Old Masters of the New Wave

Making History

This year's Cannes festival began with a bang for the lucky few and a whimper for the rest. Understandably skipping the opening film, Roland Joffé's period drama Vatel, many cineastes were in for a shock. Joffé's irrelevant costumer was preceded—and completely nullified—by an unannounced short film by Jean-Luc Godard, specially commissioned by the festival.

Entitled L'Origine du XXIe Siècle (The Origin of the 21st Century), this breathtaking sliver serves as a de facto coda to the Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Asked to consider cinema's future, Godard characteristically finds tomorrow in yesterday, sifting the psychoanalytic and historical legacy of the 20th century to posit the continued endurance and moral obligations of cinema in the 21st. In the style of Histoire(s), Godard creates a critical montage of images from his cinematic pantheon (Rossellini's Rome Open City, Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives) and counterpantheon (an extended shot from The Shining, in moving acknowledgment of Kubrick, a perennial Godard target now given his due). Livid color images dissolve into a virtuosic ebb and flow of music, voice-over, punning titles ("Canal plus or minus"), and documentary footage (the Holocaust, Hitler/Stalin/JFK, war atrocities past and present). Ultimately, the film is a stubborn, tender refutation of Death of Cinema cant from an old master, still more adventurous at 70 than filmmakers young enough to be his grandchildren.

At 68, Nagisa Oshima is one of Godard's few remaining peers, occupying roughly the same position in the '60s Japanese New Wave as Godard did in the French. But where Godard's modernism and productivity remain undiminished, Oshima has returned after a 15-year silence with a film that distills his mastery into exquisite, mesmerizing classicism and graceful economy.

Disconcertingly dismissed by critics, Gohatto(Taboo) is a cool, elegantly distanced dance of death set in 1865, in the twilight of the samurai culture. It stars Takeshi Kitano as a samurai militia captain who supervises the training of two gifted young recruits, one of whom is of such exceptional beauty that he becomes an object of desire to several comrades, including his fellow newcomer, who soon becomes his lover.

As ever, Oshima probes the psychosexual tensions that underwrite the fixed traditions and codes of the Japanese social order and eventually destabilize it in outbursts of irrational violence. Here, the beautiful samurai youth proves to be an angel of death, supremely detached, intent on destroying those who would have him. Oshima has stated that "one cannot understand the world of the samurai without showing the fundamental homosexual aspect," and even to the film's cryptic final moments, Gohatto's resistance to psychological reading, and its absolute insistence on a mise-en-scène grounded in ritual action and strict formality, suggest that Oshima's killer can't be understood in terms of homophobic psychopathology (i.e., unable to accept his homosexuality, the killer must kill other gay men). Instead, he seems to function as a metaphor for the self-destructive core of the samurai ethos—which would soon doom this subculture to extinction. In this vision of all-male society, as well as in its stunning beauty, absolute poise, and precise choreography, Oshima's film recalls nothing so much as a Marxist Beau Travail.

 
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