Wednesday, November 30, 2016

No Audio Audient: I Was Born, But ...

This is the penultimate installment of my 2016 series in which I am catching up with previously unseen silent movies.

For those of you coming here expecting Erich von Stroheim's Greed -- all none of you -- you're going to have to wait until December. There's a whole story that goes with why I didn't see Greed in November, full of twists and turns and developments that are interesting only to me, and maybe not even then. I'll save that for next month.

This month, it's all about my 11th hour substitute: I Was Born, But ... 

And it was literally almost an 11th hour substitute, as I began watching it at 10 p.m. on the last night in November my schedule would allow me to watch it.

The movie was on my Letterboxd list of potential candidates for this series, but I didn't imagine I'd get to it because I planned to watch Greed in November and then some silent Christmas movie (there must be some out there) in December. Well, the Greed debacle (I'm calling it a debacle now?) opened up an opportunity to go abroad for a silent movie for the second straight month after Sweden's The Phantom Carriage in October.

What surprised me most about I Was Born, But ... is how dissimilar it was to what I've come to think of as the style of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. I've only seen one of his films, sadly -- that's Tokyo Story -- but I saw it twice back in college and actually wrote an academic paper about it, so I feel like I know it well despite not having seen it in more than 20 years. On first viewing I was kind of bored to tears, but something compelled me to revisit it -- I don't know what came over me as I surely could have chosen an "easier" film to write the paper about. I'm glad I did, because I loved it on the second viewing when I started truly dissecting its themes. In fact, given that experience, it's kind of amazing I've never gotten back to Ozu, and it was something I had already intended to rectify when I got the chance to kick off that effort with this movie.

So yes, Ozu's style tends to be slow and deliberate, with many long takes and the camera almost never moving. No evidence of that style is present in I Was Born, But ..., which he directed in 1932, 21 years before Tokyo Story. (In fact, well into the sound era -- not sure why he was still making silent films.) This film is almost frenetic with its editing, and his camera has none of its future sedentary ways.

Probably time to tell you a bit about the movie. It's essentially a series of episodes involving children in suburban Tokyo of the time, which would look a bit more like the rural outskirts of Tokyo except for the single train cars passing in the background almost constantly, suggesting a higher population density than there would seem. Two of the children, who dress like twins but don't look exactly alike, are brothers who have just moved there due to the job requirements of their father, a lower-level executive type in a big firm. Many of the episodes are comical in nature, relating to such things as tussles with local bullies, contracting the help of other kids to assist with their integration into the community, and the tall tale that the consumption of a sparrow's egg gives you additional strength. As the twins (let's call them twins) have a habit of doing everything in unison, a real charming element to the performance of the two young boys, even events that might not ordinarily be comical have a comedic overtone. Simply put, this movie is breezy and fun.

What little plot it does have comes to relate to the shame the kids feel toward the way their father must prostrate himself in front of one of his superiors, who is also the father of one of their new school acquaintances. The last 20 minutes or so relate to the kids grappling with this and coming to accept it, as their father imparts lessons about social dynamics in the workplace and in the world. Here we see the real roots of Ozu's future concerns, as Tokyo Story (I know for a fact) and many of his other films (I'm led to believe) deal with the type of low-level, non-catastrophic family issues we see here, specifically failures to communicate between the generations.

To suggest that this film is heavy in any way, though, is to misunderstand its main reasons for existence. It is sweet through and through, frequently funny and always amusing. The packs of kids interacting with each other, daring each other to do things and establishing power dynamics, reminded me a bit of the Little Rascals or something. The film also establishes a real sense of place in the neighborhood where most of it takes place, as Ozu builds up a community of familiar faces over the course of the narrative. The regular appearance of the train going back and forth in the background seems to both suggest a sense of transience, and to more firmly establish the stability and specificity of this particular locale, if that makes any sense.

Okay! Just one month left to go in this series. And I've got Greed downloaded from iTunes now -- all four hours of it -- so at some point over the next month I'm going to figure out how to cram that in to the 24-hour viewing window allotted by iTunes.

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