Friday, August 19, 2011

The Afflictions of Time: Criterion's DVD Release of The Music Room & The Makioka Sisters

In the opening scenes of Satyajit Ray's flawed, yet intimately haunting, The Music Room (1958), an aging Bengali feudal landlord (zamindar), Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), sits with his back to us in a large chair on the roof of his dilapidated mansion. He puffs away on his hookah, lost in time, while time is clearly running out on his era of wealth and power. Set in the late 1920s, the zamindar's only connection to the comforts and pleasures of his class privilege is the music concerts he presents in his home. The music room, which holds within it the fleeting power of nostalgia, transports Roy from the afflictions of time to the more nobler moments in his past, while his present life decays around him. (It is perhaps a rich irony, not lost here, that it was the feudal classes, so influenced by the West, that actually kept Indian classical music alive.)

The Music Room, which Ray made between the second and third films of his justly acclaimed The Apu Trilogy, may (as critic Pauline Kael once suggested) reflect the same themes of cultural futility as Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. But if that's so, The Music Room is The Cherry Orchard seen through the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Music Room (which Criterion has just released this summer in both regular and Blu-ray) is about how a once powerful aristocrat stubbornly clings to the past through his opulent staging of musicales. But, in doing so, he destroys his family and his life.

Chhabi Biswas as Roy
Since Ray is one of the great humanists among major film directors, he doesn't take a churlish view towards this innocently infantile lord. Rather, as he would later do in Devi (1960) and The Home and The World (1984), Ray brings a sophisticated understanding of the psychological dynamics at work in the story. As with any great dramatist, Satyajit Ray skillfully illuminates the folly of the zamindar rather than examining him objectively, or simply condemning him on our behalf. He achieves something empathetic and similar to what Visconti did with the ageing, much more noble Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) in The Leopard (1963).

There is almost a darkly comic aspect to watching Roy getting roused from his stasis by the distant sound of music (particularly from his neighbour, the noveau riche moneylender Ganguli, who represents the modern expedient aristocracy poised to replace Roy). In a series of moves to rival Ganguli, Roy tries to upstage his rival with rousing Indian classical performances of song and ballet. But in doing so, he guts his own remaining funds including his wife's jewels.  

director Satyajit Ray
Adapted from a short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Banerji, The Music Room is at times rather clumsily staged. Ray wisely changes the circumstances surrounding the death of Roy's wife and son (in the story, they are killed by disease; in the film, Roy unwittingly sends them to their death) which rightly implicates him in the tragedy. But Ray's staging of Roy's discovery of his son's body is glanced over so quickly it has the jarring effect of melodrama. (So does the portentous image of a bug drowning in Roy's drink during one of the concerts.) The rhythms of the storytelling also lack the lyrical sureness of pictures like Pather Panchali (1955) which still resonates in the memory like a reverie. But the musicales are mesmerizing, especially the final kathak dance, a solo narrative ballet which casts an inflammatory spell with the same force as The Dance of the Seven Veils.

Although Chhabi Biswas was a huge stage and film star in India, ironically, he wasn't such a great fan of music. But you'd never know it from his memorably plangent performance here. Biswas helps us see how Roy's desire for music is not just the nostalgia of recovering the pleasures of the past, but it's also a refuge from the ravages of the present. The Music Room examines with a wistful glance the passing of traditions. But it does it while still casting a watchful eye on what human mysteries get brought forth by the modern world replacing those traditions.

As well, Kon Ichikawa's extraordinary The Makioka Sisters (1983), which Criterion has also released on DVD this summer, explores the conflicts between the traditions of the past and the modern world encroaching on those traditions. But Ichikawa, whose movies (Kagi, Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp) often ride on waves of inchoate emotions moving towards a sense of discovery, addresses those changes with evocative colourful impressions rather than through familiar narrative devices. While the film is based on a Junichiro Tanizaki novel (as was Kagi), The Makioka Sisters departs from some of the plot designs of the book and creates instead an evocation of a way of life that reveals the fleeting impermanence of beauty. It may be one of the few pictures where colour reveals as much about the dramatic moods as does the plot.

Taeko and her dolls
The Makioka Sisters has one of the most beautifully composed opening scenes in modern movies. Set in the spring of 1938, the Makioka clan (four sisters and one of their husbands from Osaka) meet in Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms which are now at their peak. The bright pink colours of the blossoms which are softened by the rain create a vividly sensual pastel world right out of fairy tales. From that lush softness of the opening, though, we're immediately thrust into the purpose of the meeting. The youngest sister, Taeko (Yuko Kotegawa), is restless for her promised dowry from her late father so that she can open her own business of making dolls. Unfortunately, tradition dictates that Taeko can't get her money until she gets married. But she can't marry until the third sister, Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga), who is shy and unmarried, finds her own partner. The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), are already married to men, Tatsuo (Juzo Itami -- later a filmmaker himself with such movies as Tampopo) a banker and Teinosuke (Keji Ishizaka) who has an erotic fascination for Yukiko. Since they are below the Makioka social standing, they take on the surnames of their wives. The movie traces the resolution of that conflict.

director Kon Ichikawa
Much of the story revolves around the various suitors attempting to win the hand of Yukiko, but the movie is also about the inability of the sisters to continue bathing in the ornamental beauty reflected in the ceremonious kimonos of their family business. As Ichikawa follows the year ahead, where the war in the Pacific looms with its dramatic changes for Japan, a fissure is created in the family dynamic. Most of it is blessedly comic (especially the sneaky way Teinosuke attempts to seize a look at Yukiko's exposed leg under her kimono). Yukiko may be shy, but she is no wallflower either. She is well aware of the ripples she's causing. Yukiko's also no fool when it comes to her suitors. (In one instance, she meets with a fish merchant in a scene that is almost as funny as Diane Keaton's meeting with a similar prospect in Woody Allen's Love and Death.)

Ichikawa also has no illusions about the rebellious Taeko. While most Western films celebrate and often idealize the rebellion of the young against adults, Taeko's actions are often reckless and have consequences that complicate our responses to her. Ichikawa, who in the past had also confronted us with the dire reality of war (as he did in Fires on the Plain), puts the conflict in the distance to keep our concentration on how the afflictions of time alter the Makioka chemistry. Even the music, the largo from Handel's opera Serse, is scored for modern synthesizers and guitar creating a timeless mood of coronation, a stately quest for marriage set against the unpredictable forces of nature.

Teinsosuke and Yukiko
While the first half of the picture has a formal design where Ichikawa slips little jokes and ironies into the fabric, the last half builds to an emotionally rich and overwhelming conclusion. As Yukiko finally finds her acceptable suitor, Tatsuo discovers that his wife Tsuruko will allow their move from Osaka to Tokyo so that he can have a promotion at the bank. (His expression of gratitude might be one of the funniest romantic moments I've ever seen.) But the break-up of the family unit leaves Teinosuke devastated because his love for Yukiko goes unfulfilled. The emotional pull of this conclusion is saturated in the tears of unrequited hopes. (The overall effect may have in part also been due unconsciously to the grief Ichikawa felt losing his longtime screenwriting collaborator Natto Wada who died just as The Makioka Sisters was going into production.)

The Makioka Sisters was made in the age when rock videos emerged, changing the course of movies, but Kon Ichikawa creates true visual music. The Makioka Sisters is a beautifully meditative look at the impermanence of life, but Ichikawa is too much of a sensualist to let the movie become languid, or stately. Showing a poet's touch, Ichikawa allows those lost moments of billowing beauty to take permanent residence in our imagination. It's a sublime masterpiece.      

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, concludes at the Revue Cinema on Monday, August 22nd with a discussion of Vertigo and Casualties of War. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

No comments:

Post a Comment