Notes on the Culture

1222794862Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: What better time to hail the American worker, and what better place than the International Poster Gallery; A sight unseen film recommendation for Yasujiro Ozu‘s An Autumn Afternoon now out on DVD.

As the economy flails at the edge of a global crisis, it’s hard to take a breather and fully appreciate artistic abstraction, so I decided to try something more timely this week. I decided to celebrate America’s work ethic by visiting the International Poster Gallery.

The IPG has 10,000 vintage posters in stock, and it regularly circulates themed selections into its cozy display space on Newbury Street. From now until November 15, it’s showing a unique quasi-propagandistic collection from the 1920s, “Made in America: The Mather Work Incentive Posters.”

Produced between 1923 and 1929, these posters were actually not produced by the government, but by a Chicago printing company called Mather, which sold the posters to factories. The factories would in turn display them to inspire productivity and promote worker incentives—think of them as a pre-Wagner Act, proletariat version of Successories.

Okay, that’s a ridiculous comparison. Maybe it’s the golden glow cast by the passage of time, but these quirky sheets of Americana are in a supreme league above that aforementioned SkyMall product.

Instead of cheesy, faceless platitudes, the Mather posters provide a new window into American history in the 1920s, when hard work and a booming economy seemed to provide a limitless future. There may not be a Rosie the Riveter in the bunch, but it’s hard not to see these posters and feel inspired by our nation’s stubborn streak of idealism.

Unfortunately, after Mather produced about 350 of these posters, the series ground to a halt with the great Crash of 1929—and we know how much work was to be found after that. The parallels between the time of this exhibit and now are obvious and enthralling…and let’s hope for all our sakes that they end there.

Déjà Ozu: I’m not usually comfortable recommending a film that I haven’t seen, but today’s notable DVD new release is a pretty safe bet: Yasujiro Ozu‘s An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

I can already run down the list of what’s in it. There will be plenty of domestic scenes that show postwar Japan suspended between modern and traditional values. There will be static shots of interiors, punctuated with poetic “pillow” shots of lanterns or factories or trees. There will be a plot in which a father, most likely widowed, must face the fact that his daughter is old enough and independent enough to move out of the house and/or get married. Gentle humor will course through the two hours, but by the end, the film will quietly break your heart.

Ozu famously made this type of film over and over again for 30-plus years, and yet the subtle variations on these themes and his deep insights into family relationships never grew stale. I’ve seen about ten of this films, and with each viewing, the richer his total body of work feels. If you’re unfamiliar with him, get acquainted right now with his masterworks: the family saga Tokyo Story (1953), and the prototypical father-daughter marriage tale Late Spring (1949).

They’ll calibrate you nicely with Ozu’s deliberate style, and besides, they’re among the best Japanese films of all time. And in fact, Tokyo Story may possibly be the best film of all time—even if its unassuming way makes it hard to win a cage match with the mad flash of Citizen Kane.

An Autumn Afternoon is usually considered in roughly the same exalted league as those two earlier films, but what sets it apart most notably is that it’s Ozu’s last film; he died the year after its release. Furthermore, after spending most of his career mastering black-and-white shading, Ozu spent his last stage proving himself equally adept at color.

But what intrigues me most when I read the synopses of this film that I haven’t seen is that the father this time seems to be less loveable this time around. Perhaps he’s closer to representing an aging Ozu, drinking and brooding about the past—echoing the director’s own penchant for alcohol that may have helped shorten his life.

As the Time Out Film Guide puts it: “Whether the film’s making was affected by the death of Ozu’s mother and the onset of his own final illness is hard to quantify, but it does feel like a leave-taking.”

I know, that sounds morbid, but I also know this most consistent director never failed to deliver a message of humane grace. If you get to know Ozu or if you know him already, you’ll be excited too to see this final piece in the puzzle of one of the great, idiosyncratic oeuvres in 20th century art.