Following People Unintentionally, Summer 2017

The summer has been summed up so far by following people unintentionally. A man walking down the street (too slow!) turns and goes into the same FamilyMart I was going to, heads to the machine I need, takes twenty minutes to buy his tickets or pick up his package slip. It's a package, because later I see him at the register gesturing with the slip to my shop assistant when I send him back to pick up my packages. I look at him sharply in recognition. But he waits in line; should have been faster shopping after getting the slip, you only have thirty minutes to bring it to the counter. 

The shop assistant is a South Asian man named びぴん; we speak in careful Japanese and I make one of those semi-apologetics jokes I always make, this one about how I've picked up packages there every day this week. It doesn't land. The shop assistant at the 7-11 in Shinjuku Ni-chome is also not Japanese, but she speaks to me in English immediately, because (I assume) it's Shinjuku. She switches back to Japanese before the end of the interaction. I followed a man there from the station, but I was actually meeting my friend! I swear! After, we wandered around looking for a cafe-bar that doesn't exist. Next time we go, it will certainly be there. 

Those two old men weren't the first though. One day, I was walking back to my house and I thought I'd stop by the Mandarake on Otome Road (classic Otome Road). After crossing under the overpass, I noticed a woman walking front of me. She was pretty, ナイスボディー, but I noticed her hair—it was the same color as mine in one of those clever highlighting jobs that sometimes work on stylish Japanese women. I always wonder a little at people who would willingly change their hair to be the same brown as my natural color—I always wanted my hair darker. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and slightly curled. I followed her down the street. She turned and went down the stairs to Mandarake. That's where I was going! I followed, she vanished into the store. I went in, walked past the ridiculous Johnny's section (I don't approve), through the doujinshi, past commercial manga—and there she was, in the back corner with the art books and old doujin or magazine extras, where I always find some real gems. I turn immediately, panicking that she'll think I'm a stalker. I look at the goods section, then at Yuri on Ice, wasting time until she leaves. When I see her step aside, I swoop in and lose track of her. 

After Mandarake, I stop in the K-Books and look at magazine, BL games, books. They're doing some major reorganization (moving?) so a lot of the shelves are bare and boxes of inventory are stacked in the aisles. The shop assistants rush around like little busy bees packing up their gay porn like it's honey for a long winter. I head back towards the section where the BL anthologies were; they're still there. I peak around the other side of the shelf, and there she is, my shadow. Or am I her shadow? My shadow-leader. I pretend like I haven't seen her and rush back to the novels. 

Maybe being alone makes me sensitive, able to find people heading in the same direction I am, able to align myself with strangers. But certainly, definitely not speak with them! 

A Taxing Woman, program notes, Spring 2017

For the Yale Film Colloquium's Film Against Fascism series, we showed a series of films selected to comment on the Trump administration in ways both roundabout and direct. Below are the program notes for my choice, Itami Jūzō's A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, 1987).

Love. Sex. Death. Taxes. Most films keep the last to the shadows, where it shapes budgets and production—which city will give us tax breaks for filming there? oh, then, let’s film there—and never enters into the mind of the unsuspecting audience. Not so in Itami Jūzō’s A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, 1987) which transforms the stereotype of the boring tax investigator into an action hero detective—sniffing out lies, digging through trash, riding around on a great motorbike—and centers the question of tax payments (and nonpayments) with an examination of the absurd complexities of the tax system and the even more absurd lengths people will go to to cheat it. 

Itami Jūzō was a successful actor, the son of wartime director, screenwriter, and satirist Itami Mansaku; when he debuted as a director with 1984’s The Funeral, he displayed a knack for films which were steeped in the comedic gifts and referentiality of someone who knew the film world inside and out. The Funeral brought him wide acclaim from the Japanese press, winning Best Picture from the Japan Academy Prizes. His second film Tampopo, his best-known feature internationally, is a quite literal “ramen western” in which a woman (Miyamoto Nobuko, who stars as the tax investigator in A Taxing Woman and also happens to be Itami’s wife) struggles to learn the craft of ramen-making while local thugs try to bully her into closing; she is defended by a lone wanderer with a hidden past (Yamazaki Tsutomu, who returns to play the real estate baron in A Taxing Woman). The comedy skillfully combines genre play with an examination of food and sex, family and desire. A Taxing Woman, his follow-up feature, is less overtly genre-bending, but still displays Itami’s characteristic eccentric humor—a humor of discomfort, of characters behaving oddly, of a stilted awareness of the filmic world.

Applied to the world of money-making and money-counting, Itami’s humor functions as a satire of 1980s Japan, obsessed with its own economic prowess and detached from the real responsibilities of economic success. In the midst of the 1980s economic boom, Japan experienced an unprecedented (and, it turns out, soon-to-end) period of high growth, leading to a proliferation of buildings and businesses which would vanish with the burst of the bubble in the early 1990s. (If you recall the abandoned amusement park/hot springs space in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which becomes a home for spirits and gods, those are one such version of post-bubble ruins.) Love hotels, the official business of Gondō in A Taxing Woman, similarly boom over the course of the 1980s, developing ostentatious gimmicks and elaborate facades, becoming the site of cultural exploration of sex and desire outside the traditional family home; they also increasingly become the target of police and tax bureau attention as businesses associated with sex and licentiousness. 

This conflict in A Taxing Woman plays out as a clash of eccentric characters: an enthusiastically aggressive lady tax investigator, who always gets her man (or her receipts, as is more often the case), versus a sleazy womanizing yet nonetheless compelling hotel mogul, as they become increasingly wrapped up in each other’s lives through the mechanism of the tax investigation. Don’t expect a romance, though—there’s no room for love in the life of A Taxing Woman.


Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010): Program Notes for Yale Film Colloquium

For the Fall 2016 Yale Film Colloquium film series, we planned a series of films on the theme of transportation in cinema, including the films Speed, Closely Watched Trains, Luna Papa, Meek's Cutoff, Christopher Strong, and Thelma and Louise. I wrote the program notes for Meek's Cutoff, the fourth film in the series on November 7th, which I thought I would share here as well. 


Meeks Cutoff, the 2010 western directed by Kelly Reichardt, counters the relentless speed which began our Start Your Engines: Transportation in Cinema series with a style of filmmaking prioritizing the slowness, the silence, and the uncertainty in a form of transportation that cinema has memorialized as a dynamic and triumphant movement westward. While John Fords Stagecoach gave us the thrill and terror of the encounter with the Wild West” through a chase and a gunfight canonized in film history forever, Reichardts approach to a group of unlucky travelers on the Oregon Trail divests the West of bursts of adrenaline in favor of a long, increasing tension, a tension which maintains the irreconcilable ambiguity of western settlement and the modernizing impulse which underlies cinemas own fixation on the machines of transportation and the mechanics of speed.

The genre of the western, eternally returning in new forms throughout film history and in national cinemas around the world, centers on the struggle of modernity to spread to the places and the people whose exclusion from the realm of civilized society is what gave civilization its definition and its power. This negotiation has never been straightforward; even the most stereotypical cowboys versus Indians style of western has embedded in it a love of wildness, a celebration of freedom despite the inevitable filmic conclusion of civilizations victory over its alternatives. The balance between primitive” freedom and civilized” control is the contradiction at the center of the hero of the classical western, a masculine figure whose position on the fringes of the society he upholds makes safe the contradiction we suspect lurks at the heart of every attempt at defining the self, the present, and the nation which relies on the clear exteriorization of all that is other. 

In Meeks Cutoff, Reichardt counters the traditional dichotomies propelling the western genre with a vision of western movement which prioritizes everyday labor, decisions, and anxiety. In the space of the trail, neither civilization nor natural landscape can be fully beautified: the attempts at settled culture the travelers repeat are inevitably dwarfed by a vast unsettled space, promising no water or life for miles, completely unknown. During the day, their faces are always hidden under brimmed hats or bonnets or otherwise shadowed, divided sharply from the brightness and expanse of the landscape which menaces them with heat and thirst; during night scenes, they are obscured in a darkness so complete you will be happy see this film on a big screen in a darkened theater (believe me.) They can trust neither their hired guide, Meek, whose arrogance suggests the rugged masculine individuality deified in western conquest, nor the Native American they find and capture, who has every reason to prefer to lead them into a trap. Centering the narrative on the women travelers, who must sit and listen while their husbands discuss life-and-death decisions, Meeks Cutoff offers no heroic figure in the classical sense; instead, Emily Tetherow, played by Michelle Williams, emerges as the central figure of a collective, a woman who learns to make choices with no narrative guarantee of a settled conclusion. 

Most noticeably, the films pace is slow to the point of being anticinematic, working against the teleological logic of the western, the film, and modernity itself, which pushes narratives and progress forward on the rapidly spinning wheels of cause and effect as they clatter through firefights and love affairs to arrive safely in a settled town. Film developed for global consumption a form of time which was chopped into pieces, occurring simultaneously, based on visual logics which, at some point, we spectators must have learned to understand, because they are utterly different from how we experience everyday time. Filmic time was, perhaps, a later, mechanized offshoot of the time of modernity, which transformed and often dominated understandings of time by conquered and colonized people as Western European powers expanded in power and influence. By slowing and stretching the filmic time, Meeks Cutoff works against Americas own favorite narrative of modern progress, that of the western, with a story that returns to the west its unsettled time, a time with no promise of ending. 

Beyond these concerns of genre and time, Meeks Cutoff expressed for me something which I often have trouble describing to people Ive met in adulthood. I didnt grow up in the American West, but in the landscape of Meeks Cutoff I can feel something that reminds me of the countryside where I did grow up, a space where silence is so complete every conversation feels like an intrusion, where the sky dominates the visual field down to an endless stretch of unreadable alien land, and where wed walk for miles in boredom and communion, remarking only on the land and the work. While contemporary Pennsylvania farmland lacks the sense of jeopardy of the Oregon Trail in 1845, that landscape remained within me as a source of silence and of dread even as I escaped to the overbuilt coasts. Sometimes, in the middle of an action movie fight scene, when the average shot lengths are dangerously approaching the milliseconds, I think about that space. Watching Meeks Cutoff, I wonder if, underneath the current speed of cinema and its rebellious media children, is a fear of that space which cannot be framed and that time which cannot be cut.