Marxist movie criticism”.

Unfortunately Walsh has stopped writing film reviews for the World Socialist Website, which for my money was the only thing worth reading there. It’s a dirty little secret but most of the material that appears on wsws.org is extracted from the bourgeois press and then spiked with Marxist rhetoric about how evil the capitalist system is, as if we needed any reminding. I’d rather read the NY Times and make such observations myself.

Unlike Walsh, I stay away from Hollywood films except for the end of the year when I am obligated to watch a sufficient number of films like “Gravity” or “Zero Dark Thirty” to make sense out of the nominations my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) put forward at our annual awards meeting. Most of what I review is either documentaries or gritty neorealist films from “foreign” countries (nothing is more foreign to me than Hollywood) so I have a much lighter burden than Walsh.

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September 2, 2010

I Live in Fear; Lower Depths

Filed under: Film,Kurosawa — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

This is the latest installment in a survey of Akira Kurosawa movies, mostly from early in his career and never seen by me before. Given a choice between Netflix rentals and the risk of crappy movies and bedbugs at my local Cineplex, there’s no contest.

As you may know, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare’s King Lear in the 1985 Ran. But in 1955, he had his first shot at adapting the tragedy in 1955 with I Live in Fear, a movie that starred Toshiro Mifune as Kiichi Nakajima, the elderly owner of an iron foundry who has become paralyzed by fear over the threat of nuclear war. In the opening scene, he is in family court surrounded by his many children and grandchildren (including a number from his two mistresses) who want him judged incompetent. They want to prevent him from selling the foundry and using the proceeds to buy a ranch in Brazil where he is convinced that will elude the fallout from nuclear war.

A heavily made-up Toshiro Mifune as a Lear-like figure

Even though he has offered to bring everybody along with him, where they will continue to receive the allowances they now receive, they refuse to go. They clearly view him as having lost his mind. Not only do they understand that Brazil is no haven from all-out nuclear war, they also have ties to Japan that they do not want to break. The irony, of course, is that Nakajima’s fears are not that irrational. In 1955, Japan was only 10 years removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the recipient of radioactive rain, courtesy of American H-Bomb testing in the South Pacific.

I can recommend I Live in Fear despite a couple of problems. Toshiro Mifune is actually quite believable in a role that arguably should have been performed by a true oldster but has a limited range of emotions to convey. He is either in a state of rage over the refusal of his offspring to come to Brazil with him or in a total state of panic fearing nuclear war. The other characters are not that well-developed as well, mostly expressing the venality of King Lear’s daughters and little else.

The movie has a stunning climax, however, in which Nakajima finally goes off the deep end.

I recommend the Turner Classic Movies website article on the movie:

Kurosawa later claimed that I Live in Fear was inspired by conversations he had with his longtime film composer Fumio Hayasaka, who had become seriously ill during the making of Seven Samurai. Hayasaka had said to him, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn’t even know how to go on living – I’m that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all.” These thoughts eventually led to a screenplay about the nuclear age and a man who was driven insane by it but at first, Kurosawa wanted to approach it as a satire. “But how do you make a satire on the H-bomb?” he asked. Instead his story became a tragedy and the somber tone deepened when Hayasaka succumbed to tuberculosis during the film’s production.

When he wasn’t drawing from Shakespeare, Kurosawa turned eastwards toward Russia. As a long-time Russian literature devotee, something like Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths would prove irresistible. It is structured around an ensemble cast of humble people such as the kind found in Seven Samurai.

Apparently Kurosawa’s adaptation is quite faithful to the original, including much of the dialog. He relocates Gorky’s play to the 19th century Edo period, one which shared the economic misery of Russian Czarism. Gorky of course was a Marxist revolutionary who became close friends with Lenin. After growing disenchanted with Bolshevik rule in the USSR, he moved to Italy. He eventually returned to Russia and became an apologist for Stalin. Some argue that this was motivated primarily by economic duress just as was the case of G.W. Pabst’s return to Nazi Germany.

Despite the author’s leftwing politics, Lower Depths was anything but socialist agitprop. The story is much more evocative of a Eugene O’Neill play with its characters lost in booze-soaked reverie, especially The Iceman Cometh.

Nearly all of the action in Kurosawa’s version takes place in a barn-like structure where the characters live pretty much like in the Bowery flophouses of yore. There is very little action as such. Instead the movie consists of dialog between one denizen and the other, mostly along the lines of pissing on each other’s pipe dreams.

The central drama involves a love triangle between one of the dwellers, a thief played memorably by Toshiro Mifune and two sisters—one the vicious wife of the landlord and the other her abused younger sister, a Cinderella like figure.

But the most interesting character is a Buddhist monk named Kahei who offers up wry commentary on the others after the fashion of a Greek chorus. He is played by Kurosawa favorite Bokuzen Hidari who steals every scene he is in.

Although the movie is great fun throughout (despite its grim material, Kurosawa played it as comedy just as Gorky intended), the final two minutes consist of a drunken song-and-dance played by the cast ensemble. It is just one more example of the director’s uncanny sense of how to use madcap musical performance to great effect. Below you can see this scene, as well as a scene from Drunken Angel that I have reviewed here previously and that is also inspired madness.

June 11, 2010

Drunken Angel; The Idiot

Filed under: Film,Kurosawa — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

(Second in a series of articles on early Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel, made in 1948 just a year before Stray Dog, shares the latter film’s unblinking gaze at the social, psychological and economic misery of Japan immediately after WWII.

It is also the first movie that allowed Kurosawa full creative control, not having to deal with Japanese wartime censorship or that of the Allied occupying power. It is also the first movie to feature two actors who would become part of the director’s ongoing company, just as much as Max Von Sydow became associated with Ingmar Bergman. Toshiro Mifune is cast as Matsunaga, a Yakuza who comes to the drunken angel of the film’s title, a doctor in the slum neighborhood controlled by Matsunaga’s gang. Doctor Sanada is played by Takashi Shimura, who would appear opposite Mifune in Stray Dog and star in Ikiru, one of Kurosawa’s greatest masterpieces. In Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, the two actors share a father-son relationship with Mifune’s character given to youthful impetuousness. Doctor Sanada has a big job on his hands dealing with the snarling yakuza, who despite suffering from TB, insists on continuing his wastrel ways: drinking and fighting.

Sanada’s office abuts a fetid pond, almost a cesspool, where local children play despite his warnings that they can catch typhoid. This is not the Japan of later years. Like the postwar Italian neorealist movies, it is a landscape of poverty and disease with a Tokyo as ruined as Rome. Ironically, Kurosawa finds ways to turn this meager setting into something almost beautiful, as a local street musician plays a haunting tune not far from the pond late at night as the moon is reflected in the dank water.

Sanada is a drunken angel because he is an alcoholic and because he goes out of his way to keep Matsunaga alive, even turning away gangsters from his door out to punish his ward. He sees the humanity of the yakuza beneath the truculent surface, even continuing to care for him after Matsunaga beats and curses him after learning about his illness from the doctor. In the Homeric tales, the messenger of bad news is killed while in Drunken Angel, he is merely beaten and cursed.

Mifune’s performance is something to behold. As the dying man, he is determined to live each day as if it his last, which in his world means doing everything he can to undermine his health and hasten death’s arrival. In this scene from a yakuza nightclub hang-out, you get a sense of his desperate clutching at life. It is also a startling view of the Japanese embrace of American swing era customs that would appear in a similar scene in Stray Dog. Mifune is as exciting to watch as any scene in his samurai classics. Look at the crazed expression on his face!

Made in 1951, The Idiot, I’m afraid, can only be recommended to Kurosawa fans. It is an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel that had an original length of 265 minutes, to be shown in two parts. The studio bosses cut 80 minutes from the film and the director was forced to use clumsy voice-over exposition to fill in for the deleted scenes.

I am not sure if seeing the uncut version would make much difference since the original material constrained what Kurosawa could do. The “idiot” in question is Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), a World War Two veteran who came to within a whisker’s width of being shot by a firing squad for war crimes he did not commit. The trauma led to  epilepsy (an unlikely medical outcome) and a lengthy stay in a mental hospital. Kamada is not really lacking in the IQ department. He is an “idiot” only because he approaches people in a childlike manner, often committing social gaffes that would expect from a young child.

As such he is a passive and somewhat unknowable character. As I have pointed out in the past, the director is taking a calculated risk by making the lead character a victim of mental illness. When you cannot identify with a character whose experience is so at odds with everyday behavior, you put a wall between him or her and the audience just as was the case in Mussolini’s demented lover in Vincere. Not having read Dostoyevsky’s novel, I cannot say how this plays out in the original version but Kurosawa’s does not work for me.

The most interesting character in The Idiot is Akama, a crude and swaggering young man who has befriended Kamada mostly out of pity. Played by Mifune, this Akama manages to steal every scene he is in.

The movie is shot on location on Hokkaido Island, the northernmost part of Japan whose close proximity to Russia was meant to convey the atmosphere of Dostoyevsky’s novel. Snow falls throughout the movie. As evidenced below, the movie is often very lovely to look at even if it insists on keeping you at arm’s length.

April 27, 2010

Stray Dog; The Missing Gun; The Bad Sleep Well

Filed under: China,Film,Kurosawa — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

This is a first in a series of reviews of movies by Akira Kurosawa that can be rented from Netflix other than the most familiar (Rashomon, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, etc.) These movies are part of the Criterion Collection and have excellent supplementary material.

Stray Dogs was made in 1949 and stars the 29 year old Toshiro Mifune as a rookie cop named Murakami whose handgun is pickpocketed on a crowded trolley car. Even though the loss of a gun can lead to firing, Muramaki’s captain has mercy on him with the understanding that he must find it right away or face the consequences. His desperate search constitutes the plot line in the same way of the stolen bicycle in DeSica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief. Without a gun or a bike, the main characters are finished economically. Additionally, both films are graphic reminders of the costs of WWII on defeated Axis powers. Rubble can be seen everywhere on location in Rome and Tokyo while people struggle to stay afloat economically.

Of course, there is a big difference between a bicycle and a gun. The worst thing that can happen with a bike is that you lose your balance, fall down, and skin your knee. But a stolen gun can be used for criminal activities. As such, Muramaki’s search is as much to protect the innocent as well as his own livelihood.

A scene from Stray Dog in which the hero (Mifune in a white cap) stakes out a nightclub where a dancer might lead him to the man who has his stolen gun. Unfortunately, the original Youtube clip was deleted for copyright violations. The one below uses an obtrusive musical clip that it would be best to mute.

One of the most striking scenes in the entire film consists of Muramaki going undercover as a down-at-the-heels WWII veteran walking through the slums of Tokyo trying to smoke out a gun dealer who might have the stolen weapon. This is an 8 1/2 minute dialogue-free segment that a Bright Lights Film Journal article describes as follows:

This sequence, shot by Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame, is like an anti-travelogue for a ruined city. Honda had to shoot in secret, as these were actual black markets full of criminals, whores, vagrants, and other social cast-offs. The camera unflinchingly shows the crush of humanity — lines of dirty urchins; flophouses crammed with the poor; ex-soldiers standing idly on the streets; furtive transactions; all set against a backdrop of clogged, grimy alleys in Tokyo’s killing summer heat. Everything that once-proud, orderly Japanese society had become by this time is on display here in tableaux that are echoed throughout the film, and offer a key motivation for the crimes of the gun-thief.

Stray Dog has inspired a couple of remakes, the first being a 1973 film set in Okinawa that is not available in DVD. What is available is the 2002 Chinese movie The Missing Gun that is also about a war-damaged society, but one that is rooted in hyper-capitalist development rather than armed conflict as reflected in my 2005 review:

Now available in DVD, The Missing Gun tells the story of a small town Chinese cop who loses his gun. As with other neorealist films coming out of China like Not One Less or Blind Shaft, this is a China of losers, not upwardly mobile characters of the sort featured in Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.

Policeman Ma Shen (Wen Jiang) has woken up with a bad hangover and the frightening realization that he can’t find his service revolver. In China, cops are held responsible for their guns to the extent that a missing gun can result in a loss of a job and even jail time. His search for the gun assumes the dramatic dimensions of another more famous search, namely the missing bike in Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Unless he can locate the gun, Ma Shen will be ruined.

The film is structured around his pursuit of some leads turned up at the wedding party for his sister the night before, where his gun was last seen. After drinking himself into a stupor, the gun was snatched from him.

One can easily understand why Ma Shen would drink himself into oblivion. His life does not offer too much. His wife constantly berates him for being a lousy husband and father to their young son, who is the brat of the century. When his wife and son come to visit him after he has been jailed, the son practically gloats over his loss of freedom and warns him that he should not interfere with his right to watch television if he is released. As with practically everything that comes his way, Ma Shen reacts to his son’s taunts impassively.

Indeed, the only thing that seems to stir him is the mission to regain his weapon. Although traditional values seem to be disappearing rapidly in China, the cops are deadly serious about the question of guns in the wrong hands. With its characteristically dry humor, The Missing Gun includes a scene in which the police chief lectures his subordinates about the dangers presented by Ma Shen’s missing weapon. Even though it only has 3 bullets, a good shot could kill six people with it since a properly aimed weapon can kill two people at once (shades of the Warren Commission!)

The cops are typical products of the new China. When the subject of bonuses comes up, the chief questions whether material incentives would erode their élan. He answers his own question by claiming that it is good to accept them, since they were sponsored by the Communist Party. The film is characterized by a kind of ambivalence about the changes taking place in the country today. We discover that the only true bonds of solidarity exist between Ma Shen and several old friends from the village who were at the wedding party and who were in the Red Army with them. For them, the Red Army was the one time in their life when they felt like they were really capable of self-respect.

The symbol of the New China is Zhou Xiaogang (Shi Liang), who runs an illegal liquor factory. Zhou drives around in a fancy Japanese sedan and wears Italian designer suits. When Ma Shen grabs him by the lapels to extract information, Zhou cries out “Italian, Italian!”

Director Chuan Lu makes the most of on-location settings of labyrinthine alleys and empty plazas that evoke De Chirico paintings. He also uses the surrounding mountainous countryside to great effect. One scene involves a mad bicycle chase between Ma Shen and a fleeing criminal (who might have stolen his gun) across a Chinese countryside that is as beautiful despite its sense of desolation.

The Missing Gun is an interesting look at China today. Now available at local video stores, it is well worth watching despite its refusal to conform to conventional expectations about cops and robbers. Perhaps that is what makes it all the more interesting.

Made in 1960, The Bad Sleep Well once again stars Toshiro Mifune as Nishi the secretary to a crooked CEO whose daughter he has married. The film begins with the wedding scene filled with corporate bigwigs sitting around banquet tables and Nishi and the bride at the dais. The entire press corps is in attendance just as it would be at a party for one of Donald Trump’s kids. The reporters are a kind of Greek chorus as they comment on the crimes of all the corporate chiefs in attendance, starting with the father of the bride.

In the middle of the ceremony, an enormous wedding cake is wheeled in—the supplier unknown. A collective gasp is heard when the guests recognize it as modeled on the corporate headquarters of Nishi’s boss and father-in-law, with a flower sticking out of the window of a higher floor, the place from which a top executive hurled himself a few years earlier. It turns out that the man sacrificed himself for crimes by his higher-up’s. We learn that loyal salarymen are expected to commit hara-kiri just as was the case in feudal Japan.

With a new scandal brewing, Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara) is expected to kill himself for the sake of the firm as well. He is seen standing at the precipice of a volcano after writing a suicide note planted under a nearby rock. Just as he is about to hurl himself into the flaming lava, Nishi pulls him back and convinces him to join him in taking vengeance on the company since it was Nishi’s father who had thrown himself from the window. Nishi was also the person who sent the grim reminder of this event in the form of a wedding cake.

While The Bad Sleep Well is a pointed social commentary on Japanese corporate malfeasance, it is much more than that. Nishi’s quest to avenge his father has the dimensions of Hamlet with the main character acting cruelly as he sets on a path of moral retribution. In one climactic scene, he castigates himself for not being cruel enough when he decides not to throw one of his boss’s corporate henchmen out of the same window from which his father flew.

As will be noted in future reviews, Kurosawa has a great affinity with Shakespeare making adaptations of King Lear and Macbeth. His ability to relate broader social and political issues to the personal tragedies of family members distinguishes a long film career as we shall see.

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