Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ozu to Oz

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2004)

Reasons why we love the Cinematheque Ontario, Number 2,456: the recent Yasujiro Ozu retrospective. Only a few of Ozu’s films are generally available (only two are on DVD), but the Cinematheque had around forty, many of them revelations. Some of them are pure genre pieces, melodramas made under considerable constraints, but even the simplest has a poise and sophistication that’s startlingly modern (one of the series’ great revelations is that 1930’s Japan, at least as depicted in those movies, seems more westernized than the country does now).

William O’Meara

Some of the Ozu movies were silent, with live piano accompaniment by a man called William O’Meara. I’ve seen O’Meara at the Cinematheque many times over the years, and I’ve always been amazed by him. He always generates a wonderfully well-judged score, always perfectly attuned and synchronized to what’s on screen. I don’t know how much preparation he does for each film, if any, but you could have imagined each one was a major undertaking.

He doesn’t overdo it though. Silent movies aren’t necessarily corny, of course, but at the very least they use a slightly heightened mode of expression (sometimes much more than slightly heightened). O’Meara makes his scores a little more melodically obvious than a contemporary movie would ever allow, and as such echoes the visual idiom quite perfectly. According to a biography I found on the internet, he’s an accomplished classical musician who’s performed all over North America, in Brazil, Poland, Italy and elsewhere, as well as frequently on CBC Radio and NPR. We’re immensely lucky that he makes himself available to the Cinematheque.

At the same time as the Ozu season, the Cinematheque had a season of films by Vincente Minnelli. I love Minnelli’s movies, particularly The Band Wagon, which I’ve written about here in the past. I couldn’t make it to the Cinematheque to any of those films, and especially regretted missing the rare chance to see The Cobweb again – it’s an intense drama, set in a mental hospital, of which I retain the most fascinating (now 20 year old) memories.

Anyway, I partly compensated by watching Singin’ in the Rain again on TV. It’s a classic film of course, containing the iconic image of Gene Kelly performing the title song, Donald O’Connor knocking himself out on “Make ‘em Laugh,” and at least five other knock-out musical numbers. Unlike popular classics such as Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain (co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen) is a bona fide critical classic as well, placing tenth in the most recent Sight and Sound critics’ poll of the best movies ever made.

I’m Happy Again

In addition to everything else, it’s one of the most memorable depictions of how sound rocked Hollywood, going in a few months from a gimmick that no one thought would last to a revelation that made some careers but killed off many more. In Singin’ in the Rain, this is indelibly embodied in the character played by Jean Hagen, who looks like Jean Harlow but sounds more like Fran Drescher. The Debbie Reynolds character, sublimating her own career, provides Hagen with a more suitable voice, until the truth is revealed at the end, with an insouciance that my wife, watching the movie with me, found rather nasty.

Actually, Gene Kelly seems to me an inherently cold personality all round, with an expression that too often creeps a little too close to a sneer, and a way with the romantic bantering that verges on bullying. It’s odd that although Kelly and Fred Astaire are the two screen legends of dance, they share a distinct frostiness; Astaire’s way with his female co-stars often just drips disdain. It’s as if their mastery of the form, over their own feet and more subtly of their comportment within the frame, imposed a distance that could only be mitigated, never conquered.

That said, Singin’ in the Rain has amazing joie de vivre, and there’s something almost eerie about so much iconic exuberance coming at you in scene after scene. The theme about the transition from silent to sound, in particular the way they patch over the aesthetic deficiencies of a doomed film by turning it into a musical, seems somehow to embody the very essence of the genre. There’s no other kind of film that strikes such a relationship between the vividly emotional and the wantonly abstract, and perhaps no musical that exploits that odd displacement with such wicked charm.

Sometimes the songs in Singin’ in the Rain are part of the action; sometimes they belong to the “real” world of the film; sometimes, as in the “Moses Supposes” number, they seem to deconstruct the “real” world, to eat away at it until it disintegrates into gibberish – but gibberish you can dance to. It’s a dizzying fantasy of imagining and living out, from Kelly’s monologue at the start where he lies about his “dignified” past history while we see the much less rarified truth on the screen, to the end where a star’s voice turns out to belong to someone else.

Off to see the wizard

A few days after that, with my appetite for classic musicals now whetted again, I watched The Wizard of Oz (it played at 1 am on Bravo, which seems in some way like a sign of a pretty cool station). Unlike Donen and Kelly’s film, this doesn’t actually seem very well-directed to me. Much of the action is staged any old way and it has a herky-jerky quality throughout. But you can certainly see why the movie’s sometimes interpreted as a big acid trip – the intensity of Dorothy’s reimagining of normal life seems way beyond mere childish dreams.

Still, it’s one of the happiest of movie accidents. Everything about it – Judy Garland’s odd girl-woman performance (it struck me at several points that Dorothy could be read as being a bit stunted), the peculiarly elemental nature of her friends’ deficiencies, the vividness of its mythology (the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers) – somehow coheres. Although by now it’s impossible to know what one reacts to in the film itself and what you’re absorbing from the popular culture.

The title of this article, of course, is a gimmick – there’s no reason why Ozu and The Wizard of Oz would be in the same article. Except that I did indeed see both in the same week. I watch such a mixed bag of movies that I end up with these wacky juxtapositions all the time (in the last few days, as I write, I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon). But no matter how often, it always strikes me as a small miracle.

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