Thursday, September 24, 2009

Something in 500 Words or Less

[I need to start reigning myself in on how much I write. Posts are sloppy and everywhere at once. Consider this a 'Motion Study', as I will be calling them. It is always meant to be brief and concise.]
Ozu's images are templates rather than finished images. In Tokyo Story (1953), cameraman Yuuharu Atsuta captures shots of a field on a hillside behind a house, symmetrically aligned with the roof at the point where the shingles complete its triangular slope. The sky is always clear and the time is always midday. In the first template of this image, a boy and his father stroll along the hillside towards the spot where the roof's edge aligns, and slowly exit the frame. Later, a man rides his bike along the hillside, disappearing from the frame as soon as he crosses that same spot. Another version of this template is simply an empty shot of the hillside, infused with no motion, and accompanied only by music.

         Ozu is one of the few filmmakers in history patient enough to work with templates for all his films and often not elaborate on the most bare bones form of the shot at all. It's emptiness merely repeats again and again. The camera rarely moves, though the motion within the frame is bittersweet and electrifying; and when there is no motion, the repetition of the shot later on itself becomes a form of motion (something few filmmakers consider), and still manages to stir us in our gut in addition to serving the narrative. Some might want to use a more professional term-- 'Master Shot'-- for what I am here calling a template, but it is not the same. A Master Shot is the basis for a scene, and close-ups, medium shots will follow within the basis of that shot. Ozu's templates are narrative links at the most practical level and bases for reflective motion at a deeper level. Most of the time, no close-ups or medium shots are needed. He used this formula of Template shots in many of his films, at least in the late period of his career, and it always worked in a way that could make another filmmaker slap their head and exclaim that the secret was right under their noses the entire time. Yet at the same time, when other filmmakers try to use this template format, it does not always work. Jim Jarmusch and Hsao Hsaio-Hsien have tried it to varying degrees of success. At best, it seems like an attempt to elicit wistful emotion from an audience when the story isn't cutting it, at worst, like an imitation of Ozu. As long as Ozu was a master of his own template, we will remember it's potential.