April 25, 2010 [Departures]

I've just returned from what may be the best film festival in the U.S., Ebertfest (formerly the Overlooked Film Festival)—and what makes it so good is the accessibility—of Roger, the festival guests, other attendees—but most of all, we're all accessing each others' love of the movies. Seeing You, the Living on Wednesday was like going to cinema-church with the ecstatic faithful, everyone pouring all the right emotions all over for everybody else to bathe in. Even Pink Floyd The Wall, with all its flaws, was christened and celebrated. I met Charlie Kaufman, quipped about epic heroes and Barfly with Barbet Schroeder, and chatted with the inestimable David Bordwell. The volcanic ash from Iceland prevented some festival guests from attending—oh, how Mark and I missed hearing from Walter Murch on Apocalypse Now—but the Virginia Theater and our gracious host (Geek that I am, I wish Roger had given me the note he'd scribbled during our brief conversation!) provided all the cine-love I needed.

And maybe the most love came from Departures, a Japanese film about nokan, the ceremony for dressing the dead. The director pointed out that it's a "wet" movie—I forget the Japanese word—meaning that it makes you cry and cry. And it did, with its scenes of at least half a dozen funerals—but they were tears of joy, the human exalting of other humans, even after they're gone. The ceremony itself occurs in the presence of the mourners, and performed as a kind of supine ballet, demure, respectful, loving. The funerals themselves were marked by a wide range of human responses, from the necessary tears to girlish giggling to hurt and resentment—but always returning to love.

The main character is an out-of-work cellist who returns to his home town and responds to a help-wanted ad, misreading a Japanese word so that he believes he's going to work in a travel agency (I'm relieved that the difficulties of Japanese extend to the Japanese). He's more than a little put off—and it gets worse when his first job involves someone who'd died at home and wasn't discovered for a while—but he sticks with it, despite the ghosts of his past and his wife's disdain for his work, and slowly comes to see the place that departure has in journeys.

We all cried, we all laughed, and we all knew we'd seen a movie that for once had earned its Oscar. Its sentimentality ran so deeply it pushed its way out the other side and became something more: a fact of life that we see so often that we forget it's there: that we can take care of one another, we can clean and caress and dress and make each other ready—and in doing so, prepare ourselves for one departure and another.


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