Festival of Depression
Grand Illusion Theatre, 523-3935.
Through Feb 1.

MY OLD FRIEND probably won't join me for any of the eight excellent films--three of them out-and-out masterpieces--in the Grand Illusion's Festival of Depression, appropriately slated for the dreary days of January. For years, the two of us have engaged in a running argument, full of fire and brimstone, about depressing movies. She hates 'em. I've got an Irishwoman's taste for them.

Hostilities first broke out after a screening of Fritz Lang's Fury. Remember that cheery classic? An American Everyman (Spencer Tracy) on his way to marry the girl he loves gets wrongly arrested for a kidnapping. Before the misunderstanding can be cleared up, an ugly mob of vengeful townsfolk forms; somebody throws dynamite into the jail. Lang frames Tracy's terrified face in a window as the building burns around him. That killer image sears into your memory forever: an innocent Joe trapped in a box, awful death coming at him without warning, from beyond his ken or control. And where do we, the audience, stand in this pretty picture? Outside, among those in the lynch mob, riveted by the spectacle--"framed," thanks to Lang's stylistic machinations, by the movie screen on which our gaze is locked.

Even with the happy ending the studio insisted on, Fury stands as an unrelenting parable about the way secular sin metastasizes, turning the world--and even martyred Everyman--malignant. My friend, bummed out bigtime, swore to flee such depressing fare in the future. Why should she buy a ticket to pain, to uncompromisingly bleak visions of human experience? Isn't it enough to live through bad times? What's the point of movies that offer no exit, that prove that hell is other people? Where's the feel-good in rehearsing apocalypse?

My pal's not alone. Lots of moviegoing folk prefer Prozac cinema, Dream Factory stuff that never cuts deep enough to open you up to love and pain and the whole damn thing. That's why unfunny dreck like What Women Want will always outsell soul food like The House of Mirth, Terence Davies' darkly sumptuous celebration of a fin de siècle Material Girl done in by too much wanting. Nowadays, audiences cocooned in pharmaceuticals, affluence, and cultural dumbing-down seem happy to belly up to a steady diet of cinematic pap.

So what is the payoff for reeling through a festival of depression that features eye-openers like The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich's dirge for the once-mythic American West of Howard Hawks and John Ford? Or Pandora's Box, G. W. Pabst's deliciously decadent portrait of a holy whore (incandescent Louise Brooks), or Charulata, Satyajit Ray's elegant evocation of a Bengali Madame Bovary? Why hang out with doomed partisans crawling through Warsaw sewers (Kanal), a heartbroken hulk adrift in a post-industrial moonscape (Il Grido), or an orphaned soul for whom God has mutated into a monstrous spider (Through a Glass Darkly)?

The answer lies in the glorious oxymoron of art, cinematic and otherwise: Ultimately, masterworks driven by tragedy and despair aren't downers, but sources of profound joy. When a great artist imagines a world, he/ she fashions it as idiosyncratically as any god; the look of it, its existential ecology, is like nowhere else. And planted in this unique ground are the seeds of whatever variety of apocalypse--mundane or metaphysical--the artist means to make us live through and transcend.

A heartbreaker like Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark radically celebrates the power of the human imagination to stand against time, death, and all the other nasty forces that make an Everywoman feel small, impotent, expendable--even when the plot seems to confirm just the opposite. Plot is bare-bones; style's the body that moves us toward grace. By mapping darkness, von Trier and his tribe project illuminations and breed epiphanies. And the bonus is that we--as privileged audience--are confirmed as absolutely singular beings in our gift for conjuring worlds to fill up the Big Nothing.

Take Kenji Mizoguchi. His Life of Oharu, featured in the depression fest, is arguably among the top 10 movies ever made (along with his Sansho the Bailiff). What's this sublime movie about? A lovely lady, part of a great lord's entourage in 16th-century Japan, falls in love with a passionate inferior. Her suitor is summarily executed, while Oharu inexorably declines from concubine to high-class prostitute to streetwalker and finally to homeless old age. Mizoguchi immerses this "depressing" content--tantamount, in synopsis, to soap opera--in what he once called "a climate of beauty." The manner in which he visualizes Oharu and her world transforms the film's banal matter into exhilarating purity.

Early in the film, strolling the immaculate grounds that surround her lord's perfect manor-house, Oharu is little more than an attractive element in a composition characterized by stasis and artifice. Safety means staying in one's place. Self-definition doesn't enter in, nor is any spiritual stretch possible in this immobilizing design. Later, Oharu's low-ranking admirer kneels outside of her room, then sweeps aside an entry screen to reveal the woman he loves, framed/trapped architecturally as well as by all the strictures of their rigid society. She retreats, but he presses his suit, opening delicate screen after screen, robbing Oharu of her controlling frames of reference, forcing her into dangerous, open ground. This is the methodology of Mizoguchi's movie: each "frame" revealing, refining Oharu's soul.

In the comparatively natural environs of a sad little garden carpeted with fallen leaves, Oharu is thrown on her own devices. When she chooses passion, the lowering camera marks her literal and figurative fall. And as the lovers exit the frame, Mizoguchi's gaze rests on two stone markers. There's no insistence on any symbolic equation, merely time enough for the forms to resonate as gravestones, similes of the lovers' immutable social status, and signposts signaling the start of an actual and spiritual journey--Oharu's translation through a succession of ever-lower social frames, from exposure to lacerating exposure.

Toward journey's end, wandering an urban wasteland (antithesis of the lawn and garden where she began), Oharu counts her life "lost." Stripped of every existential prop, she's socially useful only as a caveat against whoring, when an old priest cruelly flaunts the "horror" of her ruined, painted face to his young charges. But in the final shots of the Life of Oharu, Mizoguchi's compassionate gaze redeems reality, sees through earthly horror to his heroine's luminous essence... paying homage as she literally disappears from the last frame to contain her. Once exquisite, expendable ornament, Oharu has achieved the awful autonomy of art. Such transubstantiation's hard to come by. No matter how many times I've witnessed it, Oharu's apotheosis never fails to generate a frisson of pure joy.

And that, of course, is the saving grace of "depressing" movies, the ones that matter. So how can I not carry on that longstanding debate with my old friend? Who knows, someday I might even convince her that films like Life of Oharu, necessary antidotes to amusing ourselves to death, can kill time by exorcising the primal fear that our short lives play out with no overarching design or direction. Seeing through a glass darkly, she'll discover the refuge of a clean, well-lighted place.