Archive for the ‘Mise-en-Scène’ tag
In 1993, at the age of 20, Yurie Nagashima received the Urbanart award hosted by the Parco Gallery in Tokyo for a series of photographs which would define her artistic practice until today. In her series Kazoku, or Family, Nagashima photographed herself along with her parents and brother – all of whom are naked. At the time, Nagashima’s family photographs were celebrated for pushing the boundaries of socially and culturally constructed taboos as much as they were derided for being obscene.
A reading of a photograph of Nagashima and her father playing golf on an indoor putting green helps to identify some of the aspects which caused this polarized reception of her work. As her father is concentrating on hitting the ball, Nagashima looks straight into the camera, her legs and body are positioned like a player reading the green on an actual golf course. Instead of concentrating in her father’s game, Nagashima looks at the camera, and by extension, at the viewer in order to underline that this exchange of gazes is one of the main subjects in this photograph. In other words, the image is not about playing golf, but it’s about looking and being looked at. Here I am primarily referring to an exchange of gazes between Nagashima and the spectator of the photograph. Indeed, this is a characteristic that runs throughout most of the photographs in the Kazoku series, Nagashima looks dispassionately at the viewer, almost as if to gage his or her reaction. Yet the golf photograph stands out because a third gaze, the father’s gaze, adds to the complexity of the image. The taboo that Nagashima addresses in this work is not the spectator seeing her naked, but rather, the possibility of her being seen naked by members of her family.
The golf photograph also addresses questions regarding gender and sexuality. While holding the golf club in between her legs, Nagashima not only disguises parts of her body, she also alludes to the golf club as phallic signifier. Here, the golf club as phallus also signifies power: in the photograph, it is the father who actively hits the ball, while Nagashima passively looks to the camera. The complete inversion of the strict dress code required on most golf courses suggests that, even in this very early photographic series, Nagashima targets socially constructed norms in society.
In the Kazoku series, Nagashima’s preferred methodology is to insert the unexpected into images that are otherwise stereotypical forms of photographic representation. Apart from the subjects’ nudity, the group photograph of the Nagashima family for instance is strongly reminiscent of a standard family photograph. In what appears to be the living room, the parents are sitting in the front row, while Nagashima and her brother are kneeling in the back, as they all look straight into the camera. The mother sits in the customary seiza-style position as her hands are folded in her lap – a position expected of a woman even while dressed. Another reference to the family photo is the curtain in the background evoking the backdrop of a photo studio. On top of the subjects’ lack of clothing, the photograph also reveals very few objects that might help to situate the family in a social class. The barreness of their surroundings is mirrored by the bare bodies of the family members in the photograph. Instead, what Nagashima wishes the viewer to focus on is the structure of the family, the resemblance of family members, the representation of hierarchies within the family and also, the family being the first place where gender differences and asymmetry are socially defined.
In 1993, when Kazoku project was first exhibited, Nagashima was at the forefront of a new generation of women photographers. At the time, Kazoku redefined the parameters of contemporary Japanese photography and Nagashima was heralded as a pioneer in her field. A number of photographers make direct or indirect references to Nagashima early photographic work. In the photographic series ‘Rooms and Underwear’ (1998) for instance, photographer Maki Miyashita borrows from Nagashima’s trope of combining the (partially) naked subject within a representation of domestic surroundings. In his series ‘For I Am the Mother and I Am the Daughter’ (2002), Noritoshi Hirakawa creates a mise-en-scène that is visually extremely similar to Nagashima’s family group photograph. Except in Hirakawa’s case, he asked mothers to switch their role with their daughters, while disavowing the presence of the male subject completely. Indeed, Nagashima herself returned to the subject matter of Kazoku in a series of photographs in which she asked different groupings of unrelated and unacquainted subjects to pose for her like in a family portrait. The result is an assemblage of strangers who, in the format of the studio photograph, convincingly appear like members of the same family.
Yurie Nagashima’s Kazoku instigated a shift in photographic discourse in Japan: away from the male dominated field of street photography associated with Daido Moriyama, or the quasi-pornographic representation of women associated with Nobuyoshi Araki, to a more internally oriented narratives of private moments. While it may not have been Nagashima herself who single-handedly caused this shift in Japanese visual culture, she nevertheless represents part of a dramatic change that allowed women photographers to become active participants in a sign economy. Nagashima set the tone for a new generation of photographers, many of them women, emerging throughout the 1990s in Japan.
Please also read my post The Many Bodies of Yurie Nagashima.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.
Funeral Scene, I am Cuba (Soy Cuba), directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
This is a monumental scene from the Russian-Cuban film I am Cuba, or Soy Cuba, telling the tale of four ordinary Cubans caught up in the economic, ideological and political struggle of their country previous to the 1959 revolution. Although the film was released in 1964, shooting began as early as 1962, thus barely two years after the revolution and the emergence of Fidel Castro, but also, during a time of mounting tension between the US following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October that year. The film itself was thus made during a time when Cuba was in a rapid state of transformation.
I am Cuba is widely praised for being one of the most innovatively shot movies of global cinema. The Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov and his cameraman Sergei Urusevsky appear to use every trick of cinematography and mise-en-scène. This innovative approach is particularly apparent in a scene in which the body of a student protester, shot dead by the police moments earlier, is carried through the streets of Havana. The scene begins at the bottom of the stairs leading to Havana University – a symbolically relevant location since this was also a central axis point in the revolution. In commomeroration of the dead, there is absolute silence when the body is covered with the Cuban flag. As a group of fellow students carry the body away from the University Square, the camera rises above them. In the background there are cars burning, the university can be seen on the top of the hill, the water on the ground signifies the sacrificial blood of the revolution.
The next shot is taken from the top of a nearby church, the bells are ringing and Sergei Urusevsky’s camera makes four quick movements, to depict four bells ringing on four sides of the church tower. The emphasis on the number four mirrors the very format of the movie, telling four seperate, but interrelated, stories. The camera pans down, and what was at first only a handful of students, turned into a growing crowd. People throw flowers from the buildings nearby, as the procession of mourners navigates the narrow streets.
Then the magic begins. The camera is back on ground level as it focuses on Gloria and Enrique who the viewer has encountered in the first part of the movie. Enrique starts carrying the body of he dead student as the camera is moving upwards, to the top of a nearby building. As the camera is moving up, the volume of the music rises. The crowd meanwhile has turned into a mass of people. At this stage, the camera appears to defy gravity, as it hovers over the street into a cigar shop. The symbolism here is also important: the cigar being a locally produced Cuban product, not yet overtaken by the might of American cultural and economic imperialism. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara themselves famously made use of the cigar as a (phallic) signifier for national pride and independence.
In a carefully choreographed mise-en-scène, the camera then follows the workers in the cigar manufactory, as they hold the Cuban flag out of the window. As the music soars to a crescendo, the camera flys above the crowds in an awe-inspiring climax of cinematographic ingenuity. Only then, does the cameraman Sergei Urusevsky reveal the tricks of his cinematography: there are four wires hanging above the window that lead across to another building. It is to these wires that the camera gets attached and then pulled with. The use of an extreme wide angle lens helps to reduce the shaking and smoothens out any movements.
Mural depicting the ensuing execution of Eight Medical Students in 1871, Havana.
Here too, as the funeral procession walks down the narrow street, the scene is greatly symbolical of Cuban visual culture and politics. Every year, Cubans commemorate the 27th of November, mourning the lives of eight medical students who were wrongly sentenced to death and executed by Spanish colonizers in 1871. After the revolution in 1959, the 27th of November had a regained symbolical relevance: while it originally recognized the brutality of Spanish colonial rule, the 27th of November became a metaphor for the struggle for equality of Cubans under an American hegemony. The photograph below shows, in comparison with the famous funeral scene in I am Cuba, an uncanny similarity with how the 27th of November was commemorated in 1960. The sign on the top left reading ‘Miami Car Parts’ remains as an almost comical symbol for Anglo-Saxon style capitalism.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 1960.
Photograph showing the 27th of November commemoration on Calle San Lazaro, Havana, 2009.
Another important aspect in the 27th of November processions is that like, like in the film I am Cuba, it begins at Havana University where the eight executed students used to study medicine. While the actual location for the film might be elsewhere, the procession, as it is still acted out today, then continues along Calle San Lazaro down to the shores of Havana. Lazarus of Bethany, as it says in the New Testament, is the subject of a miracle in which Jesus restores Lazarus to life after four days dead. The procession along Calle San Lazaro on the 27th of November therefore becomes the allegorical restoration of life and memory in light of suffering under colonial rule. I am Cuba masterfully borrows these signifiers of national pride and mourning: from the university to Havana’s narrow streets, from the omnipresent Cuban flag to the masses of people, from the fallen protester to the rise of the revolution, the funeral scene signifies that revolutions come at a human cost, and the only way to recover the dead is by remembering them.