Bittersweet: The Late Billy Wilder

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

‘Bittersweet’ – a word often applied to Billy Wilder, and one with associations with his home city, Vienna. The idea of a movie script as recipe, with ingredients to be perfectly measured and the chef to follow the instructions closely and skilfully, is one that Wilder might have approved of. The word also implies a certain necessary balance, with the bitter never allowed to overpower the sweet, or vice versa. It might seem, looking at Wilder’s work, that when the bitter predominated in a drama (Sunset Blvd, 1950, Ace in the Hole, 1951), the effect could be highly stimulating, but when it took over in a comedy, the result was at the very least unappealing to the mass audience (Kiss Me Stupid, 1964), and at worst hard to stomach for anybody (Buddy, Buddy, 1981).

Wilder liked to say that he made dramas when he was feeling happy, and comedies when he was depressed, to cheer himself up. If so, his last years as director must have been grim ones: after The Spirit of St Louis (1957), all his films are comedies, apart from Fedora (1978), although many of them are so tempered with tragedy or bile as to sometimes transcend, subvert, or simply trash the genre.

In this amnesiac age, it’s both striking and strange that Wilder’s late work is mostly easy to see, despite the fact that nearly everything he made after the career peak of The Apartment (1960) flopped on first release, and often received harsh critical notices. But Wilder, though he certainly set himself up against the Cahiers school and the auteur theory, always lived up to one of the unofficial prerequisites for an auteur filmmaker: his unsuccessful films are often as interesting, and nearly as enjoyable, as the ones where everything comes together. Nearly everybody admits that Bogart’s casting in Sabrina (1954) is an error, but nearly everybody loves the film anyway. Likewise, Gary Cooper is too old in Love in the Afternoon (1957), but the discomfort is fleeting and the appeal is lasting. Fedora creaks in places, and seems peculiarly drawn-out for a rapid-fire mind like Wilder’s, but in its rephrasing of ideas from Sunset Blvd, filtered through Wilder’s autumnal sensibility, it still seduces. Only Buddy, Buddy remains beyond the pale, a downright painful farce, with some of the desperate mugging of Blake Edwards’s S.O.B., but none of the desperate sincerity.

For me, the charming Avanti! (1972) aside, the late movie where it all, mostly, comes together, is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), the biggest flop of them all. An expensive attempt to serve up several new Holmes adventures, detailing the detective’s amorous escapades, the movie is characterised by a respect for Doyle’s creation that may have seemed anachronistic when the film first appeared. Wilder’s attempts to cast Peter Sellers as Holmes and Peter O’Toole as Watson foundered: the superstitious Sellers no doubt remembered the massive heart attack that forced Wilder to recast Kiss Me Stupid. Instead of stars, Wilder ended up with Robert Stephens, an up-and-comer who never arrived as a box office star, and character man Colin Blakely.

In Wilder’s Ten Commandments of Filmmaking, ‘The first nine are, Thou Shalt Not Bore. The tenth is, Thou Shalt Have the Right of Final Cut’. On Sherlock Holmes, Wilder had that right, but was told when the film was finished that unless he savagely cut down its running time, it wouldn’t get a release. The movie had aimed at the ‘roadshow’ market, expensive, long movies that toured the world in a blaze of ballyhoo, with the public charged extra for the honour of seeing the super-epics. But several of these had just flopped, and Wilder was forced to cut his movie from five stories to two, resulting in a rather ungainly structure.

Fans of this movie, a small but dedicated bunch, have long learned to overlook the troubled production history (Stephens attempted suicide partway through the shoot, a victim of alcoholism, marital break-up and Wilder’s exacting direction) and focus on the very real pleasures provided. On the surface, there’s Christopher Challis’s widescreen photography, glazed and graceful, and Alexander Trauner’s production design, featuring a recreation of Baker Street in forced perspective. Going deeper, there’s the film’s daring mix of bitchy comedy (a slight Jewish-American quality in the writing casts Holmes and Watson as a Victorian odd couple) and melancholy romance: Miklos Rosza’s score, his best for years, brings out every throb of the heartache underlying the hi-jinks. It’s derived from a violin concerto by the composer, which Wilder played while writing the script with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.

The first of Wilder’s tales is a puckish yarn in which an ageing ballerina attempts to hire Holmes to father a ‘brilliant and beautiful child’ – Holmes escapes the assignation by pretending to be Watson’s gay lover. Stephens’s performance at times appears to be an audition for the role of Oscar Wilde, so his thespian fruitiness is well-used here. Blakely is painfully straight, and so the imposture is all the funnier in his case.

In the second story (connected to the first by a slender plot thread involving vanished circus dwarfs), Holmes comes to the aid of a Belgian amnesiac (Genevieve Page) and is soon embroiled in a plot involving German spies and the Loch Ness Monster. It all makes sense eventually, with cameos by Mycroft Holmes and Queen Victoria, but what’s most effective is the love story between Holmes and his client, which occurs under false pretences: she’s a spy posing as a helpless widow, and his emotional attachment causes him to fail as a detective. What’s more, when he realises the extent to which she’s fooled him, his respect and love for her grow even more: only when he’s turned her in to the authorities does he quite apprehend how he’s outsmarted himself.

Holmes, the mastermind, misogynist and fool for love, seems like one of Wilder’s most autobiographical heroes: smart, cynical, a man who lives by his wits, working with a male associate. While Wilder biographer Maurice Zolotow appears to have invented a tale of youthful disillusion – Wilder in love with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute – nevertheless the character resonates with the filmmaker’s persona and Zolotow’s invention finds its echo both in a deleted scene of young Sherlock Holmes at Oxford, and in the main plotline where the woman Holmes loves proves to be a spy. The crucial difference is that Billy had Audrey, an ideal life partner with a matching wit. Holmes can be seen as, in part, an attempt by Wilder to imagine life without his wife, dealing with the struggle of a workaholic ‘thinking machine’ in the realm of emotion.

Whatever the reason, this seems an unusually deeply felt film for Wilder, peppered with cheap jokes though it may be. They’re mostly very good cheap jokes. It’s been suggested by filmmaker and comedy specialist Richard Lester that Wilder’s problem, in his later films, stemmed from the fact that he had, like his mentor Lubitsch, evolved a delicate style whose purpose was to slip indiscrete nuances past the censor, to make adult films within a system that aimed at infantilism. And thus, when the censorship was, largely, removed, Wilder found himself without the (admittedly restrictive) framework within which he had flourished. Free to have his characters swear or take of their clothes, Wilder faced a challenge of tone and taste of a kind he simply never had to deal with before. One of Sherlock Holmes‘s deleted scenes, included as a soundless extra on the DVD, features a naked woman surprised in bed by strangers. She sits bolt upright, making no attempt to cover herself, although MGM have thoughtfully blurred her bosoms, since the actress could not be located to sign a release form for the nudity. This is inconceivable behaviour for a Victorian newlywed: it makes no sense in character terms. Somehow, the ability, or commercial requirement, to ‘move with the times’ short-circuited something in Wilder’s brilliant mind. The new freedom of expression affected the director the way love affected the detective.

But for the most part, the tone is supremely well-judged, with the period setting keeping Wilder out of trouble, the way it mostly does in his rambunctious remake of The Front Page (1974). For the ageing director, the past offers a handy bolthole. And in the broadly farcical sequence where Holmes must pretend to be gay in order to escape the amorous attentions of a Russian prima ballerina, Wilder indulges in the kind of winking innuendo he excelled at back when Joe Breen perused screenplays with blue pencil a-twitching.

David Cairns

John Niven is Don Logan in Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast

Before John Niven became an author, he was a guitarist with 1980s band The Wishing Stones. Having ditched a career as an A&R man in London’s music industry, he used his insider knowledge to write the scabrously funny Kill Your Friends. His second book, The Amateurs, took a violent sideswipe at the safe image of golf. Next up he’s gunning for God in The Second Coming, out in May. If he was a film character he would be Don Logan from Sexy Beast as he explains below. Eithne Farry

Which bitter film character would I be? I thought for a while about choosing Willy T. Stokes, the Bad Santa played by Billy Bob Thornton in the eponymous 2003 movie, but decided he’s more nihilistic than bitter. No, for pure curdled bitterness it’d have to be Don Logan from Sexy Beast, as played Ben Kingsley. Don is a man so hate-ravaged he’s moved to scream at Ray Winstone’s Gal: ‘I won’t let you be happy! Why should I?’ In other words, ‘I’m unhappy, so I’m fucked if anyone else is going to be happy’.

I was actually very resistant to watching Sexy Beast when it came out 10 years ago: another British gangster movie, starring Ray Winstone, directed by a pop video director (Jonathan Glazier), with a soundtrack by trip-hoppers du jour Unkle? The omens, I felt, weren’t good. What a clown I was. It’s also easy to forget what a shock it was to see nice old Ghandi playing the most psychotic character in recent movie history. The scene in which Don’s name is first mentioned is a masterpiece of understatement on the part of writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto. Everyone at the table nearly soils themselves at just the sound of those three letters. The mention of his name is enough to ruin an evening. You know this guy means business before he’s appeared in one frame.

And, oh, to be Don Logan. Gratuitously pissing on your friend’s carpets (Don’s pissing stance alone is worth the price of admission), openly smoking on airplanes and then offering to stub your cigarette out on a fellow passenger’s eyeball (‘Agreeable?’), greeting your friends with the words ‘I’m sweating like a cunt’ (Kingsley’s first line in the movie). Just the way he says the word ‘orgy’…

Interestingly, Sir Ben said he approached playing the character as if he were ‘the best Sergeant Major in the army’ and it is exactly this quality he brings to Logan: someone in a relaxed, holiday setting who cannot relax and who never, ever goes on holiday. A man so consumed by bile and fury that he uses his dying words to tell his friend that he fucked his wife.


John Niven

Black Swan: Interview with Darren Aronofsky

Black Swan

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 January 2011

Venues: nationwide

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writers: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin

Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey

USA 2010

110 mins

One of the highlights of last year’s London Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a thrilling psychodrama, a dark study of a troubled young dancer in a top New York company who becomes dangerously obsessed in her aspiration for perfection when she is offered the difficult dual part of the Swan Queen in the company’s new production of the classical ballet. During rehearsals, Nina (Natalie Portman) delivers a captivating performance as the White Swan but, much to the chagrin of her impresario Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), fails to prove that she has the sensuality and passion to bring the Black Swan to life. Pushed by Leroy, her narcissistic former dancer mother, and Lily (Mila Kunis), the feisty new girl in the company who seems to be out for the starring role, Nina becomes increasingly embroiled into a maze of delusion, lust and violence until fantasy and reality collide in the film’s formidable last act.

Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview with Darren Aronofsky during the London Film Festival in October 2010 to talk about torturing the audience, the difficulties of making a ballet film and the secret behind Natalie Portman’s remarkable performance.

Q: You’ve talked about Black Swan as a companion piece to your previous film, The Wrestler, in that both stories are set in very competitive worlds. Why did you choose classical ballet?

DA: My sister was a ballet dancer. She got pretty serious about it as a young girl and then went on all about it until she was a late teenager. Back then, I knew nothing about ballet. I would just walk by her room and see all the posters and ballet shoes and that was it. But later I imagined it could be an interesting world, in the same way that everyone said wrestling wasn’t interesting at all, but as soon as we started looking into it properly, we saw that there was actually a whole world to discover. Ballet is an even more complex world than wrestling, the more we looked into it, the more interesting it became. I think this is also part of why people go to movies in general. They want to see something they haven’t seen before.

You do portray this in your films in a way that some people might find difficult to watch though. Do you take pleasure in torturing your audience?

I think people have different notions of what ‘torture’ is. Some people actually really enjoy it and some don’t. It’s a fine line and I just push it as far as I can. With Black Swan, I think it’s probably partly that I’m still trying to annoy my older sister and to get some attention from her (laughs). No, seriously, I don’t really know what it is. I think today it is very hard to create images and ideas that people will remember. There are so many movies out there on TV, on the internet, on your iPod, that as a filmmaker you want to create an experience that lasts, but that usually has to be an intense journey. I want to get people their money’s worth.

The film shows that ballet is very much a closed world that seems to have its own set of rules. Was it difficult to work with a real ballet company?

Yes, very hard. The ballet world couldn’t give a shit about anything other than ballet. They really did not care. Normally when you make a movie every door in the world opens up and people are like, ‘yes, sure, what do you want to see, anything you want to do, come, make a movie’. But the ballet world was not like that at all. It was extremely difficult, and getting dancers was way more complicated than getting wrestlers. Most of the wrestlers didn’t have cell phones and some people where homeless and, still, we could get them to the right place at the right time. But not the dancers. They are just so deep in their own world, they hardly care about anything but ballet. So it took a long time, but slowly and surely we got there.

In your film, the central character, Nina, is pushed to explore her dark side in order to be able to perfectly embody the Black Swan and she does so with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.

Yes, that’s what the film is about and what Swan Lake is about. The film for us is a take on the ballet, we went back and looked at every detail of it. I’d been thinking about doing something with Dostoewsky’s The Double because I thought it was an interesting topic to explore: when you wake up someone else has taken your place and everything you are is suddenly being taken away from you. That was also something I hadn’t seen out there that much, so I started to pursue that idea. One day I went to see Swan Lake and I was absolutely stunned when I found out that one dancer is actually dancing both the Black Swan and the White Swan. And then suddenly it seemed an even better idea than The Double because they are such distinct characters, one is innocent and pure, the other is passionate and adventurous. So we built this story about the dark side and the light side of personality, battling for sanity.

Natalie Portman perfectly embodies the conflicted Nina, capturing her fear, desperation and exhilaration.

That was my little secret, that there was a lot more complexity in Natalie than most people thought. I think because of her beauty and youthfulness she gets cast as an innocent a lot and not many people have given her an opportunity so far to also show her womanhood. So I was hoping no one else would reveal this before I got the chance to do Black Swan.

Some directors reach that level where, although their movies are not the biggest smash hits at the box office, every actor says yes instantly when they cast for a new project. And it seems you are heading there…

Oh no, I don’t get that. Most actors don’t want to put up with it, it’s too difficult. I wish I could be manipulative. But I am actually very honest with actors and I tell them, ‘this is what it’s going to take to do the job, it’s going to be this type of pain and this type of work, and you’ve really got to do it’, and then most of them go, ‘OK, I don’t think I’m going to be doing that’. So I’ve lost a lot of A-list actors over the years. Looking at the actors I’ve worked with, how many of them are actually in super high demand?

Hugh Jackman?

Yes, true, but it was also an opportunity for him to do something different to what he had done before. And of course Natalie is in high demand too, but not as a lead.

How important is intuition for you in the process of filmmaking?

Intuition comes into play in many different ways. When you are on set and you are actually working, intuition is there all the time. It’s got to be. There is some kind of myth about filmmakers who know exactly what they want and are going for it. That might exist for some people but that’s not how I work. I try to get as many good people and as much good material around at one place on the set, and create an environment that allows freedom, so that the actors can develop things and mistakes can happen. Then I can follow my intuition and get to the right place. I think when you try to force something too much you just squeeze the life out of it. And then suddenly, no matter what you do, it just isn’t real. But if you want to know what it is that pulls me back to a project and why I end up choosing it, it’s often because there is something about it that I connect to and that makes me want to continue all the heavy lifting. We develop a lot of projects in my production company Protozoa and each project is a marathon run. A lot of them won’t make it to the finishing line, and the only reason some make it is because there is something about them and we go back to them and keep nurturing them and trying to figure it out.

You had a lot of trouble getting the money together for The Wrestler because you insisted on casting Mickey Rourke in the lead. Was there ever a point while doing this film where you thought you might not be able to finish it?

Oh yes, two weeks before we started shooting the money fell apart. I mean we were two weeks out, $1,000,000 in, and we realised that the money was a pyramid scheme and didn’t actually exist. So I had to go back to Fox and beg them to get the film made. It was tough. The Wrestler won lots of awards, got tons of recognition and was incredibly well reviewed, but that didn’t help. It’s hard every time… Making independent films in America right now is really, really difficult.

You once said your films don’t get a wider reception because the festival reviews are always so bad. But this seems to have changed now since both The Wrestler and Black Swan received raving reviews after their premieres.

Maybe this means the reviews are now just going to get worse and worse (laughs). With The Wrestler, it was completely unexpected that it turned out to be this big hit. And now Black Swan is doing pretty well too, but I can’t explain why. When we did Requiem for a Dream we did something like $3,000,000 theatrically, but I guess in today’s world, with a film like this, they would have figured out a different way to sell it. I mean, this was before Boys Don’t Cry and other films that then suddenly became Oscar candidates. So I think audience taste and expectations have changed somewhat. But I guess soon I’m going to be too old to make anything hip, and I’ve got to up my game (laughs)… We’ll see.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Haneke, Bitte?

Code Unknown

A young woman is harassed on the metro by a young man and his friend. Having verbally bullied and menaced her, her tormentor spits in her face.

A family are taken prisoner by two young men and are subjected to sadistic games that end in murder. There will be no revenge and no justice. The victims will be despatched with a flippant glee and the murderers will continue their escapades.

An apparently good and respected man, a pillar of the community, tells his lover that she is ugly and he has no feelings for her beyond using her for his own gratification. In the same idyllic village, the son of the landowner is tied up and beaten and a young disabled boy is almost blinded.

After an unspecified apocalyptic event, society breaks down into a bunch of savagely competing groups. It is a world of cruelty, violence, despair and hatred.

People do terrible things to people. Michael Haneke’s films are all essentially hate stories. His corpus of work is an anatomy of hatred: hate fuelled by post-colonial racism (Hidden, 2005), hate caused by racism pure and simple (Code Unknown, 2000), misogyny or class jealousies, misunderstandings, paranoia and anxiety. It can be provincial (The White Ribbon, 2009) or urban (Code Unknown); personal, political, familial (The Seventh Continent, 1989, and The Piano Teacher, 2002), intimate or partake of an epic historical sweep (Time of the Wolf, 2003, and The White Ribbon). It can even be a kind of hatred without hate; the unfeeling hatefulness of Funny Games (1997) and Benny’s Video (1992).

As well as showing hatred, Haneke, in his turn, has been hated. His films are uncomfortable viewing experiences to say the least. In The Guardian, Jonathan Romney accused his films of being ‘a terrorist attack on the audience’ and in a Sight & Sound review, Mark Kermode writes of Haneke’s ‘unbridled contempt’ for the audience. At first glance, Haneke might look like he belongs in the pantheon of contemporary provocateurs, such as Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier, whose films seek to cause outright outrage in their audiences, but Haneke is much subtler than that. His films rely less on schlock, the in-your-face, taboo-breaking shot (although he can provide that as well) than on a creeping, insidious manipulation. While garnering critical praise and festival awards, Haneke’s project has often been greeted by an ambivalent critical reception. His acceptance of the best director’s award at Cannes in 2005 was emblematic as the audience responded with boos and applause in equal measure. Some of his films, such as Funny Games and its US remake, have been met with outrage: ‘a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism’ (A.O. Scott). And even his critical successes have been decried as cold, cynical and manipulative: ‘an exercise in pain’ as Mike LaSalle noted of Hidden. Haneke’s public utterances often stoke reaction rather than placating it. His famous argument that if you left during a showing of Funny Games you didn’t need the film, annoyed the hell out of everybody for its presumptuous circumscribing of all possible reactions, i.e. if you left hating the film, that’s exactly what he wanted and if you stayed then you definitely need the film (also what he wanted).

For Catherine Wheatley in her new book Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Haneke’s films are ‘irritating’ in a very real and intentional sense. Wheatley argues that Haneke doggedly produces an uncomfortable watching experience as each film probes and wrong-steps our own ethical presumptions. This is done in different ways. In Funny Games, our expectation of a conventional horror movie calculus (capture, torment, turning point, revenge) is consistently foiled as one of the attackers takes over the film, breaks the fourth wall (winking at the audience) and even rewinds a scene when things go wrong, the little Brechtian bastard. In Code Unknown, the audience is given privileged information (the Code Unknown of the title?) which is denied the characters. As in classical Greek tragedy, we watch helplessly as terrible events unfold, unable to intervene, our knowledge no use to anyone, helping only to make us feel worse. In both The White Ribbon and Hidden, this imbalance is reversed and it is we as the audience who lack information that the characters might be withholding, suppressing or might even themselves not know.

Although the bad things that happen in Haneke’s films often appear random, they occur within a framework of overarching moral judgement. Haneke’s films seem hell-bent on punishment of one kind or another. Although Anna’s attacker on the metro in Code Unknown cannot possibly know this, we know that she has participated in an injustice towards a beggar and the son of an immigrant earlier in the film. We also have seen her as an actress starring in an exploitative thriller about a misogynistic killer (at least this is as much as we glean). In this sense, her random attacker becomes a kind of karmic agent, a version of Jean, the thuggish relative she defended earlier in the film. By blindly defending him and not listening to the accusations against him, she is allowing a world to exist that also includes someone like her own attacker.

Likewise in The White Ribbon, the original crime that begins the film, the placing of a tripwire that brings down the doctor’s horse, giving the doctor a broken arm, is retrospectively justified by the doctor’s vile abuse of his housekeeper. The moral equivocations of the entire village, the hypocrisy of the pastor who punishes his children for impure thoughts but then refuses to act when they are implicated in a series of more serious violent crimes, foreshadows the punishment of the film’s historical aftermath: the First World War and the disastrous slide into Nazism and near annihilation.

Haneke’s films punish people with a moral rigour few would survive, and poetic justice allows for no legal defence, no humming and harring. Our discomfort as viewers is that we are rarely just viewers: we are the jury and Haneke is the executioner in a process that feels as rigged and unfair as the sadistic bet of Funny Games. Although Haneke’s films vary in language, technique, location, genre and historical period, the accused are frequently the usual suspects: a middle-class, privileged couple called Ann(a/e) and Georg(e/i/es). Anna and George retreat to their house by the lake in Funny Games with disastrous consequences. Likewise, at the beginning of Time of the Wolf, Anna and George retreat to their holiday home (with disastrous consequences). In Code Unknown and Hidden, Anne and George’s lives and assumptions are rattled /disturbed /destroyed by events that they are somehow complicit in. But do Anna and George ‘deserve’ their punishment? Or is this an Old Testament punishment, which punishes you for the presumption of expecting fairness, of expecting God to act with humanity? Is it perhaps paradoxically through witnessing hate and its consequences that we see love and feel pity?

Anna is tormented on the train by a stranger, a young Arab, but it is also a stranger, an old Arab, who, at great risk to himself, stands up and defends her. In Funny Games, despite their smugness, their yacht and their ridiculous opera guessing game, we feel pity and despair for Anna and George. There is no scene more moving than when George asks Anna’s forgiveness. Love and pity do exist, and are (perhaps) more valued and more valuable for existing in a world of punishment and hate. Even the bleak end-of-days final judgement that is Time of the Wolf ends, remarkably, with a ray of hope, and hints at salvation.

John Bleasdale

Innocence Lost: Street of Shame

Street of Shame

Format: DVD

Release date: 24 January 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Writer: Masashige Narusawa

Original title: Asaken Chitai

Cast: Ayako Wakao, Michiyo Kogure, Hiroka Machida, Aiko Mimasu, Machiko Kyo

Japan 1956

85 mins

Part of the Late Mizoguchi – Eight Films 1951-1956 DVD box-set

As the rather sordid title suggests, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame exists somewhere between melodrama and social polemic, with the director’s final film taking place in Tokyo’s 300-year-old Yoshiwara district. The Japanese title – Akasen Chitai – literally translates as the more matter-of-fact Red Light District, but Mizoguchi was as much a dramatist as he was a documentarian, and Street of Shame is an emotional experience that grounds its narrative within the context of the 1950s debate regarding the anti-prostitution bill. This was not the only occasion that Mizoguchi would focus on the lives of women forced to sell themselves for economic survival; Osaka Elegy (1936) tells the story of a telephone operator who becomes a mistress to her employer in order to settle family debts, while both Sisters of the Gion (1936) and A Geisha (1953) take place in brothels and observe the interactions between the women that work in such establishments. Although the director was particularly concerned about the plight of women in Japanese society, any material that dealt with the sex trade had additional personal significance for him; economic circumstances forced Mizoguchi’s parents to put his sister up for adoption, and she was subsequently sold as a geisha, explaining the director’s regular return to such subject matter. Street of Shame takes place almost entirely within the confines of the Floating World (licensed places for middle-class pleasure-seeking, such as brothels, tea house and theatres), tackling the issue of prostitution at a time when political parties were using their stance on the matter as a means of influencing electoral power.

The episodic narrative of Street of Shame devotes an equal amount of attention to each of the five women who work at a brothel called Dreamland. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) is always the top earner, not only saving her money but lending it to her co-workers on the condition that it is paid back with interest, earning the nickname ‘Lady Shylock’ while also stringing along a local businessman who has made her a marriage proposal. Hanae (Michiyo Kogure) is struggling to support her family, which consists of a baby and a tuberculosis-ridden husband who is prone to suicidal impulses; they are constantly being threatened with eviction and, as the pressure of such familial responsibility becomes physically apparent, Hanae becomes less appealing to customers who prefer to spend time with younger courtesans. Yorie (Hiroka Machida) manages to marry a man who makes clogs for a living and is thrown a leaving party by her co-workers; however, she soon returns to Dreamland in a state of distress because her husband has simply expected her to be his servant. The older Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu) is a ‘country bumpkin’ who moved to Tokyo years ago to provide for her son, but has recently discovered that he has also relocated to the big city; meeting him outside the toy factory where he has found work, Yumeko is rejected by her son who is ashamed of her profession. The youngest of the five is Mickey (Machiko Kyo), who has walked away from a relatively wealthy background due to a strained relationship with her father; she is always in debt, and borrows money from both Yasumi and Dreamland proprietor Mr Taya in order to make it through the month.

Mizoguchi was shooting Street of Shame while members of government councils were meeting to discuss passing an anti-prostitution bill, and the employees of Dreamland listen to summaries of these talks on the radio. There is a sense that Mizoguchi is documenting the beginning of the end in this area of the sex industry, not only in terms of its status as a legal enterprise, but also with regards to its rapidly declining professional standards. Looking back on the role of the geisha – perhaps through rose-tinted glasses – the maid comments, ‘In the old days, a high-ranked courtesan would be skilled in Japanese poetry, the way of tea, flower arrangement and even calligraphy’. However, the women who work at Dreamland do not seem to have cultivated any of these abilities, and often resort to desperately dragging their customers in from the streets. There is little professional code among these women of the night, with ‘you can steal anything you want except another girl’s customer’ being the only house rule that is mentioned, although even this one is broken when a regular patron of Dreamland decides to try a different girl. The younger generation of geisha is represented by the gum-chewing Mickey, an arrogant example of Westernisation who racks up debt around the district and moans about having to get up early. The slightly older and financially sensible Yasumi seems to be a more traditional geisha in both attitude and appearance, but is eventually revealed to be a master manipulator; her father has been jailed for extortion and she leads another man down the path that placed him behind bars in order to raise the bail money.

By mixing melodrama with social concern, Mizoguchi is able to follow five story strands while maintaining a world view that is consistently critical regardless of the individual outcomes. Yasumi actually has more progressive business sense than her employers as she eventually leaves Dreamland to take over the bedding and quilting shop that sells directly to the brothel; she has sold her body as a relatively swift solution to a family problem, but her newfound prosperity is certainly tinged with resentment. While the prudent Yasumi has an escape plan, and the spendthrift Mickey is happy to whittle away her earnings and self-respect, Hanea, Yorie and Yumeko want to leave the profession but do not have the means to do so. Although there are distinct differences between these women, they are united in their bitterness towards the individual circumstances that led them to Dreamland. Yasumu and Mickey blame a lack of parental responsibility in the respective areas of finance and marital faithfulness, while Hanae is frustrated that she and her husband could never earn enough money to live on despite being hard-working and Yorie’s illusions about marriage turn out to be just that, leaving her with little to live for. However, it is Yumeko who truly pays the price for her choice of profession; although she dislikes her work as much as the other women, she has willingly made the sacrifice in order to support her son and only wants to see him succeed, but his vehement refusal to allow her to be part of his life shatters Yumeko’s fragile sense of self, swiftly resulting in mental breakdown.

While discussing the anti-prostitution bill with the Mamasan (Sadako Sawamura), a policeman observes, ‘the government has to deal with public opinion’; this is what happened in Japan in 1956 as the anti-prostitution bill was finally passed, a legislative event that was partially attributed to audience response to Street of Shame. Mizugochi is typically sympathetic towards the women of Dreamland, but finds their profession unpleasant and considers their employers to be little more than exploitation merchants. Mr Taya may insist, ‘We are the ones who really care about you. We built this club so you can do business. That’s how you can make a living. We are compensating for work that the government overlooks. We’re social workers!’ but does so on several occasions in a pre-rehearsed manner, suggesting that this is less of a heartfelt social statement than it is a means of motivating his workforce. Yoshiwara is presented as a maze of squalid streets with customers and workers struggling to find their way out, while Toshirô Mayuzumi’s luridly off-kilter score adds a surreal element to the proceedings, emphasising that everyone in this district is on a downward spiral. The loss of Yasumi and Yumeko prompts the proprietor of Dreamland to take on a new worker, the virginal Shizuko (Yasuko Kawakami), and Street of Shame ends with her induction as the Mamasan ensures that make-up is properly applied before sending her out to learn the trade. Based on the five lives that Mizugochi has explored, Shizuko has three options: save and buy her way out, live with no regard for tomorrow, or become shackled to the profession with dreams of normality remaining just that. Whichever path she chooses, Mizugochi makes it clear that the bitterness that is caused by such a loss of innocence is cruelly inevitable.

John Berra

London Short Film Festival 2011: Leftfield and Luscious

Until the River Runs Red

London Short Film Festival 2011

7-16 January 2011, various venues, London

LSFF website

With details of LSFF’s 2011 programme still under wraps, I ventured forth to an icy Soho street, buzzing with the Christmas rush, to collect a bundle of DVDs from festival programmer Philip Ilson. Home-burnt screeners whirring on my precariously balanced laptop may be a far cry from this month’s forthcoming screenings at the ICA but they provided a lovely taster of things to come: a preview of the festival’s most experimental new shorts selection, Leftfield and Luscious. Films are brought together for this programme under a fairly loose premise – namely that they lean towards a more abstract approach – and, as a result, it’s a varied assortment of discs. First to make it into my computer is the strange, poetic Sea Swallow’d, a collaboration between the filmmaker Andrew Kötting and artists Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, working under the name Curious. A work with clear surrealist influences, the film is at times madcap and lively; and at others, ominous and lilting. Divided into sporadic, episodic chapters, the film slowly builds to reveal its themes. The sea appears, disappears and reappears as a mysterious force. Guts figure in several forms: the camera trails the texture of a human stomach; a female voice declares her love in terms of digestive organs (she loves his insides, the darkness of his liver); and a fish is de-boned. Sea and guts represent the powerful, primeval aspects of life, ones which we do not often consider in our day-to-day humdrum. Sea Swallow’d is a beautifully made film and one that gently reveals some poetic lines and interesting questions about how far such primitive forces might influence human behaviour. The other stand-out example of filmmaking from the collection of discs was Paul Wright’s Until the River Runs Red. This film has some extraordinarily sumptuous cinematography – close-up shots of open meadow, wet skin and long tresses of hair, glimpses of sun and road snatched through a car boot. The film follows a girl who was kidnapped from a shopping centre and the couple who abducted her but, unfortunately, it felt as though the content itself had been underdeveloped; the subject matter was treated slightly melodramatically and the dialogue a little unoriginally. But director Paul Wright is clearly a very talented filmmaker; his step into features is an exciting prospect.

Wright’s film is nominated for the festival’s Best British Short Film Award, alongside two other shorts in the Leftfield & Luscious category. One of these, Murmuration, by Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith, perfectly encapsulates the other side to this programme; a lighter, more playful side, which popped up across the selection. The film tracks a river canoe trip paddling underneath a murmuration of starlings: an acrobatic display put on by thousands of synchronised, flocking birds. With camera work aimed at emphasising their DIY-approach and a soundtrack by Beirut, there is a vivacious, carefree appeal to the film. This lightness and playfulness also struck me in Dominique Bongers’s Gallop, a visual experiment with a nod to Eadweard Muybridge’s flying horse, and Ruth Lingford’s Little Deaths, an animated representation of interviewees discussing their experience of sex. The content and tone of the Luscious and Leftfield films might vary enormously but the films’ abstract leanings mean that there is common ground: a shared love for the visual side of filmmaking. It is encouraging to see such strong work in this category. If this treat of DVDs is a hint of what the festival is offering, it should be another interesting year for LSFF audiences.

Eleanor McKeown