Explore the many ways to read cinema

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Marcel Broodthaers’ films mostly deal with relations between images and words, which is unsurprising given that he was a poet first who turned to film because he came to understand the medium as an extension of language. In their combination, he sought harmony between poetry, visual art and cinema. It is this lineage of artistic activity inaugurated by Broodthaers in the postwar period that the Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, seeks to trace to its postmodern flowering in the 1990s through to the present.

An example of Broodthaers’ conflating medium of cinematic poems can be found in “A Film Made by Charles Baudelaire” (1970), which depicts a fictitious cinematic sea voyage that is somehow authored by the 19th-century French poet. Baudelaire is being sent on the trip by his parents, who hope it will cure him of his deviant lifestyle.

Composed of stills and without sound, maps indicate Baudelaire’s itinerary, while time captions run chronologically from Jan. 3 to Dec. 17, 1850, after which the screen turns black, and time halts before it begins reversing. Sinister textual suggestions are also displayed — “famine,” “mystery,” “knife,” “cook.” Such diverse details are inimical to clear understanding, though the visual and verbal playfulness consummates Broodthaers’ concern for a multilayered structure of words, images and meanings.

A dozen younger artists follow suit in “Reading Cinema, Finding Words: Art after Marcel Broodthaers,” including Cindy Sherman, Ana Torfs, Anri Sala and Dayanita Singh, who takes exquisite photographs of record-keeping bureaus inundated with written materials that threaten to overflow.

Among the best works is Akram Zaatari’s “Tomorrow Everything Will be Alright” (2010). The film concerns a conversation between two former male lovers who have been separated 10 years. They want to reacquaint, and so their twitter, Facebook and Skype dialog anachronistically appears on a page set in a 1980s typewriter. The conversation takes place in seeming real time, often in short, direct sentences with contemporary quirks such as smiley face emoticons. Curt displays of lust ensue: “Do you have a hard-on?” Textual cues also intersperse the dialog — when “telephone rings” is typed on the paper, the telephone indeed rings. The whole piece is structured like a scripted online chat. Given the narrative must be read, Zaatari’s film returns the centrality of the written script to cinema, giving it the same importance that it once had for theater.

Where things take a turn for the worse is in the video work of the local contingent, of which there are two. Miwa Yanagi’s “Gloria and Leon” (2004) has girls dressed in school uniforms acting out scenes from Luc Besson’s film “Leon: The Professional” and John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” in minimally reduced stage sets. The films impressed Yanagi in her youth and Gloria, Yanagi says, is “tough, cool and kind.” Her penchant for female leads was triggered by her interest in Japan’s Takarazuka Revue, an all-female musical theater troupe, though Yanagi’s actors are amateur, their dialog and actions often awkward and oddly un-dramatic. Attempting to artfully theatricalize drama and action films, only to capture the results on film anyway has not ended up particularly compelling, and it reminds that Yanagi’s best work to date remains her earlier photography.

Koki Tanaka was this year’s representative at the Venice Biennale, though his oeuvre to date is decidedly uneven. “Take an Orange and Throw it Away Without Thinking Too Much” (2006) has the artist and his friends do exactly that and no more. “Showing Objects to a Dog” (2010) has Tanaka making small structures from boxes, polystyrene cups, string and wood. The dog mostly wags its tail and finds the constructions uninteresting, though it pulls a few of them around a lawn. These works are dull and intellectually go nowhere.

Tanaka’s work, however, can sometimes almost appear intriguing. His “A Poem Written by 5 Poets at Once (first attempt)” (2013) has the poets sitting around a table, each writing individual impressions of the theme “sharing an event.” The poetry is occasionally weak, and in minimal quotation gives cause to cringe — “like a kid crying over a tomato that peels in hot water,” “chocolate never lies” and other descriptions of vacuity. The five writers are try to get along and there is almost no disagreement among them, though one might expect that the younger (three of them) generally defer to the older.

Poetry is conceived as a collective responsibility, and the individual authorial voice is subsumed within the harmonizing of the generations as well as the authority of the group. No individual stands up for the authority of his or her own personal voice.

Collectivity requires compromise and mutual respect, and while the poetic process is ostensibly “constructive,” the final results can almost seem akin to an artistic form of a governmental “white paper,” with the individual authors diminished within a group in which no one person can be entirely responsible for the final version. Could this really be a model for art practice?

“Reading Cinema, Finding Words: Art after Marcel Broodthaers” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs till Oct 27; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.); ¥850. Closed Mon.