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Summer Film College 2013 – A report

Tokyo Monogatari (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)


The most recent edition of the biennial Summer Film College was held in 2013 at Cinema Zuid in Antwerp, organized by the Flemish Service for Film Culture (VDFC) and the Royal Belgian Film Archive (CINEMATEK).

What follows is a short impression of this inspiring week of film studies.

The Summer Film College lasted eight days, filled from early morning until late at night with lectures and film screenings. The curriculum was divided in three parts: ‘Masterpiece in context’, ‘Runaway Hollywood’ and a selective retrospective of director Yasujiro Ozu.

1. Masterpiece in context

The late night screenings were built around an unannouncedmasterpiece, screened on the final night. An associative series of films led the participants to the mystery film, with each screening preceded by an introduction filled with both hidden hints and further mystifications.The line up consisted of: Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956), Il posto (Ermanno Olmi, 1961), Tystnaden (Ingmar Bergman, 1963), Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966), Edipo re (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967) and The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974). The mystery film turned out to be … Il deserto rosso (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)!

Surprise yourself and your audience: what would your masterpiece be and which films would make up its context? This concept can be a great source of inspiration, because it allows you to screen very diverse films in a new and fresh combination. It also keeps the audience on their toes, challenging them to think about themes and techniques in new ways.

2. Runaway Hollywood

Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)

In the Fifties and Sixties many Hollywood films were made in Europe, especially in the UK, Italy and France. First of all, there were several economical reasons for this phenomenon: the mobility of Hollywood film production was stimulated by tax advantages and regulations and by the availability of cheap labour in Europe. Besides that, there was a political motivation: the political ‘witch hunt’ in the US (epitomized in the two HUAC-investigations) caused many talented filmmakers to seek refuge abroad.

Tom Paulus (University of Antwerp) – who is preparing a book on the subject – gave eight extensive lectures on this corpus of films. He mainly explored the aesthetic consequences of political and economic circumstances, a blind spot in existing research. Tom gave us an exclusive preview of his material, illustrated by many images, clips and screenings.

One of the possible avenues for specific and detailed analysis is the comparison of storylines concerning transatlantic romances. This perspective has been partly covered in Robert Shandky’s book Runaway Romances: Hollywood’s Postwar Tour of Europe (2009), but Tom‘s talks nevertheless presented many options for further research. My favourite film in this category is Stazione termini (De Sica, 1951). The US distribution version of this film (Indiscretion of an American Wife, edited by producer David O. Selznick) makes it clear why the Italian version is such a great movie.

One could also analyse the abundant storylines concerning  the presence of American soldiers and civilians  in post-war Berlin, like those in A Foreign Affair (1948), The Search (1948), The Big Lift (1950), Little Boy Lost (1953), The Night People (1954), and the comedies I Was a Male War Bride (1949) and One, Two Three (1961). All these films are mirrored in The Good German (2006).

Another perspective could be an analysis of the representation of European cities and landscapes, mainly those of France and Italy. Many Runaway Hollywood productions  used stereotypic touristic imagery as background. One of the best early examples of city branding in this vein is Roman Holiday (1953). Woody Allen is essentially doing the same thing in his recent films (especially Midnight in Paris, 2011,  and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2008).

A fourth perspective could be the analysis of the development of the reputations and careers of several European and American directors and stars. My personal selection would include the directors John Huston, Jules Dassin, Jean Negulesco, and Anatole Litvak, and the actors Kirk Douglas, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, and Claudia Cardinale.

Highlights of the Runaway Hollywood program were the following films:

  • Two Weeks in Another Town (Vicente Minnelli, 1962, based on the novel by Irwin Shaw): Kirk Douglas is excellent, Edward G. Robinson and Cyd Charisse are also impressive, and the colour pallet is breathtaking. It’s truly an exemplary film, showing the world behind the scenes, set in the luxury decadent Rome of La Dolce Vita. It would make a perfect double bill with Le mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia), another example of masterful self-reflexivity.
  • Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967), depicting decades of love and painful clashes between a British couple, told as a road movie set in France, in a perfectly scrambled timeline. Audrey Hepburn gives her best performance ever. Albert Finney is also convincing as the loathsome husband who can be surprisingly charming in his best moments.
  • Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958): The film is better than the book, because the former is in Cinemascope, displays wonderful staging and smart use of colour, and has a wonderful cast: Jean Seberg, Deborah Kerr and David Niven.
  • Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951, with Ava Gardner and James Mason) would make a perfect double bill with The Barefoot Contessa (Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, 1954).
  • Summertime (David Lean, 1955): Katherine Hepburn seems misplaced in this stereotypic romance, but Venice is beautiful. It would make a perfect double bill with Eva (Joseph Losey, 1962), The Comfort of Strangers (Paul Schrader, 1990), or Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973).

Some Runaway Hollywood films I would like to explore that weren’t programmed: September Affair (1950), Act of Love (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), The Black Orchid (1958), That Kind of Woman (1959), Two Women (La Ciociare, 1960), It Started in Naples (1961), Come September (1961).

3. Yasujirô Ozu

In 1989 Professor David Bordwell gave a lecture on Ozu at that year’s Summer Film College, which was held in Neerpelt at the time. Back then, he had just published his monograph on the poetics of Ozu. Twenty-four years later Professor Bordwell is still studying Ozu and – luckily for us – is still eager to share his enthusiasm and vast knowledge. He is a gifted and witty lecturer, impressively energetic and  generously attentive to his audience. He has a talent for explaining intricate concepts to laymen while at the same time challenging the more experienced cinephiles in his audience. This summer we had the unique opportunity to attend seven lectures by Professor Bordwell, and to see four of Ozu’s silent films as well as seven of his sound films.

Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) was a commercial director in the Japanese studio system. Most of his films were made at the Shochiku Studio, in collaboration with a loyal cast and crew. Producer Shiro Kido deserves special mention. He designed a flexible company policy based on the director-unit system, and created an efficient branding and marketing strategy. Regrettably, many Ozu films are lost, since preservation never was a priority at the Shochiku Studio.

Donald Richie was responsible for promoting Ozu’s work outside Japan, especially through his 1974 book on the director. He presented Ozu as a poetic humanist and craftsman, able to show us a universally recognizable world in new ways. In his view, Ozu excels at detached, objective observations of characters and their surroundings (objects and landscapes). In Richie’s view, Ozu’s main characteristics are the juxtaposition of clock time and psychological time, and the combination of a minimalistic, rigorous aesthetic with vivid humanistic content and detailed, realistic characterization.

Paul Schrader was next in a long line of critics to be overwhelmed by Ozu’s films; he compared them with the oeuvre of Bresson and Dreyer in his book Transcendental Style in Cinema (1972).

In 1979 Noel Burch published his book on Japanese film, titled To the Distant Observer. In his view, Ozu is a specifically Japanese director, who offers an alternative to (and implicitly a critique on) Western cinema. Western commercial cinema aims to construct a seamless story world through point of view shots, which immerse the spectators in the story world. The spectators are encouraged to let themselves be absorbed by this fictive, artificial reality, and to identify themselves completely with the characters (the so-called  ‘diegetic effect’). To this end, Western commercial cinema aims at making the means of representation (form and style) invisible. According to Burch, the effect is similar to hypnosis. Burch praises Ozu because he chooses to ignore the basics of this immersive way of storytelling: the conventions of the 180-degree axis of action, eyeline matches and reverse angles.

David Bordwell presents Ozu as a director who is distinctive both in the kind of stories he tells and in the way he tells them. In Bordwell’s view, Ozu has a unique approach to filmmaking, which is often perceived as simple or straightforward while in in fact being very intricate. His carefully planned and organized approach is a creative revision of the dominant cinematic style (as opposed to a critique). Ozu works within his own constraints and by his own rules concerning possible variations and repetitions. His films are an exploration of the representation of space in traditional Japanese houses, prominently featuring the geometric designs of walls and sliding doors. All his life, he refused to use wide screen compositions and he limited camera movement to a minimum.

Ozu created a personal, consistent, and minimalistic style. Its most distinctive elements are the placement of the camera at a low height, the use of a 50mm lens, and a circular 360-degree representation of space (which requires complicated staging and precise cutting). Ozu breaks down the action in shots (decoupage) according to his own rules; he invented his own system for handling space. He creates multiple perspectives through changing compositions, set-ups and camera angles. While Ozu’s films are characterised by a hovering uncertainty about the layout of spaces and the positioning of characters, a sense of continuity is always provided by his use of matches on action and by the flow of the sound track.

Ozu uses a lot of ‘intermediate spaces’: Images of landscapes with a flowing river or a passing train, images of clocks, and so on. These images offer a reflection on the passing of time, a moment of pause in the action, and also serve as rhythmic spatial patterning. The intermediate shots are neither merely still lives nor ‘non-diegetic spaces’, they are part of a pictorial flow, connected by ever shifting dominant overtones. Objects such as bottles or a teakettle often function as anchoring points. In short, Ozu had a masterful way of controlling visual composition and creating a visual uniformity.

Ozu also systematically made remarkable choices in structuring his plots. He invented his own rules for the arrangement of scenes, often with deliberate gaps in the flow of story information, using accentuated transitions between scenes.

Tokyo Story – his most well known film – is the best example of this narrative strategy. It could be described as a road movie without a road.  An elderly couple goes on a trip to visit their grownup children, but we never get to see the actual journey. The plot structure follows the family structure: they first visit the household of their eldest son, then their eldest daughter, their daughter in law, and the youngest son (their youngest daughter stays at home).

Ozu made genre films (‘home drama’), focusing on human relationships and responsibilities in everyday contemporary family life. His films offer us nuanced characterizations and the full spectrum of human emotions, with disappointment, unhappiness, regret and grief featuring prominently on the negative end. A lot lies hidden beneath all the social smiles! His films are mostly set in a middle class environment and are filled with detailed observations of common situations (such as visiting parents) and recognizable moments of crisis (the death of one’s parents, or the process of leaving the parental home and starting one’s own married life). His films depict formal restrictions and their emotional impact, their stories often bringing both a smile to our lips and  tears to our eyes. He specialized in a sentimental realism, sometimes flavoured with a touch of social satire.

His oeuvre could be divided into four parts:

  1. Early 1930’s (silent and pre-war films). Four silent Ozu films were shown, with musical accompaniment by pianist Hilde Nash. See this blog post on my website.
  2. War time (1936-1942): we skipped this period.
  3. US Occupation (1945-1952): Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947), Late Spring (1949), and Early Summer (1951) were screened.
  4. Late Ozu (1953-1962): Tokyo Story (1953), Equinox Flower (1958), Good Morning  (1959), and An Automn Afternoon (1962) were screened.

This is a very short summary of an extensive analysis. A full report on this part of the program would take up too much space here. The best thing to do for me here is to recommend seeing all of Ozu’s films and reading Professor David Bordwell’s book. We are living in interesting times, because nowadays his book is available for free on line.

In conclusion…

Once again this week of high quality film studies attracted a capacity crowd of 80 participants, many of them students or recent graduates. It’s good to know that there is a new generation of young, curious and capable cinephiles out there (and many of them are hooked to attend the next editions of the Summer Film College).

This crowd was provided abundantly with food for thought through abundant screenings, lectures, talks, discussions and thorough documentation in the reader, serving as background material.

Beside that, each day we were treated to wholesome lunches and dinners in a restaurant/brewery nearby, supplemented with generous quantities of coffee and tea in between sessions, served at a pop-up counter in the lobby of the Museum of Photography.

The final words of this report should be a big ‘thank you’ to the staff, for creating an ambiance of perfect hospitality and focused film appreciation!

References and links to further documentation can be found on Peter’s blog, through this link.