Thursday, May 3, 2012

Two Tales of Prostitutes

The law makes a difference, for starters. Prostitution was illegal in Italy in the 1950s, when Federico Fellini directed Nights of Cabiria, and legal but imperiled in Japan while Kenji Mizoguchi directed his final film, Street of Shame, in 1956. In the Italian film the hookers have to keep an eye out for the cops and have to scatter is someone decides to raid their hangouts. In the Japanese film the local cop drops by the whorehouses in the Yoshiwara red-light district for friendly visits with the proprietors, while the whores worry that the ban being debated in the legislature will mean they won't be able to work. Prostitutes had different standing in each country. If the Japanese prostitutes aren't criminals, however, they still have low status. The film isn't literally called "Street of Shame" in Japanese, (Google translates the original as "The Red Light Area."), but the work is shameful for some of the women and some of their relations, and Mizoguchi's movie ends on a note of profound shame and despair -- while the Fellini film ends like, well, a Fellini movie. That makes it seem as if Mizoguchi takes his material more seriously, but does that make his a better film?

Both directors used prostitutes as archetypes of a sort to work out personal thematic issues. Mizoguchi made enough movies about prostitutes for Criterion Eclipse to collect in a box set. I've only seen this one, however, and on that evidence I can say that Mizoguchi is interested in prostitutes as prostitutes -- as working women -- while Fellini's prostitute -- played by his wife, Giulietta Masina -- is one only superficially, the tawdry, winsome dressing on a shimmering archetype, something insubstantial yet profound and easily adaptable, as it proved, into the stuff of Broadway. Cabiria is improbably self-sufficient; she owns her own house while working the streets. Apart from a friend and housemate she has no binding ties, while the women from Street of Shame are still daughters, wives and mothers, all embedded in family relationships shadowed by their necessary occupations. Without such worries or burdens, Cabiria still yearns for a better life and has tantalizing hints of it in her several misadventures. In the end, her ambitions are thwarted and her savings are gone and she has barely escaped murder and there's nothing to do but go on. At the end of Street of Shame, the anti-prostitution bill is defeated (only temporarily, in fact) and for some of the women it's a relief that they can go on, though merely beginning is a horror for the newcomer we see last. Mizoguchi closes with despair, but Fellini forces his way past it -- the Italian has a point to make that goes beyond the issues and concerns of prostitutes. He came from the school of the neorealists, for whom prostitution seems like proper subject matter, but in a neorealism contest Street of Shame wins hands down, even though Mizoguchi does some odd things with his soundtrack, including some unexpected, unsettling electronic music that sounds irrationally anachronistic -- it doesn't seem to belong to 1956 -- but may not have seemed so alien in its atonality, despite its blatant modernity, to Japanese ears. It's arguably his one gesture toward stylization, apart from an overall and perhaps unintended noirishness, while Nights of Cabiria reveals itself as a kind of hyperstylized (one is tempted to say "kabuki") neorealism from a director on the brink of breaking loose from it. In short, we're seeing the same subject from two different genres as well as two different cultural traditions. In practice, that means that while the women of Street of Shame are prostitutes, the prostitute in Nights of Cabiria is a tramp.

On the road, but not alone.

Cabiria is Fellini's follow-up to La Strada and the culmination of his molding of Masina into a Chaplinesque figure that began with the earlier film. That doesn't mean that Masina became a slapstick comic or genuis pantomimist. It does mean that she became an object of pathos, an appealingly abject creature audiences could not help, Fellini hoped, but love. Pathos often lurked beneath the austere surface of neorealism and sometimes broke loose in tearjerkers like De Sica's Umberto D., but Fellini and Masina were more ambitiously engaged, I think, in a critical deconstruction of the Chaplinesque. By making Masina a Chaplinesque female, Fellini could add terror to pathos by emphasizing a vulnerability in Masina that could not exist in Chaplin. By making Masina a prostitute, needless to say, Fellini plumbed depths of abject scrabbling for existence that Chaplin couldn't contemplate. On top of that, when Cabiria has been duped into selling her house and offering her savings as a dowry to a man who intends to kill her and take the money, Fellini brings us to a moment, no matter how it echoes an earlier slapstick victimization of the heroine, when we can honestly imagine her being murdered. Chaplin might put himself in dangerous predicaments, but I doubt whether audiences ever feared for the Tramp's life as they may have feared for Cabiria's. This part of the equation could be seen as a neorealist critique of the Chaplinesque, but in this picture Fellini hits Chaplin from both sides. The perils of Cabiria are a critique from the Fellini of the neorealist past, but the finale comes from the Fellini of the future. He puts Cabiria on the road -- we might as well capitalize the R -- the final destination of many a Chaplin picture. It's his refuge after rejection or renunciation, where he reconciles himself to solitude until something new comes up. For Chaplin, the empty Road comes to symbolize everyman's existential loneliness -- that hardly changes when he ends up with a mate in Modern Times; the couple form a closed nuclear unit -- but Fellini merrily tramples that vision and sets the tone for his own career to come by showing us that the Road is never empty. Despair is dispelled, ever so slightly, by Cabiria's reimmersion into the multitude of Fellini's road -- the road that will become his archetypal parade. Nights of Cabiria is more compelling as a crucial episode in Fellini's career, arguably an end and a beginning, than as an empathetic analysis of prostitution in Italy.

For Mizoguchi, Street of Shame is the end of the road, though he probably didn't intend it that way. That ultra-modernist soundtrack lends an air of finality or looking into the void to the film, and there's also a hint of neon nightmare in the glare of the Yoshiwara that suggests a kind of prophetic discomfort with modernity, as does, more subtly, the figure of Mickey, the sexy-obnoxious modern-dress prostitute played by Machiko Kyo. But implications of expressionism shouldn't be exaggerated. It might be better to compare Mizoguchi not with Fellini, but with a fellow Japanese, Seijun Suzuki, whose own tale of prostitues, 1964's Gate of Flesh, throws the older director's virtues into relief without betraying its own. Suzuki made an expressionist film -- and an exploitation film, by comparison with Street of Shame. Suzuki's film is a lurid fantasy-nightmare of female empowerment through sexuality enforced by brutality. It aims for sensational effects that Mizoguchi wasn't interested in, and it succeeds as a work of sensationalism -- a mode no more automatically inferior to Mizoguchi's sympathetic humanism and melodramatic social consciousness than Fellini's archetypal grostesquerie and pathos.

Well, yes and no.

The object of this exercise hasn't been to declare one film superior to the others. The one you prefer depends on your interests and your standards -- and while we may be able to identify superior standards, that's a problem for another time. My point has been that despite appearances, two (or three) films about prostitutes are no more alike than an apple and an orange (or a banana). The most I can say objectively is that if you want to see a fiction film about prostitution because of an interest in the profession and the lives of the people who practice it, Street of Shame comes closest to fitting the bill. In the other films, prostitution is used in pursuit of other effects. I suppose that's true of Mizoguchi too, to an extent, since his purpose isn't really to show us the performance of sex for money. He wants to show how having to have sex for money demoralizes prostitutes and those close to them, and he manages emotional effects in the process that rival the comedy of Fellini and the hysteria of Suzuki.


Street of Shame isn't an anti-sex movie. Its attitude toward prostitutes is more like that of the people or groups who want "sex workers" to have the same rights and protections enjoyed by other workers than it's like the attitude of abolitionists who would end sex work altogether. I'm sure Mizoguchi would have preferred that society give women opportunities to make their livings in other ways, but I got the impression that he didn't support the anti-prostitution bill. Better that the women have these jobs than none at all. That's the trade-off illustrated but not celebrated in his film. Street of Shame may not enjoy the global acclaim Mizoguchi's period pieces like Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff have received, but it just as plainly displays the virtues that lead many critics to rank him above Akira Kurosawa among Japanese directors. I still haven't seen enough of Mizoguchi to agree with such ranking, but I respect him more with every film I see. Street of Shame is as great in its way as Nights of Cabiria is in its own. I admit to feeling that Mizoguchi was a rebuke to Fellini at first, but it's really a tribute to the fertile symbolism of the prostitute that she can inspire two profoundly different, differently profound films.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Terrific essay here in consideration of two classic works, linked by the common subject. CABIRIA is the greater film, but STREET OF SHAME was a distinguished final work by Mizoguchi, who made several supreme masterpieces of his own years early. Even with your fascinating contrasts you bring it all together in the end, and I quite agree.