Tuesday, June 30, 2009

QUEER ICON—San Francisco Premiere at Roxie Film Center

In full disclosure, I am one of the talking heads in Mike Black and Carole Summer's Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis, a documentary that examines the many aspects of the gay fascination with Bette Davis, featuring film clips of Bette's most iconic moments, juxtaposed with camp burlesques of her by Matthew Martin, Charles Pierce and Arthur Blake. Featured is a profile of Martin, highlighting his long identification with Davis, and interviews with fans, entertainers, and gay cultural historians exploring the link between the gay community and Bette.

One of those interviews is with film historian
Matthew Kennedy (Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory), who—when I asked him how he felt about his participation in the project—responded: "I loved having the opportunity to ponder what makes Bette Davis great and why I love her. She's so much more than easily imitated grand gestures that drag queens find so hard to resist. What a pure creature of the cinema she was—imagine if she had been born before movies were invented. It's almost unthinkable. A select few stars seem made for the camera, almost as though their very existence depends on the moving image. She was one of them."

As for having his sequence filmed in the auditorium of the Castro Theatre, Kennedy commented: "It was an honor to be interviewed in the Castro. And a little intimidating. It's hallowed ground!"

Likewise interviewed is impresario
Marc Huestis, who was instrumental in facilitating the interaction between Black and Matthew Martin. "Congrats to Mike & Carole for finishing film, he offered. "Anything with/about BETTE DAVIS has to be entertaining, no?!"

But with customary aplomb, it was
Peaches Christ who scored the poster pull quote: "There's a collective understanding that she is God." When I asked Joshua Grannell how Peaches became involved in the project, Joshua replied: "They emailed me about participating in the film and it was during the Midnight Mass season and I said, 'I love Bette Davis and I would love to participate and the best way to catch me is to come to the show with your camera and we'll do the interview at the Bridge Theatre.' That's what they did. They set up the camera and we did the interview. Often my brain is so dumb when I'm in drag—as far as memory goes or whatever, there's no filter over my mouth—so I'm looking forward to the screening because I have no idea what I said."

As for interacting with Matthew Martin: "Matthew has never done Midnight Mass and I've never shared the stage with him outside of performing on the same nights at Trannyshack. However, we knew of one another before we ever met. He'd seen me and I'd seen him and I was certainly an admirer of his so—when we met some years ago—it was like we had always known each other. Ironically, Matthew made his Baby Jane movie right around the same time we were making All About Evil. Here was another opportunity for him to either be in our thing or for me to be in their's; but, we were doing it all at the same time."

As Michael Fox has written at
SF Weekly, Davis' appeal "derives from her ambisexuality in combination with such timeless personas as the holy-terror diva, the stalwart solitaire, and the camp heroine." Fox adds: "More than simply a lovefest, Queer Icon questions whether gays still need a role model like the fabulous Miss D. The film will surely find an enthusiastic audience when it plays the queer capitals of New York and Los Angeles, but [Thursday's] world premiere is bound to be an only-in-San-Francisco event. It won't be tedious, darling."

Matt Sussman concurs at
Flavorpill: "That been-around-the-block moxie; that sultry sophistication; and, of course, those eyes. There are many reasons why Bette Davis was one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the silver screen, but her x-factor has long held—indeed, continues to hold—particular sway over gay men."

Queer Icon: The Cult of Bette Davis boasts its San Francisco premiere at a one-off screening at the
Roxie Film Center on Thursday, July 2, 2009, at 6:00, 8:10, 10:20PM. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at www.blacksummers.com. Photos courtesy of Black Summers Productions, LLC. Photo of Matthew Martin as Bette Davis courtesy of Marc Huestis.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

PFA: IN THE REALM OF OSHIMA—The Evening Class Interview With James Quandt (Part Two)

[Part One of this interview can be found here.]

Guillén: It's been intriguing to monitor the critical response as "In the Realm of Oshima" has traveled around the country. Other than for Tony Rayns' fantastic response in Film Comment to the retrospective's presence as sidebar at the New York Film Festival, and Jonathan Rosenbaum's in Artforum, it appeared that the retrospective was best received at the Walker Art Center. I was impressed with how the films were partnered with scholastic introductions to provide insight; what I call the spectacular dimension of cinema literacy. Perhaps because audiences don't feel they can access or finesse a film on their own, nor have the authority to do so, I've come to believe they nearly require these add-ons.

Quandt: You bring up something so incredibly key for discussion of how we continue to maintain or even build audiences for what we do. At the annual
FIAF Conference (held this year in Buenos Aires), the big topic this year was cinematheques and their audiences, addressing this crisis. In Europe especially—but I'm finding it true even in North America, specifically Canada where I've been discussing this with my colleagues—some of them are saying that after 25-30 years of doing what they do, they're finding it generally difficult for them to find audiences for retrospectives. They're moving more and more towards limited runs of films that commercial art cinemas in their cities are not showing. Some of the terms that are coming out of this constant discussion are interesting. One of the new terms I've been hearing is "the in-cinema experience." That refers to how an audience experiences a film, the social context you're talking about, the add-ons. Part of that might be because cinephiles have become used to the extras on DVDs. It amuses me when you read commentary on DVDs, so often it's commentary on the extras than on the actual film. There really is an obsession with the commentaries, the essays, the whole package.

Guillén: What pulled me into film studies was the sociality of film culture, the in-cinema experience of the films (as you're saying), even more than the films themselves (though I love films). What has emerged as the singular distinct impression from the Oshima films at PFA is sitting there in the dark and watching (and hearing!) the screen widen to accommodate his Scope creations. It's exciting!

Quandt: We had dinner before the screening of
A Town of Love and Hope and Three Resurrected Drunkards last night (there were about seven people from the PFA) and I was saying to them that—even after 25 years of being a film programmer—I knew I was going to have the thrill of shifting from 16mm to Scope. Like you, I experienced that thrill. Sometimes you can worry in a venue when technical presentation isn't so great that such a shift will be problematic; but, I had no worries last night because I knew Carl, the projectionist, is one of the best in the business.

I'd like to go back to the Walker Art Center, if I may, where I went for the opening of the retrospective. They did a fantastic job. Film often gets sidelined in museums. At the Walker, it didn't feel that way. The minute I walked through the main doors of the Walker, I was completely aware that Oshima was on par with everything else that was happening in the museum in terms of the special exhibitions in the galleries, etc. That's rare. And they had all these add-ons, as you say, all these lecturers and talks, and Kathie Smith—who wrote up the retrospective for The Star Tribune and who I met at the reception—was incredibly passionate and intelligent. The whole experience with Minneapolis was thrilling, frankly.

Guillén: Further, the Oshima retrospective landed at the Walker just about the time we got our new President and there was a charge in the combination of that political event and that cultural event that made the presence of the restrospective at the Walker singularly unique and which enflamed interest. Definitely, the write-ups from the Walker retrospective were more politically tinged than elsewhere, emphasizing the political content of Oshima's films.

I consider you a true cultural warrior and you have been rightfully acknowledged for your contributions to cinema literacy and history. How did that start for you? What was the movie that made you realize, "I love movies. I want to study movies"?

Quandt: It's hard to describe. I have a piece that's out or just about to come out on the "new cinephilia." In it, I try to describe—because it's a generational thing—how I grew up in the far northern wilderness of Canada where there was no television. It was impossible to have television because it was all rock up there, cable was impossible, and television waves literally bounced off the rocks. So I grew up completely without television. My only recourse was the local cinema, which showed double-bills every night of the week. I even trained as a projectionist! But I always joke that the night he allowed me to show on my own as a test to see if I had "the stuff"—it was Love Story—I'm sure that in the version I showed, Ali McGraw lived. I screwed everything up so badly that night. I ended up in the concession stand selling popcorn for the rest of my high school years. But that was where my passion for cinema was formed. When I got to the University—which, again, in terms of cinema was still in the hinterlands—my first Japanese film was Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon. It was one of those experiences where the world just falls away from underneath you and you don't have any bearings, you stagger out into the street afterwards, and I turned to my partner of 33 years—I mean, it was back then, that long ago—and I said, "What was that? I've got to see more." But there was no chance to see more. That was the thing. Because at that time there was no video, no DVD, that was before all that. So what happened was that we started to take our annual holidays in New York City and I would make up a chart for the entire two weeks that we were in New York City and graph out from morning to night what was playing—what art shows, but especially what movies—and that's where I saw my first Bressons, my first Godards, my first you-name-it. All those venues that are now gone are part of the romance of New York film culture: the
Bleecker Street Cinemas, the New Yorker, the Thalia (though the Thalia is still there, albeit in transmogrified form).

Guillén: I'm completely intrigued by the mystique of inaccessibility, which DVD access has blown out of the water.

Quandt: Completely.

Guillén: The other night my friend Frako Loden and I were having dinner. She's an enthusiast of Japanese cinema and we were discussing the Oshima retrospective and she was offering tips on what to see or not see. I admitted to her that I hoped I could get into the retrospective because, lately, I'm weary of art cinema and all I want to watch are 1950s science fiction horror films. [Laughter.] She suggested that was probably because those were the films I loved as a child, which was absolutely correct. I'm recharging my cinephilia by returning to the source of my passion. I'm watching the films that I was in love with in the summers of my childhood. I asked her, "Why do you think I'm doing that?" and she answered, "You're probably unlearning them." So I'm curious in your experience, especially with these retrospectives where, undoubtedly, you have watched these films repeatedly, does that process of "unlearning" happen for you? Do the films lose their effect on you the more you watch them and the more you know what they're doing?

Quandt: God! I can think of the opposite happening. Certainly with Oshima—as I've re-seen the films in various venues—I find they have more power. Some of them I've seen 10 times. With retrospectives—and I use this as an analogy with art retrospectives—when an artist's work is brought together in concentration, many things can happen; but, one of two things mainly: their stocks go up for you personally as their strengths become much more apparent, or the terrible thing that can happen is the opposite, where you see all the weaknesses of an artist you've greatly admired once the work has been put all together. Filmically, that can also happen. I used to be a great fan in my earlier days of Peter Greenaway. There was a retrospective in Toronto—and this was even before he took the turn he did in his later work—and seeing his films all together, I thought, "What the hell did I see in him?" I still have some fondness for some of the early work that really "did it" for me in a sense. I also can go off certain films and I start to worry if it's just not jadedness, though I don't think I could ever become that jaded. I'll give you an example and it's a pretty shocking one. As I mentioned, we're doing a Preminger retrospective and of course I opened with Laura because you have to open with one of his greatest films to bring in the widest audience. But I was totally put off by the film.

Guillén: By Laura?!!

Quandt: By Laura. Isn't that shocking?

Guillén: Are you insane?! [Laughter.]

Quandt: We argued all the way home. The second night was Preminger's film maudit, so to speak, one of my favorite films of all time—Bonjour Tristesse—and I loved it even more. I was just knocked out by it. I don't know how many times I've seen it. But the thing that affects one's reaction to films—and how I think DVDs have changed expectations (which I talk about in this article on the new cinephilia)—is that the visual perfection of DVDs, which people expect from the Criterion DVDs, have made the traditional viewing of films at cinematheques that much more difficult. It's always been understood since the time of Henri Langlois that you were just lucky to see the film; the rarity of seeing it in a cinema. If the color had faded or it was splicey, had some scratches or whatever, tant pis (as he would say), it's all about its original format, its original form. Audiences are much more particular now. The pristineness of prints is a much greater issue than it ever has been. I don't know if you find that at PFA?

Guillén: I find that true in the Bay Area. Where I've especially noted it is with Eddie Muller and his Noir City Film Festival.

Quandt: Is this the festival that Meredith Brody was telling me about that has just recently shown?

Guillén: No, that was a program pulled together by Elliot Lavine for the Roxie Film Center comprised primarily of 16mm prints. Muller's Noir City is predominantly 35mm prints. Eddie's strategy—and it's extremely successful; he sells out his festival—is that the audience is participating in the preservation of film through ticket sales, which fund the striking of new prints from original elements. Eddie drums up audience excitation. We will be there for three or four days morning to night watching all these noir films—some of them in not such good condition—but then, every year, he presents a spanking new print of a film funded by ticket sales from the previous year.

Quandt: That's fantastic!

Guillén: As an audience member you go, "I did that!"

Quandt: What a great idea.

Guillén: It's an idea that has been quite successful, has promoted public awareness of film preservation, and instilled civic pride in Noir City audiences. It's also now become a project that's touring nationally. But what it made me aware of in terms of cinema literacy is that audiences want to be literate.

Quandt: I totally agree.

Guillén: Not to belabor the gay issue, but have you any thoughts on Hollywood Zen, the project Oshima was not able to finish about the interaction between Sessue Hayakawa and Rudolph Valentino? Were you ever privy to the treatment or an early draft of the script?

Quandt: No, he was elusive whenever I questioned him about it. It had a Toronto producer and so he came back to Toronto a couple of times after that first retrospective. In fact, during one of his visits, we were screening one of his films and it was a strange quality print….

Guillén: I read about this. You were showing one of his films on 16mm and were embarrassed that he was there to see it?

Quandt: Yeah. He called me up and said, "I'm in town. Can I come visit?" I told him, "We're showing your film tonight." I was doing a series on Japanese classics in CinemaScope and we were showing Violence At Noon. I forget the reasons why but all we could come up with was a 16mm not-very-good print. Anyway, he came by and introduced it, totally stunned the audience who didn't know he was going to be there; but, anyway, back to your question about Hollywood Zen, he was very elusive about it. I had the sense it was going to be another gay film. I had the feeling—and this is often the case with directors—that he felt talking about the project would jinx it. It had taken him so long to get the money together. Then, of course, he had his stroke and Gohatto became his last film.

Guillén: I know he became debilitated by his stroke and that he's not even aware that you have mounted this retrospective?

Quandt: That's what I'm told.

Guillén: As a hypothetical, having known him, how do you think he would have felt about this touring retrospective?

Quandt: He would have been thrilled—I'm convinced of that—as he was thrilled by the one in Toronto 20 years ago. Every director responds to the idea of a retrospective differently. You mentioned that Pedro Costa was positive about his experience but some directors dislike the idea. Some feel that it's almost a sign of the end of their career.

Guillén: Sort of like when Peter O'Toole received the honorary Oscar and complained that he wasn't done yet.

Quandt: But I'm totally convinced that Oshima would have been very happy with this retrospective. Whereas, I can give you two counter examples. I got to meet Shōhei Imamura at the time that I did his retrospective. It was at Cannes when he won the Palme d'Or for The Eel. I took him a copy of the monograph we had published to accompany the retrospective. He was nonplussed. He truly didn't seem to care that his work was being shown in all these cities in North America, etc. I mean, I could have gotten that wrong. We were at Cannes and he did have a film in competition and that skews everything for a director. It might not have been an ideal opportunity to discuss the retrospective.

The other case was Ichikawa. Mark Schilling, the film critic for The Japan Times, did an interview with him for our book and I asked Mark to ask Ichikawa this question, which was how he felt about the fact that his films many years on were going to be shown at all these places in North America. Ichikawa said he truly didn't care. I don't think Oshima would have said such a thing.

Guillén: Especially because the Oshima retrospective is truly underscoring his innovative and adventurous breadth. The retrospective serves his body of work.

Quandt: A question I would ask is which contemporary director can we think of who is that brave? It's not just the bravery, the courageousness, of alienating an audience, of making the work guarantee that you're not going to have a very large audience—although Oshima was always angry at the studios for not leaving his films in the cinemas long enough or not promoting them, etc.; he obviously thought there was a potential for a larger audience than there was—but, more in terms of political courageousness. Japan, less so today than then, was a monoculture. I frankly think Oshima probably put his life on the line with a lot of those extreme right wing people, given what his films say about Japan and about politics and about the persecution of minorities, etc.

Guillén: The only film that I've seen recently that might fit that bill is John Greyson's Fig Trees, which is astoundingly opaque and thrillingly intertextual. It is a complicated film and difficult to watch. It nearly necessitates repeated viewing and yet inspires the wish to do so. It's a film that's going to be a hard sell and yet, politically, one of the bravest I've seen in some time. I'm not sure it can even have a theatrical run.

Frako Loden, when we were having dinner the other evening, wanted me to ask you how fluent you are in Japanese?

Quandt: Not at all.

Guillén: You don't speak Japanese?

Quandt: No.

Guillén: You don't write Japanese?

Quandt: No.

Guillén: You don't read Japanese?

Quandt: No.

Guillén: And yet you are one of the main proponents of the classic Japanese masters?

Quandt: I got this award that involved a private audience with the Emperor and Empress of Japan. My friends are almost all political and some of them gave me considerable hell for accepting the invitation and perpetuating the imperial system. But I wasn't going to pass it up, I'm sorry. The totally shameful thing in all of this was that they speak perfectly fluent Japanese and something that was really thrilling for me was that—in both cases—he talked about Ozu, whose films he knew very well and who he had met, and the Empress talked about Kore-eda, who she had just read about winning an award at Cannes for Nobody Knows. The point being that—in the talk I gave to accept the award—I had to have Don Richie teach me a few Japanese phrases. It's a language I don't have an ear for.

Guillén: Another question I was asked to relay comes from Adam Hartzell, an enthusiast of Korean cinema, who wanted to know about The Catch, Oshima's cinematic version of Kenzaburo Oe's story. Oe, I understand, was also quite the taboo breaker? Have you come across any commentary either way about Oe's opinions about the film or Oshima's opinions about Oe?

Quandt: This isn't really the answer, but, Oshima changed Oe's story quite a bit. It's somewhere between a long short story and a novella. As with everything—whether the samurai genre or anime—whatever Oshima took, he turned it into a vehicle for his own concerns. My understanding is that he did the same with The Catch. He took the basics but amplified certain things, left out certain things, and—again—homosexuality comes into it. I don't know if I've ever read what Oe's reaction to Oshima's film might have been. My sense of it is that the lineaments of it are there but that it's much more an Oshima work than an Oe work. The Catch is one of Oshima's most underrated films. It's a devastating film.

Guillén: You mentioned in your introduction last night that Oshima was quite fond of the "suave tone" in Luis Buñuel's later films, which had a direct influence on Max Mon Amour. Can you speak more on Oshima's attraction to Buñuel?

Quandt: When Oshima said that Buñuel was his favorite director, he was referencing the iconoclastic Buñuel. When Buñuel entered that late period of The Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire, they weren't exactly de-fanged Buñuel but they are much more serene than his early work. That also appealed to Oshima because by that time Oshima was middle-aged and there was a mellowing—there's no question—in Oshima, as there was in Buñuel.

Guillén: Finally, to wrap things up here, you mentioned earlier that you've written a piece on the new cinephilia and mentioned a "generational" distinction. Jonathan Rosenbaum seems all for the new cinephilia in contrast to Gerald Peary whose stance is skeptical. Where are you?

Quandt: I'm conflicted. My article on the new cinephilia is designed as a polemic. I think we're all lying to ourselves that—when we analyze a film on DVD—that we act as if we've seen it and we haven't. I'm convinced of that. I give all kinds of examples in this article. Critics and film professors fool themselves when they say they can make believe watching a DVD is the same as watching a film and that the differences can be translated sufficiently. I don't think they can. It goes from subtle, embarrassing things such as the color coding of a certain film where—when I came to see the film again on screen—what I thought was white on DVD, was actually pale rose. I've had this discussion with people at work where one person said, "That's inconsequential"; but, I'm sorry, it isn't to me. You wouldn't have an art historian do a visual analysis of a Renaissance painting from a reproduction. They would be laughed out of their profession. There are so many things they could get wrong because of the differences in reproduction. It's the same thing with cinema, as far as I'm concerned. I wrote a piece on Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, which I'd seen twice on screen, but I was doing my analysis from a DVD. But then I saw it again at the Toronto Film Festival for the third time on screen and I remember reeling—this sounds melodramatic—but, I couldn't wait to get out of the screening to get back to my office to email my editor to say, "I got this wrong. I got that wrong." In the DVD there were certain details that you just couldn't get. They were obscured. Alonso is one of those artists who does foreground/background things and he plays with focus, etc. These are key elements and—as much as I am thrilled by the accessibility of films through DVD—people don't have to go to New York to see their Mizoguchis. I can't imagine what such accessibility is like for nascent cinephiles.

I was just talking to a friend who lives at a relatively small university town in the States where there's no art cinema or cineclub or anything and we were talking about Apichatpong Weerasethakul because I had just finished writing a book on him and I wanted to send it to her. Somehow, I don't know, I had an obviously condescending attitude that she wouldn't have seen his films; but, she had seen them all! She'd seen them on DVD and I was stunned. She knew all about his work. How could I argue with that? How could I argue that's a bad thing? I can't. But, at the same time, what has been lost in the whole discussion is the fact that you are seeing a facsimile, sometimes a very good facsimile, but we're fooling ourselves that we're seeing the real thing. I fear that the real thing is going to be lost.

Guillén: By the "real thing" do you mean the medium of celluloid or the method of projection?

Quandt: I mean both. I can't say celluloid because many films are made digitally now and celluloid doesn't enter unless they're transferred to celluloid.

Guillén: Are you then talking about the scale of the image, the loss of seeing the image on a large screen and being—as Sontag phrased it—"kidnapped" by the image?

Quandt: Yes, absolutely. I'm not just talking about the social context or the indivisibility of what is consciousness when you're in a cinema as compared to watching something on a small screen, no matter how concentrated you are, no matter how good your home video system is. Can you imagine—I use this as an example—of encountering your first Oshimas on a television screen? Those tightly battened Scope images? They wouldn't have the same power or effect at all.

Guillén: I learned that fully in Toronto where I was watching a small film from the Global South at one of the larger venues and there was a tight close-up and suddenly there was this huge face on this large screen which engendered a visceral response I knew I would never achieve by watching the same image on DVD on a small screen. I often use DVDs to decide whether to catch a film on a large screen or not. They're like a relay station for me. DVDs are helpful for discerning narrative devices but rarely, if ever, for visual aesthetics—as you were saying—because of course you're going to miss out on color coding, scale, all those aspects that are important for a complete in-cinema experience.

Quandt: Another example I would give you since you talk about the visceral, there is a physiological element in cinema that is greatly lost in watching a film on DVD and Bresson is a perfect example of that. When you do an analysis of his editing in Au hasard Balthazar, the physiological effects of his abrupt editing where you're thrown out of one space into another without any establishing shots completely emphasizes this effect you can get that is thoroughly physiological. It's completely anodyne on DVD. It loses its strangeness. You've lost a lot in that case.

I worry about saying this because Criterion does an absolutely fantastic job and have done more for film culture than any of us. I love working with them. But it's the falsity of film professors, critics, historians, academics, etc., doing their analysis and criticism from DVDs to which I totally object. The quote I use to begin my article on the new cinephilia—and, again, is it a false analogy? Probably. But in a way you have to make these in order to express the idea—is that of the character of Konrad (Helmet Berger) in Conversation Piece by Visconti where he says something to the effect of, "Oh, I haven't been to a concert in ages; but, oh, the recordings!" As if one easily replaces the other. I'm sorry, it doesn't. It's only a recording. You're not going to get the effect of Mahler's sixth symphony in a concert hall on a CD.

Cross-published on

PFA: IN THE REALM OF OSHIMA—The Evening Class Interview With James Quandt (Part One)

James Quandt, senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto, has curated several touring retrospectives, including the recent "In the Realm of Oshima" currently screening at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. He has edited monographs on Robert Bresson, Shohei Imamura, and Kon Ichikawa and is a regular contributor to Artforum. His recent published essays include ones on Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa, and Jia Zhang-ke. Quandt was awarded the Japan Foundation Special Prize for Arts and Culture in 2007.

My sincere thanks to Susan Oxtoby and Jonathan Knapp at the Pacific Film Archive for arranging time for Quandt and I to sit down for a conversation during his brief appearance in the Bay Area to introduce the Oshima retrospective.

* * *

Michael Guillén: James, when Susan Oxtoby first invited me to have a conversation with you while you were in the Bay Area for the Oshima retrospective, I wasn't certain that I was the person for the job, being largely unfamiliar with the work of Nagisa Oshima. And then I realized that I was the perfect person because—in effect—I'm who the retrospective is for.

James Quandt: Actually, that's true. One of the reasons for the retrospective was because—in talking to even what I would call hard-core cinephiles—they'd seen one or two or three of his films at most and the name just didn't conjure any more. It had that kind of urgency to it. For me, it's had that urgency for a long time; but, especially because of that. It felt like Oshima was sliding into obscurity. Luckily enough, Criterion owns the rights to about nine of the films and, in fact, they made nine new prints for the retrospective. They've just released In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion and I expect they'll be releasing some of the others on DVD.

Guillén: I was going to ask if the retrospective encouraged Criterion to canonize Oshima's work.

Quandt: That's where delving DVDs and retrospectives like this form a wonderful nexus. It's happened time and again where companies are willing to make the prints because they know it will raise the reputation of a director and, therefore, make the subsequent release of DVDs easier, obviously. That happened with the Bresson retrospective and to a degree with Ichikawa, though Ichikawa was a retrospective that I thought might have some effect on the director's reputation; but, it didn't at all. He's as unknown now as he was then.

Guillén: I've seen the first two programs in the PFA series and have to be honest that—after each film—I sat there scratching my head going, "What just happened?"

Quandt: [Laughs.] Wait! Wait until you see
Double Suicide: Japanese Summer!

Guillén: Truthfully, though, I like that. Oddly enough I appreciate being a little bit lost for words after seeing an Oshima film, which I imagine is exactly what Oshima was aiming to accomplish.

Quandt: My editor at Artforum—who attended the retrospective at the New York Film Festival—sent me notes throughout the retrospective. He said it was so great to see a director that can still rile an audience 40 years on. That also happened in Toronto, frankly.

Guillén: Our's is the opportunity to look back at the retrospective in retrospect as PFA is the final stop of its North American tour before it heads to Europe. Now that it's winding down stateside, how are you feeling about the project? Do you feel you have rescued Oshima from obscurity? Do you feel you've reached the audiences you wanted to reach?

Quandt: Mixed. I'm extremely happy that it happened as, in some ways, it's been the most difficult of all the retrospectives that I've done in terms of securing the rights, getting the prints made, pulling the project together. It took 10 years. That sounds grandiose because a great deal of that was just being told to wait. My colleagues in Japan kept saying, "Now is not the time." So much of that 10 years was spent waiting and nagging, frankly, and then it came together very quickly; in the last year and a half everything fell together. But looking back at the retrospective in North America, what's been slightly dispiriting is that—of all of the Japanese retrospectives that I've toured: Imamura, Naruse, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa—this one has had, by far, the least attendance. That was pretty well across the board. There were very few cities that were an exception: Toronto probably and—it would seem from last night and what PFA recorded from opening night a week ago—Berkeley will also be a major exception.

The retrospective just ended in Los Angeles and there it did actually quite badly. It was split between two venues. Previously in Los Angeles, our retrospectives have been taken in pocket versions, severely cut down in fact. This time I really wanted the whole retrospective shown and so I asked two venues to collaborate—the American Cinematheque and LACMA, both of whom I've worked with a lot—and, unfortunately, I feel badly about this. One begins to feel responsible for the box office of our sister organizations. They both reported averaging under 100 people in attendance.

Guillén: Any sense of why that is? Why the traveling Oshima retrospective was not recognized for being a once-in-a-lifetime event?

Quandt: I think it was one of those events that existed more on paper than it did in the actuality. We got some incredible articles at the outset in Film Comment, Artforum, etc.; but, that just didn't ignite the interest I thought it would. Any number of things could be happening here. One could be that people are waiting for the DVDs. Increasingly, I find that even among cinephiles, oddly enough, who know that events like this create the market for DVD releases. You frequently read in the comment sections on websites people essentially admitting that they're waiting for the DVD releases.

Oshima's a special case though. I've shown him a lot over the years and he's never gotten an audience, perhaps because he has this reputation for being extremely difficult and cerebral, for his cultural determinance, for the difficulty in understanding the politics. Comparatively, Imamura is relatively accessible, I would have to say. There is in Imamura's '60s classics an ethnographic juiciness that you just don't get in Oshima.
Diary Of A Shinjuku Thief requires that you know a whole lot about what happened in '60s politics.

Guillén: I was startled and unmoored watching that film. I can't say I knew what was going on but I can say that I appreciated how it was punctuated with absurdist humor. The audience laughed in bursts.

Quandt: Oshima throws everything into that film. That's one of the things I love about Oshima's cinema and what I find so moving. The works feel born out of his being, his psyche, and I can't think of many other filmmakers subsequently who have made films that way. Diary Of A Shinjuku Thief and
The Man Who Left His Will On Film—which is another film that tends to alienate audiences—are, to hazard a cliché, Oshima's most "personal" films. They're formed out of his very being and, as a consequence, often seem baffling and offputting to audiences.

By contrast, Boy is probably his most accessible and the film that is closest in many ways to what people would consider a classic narrative. It does include many of his Brechtian effects, etc., but it is accessible. Whereas, with Death By Hanging I'm sure you will totally have the experience most people have seeing the film of not knowing how to take it. It seems from moment to moment to be an extremely black comedy and then it veers into Frank Tashlin-like comedy. Audiences laugh and then immediately the laugh catches in their throat because in the very next sequence they're faced with the question: was it right to laugh? It's an absurdist, bleak, black comedy. It's that discomfort audiences have with Oshima's films that partly explains why there's not a huge following for his work.

Guillén: As if comfort should be required when watching a film. Do you think contemporary audiences have slackened expectations in what films will provide? Do you think they don't want to work too hard to understand a film?

Quandt: Yeah, to a degree certainly. Even in the case of Imamura, in the two times I've done retrospectives of his work, audiences on either side of his early '60s films become baffled and put off when he hits that wild period where he's making Profound Desire of the Gods and then proceeds into that incredibly difficult documentary A Man Vanishes, which many critics—and I count myself among them—consider to be one of his greatest films. I think the whole—dare I say it?—late period of Imamura is inferior. The only one of his late films that is truly great is Vengeance Is Mine. Everything after that is a slackening of his art. Yet, those films were warmly greeted in my experience of the retrospective so maybe you have something there.

Guillén: I consider you the master of the retrospective. [Quandt ducks his head and protests modestly.] Last year when Pedro Costa was here with his retrospective, that was the first time that I watched each and every film in a program. Costa was in attendance to address his audiences. As a non-academically trained cinephile, I would have to say that retrospective was when I finally got Costa. I completely re-evaluated his work because—to be honest with you—when I first saw Colossal Youth at the San Francisco International, I didn't much care for it. It left me comatose. By the time I was through with his retrospective, I had made a complete turnabout, such that I found Colossal Youth absolutely invigorating. What the retrospective afforded was the chance to understand his cinema on his own terms and—after interviewing him for The Greencine Daily—I can honestly say he changed my attitudes towards not only his own cinema, but cinema in general. When I asked him about the retrospective, he answered about retrospectives in general and how important it had been for him as a young man to catch retrospectives of the Japanese masters, to gauge the graduated momentum of their work.

In this instance with Oshima, however, I'm finding the retrospective a bit perplexing because the usual stylistic continuity is absent. You don't really see one film develop into the next. Every film I've seen so far has been uniquely distinct, as if coming out of nowhere. I've had to hold on to your guidance that Oshima's continuity is to be found—not in his style—but in his singular sensibility. I'm curious to know why Oshima felt the need to constantly reinvent his filmmaking?

Quandt: There are three things I want to respond to. I also have never spent a moment in a film class—I'm a total autodidact—so I totally appreciate your comment. I've learned cinema through watching cinema, reading about it on my own, and I've never had any academic training in it whatsoever.

Pedro Costa's retrospective is one of the high points in my 20 years at the Cinematheque Ontario, for the very reasons you say. We didn't have large audiences. It happened in June, which is not an ideal time because school was out and our audiences are usually student-based and they were not in session. But it was the most passionate and intelligent discussion I've ever heard at the Cinematheque. Costa was so incredibly generous. The strange thing is—and I have to be frank about this—is that I had been warned that the opposite could be true about him. We had Q&As after three-hour films where I would have to shut them down after an hour and a half because they could have just gone on and on. I had very much the same experience as you and Pedro probably accounts for that wherever he goes.

In terms of Oshima's stylistic eclecticism, some of what I quoted in my introduction last night when he told Joan Mellen that he never wanted to make a film in the same style twice and his wish to be in constant change is only partly true. You can certainly see through lines of certain devices, certain usages of music, certain compositions of color, that fit an auteurial model of style. At the same time, all the directors I can think of from that period—and, again, one can only compare Oshima to Godard, even though he absolutely loathed that comparison—exhibit this restless intelligence. When you read Oshima's essays, you realize that he responded to every political change of the period. In Japan it was incredible going through that whole period leading up to the protests against AMPO, against the security pact with America. I keep pointing to Night and Fog in Japan as one of Oshima's greatest films where he makes—I don't know if it's his first but it's certainly one of his greatest—films in the tradition of La Chinoise, a couple of Jancsó's films: The Roundup and The Red and the White, essentially about the in-fighting amongst the Left. Oshima was very quickly disillusioned with politics. He never arrived at any point of cynicism but he was certainly pessimistic. That also accounts for part of his stylistic eclecticism. He was constantly searching and questing for a form to express his various forms of dismay—and I would even say disgust—at the state of his country, what his country had done in the war, after the war during the economic miracle before it had been left behind, and its persecution of minorities.

Guillén: As a minority member myself who—in recent days—is feeling somewhat persecuted as a second-class citizen, I'm wondering if you would be willing to address Oshima's usage of homoerotics in such films as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto?

Quandt: Something that's always fascinated me about Oshima's work is that—from very early on—he treats homosexuality openly. It's a motif all throughout his work and, of course, becomes explicit towards the end of his career with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Gohatto especially. Part of my passion for Oshima came out of the retrospective I did of his work 20+ years ago at Toronto's Harbourfront when I was still programming there. There's a thing that happens when you invite a director. You get advice from your colleagues. In Oshima's case, it was unanimous: "Don't invite Oshima. Don't have him. Save yourself the grief. He's a bastard. He's incredibly difficult. He's not generous with the audience. There's no reason to have him." I won't name those colleagues—they're still around—but, because he was coming to North America to receive an award and had agreed to attend my retrospective, I felt I couldn't bypass the chance to have him in Toronto. As often happens in these cases, it turned out to be the opposite. Oshima was the funniest, sweetest, generous guest imaginable. Again, his generosity with his audiences inspired Q&As that went on and on and on. I remember that he loved his scotch. I worried at times about getting him from the fourth scotch across the parking lot into the cinema to do the Q&A; but, it always happened and he was always completely and wonderfully cogent.

I asked him about his open treatment of homosexuality one night during one of our long discussions about art and cinema. At the time we both deified Theo Angelopoulos. Now when I look back on it, it's ironic because Oshima was holding up Angelopoulos as a god; but—when I look at Angelopoulos' work—I start to imagine that he probably took some things from Oshima? Of course, Angelopoulos denies any formative influences—he didn't take anything from Jancsó; he didn't take anything from Mizoguchi—and I'm not too sure he took anything from Oshima; but, boy, when you look at some of the early Oshimas and how he treats choral structuring, using groups of people as friezes (like in Night and Fog in Japan), it really does feel like Days of 36 and some of the Angelopoulos films. Anyway, I did ask Oshima about this motif of homosexuality because then—when he was at Harborfront—Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was still relatively new. He hadn't made Gohatto yet—that was still a long way off—and all he said was, "It's very interesting, isn't it?" Then he passed on to some other topic.

Guillén: Oshima's usage of homosexuality strikes me as a purposeful representation of marginalized minorities as a romanticized outlaw position. I'm aware that Oshima was quite fond of Jean Genet's romantic criminals and that—as a television host—he had quite a flamboyant persona. Other than for that passing comment, he never offered anything more on the subject?

Quandt: No, absolutely not. He just had this bewitching laugh. Then when he went to make Gohatto, again I thought it intriguing—aware that this might be his last project because of his debilitating stroke—that this is the story he chose. How do you explain that? He's been married for decades and has many children. I'm not saying there was anything there in his personal life; but, it fits with his fascination with all kinds of minorities, all kinds of rebellions, all kinds of refusals of the Japanese way. As much as it can be pointed out that the bishōnen, this figure of the beautiful youth—who you also get in Shiro Amakusa, The Christian Rebel from the '60s—has been very much a part of Japanese popular culture for a long time. Gay samurai, in fact, have been a part of popular culture for a long time. As much as you can make that argument, the expression of it in Oshima is something singular. It fits with all these various minorities that he's explored. The Koreans, also, have been an obsession of his. You can see it in his short Diary of a Yunbogi Boy, in Death By Hanging, and Three Resurrected Drunkards.

Guillén: Are you familiar with the literary theorist Leo Bersani?

Quandt: Yes, of course.

Guillén: In his book Homos Bersani stated that Jean Genet's inflection of homosexuality, his stance, is one of "anti-civilization."

Quandt: The outlaw, yes. Any form of rejection or rebellion of the official culture of Japan was something Oshima was automatically interested in. Yet, in his later years—and this is something that a lot of people outside of Japan don't know—Oshima became more famous as the host of a television talk show where he wore these incredibly flamboyant fashions.

Guillén: I was reading about one particular lavender suit.

Quandt: I had this experience where I took him to the Art Gallery of Ontario—because he's interested in art—and there was a big bus load of Japanese tourists who were visiting the gallery at the same time. They descended upon him, crying, "Oshima Oshima Oshima!", taking pictures, etc. Afterwards, I said to him—because I had always understood that as a filmmaker he was only known amongst the intelligentsia in Japan, that he didn't have a wide audience—and I asked, "What was that all about?" That's when I first became aware of this other side of his fame and celebrity. Apparently he would say the most provocative outrageous things on this talk show.

Guillén: I'm fond of this wry lyric of Danny O'Keefe's where he sings, "It's hard to be an outlaw if you're not 'wanted' anymore." So I'm sure Oshima was dancing a fine line there between wanting to be completely removed and yet relishing in the attention?

Quandt: Also, by the time you get to Gohatto—which roughly translates as "taboo"—the homosexuality in that film is subsumed into a genre and a style that was classical. A visual and stylistic analysis of Gohatto places it very much in the golden age of Japanese cinema. As with Imamura, I hate to say this but I think something really went out of Oshima's cinema in the latter period. Max Mon Amour appears outrageous on the surface and much of the film is spent wondering if Charlotte Rampling as a British diplomat's wife is having sexual relations with a chimpanzee; but, it's all so gentile. It's scripted by Jean-Claude Carrière, one of Buñuel's favorite writers from his late period, but it feels so….

Guillén: Quaint?

Quandt: That's the word. Quaint and gentile. I much prefer the angry and revolutionary Oshima of the '60s and into the '70s.

Guillén: In your poll of the "Essential Oshima", Donald Richie characterized Oshima's Max Mon Amour as a "buried treasure" and yet it has not been included in the PFA retrospective. Why is that?

Quandt: I don't want to speak for Mona Nagai because we went back and forth on PFA's choices; but, in Toronto we did present everything. But there were three reasons why it didn't show up at PFA. First, it was not a great print. It's not well-liked by most of us. I don't care for it myself. And the third thing—which put the death knell on it for many venues—the European rights holder asked for a great deal of money just for the rights; they weren't supplying the print. Thus, Max Mon Amour was shown by almost none of the venues on the North American tour. Why would you pay a lot of money for a film you don't like in a not-very-good print? I perfectly understood why venues chose not to show it. We're currently doing an Otto Preminger retrospective in Toronto and I wrote an essay, just a few paragraphs, about the process of making the selection. We used to do complete retrospectives but now we're being much more selective with someone like Preminger because his career is so erratic. I think that it makes perfect sense. But I end the essay completely defensive—proleptic in fact—by saying that I'm sure the cultists and the completists will find grievous omissions. No matter what you leave out, you get emails from the bloggers, etc., saying, "You've overlooked this" without realizing that there are sometimes good reasons for those omissions.

Guillén: Logistically then, when you've created a retrospective such as this one where you've secured rights and struck new prints, do you woo the venues or do they woo you? Each venue, I imagine, decides upon what they're going to show of the retrospective you've organized? Obviously, that's based upon economic factors, calendar availability, all of that. Do you have any druthers about how the films should be placed in the programs? I've long been intrigued by the friction caused between one film up against another.

Quandt: Ah! There are about 10 things to say about that. You've hit on something that last night we were laughing about at dinner, namely double-bills. Six or eight months ago Sight and Sound asked a bunch of critics and curators to devise their dream double-bill. Of course, sometimes those things work on paper but—when you actually show them—they might not work as well as you'd think they would. Mine was Three Comrades and A Canterbury Tale and I had a long rationale for why I thought the two worked beautifully together. But in producing this I made the confession that as a curator I've often been complimented on double-bills that were completely accidental. [Laughs.] They're accidental because you put them together on any given night because of print availability and—I hate to say this because I should try to maintain the mystique of my vocation—running time, y'know? This one is 72 minutes, which allows me to show the second one of 123 minutes and then it turns out the films go together spectacularly and people think you've consciously devised a double-bill. Our projectionist in Toronto is the most incredible cinephile with a great knowledge of cinema and he always finds these fascinating through lines between the two films. So what I'm saying is that a lot of these double-bills are conscious; but, a lot of them are accidental. I have to say that.

In terms of determining what films get shown, it changes from retrospective to retrospective. When there's a body of work as small as Bresson's, when we did that retrospective 10 years ago, I moreorless dictated that every venue had to show them all, partly because his work had not been available for so long and it had taken so much time and money to get new prints made of all of his films. I thought, "They have to show them all." When it gets to the larger retrospectives like Naruse, Ichikawa and Oshima, you have to understand that many venues have a hard time getting an audience and it's a big financial risk for them. You have to understand that they want to cherry pick. With Oshima, I worked with Janus Films who are the distribution arm of Criterion, and I talked them into making new prints of almost all the films they had rights to. That meant a huge financial outlay and a huge financial risk for them, frankly, because three or four of them are amongst his least known films. In fact, one of them I had never seen. If you go to Maureen Turim's book on Oshima, which is considered to be the classic text on him, she doesn't even mention this film.

Guillén: Which is it?

Quandt: Double Suicide: Japanese Summer. It's really unknown. The other one is Pleasures of the Flesh, which I consider one of the revelations of the retrospective. It's fabulous. That's a roundabout way of saying that—to let Janus recoup their costs—I made their films mandatory to any venue that showed the retrospective.

Guillén: That's fair.

Quandt: It's only fair. They've gone that incredible length to get the prints made and shouldn't be put at great financial risk because of that. That meant, frankly, that a couple of venues dropped the retrospective because they knew that meant they would have to show eight or ten Oshimas and not the best-known ones in every case. They knew they couldn't get an audience for these unknown films and, again, I have to understand them. But at the same time, I couldn't start making exceptions.

[Part Two of this interview can be found here.]

Cross-published on

Friday, June 05, 2009

PFA: IN THE REALM OF OSHIMA—James Quandt Introduction

Introducing the "In the Realm of Oshima" retrospective, currently running at the Pacific Film Archive through July 18, James Quandt, Senior Programmer of the Cinematheque Ontario, admitted to feeling daunted by the invitation to speak at the Pacific Film Archive—"which has been the gold standard for all of us for so many decades; the institution that we all look to set the standard for cinema curation and preservation"—and acknowledged colleagues Edith Kramer, Mona Nigai, Kathy Geritz, Judy Bloch and "especially my beloved colleague" Susan Oxtoby. "Our loss was your gain," he reminded his audience.

Quandt had just been telling Oxtoby that—when he introduced the series in Columbus, Ohio a few weeks back—the first tornadoes of the season touched down about 45 minutes before his talk, setting off sirens all over the city warning residents to seek shelter. When he got up on the stage he felt like the pastor in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, unsure that anyone would even be in the audience. Thus, he was gratified to see such a full house for his PFA introduction.

Apologizing for being a "nervous presenter", Quandt read an edited version of his
introduction to the Oshima retrospective, published on the Cinematheque Ontario website. Notwithstanding, its erudition bears repeating.

* * *

The Pacific Film Archive is the final venue in North America to present a comprehensive retrospective, the first in 20 years on our continent, of the films of Nagisa Oshima or—to use proper Japanese name order—Oshima Nagisa. A towering figure in post-war cinema, Oshima has been called plainly "the greatest living Japanese filmmaker" by Jonathan Rosenbaum and "Japan's greatest living filmmaker" by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. So why has it been so impossible to see this important body of work when so many lesser directors enjoy full-scale retrospectives and plentiful DVD releases? Famous—or rather I should say infamous—for the rights issues surrounding some of his most important work, Oshima has slid into semi-obscurity, which is why the next few weeks offer you the rarest of opportunity.

Oshima—given to polemical statements—loved to dismiss the entirety of Japanese cinema, including all the great masters of the Golden Age—"My hatred of Japanese cinema includes absolutely all of it."—and I ask you to keep that in mind when you watch his rather perverse tribute to the centenary of Japanese cinema showing later in this series, which gives cursory attention to Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, et al., while concentrating on Oshima's own achievements.

Oshima also said he was not interested in making films that could be understood in 15 minutes, emphasizing the complexity and difficulty of his own work. Indeed, I would grant that some of his films can't be understood even after 15 hours of contemplation, especially one of his greatest: Night and Fog in Japan, which I just saw again at the Wexner Center in Columbus. I was dumbfounded yet again. It's a film that you have to see at least maybe five times before you begin to even grasp on it. But even the most daunting of Oshima's works exhibit such wit, beauty, and furious invention, never mind profound feeling, that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. Or even humorous effect as in the totally crazed and marvelous film Three Resurrected Drunkards, when Oshima gives projectionists heart attacks and sends audiences bolting to look for the house manager with a structuralist joke that I won't describe here for fear of being accused of being a spoiler. Oshima's films are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility—as some critics have characterized his strategies—than of a desperate intelligence. Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.

"I do not like to be called a samurai," Oshima said, "but I admit that I have an image of myself as fighter. I would like to fight against all authorities and powers." Rejecting the aristocratic lineage and traditional Japanese culture that the samurai appellation implies, Oshima instead emphasizes its warrior aspect. Appropriately so: from his first film forward, Oshima was a fighter, less a maverick than an insurgent, rebelling against every myth, tradition, and piety of Japan Inc. Though born into privilege, the son of a government worker in Kyoto (reportedly of samurai ancestry), Oshima was a nascent socialist whose ideals were formed in his youth by the general strike of 1947; by the Pacific War, Emperor Hirohito's capitulation after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent American occupation of Japan; and by the mass student struggle against the Korean War and, most markedly, against
AMPO, Japan's security pact with cold war America in the early '60s. Steeped in Marxist and Freudian thought from his father's prodigious library, Oshima nevertheless opposed using ideological systems or dogma to probe his nation's psyche: "I am not a Marxist," he insisted. "In fact, I find Marxism and Christianity to be the same thing and both of them are bad."

Oshima was a leading figure of a movement dubbed the Japanese New Wave; a term he came to loathe, as he thought the analogy it forged with the French New Wave—the nouvelle vague, which emerged concurrently in the late '50s and early '60s—was a false one. Oshima felt the impetus behind a new style of filmmaking in Japan—of which he and Shohei Imamura, as well as such figures as Susumu Hani, Masahiro Shinoda and Hiroshi Teshigahara were avatars—was entirely different from that of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and their cofreres in France. Oshima—like the French directors, by the way—was first a film critic before becoming a director. Each movement was rebelling against the national tradition of cinema and shared a concern with sex and politics. But Oshima felt that Japanese films dealt with culturally and politically specific forms and stylistic forms. Oshima was determined to expunge from his own art the signifiers of Japan's cultural conformity and political obeisance that he felt had grown only stronger in the post-war "economic miracle", which culminated in the country's coming out party: the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

Oshima shunned traditional shots of the sky or of people sitting on tatami mats and then became more extreme, banishing the color green from his films as a "too comforting" hue—it "softens the heart," he said—because of its association with nature, with the traditional Japanese garden and its proximity to the consolations of home. He also has another essay about the color green where he associates it with the uniforms of the occupying U.S. army. That's another reason why he eschewed the color in his films.

Green forbidden as insidious or anodyne, red would become the marker of Oshima's dire vision of Japan, not only in the motif of the Japanese flag with its burning sun, repeatedly invoked and maligned in the director's films, but also in the many objects keyed to carmine in his extravagant color films. "The blood of this young boy dyes all of Japan red," claimed the trailer for his masterpiece Boy. In the mother's red sweater and dyed hair extension, the little girl's red boot and forehead wound, the ubiquitous Japanese flags and various red objects given prominence in Scope composition, Boy joins such scarlet-scored films as Nick Ray's Party Girl, Godard's Pierrot le fou, Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, and Bresson's Le Diable probablement, each a portrait of moral drift, corruption, and suicide. Of course, red most readily represents blood, the stuff of life, which is defiled, bought and sold in the black market in Oshima's The Sun's Burial—one of cinema's great visions of Hell—or, conversely, the deathly apotheosis of sexual passion (the sluice of blood that ends the cloistered lovemaking in In the Realm of the Senses).

Extremity, then, defined Oshima's vision, and his stylistics: Night and Fog in Japan was shot in only forty-seven (some say fewer) long takes, while the cutting in Violence at Noon comes on like a Kurosawa hail of arrows: over two thousand edits, several used for one short sequence. Oshima's earliest films were mostly shot in the widescreen and color formats then favored by Japanese studios, but he would readily retreat to the old-fashioned mode of black and white and the 1.37 square aspect ratio for others, as you saw last week in Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and will see again in his very moving The Man Who Left His Will On Film. Oshima could be perverse in his stylistics, using extreme long shot or obscuring chiaroscuro to shoot key events, as in Shiro Amakusa, The Christian Rebel or to develop an unbearable intimacy using relentless close-ups, as in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, whose images of fleshy confinement offer another instance of the claustrophobia of Oshima's cinema, which often features shut-off or isolated settings, most markedly the love-making room in In the Realm of the Senses and the execution chamber in Death by Hanging.

"I always try to deny the style I used in a previous work ... I never make films in the same style," Oshima told Joan Mellen, which helps account for his swing from Nicholas Ray histrionics or the kino-fist aesthetic of Sam Fuller (in films like Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun's Burial) to the refined modernism of European masters Alain Resnais or Michelangelo Antonioni (in The Ceremony), from stern alienation effects (Night and Fog in Japan) to pop-modernist playfulness (Three Resurrected Drunkards), all the while maintaining his singular sensibility. Oshima told another interviewer: "I have to agree with someone like Ozu who said that he could only make 'tofu' movies. Bean curd was the only thing he knew how to cook and so he could not make a 'beefsteak' movie.... I feel that what I've been doing in my films, perhaps, is something much closer to making sake. Sometimes my films approach the full blends and rich flavor that the sake should have, and at other times they're very raw and they become the kind of sake that burns your throat as it goes down."

Throat-burning mostly, I would have to say. The director instantly became a pariah with his first film, the cheerily named Town of Love and Hope. Not only was the title forced on him by the Shochiku studio—Oshima preferred his blunt original, The Boy Who Sold His Pigeon—but the director was also expected to hew to the studio's popular Ofuna-style family melodrama in his tale of a poor boy befriended by a rich girl. Japanese film historian Tadao Sato is entirely correct when he says that in Town of Love and Hope the essence of Oshima can already be discerned. (The scam by which the boy supports his family—reselling a homing pigeon over and over—was the first statement of a key theme in Oshima: that of extortion, imposture, crime, delinquency; the director's clear-eyed sympathy with the cheating boy—which was the first of many self-portraits in his cinema, which include the pimply Motoki in The Man Who Left His Will on Film, and even, Oshima insisted, "that demonic rapist in broad daylight" of Violence at Noon. This established his identification with young outcasts and criminal aliens, which would define his subsequent cinema.)

Foreshadowing the masterpieces of Oshima's middle period—especially Boy—but more classically neorealist in style, this black and white Scope debut [Town of Love and Hope] employs a simple tale to complicated ends and succeeds with heartbreaking acuity. Oshima delivered neither the optimistic humanism demanded by the studio nor the prescribed social message. "This film is saying that the rich and the poor can never join hands," studio head Shiro Kido fumed, suspending the director for six months and declaring Town unhealthy and leftist. Whenever Oshima returned to the studio system, sometimes as a gun for hire, he would turn familiar Japanese genres—the samurai film in Shiro Amakusa, and again in Gohatto, the family chronicle in The Ceremony, anime in Band of Ninja, the so-called "sun tribe" films of disaffected youth—into reflections of his own concerns.

Those concerns centered on sex, crime, and death. Oshima insisted that the "unaware" and unconscious nature of both sex and crime made them the central obsessions of his cinema; "behavior with clear motivation is uninteresting," he insisted. However, the enticement of psychology, of biographical reduction, when interpreting his films is great. To abridge Oshima's early work to a vast psychodrama of parental abandonment would be unconscionable, but when Oshima says, "I always want to go back to my boyhood" because of the loss of his father at age six—a deprivation he wrote movingly about in an essay—one wonders if that familial yearning could help explain the many incomplete and broken households in his cinema, the preponderance of children, adolescents, teens, few of them innocent, all participants in or witnesses to the criminal world of adults. (Note, for instance, the marked presence of children at the communal evils committed in The Catch or the broken families in tonight's first film.) The stark title of Boy emphasizes this violation, the film's manipulation of scale and repeated disconnection of the supposedly unified family within the widescreen frame stressing the boy's isolation and vulnerability. Similarly, Oshima describes the harsh world of the amoral teens in Cruel Story of Youth in Scope images of the abject and precarious: for instance, the intensely compacted composition of Makoto's midriff in plaid skirt, a wad of bills and sheet of directions to an abortionist clutched in her hand, or the rape among the logs in Tokyo harbor, a travesty of the traditional understanding of "the floating world," rendered with virtuosic but unstable travelling camera. (Oshima's hand-held pans and tracking shots sometimes judder, not to signify authenticity as they do in contemporary cinema but to transcribe his characters' restless, tenuous existence.)

Just as he rejected the Japanese New Wave rubric, Oshima chafed at the inevitable comparisons critics made between his films and Jean-Luc Godard's. Though he would respond politely to questions about the latter's influence with evasive statements about shared enthusiasms and common concerns (predominantly politics and cinema), he took to calling Godard "the Oshima of France" after one too many comparisons or accusations of being an imitator. The similarities between the two run to a substantial list—none diminishing Oshima's originality, it must be emphasized—but in hindsight, Oshima seems to me to have as much affinity with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his extraordinary prolificacy and swift, single-take shoots (look at Oshima's output in the years 1960 or 1968 alone!); his sometimes sentimental sympathy for outsiders—sexual, ethnic (particularly Koreans), and political; his development of a "house" technical and acting troupe, which he employed in film after film; his use of music as alienation device and such Brechtian strategies as the intertitles in Death by Hanging or the theatrical friezes in Night and Fog in Japan; and his acerbic view of human nature and how sex often subverts both emotions and politics.

In his late "international" period, several of his films were financed by French producers and Oshima seemed to mellow as a modernist, taking on the suave tone of late Buñuel (a director he once claimed as his favorite) in Max Mon Amour, a brittle comedy of manners about a British diplomat's wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee. Critics have argued over whether Oshima remained an iconoclast or succumbed to conservative nostalgia, particularly when they analyzed the last film of his career: Gohatto. I have a long analysis of Gohatto, which would take us to the end of the retrospective; but, I'm going to skip it because we're running out of time here. But I just wanted to say that Oshima provided the clue for this transition, to this more classical and serene tone of his later cinema; a transition from his youthful anger and political activism to this more conservative and accessible aesthetic. Love finally became the third element in his cinema, he commented, along with sex and crime.

As I've essentially dealt with the first feature in tonight's double-bill, I just wanted to make a few comments about the second one tonight—Three Resurrected Drunkards—whose reputation has grown over the years, though many audiences (I should warn you) still find it irritating or baffling. A programmer on this tour—I won't name him but he's from Washington—sent me an email. They've had great success with a number of our touring programs of Japanese cinema—Nabuse, Imamura, Mizoguchi, Ichikawa—but he said the Oshima retrospective was the first time he'd ever been cornered by a group of his audience afterwards who were very hostile and asked him why he showed the film? I shouldn't tell tales, but I was just saying at dinner that both my bosses walked out of it in the first half hour when I showed it in Toronto. So…. It's a film I really deeply love and I hope you do too. It's such a moving film for me because of the period that it comes from and the way it segues from a kind of pop Hard Day's Night into something really political and moving in its last sequences. Anyways, Drunkards is shot in eye-popping widescreen and pulsing color—from purple underwear to paisley trousers to hot pink outfits sported at an onsen (hot spring)—and scored with crazed insistence (the music veers from James Bond parody to a pop song by lead actor Kazuhiko Kato, celebrated singer of the Sadistic Mika Band and the tall one of the three lead actors). All the better to serve its Hard Day's Night tale of a trio of hapless young guys who have their clothes stolen while cavorting in the sea, are mistaken for Korean stowaways, and become involved with a young woman whose brutal older mate, sporting an eye patch and metal hook, represents Japan's repressive wartime generation. I think Oshima shares here with Susumu Hani a concern with the sins of the fathers, of patriarchs and overseers. This is 1968, after all, and amid the hi-jinx, chases, conceptual jokes and flash costume changes (including one into female drag), Oshima injects stinging commentary on the Vietnam War, Japan's war guilt, and prejudice against Koreans—an enduring concern of the director's, which is also a theme in tonight's short film Diary of a Yunbogi Boy and Saturday night's Death By Hanging. Reminiscent moment to moment of Frank Tashlin, Godard, Sam Fuller, and Buñuel, Three Resurrected Drunkards remains for me one of Oshima's most touching works.