Passport to Cinema: Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’ afterword

The great Alexander Mackendrick said that drama is about life ‘with the boring bits left out’. Yasujiro Ozu saw it differently. He embraced the ‘boring bits’, the everyday. Ozu weans us, for a while anyway, from the need for action and spectacle. He enhances the ordinary to the level of both entertainment and poetry.

At a superficial level Ozu’s films are not about very much. Many scenes comprise housework (the sequence in TOKYO STORY is simply thrilling), leaving and entering the house, making tea, drinking tea, preparing the bath, sitting quietly, drinking sake (a great deal of that) – and a lot of walking. There are shots of empty rooms and corridors, and abstract exteriors that are often just part of something. For instance, Tokyo in TOKYO STORY is first symbolised by a shot of three industrial chimneys – Tokyo is outside the frame. Ozu invites one to contemplate, think, consider and interpret. It sounds like Art House cinema at its nadir. It is the opposite.

Ozu made more than fifty films and they were regularly in the top five at Japan’s box office. His popularity is puzzling considering that the stories are remarkably similar – but then so are Jane Austen’s, Dostoevsky’s, Chekhov’s. It is almost an aspect of greatness. But one has also to look at the style; Ozu’s is like no other. The narrative is precise and plot is minimal, often perversely so; the mise-en-scène guides us to what is directly important; the editing is spare, creating a sense of real time; characterisation leaves out much, leading us to put in much; performance is almost free of ‘acting’. Ozu pares away everything and what is left is essence and engagement with the audience.

After seeing a couple of Ozu’s films, the rest of cinema and television seems overworked and loud, serving entertainment to a supposedly febrile audience. One goes back to Ozu and the everyday domestic world, where happiness and pain begin for most of us. Despite, or because of, his stylisation, he creates the real world, the inner spiritual world.

Hollywood, Aristotle’s town, admired Ozu but could not follow. For the rest of us Ozu is a miracle.

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An introduction to Ozu’s ‘Late Spring’ at the BFI South Bank, Dec 8th

Late SpringAccording to the lists of 10 and 100 best films the world is a small place consisting primarily of the US and Western Europe. It seems only a small number of films have ever been made as the same ones appear over and over again. Convergence is the first step to entropy. It comes as a surprise to find that Japan exists – thanks to Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and to Ozu whose TOKYO STORY occasionally makes it to the top of the pile. Ozu’s LATE SPRING got to 17 and was called the ‘perfect’ film. It is more important than that.

LATE SPRING is Ozu’s first film with Setsuko Hara as Noriko – and she carries that name, but not the character, in the following two films EARLY SUMMER and TOKYO STORY. The three films are sometimes referred to, somewhat arbitrarily, as the Noriko trilogy.

Ozu is an elusive director. His films appear to be straightforward domestic dramas; the stories are not very different; the characters are played by a repertory of the same actors. In recollection, a scene or a moment from Ozu could come from a number of his films, rather like a Beethoven or Mozart theme when you have to think hard about its context. Soaps work through scattering plotlines outwards; Ozu digs inwards and downwards. LATE SPRING started a process which ended with the sublime AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON.

Mamoun will be introducing LATE SPRING (Banshun) at the BFI South Bank, Screen NFT2, December 8th, 6.10pm.

Mamoun would like to thank Dominic Power, Head of Screen Arts at the National Film and Television School for inviting him to introduce this classic of world cinema.

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Introducing Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ at the NFT

Poster for Fritz Lang's 'M' by Rodolfo Reyes

Poster for Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ by Rodolfo Reyes

Mamoun is delighted to have been invited by David Somerset, the education curator of the British Film Institute, to introduce a screening of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ on 12 September 2.00 pm at NFT3.

Mamoun says,  “It’s a basic truth that where there’s one there’s another. In Germany there were four: George W Pabst,  F W Murnau,  Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch. Four great artists of cinema, who helped both evolve and revolutionise cinema from the silent era onwards. The order is from the oldest to the youngest. In the compelling but silly game of who’s best, I would be influenced by what I saw last. Fritz Lang’s M would certainly  put him first among the firsts.”

Mamoun has written a review entitled  ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for The Times Higher Education Supplement of Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Fritz Lang, The Nature of the Beast:

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by | August 2, 2014 · 12:43 pm

Some of the Palestinians

I landed in Beirut with my wife and young family on 19 April 1974 to take up my appointment as Head of Films Branch, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). A leftist leader had been assassinated in South Lebanon the previous day and that event is regarded  as the start  of the civil war. A few days later I drove down to Nabatieh Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon to film the consequence of Israeli bombing. The camp had been obliterated. A few days later I filmed the effect of bombing in Rashidieh, a camp further down the coast near Tyre.

The brief was to document the services – Housing, Education, Health, Rations – that UNRWA offered the Palestinian refugees.  My immediate boss and chief of the AV division was the legendary Myrtle Winter Chaumeny (writer, photographer, sailor, dancer); the director of Information was John Defrates, the bravest man I have ever met, who was a Navy pilot in the icy waters near Vladivostock during WWll. I was given a fairly free hand but editorial control rested with UNRWA. What I saw in South Lebanon and elsewhere gave me the form of the film: the experience of life in the camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan  – but not the West Bank because Israel refused me entry. Myrtle filmed that sequence.

So the story is about war in Lebanon; life in one the oldest camps near Aleppo established in 1948; work in Baqa’a in Jordan which accommodated thousands of fleeing refugees after the 1967 war;  and education in Ramallah.

Since then everything has changed for the worse for the Palestinian people. The locations for the film are now war zones or something very similar.  The tragedy continues.

Mamoun

The film was invited to the London Film Festival and Teheran Film Festival. A copy is held by The National Film Archive.

Some of the Palestinians is being shown as part of the Refugee season at the BFI South Bank, London. NFT 2, 19th June 2014. Tickets from the BFI ticket office and website.

We would like to give special thanks to David Somerset of BFI education for his support, and including this film in the season.

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Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon, Southbank 23 May

ImageI am presenting Yasujirô Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon on Friday 23rd May at National Film Theatre 3, BFI Southbank, London 2 pm. There will be a Q&A after the screening.

An Autumn Afternoon is Ozu’s last work and one of his few colour films. It is Ozu at his most distilled. All the elements  and style of shooting combine to elicit total attention from us. And he gives us time, through the use of space –  empty corridors, rooms and exteriors –  to consider and reconsider, to think about what we have just seen. When normal service of cinema and television is resumed, you’d  think the world has gone mad, suffering from ADHD or under the influence.

Ozu’s films are not only journeys into his mind but also into our minds.

For more information and to book online visit the BFI website.

 

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Gabriel García Márquez’s unfinished novel

I was saddened to hear of the death of Gabriel García Márquez this week. I spent a memorable couple of hours in his company just over fifteen years ago in Havana.

I met Gabriel García Márquez in November 1998, when he was president of the International Film & Television School in Cuba (EICTV). I had recently been appointed Head of Editing by the new principal Alberto Garcia Ferrer, who had himself been headhunted by Márquez. I initiated some major changes in the department, which Alberto welcomed, but he suggested I visit Márquez to let him know what I was planning to do. As I was leaving the campus at San Antonio de Los Baños—one of the most enchanting campuses anywhere—with the interpreter Oriel Rodriguez I bumped into the Belgian editor/director Rogier van Eck. I asked him whether he would like to join us. He jumped at the chance.

Márquez had a residence in Havana, a grand building that also housed the Latin-American Foundation for New Cinema, of which he was the founder member. Everything about Gabriel García Márquez surprised me. I expected him to be tall, in fact he was short; the man with the distinctive, vivid and resonant authorial voice was softly spoken; and the firebrand of the left struck me as a courteous, graceful and charming patrician.

He knew that I was not full-time at the school and that I devised the courses, invited the tutors, and paid periodic visits to debrief the students, give masterclasses and organise workshops. He was struck by the fact that the tutor list included Bill Forsyth, Peter Kingsgate Smith, Jack Gold, Kerry Crabbe, Harry Hook etc. ‘Are you planning a British invasion?’ he asked. ‘I suppose I am,’ I said. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘better than an American one.’ He asked me why there were so many directing workshops for editors. I told him that it was a standing joke at the British National Film & Television School (NFTS) that my editors had more directing workshops than the directors. Editors learnt how to work with directors by stepping into their shoes.

He asked about the current workshop, which was about the ‘eye line’. Now, the ‘eye line’ is helpful in telling the audience who is where in relation to whom on the screen, but it has also become a fetish—I suspect because it’s about the only thing that filmmakers can define easily and agree about, that is, if one imagines an invisible line between two characters the camera should stay consistently on one side of the line or the other and not cross it. Ozu and Ford, to name but two in the Pantheon, crossed the line repeatedly—and the sky did not fall. My workshop was a ‘three eye-line’ exercise, that is, with three characters. Challenging, but, once grasped, the students would be able to place the camera with confidence. How did it work, he asked. (Abstraction does not work well in movies. There is no equivalent to a five-finger exercise.) I told him that I had asked a young screenwriter at the NFTS to come up with two scenes based on a plot I had devised:  The story should be about a girl who is having an affair with two men, one her own age, the other twenty years older. The younger man does not realise the situation but the older man does and after a while tells the girl she must choose between them. She decides in his favour and promises to tell the younger man.

In the first workshop scene, the girl arrives at a café to meet the younger man and, to her horror, the older man is sitting at a table watching them. It’s an L-shaped exercise with two people sitting close to and one far away. Throughout, her attention is constantly divided between the two men.

The second scene shows the girl and the older man a year later at the same café—but totally unexpectedly the young man joins them at the table. This is the A-shaped exercise of three characters close to each other. The scene ends with her telling the men that she hopes they will be happy together—and leaves them to it.

Márquez’s reaction took us all by surprise. He became quite animated and his voice became firmer. He said that he had been working on an unfinished novel with a similar plot. His story was about impecunious young lovers and a rich man who comes into their neighbourhood. The rich man is attracted by the girl and the young man suggests she has an affair with him, makes him fall in love and later fleeces him and takes him for all he’s got. Of course the plan goes awry, the young woman falls in love with the older man and the young man plans to murder him—a very different world from my two-dimensional story. But Márquez was nudged by the workshop story and muttered something about a ‘series of betrayals’. Very Márquez, you might think. He said he was going to return to his unfinished novel, but I don’t know if he ever did.

Márquez gave screenwriting courses at the Foundation and students were thrilled to be taught by him and totally charmed by his straight forwardness, as indeed I was. There was no side to him and he did not play the Grand Maître. At no point during the couple of hours that we spent with him did he bring the conversation round to himself. I spent most of the time answering his questions. His curiosity seemed limitless.

Referring to our encounter, Rogier said ‘You are not impressed by anyone, are you?’ ‘Was I rude or too familiar?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you treated him as an ordinary man.’ ‘He is an ordinary man,’ I said, ‘an ordinary man who happens to be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.’

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Introduction to Antonioni’s L’Avventura

EFClogo

Mamoun made one of his regular visits to the European Film College in Ebeltoft, Denmark, to deliver masterclasses and his now well known movie introductions. One of the introductions was to Antonioni’s classic L’Avventura.

Many thanks to Georgi Yordanov who filmed the event, and the staff and students of the European Film College.

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