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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Psychotronic

The Punisher’s been sweeping lately.

I don’t know his real name, but we call him that because he’s always pacing, hard fist grinding into open palm, huffing to himself. He always wears an unlabeled black basketball jersey with sagging black sweatpants, though sometimes when its sticky he goes shirtless. From the iron-railed porch where he perches two yards above the sidewalk, he see everything in his neighborhood, bright and dim. In neighborhoods like this, you’ll find blocks with both a safe end and a rough one. The Punisher is just barely on the bad side, his dismal house looking like the cheery development a few yards away sucked all of the life out of his place.

People come in pairs to visit him. They park across the street, look nervously at each other, and one usually asks if the other is sure they have the right place. The Punisher’s business is the kind you don’t advertise with a sign outside your front door.

Every day this week, I’ve seen him sweeping the sidewalks of his street. There are no leaves to be pushed away; They haven’t even fallen yet. But you can hear his broom’s straws rasping against concrete from a block away, amplified by a row of homes that are all brick wall and tarred yards.

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film Face of Another is based on Kōbō Abe’s novel about a businessman, Okuyama, who burns his entire face in an unspecified industrial accident. Repulsed by his disfigured face and angered by his wife’s failure to accept it, Okuyama seeks the help of Dr. Hira, a psychiatrist who promises to build a mask to hide Okuyama’s burns.

Doctor's Office

Teshigahara weaves Okuyama and Hira’s story with that of a young woman. She shares with Okuyama disfiguring facial burns, though hers cover only part of her face. She covers them well with her long hair, but not perfectly. The image that stays with you is the burn, not the beauty:

Face of Another’s elegant visuals will remain with me for a long time, even though the film as a whole does not rise to the expectations set by its excellent imagery. At times the conversations between Okuyama and Hira are too clunky, describing each concept the film raises to its most minute detail. Dr. Hira reminds Okuyama again and again that by wearing the mask, he may find himself assuming a new identity. If everyone began wearing masks, Hira speculates, familiar social structures would crumble. Families would not cohere, crime would go unpunished, vice would flourish. Dr. Hira delivers his predictions with absolute conviction, making them seemed dated in today’s world of DNA testing and “anonymous” internet communication. We know how to reveal an individual’s identity with absolute certainty in specific cases using molecular signals. Meanwhile, the number of “anonymous” hackers revealed and punished by the FBI grows steadily. The idea that one could hide behind a simple, physical mask seems quaint now, when even utmost digital protection cannot provide true anonymity.

The Face of Another

One wonders, in the face of such dialogue, whether Teshigahara does not trust his examination of identity and appearance to be merit enough for The Face of Another to exist. Why else would he have devoted so much screen time to transparent attempts to outline the societal implications of his plot line? In fact, the film stands more powerfully if one views it less as a vehicle for exploring the power of realistic facial masks, and more as a general commentary on the face.

The Face of Another

Two individuals, Okuyama who strives to hide his deformity and the young woman who decides to surrender to hers, provide enough behavioral commentary on the nature of identity and its relationship to our fragile, manipulatable faces. Both suffer from a lack of physical closeness to others. Throughout the film, strangers and family avoid contact with the two, presumably because they find their faces too repulsive to approach. Being wealthy and successful, Okuyama uses money and connections to secure a pristine looking mask with which to cover his dense, raised scars. With his newly masked face, Teshigahara impersonates a stranger and seduces his wife. But while he thinks he has tricked her into adultery, she knows all along that the masked man is her husband in disguise. Even within the film, a feigned face is not enough to hide one’s true identity. Okuyama does achieve closeness with his wife, even intimacy, while wearing the mask. The still above shows Okuyama and his wife’s legs intertwined beneath a table. Teshigahara beautifully captures their limbs’ tender dance around each other.

When Okuyama accuses his wife of committing adultery, he demonstrates his own shortsightedness. Would she have shared such easy foot play with a stranger she had just met? Could she have done so? If you were to ask her, she would certainly say no. Of course she was upset. After all, if his wife could tell who Okuyama really was beneath his false face, why couldn’t Okuyama sense that his wife knew who he was?

Face of Another Girl

The young woman, meanwhile, lacks the resources to disguise her injury that Okuyama has. She works, it seems, with World War II veterans. Even the crude boys who come on to her as she walks to work would never embrace her, and she turns instead to her brother’s attention, which he gives in the form of shame-powered kisses. Their physical love is a violent exchange, his every touch pressing aggressively into her flesh. Even so, her face settles into restful acceptance as they fall upon her.

The young woman drowns herself at the film’s end. Before doing so, she claims to see another war coming, one that will start the next day. Perhaps she was burned by atomic waves, and still fears the onset of World War III. Or, perhaps, she can no longer bear being looked at with disgust. I found myself happy to see her die, clad in white, innocence and acceptance still emanating from her.

3 Women

3 Women

Female breakdowns, fainting and hysteria. Sounds quaint when you put it that way, like something you’d read about in a nineteenth century novel. But Persona and many other films revisit the pressurized madness more broadly associated with women than men, and they explore it with more nuance and diversity than my beloved Romantic novels ever did.

Robert Altman’s 3 Women, an attempt to capture a poignant dream the director had, shares elements with Persona. In it, Sissy Spacek’s character Pinky develops an unhealthy obsession with Shelly Duvall’s Minnie. The latter is a self-asserted boy magnet, even though the men with whom she flirts respond to her with ridicule. The film layers scenes of delusion, obsession, rejection, and violence to form a chaotic experience that cannot be understood easily. Why Minnie clings so eagerly to the men who reject her and how those same men come to admire Pinky’s version of Minnie’s traits and identity so readily is unclear. One wonders if the whole thing is a  bad dream that Minnie has upon meeting the spooky Pinky, whose watery blue-eyed admiration for Minnie is by nature creepy. Pinky stares for too long at Minnie, reads her diary, and wonders aloud what it’s like to be twins. In Minnie, Pinky searches for a strong identity that she’s never before had. Even Pinky’s parents barely seem to know their daughter. They have nothing to say to her when they come to visit her in the hospital. No one’s ever noticed Pinky, and Minnie’s got more personality than she get fit in her tiny frame.

Meshes of the Afternoon, directed by Maya Deren, explores a woman’s unraveling of a different sort. The experimental short opens with Deren, who also stars in the film, witnessing her housekey’s percussive tumble down a flight of stairs. Deren picks it up and walks us thorugh her home, the camera alternating between first person shots and close-ups of Deren’s body parts. We examine her eyes, her feet, her abdomen. The layering of house tour and panning over Deren’s body suggests that in some way, Deren herself is a piece within the home, something to be admired for physical traits. A steamship hums in the background while the screen transforms into a door-window-as-porthole view of a black-shrouded figure on the walkway leading to Deren’s home. The figure has no face, we see as it turns toward the camera, and it walks away before a running Deren can catch up to it. It floats away, never identified nor caught, and Deren’s failure to catch it dooms her to loop through the same routine. A kitchen knife follows her. She can see her warped reflection in its blade, and the force of that revelation sends her reeling. Deren can’t escape her own shadows, and knows that her demons will wrap ever tighter around her. The dark  figure returns and enters her home, but Deren still hasn’t regained her bearings. She stumbles up the stairwell and can hardly reach the second story of her home. She watches the still faceless figure place a flower on her bed. It turns in her direction and seems to “stare” her down before disappearing.

Real life examples of the tension wrought by sexuality abound. In America, we know the classic story of a pop star, someone like Britney Spears, crashing under the pressure to be perpetually pretty and ogled over. Her trajectory did not have an end so tragic as that of South Korean performer U-Nee, the talented pop star and dancer who hung herself in 2007. Forced by her record label to become sexier, to alter her body, in spite of her talents, U-Nee’s depression grew deeper. I don’t know much about U-Nee, but it’s easy to project upon her. Presenting a faux-sexuality brings one to a dark place. Men may not know how strongly their gaze may reconfigure a woman, especially one who goes from unnoticed to lusted-laden.

So much mental illness seems an issue of pressure and tension, of one’s internal feelings battling against personal and societal expectation. Pinky’s love for Minnie moving from obsession to action, Maya Deren’s housebound restlessness erupting as violent visions, and U-Nee’s forced sexuality triggering self-annihilation. When there are no other apparent outlets, one must take extreme actions. Before medication and expertise, the treatment of mental illness must start with an understanding of individuals who feel too ashamed or scared or proud to reveal what bothers them. Helping those people is less an issue of clinical treatment, and more a matter of changing society to a more accepting and expressive climate, one that appreciates the unique issues faced by women, in particular.

Ingmar Bergman's Persona

Persona‘s women fall into each other, like fingers interlaced, so similar that one cannot distinguish herself from the other. The two share fair hair, soft features, light skin, a resemblance emphasized by a veil of black and white film. Liz Ullman’s Elisabet Vogler, emphasis on her plump, expectant features, is silent. Alma, nurse to the now-silent actress Elisabet, chats incessantly while the two stay alone together in a beachfront home. The home belongs to Elisabet’s doctor, a stern chain-smoker, who hopes that her employee Alma will convince Elisabet to speak again. Before long, it is clear that Alma has become more of a patient than Elisabet is. After a career of tending to other’s needs, she is relieved to use Elisabet as her psychoanalytic outlet. In a thick night of never-empty drinks, Alma, who once claimed total fidelity to her fiance, admits to an orgy with strangers, a woman and two young men. Perhaps Alma hopes that her sincere confessions will shake Elisabet into speech. Her inebriation, however, implies another motive. How light it feels to talk, how good, when one’s audience is sure not to judge verbally. As Alma shares her story, curled in an armchair with Elisabet lounging across the room, she fidgets and demurs. She adopts flirtatious mannerisms shared by sheepish girls talking about their first kiss at a slumber party. Recalling the story brings back old arousal for Alma, and her eyes search Elisabet’s for sympathy, understanding, or any of the other emotions for which we wait after telling a story exhibiting us at our most primal. There is no absolution for Alma the confessor, however, not from Elisabet. She grants no validation of Alma’s lust-driven spontaneity. The women lurch toward real intimacy but never achieve it, in spite of their isolation together, and Elisabet only smirks when Alma tacitly begs for some sort of appreciation for her outpouring of honesty. Now Elisabet, having played so many roles on stage and at home, is the audience as Alma expresses the doubt and self-consciousness putting her in tension with the wholesome nurse persona she usually performs.

Elisabet denies Alma a critical element of communication. For all of the talking Alma does, Elisabet never reacts to what her nurse says. While Alma felt relieved to finally burst free with all of her sins, she did not feel any better afterward. She perhaps expected Elisabet to be compelled by such soul-baring to speak, to tell her nurse “You are OK. You are not a bad person. That must have been hard for you.” Instead, mute Elisabet smirks knowingly, as though her nurse’s tawdry but banal story does not surprise her at all.

No one else witnesses their unidirectional communications, save the viewers of Bergman’s’ film. Elisabet’s mute lips and constant smirk create conditions approaching solitary confinement for Alma. Delusions dance across days of living death for the frail-minded nurse. How can you confirm what you experience is true without any communication, tacit or explicit, of it being so? Consider when Alma hears Elisabet say “You ought to go to bed, or you’ll fall asleep at the table.” Elisabet denies speaking, but we viewers and Alma heard her do so. Alma feels a whisper of madness, remembering the physical and mental reality of Elisabet’s brief words but having no way to ascertain whether they occurred. Elisabet has an incredibly amount of control over Alma, in this regard, and it would be easy for her to engineer further breakdowns for her nurse. As the only two characters with whom we viewers are intimate blend together, it becomes even harder to tell what is true and what comes from paranoia and our scrambling toward logical consistency. We become as mad as Alma, as pliable in the hands of Elisabet as the lost nurse is.

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