Longing for Setsuko Hara

2 October 2011

I just wrote yesterday about her appearance in Late Autumn, but let’s take another slow look at how beloved she was in Japan during the 1950s and 60s. Called “The Eternal Virgin” because of her embodiment in many films of an idealized Japanese woman, she has remained celebrated for that sweetness. Could she have been any more lovely?

Hara’s contemporary, the novelist Shūsaku Endō wrote of her, “We would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”

She ceased making movies in the early 60s, when she was 43, and has lived quietly in Kamakura, Japan ever since (she is now 91). Does this refusal to conduct interviews and allow photographs only enhance the romance of her mid-century perfection, that last glimpse of the perpetually kind and gentle beauty?

Just look at the glamour photographs that fans still post of her, the magazine covers and calendar photographs that show her alternately tucking her chin in to emphasize modesty, or holding it up to emphasize strength, even nobility. In between, she seemed eager to please and perfectly graceful.

Nature graced Hara with a face that could convey many emotions, but all within a range that made her appear admirable. Never prideful, stubborn, or slatternly, she was always quick to smile. When she expresses sorrow, one wants to weep that such a woman would be made to feel such distress.

In some ways she puts me in mind of Irene Dunne during her I Remember Mama parts, but I’m not sure that even Dunne ever mastered the female perfection of Hara.

Those eyes that twinkle with kindness and merriment, never wickedness. That long face that conveyed womanliness and elegance without drawing down into a depressive Joan Crawford posture.

Sure, not many of us want to be the kind of woman she portrayed onscreen. In fact, if you think about it, those characters are hopelessly stuck in a past that only the most retrograde conservatives want to revive. The feminists among us (and I’m at the front of that line) reject the self-sacrificing goodness she embodied. Even during the 1950s women throughout the world were beginning to believe that self-sacrificing women let go of their own desires at a cost that wasn’t worth it.

Yet if her face can still achieve that effect on a viewer in 2011, one far from the 1950s Japanese society in which it first cast its spell, then it’s not hard to predict that it’ll have that effect on viewers far into the future.

Setsuko Hara is timeless — if, perhaps, a woman best realized onscreen and in that fantasy world of poster images and magazine covers. Ahhhhh.

Is it noir, or is it a women’s weeper? Mildred Pierce (1945) was both — or maybe all women’s weepers are also noir? No one understands the women’s film genre more implicitly than Todd Haynes, so I’m thrilled to anticipate his 5½ hour remake on HBO starting tomorrow night, starring Kate Winslet. Weepers don’t get much respect, of course, and the Lifetime Channel has done nothing to lift the genre’s reputation. But Haynes’ films explore intimate spaces of people’s family and imaginative lives in ways that are profound. You can watch all 43 mins of Haynes’ first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), told using Barbie dolls and the Carpenters’ hauntingly soft melodies, and you’ll never think about that music the same way again:

No wonder he could make Safe (1995) or Far From Heaven (2002) with such sensitivity. Haynes was quoted in Sunday’s New York Times last weekend talking about his affinity for the “women’s film,” saying:

“Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives,” he said. “They really tell what all of us experience in one way or another because they’re stories of family and love and basic relationships and disappointments.”

His films aren’t perfect, but they speak to me on an emotional level that stays with me for years afterward. (Well, not I’m Not There, but that was about the shape-shifting Bob Dylan. And Cate Blanchett was pretty amazing in her turn as Dylan.) Far From Heaven wasn’t as profound as the Douglas Sirk classic on which it was based, All That Heaven Allows (1955) with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (below), but it shows that he gets the genre on a cellular level.

I stumbled across a fascinating — and beautifully, lavishly illustrated — essay about Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) at MUBI, which sings the praises of the filmmaker’s propensity to create scenes that feel staged and even stilted for effect. Sure, you may not think of yourself as the women’s weeper type. Apparently the film critic Molly Haskell called it “the untouchable of all film genres.” But films by Sirk and Haynes are good. And, with Haynes, I think they say something intense about the emotional lives of women in houses. I can hardly wait to see Kate Winslet as the self-sacrificing mother cum self-made female entrepreneur, wrestling with a spoiled daughter, in Mildred Pierce.

Looking at a picture like this above it’s hard to believe she was for real, but she was a powerhouse of acting talent in the 50s & 60s. She lowered her ingénue voice into a growl for appearances in Tennessee Williams films and the amazing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), and she faced off against the best actors of her generation. People always cite her looks — but she got more interesting as she got older and more willing to go to those dark places as an actor. When I was a kid we had a copy of LIFE Goes to the Movies with this photo below, showing an un-retouched beauty and strength. I was entranced, even though her Hollywood prime took place before my time; we were all entranced, weren’t we? Que descanse en paz, Liz.

For a terrific assessment of her life on & off screen, particularly her work for social change, see Melissa Silverstein’s post at Women & Hollywood.

Need some happy? Watch this video with the great power-pop song, “Here It Goes Again,” but mostly because the group OK Go does the best choreography using treadmills. And it’s done in one long, long take.

This shows so clearly why the long take is so jaw-dropping: you realize they haven’t used editing to white-out the flubups. The guys in OK Go know this routine backwards & forwards (and it’s complicated!); back in the 1930s Fred Astaire used to use the same technique, which demanded that he film dozens of takes of a dance sequence showing the dancers at full-length. He filmed so many takes that Ginger Rogers’ feet would bleed from the blisters. Here’s a very short clip of Astaire and Rogers from Roberta (1935):

It’s not just that long take “proves” they really did know their stuff so well. There’s some part of us moviegoers (or video watchers) that tends to disbelieve, even when we want to believe. The long take is a great reminder that movies can make our jaws drop with their choreography, a careful planning that we don’t even realize consciously till someone points out that it’s been done in a single take. I could go on and on about amazing long takes from film history — the granddaddy of all long takes, from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), or the opening shot from Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), or so many others (do a search for “long take” on YouTube and you’ll find examples). But now I just want to watch men on treadmills again.

The great desk unraveling

14 January 2011

Syllabus preparation for the new semester is now in full panic mode.  It begins with frantic, easily distracted fumbling with books and xeroxes on a crowded desk; shifts to self-recrimination and urgent need for snacks; and is now mired in the search for the guilty.  So this is a just a placeholder noting that you should all see The King’s Speech (2010) and that once I finally get that copy of The Wrestler (2009) I intend to finish my paean to Marisa Tomei.  In the meantime, I return to my unholy alchemy using all those books, the calendar, assignment idea fragments, a crazy file full of clippings and confusing notes to myself, and a Word document open on my laptop — somehow, surely, this will all magically transform into class gold.