Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 in Film: Norwegian Wood

Although Norwegian Wood falls within the group of Murakami's novels that I am perhaps least fond of, those being the ones which could be broadly & misleadingly categorized as straightforward realism; & though the film tended to highlight all those bits of the novel which were the most unappealing to me; & though it has been nearly a full year since I saw this one, I am going to go ahead and give this movie a "positive review," or whatever.

Murakami tends to shine brightest, for me at least, when the alienation and sadness of his characters is more refracted than expressed or symbolically deployed. Especially when those moments of magical realism or explosive violence don't comfortably fit into any explanatory frame (or at least when they manage to evade the ones that I attempt to apply), with the prime example being the rain of leeches from Kafka on the Shore. With a close second being the assault from Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Norwegian Wood has none of these moments, instead off(er)ing characters whose reactions tend toward the extreme but whose psychological makeup is fairly easily ascertained. And it is very much within these extremes that the characters of the film operate, placing their reactions at the emotional and dramatic center. The scene in which the main character stands on a rock screaming and crying being only the most obvious and unfortunate instance.

By choosing to do what it does, though, and sticking to it faithfully, it succeeds on its own terms. Given that it is the story of a set of varyingly solipsistic youth and their attempt to connect to each other, the cinematography which is often so pretty it verges on cloying fits very well, even and especially that it flirts with kitsch in a way that I think I have only ever seen Antichrist do; the woods around the psychiatric retreat in particular are shot with an almost alienating reverence that I still remember very vividly today. Unfortunately, the score isn't really up to par, at least in my memory, and the short shrift given to the roommate and the school friend is really disappointing.

The absolute best thing about the movie, however, is the way that it doesn't forget its sociohistorical moment, or try to shoehorn its relevance. When, in the beginning, we see masked-up student radicals rushing across the background of the scenes, we are given the tools by which to situate the film.

Murakami's fiction can be broadly read in two ways; as universal or as particular. It has moments in support of both, but it is only at its best when read through its particularity. He deals with broad themes, of course, but to fail to acknowledge them as acting through very specific subsets defangs them, makes them into boring paeans on Modernity and Loneliness and so on. It is in particular in his more realistic fiction that the impulse to read this way is present, and it is why I tend to find it boring.

The inclusion of those students, racing across the background of the frame, seemed to me a wonderful acknowledgement of that fact. We are not here to experience the lives of those who seek to change the world. But they exist, and obliquely inform, the lives we do experience. And, like the song from which the title is taken, we find ourselves experiencing that particular story of impossible, painful intimacy that tends to crop up only when absolutely everything in the world around us is broken, and we are too wrapped up in the pains of our particular moment to notice the trend.

Just as Rubber Soul marked the break between the early Beatles and the late, this film indexes a vary particular instance of the moment that the popular was forced to reckon with the political. And just as Norwegian Wood (this bird has flown) opened a space for non-Anglophonic instrumentation within pop music, finally taking a tentative step away from the purely insular and at least nominally creating a space for dialogue (see: "world music," and all its problems), this film is an act of translation in a wonderful sense, albeit one whose impact has not, and almost certainly will never, be felt. It translates the moment of its production, of its content, and of the moment that it title takes from, and returns them to the Anglophonic sphere, mutated through all these transformations that register only in brief flashes in the background. And it does this, when it manages not to fail, by speaking through the particular, which is not to say the individual.

It's own particularity is that it manages to index without abstracting; we see these characters, and they are not us, and they do not live near us, and we do not become them, but we might live with them in their cinematographically advanced world for a moment. In its best moments of the film, it manages to not reduce the characters (it keeps) to depression-type and angst-type and turmoil-type without whispering to you that there is a reason for this, but they cannot see it so you cannot either, unless you choose to look; but even if you do, do not forget that you are the intruder here.

Of course, what we watch when we see this film is a particularly well-done form of kitsch, and it is not unimportant to note how this is reinforced by the melodrama of the narrative, in which nothing really happens except that everyone fucking dies. So it isn't so much that the characters react unrealistically to how shitty everything is as that the world itself is an adjunct to their solipsism. Which is why when the student radicals appear, their passing leaves such a strong impression; even if this whole world is a solipsistic nightmare where all your friends kill themselves and sex is even more traumatic and alienated than everything else and the only way out is a desperate search for love with someone who will only be immediately codependent on without anything changing, at least this isn't the only possibility for everyone, even if it is for who we see.

But again, this is all deeply embedded into the fabric of the film; the melodrama that constitutes the film's narrative never touches it. It is relentless, and that is only useful as a backdrop, not a moral, because the second it becomes the center it adopts the frame of love which is always then reduced. The love story at the center of the film is The Love Story, of course, and ultimately who really cares. It is that The Love Story is framed subtly in this way that matters.

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