2018 Film Essays

A Matter of Style: Yasujirō Ozu Covers ‘Christopher Robin’

CHAPTER I

In Which the Author Discusses The Beatles, The Breeders, Heroin, Winnie-the-Pooh and Makes a Proposal

“Form must illuminate content.” — Phil Solomon

True for any work of art: be it a rock ’n’ roll ballad, an impressionist painting or movie made for mass consumption — how the story is told is just as important as the story itself.

Pop music offers a unique window into this dictate. Consider the song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” recorded in 1968 and attributed to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but written by Lennon with help from Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall and Pete Shotton during an acid trip. In the hands of The Beatles, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” — a song about a heroin fix — has a jangly charm. You don’t have to know what the song is about to enjoy it; you just listen to how Lennon sings, how McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr play and how producer George Martin arranges it.

Now consider The Breeders’ version: dark, moody, atmospheric, consuming, overwhelming. For Lennon, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” conveys heroin’s pleasures; for Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly and company, heroin is a master that must be served.

Oh, for want of a similar approach to Hollywood movies. And though it’s a proposal ripe for an era of remakes, reboots and reheats, there is little stylistically that separates these cinematic iterations. Most studios are content to recast the main players in front of and behind the camera, and cash in on existing properties. Content is both the key component and the selling point; few walk out of these movies discussing shot compositions, editing styles or the creative use of score.

So, a modest proposal: how would a present day studio film look with a distinct style? What would a director’s “cover” look like, and would their technique and rigor improve the emotional impact of the story? Let’s take Christopher Robin, Disney’s latest live-action adaptation of an animated classic. Originally based on the books by A.A. Milne, with decorations by Ernest H. Shepard, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), Disney animators turned the stories of Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Roo first into a series of successful short films before releasing the compilation The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1977.

The books have remained in print ever since and are commonly gifted to expecting parents. Disney’s animated films are equally durable, spawning TV series, four theatrical features and nine more direct-to-video offerings. In 2017, Fox Searchlight released Goodbye Christopher Robin, a U.K. live-action production about Milne and his relationship with son Christopher Robin.

All to say, in a somewhat roundabout way, that Pooh is synonymous with childhood. What first started as a flight of fancy between a father and his son has grown into a collection of stories about a boy and his toys, about expeditions and birthday parties, about the idle days of youth and an enchanted forest where it will forever live.

Now consider 2018’s Christopher Robin: the boy has grown, gone off to war, come home to start a family and works as a high-end luggage efficiency manager. Played as a child by Orton O’Brien and as an adult by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Robin has replaced the days of doing nothing much at all with drab responsibilities and societal obligation.

Similarly, all is not well in the Hundred Acre Wood. On a rather gloomy day, Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) goes looking for Piglet (Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), Roo (Sara Sheen) and Tigger (Cummings again), too, and finds none. Hoping Christopher Robin can help, Pooh wanders out of the forest and into post-war London where he finds his old friend, though much older and much more wrinkly.

Fig. A

CHAPTER II

In Which the Author Discusses the ‘Christopher Robin’ Talent and the Impact of Terrence Malick on Modern Day Cinema

Directed by Marc Foster, from a script by Alex Ross Perry, Allison Schroeder and Tom McCarthy, Christopher Robin is about recapturing childhood, placing friends and family before work and the philosophical wisdom of doing nothing and going nowhere. Perry, Schroeder and McCarthy present this message as plainly as possible, and Forster does his best to stay out of the way.

Like most franchise films, Christopher Robin prefers to tell rather than show. It’s a safe play, granted, but when one considers for whom this movie was made, it’s a confusing one. Though children might enjoy Christopher Robin, it certainly isn’t made for them. What child in the audiences is concerned with the grueling day in, day out work of an efficiency manager? The thankless position of working in a company ruled by nepotism? Or even the uselessness of luxury luggage? Like most family movies these days, Christopher Robin is more interested in a conversation with the adults in the audience: those who left childish things behind to grow up and do [less than] important things.

Fig. B

This is not to suggest Christopher Robin is devoid of style. Indeed, the movie opens with Christopher’s farewell party from the Hundred Acre Wood, a sequence in which Pooh and Christopher wander off together. As the two walk to Galleons Lap, the enchanted place at the very top of the forest, the camera focuses in on Pooh dragging his paw through grass and flowers, with Christopher loosely holding a Pooh Stick in his hand and sunlight streaming through the canopy.

Fig. C

Foster, along with cinematographer Matthias Koenigswieser and editor Matt Chessé, appear to be aping Terrence Malick. Considering the impact Malick has had on modern-day cinema, it isn’t at all unusual to see his style applied to independent film, superhero blockbusters and Levi’s commercials, so why not in conjunction with a chubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff?

But, as David Bordwell is fond of pointing out, “Where from?” is not enough; one must also ask, “What for?” “You have to ask how elements that a filmmaker inherits get repurposed for the particular movie.”

For Forster and company, the answer might simply be this: they like Malick. But I would suspect these particular shots were not chosen for their sheer aesthetic pleasure but rather because Pooh Bear has often stood in for loftier ideas — ideas Malick is also closely associated with: the notion of transience, Eden lost and childhood’s end.

A monopoly on these themes Malick holds not. There are plenty more arrows in the cinematic quiver that better express what Christopher Robin’s filmmakers have in their sights. If only they had gone back further, looked to the East instead of the West and found another who played with the tools of transcendental filmmaking. If Pooh so proudly does nothing all day, why not enlist the help of a filmmaker whose tomb bears the kanji for “nothingness?”

CHAPTER III

In Which the Author Considers What ‘Christopher Robin’ Might Look Like as Directed by Yasujirô Ozu

“Rather than tell a superficial story, I wanted to go deeper, to show the hidden undercurrents, the ever-changing uncertainties of life.” — Yasujirô Ozu

In the 60 years Ozu lived, he made 54 films. All but one was set in the present day, and most of them concerned the average Japanese family. He preferred to keep his camera low to the ground, roughly at the height of three feet, moved it little, cut on a 180-degree axis and linked these shots with overlapping empty spaces. He liked to think of himself as a tofu maker, refining his style by eliminating what was unnecessary and retaining only what was needed. The result was a streak of unparalleled masterpieces on familial duty, the absurdities of social constructs and the beauty of nothingness.

What, then, might Christopher Robin look like if Foster and company had chosen to follow Ozu’s path to the House at Pooh Corner? Different to say the least, but wouldn’t the form and content have melded better? Would the movie’s emotion hit harder and linger longer?

Fig. D

Fig. E

Camera Height

Like most contemporary Hollywood movies, Christopher Robin is shot with a hand-held camera that varies the height of the shot depending on the subject in the frame. In fig. B above, the camera is the same height as Pooh’s arm (roughly two-and-half feet). In fig. F below, the camera is eye-level with Christopher Robin (roughly six feet). In fig. D above, the camera is behind Pooh looking up (invoking his point of view) and in fig. E the camera is behind Christopher looking down (invoking his point of view).

This is standard moviemaking technique, essentially placing the audience in the position of an omnipotent viewer. Viewers get the best possible angle. Shots either mimic third-person perspective (figs. D & E) or characters are positioned in a way that best accommodates eyelines (figs. A, F, G).

Fig. F

Fig. G

Compare those images to Ozu, who rarely moved his camera from three feet off the ground. For Ozu, this was the perfect height from which to observe his character. And since most of his movies took place indoors, characters were often sitting or kneeling (fig. H), filling the frame accordingly.

Fig. H

But if the characters were standing, Ozu wouldn’t tilt or move the camera; he would merely back it up (fig. I).

Fig. I

But there are some instances where Ozu would allow a character to be cut off by the frame, as in fig. J, where a character stands up, but the camera does not stand-up with him.

Fig. J

Both options seem ripe for Christopher Robin. Considering Pooh is no taller than three feet, this frame would be ideal for him. And considering the crisis at the center of Christopher Robin involves growing up, what better way to illustrate that visually than Christopher cut off by the frame?

Shot-reverse-shot

Of all the stylistic arrows in Ozu’s quiver, his construction of shot-reverse-shot is both the most off-putting for the uninitiated and the most intoxicating for lovers.

Let’s use one of his more famous conversations, the one between Noriko (Setsuko Hara) and Kyôko (Kyôko Kagawa) during the third act of Tokyo Story. In typical Ozu manner, the scene begins in a master (fig. K), roughly three feet off the ground with both women kneeling on tatami mats framed off by a series of doors and panels receding into the background.

Fig. K

This shot establishes where the two women are, in relation to each another, and lets viewers know they are talking to one another, and not anyone else off screen. This is important as the next shot…

Fig. L

… is a medium shot of Kyôko talking directly to the camera. Because Kyôko is seen talking to Noriko in the previous set up, one can assume she is still talking to her; only now, the audience is Noriko.

With this shot (fig. L), Ozu has engaged the audience directly.

Fig. M

And with the reverse, Noriko now speaks directly to the camera.

Fig. N

When Ozu concludes the scene, he disengages with the audience and returns to a wide shot of both women. From here, they will stand and exit the room before Ozu cuts again.

To me, this is the biggest miss in Christopher Robin. Consider the two images from Christopher Robin below (figs. O & P): standard over-the-shoulders with the speaking character taking up the focal point of the frame with the listening character staged in a diminished position (in fig. P, Christopher is shrouded in silhouette)

Fig. P

While this approach may be more familiar than Ozu’s, it also distances the viewer. In an Ozu movie, the characters are talking to the audience. In Christopher Robin, viewers watch characters talk to other characters.

Since Christopher Robin is a movie directed at the adults in the audience, why not have Pooh talk directly to them? As Pooh pleads with Christopher to go on an adventure to find his friends, the occasional pot of honey and return to Galleons Lap, shouldn’t he be addressing the audience? When Christopher tries to convince Pooh that his duties and responsibilities outweigh his need for play, isn’t he trying to convince the viewer? Consider Kyôko and Noriko’s exchange: “Isn’t life disappointing?” “Yes, it is.” Simple, poignant, direct. Now consider those exact same words but in scenes shot like figs. O & P. They lose a little impact, don’t they?

Pillow shots

Fig. Q

Pillow shots: a visual break in the action, a chance to slow down the narrative and allow the viewer a chance to catch their breath. Ozu’s films are littered with them: boats passing through the bay, clothes drying on a line, children walking between houses, a hill, smokestacks in the autumn afternoon. As Claude Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes.” The same applies here.

Winnie-the-Pooh’s whole ethos is a pillow shot: a space between two things encompassing everything and nothing simultaneously. There are moments in Christopher Robin where the filmmakers attempt to construct these moments (figs. B & C), but the likely demands of studio filmmaking and a need for relentless information have left these pillows on the bed.

CHAPTER IV

In Which the Author Concludes His Argument

Why Ozu?

Why not Robert Bresson? Howard Hawkes? Wim Wenders? François Truffaut? All could make for a fascinating “cover” of Christopher Robin. Why not them?

With Ozu, you get something different. “In every Ozu film,” writes Donald Richie, “the whole world exists in one family.” This seems to be what Christopher Robin is aiming at. Though the story is set in post-war London with a Babbitt-like dilemma, it supposes that viewers have become Christopher Robin. His dilemma as father, husband and employee is the audience’s dilemma. If so, why not put viewers in his place? Why not let Pooh talk directly to the camera? Why not let the clouds drift lazily across the sky for a few beats longer? Sure, it may alienate some audience members who don’t want to be addressed, who don’t want to identify with a character and who don’t want to empathize with Bear. For others, it could have been an experience that lingered; a reminder that no matter what happens or where one goes, “in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

Christopher Robin was released on August 4 and, as of this writing, is still in theaters. The referenced Ozu movies — An Autumn Afternoon, End of Summer, Good Morning, A Hen in the Wind, Late Spring and Tokyo Story are all currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Michael J. Casey (@michaeljcinema) covers cinema and beer for Boulder Weekly with bylines at HopCulture.com, 5280.com and TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. He lives in Colorado with his wife and cat.

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