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March 11, 2008

R.I.P.: Sorrentino, Yang, Ichikawa

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When you aren't a devoted newsbuff -- and I'm not -- contempo events sometimes just slip by you. It was only recently that I caught up, for instance, with the fact that three artists whose work I'm very fond of died in the last few years.

* The novelist and critic Gilbert Sorrentino. Sorrentino was as experimental and hardcore-modernist as it gets: For him a piece of fiction wasn't a story with characters, it was a construction of words and letters. Downside: His books often lost themselves in intellectual gamesmanship. But -- perhaps despite himself -- a few of his novels delivered real guts and feeling. They paid off emotionally; in them, the modernist strategies felt like fresh ways of presenting juicy subjects. Born in Brooklyn, Sorrentino taught in later years at Stanford, and the longer he was a professor the more ingrown his fiction became. Still, in "Aberration of Starlight" and "The Sky Changes," he combined virtuosity and sophistication with a lot of earthy Brooklyn soul and humor. He was also an excellent critic of modernist poetry.

* The filmmaker Edward Yang, who died in June of last year at 59 of colon cancer. Although Taiwanese, Yang worked in the tradition of the Euro-American cinema. No kabuki here, and no crazed action or fable-like ghost stories either. Instead, he made films that feature three-dimensional "humanity" in the western sense. (Yang grew up on Taiwan; went to college at the University of Florida, where he earned an engineering degree; and was living in L.A. when he died.) The film of Yang's to start with is the 2000 "Yi Yi," a quiet, expansive-yet-intimate work that bears comparison to Chekhov and Renoir in its patience, its unforced curiosity, and its willingness to let characters and situations reveal themselves in their own time.

* The Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, who died in February at 92. I'm not as crazy about some of Ichikawa's more famous movies ("Fires on the Plain," "The Burmese Harp") as many are. But I love-love-love many of his other films, and am happy to think of him as one of the true giants of the Japanese cinema, the equal of Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. If Ichikawa wasn't as well-known as the Big Three perhaps it's because he worked in a really wide variety of genres and styles, and that made him a hard one to nail down. But to each of the films of his that I've seen he brought a distinctive technical brilliance, a snakecharmer's psychological insight, and a wicked perversity of attack. My viewing tip: Start with his documentary "Tokyo Olympiad" -- genius stuff. And hope that one day his brilliant Tanizaki adaptations "The Key" and "The Makioka Sisters" will be brought out on DVD.

* MBlowhard Rewind: I raved about Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" here.



posted by Michael at March 11, 2008


I thought Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad was rather lame, especially compared to Riefensthal's Olympic film.

I did love An Actor's Revenge though.

Posted by: Thursday on March 11, 2008 2:03 PM

It's funny how stylistic diversity (which some might equate with a curiosity of spirit) can ruin a filmmaker's reputation. Louis Malle, John Huston, Ichikawa--these are (IMO) great directors, but they've been somewhat dismissed by the academic film-snob crowd, which demands constant stylistic repetition/refinement before they'll take you seriously.

Both Ichikawa and Yang have been pretty neglected on DVD, which is a shame. Yang's A Brighter Summer Day isn't as accessible as YiYi, but it shares some of the qualities that Michael cites it for. It's just damn hard to actually see.

Posted by: Ron on March 12, 2008 8:32 AM

Thursday -- "An Actor's Revenge" rocks, that's for sure. Kinky! It's one of The Wife's very favorite movies. Wouldn't it be great to see a fresh, well-done DVD of it?

Ron -- Funny how even the elite filmsnobs can fall for the "easy to label" temptation, no? You'd think they'd be immune to it, but maybe we're all suckers in some ways. Yang certainly deserves better exposure on DVD. I don't think "A Confucian Confusion" has shown up on DVD either, has it? I liked it a lot too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 12, 2008 11:52 AM

Michael-- I'm pretty sure that YiYi is the only Yang on DVD in this country (maybe *any* country). I haven't seen Confucian Confusion, though now that you mention it I think I have a bootleg copy of it that I've never gotten around to watching. Something to do tonight!

To the film lover bred on academic/"auteurist" thinking, which tends to examine work for consistent themes and personalities, a filmmaker like Louis Malle seems something like a charlatan. Which is to say that his working methods tended to stymie attemps to fetishize/heroize him--which, it seems to me, is what a lot of auteurism sought to do to its most beloved subjects.

The bizarre thing about auteurism (or what it grew into) is that the very filmmakers it seemed geared towards supporting--the mainstream filmmakers who *did* have fairly consistent styles, themes and personalities--were routinely ignored by it once the '70s and '80s rolled around. Mazursky, early Demme, De Palma, Schepisi, Forsyth, Ballard, early Zemeckis. These guys caused barely a ripple in academic/filmsnob circles while hardcore art filmmakers and bland-merchants like Clint Eastwood were lionized.

Of course, the mainstream often ignored what I see as the more interesting populist directors as well, so it's not like the snobs were alone in that respect.

Maybe I'm the out-of-touch one? Nah :^)

Posted by: Ron on March 13, 2008 9:54 AM

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