Thursday, July 26, 2007

Face Off


What's Behind the Mask?

"The face is the door to the soul. When the face is closed off, so too is the soul."

"Some masks come off, some don't."
- Okuyama, The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1966)

Last night I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1966 cult film The Face of Another (Tanin no Kao). I have been waiting for years for somebody to release this film on DVD, and the good folks at Criterion finally did, as part of a 3-film box set of Teshigahara films that also includes 1962's Pitfall (Otoshiana) and 1964's Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna). I had been obsessed with seeing this film ever since Planet Records at Westview Mall went out of business years ago and I picked up this cool looking CD of film scores by Toru Takemistu, the cover of which featured a still of a bandaged face, a la The Invisible Man, from The Face of Another:



The image was very DEVO, and it stuck with me for years. Imagine my surprise then when I saw it last night at Video Americain. The Face of Another was the third of four collaborations between director Hiroshi Teshigahara, writer Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu; the trio are best remembered for their collaboration on 1964's Woman in the Dunes.

Teshigahara, whose films reflect his fascination with architecture, also made a documentary about architect Antonio Gaudi. Nowhere is this interest in design more evident than in the doctor's office, which was created by Arata Isozaki, the architect responsible for designing LA's Museum of Contemorary Art and the Sports Hall for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. It's looks like a dreamscape created by a collaboration between surrealist Salvadore Dali and poetic realist Jean Cocteau circa Blood of the Poet. Notice the tiled walls of ears, for example:


Okuyama is all ears

I'm too lazy to describe the film or why it's an amazing visual feast containing every film technique of its day and how it's an obvious influence on future Japanese auterurs like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. That's why Criterion got film critic/programmer James Quandt to do commentary. Suffice it to say, it's mind-blowing and essential viewing.

For what it's worth, here's Criterion's capsule review, though it only scratches the surface of all the film has to offer:
A staggering work of existential science fiction, The Face of Another dissects identity with the sure hand of a surgeon. Okuyama (Yojimbo’s Tatsuya Nakadai), after being burned and disfigured in an industrial accident and estranged from his family and friends, agrees to his psychiatrist’s radical new experiment: a face transplant, created from the mold of a stranger. As Okuyama is thus further alienated from the strange world around him, he finds himself giving in to his darker temptations. With unforgettable imagery, Teshigahara’s film explores both the limits and freedom in acquiring a new persona, and questions the notion of individuality itself.

Yup, The Face of Another is an existential reflection on identity, right up there with the best of its celluloid brethen like Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, James Whale's Frankenstein and Ridley Scott's future noir update of the Frankenstein myth, Bladerunner, to name but a few.

Thanks to a new face mask, Okuyama is able to reinvent himself. But what he does with his new freedom is a wasted opportunity. He squanders his newfound freedom on seducing (in the guise of a total stranger) the wife who rejected him. Even with a new face, Okayama can't escape from himself and who he is, a petty, bitter salaryman. It reminded me of Sam Spade's story about Mr. Flitcraft in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Walking by a construction site at lunch one day, Flitcraft narrowly missed being killed by a falling steel beam; given the opportunity to analyze this near-tragic incident and the vicisitudes of blind chance, "...he felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works." Flitcraft decides to abandon his job, his wife and his family and move from Tacoma to San Francisco, a free man. But instead of embracing his newfound freedom and choosing a new life in new city, he creates the exact same life, willingly putting on the shackles of conformity with a carbon copy wife, family, and job that hold him down every bit as much as the previous one. As Sam Spade observed, "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling." In other words, the same old same old. Or, as Okuyama concludes, "It's always lonely being free,"

And though the disfigured Okuyama thinks his wife can't relate to his woes, it is her discussion of Japanese women historically using makeup as a mask to hide their shame that leads to a profound meditation on self-worth and the Oriental concept of respect (as in "giving face" to The Other).

Fittingly, the wife is taking a gemstone class. Gemstones have facets, presenting different surfaces or "faces" to the world based on their state of refinement - the mineral element equivalent of makeup - leading Okuyama to ponder "I wonder if we see the true face of a gem when it's polished, or in the rough."

Okuyama clearly doesn't see his wife's true face (was she the one seduced or seducing?), and hence misappraises her value.

Anyway, all this meditation on faces, masks and makeup got me thinking about films that are obsessed with faces or masks (real or imagined). Like this image from Jean Herman's Actua-Tilt (1960, France, 11 minutes, b&w), a rare film that Enoch Pratt Library owns a 16mm print of.


Still from ACTUA-TILT

This film combines cartoons and archival footage of war and natural disasters to present a fable of contemporary life. In a Paris bistro where no one feels or communicates, the faces of patrons are intercut with those of mannequins. When men press the triggers of pinball machines, "real" airplanes explode, battleships sink and cannons wreak destruction. Tres Francaise.

Another classic "mask" image was from William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus (1961):



How about Lauren Bacall keeping escaped convict Humphrey Bogart under wraps in Dark Passage?:



In "Fall Out," The Prisoner finds a masked No. 1:



Who wears a gorilla face beneath his mask:




"Put the Mask on now!"

Anyway, that's today's rumination. I started a short list of films that involved masks. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Films involving masks, facelifts, disfigurements etc.:

Eyes Without a Face
V for Vendetta
Dark Passage
Phantom of the Opera
Hannibal Lector films Silence of the Lambs
Road Warrior's Ayatollah Rock and Rollah
Scream
Star Wars: Darth Vader, Storm Troopers and more
Spiderman
Catwoman
Batman and Robin
Masque of the Red Death
Jason and Friday the 13th
Ned Kelly
House of Wax
The Face Behind the Mask
Mr. Sardonicus
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
Murders in the Rue Morgue
Doctor X
Blood and Black Lace
Phantom of Paradise
The King of Masks (Chinese film)
Black Mask 1 and 2
The Mask (Jim Carey version)
The Mask (cool 1961 version)

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