April 12, 2006
Memoirs of a Geisha
"Mine is a story that should never be told," the narrator informs us at the beginning of Memoirs of a Geisha. A little over two hours later, we know why: because it is so utterly banal.
The popular literary novel, particularly of the Orientalist variety, is often simply genre fiction layered with a patina of academic exegesis. The transition to film requires stripping this material from the narrative and replacing it with a visual Cliff Notes, which isn't the same thing, else you would end up with a documentary. At its heart, Snow Falling on Cedars is an average Perry Mason mystery. And Memoirs of a Geisha is two-thirds "hometown girl makes good" and one-third Pretty Woman.
To be sure, the script tells us any number of times that geisha are not prostitutes. Unfortunately, what it shows contradicts that assertion just as often. This is indeed unfortunate, for the claim is a mostly legitimate one. Yet factually illustrating the arduous training that geisha undergo, and the tedious nature of the work they actually do, would bore the average audience to tears.
So director Rob Marshall falls back on the standard Hollywood success formula: starlet struggles in obscurity, beset by doubts and doubters, catches a lucky break, gets discovered, and then the intervening years of hard work magically dissolve away in a snappy five-minute montage, climaxing in the Big Production Number. Marshall is a Broadway producer and choreographer and previously directed Chicago, so you can see that Big Production Number coming down 5th Avenue.
And straight out of Flashdance. No kidding, that's the image that immediately popped into my head, and it's just as inane and incongruous as Jennifer Beals doing a Bob Fosse number in a strip club. This kind of goofy postmodernism--exacerbated by half the cast being Chinese and everybody speaking fractured English--ends up reducing the story to the dramatic complexity of a Harlequin Romance (no surprise, Jennifer Beals gets the sugar daddy at the end of Flashdance, too).
Ironically, in the totality of its gestalt, the movie unintentionally showcases exactly what geisha do: an exquisitely well-crafted and superficially beautiful, but ultimately meaningless and ephemeral performance for men with too much money in their pockets and too much time on their hands (the audience, in other words). And while the script unsuccessfully labors in the particulars to convey this message, the "making of" segments in the DVD extras broadcast it loud and clear.
I must confess to being both impressed and aghast by the dozen or so mini-documentaries, which, considering that much of the movie takes place during the 1930s, is exactly what the movie should have done (and doesn't). If anything, Hollywood doesn't need another Hayes Commission, it needs sumptuary laws.
I kid, I kid. When Congress raised the consumption tax on luxury yachts, it ended up hurting the blue-collar men and women who made the yachts. The filthy rich simply bought their expensive boats elsewhere. So I can appreciate the extent to which the zillion-dollar Hollywood Blockbuster functions as a full-employment WPA program for gaffers, carpenters, and seamstresses. But there still is the nagging little matter of the opportunity cost, not to mention artistic integrity.
The logic of building sets thousands of miles away from the actual location was more compelling in the previous Hollywood extravaganza about Japan, The Last Samurai. After all, the flood plains where armies used to battle are now filled in with cities, and while tiny, remote hamlets do exist, the problem is that they are tiny and remote. But $100 million remote? NHK television produces a costume drama every year. Their location director and costume designer could have done the job in their sleep.
But I suspect that the decision to build an entire city block of the hardly-remote Kyoto from scratch, replete with all the kimono and accouterments, had less to do with the "artistic vision" of the director, and more to do with cutting down on the commute time. Plus the uglier truth that (mis)casting Chinese actresses in a movie that takes place during Japan's (unmentioned) invasion of China, and then shooting it in Japan, would have proved even more politically incorrect than it already has.
And lastly, because Sony Pictures signed the checks and said they could. The difference between men and boys is the price and size of their toys. But you can't help wondering whether that $85 million would better invested, both monetarily and cinematically, in four or five films, rather than just one.
Hiroyuki Sanada, who also appears in The Last Samurai, observes in an interview for the Twilight Samurai that the former cost 100 times the latter. Rough calculation suggests that Memoirs of a Geisha cost more than all of Twilight Samurai director's Yoji Yamada's 70 films put together. Yet for all its big screen, soap-operatic excesses, there isn't a single moment in Memoirs of a Geisha that holds a candle to the brief scene in which Hiroyuki Sanada turns to find Rie Miyazawa waiting behind him.
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy honest emotion, nor can all the hired consultants in the world truly inform the artistic sensibilities of a director who ultimately doesn't know what he's talking about. After two hours and fifteen minutes, we're left with what one of the Japanese dance instructors quips in the "making of" segment is not very Japanese, not very dramatic, but very "razzle-dazzle."