I learned this many years ago during a screening of Alek Keshishian’s With Honors (1994), a Sven Nykvist-lensed flick that, if I remember correctly, featured among the generally dreary sequences an incredible, blink-and-it’s-gone image of a church towering behind Brendan Fraser’s character. It didn’t make the movie watchable, but it spoke to the power of cinematography. Great visuals can stick in the mind even when the pictures they’re in don’t.
When the film is brilliant, however, a super shot can be transcendent. It becomes something more than memorable — a moment that you think of when mulling the medium overall. King Kong swatting planes from the Empire State Building. Gene Kelly stomping through puddles in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Orson Welles breathing “Rosebud” at the beginning of Citizen Kane (1941).
And Masayuki Mori’s haunted potter Genjuro returning to his ramshackle, abandoned home to find no one there… until he circles through it, taking the audience with him, to discover the ghost of his dead wife waiting for him in Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterful Ugetsu (1953). That’s right — a mind-boggling image from a classic Japanese flick. Which, to my mind, defines the cinema as much as any American one.
There’s a tendency to think insularly when discussing great film. We can’t help it. We’re human. We’re brought up in a certain region and often think of its products. I know: True cineastes have a global mindset. They like movies with Jerry Lewis and flicks with Louis de Funès. (Or, if you’re like me, just the latter.) They’re worldly. They know their international stuff.
To Mordor with the way it is.
Cinema’s popular iconography needs to change. We can’t reserve Ugetsu to film critics’ lists and connoisseurs’ bookshelves. Folks have got to see it. Think it when they think movies. Gene Kelly’s all well and good, but it’s like baseball before Jackie Robinson. The definition’s incomplete. You’re missing a major part.
All great movies are accessible, just like all great operas or all great paintings. The problem is not that we can’t understand them; it’s that we often don’t have access to understanding them. There’s a mindset that foreign flicks are all art films or Fellini, with grotesque clowns, opaque monologues and hard-to-see subtitles. Because they’re not shown on TV or in the theatres with the frequency that, say, Singin’ in the Rain is, they’re not as familiar, and therefore fear-worthy.
Well, you have nothing to fear with Ugetsu. It’s a beautiful film.
As is Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), oft-criticised as ponderous and propaganda-y, yet as lyrical as anything in Gene Kelly’s footsteps. There’s a scare here: old Russian film, muddled subtitles, slow pacing. Yet there’s also one of the most iconic images in cinema: that of Nikolai Cherkasov’s Tsar Ivan, exiled from his city, looking down from his tower on the line of ordinary people who have come to call him back. Cherkasov’s imperious yet compassionate head is in the foreground, gigantic against the screen and above his “children” as Sergei Prokofiev’s gorgeous score accompanies. No matter what you think of the real Ivan — and he was, by most accounts, pretty grozny — this is a glorious moment. Everyone can enjoy it.
I’m concerned that even famous shots from influential foreign masterpieces — such as the poignant freeze-frame at the end of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) — won’t get the exposure over the next century that images from a flick like Titanic (1997) will. We can’t just depend on cable TV, art-house theatres or film professors to spread the word. So far, the Internet hasn’t made Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) a household name, despite the inclusion of one of the most powerful endings in cinema: a shot quickly circling the doomed Amazonian raft carrying the mad conquistador Aguirre as he staggers amid his dead men, still believing he’ll rule the world. Who’s going to see that if it only reaches a select few?
My solution is what mainstream theatres will never do: Put these movies back on the big screen — regularly. Give more people a chance to see them. These pictures are enriching; they improve us, just like a great novel or a beautiful piece of music. We’re better for being familiar with them. And when that happens, we can transform our iconography from a Hollywood-centric perspective to one more globally inclusive… a move that doesn’t reject American greats but seats them with their international equals. As Dr. Janosz Poha says in the immortal Ghostbusters II (1989): “Doesn’t that sound nice?”
A perfect shot in a brilliant film deserves recognition. Perhaps one day, we’ll rank them all — domestic and foreign — the same.