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Without blinking

Superchunk's crazy page

 

STUDY THE SCREEN'S lower left corner during the opening of Teinosuke Kinugasa's A Page of Madness and you'll see fingers turning the credit pages. If those fingers belong to Kinugasa, page-turning is the least of their skills. Proof comes in the next few minutes' torrent of images: massive downpours, tree branches that threaten to smash through windows, superimposed spinning wheels and orbs, and a dancer who twirls behind the bars of a mental hospital cell – the most literal of many gates of hell constructed using darkness and light (even floor patterns take on a cagelike quality). Kinugasa's eyes and hands are at the center of this storm. He directs it, using close-ups, tracking shots, and above all, ruthlessly rapid edits.

First unleashed in 1926, A Page of Madness's ferocious opening montage makes comparatively vacuous MTV kineticism seem slo-mo. Telling the tale (coauthored by Kinugasa and Snow Country author Yasunari Kawabata) of a sailor who takes an asylum job to reach and rescue his wife after she's been committed for drowning their son, the movie itself has contemporary resonance. In recent U.S. "news" there's the Andrea Yates case. In current Japanese cinema there's Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who investigates remarkably similar themes in Cure and Séance, using visual motifs – threatening branches glimpsed through windows; shadowed, barren institution interiors – that also dominate Kinugasa's landmark work.

Often deemed the first avant-garde Japanese film, A Page of Madness is undeniably innovative. But the story behind Kinugasa's innovation – and the history of A Page of Madness itself – has been contested. Two years after Page was completed, Kinugasa met Sergei Eisenstein in Moscow, so the influence of European cinema is one topic of debate. Robert Sklar's Film: An International History of the Medium claims Kinugasa read translations of Soviet montage theories found in German magazines. In The Japanese Movie, Donald Ritchie compares Page's and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's portrayals of mental illness to illustrate the differences between impressionism and expressionism, respectively. Scholar James Peterson views Page as a product of the shinkankaku-ha, or "new perceptionists," a collective of writers who experimented with modernist styles such as dada, futurism, surrealism, and the aforementioned -isms.

Another mystery attached to A Page of Madness is its almost 50-year disappearance. Page's reputation steadily grew, generating essays and a 1965 Cahiers du Cinéma article, even after the movie itself seemed permanently lost. Most accounts state that Kinugasa discovered a print in his garden shed in 1971 (one account claims he found it in a barley bale!). The most thorough piece of writing about the movie, a book by film historian Mariann Lewinsky, has not been translated into English, though the Japanese cinema Web site Midnight Eye recently published an extensive, illuminating interview with the author. Among the fallacies Lewinsky debunks is the commonplace assumption that A Page of Madness – which has no intertitles – bypassed benshi (live film narration), in an attempt to wage war against the tyranny of language. Lewinsky notes that Japan's top benshi of the time, Musei Tokugawa, was instrumental in getting the film released.

Perhaps following the example of Kinugasa – who rereleased the film with a newly composed score in 1972 – most recent Page screenings have been accompanied (to Lewinsky's dismay) by live music rather than benshi narration. Widely varying artists have composed and performed live scores for Page: Philip Johnson provided a jazz interpretation, Christina Wheeler and DJ Olive collaborated for the 2001 New York Underground Film Fest, and Aono Jiken has recorded a taiko soundtrack available on CD. Soon a North Carolina-based indie rock mainstay will join this list: following last year's pairing of Yo La Tengo and nature filmmaker Jean Painlevé, this year's San Francisco International Film Festival features a Castro Theatre screening of A Page of Madness set to live music by Superchunk.

"I talked to [Yo La Tengo's] Ira [Kaplan] about [live scoring], and he says it helps to have a big ego so you can convince yourself that people want to hear your 12-minute instrumentals," bandleader Mac McCaughan jokes. Taking a late-night break from recording, McCaughan – whose favorite film of last year was Yi Yi and whose all-time favorite list includes Valley Girl – is as forthcoming as he can be about an event that hasn't happened yet. "The last few [Superchunk] albums have also been written collaboratively in the same garage, only without a movie," he says, when asked how creating a score differs from the group's usual songwriting process.

A Page of Madness isn't McCaughan's first venture into film scoring; he wrote the music (as Portastatic) for a Canadian movie, Looking for Leonard, which is currently traveling the festival circuit. McCaughan started work on A Page of Madness by himself, making a few themes on guitar and piano; then he and the rest of the group worked together in their practice space. At the Castro guest member Chuck Johnson will be using a laptop to manipulate drum tracks into loops.

A Page of Madness's lack of intertitles forces composers to create their own thematic divisions. "I first started mapping [the score] out by plotline paired with time markers," McCaughan says. "But [now] we've got it divided into 10 or 11 sections that I guess you could call songs. There are still some open-ended passages." As for A Page of Madness's notoriously ferocious beginning, Superchunk fans shouldn't expect a dose of distortion. "What often works best against that type of editing – and the editing in the opening sequence still blows me away – is something almost static," McCaughan says. "We can't match what's happening up there [on-screen], and it would be a bit obvious to try." (Johnny Ray Huston)

"Superchunk and Kinugasa: A Page of Madness," with live score by Superchunk, screens Tues/23, 7 p.m., Castro. For more information see box, page 33.