Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): I Was Born, But...

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Was Born, But...

Like the child in whom we can retroactively see elements of the future adult, I Was Born, But..., a mostly lighthearted silent comedy by a 29-year-old Japanese whiz kid named Yasujiro Ozu, contains seeds of the master's later work. Yet just as that child, however similar to the grown-up he or she will become, also has a youthful energy and cavalier innocence that will eventually subside, this 1932 classic skips, jumps, and grins where later Ozu films would serenely and sadly contemplate. (That said, I have yet to see Good Morning, made when Ozu was 56, which apparently includes a farting contest.) There are some pillow shots and static, close-to-the ground compositions, as one would expect from Ozu, but also frequent dollies, as if the camera had to move in order to keep up with the kids.

I Was Born, But... is also one of those movies whose supposed plot (the one that critics summarize in their reviews) doesn't actually arrive until the last twenty or thirty minutes of the movie. Most of the running time is spent on "Our Gang"/"Little Rascals" material, gracefully (often gorgeously) photographed, as a group of beanie-clad schoolchildren play on dirt roads, running between trolley cars and amidst telephone poles . This developing industrial world is their playground, but it's a world they don't really understand, which brings us to that last act of the film, where the "plot" kicks in.


At a home-movie screening, the young brothers whom we've followed from moving-day loneliness to bully-defeating triumph see their father playing the clown to amuse his colleagues, and sucking up to the boss - who happens to be the father of a boy the brothers love to torment. Shaken by the revelation of their father's petty position in the adult world, the children throw temper tantrums, are spanked by their dad, and vow to go on a hunger-strike, but soon they come to an understanding and acceptance of their father's status. Like most other Ozu films, I Was Born, But... preaches (if such a word can be used to describe Ozu's gentle acceptance) obedience towards the natural order, even in a changing world.

Mere hours after watching the new Eclipse edition (part of its series called "Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies"), I have to remind myself the film was silent. It manifests none of the melodramatic exaggerations or overstylized cliches one associates with the era. The film feels like a talkie and while the lively, if initially distracting, piano plunking on the DVD certainly adds to the illusion, it's the naturalness of the performances and the spirited simplicity of the images that convey a kind of noise. When one remembers the boys playing together, one also remembers the sounds of dogs trotting by, a trolley whistle in the background as the boys' shrill voices compete with one another to see who can command the loudest.

The boys are all expert muggers; their self-conscious gestures and restless behavior ring true -- though there are a few moments of overly choreographed action, the characters don't seem to be children filtered through an adult sensibility, but real kids, caught in the act unawares. But the film takes a surprising, and yet very Ozu-like, shift near the end. The boys have shown their anger and disappointment to their parents and are now asleep, while mother and father discuss the situation. Suddenly, the parents are not bemused outsiders, standing on the periphery of the fun and games in their impenetrable grown-upness. They are themselves former kids, groping, sad, confused. They love their children and are embarrassed to be revealed in their shortcomings, yet they understand the boys' disillusionment and are perhaps reminded of their own. When the mother comes in and places her hands on her children, it's as poignant a moment as Ozu ever put on film.

But despite the moving asides, I Was Born, But... belongs to the children, and its sunny conclusion follows them as they tramp off to school, unless the spirit moves them to play hookey yet again. The dot-dot-dot in the title is telling. The characters were born, but a world of adult disappointment and compromise awaits them. But... for now they are still kids and there's plenty of enjoyment to be found in that fact.

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