“On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors” (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

 

 

A full downloadable Word document is below.

 

 

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以下、このエッセイの日本語への翻訳の一部を参照してください。

(Japanese translation of my comments regarding the director Yasujirō Ozu is appended below.)

 

 

Roger W. Smith

“On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors”

 

 

I will begin this essay with some comments on what I feel the development of aesthetic sense and critical standards, as they apply both to literature and to the cinema, entails.

To put it as simply as possible: in order to have a deep appreciation of anything cultural, you have to become acquainted with the BEST works. Nothing less.

Let’s consider literature for a moment. Consider the case of someone whose acquaintance with books is limited to reading works such as The Thorn Birds, Jacqueline Susann, The Bridges of Madison County, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and similar works.

I have nothing against such writers and works or their readers per se. It’s enough that people love to read and take pleasure from it. I am not a snob.

But, if that’s all you have read, you will never have

a frame of reference;

a yardstick; or

models of excellence

for purposes of comparison when it comes to appreciating literature in full.

You won’t be able to distinguish between what is perhaps entertaining and/or diverting and what is truly great. You will never know the difference.

The same comments apply to cinema.

Let’s say that in the past you saw films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, or Kramer vs. Kramer and regarded them as classics. Perhaps you still do.

I have news for you (I’m sorry if I sound arrogant): THEY AREN’T. For why I feel this way, see my discussion of directors and films below.

Extending this comment broadly (i.e., to both literature and film), I would say that it’s like comparing War and Peace with Ben-Hur or Anna Karenina with Erich Segal’s Love Story. You have to have read or seen classics to know the difference.

 

 

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I only began to understand and appreciate film after moving to New York City in the late 1960’s, just after graduating from college.

I owe my appreciation and acumen about films, such as they are, to a friend I made during my early days in New York: William S. (Bill) Dalzell.

Bill Dalzell was a self-employed printer who did printing for left wing groups such as Women’s Strike for Peace. (An aside: he was apolitical, though he was sympathetic to such groups’ goals.) He was a very cultured person and a lover of film, as well as of New York.

He taught me, single handedly, to appreciate film.

Bill Dalzell had a personal list of his five all time great films:

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

German director Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944, with a Part Two released posthumously in 1958; in my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is an even better film than Eisenstein’s better known film The Battleship Potemkin)

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word; 1955)

Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

Thanks to his advice, I saw them all at least once.

Truly classic films such as the above five are in a league of their own. Few people have seen them or even know of them.

What are some of the ingredients of great filmmaking? Not being a film critic, I can’t say really – I am not qualified to. But my friend Bill made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”

Consider the great directors. Most use music very effectively, use it sparingly. They don’t overdo it. But music is a key part of the aesthetic experience. And, the great directors don’t use schlocky music. What you get is Prokofiev, Monteverdi, Schubert, and so on, plus awesome original music. How many treacly film scores have we been subjected to by second rate directors?

 

 

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To Bill Dalzell’s list of the greatest, I would like to add and comment on a few favorite directors of my own.

 

 

Yasujirō Ozu, a Japanese film director and screenwriter

He is not nearly as well known as he should be, though his critical reputation is very high. He is my personal favorite among directors, perhaps outranking the five listed above.

Of course, it was Bill Dalzell who first alerted me to Ozu’s films. He made a comment that turned out to be true. In Ozu’s films, nothing happens.

They are films about ordinary Japanese people — businessmen, housewives, families — living ordinary lives. One watches them going about their daily lives – there is no melodrama — and, instead of being bored, by some magic which the director, Ozu, achieves – which one can only marvel at – the viewer is never bored. Instead, one is totally engrossed.

It seems like a certainty that you are watching real people go about their lives, a documentary of sorts, as if the director had entered a home or workplace in Tokyo and turned on his camera. It’s hard to believe – one totally forgets – that one is watching actors.

There is wonderful music, simple and enchanting, used sparingly.

It is wonderful to hear Japanese spoken.

There is a sense of place. The films are shot in Tokyo. One feels that one is there, in the houses with people sitting on mats, in bars where businessmen are drinking copiously, in the narrow streets with their colorful lights and signs and paper lanterns.

Ozu has a great visual sense, but like everything else in his films. his cinematographic technique is not obtrusive. He is not showing off. You are having a wonderful aesthetic experience without quite realizing it.

There is no distance between you and the film, because everything is done simply and with great clarity. There is no bombast, no showing off, no cinematographic techniques being used simply to impress. And, there is no overacting, as is, sadly, the case with most American films.

I do not have a single favorite Ozu film. My favorites include:

Late Spring (1949)

Early Summer (1951)

The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice (1952)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Late Autumn (1960)

An Autumn Afternoon (1962; Ozu’s final work)

 

 

Robert Bresson

My other personal favorite is the French director Robert Bresson. My favorite Bresson film – his films are all of the highest quality — is Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

The Balthazar of the title is a donkey. It is a sort of “Black Beauty” story (the reference here being to the novel by Anna Sewall). The characters are plain people – some of them mean spirited and petty minded, if not downright cruel – in a French village.

The haunting soundtrack features Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major. Bresson uses music sparingly, but extremely effectively.

— Roger W. Smith

       July 2016

 

 

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from the Wikipedia entry on Yasujirō Ozu:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasujir%C5%8D_Ozu

 Ozu is probably as well known for the technical style and innovation of his films as for the narrative content. The style of his films is most striking in his later films, a style he had not fully developed until his post-war talkies. He did not conform to Hollywood conventions. Rather than using the typical over-the-shoulder shots in his dialogue scenes, the camera gazes on the actors directly, which has the effect of placing the viewer in the middle of the scene.

Ozu did not use typical transitions between scenes, either. In between scenes he would show shots of certain static objects as transitions, or use direct cuts, rather than fades or dissolves. Most often the static objects would be buildings, where the next indoor scene would take place. It was during these transitions that he would use music, which might begin at the end of one scene, progress through the static transition, and fade into the new scene. He rarely used non-diegetic music in any scenes other than in the transitions. Ozu moved the camera less and less as his career progressed, and ceased using tracking shots altogether in his color films. …

He invented the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat … even lower than that, only one or two feet off the ground, which necessitated the use of special tripods and raised sets. He used this low height even when there were no sitting scenes, such as when his characters walked down hallways.

Ozu eschewed the traditional rules of filmic storytelling, most notably eyelines.

 

 

from the Wikipedia entry on Robert Bresson:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bresson

 

[Bresson is] known for a spiritual and ascetic style. Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. …

Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. …

Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his meticulous approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. ….

Bresson’s actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of “performance” were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. …

Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous “actor-model” methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors.

 

 

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A Comment:

 

What I most like about Ozu’s films is his appreciation of moments of silence or non-action. So much is allowed to happen in those moments! They are almost always missing from American films, which seem to require constant noise and movement. You didn’t list it, so I’ll add another favorite: “Good Morning,” which is a comedy.

Thanks for bringing Ozu’s film to the attention of your readers!

 

— Ella Rutledge

     November 9, 2016

 

 

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Addendum:

 

I would like to clarify one aspect of the above.

I think it is important to be able to tell what is a classic and what is not a classic, which is the point of this essay.

But you can’t be force fed classics – it’s the kiss of death when it comes to developing a love and enthusiasm for them.

Comments along these lines were made by me in the essay Roger W. Smith, “My Early Reading” posted here at

https://rogersgleanings.com/2015/11/05/roger-w-smith-essay-on-early-reading/

As follows:

I think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.

Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

— Roger W. Smith

 

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Addendum:

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011).

On pg. 61, Philbrick mentions “the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.”

YES – waiting, I would be inclined to say, until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

Waiting until the most opportune time.

This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 7, 2016

 

 

 

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小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家

 “On Aesthetic and Cultural Appreciation of Literature and Film, and My Favorite Directors” (小津安二郎は日本の映画監督・脚本家)

彼は、その作品で評論家から非常に高い評価を得ていたが、彼のことはその評価に見合うほど知られていない。彼は私が個人的に好きな映画監督であり、おそらく上述した5人の監督を上回るだろう。

もちろん、小津の映画を最初に教えてくれたのはBill Dalzelld だった。彼はいずれ真実であることが明らかになるコメントをした。小津の映画では、何も起こらない。

それらは、ビジネスマン、主婦、家族など、日本の庶民の何気ない日常を描いた映画だ。見ている人は、彼らの日常生活をただ見るのだが、メロドラマのようなたぐいではない。退屈するどころか、小津監督が吹き込む驚嘆すべきマジックにより、観客は決して退屈することがない。むしろ、見ている人は夢中にさせられる。

実際の人々の日常生活のありさまを、あたかも監督が東京のある家庭、または職場に潜入し、独自のカメラを回して撮ったドキュメンタリーか何かを見ているような感覚を受ける。役者の演技を見ている、ということを全く忘れさせられるのは、実に信じがたい体験だ。

音楽も素晴らしく、シンプルで魅惑的な音楽が控えめにバランスよく使われている。

日本語の話し言葉が非常に耳に心地よい。

場所の感覚がしっかり存在する。この映画は東京で撮影された。これを観ている人たちは、自分が実際に映画の登場人物の家の座敷や、ビジネスマンがおびただしく酒を飲むバー、カラフルなネオンや看板、紙ちょうちんの並ぶ狭い街路地に居るかのように感じる。

小津監督は優れたビジュアルセンスを持つが、映画のその他すべての部分と同様、彼の映画技術には押し付けがましさがない。彼は見せびらかすことをしない。あなたは気づかないうちに、素晴らしい美を体験させられる。

すべてがシンプルで、かなり明瞭に作られているため、あなたと映画との間に距離を感じない。印象付けるために、大げさな表現、見せびらかし、映画技術は一切使わない。そして、残念ながら大半のアメリカ映画がそうであるように、大げさな演技はない。

私の好きな小津監督の映画を1つだけ選ぶことはできない。私のお気に入りの映画のリストを挙げることにする:

晩春 (1949年)

麦秋 (1951年)

お茶漬けの味 (1952年)

東京物語 (1953年)

秋日和 (1960年)

秋刀魚の味 (1962年、小津の最終作)

 

 

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ウィキピディアの小津安二郎のページより

小津は恐らく、物語の内容と同じくらい、彼の映画の技術的スタイルと革新によって知られている監督であろう。彼の映画のスタイルは、晩年の映画でより顕著になってきており、このスタイルは彼の戦後をテーマにした映画の中で完全に確立された。彼はハリウッド映画のしきたりに従わなかった。それよりは、会話のシーンで典型的な肩越しのショットを使ったり、カメラを役者に直接向け、観客がシーンの中にいるような効果を出した。

小津はシーンの間にも典型的なトランジションを使わなかった。シーンの間に彼は、特定の静的オブジェクトをトランジションとして使ったり、フェードやディゾルブなどよりは、ディレクトカットを用いた。静的オブジェクトは、次の屋内シーンが展開される建物を用いることがほとんどだった。音楽はこれらのトランジション中に挿入され、1つのシーンの終わりから始まり、静的オブジェクトによるトランジションを経て、新しいシーンでフェードしていく、といった具合に使用した。彼がトランジション以外で物語の世界に属さない音楽を使用することはほとんどなかった。小津は、キャリアを積むに連れカメラを移動することが少なくなり、カラーフィルムになってからは、トラッキング・ショットの使用を一切止めた。…

彼はカメラを低い位置に設置し、日本家屋での座ったときの目線、または、それよりも低い床から30~60cmほどの高さで撮影する「畳ショット」を発明したが、これには特別な三脚を使用し、セットを上げる必要があった。彼は、キャラクターが廊下を歩くときなど、座り芝居のないシーンでもこのロー・ポジションを使用した。

小津は、映画によるストーリーテリングの伝統的なルールを避け、これは視点の構図で最も顕著だった。

 

 

 

 

‘On Aestheric and Cultural Appreciation, Films, Directors’

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. He hosts separate websites devoted to the authors Theodore Dreiser and Pitirim A. Sorokin and to classical music as well as family history/genealogy.
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