Monday, January 12, 2009

Floating Weeds

The first time I rented Criterion's two-disc Floating Weeds set, which combines Ozu's 1934 silent A Story of Floating Weeds and his 1959 remake, titled simply Floating Weeds, it stayed around the house literally for months. I think I almost feared watching it, for the usual reasons: foreign, Japanese, Ozu, probably demanding, and something I endlessly found myself just wanting to put off to another day. I finally made myself sit through both, and kind of liked them although I didn't really love them.

Since that time, Ozu has become a bit of a small obsession, as a previous post declared. Like Bergman or Bunuel, he's one of those film artists whose films make their obsessions my obsessions, in their own way. I not only no longer avoid Ozu, I look forward to him, to not only seeing new works, but in seeing old ones again, because they come together more on subsequent viewings and because I'm a little more steeped in him, a little more attuned to his wavelength. So this weekend I watched both films again, rather easily and with great interest, although I still have to say that they don't affect me quite the way his others do -- like Early Summer, which I also watched again yesterday afternoon.

The only drawback to a weekend of Ozu is that they knock you a little off your stride, and make it difficult to get anything else done, because after they're over they still give me a lot to think about, and like a lot of great films, they don't leave you alone. Even when I think they are over, they are still playing in my head.

Ozu's films generally deal with family life, and you might say they are almost religiously domestic. The setting tends to be a house, and you really get to know that house and the people in it, even when they aren't in it, as Ozu continually draws attention to the living space, occupied or not. The families in his films are almost always going through a significant change -- a marriage, as in Early Summer, Late Spring, or An Autumn Afternoon, among others -- or they are (frequently) dealing with a generation gap, or a sudden change of locale, and with it, a drastic reassessment of life, as in his masterpiece, Tokyo Story.

The changes these people go through, and in essence the plots themselves, are both extremely basic and universal. It's hard to imagine someone trying to "sell" these movies on the basis of their stories.

"So, what's it about?"

"Uh, it's about a girl who doesn't want to get married."

"That's it?"

"Well, yeah. I mean, no. The marriage is just part of it; it's about change, having to face up to change, regardless of what you might want."

"Uh, huh."

"No, really..."

Think of a painting by Vermeer or van Eyck -- no, the people in them aren't doing much, but they are frozen in a moment of time that says a great deal, that yields an enormous amount of information in small, subtle, highly illuminating ways. What they wear, how they live, what they seem to be thinking, what their past might have been or what the future might hold -- that's the story. As motion pictures, Ozu's films obviously tell us more, but they are always surrounded by mystery, by what we don't know, by the things that people leave unsaid.

Roger Ebert said it best and he has said it often: what makes a movie good or bad isn't what it's about, but how it's about it. The subject can be anything at all; the approach is what matters.

Floating Weeds
is about a family, too, of sorts, but it's different from his usual fare. The story of both movies is the same: an rag-tag traveling acting troupe (to which the title refers) arrives in a town where the lead actor visits an old flame who bore him a son who has since grown up. The son has been led to think all this time that his father was a civil servant who died young, and that this visiting actor is his uncle.

Complications, naturally, ensue, as the actor also has a mistress within the troupe who is naturally jealous, and who seeks her own revenge, which is to send a pretty young girl to seduce the son, and to eventually destroy the illusion of who the boy's father really is; destroying the actor's family, as she sees it, is the only way she can get him back.

It's no accident that this story is set among a group of actors who nightly try to put on a show, because in a sense it's about the charade of the actor's own life, and the illusion that he has established. He doesn't like who he is -- a washed-up actor with a third-rate troupe, going through the paces in tired old plays -- and both he and his former mistress much prefer that their son believe a lie that is not only more comforting, but also nurturing, as the truth would only destroy the young man.

In the silent version, the actor is named Kihachi, played with great wit and energy by Takeshi Sakamoto, who played a rich businessman in I Was Born, But... and the destitute father in Passing Fancy; he has one of those great, broad comic faces -- dimpled, mischievous, almost always ready to break into a laugh -- but here he plays his role as the petulant boss of a world which is slowly beginning to crack, both professionally and personally.

The 1959 version is only marginally the better of the two -- it's a little more assured, perhaps, the way Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was over the version he made in 1934, and because Ozu could now work in a rich variety of color and because the actor, now named Komajuro, is played by a little more capably by Ganjiro Nakamura, a jowly fellow with a bullish, domineering demeanor. Also, in the role of the former mistress is Haruko Sugimura, a highly familiar member of Ozu's repertory company in one of her few purely sympathetic roles.

It has, too, thanks largely to the score, a greater sense of sadness to it, a wistfulness of unrealized dreams.

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