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Key Films #22

The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology [Shôhei Imamura, 1966]:

In titling his film 'The Pornographers', Imamura is not only introducing the clandestine profession of his central character - the hapless but well-meaning entrepreneur Mr. Ogata - as an important part of the plot, but is also implying a more balanced commentary on the themes of abuse and degradation as shorthand for the general brutality of the way people live.  If pornography, as both an industry and a human need, exists to satisfy our own basic curiosity regarding the most private and personal of human relations, then it also seeks to exploit this necessity; turning the act itself into a spectacle and the participants into willing performers; commodities for our viewing pleasure.  It also forces the audience to confront their own role as the spectator.  The collective witness, intruding upon these private scenes made public for our amusement and in a way becoming complicit in their creation; 'compelling them' into existence through the simple act of viewing.  The connotations of this title are many, not only drawing a parallel to the act of filmmaking itself - where Imamura skewers the usual 'film-about-filmmaking' conventions of a beleaguered director struggling against the tribulations of his art - but also of his own role as a more respectable kind of "pornographer"; one exploiting the foibles and follies of his central characters for the entertainment of a cinema audience.
However, the real inference of the title - and how it corresponds to the subject matter and the development of the characters on screen - seems to suggest a more pertinent examination of the contemporary Japanese society of the mid-1960s.  It is not simply Mr. Ogata and his small group of collaborators who are the 'pornographers' of this narrative, but the pernicious culture that observes the tragedies of people with a gleeful inquisitiveness and a barely disguised contempt.  This, as an idea, is explicit in the film's rarely used subtitle, 'An Introduction to Anthropology', in which the presentation of these characters, both comic and tragic, becomes a kind of ironic study on the burlesque of human endeavour.  Imamura exaggerates this perspective further by shooting the majority of scenes through open doorways - framing his characters in cramped, interior spaces - or through windows (usually barred), which again, suggests the imprisonment of his characters by the social conventions of the time.  Through this exacting approach, Imamura is extending his commentary, suggesting that we are all pornographers - exploiting or being exploited, consciously or not - and that it is the cinema itself, whether pornographic in nature or seemingly more respectable, which forces the audience to confront their own voyeuristic tendencies, as if the 'reality' of life becomes exhibition.
While the film's critique might initially suggest a more scathing attack equivalent to the political films of Jean-Luc Godard, R.W. Fassbinder or Imamura's close contemporary Nagisa Ôshima, the tone of The Pornographers is instead unpredictable and emotionally complex.  In profiling the life of this character and those closest to him, Imamura's film cuts between scenes of domestic drama, slapstick comedy, social satire and psychological horror.  For instance, while the earlier scenes are amusing and observational, the later scenes seem to channel the Bergman of The Silence (1963) or Persona (1966); where the broken vow of the widowed Haru Matsuda - Mr. Ogata's landlady turned common-law wife - will eventually lead to both psychosis and the personification of guilt in the form of a talking carp.  As dark and abrasive as the satire of the film is - challenging not only social conventions but also the superstitions of a culture that seems intent to punish the happiness of people - Imamura's sensitivity to his characters is nothing less than remarkable.  He doesn't look down on these marginal figures or view them with a snobbery or contempt, but instead treats them fairly, with compassion and admiration.  As Mr. Ogata himself remarks quite early in the film, "my work may be immoral, but I treat everyone honestly, dammit!"  A statement that might also be said of Imamura and his films.
Sebastiane [Paul Humfress & Derek Jarman, 1976]:

As with many films by Derek Jarman, history is being used to comment on the contemporary.  In taking the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian as a starting point, the director is able to examine the dynamic of one particular facet of homosexual desire; creating a historical framework through the transposition of these scenes (and what we now know of human behaviour, desire and persecution) to provide a kind of context, or justification, through the perspective of the present day.  Whether or not the real Saint Sebastian as depicted through the centuries even was a homosexual is irrelevant to Jarman's hypothesis; it is really the legacy and the reputation of the martyr, as an icon, that is of interest; his death and revivification as a figurative expression.  In subsequent films, like Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991), Jarman would again use the iconography of a particular historical or mythical figure to create a political statement.  In this instance, he's equating, through the story of Saint Sebastian, the persecution of the Christians under the reign of Diocletian with the persecution of homosexuals during the last half of the twentieth century.  This, as a concept, is provocative to the point of being profane, but it also gets to the truth of understanding the machinations of prejudice and also the way Saint Sebastian, in a sense, embraces his fate.
The opening sequence, which depicts a vivid jamboree for the Emperor and his guests, culminating in the lead dancer being enveloped by a troupe of men wearing oversized rubber phalluses and subjected to a kind of staged scene of 'Bukkake', is also a prelude to what Jarman sees as Sebastian's willing subjugation; his surrender to his master and eventual martyrdom by his peers.  This scene, as representation, correlates to the power dynamic of many relationships, where the battle is fought between the dominant and the submissive, and how this is further related to the affiliation between Sebastian and his vicious captain Severus.  Through this interpretation, Jarman is giving an emotional context to the martyrdom (and eventual murder) of the character, where his rejection of Severus is effectively the real "rationalization" for his demise.  In doing so, the subtext of the film ceases to be simply polemical and becomes something personal; the film, from the perspective of Severus, is really a love story (albeit, an unrequited one), where the corruption and persecution of the lover, in itself, speaks to a kind of heightened emotional state.  The music by Brian Eno emphasises this feeling of yearning, or strained emotion, with the synthesiser becoming like an ambient drone - akin to the beat of a broken heart or the pulse, suspended, in excitement or anticipation - or like a restless whimper that gives certain images a more dreamlike inflection.
To create balance, the direction of the film is mostly naturalistic.  Shots are composed with a great simplicity, showing the action as a straightforward expression - sometimes static, sometimes handheld - but mostly conveying the physicality of the actors (as characters) and how their bodies - sculpted and posed like the great statues of Michelangelo or Rodin - suggest the desire of the male gaze.  As the camera records these masculine figures - mostly nude as they lounge beneath the glare of a hot sun - Jarman finds poetry in their struggle against the landscape as a kind of outward expression of the beauty of emptiness or desolation.  As such, he creates an impression of the body as a "prison", a cage or battalion for a wounded heart.  This, as an idea, is consistent with the film's central metaphor; the 'dance of the sun on the water' as symbolic of the inability of these characters to express love or to find acceptance within a culture, as it exists.  In their attempts to show a recreation of history as if the camera had actually been there to record it, firsthand, Jarman and his co-director Paul Humfress evoke the influence of Pasolini and his film The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964); mining that same juxtaposition between religious transcendence and earnest homoeroticism, as well as a genuine feeling of heightened authenticity.


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