A Page of Madness: A “Holy Shit” Moment in the History of Cinema

10/22/2010 11:59 AM |

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On Saturday night, MoMA’s To Save and Project series presents its centerpiece, a restored, rediscovered version of the previously partially lost Japanese silent whatsit A Page of Madness.

By this time, authentic, mutant-DNA Holy Shit moments are rare in the reexamined history of silent film, but A Page of Madness (1926) is surely a freak among freaks. Watching it, notions you’ve nurtured about what the recent and distant past look like in our matinee memories crumble like ash. It’s not merely the most psychotic Japanese silent film ever made (or seen outside of Japan, anyway); Teinosuke Kinugasa’s pioneer-work is the Asian wild card in the avant-garde explosion happening everywhere in the 20s.

Set in a mental institution amid flailing, dancing lunatics, and offering only a web-thin story about a janitor and his inmate wife (you could miss it, since Kinugasa provides zero intertitles), the movie is really a clotted stream of uneasy images, and with its montage seizures, free-associative mashups and abstracted compositions, it echoes or presages everybody from Dreyer to Picabia to Deren to Lewton to Fuller to Godard. The fact that Kinugasa was etching his supremely strange fever-dream (with the help of an avant-garde theater company) at more or less the same exact time as the Surrealists and the Soviet mad scientists were creating theirs, and with no cross-pollination, scans something like evidence for a conspiracy theory. The panicky roving camera seems equal to Murnau’s corpus as of ‘26, but look again at the natural lighting and verite grit, and it’s like you’re looking at celluloid exposed three decades later—it’s a film out of time.

For all of those tendrils, though, A Page of Madness exudes a distinctly chilling affect. It is self-consciously berserk, and its actors “act,” but the spooky thrust feels organic, as if the thing were spawned spontaneously from a sulphur pit. And it’s only an hour long. For its brief appearance at MoMA, a new score will be performed live by Ensemble N_JP, alongside a fresh-text stream of benshi narration, which given the movie is more than a little difficult to imagine.