Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Early Spring/Duck Soup

The mood of Yasujiro Ozu's Early Spring is best encapsulated in a line delivered towards the end of the film by a disillusioned old salaryman in a bar. "I've worked 31 long years," he says, "to find that life is just an empty dream." This melancholy lament, reflecting the wish for something different than life has turned out to be, is common in Ozu's films, and especially in this one, which captures the milieu of the salaried worker with an attentive eye for detail and a keen sense of the loneliness and ultimate meaninglessness of this kind of life. And yet in the midst of this gloom, Ozu injects his film with such richness of detail, moments of fullness and celebration, that the sadness is leavened by hopefulness. As with almost all of Ozu's films, what would normally be called the plot is at best incidental to what's really going on here. In this film, the main storyline concerns the salaryman Shoji Sugiyama (Ryo Ikebe) and his wife Masako (Chikage Awashima), who are suffering through a discontented marriage. Shoji flirts with, and then finally has a brief affair with, a co-worker, a girl nicknamed Goldfish (Keiko Kishi), and this momentary dalliance (really, just a single night) drives away his wife when she learns about it.

This, at least, is the ostensible "plot" of Early Spring, the narrative engine of the film. Ozu, though, characteristically obscures and mutes this storyline, situating it firmly within the larger context of Tokyo's suburbs and the many working men who commute into the city from there every day, as well as their families. Ozu signals his concern with this wider context very early on in the film, as the first few scenes cut back and forth between several different families living in adjoining houses in a single neighborhood, as they wake up in the morning with the men preparing for work and the women bustling around the house getting ready for the day as well. In these opening scenes, it's not at all clear who the central family of the film will be, and Ozu further diffuses such narrative interest by inserting a very early scene in which crowds of commuters walk towards the local train station, all dressed identically and carrying bagged lunches. This communal impression of a "type," rather than the individual, is Ozu's starting point, and he moves from here into the individual stories and characters who make up this crowd.

Formally speaking, Ozu's distinctive static camera makes up the vast majority of the shots in the film, nearly all of them taken from his signature low angle. This restraint and stasis gives an especial significance to the few moments when the camera does move, even if the rationale for the movement isn't always clear. In this film, the camera moves in just two circumstances. During a hiking trip that many of the workers organize, the camera laterally tracks with them as they walk, traveling in pace with them as they walk. The result is a tension between stasis and motion, as the people remain in frame while the scenery seems to move behind them. This scene, with its bright white sky and open framing, perfectly captures the airy, carefree quality of this nature walk, in contrast to the crowded living spaces and hurried commuting of Tokyo. The object of the moving camera is less clear in a handful of transitional scenes, set in office corridors, in which the camera creeps slowly forward down the hallway, never quite reaching the other end before Ozu cuts away. These short scenes are inevitably used as bridging sequences between a scene set at the office and one set elsewhere, so that Ozu cuts from these interludes directly to a new setting. The camera's creeping forward motion thus subtly suggests the shift of scene, so that even without overtly signifying anything in itself, once it's been used once or twice it comes to have its own meaning in the context of the film's formal language.

These moments of camera movement are the exceptions, though, set off against a style that overwhelmingly favors stasis, a fixed angle of observation within each individual shot. This fixedness allows Ozu to carefully compose each shot, and he especially favors the use of internal framing, further subdividing the frame by filming through doorways and creating layers within the image. In one scene towards the end of the film, after Shoji's wife has left him and he's just had an angry encounter with his mistress as well, he's packing to leave for a new job he's just been transferred to. Ozu had just filmed his conversation with Goldfish mostly in close medium shots, and after she storms out, the next shot is a much longer view, in which Shoji is isolated within the frame. The doorway of the room he's in forms an additional frame, further distancing him, and behind him multiple screens, windows, and doors subdivide the frame into layers of boxes and geometric shapes. The image is further cluttered, the hard lines softened, by the unpacked clothes and the mess all around him. A pair of suits, overlapping each other as they hang in the upper righthand corner of the image, provide an illusion of depth, seeming to recede into the distance. The power of Ozu's static framing becomes clear in shots like this one, in which every inch of the image seems to build up into a cumulative impact that drives home the shot's point without seeming too obvious. The images in this film speak much louder, with much greater clarity, than the usually bland and stoically delivered dialogue.

This formal rigor in Ozu's work is always in service to such expressions of the film's themes and characterizations. In writing about this film, I'm realizing that Ozu is particularly resistant to the process of criticism, because while all films resist to some extent the translation of visual meaning into written language, the effect of an Ozu picture seems especially difficult to describe or analyze. The magic and poetry of this film is inscribed in its simple visual aesthetic, its equally minimalist story, and its characters who subtly express themselves in even the most prosaic of conversations. With its underlying message that family bonds and affection should not be forgotten in the pursuit of economic success ("a company can be a cold thing," says Chishu Ryu as Shoji's older mentor), this film is somewhat more socially engaged than most other late Ozu, in which the domestic unit was usually more self-contained and such messages are usually excised. This isn't quite up to the heights of Ozu's best few films, perhaps because of this overt message, but it is nevertheless a strong mid-level work in a career that seemingly saw few low points and many high ones.

My great temptation in reviewing the classic Marx Brothers farce Duck Soup is simply to construct my review entirely from quotes, so rich and hilarious is the zinger-laden dialogue in this crisply paced comedy. I'll resist the temptation, though, not only because it would be a cheap way out of a review, but because the brothers' fast-paced patter doesn't translate easily into print, with so much of its impact relying on the performers' flawless comic timing and gift for accents and delivery. It would take a similarly talented comic (like, say, Dave Sim, whose Lord Julius bears more than a passing resemblance to Groucho Marx) to get across in mere words the distinctive rhythms of these performers — and let's face it, I'm not a very talented comic. So the best I can do is try to approximate the feel of this film, which catapults along through just over an hour of ludicrous situations, crammed with so many sight gags and so much quick-witted banter that it both breezes by and feels like it has to be so much longer than it actually is.

The film's plot is the barest whiff of an excuse for what is to follow, but the opening few scenes nevertheless set things up with considerable pomp and circumstance. The setting is the imaginary country of Freedonia, and the wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) has agreed to bail the country out of financial trouble only if they appoint her beloved friend Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho, of course) to be the new president. They agree, and Groucho's grand introduction as the new leader is accompanied by the singing of Freedonia's national anthem and a lovingly choreographed musical number, which Groucho ruins by sneaking in through the back, sliding down a fire pole and inconspicuously joining the row of soldiers awaiting his arrival. This opening, which defuses governmental ritual with Groucho's slouching entrance and side-of-the-mouth quips, sets the tone for the film as a whole. With the Marx Brothers running the government, legislation, diplomacy, and war become games of escalating absurdity and illogical wordplay. At one cabinet meeting, an advisor stands up and asks to speak about tariffs, to which Groucho responds that this is new business, and they're still covering the old business — but by the time he moves onto the new business seconds later, he tells the same advisor that unfortunately the tariffs have become old business already, and that it's time for the new business now.

This kind of twisting logic is a Marx Brothers signature, keeping everyone on their toes with constantly changing rules. In this warped world, Groucho can grow angry from an insult that he has himself imagined and acted out, just as he can get offended by a story his brother Zeppo (as the straight man, royal advisor Bob Roland) whispers to him, only to be informed that he was the one who originally told poor Zeppo the story. This unsteady grounding is even more true of Chico and Harpo, who provide perhaps the film's funniest scenes as a pair of inept spies for the opposing country of Sylvania. In a meeting with Sylvania's ambassador, Trentino (Louis Calhern), this ridiculous duo runs circles around their hapless employer, the combination of Chico's thick Italian accent and Harpo's silent miming somehow creating a perfect comic alchemy. Again and again, Chico sets up Trentino's expectations, building up, only to totally disrupt expectations by revealing the total irrelevancy of the information they've gathered about the enemy leader. "Well, you remember you gave us a picture of this man and said, follow him?" Chico asks, and Trentino eagerly affirms it. "Well, we get on-a the job right away, and in-a one hour — even-a less than one hour..." The expectation is built up, and Trentino leans forward, and then: "We lose-a the picture. That's-a pretty quick work, eh?"

This destruction of expectations is the essential form of the Marx Brothers joke, a close relative of their tendency to rely on word games and misunderstandings of meaning. There are rarely any jokes here that don't work, and when they don't it's mainly because they fail to surprise or reverse expectations. An example would be the recurring gag involving a motorcycle and sidecar, which is funny the first time it happens, but its iterations are overly predictable and go exactly as the viewer would expect them to. These moments are rare, though, and in the fast-paced flow of this film, they're over very quickly while the brothers race on to the next setup and payoff. This verbal dexterity is matched in a willingness to engage in physical comedy as well, especially from the mute Harpo with his honking horns and the scissors he uses to snip off anything he can get his hands on. But all the brothers occasionally get in on the physical comedy game from time to time, and the climactic mirror scene in which Groucho faces off against his "reflection" (actually Harpo in disguise) is a hilarious mimed sequence worthy of the best silent comedy, especially once Chico gets in on the act as a third Groucho. It's played completely silent, with not even any music, to allow the emphasis to fall where it naturally should, entirely on the movement and the body language of the two actors.

Director Leo McCarey, later known for much more personal comedies, here completely bows to the Marx Brothers, stepping aside and simply making whatever creative choices will best showcase their work. The result is a utilitarian mise en scéne that sometimes even verges on the sloppy, especially during some of the musical numbers, where the choppy editing seems indifferent to any sense of continuity or resonance between disparate shots. This kind of careless editing and construction crops up periodically in the course of the film, but it's hardly important in the context of this looney quartet's antics. The Marx Brothers rightfully dominate the film, and in comparison to them even the medium of film itself begins to seem inconsequential. That's why, for the most part, McCarey's decision to lay low directorially is a wise one, and the Marx Brothers are able to take center stage as they fire off their best material.

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