Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Season of Light

It's truly Winter on Frisco Bay now, with temperatures to prove it. What better time to spend inside a movie theatre, being warmed by the heat of artistic achievement? Though it may be tougher to find time for culture in a December packed with holiday parties and shopping trips, the potential psychological and, dare I say, spiritual rewards, of seeing a good or great movie seem to be ramped up at this time of year. Why else do so many film companies release so many of the films they think will resonate with adult audiences during this season? (So they can position their films for critics' top tens and Academy Awards, you say? Don't be such a Scrooge!) This week Frisco Bay hosts at least two screenings likely to have a profound mood-altering effect on religious and secular cinephiles alike. I mentioned both in my last post but they're worth repeating. There's Thursday's screening of Carl Dreyer's 1928 The Passion of Joan Of Arc at the glorious Paramount, with a 22-piece orchestra and full chorus performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light composition as underscore. Seeing the trial of the Maid of Orleans enacted (almost entirely in facial close-ups) on such a large screen with such glorious music accompanying is likely to be the cultural highlight of the month (if not year) for anyone no matter what their religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Then on Saturday the Rafael Film Center screens Apichatpong Weerasethakul's very spiritually-attuned new film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives as part of a week-long International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase.

I haven't seen any of the other selections in the Rafael program of Buddhist-themed films (though I should note that the documentary Saint Misbehavin': the Wavy Gravy Movie will begin a week-long engagement at the Red Vic this Friday, before it screens at the Rafael on Sunday), but I have previewed DVD screener copies of two hour-long films playing together as part of the International Buddhist Film Festival's December 9-19 stint at the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts. Titled The Inland Sea and Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden, these two Nipponophile documentaries from the early 1990s will be presented in rare 35mm prints, and the cinematographer for The Inland Sea, Hiro Narita (who also shot Never Cry Wolf and La Mission among many other titles) will be present at the films' December 12 pairing.

The Inland Sea ties nicely into the Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screening because the latter film's director Apichatpong has reportedly been planning to follow his Cannes prize-winning film with a project on Donald Richie, who narrates and briefly appears in The Inland Sea, quite appropriately since he wrote the 1971 travel memoir upon which it was based. Richie is of course best known to cinephiles for his writings on Japanese film, but in fact his writing on the country he's lived in since the late 1940s investigates more than just its cinema. The Inland Sea, both in book and film form, seeks a traditional Japan fading from view in the latter part of the 20th century, by journeying between the coastal towns bordering the Seto Inland Sea that separates the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. One gets a good sense of the subject and tone of the documentary from Vincent Canby's New York Times review from 1991. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is how it straddles the line between time capsule and period piece. Richie wrote the following for a 1993 reprinting of the memoir:

It has now been over twenty years since The Inland Sea was first published, and nearly thirty since I began the journals on which it is based. During this time the area has much changed. Last year, when the book was made into a film, the crew could no longer follow all of my original route since large portions of it were now unrecognizably developed.

Yet, they discovered that by jumping one island over, as it were, they could parallel my journey of three decades before; they could find places where, mirroring the words of my text, the past had not vanished, not quite. The Inland Sea I wrote about yet exists--it is there, if you know where to look.
I do wonder if the same could be said today, now that nearly another twenty years have passed.

Both The Inland Sea and suitably titled Dream Window: Reflections On The Japanese Garden are enriched by a musical score from 20th century Japan's arguably greatest composer, Toru Takemitsu, who wrote music for films by Nagisa Oshima, Masaki Kobayashi, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Akira Kurosawa (though not for any of the Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune collaborations, like the seven playing the VIZ over the holidays), and many other directors before his 1996 death. His contribution to Dream Window is much stronger than to The Inland Sea, however. Not only is there more music, featured more prominently, but Takemitsu is interviewed on camera, and even the title Dream Window was taken from the title of one of his serialist compositions. Any Takemitsu fan should consider this film a must-watch; it's especially enlightening to be able to hear the man speak about the affinity he feels between music composition and gardens, and then hear a passage from one of his Messaien-influenced pieces, while an image from the garden at Sai-Hochi appears on screen.

Perhaps Toru Takemitsu's most fruitful if not frequent composer/director relationship was the one he had with Hiroshi Teshigahara, director of Woman In The Dunes, Antonio Gaudí, and Rikyu as well as other films Takmitsu scored. Teshigahara, too, appears prominently in Dream Window: Reflections On The Japanese Garden, not in the role of film director but as grand master of his father's Sogetsu school of Ikebana (flower arranging), and as a budding outdoor garden designer as well. Since the documentary was released between Teshigahara's final two films Rikyu and Basara: Princess Goh, the only two jidai-geki (period films) the multitalented artist made in his career, it's particularly interesting to hear him advise, "we have to think of what we can create for today's world. It would be pointless just to copy what went before."

Ultimately both The Inland Sea and Dream Window are likely to be satisfying viewing for anyone with a natural interest in Japanese culture, with added excitement for cinephiles curious to see legendary figures associated with Japanese cinema (Richie, Takemitsu, Teshigahara) speaking of matters separate from their involvement in film. They certainly make sense paired together (perhaps this was first done in a 1993 issue of the Buddhism journal Tricycle) by the International Buddhist Film Festival. Though neither film addresses Buddhism in a sustained and direct way (Shintoism is in fact more prominently dealt with in The Inland Sea), they both invite a kind of contemplative observational style that may appeal to Buddhist viewers, especially those who remember that the festival programmed Thomas Riedelsheimer's documentary on artist Andy Goldsworthy Rivers And Tides at a previous event. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Riedelsheimer had encountered Dream Window in particular before developing the rhythms he employed in that film.

Before I sign off, let me point out that Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is equally devoted to the sacred and the profane in December, as in addition to their Buddhist film series, the venue is also hosting a devious horror film series called Go To Hell For the Holidays From December 2-18. Dennis Harvey has previewed most of the titles, including Wolf Creek (the Australian film that was released on Christmas Day 2005 in the US). The only selection I've seen myself is the Thai film about the cannibalistic-minded noodle vendor, The Meat Grinder. I'll simply say it was just as gory and twice as atmospheric as I expected it to be.