A filmmaker under the influence | Bleader

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A filmmaker under the influence

Posted By on 03.20.12 at 08:00 AM

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Ward Bond played John Fords alcoholic alter-ego in The Wings of Eagles (1957).
  • Ward Bond played John Ford's alcoholic alter ego in The Wings of Eagles (1957).
Who’s the greatest alcohol-inspired filmmaker? I guess that depends if you mean directors who were known for depicting alcohol consumption or those who often worked under the influence. The first category would include George Cukor, Akira Kurosawa, Blake Edwards, and Billy Wilder; the second would include Nicholas Ray, Sam Peckinpah, John Ford (who made light of his predilection in The Wings of Eagles), and the underrated independent Eagle Pennell (The Whole Shootin' Match). John Cassavetes and South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo straddle both camps, as drinking informs not only the content of their films but their overall makeup. Characters get drunk in their work to make confessions, start arguments, or express their joie de vivre: the movies follow suit, with scenes that circle around an unyielding conflict or else lope brazenly forward.

Conversations about drunk cinema tend to omit one of its most steadfast practitioners: Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. While Ozu is revered for his sober portraits of domestic life, he and his regular cowriter, Kogo Noda, drank like fish. For proof, check out the Criterion Collection’s special edition of Tokyo Story, which features a 1983 documentary about the director’s working methods. There’s a remarkable tracking shot around the room where Ozu and Noda wrote many of their great scripts. The perimeter is lined with sake bottles, and Noda lets the viewer know how many were consumed over the writing of each script. Before watching the doc, I never considered how central alcohol was to Ozu’s filmmaking; but afterwards, I realized that people drink in his movies as regularly as people ride horses in westerns.

It’s possible that the serenity commonly associated with Ozu’s late-period style is simply the result of a slow-fading buzz. The camera almost always stationary, facing the important details head-on; the slow, reassuring speech of the performers; the repetitive camera setups that ground one’s position in a room: isn’t this how we want the world to present itself when we’re hungover?

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More Hangover Week on the Bleader.

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