Entry from July 27, 2011

This summer I presented on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of Heaven. The fifth and final film in the series, After Life by Hirokazu Kore-eda, was shown on Tuesday, July 26th. Before the movie, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

Welcome to the fifth and final presentation of this summer’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and Hudson Institute movie series about Heaven. After last week’s movie, which was Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life, this week’s may seem a jarring change of pace. It is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life of 1998 and, as I mentioned last week, it is the first foreign language film I have chosen in five years of presenting these series. My hesitancy in doing so has been partly owing to my general purpose in putting the series together in the first place, which has been to look for serious things in the light entertainment in which Hollywood has always specialized and which was once of a remarkably high artistic quality. I have sought to avoid presenting a series that would appeal to what the French call the cinéphile, and most of the foreign language films which make it to the American market — a pitifully small number and growing fewer all the time — belong to that category of movies, to some extent just because they are so few.

In other words, it is a vicious circle — or, I suppose, a virtuous one if you are a cinéphile. The more people expect foreign pictures to be what they used to call “art films” the more they are likely to be art films, since that’s what their dwindling audience turns up for and wants them to be. But for us ordinary movie-goers who cast a suspicious eye on the art movie, it means that we are likely to avoid seeing foreign films and expect those that do make it here to be for the connoisseur and the specialist and so not for the likes of us. This is a shame because some of these art films can also be good movies, like After Life, and have much more to offer than a mere formalist devotion to technique or a political message designed to appeal to the kinds of people who call themselves intellectuals.

Mr Kore-eda’s movie that we will be seeing tonight may at first glance seem to conform to the stereotype of the foreign art house flick. It hasn’t got any of the slick production values that even a little Hollywood movie, like Defending Your Life, characteristically has, and it makes use of some very arty-looking cinéma vérité techniques, like the hand-held camera, jump cuts and documentary-style interviewing. These may well contribute as much as the language to the foreign and rather high-brow look and feel of the film. It also has multiple narrative lines going on at the same time, and these add to the difficulties posed by its technical strangeness in following what is going on. All I can say is that I think you will find that it is worth the little extra effort it may require to appreciate it. In order to lessen that effort as much as possible, allow me briefly to describe the movie’s set-up.

As in Defending Your Life, the heavenly bureaucracy here has instituted a highly-structured process or program through which the recently dead are shepherded on their way to an unspecified further destination by some of their fellow dead who seem to act as a sort of heavenly prison trusties. As with Scrubby in Between Two Worlds we only find out near the end of the movie how they got the job instead of moving on to the next stage, whatever it is. But in Mr Kore-eda’s film there is at first sight, anyway, no judgment, however gently administered, as there was in Albert Brooks’s, designed to direct people either back to another life on earth or onward to something new and different. His people all seem to be going the same way — unless, as one of them does, they stay on as the staff members of the institutional half-way house that is the film’s setting.

Rather, the point of this institution’s processes is simply to help the dead decide which single memory of their time on earth they wish to preserve against what seems to be a general oblivion — and then, with the help of a not very elaborate film-production facility, to help them make a videotaped re-enactment of that moment which they can take with them on a VHS cassette as a souvenir of their life on earth into whatever eternity they are subsequently bound. The absurdity of this idea is no less than that of Albert Brooks’s Judgment City, it seems to me, although it is a more subtle or discreet sort of absurdity, and perhaps more Japanese, if that’s not to engage in ethnic stereotyping. It seems to me to have a similar purpose, too, which is to bring the serious thoughts it has about those immensities, life and death and judgment and eternity, down to a more human and accessible level.

I should have mentioned last time that part of what inspired me to choose Heaven as this year’s theme was seeing Terrence Malick’s new movie Tree of Life which is still playing at the Landmark E Street and other local cinemas and which won the grand prize or Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I thought that Mr Malick’s movie, visually impressive and impeccably arty as it is, was a good illustration of what happens when a movie approaches these ultimate questions with earnestness and in a spirit of a metaphysical inquiry instead of with the sense of the absurd that is shared by Mr Brooks and Mr Kore-eda, not to mention Michael Powell and Ernst Lubitsch, the directors of the first and third movies in this year’s series. Not only is Tree of Life boring and over-long and without, so far as I can remember, a single laugh in it except of the unintentional kind inspired by a dinosaur who looks like Jar Jar Binks, it also seems to me to be necessarily less true — and for the same reason: it’s lack of humor.

I don’t mean to suggest that I have any privileged information about what lies beyond the grave, but I do most devoutly believe that the disproportions involved between our little time on earth and eternity and between our little patch of planetary space and the immensity of the universe could not but produce more surprises and therefore more laughter, even if of a dark kind, than Mr Malick appears to be able to find in the subject of the relationship between the eternal and the temporal. G.K. Chesterton thought that God must be quite a jolly fellow, rather like himself, and I suppose I have so far assimilated his way of thinking that I find it much more difficult to believe in a sober and humorless god than I do in a vengeful and frightening one, even if I am — as Albert Brooks seems to have seen himself as being in Defending Your Life — the object of his humor.

Not that you should expect After Life to be a barrel of laughs. The humor is, as I say, subtle, but it is also rather incidental to the central idea of choosing a memory and all that that implies about the need for a retrospective judgment on one’s past. For there is judgment in this movie, but it, too, is of a subtle kind. It is not the judgment that comes from without, as that in Defending Your Life ostensibly did, but the judgment we make upon ourselves, as I think we finally were able to see Albert Brooks’s character’s having to make in that movie. The central character in this one is called Mr Watanabe, and the normal Japanese formality of address also adds its bit to the strangeness of the picture. Played by Taketoshi Naitô, Mr Watanabe is unable to choose a memory, and this leads to his being given a box full of 71 VHS cassettes, one for each year of his life, to review to find the memory he will ultimately choose. The basic idea is therefore somewhat similar to that of Defending Your Life: namely, that it is natural and rather frightening for us to think of divine omniscience in terms of an inescapable video surveillance of our lives.

The effect of Mr Watanabe’s voluntary re-viewing of himself is also similar to Daniel Miller’s compulsory self-scrutiny in the earlier film. Both men, that is, are very far from being happy with what they see of themselves. Daniel’s sense of shame is immediately treated with all the tools of rationalization that the Californian therapy industry, in the parodic form of Bob Diamond’s disingenuous advocacy, can supply, though ultimately it proves too strong for them. The Japanese shame culture is much less diminished by such means, and poor Mr Watanabe thus has no defense against his new-found sense of remorse, falling before it as if pole-axed. In particular, it is his treatment of his wife (Kyôko Kagawa), who has preceded him in death, that he is ashamed of. He appears to see in his choice of a memory of her the only amends he can make for a lifetime of neglect.

This choice also has an unexpected repercussion for two of the staff members, Takashi Mochizuki (Arata) and Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda), who is a trainee counselor working under his direction and who obviously has a massive crush on him. The unforeseen connection between them and Mr Watanabe I will let you discover for yourselves, and we can then talk a bit about it if you are able to stay around for the discussion which will follow after the movie, but it is worth bringing up the question of sexual love again because it has been so important in all the other movies we have seen in this series. It may be somewhat unexpected to find it again in the strange surroundings of this crumbling Japanese institutional building — whose down-at-heels appearance, by the way, helps contribute to our sense of the absurd, like finding an angel disguised as a decrepit old man. But the idea of Sir Walter Scott’s, as quoted by Abraham Sofaer’s judge in Stairway to Heaven two weeks ago, that “love is heaven, and heaven is love” appears to transcend cultural differences.

Scott also calls love “the dearest theme,/That ever warm”d a minstrel”s dream,” and the same is even more true of film-makers’ dreams. Erotic love is one of the movies’ natural subjects, the other being violence, and that probably makes it natural that the movies should want to persuade us to see the ultimate destination of the human soul in similar terms. But the middle three of this year’s films treat the subject differently from the first and the last. In Between Two Worlds, Stairway to Heaven and Defending Your Life, the love story concentrates, movie-style, on the couple as isolated from their social context and completely wrapped up in each other, as people are at the beginning of an affair. It is not coincidental, therefore, that in two of those three cases the lovers end up back on earth instead of in heaven with the dead. But in both Heaven Can Wait and After Life the focus is more on a long marriage at the end of its earthly tenure as the image and promise of a felicity to follow.

Mr Kore-eda in his “Director’s Statement” in fact cites the allegorical aspect of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait by name as his model in making After Life, though the two films are obviously quite different. The other American movie he alludes to is in his Japanese title, which isn’t really Japanese but a Japanese pronunciation of “Wonderful Life,” Wandâfuru Raifu, which is meant to recall the great Frank Capra picture It’s a Wonderful Life of 1946. We suspect that there must be some irony in the title, as there appears to be little connection between the warm and loving family and community of Capra’s picture and the Watanabe marriage that is at the center of After Life. Yet I wonder if the point of comparison lies not in the marriage itself but in the fact that both men, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr Watanabe in After Life, have to look back on their lives from a point of detachment in order to be able to see their own happiness in a situation that wasn’t experienced as happiness as they were living it.

I think that, in fact, that is how a lot of us experience happiness — that is, more in retrospective memory than while we are living it — which is part of the reason why a movie about retrospective memory has the power it does as an image of the afterlife. Such memory inevitably comes tinged with regret, not only because we feel we should have been more aware of and therefore happier in our happiness at the time but also because, like Mr Watanabe’s, our lack of awareness made our happiness and, more importantly, other people’s happiness, so much less than it might have been. I don’t think it’s difficult to imagine that such regrets could become so acute as to stand in for the torments of hell, or at least purgatory, in the traditional Christian account of the afterlife.

Once again, as with the shame felt by Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life, these torments are self-administered; once again, too, memory — at least as it is extracted from the musty corners of the imagination and purified and objectified by the transformative powers of the video camera — implies judgment by its very nature. The video camera as the means of self-detachment here is analogous to the illusion of an alternative life that the angel Clarence provides for George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and is thus of the first importance to the movie — which is why Mr Kore-eda is able to make his version of the afterlife as much about movie-making as it is about death and judgment. The paradox of creating an illusion to stand for a reality which has already been lost in the illusions of memory tells us something about the illusions of art itself, just as the artist is a stand-in for the Creator and, like him, is able to make us see things more clearly.

I think that the run-down and dilapidated state of the institutional building in which the After Life staff is housed is partly the author’s statement about how the movies make things look real. The materials are always less impressive than that which is made out of them. The human materials likewise. On one level we can almost see the characters in the movie apart from Mr Watanabe and the two counselors of central interest as the “types” that you might find in a soap opera or a disaster movie, yet each has a particularity which brings out our compassion in somewhat the same way as Watanabe’s is brought out by seeing himself as others see him for the first time. We know that all are there to create an illusion that will be as vivid a re-creation of a cherished memory as it is possible to make, and that this sort of born-again memory must gradually come to take the place of the memory we have in our earthly minds rather as we hope for a heavenly body to take the place of the one we must leave behind us on earth.

Another way to put this might be to say that Mr Kore-eda is using the privacy of our experience of memory as reflected in the privacy of our experience of the movies together with the intensity of our experience of love to create an image of the resurrection of the senses — which of course are what we shall most miss about our bodies — in a new and purified form and disembodied. The moment that these transients in the After Life processing center relive their memory, they move on to a place where they can be sure of spending eternity with that movified memory which is no longer theirs alone. Their release from the prison of the body thus becomes a metaphor or a prefiguring of their release from the prison of the self — which is also what stands between us and love and happiness, whether on earth or in whatever may come after it. Such an understanding of the destination of the soul is perhaps hinted at in all the movies we have seen this summer, but in none of them more than in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, which is also a Wonderful Life.

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