Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tokyo After Midnight: a B-movie Mystery

Chapter 1:

This is a detective story, of sorts.  “The case of the lost movie” as my friend Chris Marker put it.

As with many detective stories there is something missing which must be found – the great whatsit as Mike Hammer’s Velda sneers in Kiss Me Deadly … there’s a strange and unexpected cast of characters including a Turkish actor and occasional pimp, a hardboiled director of Japanese yakuza films … and, of course, a femme fatale

Who in this case is my mother, LeAnn Bartok.

Her face haunts me in two silvery black and white images from half a world and half a lifetime away.  Japan.  1960.

In the first she clutches a pistol, with bottle-blonde hair and a string of pearls (probably from Mikimoto, Japan’s famous dealer in cultured pearls).  She’s the boss of an international drug syndicate.  She spits out trashy B-movie dialogue:  “You’ll get what all rats deserve” and “There isn’t anyone alive who’s pointed a gun at me and gotten away with it.”

She’s like a cocktail waitress from hell.  But she’s in charge.  She’s Mr. Big and everybody’s scared of her.

In the second she peers through a window at Jo Shishido, nicknamed “Joe The Ace” in Japan.  He of the huge, artificially-implanted cheekbones.  Star of Suzuki’s Youth Of The Beast and Branded To Kill.  This time Shishido holds the gun. 

But there’s something odd and unreal about the scene … She’s trapped in black-and-white while Shishido and everything else is in color. 

She’s also twice as large as the others – she peers curiously at them from behind a window, like a goddess in an Indian temple, interested in the affairs of humans but always remote.

These images seem like something from a dream, but they are in fact real.  At least as real as Nikkatsu Studios could make them.

This is the story of how my mother LeAnn – a young nurse from Ohio turned conceptual artist, painter and avant-garde filmmaker – came to work in Japanese B-movies at the end of the 1950’s.  It’s also the story of the search for some trace of her long-lost career in Japanese movies over thirty years later.

Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 1970’s I often heard my mother LeAnn talk about her time living in Japan.  In fact her professional bio from 1974 begins:  “Some background:  Born August 1, 1937.  Traveled to Japan, 1959.  Lived one year, Tokyo.  Active in filmmaking major studios.”  But that’s about all we knew.
LeAnn was already a filmmaker herself at that point, making wild, poetic, free-form experimental 16 mm. movies that documented her pioneering Skyworks projects.  Huge scale, environmental artwork that involved dropping multiple streamers of heavy colored paper from airplanes, culminating in her mindblowing mile-length drops:  The Black Mile, The Red Mile and others.

[Above:  photo of Skyworks - The Red Mile taken by skydiver']

The 1970’s were a crazy time:  Christo and Jeanne-Claude were doing the Running Fence in Sonoma … Otto Piene was making helium-filled inflatable sculptures … LeAnn was throwing mile-length streamers out of planes and filming them with cameras strapped to skydivers plummeting to earth with the artworks. 

The sky was literally not the limit.

She wound up being denounced on the floor of the U.S. Congress by Sen. William Proxmire who gave her his infamous “Golden Fleece” Award for wasting government money, for a small National Endowment of the Arts grant she received to fund one of her projects.

Then as now, politicians weren’t supporters of the arts – and especially not experimental, environmental, sky-high art.  From a woman.

[Above:  "Village Voice" article from Sept. 1976 on LeAnn's Skyworks drops.]

[LeAnn would decorate letters and even utility bills with her Skyworks Red Mile line]

LeAnn was born in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, a hardscrabble little town that straddles the hills on both sides of the Ohio River.   I made a pilgrimage there a few years back to see where she grew up; she probably would’ve recognized it as much as the same.  Her father, Joe – my grandfather – was a lean, handsome steelworker with a bad gambling habit in his early years.  If you want to know what he was like watch DeNiro in The Deer Hunter – that’s my grandfather.  He lived and breathed deer hunting.

My grandmother Margaret was a lovely, fragile woman who worked at Sears most of her life and who looks a bit like Jean Harlow in early photos.  She patiently followed her husband as he dragged her all over the Ohio and Pennsylvania hills, camping out in small hunting shacks with wood-fired stoves and no running water.  She hanged herself in the basement of their house several months after Joe died, and broke my mother’s heart.

My long-lost uncle sent me this picture a few months back; it’s one of the earliest I have of my mother, from Xmas, 1944.  She kneels in the center of the picture holding a doll nearly her size:

He wrote:  "Enclosed is my fondest photo of Mom, Sis and yours truly taken while we were living at Grandma's (Bellaire, Ohio) house. It was 1944 -  LeAnn was 7, I was 2.  Dad was working in Pittsburgh, New Castle (mills) and other mills during those early years during the war."

This may not be the whole story; LeAnn told me her dad repeatedly gambled them out of house after house, so they may have been living with her grandmother because they had nowhere else to go. 

LeAnn grew into a pretty teenager in the mid-1950’s, joined the Range Rockettes in high school.   But already there must have been signs that she was different, that her mind was focused on other horizons:  when she graduated she promptly announced she wanted to join a convent and become a nun. 

Her father refused, so she entered nursing school. 

Years later she could still remember the patients who hadn’t made it.  How she and her fellow nurses stood weeping when someone died.  LeAnn met my father, a radiologist, at the hospital.  It was the era when nurses would have to stop and stand at attention whenever a doctor entered the room, like they were in the military.

My father in fact was soon drafted into the Army and sent to Korea, after the shooting war there was over.  That’s how my mother came to live in Tokyo, since it was at least closer to Korea.  

It was 1959.  She was 22 years old, newly married, and nearly broke.  She couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. 

For the first two weeks she sat in her apartment, crying.

(Next chapter:  An American girl in the Japanese movie business)

[Photos of LeAnn Bartok and artworks/text -- Copyright, courtesy Estate of LeAnn Bartok]