Monthly Archives: April 2013

Benshi

It must have been at Cornerhouse that I first saw an Ozu film. Later I remember seeing some on BBC2, back when they had proper film seasons with critics’ introductions, which tells you it was probably fifteen years ago or more.  Since then I’ve often recommended Tokyo Story to people, though I do wonder how many have acted on the suggestion. What I remained ignorant about was his body of early silent films. At one time, as I learned during a Japanese cinema course (again at Cornerhouse), their industry was larger than Hollywood.

The showing of Ozu’s Walk Cheerfully this Monday, for BFI members, was an unexpected opportunity to address this gap. After seeing Asquith’s Underground (my first trip to Kermode‘s famous Phoenix in East Finchley) I felt able to tackle another silent film.  A few days before, BFI sent out an e-mail pointing out that there wouldn’t be any subtitles.  Instead, a Benshi performer would interpret the action and intertitles, along with a couple of musicians.  I wonder whether they were trying to undercut potential complaints?

Tony Rayns introduced the film, pointing out that for various reasons silent cinema persisted as the main format in Japan until the mid thirties, in contrast to the rush of talkies elsewhere.  Tomoko Komura, the Benshi artiste, came on stage in what Rayns described as an “appropriate gangster outfit”.

How initially strange it was to witness an interventionist chorus, who provided the words we couldn’t hear or read, as well as the groans, yelps, shouts and whispers, talking in Japanese as well at times (for the greetings and formal thank yous, etc.)  She varied her voice well for the male and female characters and barely hesitated throughout the film, without a script.  It was quite an extraordinary performance.  At the other side of the stage were two musicians (there’s more about them here).  A man playing shakuhachi and other wind instruments, and a woman playing violin and electronics/laptop. Beyond their obvious musicianship, they were tremendously inventive and resourceful, emulating cars, trains and typewriters, providing sounds for the polishing of a golf club and a skipping rope in a boxing gym.

While perhaps a little crude judged by his later standards, the fundamental humanity of Ozu shone through and there were quite a few stylistic flourishes, rather at odds with his reputation as the master of the static camera. The combination of a beautiful film with a peculiarly Japanese accompaniment made it an unexpectedly moving and highly satisfying experience.

Second sitting

At school there was an intangible but definite divide between first and second sittings at lunchtime.  Could be an early indication of the differences between Type A and Type B personalities, if you believe in such distinctions.  What wasn’t generally permitted was to attend both.

As promised in a previous post I went back to the Whitechapel gallery to see the remainder of the Gerard Byrne show, taking advantage of the Thursday late opening. Poor research meant that I arrived too late to see all of the third film in gallery 1.  (I do though applaud the organisers for making the detailed timings available.  So often it’s very frustrating trying to watch videos at exhibitions.)  It was another set of recreated conversations.  I enjoyed one comment I overheard:

This is really rubbish. Why can’t they show one thing on one screen?

It was funny to observe – and participate in – the ritualised shuffling between different videos, which was the practice most people adopted.  Others stolidly stayed in one position, no matter whether anything was being projected there.  The film was okay.  Not as good as the Surrealists or Sartre.  I think the content – controversies about Minimalism – was less compelling.

Upstairs, I settled into a methodical approach to the three sets of videos, again using the mysterious Hantarex tellies reminiscent of Programmes for Schools and Colleges. There were three screens for two of them, each with two chairs, so there was a lot of Strategic Hovering, especially because it wasn’t quite clear which were repetitions and which might be variations.

The first recreation was of a discussion organised by Playboy in the 1960s, to discuss “the new sexual lifestyles”.  The protagonists seemed to know each other, if only by reputation, and this added to the spiciness of their interchanges.  The proprietor of “Screw magazine” revelled in his role as an outcast.  The way that speakers would curtail their points to accommodate plugs was amusing:

My book, Sex for Fun and Profit, deals with it in some detail.

Some other quotes:

I have absolutely no taboos [with a leer]

I never met a sofa I didn’t like

S&M is a growth stock

The general theme here is anachronisms and the contrasts between previous generations’ ideas of how the future will turn out and what we have seen to transpire. The discussion with Frank Sinatra about the “special car” was marvellously undercut by their wandering around largely derelict urban areas and desultory coffee bars. Some Scandinavians in what looked like a Mies van der Rohe house discussed the space programme:

The next century belongs to the space farers

and the outer limits of hedonism:

Incubating smallpox viruses as a method of intoxication

Their certainty about the extrapolation from current trends was appealing, no doubt tickled by dramatic irony.

There were some people who must have been special gallery guests, looking on amused, with stickers for identification. Perhaps they were benefactors and “dignitaries”. I also noticed that the employees in the various galleries had very different strategies to occupy their time monitoring us visitors, either determinedly static in their corner chairs, or mimicking our motion.  None of them fell back on the old standby of reading a book, clutching a walkie-talkie.

When there is far more on offer than I can possibly see, it could be self-indulgence to return to something I’ve seen before, if only in part. There is a pleasure though in completion and I felt the same on a second trip to David Nash at Kew Gardens, about which I shall write more soon.

The best approach, then, is to attend first and second sittings.

 

 

Another second sitting at David Nash at Kew