The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

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Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II

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The infernal hurricane, which never rests,

Hurtles the spirits onwards in its rapine,

Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.

 

When they arrive before the precipice,

There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,

There they blaspheme the puissance divine.

 

I understood that unto such a torment,

The carnal malefactors were condemned,

Who reason subjugate to appetite.

(Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, Lines 31-39, Longfellow Translation)

This is the section in Dante’s Inferno where Dante visits the 2nd circle of hell, the circle where those who have sinned according to lust, given in to earthly delights of a sexual nature at some point during their time on Earth, and are thus condemned to be buffeted about eternally by endless winds, never-ceasing to stop, to die down, to rest is possibly the best term.

So too is the nymphomaniac in question, Joe. Her odyssey is enshrined in that experience, of eternal restlessness.

And 5 and a half hours later, as the credits rolled on the Director’s Cut of Nymphomaniac Vol. I and Vol. II, I wondered why the hell anyone had ever thought this film was a good idea.

This is my first Lars Von Trier film, and so it certainly could be said that I went in at the deep end on this, as I did with a similar experience with Werner Herzog, where I started with Fitzcarraldo. The difference being, the idea that Lars Von Trier is truly respected as an auteur director fills me with frustration. It is best not to judge an entire director’s worth on one film he makes, so instead I shall judge the films worth, and come to the conclusion of “In what in hell’s name possessed Von Trier to make such a crucifyingly dull film?”.

How is it that a film with such room to breathe, 5 and a half solid hours, 330 minutes of running time (for reference, Lawrence of Arabia runs for 3 hours and 48 minutes, while as Mark Kermode consistently quotes, 2001: A Space Odyssey takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to ‘chart the dawn of our civilisation to the birth of a new one’) manages to ultimately say nothing at all? Nymphomaniac is plagued by images, ideas, thought patterns, allegories, poorly arranged ideological arguments, tangents which spiral off into the ether, and somehow, under all that weight of provocation, it manages to crush every single morsel of interest flat, spreading the film with a thick layer of numbing cream.

The film is seemingly designed as an endurance test, as Von Trier imagines a woman who embodies the epitome of depravity, both morally and physically. She is designed as the ultimate individual rebel, a woman who craves nothing more than her sexual desires to be slated whatever the cost (even abandoning her child at night to go see her S&M master, played very excellently by Jamie Bell). He pits her experiences, sinking into the inky depths of depravement, as she fucks just about anything, manipulates and ruins people’s lives just for the chase of chance, against the lonely asexual (ha) Seligman, who constantly rationalises and tries to defend her actions, to ‘see the good in her’ while Joe continues to beg for judgement, continually unravelling her story. The film limps back and forth between Joe’s life and this ‘battlefield’, as Seligman  contextualises and draws allegorical parallels between Joe’s actions and historical events or actions. He compares her journey on a train with a friend to see who can fuck the most guys to the art of fly-fishing. Their discussion on the differences of the East and Western styles of Christianity segues into one of her segments. The Fibonacci sequence appears in relation to a time where Jerome (played by Shia LaBoeuf) fucks her in a humiliating fashion.

The problem with this, is its ultimately bullshit.

I shall return to this later on, because it requires a thorough dissection, but for now, let’s deal with the basics of it all. The performances by and large, are dreadful. They literally inspire dread, because I was dreading the next time I saw many of them on-screen. Almost universally, the performances retain this incredible sense of lifelessness, of walking corpses who offer nothing. I am foolish enough to ask only for sympathetic or relatable characters, but I look for characters who just aren’t boring, who aren’t full of ash. Singular criticism must be singled out for Stacy Martin, who plays the young version of Joe, taking up most of Vol. I, whose lackluster abilities defy description.  Paint drying would find her boring. Whether it is her or her direction, the two combined managed to create the effect of waiting for the mountains to move in front of your very eyes. Every single scene is visibly hampered by the corpse Von Trier drags around with him, as his Joe fails to arouse anything, she simply exists outside a realm of humanity. Shia LaBoeuf is just odd. Everyone else is like a retreated turtle, nothing but shell, no life visible. Bar two.

Uma Thurman turns up for an oddly exciting cameo, as 2 hours in finally a character turns up who even manages to rouse some basic human emotion. In fact her entire scene highlights this feeling to ludicrous parody levels, as her portrayal of restrained menace and hysteria connects like a punch under the effect of sleeping pills. Naturally, she disappears after 5 minutes and we slip back into slumber. The other performance is that of Jamie Bell, who alongside this entire arc, Chapter 6: “The Eastern and Western Church (The Silent Duck) ” comes to embody the only portion of the film which is salvageable. Even among rubbish, gold can be found. He’s the only character who has any depth, and alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe, they manage to undergo a tough arduous journey into the extremities of human sexuality, pain and pleasure and the risks someone will take simply to feel.

The film also contends itself with being set in a timeless, non-specific location, which doesn’t hurt the film, but also doesn’t help it either. The cinematography, the kino-eye of the film is myopic, barely able to capture the events unfolding with any sense of importance. The grey tones of the film help only to devoid the eye of any involvement, any stimulation, which lead it to be almost completely looked at, not watched. You stare at a foggy window, which refuses to allow you to see anything you can recognise. The music does that excruciatingly annoying Michael Haneke trick of playing short fragments of music constantly cut off, only done to disorient, a condescending and extremely patronising film skill. And finally of course, the real grey elephant in this slightly less grey room, the editing.

Who. On. Earth. Allowed. This. Film. To. Be. 5. Hours. And. 30. Minutes. I have not seen it, but the cut version is still 3 hours too long. This film in its state is nothing short of unwatchable, and either the editors thought it was a good idea which frustrates me furiously, as the stretch of time involved in this is unbearably indulgent, or Von Trier thought he was write and exercised control over the edit, which is a sign of auteur decadence not seen since Dennis Hopper decided to edit Easy Rider by himself. Luckily his film was salvaged by people not insane. Nymphomaniac was not so lucky.

Here’s a scene in the film, one of the weakest in my opinion. Context is this is right after Joe literally ( I do mean literally) abortions herself. It’s a verb in this context. She performs an abortion on herself.

[SCENE IS GONE FROM YOUTUBE, YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO WATCH THE FILM. OR DON’T. PLEASE.]

The clip isn’t in its entirety, but the argument Seligman makes, the one of so called “rational society” is we cannot talk about abortions because biology is icky, and Joe chastises him for being a hypocrite.

*ahem*

I challenge you to find any act of biology which on some level isn’t gross. Whether it’s the messiness of sex, the literal millions of mites living in your eyebrows, the dead skin cells which cover your body, teeth rotting, animals killing each other, female spiders consuming their males during sex, the fact that a fox has barbs on its penis to stop the female fox from escaping copulation, excretion of human waster, god I could go on. Go with Cronenberg on this, all humans are just fleshy meat sacs. Seligman’s “cowardice” wanting to know the facts of abortion is a cheap set up for Von Trier to act like he’s scored a point over the stupid intellectuals who pretend they know everything.

And my god does this film reek of anti-intellectualism, of anti-moralism, of anti anything which is nothing less than the raw primeval truths of Joe’s experiences. No line of dialogue is written by accident, and there are plenty of barbs laying in wait. He lines up anyone who takes a stance as a fool or an idiot, Joe humiliates the other nymphomaniacs at the Sex Addicts Anonmyous, while Von Trier sets the leader up as a cheap shell to take pot shots at, as she is written to be basically a moron. Anyone who expresses conventional control, control by gender dynamics (the way the girls humiliate boys who try to seduce them, declaring war on traditional love, the general ripping on religion), control by conventional power structures (an office boss who forces her to go recovery, the clinical psychologist she needs to see for her abortion), control by conventional familial duties (Jerome puts the guilt on her). It’s not just that these methods are subjugated to the desire for sex, it’s not just Dante’s circle of Lust. It’s that they are actively derided, attacked and made fun of. It’s not enough for Joe to reject these structures, she has to make herself superior to them. Maybe its the intention of the film, but its a callous and bullshit one if that’s an ideological slant its pushing.

What does Lars Von Trier want with this? What is the truth, even if it is the absence of truth behind this film? Who did he make it for? If he made it as a form of personal catharsis, good for him. But the film is just so horribly indulgent it hurts. Von Trier is not a subversive filmmaker. These films are designed to shock, to provoke, but the only people who would seek these works out are those already experienced in these areas. Nymphomaniac is not designed to be watched by average Joe on the street, it’s designed to be watched by the kind of people who find themselves bored with the mainstream, look for work which indulges their pretensions of just by showcasing depravity and uncovering the rock of the human psyche, that by looking at the underside underneath, we can somehow take part in that holy communion. And that’s a land for people who are ultimately dissatisfied with themselves, with people who are unhappy with their own identities and the perceived identities of those around them. Why else would they be so desperate to jump into this mud pool, declaring it a work of excellence, ready with their academic spears to dissect it according to X thinker, or Y term (An example over this overreaching can be found here).

Perhaps this is why many reacted so harshly to its ending. In short, after Joe lays her tale bare, she confesses that she feels hope and possibly redemption and has found a friend in Seligman.Seligman puts her to bed, then comes in to rape her, and she shoots him and leaves.

The same people who were so quick then to laud this work, are also quick to turn on it at this point, as the final cruelty of this joke self-destructs any chance the film had at constructing…well anything. All of the pre-supposed superiority of watching the film, of having Von Trier explain in exposition each idea he wants you to associate with the film, so you can immediately construct links he wants you to follow, finally reach the unexpected dead-end of the tracks, as Von Trier pulls the rug out from under you, and shuts the doors tight on his kingdom of nihilism, of the idea that at the end of the day, we’re all just cunts (apologies for the strong word, but its appropriate, considering how often the film refers to it.) It’s in that case a good example of post-modernism, whatever the hell that even really refers to any more, it deconstructs everything, and lands itself in the realm of nothing but cheap ironic tricks and ‘cool’ nihilism. I hate nihilists. They’re prone to being incredibly boring.

It’s a final provocation, Seligman’s last scene, and maybe I’m superior in saying it, but it didn’t get to me. In fact nothing got to me, beside the above mentioned good parts of the film. It was in the point of Joe enduring the Cat O’ Nine Tails, of her suffering creating meaning in true existential form, as she finally rediscovered her orgasm, that I managed to find something to connect to in the film. And that flash in the pan quickly vanished, because the rest of the film is so desperately needy, so gaudy as it practically screams “LOOK AT ME, JUDGE ME JUDGE ME”, that it failed to arouse anything in me. My friend felt sorry for her, his girlfriend condemned her, and I ultimately couldn’t conjure up any feelings on the matter at all. A cynic would say I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of judging her, but I’ll defend it and say I simply didn’t care. I just didn’t care. The entire theatrics of the film, the showboating and self aggrandisement and bullshit philosophy, all are masquerades for what is a hollow statement of self-expression. Our resident nymphomaniac was left unsatisfied, and my fate was worse than that. I simply was not put in a position to be left either in satisfaction or dissatisfaction, simply confusion. Confusion as to why anyone thought it was a good idea to tell this story at all. There’s a reason Dante didn’t spend the rest of Inferno in the 2nd circle, and that’s because there’s far more interesting matters at hand. It’s sin is that for it’s all posturing, it’s just unforgivably boring, and that is my judgement.

I have no more thoughts on the matter. I will however persevere in the future to watch more of Von Trier’s work.

-Alex

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The (Empty) Agony Of (Empty) Defeat: Nymphomaniac Vol. I/Vol. II