It’s been one of those schizophrenic weeks that working in documentary and commercials occasionally throw up. I started the week with a recce for a commercial we’re to shoot in London later on in May: we looked at a location in Essex and then also the classic views of Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. Then 2 days later, I’m on a recce for a shoot in Riyadh, exploring the viewing platform of a massive tower called the Globe. See if you can tell which shot is from which city….
Tokyo Ga is Wim Wender’s homage to his favourite film director, Ozu, who amongst over 40 films made the classic Tokyo Story. Ostensibly, it’s shot as a journey to Tokyo in search of the people and places Ozu featured in his films but it quickly become an examination of the role of image making and story telling in modern life. Wenders is concerned with the lack of what he calls ‘the real’ in film and speculates that it’s only present in the occasional flash of a bird through the back of frame or an unruly child in a sequence.
Shot in 1983, 20 years after Ozu died in 1963 and viewed in 2013, the film has an air of archaeology about it, as Wenders examines the city he came to know through the films of his hero. Indeed, in one telling scene, Wenders interviews his friend Werner Herzog, who complains that there are no pure images left, that one must be an archaeologist to find images amongst the buildings.
Tokyo Ga makes exceptional use of metaphor to promote the underlying meaning of the film, which is about the use of image and film in a society that’s saturated with TV, advertising and films. Right from the start, Wenders is trying to understand why in a society that’s obsessed with images, they have started to lose their meaning. On the flight to Tokyo, he turns away from the in-flight movie – he calls it empty and flickering, to gaze out of the window and muse that he’d love to be able to dream images onto film. And then in a taxi or his hotel room he marvels and despairs about the constant flood of film, adverts and images that flow from the TV screen and in parks, cemeteries and on train platforms he notes the compulsive way that we photograph and record things.
Through a small number of interviews with Ozu’s collaborators and a series of metaphorical sequences in pachinko parlours, golf driving ranges and even a workshop where strikingly accurate wax copies of restaurant dishes are made, he questions the way that we have made a fetish of moving image – that in modern life it very often stands for something else, something to occupy our minds or our time without thought, effort or attention.
He returns several times to a pachinko parlour and his camera observes the salary men staring blankly at the tiny balls that bounce randomly around the board, an activity devoid of skill or meaning that simply fills time and diverts the mind. The analogy with television is too obvious for him to make explicit and the scene is stronger for that.
Wenders also spends a day at a golf driving range, watching dozens upon dozens of people as they hit balls at small targets or into the nets at the end of the artificial fairway. Wenders allows the camera to linger on a solitary putting green and muses that the driving range has stripped the action of it’s meaning – to put a ball in the hole – and rendered only into a form that’s obsessed with the form itself – striking the ball. A powerfully oblique metaphor in an industry that’s been reduced to the creation of mere content, where film makers, writers and creatives are churning out material to fill the websites and channels of brands and advertisers.
And finally at the wax workshop, the focus is the painstaking and time consuming manufacture of replica food and he notes that the method and the time frame is almost identical to making the real thing. For anyone who’s spent time in an edit suite, slowly assembling material to show ‘real life’, the analogy and the ultimate futility of the process is almost too painful to watch.
Set against these painful metaphors are two detailed and sometimes un-comfortable to watch interviews with Ozu’s long time collaborators – actor, Chishu Ryu and camera man, Yuharu Atsuta. Both men are modest in the extreme.WIth Ryu detailing how in one instance he took 20 rehearsals and 20 takes to get a scene right: concluding that he must be among the least talented actors. And Atsuta explaining he spent 15 years as Ozu’s assistant cameraman before becoming a full cameraman and concluding that to have served Ozu was his life’s work. Both men outline the extraordinary control and attention to detail that Ozu took: he arranged everything in a scene, choosing and composing the shots and then locking the camera in position before each scene was shot. The memories are too much for Atsuta to bear and he breaks down in tears at the end of the interview and begs to be left alone with his loneliness. Extraordinarily moving.
It’s the combination of these rather bleak metaphorical sequences with two powerful interviews that gives Wender’s film its power. Concentrating simply on the form – golf: or the facsimile of real life – the waxworks; or simply filling the mind – pachinko: is simply not enough. But bring those skills and commitment to an art form along with meaning and intention – in Ozu’s case the repeating but changing narratives of Japanese family life and the city of Tokyo – and you have the potential to create extraordinary pieces of art.
I’m always interested in films about photographers: I love to see how people work and to learn about their process. I also enjoy the cross over between two mediums that I work in – photography and documentary film making.
In the last year or so I’ve seen several good docs about photographers but the best three for me have been:
McCullin – a feature length film about the great war and documentary photographer
Bill Cunningham – another feature length film about the New York Times street fashion photographer
In No Great Hurry – a meditation on the life and work of influential colour pioneer, Saul Leiter.
All of these films seem to be passion pictures – they’ve been made by fans or admirers of the photographers and they’ve been made without the support of broadcaster’s money and with minimal investment. In all 3 cases the film makers have exchanged the luxury of cash for the luxury of freedom. Each of them experiments with the form of documentary and each of them counts on the attention and interest of their audience, focusing to various degrees of intensity on their subjects.
Of the three films, Bill Cunningham is the most conventional: it uses the device of observational footage of him going about his daily life to introduce themes and events from his life which are illustrated by interviews with collaborators and influential people who’ve worked with him over the years. We end up with a beautiful portrait of a charming yet curmudgeonly man, who has refused to compromise or cash in on his position – at several points in the film Bill Cunningham states that if you take their money, then they own you. The focus of the film is assuredly Cunningham himself and it’s not constrained by artificial story points or moments of manufactured drama.
The other 2 films are braver still, severely limiting the number of contributors and interviewees, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves and to unfold the story at their own pace.
McCullin has only two contributors, Don McCullin himself and Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times during McCullin’s time there. Even those interviews are kept to the most simple and direct: McCullin is seen in only 2 or 3 set ups and Evans only once. There’s minimal observational footage – McCullin choosing and copying his pictures that are to be used in the film plus a few other sequences. The result is a powerfully direct film that allows the voice of the subject to come through with minimal intervention from the director, powerful story telling. McCullin ends up as a clear and moving account of the photographer’s work and his views on his profession, journalism and ultimately, humanity.
In No Great Hurry, is even braver, not just in style but in content and message. Made by photographer, Thomas Leach, it starts out with a conventional TV mission – to convince us that Saul is the great forgotten master of photography – but very quickly the cleverness of the director and the subtly of the story telling is made apparent. We see a few conventional set ups – Saul Leiter out and about with his camera, Saul at his printer’s or Saul looking through old photos – but Thomas soon allows Saul to knock these conventions aside, and the majority of the film is Leiter sitting in various chairs, talking to camera or to the director: direct, clear communication. As the story unfolds in its 13 chapters, we learn that Leiter is clearing an appartment, that he’s lived in this building since the 50’s, and finally, that it’s the apartment of his partner who died some years ago. Gently Leiter, pushes aside comparisons with other photographers, and lets us know that he’s unconcerned with his place in the canon. And finally, in a devastatingly simple sentence, declares that photography, a place in history, a life’s work, is as nothing compared with the love and friendship of a beloved partner. A beautiful film.