Monday, July 06, 2009

Illusion and Cruelty

My tweets from last night;

Tomato sauce has taken the whole plate.
A cat might make a mess of a lizard.
For some spoils mercs will forever wait.
Lazy monks attend them in a blizzard.

While colouring yesterday, I listened to critic Donald Richie's commentary for the Criterion DVD of The Lower Depths. Most of his analysis centred on the idea of the necessity of illusions for survival, particularly among the poor, which I also felt was the film's chief concern in my analysis. Though Richie, who knew Kurosawa personally, also remarked on Kurosawa's feelings about the subjectivity of criticism;

Of course, my going on like this, about the aesthetics of the Kurosawa film is something with which the director himself could not have disagreed more. He didn't like this kind of talk, like I'm talking now, and in fact when he heard anybody talking like I am now he would either leave the room or stop listening. He simply was not interested in this. If you asked Kurosawa, you know, the meaning of what he was doing he simply had no answer for this. If you asked him how he had done a certain scene, he might be interested enough to answer. His interest in his pictures and indeed life itself was never in, you know, why a thing happens, this was not what interested him. He was very interested in how it occurs. How it could be put together, how indeed it could be reassembled . . . but he simply wasn't interested in any past aesthetic, categorical talk, he disliked the kind of generalisations that I am lavishing on this particular recording. What he liked was the detail, the single detail which showed all, and which rendered all generalisations redundant . . .

He'd say, "Look, I'm making a film. If I could've said this in words, I wouldn't have needed to make a picture of it, right?" And of course, he's quite right. He's implying that the kingdom of words and the kingdom of images are separated by this great gulf and no bridge is ever going to go over it. And, indeed, what we say about a thing and what the thing itself consists of are two entirely different things, which never agree. I mean, post-modernist structuralism says exactly the same thing, and it is quite true--the words create an image by themselves. As you are listening, I am creating an image of those images that you are looking at, but the images you are looking at are the real thing. I'm the illusion, or the delusion, here. The images themselves carry everything we know and we do not need to question what they mean . . .

Which is a fitting enough discussion with a film about people needing their own personal illusory worlds to survive.

Richie digressed quite a bit in this commentary, which is by no means a bad thing, as it sounds as though he has quite a lot of stories, having known several of Japan's greatest directors since the 1940s. I was surprised to hear him say he'd actually suggested to Kurosawa that he cast Toshiro Mifune in Ran. The decades long rift between the director and the man who'd starred in 16 of his films had seemed so profound to me I couldn't imagine someone bringing it up so casually. Kurosawa's reply, apparently, was that he wouldn't work with anyone who'd make something like Shogun, which was an American television series Mifune worked on in the 1970s. But, Richie said, Mifune had been forced to take the role after participation in his last film with Kurosawa had made him unavailable for years after he'd been used to doing two movies a year. He never curbed his extravagant spending, so he was forced to take the first big paycheck that came his way after Red Beard.

But one of the most interesting things Richie had to say about The Lower Depths, to me, was a remark on the casual cruelty of the characters

Of course, illusion is also delusion . . . illusions are against the whole idea of reality, that's why they're called illusions. And so they are delusions in that they separate us from reality, but they also make reality something which we can live with. All these people . . . hope that they are somebody else . . . Both these people are motivated by hate, self hate, usually, or, in the case of the thief, doubts about self. We will shortly see a man who calls himself an ex-samurai and who may well be one. But the important thing is this is the shell, this is the character he has drawn. We see a prostitute later on, and she lives on the illusion, the delusion, that she has had a very great love in her life and that this love is somehow going to go and come back in some way and is going to make her life having been worthwhile.

. . . Here comes the samurai. And you'll notice the way in which the other characters refuse to believe he was a samurai and make fun of his ambitions just as they are extremely cruel to the prostitute. Cruelty in this picture turns out to be a natural function, sort of like eating, or going to the toilet . . . And so, the idea of an evil, something which is larger than ourselves, is not addressed in this picture at all, nor do I believe Kurosawa entertains any such idea. Cruelty is something which is absolutely inbred in us and is based upon our concept of who we want to be and who we think the other person is. In this case, all of these people who are making fun of this man who says that he is a samurai are boosting their own idea of who they are by doing this . . . They have discovered an "other" against whom they can project themselves and hence realise who they are. At least they aren't samurai, at least they don't lie . . . If you look at it closely, everybody turns against everybody else, in that they refuse to accept the illusions which the others feel are necessary to live. Mifune, who has problems of his own, is like a child, he's so delighted, to be able to affirm himself against what he would see as the pretensions of somebody with whom he has to live.

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