Tag Archives: Summer Hours

Still Walking

You may not think Still Walking is about very much. It’s a Japanese film about a day in the life of an average Japanese family. Three generations gather at “Grandma’s house” to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eldest sibling’s accidental death. They eat a lot of meals, take a few walks, take naps, baths, and catch butterflies. Nothing much happens. No sex, violence, or screaming matches. Hardly anyone even raises their voice.

But there is a lot of drama in this film, and its normalcy and universality is exactly what makes it so compelling and, ultimately, heartbreaking (in much the same way as Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours approached quotidian epiphanies earlier this year). This is a film about life, aging, death, and family. Everyone feels all of those things deeply at one point or another.

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life), Still Walking is a film that is strongly Japanese. But it is not foreign. It will resonate with anyone with a heartbeat who has ever felt the void of a lost love, lost childhood, or lost hope. Koreeda builds on the minimalist style of Japan’s cinematic master, Yasujiro Ozu, who died the year after Koreeda was born in Tokyo. Still Walking is sort of like Tokyo Story in many ways, a strikingly nondescript glimpse into sublime everydayness. Some of the shots and mise-en-scene so thoroughly evoke Ozu that I almost felt like I was watching a reincarnation of the great director.

In his book The Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader theorizes that Ozu’s filmmaking style was strongly derived from Zen art, for which the most basic principle is mu, the concept of negation, emptiness, and void. “Emptiness, silence, and stillness are positive elements in Zen art and represent presence rather than the absence of something,” noted Schrader.

The structure of Still Walking strikingly recalls Ozu’s zen-like structure, which alternated between “paragraphs” of drama and exposition and “codas” or “pillow shots” of static nature or stillness, in the same way that the space in between the branches of ikebana give form to the overall arrangement, or the vast spaces between the big rocks in a zen rock garden infuses the whole thing with peace and balance.

Likewise, Ozu’s films, wrote Schrader, “are structured between action and emptiness, between indoors and outdoors, between scene and coda:

The conflicts are always explicated indoors, usually in long dispassionate conversations… These indoor discussions are set off by “codas”: still-life scenes of outdoor Japanese life, empty streets and alleys, a passing train or boat, a distant mountain or lake… In Western art one would naturally assume that the codas are inserted to give weight to the paragraphs, but for Ozu, as for Zen, it is precisely the opposite: the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life. Ozu is permeated with mu; it is the single character inscribed on his tomb at Engaku-ji.

In the same way, Still Walking contains long stretches of dialogue and intense interpersonal passive-aggressive dynamics. But between and amid these scenes are shots of flowers, or incense, or trains passing against an ocean backdrop. For every probing shot of an emotion-filled human face, there is an equally probing shot of rice balls or corn being picked off of the cob. Koreeda is not equating humans to corn; He’s simply pointing out that our perception of one is always informed by our experience of the other. All things are bound up in this thing called existence, so that a morning walk to the ocean never exists in a vacuum that is uninformed by the emotions, tensions, and stresses of everyday life.

There is a scene near the end of this film in which three generations of men—grandfather, son, grandson—are walking down the hill from the house to the beach. Though they walk in silence, there is so much being expressed in this passage of time. There is a three-shot of them descending stairs that is particularly evocative: Each man is at a different point in his journey of life, and yet here they are together, still walking, in the same air. When they get to the beach they are standing on the same sand, looking out at the same ocean. And something about the way we see it too—the way this story unfolds cinematically—makes us feel like we are right there with them, so different and yet so much the same.

Best Films of the First Half

There are many reasons to be excited about the newly expanded field of ten best picture Oscar nominees. Among them is the distinct possibility that some films released in the first half of the year might actually get some best picture love. Imagine that! First half releases usually get little in the way of awards recognition.

This year has already seen some very quality films, though my picks are maybe not on the radar (or even available to see) for most people. Alas, they are great films that you should try to see, and chances are some of them will make my top ten list come December (my top two picks from last year’s midyear list ended up making the year-end list).

5) The Brothers Bloom – (from my review): “The Brothers Bloom is a film that is from start to finish adamantly unreal. It exists in a magical story world where heiresses can juggle chainsaws and con men spend their time playing shuffleboard on 1920s-style yachts. But it’s also a film in which people are shown loving each other, laughing, and doing a Bolero dance under the moonlight. It’s a film with beautiful oceans, sunsets, and epiphanies. That is, it’s a film with a good deal of truth.”

4) Goodbye Solo – (from my review): “It’s a film of remarkable restraint and subtle suggestion, where so many “points” aren’t hammered home as much as they are delicately positioned for us to coax them into place. It’s a rare film in the way that it knocks you down without ever having to so much as blow in your direction.”

3) Silent Light – Carlos Reygadas’ masterful, elemental, and largely silent film about Mennonite infidelity in Northern Mexico is one of the most stunning, surprising films I’ve seen in a long time.

2) Munyurangabo – A film about the effects of genocide, tragedy, and war… but also about friendship and renewal and the life-giving purity of nature. It’s tender, mysterious, quiet, and one of the best films about Africa I’ve ever seen.

1) Summer Hours – (from my review): “Summer Hours is about the beauty and meaning of objects. It raises interesting, profound questions about why we treasure certain things and what gives a vase or desk or painting “value.” … But the film is also about life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.”

Summer Hours

Having just come back from France, and needing desperately to get the bad taste of Antichrist out of my mouth, I went to see Summer Hours over the weekend—a French film directed by Oliver Assayas and starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier. It was just what the doctor ordered, and more. Summer Hours was two summer hours of pure cinematic bliss, a film I have no hesitation calling a masterpiece and perhaps the best film of the year so far.

The film—as its title implies—is about time. The passage of it. The joy and tragedy of living temporally.

The plot of the film is gloriously simple. It’s about a French family dealing with the death of its matriarch. The film opens with a joyful summer scene at one of those storybook country houses in rural France. The whole family has gathered here for a reunion and celebration of grandmother Helene’s (Edith Scob) 75th birthday. As the children and grandchildren gradually disperse and go their separate ways at the conclusion of the festivities, Helene is left alone with the sadness of a once-again empty house and a feeling that her days are numbered. And indeed, within the year she is dead.

After Helene’s passing, her three children return to the house in France to consider the fate of the estate. Will they keep or sell the house? And what of the esteemed art collection and museum-quality pieces that are in the house? Will they stay in the family or be sold off to collectors and museums? Quickly, sadly, and all-too-realistically, the siblings decide that they need cash more than antiques. They sell the house and go about the business of selling off their families prized possessions.

The majority of the film is an observance—a quiet, curious, melancholy observance—of the minutiae and business of getting the estate sold off. It’s about the process of tidying up affairs after a death. It’s about moving on and clearing the way for the next phase of life. It’s about our entrances and exits and the ambivalent banality of it all.

I think one of the reasons this film affected me so much is that my own grandmother’s house—the house my mother and uncles were raised in and the house I grew up visiting—was recently sold and all of its furniture and belongings dolled out among the children and grandchildren. My grandmother was put in a nursing home and her whole material life was left behind and now liquidated. It’s a terribly sad thing, to realize that something so spirited and alive as a house could so quickly turn into a lifeless relic or alien structure with new tenants. It’s so weird to see a material history evaporate with a few handshakes, pen strokes, and an interchange of documents. But so is life: it’s all so very evanescent.

Summer Hours is about the beauty and meaning of objects. It raises interesting, profound questions about why we treasure certain things and what gives a vase or desk or painting “value.” Is it the story behind it, or the way we use it? Is it the beauty and craftsmanship of the thing itself? Is a vase designed by a famous master more “alive” in a museum or in a rural cottage with a bouquet of flowers sticking out of it?

But the film is also about life, and how it is so much more than objects and mementos and the bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share.

The house at the center of Summer Hours is an impressive structure and perhaps the most important character in the film. It’s the one constant—and there is a decidedly ghostly quality to the way that it transitions from a bustling center of family and furniture to an empty re-booted tabula rasa, ready for the next family to move in. If these walls could talk, what would they say? Summer Hours mulls this question but easily concludes that, in the end, walls and objects cannot talk. Their meaning is derived only and ever through the experiences of people who use them and see them in different ways and for different reasons.

There is a major gulf between humans and objects, and it has to do with time. The former decays far more rapidly than the latter. People almost always die sooner than their accumulated, material lives. Our footprints and letters and blankets and beds will long outlive us, though they will frequently move on and forget they ever accompanied us for a time. And this is the film’s most beautiful and heartbreaking realization—that humans are mostly just passing through, ruffling up the earth and fabrics and rocks and trees for a time, but then passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not a good or bad thing. Like the unchangeable persistence of time, it’s just the way that it is.