Friday, October 10, 2008

Ozu and Allen

Jeffrey M. Anderson has done film fans a service with this short take of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He writes:
In my review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I compared it to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, who is perhaps the greatest of all Japanese filmmakers. Ozu is very highly revered for at least one film, Tokyo Story (1953), which routinely ranks near Citizen Kane as one of the greatest films of all time. Yet it becomes greater still the more familiar one is with Ozu's other works (to date 15 Ozu films are available on Criterion DVDs). Ozu almost always used the same opening titles, the same cinematography and editing, the same actors, the same stories and even the same titles (even fans have trouble telling the difference between Late Spring, Early Summer, Late Autumn and The End of Summer). In working through the same themes again and again, Ozu was able to plumb much deeper into them than any other filmmaker could do with a single film. While he often dealt with family issues, his ultimate conclusion was that families break up, that life is disappointing, and that there's a kind of comfort in realizing and accepting that.
This issue of working through the same "themes again and again" is often misrepresented as a failing. But such criticisms are problematic on a few fronts. First, nearly every major writer or director works through the same themes--Fyodor Dostoevsky or Flannery O'Connor, as two random examples, are lauded for working through the same themes through out their careers. This is the precise reason they are celebrated. That is, because of their masterful resilience in asking the same penetrating questions of the world through a thoughtful network of plots and characters.

The second problem here is lazy criticism--one treatment of a particular theme can be very different from another, even from the same artist. The films of Allen's eternal justice trilogy--Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, and Cassandra's Dream--share basic plot points, characters motivations, and each explores the theme of whether or not there is really such a thing as justice in the universe. Yet, each film supplies a very different response to this set of controls. Identifying the difference is a central task of the viewer.

Allen is a jazz musician. When you see repeated themes in his movies, think of theme as the melody line and each new film riffing on this theme or that theme as an instrument playing harmony. Sometimes the movie represents a great sax solo and other times it's simply a piano that has a little prominence in the bridge. Multiple treatments of the same theme provide colorful nuance. If you're able to identify recurrent themes, push yourself a little harder by asking how its treatment differs from or improves upon its previous occurrence(s). We've encouraged readers to do this with Annie Hall and Anything Else.

But the recurrence of theme also allows us to compare Allen to those filmmakers who share his questions of the world--filmmakers like Ozu. To what extent is Vicky Cristina Barcelona a thematic interaction with Tokyo Story? Is Allen consciously building off of Ozu, or is it a happy coincidence? Is the connection superficial or substantial? Does VCB better compare to Jules et Jim? What do Tokyo Story, Jules et Jim and Vicky Cristina Barcelona share in common? Etc...

For the casual movie lover, this is too much to ask, we understand. But for those who see film as something more than a time filler, these comparisons (the discovery of repeated themes, the possibility that a film fits within a broader stream of thought or family of films/filmmakers) are stimulating.

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