THE HUMAN CONDITION (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-61)
209 West Houston St.
Series runs April 19 - May 16
Some stories are just too big to be told in one film, let alone two, so from April 19 to May 16, Film Forum is showing well-known and under-the-radar official and unofficial trilogies, including three-packs from Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, Lucas Belvaux, Andrzej Wajda, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Satyajit Ray, among others. (Note: There is separate admission to each film.) Masako Kobayashi’s ten-hour epic, The Human Condition, based on a popular novel by Jumpei Gomikawa, is one of the most stunning achievements ever captured on film. Shot over the course of three years, the film follows one man’s harrowing struggle to never give up his humanity as he is dragged deeper and deeper into the morass of WWII. Tatsuya Nakadai is remarkable as Kaji, a man who believes in common decency, personal discipline, and, above all else, that humanity will always triumph. In the first part, No Greater Love, the steadfastly practical Kaji is hesitant to marry his sweetheart, Michiko (Michiyo Aratama), for fear that he will be called to serve in the Japanese army and might not come back to her alive. But when his detailed plan to treat workers fairly is accepted by the government, he is made labor supervisor of a mine in far-off Southern Manchuria, where hundreds of Chinese prisoners are brought in as well — and regularly starved, beaten, and, on occasion, brutally killed in cold blood. Kaji’s methods, which have close ties to communism, leading many to refer to him as a “Red,” anger both sides — the Japanese want to treat the workers like animals, and the Chinese prisoners don’t trust that he has their welfare in mind. A series of escape attempts threatens the stability of the labor camp and comes between Kaji and Michiko, whose undying love is echoed in the yearning, unfulfilled desire between a Korean prisoner and a Japanese prostitute. Broken promises, lies, and betrayal reach a tense conclusion that sets the stage for the second part of Kobayashi’s masterpiece.
SPOILER ALERT: Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens in parts II & III!
In Road to Eternity, Kaji has been drafted into the Kwantung Army, going through basic training in preparation for battle. Kaji hopes to find some semblance of humanity in the army, but the superiors are constantly slapping and hitting the recruits, punishing them in brutal ways. When Michiko suddenly shows up, Kaji suffers harassment as it is being decided whether he will be allowed to spend the night with her. With the Soviets on the march, a firefight beckons, but the Japanese troops are woefully short on weapons and ammunition — and confidence, with rumors of Japan’s demise rampant. The epic concludes with the powerful, emotional A Soldier’s Prayer. Kaji is determined to make it back to Michiko, even if it means desertion, but a long, treacherous trip awaits him and he is dangerously low on supplies. He is trying desperately to hang on to his dignity and humanity, but it becomes more and more difficult as the weather worsens, hopelessly lost people join him through the forest, and food is nowhere in sight.
The Human Condition, which has had a profound influence on such filmmakers as Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Andrei Tarkovsky, and so many others, might take place during WWII, with Japan fighting for the Axis powers while also immersed in the Second Sino-Japanese War, but its story about man’s inhumanity to man is timeless. At its core, it’s not about Fascism, socialism, democracy, and ethnocentricity but humankind’s need for love and truth. Kaji and Michiko represent everyman and everywoman, separated by a cruel, cold world. Kobayashi provides no answers — the future he envisions is bleak indeed. At Film Forum a few years back for a tribute to his career, Nakadai talked about how brutal the making of The Human Condition was — it is also brutal to sit through, but it is a landmark work that must be seen.
There’s an eye-opening “wow” moment in Willem Baptist’s documentary Instant Dreams in which Polaroid camera inventor Edwin H. Land, in a short 1970 promotional film, The Long Walk, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a black wallet that resembles an iPhone, and refers to it as a “camera that would be, oh, like the telephone, something that you use all day long, a long-awaited ultimate camera that is a part of the evolving human being.” The shot is shocking and eerie; how did this visionary see the future so clearly? In Instant Dreams, Dutch filmmaker Baptist (Wild Boar, I’m Never Afraid) follows four people obsessed with the Polaroid camera, which was invented by Land in 1948 so we could “press a button and have a picture”; the company stopped making its iconic white-bordered film for the cameras in 2008, but that has not stopped enthusiasts from continuing their passion. One of the four is Christopher Bonanos, a New York magazine editor and author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid; in the movie, he shares some of the history of Land and Polaroid and takes pictures of friends and family, especially his young son, who he says will be among the last to experience the feel and smell of a developing Polaroid photo, which can take between one and three minutes to finish. He also talks about Land’s prescience about the next era of photography, pointing out that “the idea would be that you would just shoot pictures, all day long, a future in which one would document one’s life all the time.”
Dr. Stephen Henchen is a research scientist formerly with Polaroid who explains, “My mission is to reinvent the instant film and keep this analog experience alive into the digital age.” As part of the Impossible Project, which aims to make Polaroid film available again, he spends time in labs experimenting and writing down formulas, trying to re-create Land’s patented process, but he notes that “the molecular design of the instant film is very, very complicated. Analog instant film is the world’s most chemically complex, completely man-made product ever.” German artist Stefanie Schneider uses her limited amount of expired Polaroid stock on photo shoots where she photographs models and her longtime partner in scenes depicting memories, desires, and fantasies, embracing the film’s unpredictability and imperfections. (Baptist also includes clips of Schneider’s 2013 short Heather’s Dream, starring Heather Megan Christie and Udo Kier.) And Ayana JJ, a young Japanese woman, represents the younger generation, shooting photos in a bustling Tokyo — until Baptist reveals a surprise near the end, complete with the commanding voice of Werner Herzog.
Baptist supplements the film with colorful, kaleidoscopic animation representing the chemical reactions involved in the Polaroid process, evoking the resolutely analog psychedelic imagery of the Joshua Light Show. He also provides numerous close-ups of people’s eyes as they look at the world — and then try to capture it on film. It’s fascinating to see how the bulky Polaroid cameras were the progenitors of the smartphone and the digital age of social media; at one point, Bonanos attends a birthday party and takes a seat on a couch, where many of the attendees sit for their portrait. This social interaction, which would not have taken place without the camera, brings Bonanos together with people he might not otherwise have spoken to, and they spend at least several minutes with each other, first posing for the photo, then waiting for it to develop. It’s a clear metaphor for today’s Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, lacking only the internet’s instant face-to-face sharing over distance. The film points out that in March 1974, Land wrote, “We could not have known, and have only just learned, that a new kind of relationship between people and groups is brought into being by instant film when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs.” With Polaroids, it occurs in different elements of time and space, the cameras supported by devoted fans unwilling to let their memories disappear amid technology run amok.
Irish Repertory Theatre, Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Through May 25, $50-$70
The Irish Rep’s thirtieth anniversary season, “The O’Casey Cycle,” features Sean O’Casey’s exceptional Dublin Trilogy. Last week I highly recommended Juno and the Paycock the 1924 play set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23; 1925’s The Plough and the Stars, which takes place around the 1916 Easter Rising, was the first show Irish Rep ever put on, back in 1988, and will begin performances April 20. O’Casey’s first produced play was The Shadow of a Gunman, which premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 1923 and established the laborer as a new force on the scene. The play is set in May 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, in a tenement in Hilljoy Square in Dublin. Small-time peddler Seumas Shields (Michael Mellamphy) is sleeping late, something he appears to do often; while he waits for his colleague Mr. Maguire (Rory Duffy) to go out to sell their wares, a slew of other classic characters from Irish lore, from drunks and ne’er-do-wells to layabouts and overburdened women, come barging in.
Poet Donal Davoren (James Russell) is staying with him, which doesn’t make the landlord, Mr. Mulligan (Harry Smith), very happy, since the rent is overdue. The lovely young Minnie Powell (Meg Hennessy) develops a crush on Donal, believing him to be a heroic IRA gunman preparing for his next hit. “Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not,” he teases, taking advantage of the romantic attention. The blustery Tommy Owens (Ed Malone) stops by to let everyone know that he supports the IRA and will fight if called on. Mrs. Henderson (Una Clancy), who lives in a neighboring tenement, comes over with James Gallagher (Robert Langdon Lloyd), who reads a persnickety letter he wrote asking the IRA for help. And Mrs. Grigson (Terry Donnelly) is worried about her alcoholic husband, Adolphus (John Keating), who talks about himself in the third person. Maguire eventually shows up but is in a hurry, leaving a mysterious black bag with Seumas. Through all the mayhem and madness, the fear that the Black and Tans could show up at any minute hangs over the proceedings with so much dread.
In the 105-minute two-act play, O’Casey avoids glorifying the lower class. “Upon my soul! I’m beginnin’ to believe that the Irish people are still in the stone age,” Seumas says, adding later, “Oh, this is a hopeless country!” Donal complains, “The people! Damn the people! They live in the abyss, the poet lives on the mountaintop . . . The poet ever strives to save the people; the people ever strive to destroy the poet. The people view life through creeds, through customs, and through necessities; the poet views creeds, customs, and necessities through life.” However, The Shadow of a Gunman is a slighter play than Juno and the Paycock, a less-layered tale lacking the same nuance and muscle. Charlie Corcoran’s fabulous tenement set, which runs throughout the theater, is only slightly altered from Paycock’s. Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who plays Capt. Boyle in Paycock, Gunman features many of the same actors, with Hennessy standing out as the coquettish Minnie and Donnelly reprising her role from the company’s 1999 production. In many ways, O’Casey’s vision of the country is personified by Seumas, who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and does not want to go to work. “A land mine exploding under the bed is the only thing that would lift you out of it,” Donal says. It’s a funny line, but one more than tinged with seriousness.
Astor Place South Plaza
April 10-30, free
As part of Onassis Festival 2019: Democracy Is Coming, Greek sculptor Kostis Velonis has installed Life without Tragedy on the South Plaza of Astor Place, near Tony Rosenthal’s movable black cube called Alamo. Developed by Velonis and Christian Kotzamanis, the work consists of a trio of dark gray wood steps that evoke Greek amphitheaters that would stage tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and served as places for sociopolitical discourse. Presented in conjunction with DOT Art, the Village Alliance, and the Public Theater, which is hosting most of the events during the festival, including Tim Blake Nelson’s Socrates, the sculpture has narrow steps that are not easy for adults or children to climb, a striking comment on the state of political discussion today in the United States, Greece, and around the world as real-life tragedies wreak havoc and fascism is on the rise.
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 24, $49-$169
The first time I saw Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, during its run last year at New York Theatre Workshop, it was the day that the Judiciary Committee had voted to advance the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court Justice to the Senate floor. A somber atmosphere hung over the crowd, which was acknowledged by Schreck, who persevered with hope and humor. The show has now made a wholly successful transfer from the 199-seat NYTW to Broadway, where it is packing them into Second Stage’s 597-seat Helen Hayes Theater. And when I saw it there earlier this month, the foreboding cloud of doom and gloom was gone, replaced by an innate faith that America was going to be okay, as Schreck and the audience were in better spirits, often downright giddy, even as Schreck’s tale goes to dark, intimate places, all the while maintaining a steady focus on exactly “what the Constitution means to me” when “me” is a woman — or anyone except a white man.
In the mid-1980s, Schreck, living in the “abortion-free zone” of Wenatchee, Washington, earned money for college by participating in debates in American Legion Halls about the Constitution. The hundred-minute show re-creates some of those debates, focusing on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, as Brooklyn-based actress, playwright, and television writer Schreck (Grand Concourse, The Consultant) shifts back and forth between her younger self and the woman she is today, able to intelligently face her demons and the mistakes she made, as well as celebrate the triumphs. She is supported by Mike Iveson (The Sound & the Fury, Plenty) as an American Legion Hall moderator and either Thursday Williams or Rosdley Ciprian, high school students who challenge her in a live debate. Rachel Hauck’s set remains intact, consisting of a few chairs and small tables, a central podium, and three sides of a wall displaying more than a hundred framed photographs of legionnaires, uniformly white men in caps. “This hall is not — it’s not a naturalistic representation,” Schreck says. “I got my friend Rachel to help me reconstruct it from my dreams, so I guess it’s like one of those crime victim drawings.” Obie-winning director Oliver Butler (The Amateurs, The Open House) doesn’t make any major changes for the Broadway transfer.
Since I first saw the show at NYTW, there continues to be threats to the Constitution, which Schreck emphasizes “is a living document. That is what is so beautiful about it. It is a living, warmblooded, steamy document.” Using historical facts and personal anecdotes, Schreck connects to the audience while exploring the ramifications of the numerous interpretations of specific rights and liberties, taking on the white patriarchy and honoring the empowerment of women in the country while also delving into hot-button issues. Discussing Clause Four of the Fourteenth Amendment, she explains, “This is the most miraculous clause in our entire Constitution. It says that we all must be treated equally, that we cannot be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or immigration status. It actually uses the word ‘person,’ not ‘citizen.’ Which means that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you must be given all the protections of Clause Three, the due process clause. You cannot be locked up without a fair trial. You cannot have anything — or anyone — seized from you.” Schreck’s innate happiness in talking about the Constitution is infectious; she was so filled with glee that at one point, crossing the stage over to Iveson, she nearly fell onto him; the two of them broke out in laughter, as did the audience. It was one of several spontaneous moments in the show — which is scripted but includes significant room for improvisation — that will have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face even as you worry about how the Constitution is under attack on a nearly daily basis.
Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through April 20, free
In 2017, South African multimedia genius William Kentridge staged Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 Dada poem, “Ursonate,” at the Harlem Parish as part of the Performa Biennial. In December, his extraordinary production The Head & the Load, which explored the fate of nearly two million black Africans forced into service by colonialist European countries as porters and carriers during World War I, also incorporated text from “Ursonate.” Kentridge turns to Dada again for the title of his latest exhibition at Marian Goodman, “Let Us Try for Once,” taken from the last sentence of Tristan Tzara’s 1919 Dada Manifesto: “If all of them are right and if all pills are Pink Pills, let us try for once not to be right.” In a promotional video, Kentridge notes that the title “comes out of the sense that everybody’s certainty of their own rightness is behind so much of the violence which is exacted to beat that sense of rightness into others.”
The show is divided into four sections across two floors. In a back room, a two-channel video of Kentridge’s inspired performance of “Ursonate” plays, featuring such language as “rakete rinnzekete,” “fümmsböwötääzääUu pöggiff,” and “rrummpff tillff toooo?” along with visuals and, at the end, musical accompaniment. KABOOM! is a three-channel sculptural installation that is a miniaturized version of The Head & the Load, with audio, video, drawings, and projections. “This was not its starting point of The Head & the Load, but it is what the work itself, the material we were dealing with, pushed us towards,” Kentridge explains in a statement. “By the paradox I mean the contradictory relationships towards Europe — the desire of Africans to be part of Europe, to share in the wealth and the richness of Europe, and wanting to resist Europe and its depredations.”
Lexicon is a collection of large bronze sculptures that Kentridge compares to text in a book, representing “the heaviness of words or thoughts,” including a telephone, an ampersand, a movie camera, a knight on a horse, and a pitcher; Processione di Riparazioniste Maquettes (Full Set) is a horizontal procession of smaller laser-cut steel objects, while Paragraph II, three rows of twenty-three bronzes, evokes black type on a white page. In fact, many of these pieces have appeared as images in Kentridge’s videos in which he turns the pages of dictionaries and historical books.
The exhibition also offers a sneak peek of his latest opera, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, which is coming to the Met in December. Kentridge has previously adapted Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu; at Marian Goodman, preparatory charcoal drawings give a sense of the flavor of his take of Berg’s version of Georg Büchner’s unfinished Woyceck and continues Kentridge’s exploration of the Great War. “The conceit of the production was thinking of Berg’s Wozzeck as a premonition of WWI. This is where war and ideas around it entered the project,” Kentridge notes. “Let Us Try for Once” lends fascinating insight into the recent past, present, and immediate future of this marvelously talented artist.