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Halloween and Madness

November 4th, 2006 (05:03 am)

This time I went in the other direction to see a movie...

© 2006 D. Gordon

An estimated 70-90% of all films dating from before 1950 no longer exist. Some of this loss is due to the physical characteristics of nitrate film stock; despite rumors of better picture quality, nitrate can burst into flames if you just look at it incorrectly (or so I've been told). Some of this loss is due to a lack of foresight; there was no concept of a film archive, or film historians, or that the medium could have any historical value. Many times, films past their distribution runs were scavenged for their silver content; and, in one film, a spectacular scene of a burning ship was fueled by reels and reels of older films – reels and reels that no longer exist today.

Any discussion of the rarest of the rare would have to include early Japanese cinema. Not only did Japanese films face the standard deterioration and neglect, but the 1923 Kanto earthquake and World War II firebombing destroyed many films that might have otherwise survived. Matsuda Shunsui (founder of Matsuda Film Productions, perhaps the preeminent silent Japanese film resource today) went far in saving what was left of Japanese silents, but it's difficult to find prints even by masters like Ozu and Mizoguchi outside of Japan, much less with any non-Japanese translation. Which is why finding out something like Kinugusa Teinosuke's A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ippeiji, 1926) is playing fairly close to home means dropping everything and going.

This film was believed lost for a good fifty years, having fallen off the radar screen soon after its first run. It was Kinugusa himself, sorting through some stored items, who found the negative and a print in a barrel on his property in 1971. The film was restored promptly; but it still doesn't show up very often, and to my knowledge has never been released on DVD (although Facets carries a VHS tape - can't vouch for quality).

Okay, to the movie.

The movie is definitely avant-garde filmmaking at its best. It's the story of a janitor at an insane asylum; a former sailor, he took the job in order to help his wife, an inmate, sent there after trying to drown their infant son. There are numerous images (at least I think so – more on that later): an inmate who can't stop dancing; a car sluicing through the rain; Noh masks and twitching bodies. Water is a recurring theme, while the inmates are trapped in their own worlds. There are no intertitles and few words, but it is possible to piece together a story: the man tends to his wife when he can. He's friends with a young woman on the staff. She works closely (or closely enough) with the doctors, and apparently warns the janitor that the doctor has something in mind... which drives the janitor to desperate measures to protect his beloved wife.

There are definite comparisons to be made between A Page of Madness and the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There's some back and forth over whether Kinugusa actually saw the German Expressionist work; but he and his screenwriter Kawabata Yasunari at least knew of the film and its importance, and used the asylum setting as a launching pad for their own film (as the perfect setting for a style that plays so much with the mind). It isn't truly an expressionist work – Japan didn't have the historical and social currents that Germany did, to support such a development – but it falls squarely under the wider avant-garde category.

Beyond the jarring imagery and striking camera work, one of the things most often mentioned about the film is the absence of intertitles. Many people extend the avant-gardism to the wordlessness of the plot, relying on the visuals to evoke a story of emotions. But given the nature of Japanese silent presentation, my sense (supported by Swiss film historian and Japanese silent film expert Mariann Lewinsky[1]), is that this film likely had an accompanying benshi performance like any other silent, and just made more use of the narration to bridge the absence of intertitles. There are too many elements, especially around the young woman (who is she? how did she fit into the asylum? What did she know about the doctors? What did she tell the janitor?) that needed an explanation, otherwise the only feeling evoked would have been confusion. It definitely would have been a different story with a benshi.

If I sound a little vague in describing the movie, I have good reason. First, I'm not a fan of experimental / electronica accompanying silents. While I understand that the nature of the film encourages that, and there are points during which the "soundtrack" matches the action on screen, it's extremely hard for pure experimental music to complement the film rather than demand its own space. This instance worked better than the electronica underlying The Swordswoman of Huangjiang (I'll never forget watching that and wondering whether the musician's computer was broken...), but still wasn't quite right for the material.

The bigger problem with the movie was with this print, which, frankly, was horrible. It was shown in video, a format that often doesn't work if it wasn't the original source; in this case, it presents blocky distortions of the original vision of a director who worked long before digital was a twinkle in anyone's eye. On top of the video problem, the print used in the transfer looked to have been the nth generation of an nth generation. Given the combination, faces and whole scenes were washed out, bodies became literally gray smudges on the screen, and sometimes it just wasn't possible to see what was going on.

Overall, I'm disappointed. What played across the screen looked like a very interesting exploration into definitions of madness. I hope to some day see a much better print, with a much better accompaniment, in order to prove whether that's actually true.

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[1] A Page of Madness was the movie that convinced Lewinsky to switch from Japanese language studies to Japanese film studies – she wanted to know what was happening in the film, and decided to research an answer for herself. She has written a book, Eine Verrückte Seite - Stummfilm und Filmisch Avant-Garde in Japan (A Page of Madness - Silent Cinema and the Cinematic Avant-Garde in Japan) (Chronos, Zürich), which includes the benshi script; but the book is available in German only. An interview with Lewinsky discussing the movie is available at Midnight Eye.

BTW, Lewinsky reports that the words flashed across the screen translate to "Big Lottery." That makes sense.


Posted by: lady_wakasa (lady_wakasa)
Posted at: November 15th, 2006 06:19 am (UTC)
An Update to This...

Okay some news on the screenplay:

The good news: there is an English-language screenplay for the movie: Classic Japanese Screenplays: A Crazy Page and Crossroads, by D. A. Rajakaruna (A Crazy Page is an alternate title).

The bad news: it's apparently from a small printer in Malaysia, was printed in 1998, and is out of print. The only copies I see (for a 123-page paperback) are around $55.

Could be justified, but Xmas is coming.

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