On Linklater and Ozu: two great philosophers of cinema

BoyhoodBenjamin Brown examines the philosophical thread that runs through the cinema of both Richard Linklater and Yasujiro Ozu.

“I think there are two kinds of filmmakers. Ones that had their little 8mm cameras and their trains and were setting fires and blowing them up and crashing them into each other, and then there were the ones who read a lot and were going to the theater and maybe reading philosophy.” – Richard Linklater

Through such contemplative, meditative works as the Before series and Slacker (1991), Linklater makes something corporeal of the cerebral nature of consciousness, time and memory. Linklater is an auteurist whose every work is highly personal, a quality he shares with the great Yasujiro Ozu. In ‘Filmosophy’ Daniel Frampton writes that philosopher Georges Delueze’s theory of the ‘time-image’ “subverts” the “smooth passage” of narrative chronology, giving instead “a direct image of time.” The cinema of the time-image is one that draws attention to time and makes it visible; in Linklater’s latest venture Boyhood (2013) Delueze’s idea is illustrated through the protagonist Mason, who is a cipher for time itself.

In a clear evocation of Tarkovsky’s text ‘Sculpting in Time’, in which the title alludes to his own style of filmmaking, Linklater has also described Boyhood as an exercise in ‘sculpting time.’ Eschewing the rapid cutting popular among contemporary directors like Michael Bay, a more sedate pacing is preferred by Linklater. In both the Before series and Boyhood long takes are often used to capture ‘dialogue’ scenes, allowing the audience to literally witness the passage of time unfolding before them. In this regard, Linklater seems to be channelling Ozu; as Paul Schrader remarks in Transcendental Style in Film, “Ozu’s only filmic punctuation mark is the pacing cut… which denotes a steady, rhythmic succession of events.” This is typified in Late Spring (1949), where the measured consistency of the shot lengths result in a contemplative tone; one that encourages the viewer to maintain a certain detachment from the action.

Ozu’s cinema favours the banal and the quotidian over monumental events; in Late Spring the actual scenes of the wedding between Noriko and Satake, a crucial plot point, actually take place off-screen. “I want to make people feel what life is like without delineating all the dramatic ups and downs,” comments Ozu in ‘Transcendental Style in Film’. The minutiae of everyday domestic life is also the focus of Boyhood, a film that charts in an almost documentary-like fashion twelve years in the life of Mason, from childhood through to early adulthood.

Tokyo Story

As in Late Spring’s everyday scenes of Noriko cycling with a friend or at home with her parents, Mason’s life is depicted through a series of similarly small, seemingly insignificant moments like camping trips and bowling alley visits with his father. Like Ozu, Linklater conveys these small moments as crucial in the defining and shaping of one’s self. Just as in Late Spring a single conversation Noriko has with her father about why she should marry Satake becomes life altering, in Boyhood a conversation Mason has with his teacher in a high school darkroom also has wider repercussions. Both of these ‘small’ moments are in actuality the films’ most emotionally resonant.

While Late Spring eschews cliché by not showing Noriko’s marriage onscreen, Boyhood begins after Mason’s parents’ break-up, both films neatly evading the depiction of seismic events. Like Ozu, Linklater embeds the film within the relatively mundane milieu of domestic suburbia, dropping the audience in the midst of an ordinary family unit. The tight domestic realm is never really strayed from, the family serving as a microcosm for the outside world. A particular focus within this family unit is that of marriage; Paul Schrader writes about Ozu’s cinema as being about “the hard decisions of marriage.” These hard decisions are explored in the final instalment of Linklater’s Before series, Before Midnight (2013). In its final passage, Jesse and Céline engage in a prolonged bout of verbal sparring, their dialogue highly complex and realistically nuanced in the way that it ebbs and flows. Both Linklater and Ozu seem more interested in presenting marriage as tremulous than sugar-coating reality.

Linklater is also inspired by Ozu’s formal style, preferring to contravene the classical ‘180 degree rule’ common to Hollywood cinema whereby the camera remains on one side of an invisible line vis-à-vis the actors. This is perhaps best illustrated in Before Midnight’s dinner scene. Here the camera is positioned close to the action, assuming multiple viewpoints from positions around the table. In Late Spring, Ozu also uses a 360-degree shooting space to create intimacy in a conversation scene that sees Noriko and Somiya eat a meal as the camera continually moves from one side of the room to the other.

Ozu’s Floating Weeds (1959) ends with a shot of a train leaving its station, a metaphor for the journey of life. Similarly, the nine year gap between the films in the Before series creates the feeling that Jesse and Céline continue with their lives in this intervening time – and that what is witnessed on screen is only a small slice of a much greater reality. Ozu’s endings are often fragmented and multivalent, also remaining open-ended as to what the future may hold for its characters. As well as a lack of any narrative resolution, the characters in these films are also often left feeling unresolved and unfulfilled. At the end of the film, Boyhood’s Olivia says when her brother Mason leaves for college: “I just thought there would be more.” Tokyo Story’s Kyoko is similarly morose, remarking that “isn’t life disappointing,” only to be told that “Yes, it is.” These scenes reflect both Ozu and Linklater’s own ruminations on how unlike in the saccharine world of Hollywood, the grind of real life can often instead leave one with a heavy sense of dissatisfaction.

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