Friday, September 20, 2013

Rashomon (1950) and Vertigo (1958): Using and abusing the first person narrative

Rashomon (1950)
dir: Akira Kurosawa

Vertigo (1958)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock

There are two movies whose long long shadows have been looming over this week's posts, which I have been completely avoiding to wrap it into this post.  Both have had many articles written about them, and even specifically about the issue of perspective that all of the movies this week have utilized in their own way.  One has an effect specifically named after it, and the other was used in a feminist article about cinema coining a separate term which became influential, even as it was wrong.

The first is Rashomon, which has had The Rashomon Effect named after it.

The second is Vertigo, which Laura Mulvey used as an major example of The Male Gaze, a concept she developed in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

Each of the preceding four movies rolled around, toyed with, and otherwise came face to face with both of these concepts, which I think are worth diving into here.

Even this image is a lie

Rashomon is a major work of Japanese cinema, and the first film of Akira Kurosawa to gain attention around the globe.  In 1950, Rashomon won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, amongst other film festival awards.  That it was more poorly received in Japan itself is of interest.

Rashomon is based on the short story In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, first published in 1922.  Both the short story and the film concern a thief spotting a samurai and his wife, and then the thief having his way with the wife and the husband ending up dead.  Both media tell the story of what happened through four completely contradicting stories with 5 plot points remaining consistent:

1) A thief spotted a samaurai and his wife
2) The thief rapes the wife
3) The husband dies
4) The thief and the wife depart separately
5) A valuable dagger from the scene is missing

Everything between those plot points is negligible and up for debate in the trial.  There are four witnesses in the trial - The Thief, The Wife, The Dead Husband (through a medium), and A Woodcutter - and all of their stories are completely different with matters of ego and plainly coloring their tale.  In the end, there is no truth other than the five undeniable facts.

The thief told the story that he fought the husband for the right to have the wife, then the wife tried fighting the thief and lost.  And, in his finale, the wife begged him to fight the husband, as only one person could know her shame.  And, the winner could keep her.

The wife told the story that the thief tied up her husband, and had his way and left.  But, then the husband judged her, even as she begged him not to.  Then she took the dagger, and fainted...and somehow the husband was stabbed.

The husband told the story that, after the rape, his wife told the thief to kill her husband.  The thief then asked the husband if he wanted the wife dead.  The thief released the husband, left the grove, and the wife leaves.  The husband then kills himself.

The woodcutter told the story that, after the rape, the thief begged the wife for marriage. But, she refused.  The thief then freed the husband, who sulked because his wife was now spoiled. The wife, enraged, then calls the husband and the thief not real men and they should fight for her love.  In the end, the thief wins the fight by accident, and flees.

The trial is then RETOLD by the woodsman and a priest to a commoner while they are taking shelter in the city gate called Rashomon.  Meanwhile, they're tearing down the city gate for warmth and survival to create a fire to dry out while waiting for the torrential downpour to stop.

The idea of using four unreliable narrators to tell the same story over and over again is called The Rashomon Effect.  It obviously was developed before 1950, as it was used in the 1922 short story. It was a technique developed by modernist authors in the 20s and 30s, at minimum.  Notable literary examples of unreliable narrators include Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.

In cinema, The Rashomon Effect is relatively rare, though not altogether unheard of, with one of my favorite examples being the deconstructionist method of it in Reservoir Dogs and One Night at McCool's.  It is far more used in television, having been used in a wide array of sitcoms and dramas from All in the Family to The Simpsons.  The use of a single unreliable narrator is slightly more common in cinema, with two key recent popular movies being The Usual Suspects and Memento.

The audience as Scotty looking at Madeline who is
making sure that she is performing and that
Scotty (and, thusly, the audience) is watching. 

Vertigo is about one of Hitchcock's favorite subjects: voyeurism.  In 1954, Hitch directed Rear Window, a movie about the assembling of a story which you are only given one perspective on. In Rear Window, we're given the story of L.B. Jefferies, who is busy assembling a story of backyard detective work where he suspects a neighbor killed his wife.

Vertigo is considerably more complex. It is two completely different movies that are experienced completely differently from the first viewing to the subsequent viewings.

The first viewing: In Vertigo, John "Scottie" Ferguson is an out-of work officer following an accident where he fell from a roof.  He is hired to follow Madeline, an old friend's wife, whom the friend has claimed to be haunted.  Madeline and Scottie fall closer together, but Madeline then kills herself off a roof.  Scotty falls into a depression, and is hospitalized for awhile. When Scotty gets out, he meets a woman, Judy, who reminds Scotty of the long lost love, Madeline.  He makes up Judy to look like Madeline to ease his soul. In the end, Scotty figures out that Judy was the woman he had been following, and had set him up to fake the suicide of Madeline.

The second viewing: The second viewing, if you're watching more holistically (against the first person perspectives), Judy is hired to pose as a man's wife to set up Scotty.  Judy is hired to wander around San Francisco as Madeline, and pose in various spots related to Madeline's story. Judy as Madeline falls in love with Scotty, but must finish the ruse and fake Madeline's suicide, because Madeline has already been murdered.  Much later, Judy changes her appearance, and runs into Scotty again.  Still feeling in love, and feeling pity for his loss, Judy deigns to have Scotty dress her up as the lost wife again, until he figures the story out. And, she dies.

The beauty of Vertigo, and what makes it a masterpiece, is that these two separate movies exist through the one perspective of Scotty. Every time you watch Vertigo, after the first, you can transpose between the two movies and have to marry together the two realities. The audience watches Scotty watch somebody who is watching Scotty watch her.

The Male Gaze, as Laura Mulvey wrote about it, regards the protagonist of the film as being male and the director being male as well, which was the vast majority of the movies in her time, and is still the vast majority of the films being made now.  The theory says that the audience is forced to watch the stories trough the eyes of both the male director and the male protagonist, and we are thus defaulted to male, even if the viewer is a female. The theory also sets the woman as usually a fetishistic object of the director and the protagonist.

Laura Mulvey then expounds on Vertigo as though she had only seen the movie once.  She later admitted that she was wrong about her interpretation of the movie, but her misinterpretation of Vertigo is fairly fascinating as it is the interpretation we are told to watch on the surface.  Mulvey writes about Judy only performing for Scotty's pleasure in the second half of the movie when Scotty is recreating Judy in Madeline's image.  And, she draws a parallel from that scenario to actresses performing for the scopophilic voyeuristic pleasure of the audience.  Mulvey has, in turn, missed half of the movie, in which Judy is actively working to gain Scotty's attention, and actively working to get Scotty to look at her in order to manipulate Scotty.  For good reason, as that is the movie that is told in a post-modernist way by telling it at the end or through the sides.

The Effects

Obviously, the four movies discussed earlier this week have ways of manipulating the first person narrative nature of cinema.  Schizopolis, Triple Fisher, Bibliotheque Pascal and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil are all related, in theory, to the narrative manipulations that were encapsulated by Rashomon and Vertigo. This may be to varying results and with varying techniques, but I think its interesting to at least see how they relate to these two earlier classics.

Schizopolis used a Rashomon like effect by telling the story of the same day from three different perspectives.  Rashomon was completely all about lies, even as Kurosawa refused to tell the actors and actresses what the true account was because he was exploring the nature of multiple realities.  Schizopolis, however, accomplishes the result that Kurosawa was trying to accomplish by having multiple realities overlapping in sequential order.  Schizopolis' effect was having every one of its narrators telling the truth, but it is their version of the truth.  And, in turn, this makes it a stronger concept for differing perceptions and overlapping realities.

Schizopolis also makes the Vertigo used of multiple layers plain and visible. Much like Judy's story of being hired as a Madeline look-alike completely affects Scotty's story, Mrs. Munson's affair with the dentist is totally affecting her perspective of Mr. Munson's story, and how that whole story is working out.  Unlike Vertigo, Schizopolis lays that second and third layer out explicitly, even though it isn't overlapping the original story.  Whether it makes it easier or harder to figure out what exactly Soderburgh is trying to accomplish is determined on how dedicated you are to Schizopolis, but its usage is reminiscent of Vertigo.

Triple Fisher, like Rashomon, is a story told by multiple narrators, all of whom are lying. The main difference is Triple Fisher's used of montage compared to the retelling of the narrative from each different narrator as Rashomon did.  Some people accuse Rashomon of trying to get at a deeper truth that can't be told with a single camera, but Rashomon is full of liars and unreliable narrators.  Triple Fisher, however, is trying to balance three unreliable narrators who may or may not believe that what they are telling is the truth.  Or it might just be sensationalist lies.  Either way, Triple Fisher and Rashomon are intrinsically tied through technique.  And, yes, Amy Fisher, Joey Buttafuoco and Akira Kurosawa are now in the same damn article.  You're welcome.  Please don't haunt me Mr. Kurosawa. Quick research shows I'm not the first to make this connection, which makes me happy to no end.

Bibliotheque Pascal is also directly related to Rashomon, but only in so far as it has an unreliable narrator.  Both Rashomon and Bibliotheque Pascal have constructed whole movies out of lies and fabrications from the characters. Both movies were also constructed out of stories told out of ego and the urge to save face.  All of the stories in Rashomon are told because the storytellers had something to hide, or wanted to be proud of something.  Bibliotheque Pascal's narrator tells her story because she wants to disguise her past into something more than what it was.  And, Vertigo's influence can be seen in the knowledge that there is a second movie underlying the first.  But, where Vertigo's film is from a different character, Pascal's other film is just a boring film that needn't be told, again.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is Vertigo ineloquently reused.  Vertigo hammered two movies into one movie, but was able to make it slick enough to tell it through the one narrative.  Tucker and Dale has the two movies but explicitly tells the two movies by splicing them together.  Much like the later horror comedy, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker and Dale intercuts between the two movies to chop at each other's roots.  But, Vertigo slickly and slyly told you that one was an incomplete story without showing it as incomplete in an explicit manner.  Tucker and Dale, to its credit, is a b-movie that its creators may have thought it was lucky to be watched once, and was trying to tell you everything in the first viewing.  It is a b-movie, after all.

With this week's look at the manipulation of narrative in the modern indie, foreign, and b-movie, I hope to show how sometimes the movies that may seem to be trashy or stupid might have something more going behind its wheels.  It isn't all surface for some of these b-movies and they shouldn't be dismissed straight off.  Are they classics like Rashomon and Vertigo.  Probably not.  Only Schizopolis and Triple Fisher is pushing the elements of what cinema actually is, but Triple Fisher is probably inessential viewing.  The classics are casting shadows on the modern b-movie, and this is why even a b-movie lover should be watching and educating themselves on the classics.

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