We’ve been watching several DVDS of movies by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu — my first exposure to his work.
The first one I saw was Tokyo Story, which some consider his masterpiece. I loved it. The story is extremely simple, mundane in a way. Acting great. What’s most striking is its whole approach to movie-making. the camera virtually never moves; each shot is precisely framed, then there’s a cut to the next precisely-framed shot. If you’re not used to his films, little seems to happen, though with some exposure you learn to slow down, focus, and see the drama in his simple stories. When something approaching drama happens in the story, Ozu seems to deliberately avoid showing it — we learn about it later through its consequences. (Favorites since Tokyo Story have been Late Spring — maybe my favorite — and Floating Weeds)
It’s hard to think of an American (or even another Japanese) film-maker who works this way. Jim Jarmusch, especially in Stranger than Paradise, is the only one who comes to my mind.
Watching these films has made me realize how much I enjoy what I’d almost call anti-movies: very quiet, contemplative films that eschew most of the film-maker’s bag of tricks designed to tug at the passions. I think of Into Great Silence, a documentary about Carthusian monks that I’ve watched several times. A couple of Jarmusch films. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films might also qualify, though to me they feel weighed down by murky symbolism when set next to the here-it-is approach that I’m trying to describe.
I read an article recently about how contemporary films are edited more and more to reflect our minds’ natural attentional cycle. It seems that, even when we are focusing on one thing, our attention shifts subtly (and rather rapidly) according to a predictable rhythm. Modern films have discovered and exploited this rhythm, and are paced so that our attention is grabbed and held almost against our will. Thus we often find ourselves enthralled by movies that we are only later able to realize are cheap, empty and repulsive.
Perhaps my delight in Ozu lies in my gratitude that there’s another way to practice movie art, a way more akin to Basho’s writing or even to iconography; movies that approach non-movement.
Ozu died in 1963. His grave displays, instead of his name, the Japanese character Mu: ‘Nothing’.