Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rediscovering Paul Schrader's Mishima

I have read several best-of lists from the last year, and, in so doing, have seen Paul Schrader's 1985 film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, several times. Now that I have seen it held out as an example of a "good" movie in a piece on Slate, I think it's time to discuss it briefly.

It's hard to define, with any real specificity, the charm of Mishima. It comes down to two things: the story (and storytelling) is interesting and the filmmaking good. It sounds simple, but how many movies manage to be technically brilliant and utterly vapid? How many more have a great story, but no technical elegance? It is a rare movie, like Ang Lee's 1997 The Ice Storm, to cite another example, that combines beauty with content. Schrader managed to make just such a film, though (unlike Ang Lee, who has, when he cares to use it, one of the best eyes for beauty since Stanley Kubrick) he did so by redefining the game.

Schrader redefined the biopic genre first. By balancing stylized representations of Mishima's "major" works (at least as major as any of Yukio Mishima's works are in the United States) with fairly realistic biopic fare, Schrader makes the individual points about Mishima's life more effectively – in addition to the overarching theme as life as art. The boring theme to do would have been to intercut scenes from Mishima's last day with scenes from his life up to then. Schrader turns that on its head by forcing the comparisons and contrasts between Mishima's life and his work (particularly when autobiographical material is "identified"). Like a good book, the subplots and digressions manage to further the overarching themes of the movie. Breaking the movie into four "chapters," balancing the three veins for each chapter, furthers this novel-like feeling in the movie.

The direction and cinematography, as I said, are extremely well done. The adaptations of Mishima's work are done in stylized, minimalist – almost abstract – settings in a limited environment. The stories, which are so crucially important to the main themes of the film, are allowed to come to the front. Recreating Kyoko's House in lush detail is less important than communicating the themes, as Schrader sees them, of the book. There is a concentration and precision to the "real-life" parts of the film, which, when coupled with Schrader's talent, combine to make them as compelling as the literary adaptations.

I should think that I've made it clear that I find this a beautiful and interesting film, and I don't think I'm alone. The Criterion Collection, which is just about the only really consistently interesting studio these days, has done us a favor by putting it back out there in fantastic packaging and with excellent features. They also issued Mishima's own film, Patriotism, separately. The rediscovery of this film forces me to ask, however, when did we lose it? This isn't like Sam Fuller's White Dog (beautiful, disturbing, intelligent, and haunting in its own way – not to mention another fine Criterion set), which wasn't mainstream to begin with; this had Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas backing it.

The problem, like White Dog, is that Mishima requires some concentration and some thought. Movies like Mishima are probably a little more taxing than "good" movies today; Capote does not require nearly as much intellectual labor as Mishima, for example. Twenty years' worth of utter dross have pushed serious movies to the fringes. Now, the Criterion Collection generally puts forth serious films, but there are plenty Criterion discs that don't really get a lot of press - why Mishima? What has happened, I think, is that people are ready for good movies. Mishima fits that bill. It is diverse enough to please almost any intelligent and serious cinéaste, though it doesn't rely on eclecticism.

The world of the enthusiast and connoisseur is full of recent "discoveries." Most of them suck. There is a reason why a lot of works are left in a drawer somewhere. Mishima, however, seems to have been a victim of changing tastes and what has been charitably called "the dismal tide." The fact that it has been rediscovered might indicate that, even in more-mainstream circles, that tide has begun to ebb.


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