Bright Lights Film Journal

Running, Reeling, Floating Free – On Hidden Figures, Humanity and Paper Balloons, City Streets

Hidden Figures

Isn’t something less reassuring and a lot more interesting going on – something more inclusive, diverse, and genuinely universal?

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There are still too many human beings on this planet so physically and mentally oppressed that, for them, the life expectancy of a cockroach is mere aspiration.

Meanwhile in “modern” Hollywood most adults are still either Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan, unimprovable models of decent folk who, despite serious sleep deprivation, do not age or change in any way.

But wait a second. Isn’t something less reassuring and a lot more interesting going on – something more inclusive, diverse, and genuinely universal?

Hidden Figures (2016) has, I think, been correctly seen as – at best – a blip on a chart not noted for spikes of activity. As part of a supposed breakthrough moment, it’s hardly a roaring success. And even while being brave enough to tackle the oppression of black Americans by white Americans, it still falls back on horribly timid, over-familiar pantomime: a black woman looking silly running for a “colored only” toilet; a white boss heroically tearing down racially discriminating signs from the wall. As for the usual “humanising” backstories, most of these don’t move beyond weak attempts to head off our disengagement.

Yet, far more positively, the script is allowed commercially off-putting references to higher mathematics and their relevance to rocket science. As a result of daring to be truly intelligent, the story proves, for me at least, unexpectedly engaging. So, amazingly enough, despite the badly handled racial as opposed to gender prejudice, we do somehow get close to three very clever women who worked at the forefront of 1960s space exploration.

In this context, it’s not a giant leap from the real Cape Canaveral of history to the soon-to-be made original Star Trek series and, thence, to Lieutenant Uhuru. It so happens that British TV (the Horror Channel) is presently screening every episode of Kirk and Co., Monday to Friday from six to seven. Despite the unrelenting sexism – plot after plot in which Jim is tormented by his helpless pulling power on yet another half-dressed female alien – the bridge of the Enterprise remains, by design at least, an idealised space where colour and even gender are frequently set at nought.

“An idealised space”: Star Trek

As witnessed by Gene Roddenberry’s well-known struggles with panicky programmers, this series really did boldly go where no (white) man had gone before. In fact, until George Lucas came alongside at the helm of Star Wars, the Enterprise was looking doomed by its own premature cultural adventure.

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I first saw Sadao Yamanaka’s 1937 feature Humanity and Paper Balloons about a decade ago. Having just watched it again, my appreciation of its extraordinary social vision has only grown. It remains, though, a confusing picture, not helped by middling film-stock quality or by a bewildering array of registers – now acutely observational and very funny, now formal to the point of high opera.

It helped greatly that I saw it this time on a DVD familiarising us with Yamanaka in a set of all his surviving work – all three of the twenty or so movies he made before dying of dysentery on “active service” in Manchuria, aged just twenty-nine.

One of the most poignant things I’ve ever seen is a public domain photo of Yamanaka and Yasujiro Ozu, colleagues and contemporaries from the Japanese film world who suddenly find themselves fellow conscripts bound for expansionist imperial glory; and two less likely warriors for the Empire of the Rising Sun would be hard to imagine. Scruffy and half-frozen they seem to be propping each other up against the disasters of war before they even leave the dockside.

Ozu and Yamanaka

But maybe we should expect such rawness from artists committed to hauntingly stark views of humanity: a humanity on the one hand full of turbulent inconsistencies, and on the other driven by the unvarying logic of its own ephemerality.

If the evanescence of things is Ozu’s (very Japanese) hallmark, then what we can all now see in Yamanaka’s work is an almost cockroach-like survivalism. In their general scurry, his characters are definitely a bit insect-like; but they’re wily creatures, too, teeming with a deceitful energy that goes well beyond disappearing when you switch the light on.

Humanity and Paper Balloons

It isn’t just that these characters can’t trust each other for more than few seconds at a time: they can’t even stay true to their own crooked integrity, vowing definitely to do this or never to do that; and in the next moment – well, you know the rest.

It’s also worth following up Yamanaka by viewing one or two of the great 1930s Hollywood gangster movies that he says inspired him. Rouben Mamoulian’s stylish pre-code City Streets (1931), for example, is still a vibrant watch; and its cold-blooded murder scenes, often preceded by the cynical tagline “no hard feelings,” can still pull us about in several directions at once. This effect is greatly enhanced by the simple expedient of choosing one of the least murderous-looking male actors for at least one killing and, for another, selecting a vulnerable-looking young woman to surprise us with the depth of her vengeful cunning. Appearance-and-reality turns out, in fact, to be the big linking theme between Mamoulian and Yamanaka; and if you thought only Will Shakespeare was any good at this, think again.

But most striking for me is the correspondence between Mamoulian’s denouement in City Streets and Yamanaka’s in Paper Balloons. In both movies, young love is allowed to escape its deeply corrupting social circumstances. And while the young Gary Cooper as a love-motivated self-reforming ex-bootlegger is wholly persuasive – and matched indeed by Sylvia Sidney’s own romance-induced self-reform – it’s the much more glancing account of the lovers’ escape in Yamanaka that really moved me deeply.

This couple are escaping from the ironically titled “Floating World” of Edo’s slums, where a samurai gang under cover of darkness provides a distraction for them by working its murderous way through narrow, open sewers and seeing off a rival gang. It’s enormously powerful cinema, not least because the film has shown very little violence before this point. And as an unforgettably poetic final touch – all too literally the last from the doomed young filmmaker – Yamanaka shows us a little paper balloon of the kind the escaping heroine made for a living, now floating steadily away on the sewer water …