Friday, March 29, 2013

Abandoned children

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)
At the start of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows, a young mother and her 12-year-old son Akira introduce themselves to the landlords at their new apartment building. The movers bring in furniture and suitcases, and when two of the suitcases are opened up they reveal two younger children inside; then the older boy goes to collect another girl from the station. The mother sits down with her clan to explain the rules – except for Akira, who takes care of shopping and other basic duties, no one must go outside (let alone to school), and there must be no noise.  Subsequent scenes show that the mother is engaged with her children when she’s at home, but her absences are frequent – she comes home late, and then disappears for an entire month (she talks about a new lover who doesn’t know of her children. She returns for one night, and then takes off again, this time without coming back at all. But months later she sends more money and a brief note to Akira reminding him that she’s counting on him, indicating that from her own warped perspective she’s still watching over them and fulfilling her role.

Nobody Knows

For a while the children maintain their established routine but as the money runs out, the utilities get shut off one by one, the apartment becomes a mess, and all four become foragers. They skirt round the edges of other peoples’ lives – for a while Akira makes some friends but then they fall away, then they become friends with another marginalized girl. No one notices them – police and child welfare are mentioned only once, and Akira instantly rejects the prospect, knowing from an unspecified past experience that this will split the four of them up. But if their staying together is their preeminent motivation, it’s also an abstract one. When tragedy hits one of them, the others pause and carry on. In the last scene, the group has reached a sort of stability, but the configuration has changed.

The film is fundamentally a tragic story of neglect and abuse of course, but Kore-eda sees that the four children’s plight is also a freedom. Not that the film is a cousin of Finding Neverland – it doesn’t surrender itself to an idealistic notion of childish imagination. Occasionally the children exploit the situation (Akira goes through a phase of heavy video-game playing, until the power is cut off), but for the most part they exercise their autonomy only gently – for example by creating a garden on the balcony, growing plants in old food containers. More broadly, Akira’s role as provider and overseer contrasts with the mother’s childlike quality and the absence of fathers to posit a shifting notion of family roles. But the film isn’t heavy-handed or didactic or symbolic about this. I must confess that while watching it I was often a little disengaged, and I certainly found it to be on the long side (around 140 minutes). It’s only afterwards, turning it over in my mind, that I come to appreciate Kore-eda’s range and subtlety.

Unseen Films

The film is vague about the passage of time and logistical details – it’s cool and poised and somewhat elliptical. Apparently it’s based on a true story, but this seems relatively insignificant. It could be regarded as an indictment of society, but I doubt that’s Kore-eda’s point. The title after all isn’t Nobody Cares or Nobody Tries. There are many stories in the city, and it is futile to make too much of any one of them. In one scene Akira watches a baseball game and the coach, short one player, notices him and calls him over to join the team. There follows a briefly conventional montage of integration – normal life, it seems, isn’t so far away. But it’s at the same time, that the tragedy I mentioned earlier takes place. The juxtaposition could suggest some vague moral culpability on Akira’s part, and he responds by shoplifting some supplies (something he’s resisted doing earlier), before carrying out an action of great nobility. One could view Kore-eda’s objectivity as contrived, or even irresponsible. I do think the film lacks the analytical edge that might have made it great. But it has an almost mystical impact, and it’s clearly one of the year’s best releases so far. 

This is Kore-eda’s fourth film. I saw his second, After Life, about a counseling station where the direction of the recently dead is determined. I liked it less than the consensus, but maybe now it’s worth another look. His third film Distance made little impact generally. It’s a little strange I haven’t seen his first, Maboroshi, which I seem to remember made Roger Ebert’s top ten list when it came out. It’s about what happens to a young woman after her husband unexpectedly commits suicide.

I always feel embarrassed when I have to admit that I haven’t seen some key film, although sheer mathematics make it inevitable once in a while. I maintain a movie a day pace on average (I have a job besides this, and a wife and a dog, so that’s as much as time can possibly allow) and if you reflect on the volume of cinema history and the extent of production around the world (Variety probably reviews twenty movies a week on average), it amounts to being perpetually swept further away from the shore. Still, it does mean every year yields a crop of archival pleasures. Already this year I’ve enjoyed films I hadn’t seen before by Olmi, Pasolini, Murnau, Resnais and Wajda, not to mention Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks. And I think this might be the year to finally see some of those long-deferred Fritz Lang silent films (Metropolis aside).

Inside Deep Throat

Also on this list, although not particularly near the top, was the porn classic Deep Throat. My knowledge of this genre is exceptionally shallow, and comes mainly from various documentaries (Wadd, the documentary on John Holmes, is quite interesting; certainly better than Wonderland, the deadening dramatization of his decline), but I feel I’ve been aware of Deep Throat in some vague way for just about my entire life and it’s seemed – how shall I put this – suboptimal not to know the movie better. Still, I’ve done nothing to plug this gap in my knowledge.

This has now been taken care of by the new documentary Inside Deep Throat, which presents some of the original movie’s “key” scenes while reliving its cultural impact and tracking what happened to some of the key participants. It’s by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made the surprisingly engaging and illuminating The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The new film is more conventional (like every conventional documentary, it features Norman Mailer) and I have to confess I learned very little from it. How I knew all this stuff already I can’t tell you. Maybe if you grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, it was in the water supply.

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