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Silent Ozu Month: I was born but… The pictures

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    I’ve only had the time to watch one of the silent films from Ozu, but what a film! I Was Born But... is obviously justifiably praised and some very interesting things have been written about it.

    I think the most striking and sophisticated scene (of many) is the scene where the family and neighbors gather around to watch the home movie. I think it needs several rewatches (which unfortunately I don’t have time to do right now) to work out how Ozu did it and what subtexts he wrote into it. But one thing that struck me was his use of film to show the fathers humiliation at the hands of his boss. A lesser film maker would no doubt have just had his children accidentally witness him kow towing or whatever, to his boss. Ozu seemed to be saying something about the nature of film itself – that when we see ‘reality’ on a screen (by which I mean people we know, rather than actors), it reveals something to us we didn’t realise. I suppose we’ve all seen photographs of ourselves or family members that seemed oddly unfamiliar – as if the camera has shown something our eye hasn’t seen before.

    So is Ozu saying something fundamental about the unreality of the photographic image? Or that it is in some way more ‘real’ and truthful than ‘reality’ itself? It was 30 years after this film that Godard undermined ‘reality’ with Breathless when he made those celebrated shots where his editing undermined the notion that we are seeing some sort of reality. Was Ozu anticipating this in some way?

    As you can see, these are half formed thoughts of mine, I’d be interested to know if there is anything to this.



    Ugetsu, I share your deep appreciation for Ozu, and I Was Born But… is a truly remarkable film!

    This is a comedy-in the best meaning of the word-of the sort that make us think…and it appears you are thinking about the art of film itself and the self-reflexive track of art that questions itself. An example in painting is Magritte’s “This is Not a Pipe” which depicts a pipe. Do I think Ozu was doing that? No. I don’t anyway, but disagee if you do.

    Your second track is the one that interests me. You said,

    …that when we see ‘reality’ on a screen (by which I mean people we know, rather than actors), it reveals something to us we didn’t realise.

    Right on, brother. Sudden objectivitiy-a “third party” view-as you see yourself on a screen or hear your voice recorded can be absolutely shocking. What a true slice then, this scene in which we all are confronted with the humiliation and shame of being “exposed”.



    I had a very similar reaction to the home film scene, which also made me think of Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. I wonder if the boss’s kid wasn’t actually meant as a reference to Ozu himself? He behaved a little different from the rest of the kids, and wore the kind of a hat that, based on my limited familiarity with Ozu, I think could be associated with Ozu just like sun glasses and a cap are often associated with Kurosawa. I Was Born, But… feels like such a rich and multi-layered film that I wouldn’t actually be surprised if Ozu worked an echo of himself into the film.

    In any case, I think that one aspect of film as employed in the film-within-film is that it allows the characters to observe things from a point of view which is largely situation-neutral. Unlike performing arts like theatre, dance or circus, a movie once printed remains the same for all eternity. In Ozu’s home video scene this means that the boys are allowed a glimpse into the social conventions of adults, and into the behaviour of their father when he is in a social setting very different from what the boys are used to.



    Vili said:

    “Unlike performing arts like theatre, dance or circus, a movie once printed remains the same for all eternity.”

    I think that John Ashbery and Gaston Bachelard both are in agreement: art is remade anew by the audience/viewer/reader, remade each generation, remade by each lover of art. It is never the same piece of art, no matter what the artist’s intent. I think a movie does not remain the same-(we had the discussion of silent scores) hence, we have different “cuts” , different films, really, and qualities and film stock that ages, or transfers to tape of digitized…it chages…oh, it changes over time.



    Of course everything changes as the audience changes, and nothing is really permanent, but that is a little beside the point here. What I meant was simply that just like we act differently in different social circles, in some art forms it is possible to alter the performance based on the audience and its reactions. Film doesn’t typically do that. Hence, had the boys’ father been performing his “act” live, he could have toned it down a little, so as to retain his dignity in the boys’ eyes.

    The point I was therefore trying to make is that through the home film, the boys are suddenly allowed a glimpse into a social setting that they could not otherwise have witnessed, simply because had they been part of it, the social setting itself would have changed. This observer’s paradox is therefore solved by the camera, although the camera obviously introduces another one, making people act a little crazy. (A strange but rather common reaction to cameras, I have noticed.)

    In the end, I’m actually not sure that the father would have toned down his performance had the boys been around, as he didn’t seem to realise the effect he was having on the boys until talking to them at home. So, perhaps it’s all a moot point, really.



    Not a moot point, Vili…another interesting idea of yours is the way in which film can allow an audience to see things they otherwise would not have seen.

    “…suddenly allowed a glimpse into a social setting that they could not otherwise have witnessed”

    is really part of the magic of film and the fearsomeness of it. I am thinking of the ladies fainting when a locomotive appeared first in film on screen.

    I am also thinking of genocide films I have seen, and love stories, and adventures and science fiction.



    it’s been a little while since Ive seen it but Ozu’s remake ‘Good Morning’ omits the cinema scene – it seems to replace it with the children instead watching Sumo on TV, with no adults aound – a subtle criticism of TV being a more limited art form than cinema? I am a little curious about Ozu’s choices in the later film (which is also wonderful).

    but to go back to the original topic, it does seem that Ozu was making a very sophisticated point, many years ahead of other film makers. but on a more basic plt basis, I think Vili is right – the use of film means the father was mugging in a way he would never have done in front of his family, thus allowing the boys a look into the future world of adult humiliation. and the fact that the film allows the characters accept this in the end makes it all the more sad.



    Trying to catch up here, since once Netflix receives my copy of I Was Born, But…, they’ll ship Sanshiro Sugata.

    My reaction was different from everyone else’s. Didn’t the father say he wasn’t aware that his antics had been filmed? So in that respect, this wasn’t a contrast between the way he would act “in real life” and on film — it was more a contrast between the way he acts at work, or in front of his boss, and the way he acts at home, or in front of his children.

    I didn’t find what he was filmed doing to be that humiliating. He was being deliberately silly for his boss’ (and co-worker’s?) amusement. Who’s to say this isn’t part of his personality? The other kids’ reaction was positive — “Your dad’s funny”. I would take that as a compliment. I found his sons’ response puzzling.

    The fact that the father buys into the boys’ humiliation may have as much to do with the extremity of their reaction as his true feelings about what he’d done.

    It was also interesting that the camera caught some behavior that Taro’s father would rather it not have, or which he’d forgotten had been filmed, and for which he received some pointedly dirty looks from his wife.

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