A ragtag kabuki troupe steams into a seaside town ready to settle in for what's assumed to be a good year or so of performances. It so happens that this town is home to one of the leader's ex-lovers and her son, who's also his son. The son doesn't know that, though; wanting him to grow into a higher class than that of a traveling actor, his father pretends to be his uncle when visiting. When she discovers that the leader has been surreptitiously hanging out with his son and the mother, the leader's prostitute-cum-actress girlfriend gets jealous and seeks her revenge by bribing the troupe's other girl to go seduce the kid, dragging him down from a life of promise to the dreaded desultory, loose-moral'd existence of the actors.
The Criterion Collection put out a handsome box set, as is their wont, containing both A Story of Floating Weeds, Ozu's 1934 silent film, and Floating Weeds, his 1959 color remake, the former with a commentary track from noted Japan scholar Donald Richie, the latter with one from Roger Ebert. As someone whose Ozu enthusiasm (Ozuthusiasm?) grows by the day, this is as the crack cocaine to me.
The two movies share a plot and even, apparently, some locations — Ozu was highly, highly particular about building a mise-en-scène — but they're otherwise distinct experiences. As much of a film geek as I can be, I haven't yet entered a silent phase, so watching dialogue cards was, in a way, something of a novelty. Then again, I watch a lot of — mostly? — pictures with dialogue spoken in languages I don't (yet) know, so it's not much of a novelty at all as I'd be reading the subtitles anyway. What was striking was the 1934 version's solidly beautiful photography. The films I've seen from that area and before — hell, even in decades after — have been pretty sketchy, visually speaking, but this one nears perfection. It even outdoes many black-and-whites from the late 1950s and 1960s. I'm almost ready to make the bold declaration that the remake doesn't look as good, though the color and 25-year distance make for tricky comparison.
Richie and Ebert's commentaries, the former of which I'm still in the middle, added tremendous value. My respect for Ebert's writing skill is well-documented, but his commentary skill? Wow. It's a damned tragedy that cancer surgery has robbed him of his voice, at least until he's ready (if ever he will be) to go under the knife again. His Dark City track was nice, but this one is finer still, because, though he may not be a die-hard Alex Proyas fan — does such a creature walk this Earth? — he is a die-hard Ozu fan. So he's all up in there with the trivia Ozu-lovers will relish: that teapot he tends to drop into the corner of his frames, for instance.
A few of Ebert's observations were especially helpful in shining a light on why I like Ozu. To paraphrase, he says that Floating Weeds comes late enough in Ozu's career &href; he died in '63 — that, by the time of its release, the director had pretty much unshackled himself from the chains of overbearing plots. As the critic puts it, Ozu felt that too much plot just "jerks the characters around" in unnatural (and thus uninteresting) ways. I couldn't agree more. If I had to articulate my chief beef with current mainstream cinema (other than its aesthetically bankrupt herky-jerky editing), I'd say that it's the dumb, lumbering plots that grab the characters and clumsily push them around like toy soldiers on the sofa. Ozu is nearly the antithesis of that; not quite to the degree of, say, Kiarostami, but then again, Ozu doesn't make nearly as many casual viewers uncomfortable as does the Iranian. (Ironic that Kiarostami's Five Dedicated to Ozu, which comprises essentially five human-free long shots, discomfits most audiences than the rest of his stuff put together.)
Ozu's films — and really, I tend to think of his filmography as one big movie — may well be the apotheosis of what, through intensive viewing, I have some to identify as my preferred cinematic configuration. (Or quite possibly my preferred configuration of any sort of narrative.) It's this: maximum realism of subject matter, delivered with maximum aestheticization. Ozu's ultra-realistic scripts certainly provide this — practically every person is an everyperson, every setting an everysetting — and so does his meticulous attention to visual composition. He was so concerned with making all his shots suitable for framing that he'd re-arrange the rooms' objects and just eat the continuity errors in the name of beauty. A filmmaker after my own heart. (I learned that tidbit from Ebert, by the by.)
18. Plot should be lightly applied. Characters are interesting. The various machinations of overzealous screenwriters meant to yank them to and fro are, generally speaking, not.