Mona Lisa review by Stephen Green

I've wanted to write something like this for a while. Without Toshio Matsumoto's influence I'd never have the same passion for cinema that I do now as a dreary sunday afternoon with heavy rain confining me to the four walls of my bedroom became an apotheosis as I accidentally clicked on a Youtube link entitled "Funeral Parade Of Roses FULL MOVIE" while scrolling through gaming videos. The video changed me. I'd seen a couple of old foreign films before, like the time I saw Breathless playing on Channel 4 late at night and hating every second of it but Funeral felt different. Even with my current knowledge it's images remain fresh in my mind, The labels of counter-culture and surreal still don't do it justice as it functions less of a zenith and instead operates like a cinematic U.F.O that's often replicated but never duplicated.

For this film alone Matsumoto would have my gratitude and he still does even if it took me at least seven years to get round to his great film Demons. As of writing I haven't seen Dogura Magura or The War Of The Sixteen Year Olds but watching the complete collection of his short films cemented my appreciation as one of the great directors of our time. I won't go into full detail in all of them other than a quick aside that video art never came close to fulfilling the promises that his experimental apex Ki & Breathing delivered but I instead want to talk about the one I am most attached to.

Mona Lisa is a curiosity in my own cinephilia as to my knowledge I've seen it in nearly every possible format. I saw a native 16mm print of it at the TATE modern in london (along with the first live showing of For My Crushed Right Eye in 40+ years, another masterpiece of his), I've seen a VHS of it repeating on loop at a local gallery, a low quality rip of youtube, a DVD copy, a betamax release of all things, and lastly, the painting of the Mona Lisa this film is based on. I'm stating this now for a number of reasons; namely that I won't profess to be as unbiased as I can with this 180 seconds work of art the way I try to enter everything else I review here. That being said this is the only film I can think of that's empirically designed to be used as a mirror to the medium that contains it. When you watch this film it's not the image itself that's being judged it's the filmic abstract of the material that holds it.

This sounds pretentious, I already know that. I'd agree with you as well but watching it on youtube I felt positively to it. Matsumoto does a lot with a very simple idea: the juxtaposition of image and sound. This is a topic that runs through my mind all the time, I stare at my bookshelves and think about how much easier it would be if I had all these physical copies as ebooks, how much money I'd save on it, what it'd mean from when I have to move from house to house and the amount of data consumed at any point (I can't begin to imagine what a mesas my life would be if every movie I have on my hard-drive right now only existed as a physical copy). Seeing the image being warped by various colour filters, thinking back to how the painting of the Mona Lisa has already been duplicated numerous times either as crystal clear reproductions in reference books or under a multitube of snapchat filters by bored teenagers in the louvre Matsumoto's adding his personal subjectivity to a famous portrait of objectivity of a woman's face. At the time I left it at that but on second viewing something changed.

What is, for me, the best parts of the entire film have nothing to do with the picture itself. The first five seconds are an implosion of green pixellated light revealing the films title and copyright logo, marking the work as his own. Viewing this on it's native format is one of the exhilarating experience I've ever had with a film. The ricocheting of audio anomalies around the TATE's open space and the sheer richness of texture that polluted the screen was nothing short of spellbinding to the point where it's a minor disappointment when the picture actually shows up. At this stage the alien fragmentation of the sound overwhelms the image. Foreground and background blur into shots of Matsumoto's other films as the directors presence takes a commanding lead through it's duration. The painting goes from a perfect duplication to a distillation through the 16mm film. On a third viewing in a gallery the cathode rays in the television become the focal point of the manipulation (remembering how the film originally starts from a central location like light projected onto a screen). A digital version takes this point and expands it to the entire screen, with each pixel representing a mini white hole of energy bursting from it's finite 256-bit region to an infinite world of possibilities.

The punchline of this experiment comes at the very end where Audio and Image combine again as the directors name shows up again. This is two fold; The copyright logo tricks you into thinking this film is an artist replication of the original, a light piece of humour with a Wacky Surrealist (tm) having fun with the new medium. Instead signing his name as T. Matsumoto at the end (scrubbing his full name for ease of frame and for a more conspicuous nature) the entire film is a robbery, Matsumoto has stolen this work of art and marked it as his own. Art theft has been around from the annals of human history to the modern day but only Matsumoto captured this as a work of film, with his last act to also give away the Feld Scanimate details away, in case you wanted to do it yourself.

That's the key here, Matsumoto's film celebrates exhibitionism like no other, his parlour tricks only make the image pop out even more. The films brevity and minor prestige easily allows it to slip under Youtube's draconian copyright restriction despite being the first clear image the viewer sees. The lightness of the file both in its ease of reproductibility and duration lets it be viewed by a large swath of people to completion (maybe the biggest mark against it is that at three minutes it might be too long to pull this off but hey, nobody's perfect as Matsumoto already proved) ensuring the video can live on for near an eternity.

Mona Lisa isn't my favourite Matsumoto film (Funeral Parade Of Roses) or my favourite short of his (Ki Or Breathing) or landscape film (Shift) even my favourite short of his that's a ploy of placement of sound an image as a duration length joke (White Hole) but it is the one I've seen the most both for it's formal qualities and for the increased experimentation of its own thesis in viewing channels. Given the advancements made in the last couple of years I expect to be able to watch this film in VR shortly, or as a hologram, or in 3D! (digital 3D, not the 3D of seeing the painting like I've already done). Maybe rather than going forward I can dig back into the past and try and view the film on Laserdisc and see how that format's notoriety for organic textures contrast against a very inorganic film. No other film has this impact for me, and I will view this short for many years to come.

RIP Toshio Matsumoto, I miss you already.