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THE MEDIEVAL peasants who are the heroes of Ugetsu (1953) don't have to be complicated to become tragic figures. Like Mizoguchi's other characters, they are creatures of emotion. Love-relationships and family ties move their lives, and the extraordinary personal loss that ends Ugetsu only increases the dominance of such deep relationships over the selfish emotions.
Unfortunately, it has become difficult to accept films about fictional characters and their emotions. The integrity of conventional narratives, practically ruined by the likes of Mike Nichols, has been shaken theoretically by Godard and several others. Can dramatic feature films accomplish anything valid? We can't answer definitely until we've thought out the problem on the theoretical level where it's been posed.
Kenji Mizoguchi's reputation is, like all tremendous artistic reputations, tremendous for off-base reasons. Mizoguchi was "discovered" by a critical school that lionized masters of the long take. Andre Bazin and his followers supposed that sequences accomplished in a single shot, and shots lasting minutes without a cut, gave an impression of greater objectivity than a style based on cutting could achieve. Events that appear within the same shot have to take place at the same time. Therefore a long-take style like Mizoguchi's must show things as they actually occur, instead of faking events.
But Mizoguchi's shots, far from recording natural reality, sustain emotions-by sustaining the essential dramatic element in every scene: relationships between characters. Mizoguchi blocks all the people, objects, and settings of a given situation into a single composition. As people act, their relationships change; their physical movements push the dynamics of the composition into a new order.
Mizoguchi incorporates all the elements of filmstyle-lighting, blocking, sets, camera movements-into a single order. This order is necessarily emotional, because the events it stresses, namely human relationships, are fully charged with emotion.
Now, when an entire situation is shown in just a few shots, their ordering assumes the force of necessity: they show events the only way they can possibly occur. In other words, long-take is not a method that forces Mizoguchi to follow reality. It is his way of making his stylization real, that is, exclusive of other orderings and sufficient in itself.
To make this method work requires an incredible unity of design, an almost painterly unity that forces all the elements of a composition to work in one direction. Every new event, every change of place, only augments the emotions and relationships already established. Every change pushes the already-created feelings of a sense to a greater extreme.
Long-take is only a convenient means to this unity, as we see in those sequences in Ugetsu that are composed of several shots. Scenes like Genjuro's flight from Lady Wakasa's mansion build emotionally the same way as single-shot sequences: namely, by setting a certain compositional order and then letting the scene's dramatic progress push it into new shapes-and then cutting to another shot that maintains the relationships connecting the characters.
This is a style which goes to an extreme of simplicity by using methods perfectly unique to film. It renders every personal event visible, and depicts changes in relationships as physical events. The dramatic structure of Mizoguchi's scenes equals the spatial relationships of their characters. So that in his works drama comes down simply to motion, that is, change in place over time; and narrative drama is completely incorporated into film space and film time. Narrative reality becomes the reality of his films.
IN THIS strain of change against order, of time against space, Mizoguchi's camera motions occupy a special place. They too transform the relationships that bind people, but transform them spatially and visibly, not as a cut slicing them apart and then re-confronting them in an artificial drama. People in his compositions are points set a certain way in space; an emotion sets the camera in motion and the points twist around gradually, with all the anguish of a process occurring within reality, to a new dynamic which is again immediately transformed.
Crane shots twist spatial relationships in such a way that their effect is wonderfully moving. Set within the extremely developed order of his compositions. Mizoguchi's crane shots strain the dramatic structure of his scenes to its fullest. The point is not that he uses a crane-the point is what his craning motions push against. Any rich fool can set up a crane shot. Only Mizoguchi can so stylize his shots that a crane's are back into space wrenches your heart away from the bearings on which it has rested long enough.
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