Here is a film that I know objectively is not very good but which I confess to having a voyeuristic fascination with anyway. Carnival of the Night is part documentary, part glorified home movie and part improvised come-as-you-are / do-it-yourself independent drama. It’s amateurish, disjointed, sloppy and crudely made, but it’s got flashes of on-the-spot electricity that would be harder to find in a more polished piece of work. It also gives us a glimpse, however fragmented, into the Tokyo underground of the early 1980s — one of those “if you weren’t there, it might have felt something like this” experiences that often works despite being anarchic and not because of it.
Carnival revolves loosely around Kumi Ota (apparently playing herself), the leader of a punk-rock outfit. They perform in tiny little Shinjuku clubs where there’s barely room for the lead singer to stand up in front of the audience, and in the opening scenes they’re shown twanging restlessly away in front of a couple of stone-bored slackers who’re more interested in the bench they’re sitting on than the band. Nobody here is looking for a record contract, and I suspect no one who had one would give it to them. Right after the show, a fight breaks out and someone runs off with the till, even though there’s barely enough in there to buy a pack of smokes.
The movie starts with Kumi but branches outwards from her to follow several other people whose lives she brushes up against: a woman who ekes out a living by trapping and selling crows; Kumi’s rocker boyfriend; another male acquaintance of Kumi’s who works in a basement somewhere, gives her a gun, and has vague plans about blowing up the city. There’s nothing resembling a plot, just the restless night rhythms of people dissatisfied by everything the world has to offer them, legit or not.
Cruelty comes as easily to these people as speech or eating, and most of that cruelty seems to be a product of total boredom. To act like you’re interested in anything means you’re uncool, and so before long the stance of boredom turns into the real thing — which then turns into petty violence and self-indulgence. At one point Kumi’s boyfriend beats up a milk-delivery man — knocks the poor sod off his bike, smashes his cargo on the pavement, then yanks down the guy’s pants and drags him over the broken glass. Later, he torments a junkie prostitute by dumping heroin on the bedsheets and watching her attempt to lick it up. Later still, he turns the cruelty onto himself: he shoves a guitar string between his teeth and yanks it back and forth like it’s dental floss.
Kumi’s also curiously disengaged. There’s a scene both funny and painful where she reads to her child from a storybook and skims through it with such preposterous haste that there’s no way either of them could be getting anything out of it. She clearly loves the kid; she’s just not a terribly competent mother — and finds the nightlife of Shinjuku, aimless and ugly as it is, to be more fun.
The look, feel and texture of the movie are far more interesting than anything that happens in it. Grime, graffiti, trash and crumbling buildings surround and enclose everyone. Snatches of TV, radio and street noise fade in and out on the soundtrack. The movie shifts subtly between color and black and white — so subtly, in fact, that by midway we’ve forgotten the film was even in color to begin with. Unfortunately, by the halfway mark most of the really interesting textural stuff in the film reduces itself to entirely too many shots of dirty people crawling around on heaps of garbage. Yes, I know: behind Tokyo’s polished façade is a grimy underworld, but there’s more to be said about such a thing than simply blackening the screen with it, and director Masashi Yamamoto hasn’t found it here.
Two other movies come to mind. The first is The Harder They Come, another cross-pollination of documentary filmmaking, indie drama and boundary-breaking looks into a culture that hadn’t previously gotten much screentime (Jamaica’s reggae / rasta / ganja underworld). The other is Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s debut movie that also delivered a hybrid peek into the punk underground of ‘80s New York. Both are far better films than Carnival. They find the right things to look at. Carnival starts off looking in the right direction but wanders until it ends up staring at a wall.