Sunday, June 07, 2009

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


IA said...

Thanks very much for these interviews.
I've been at all the Oshima screenings so far--my favorite being Three Resurrected Drunkards and least favorite Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.
I was shocked to hear this traveling retrospective had the least attendance, especially since Oshima arguably is more famous name than Imamura or Nabuse. In any case, I'm saddened that non-Berkeley audiences have been less enthusiastic.
With regard to homosexuality in Oshima's work, I'd say there's a subtle homoerotic vibe between the two male protagonists of The Sun's Burial.
Thanks again for these intereviews--we owe Mr. Quandt a big debt.

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, IA, for stopping by to comment and offer feedback. Unfortunately, I have to head out of town for a couple of weeks and will miss the one screening of The Sun's Burial. Lord knows when I'll have the opportunity to see it again. Hopefully--as in New York--some of the titles will loop back around again.

TBW said...

I've never been to this site before, but found this interesting interview from a link on the Criterion blog. I am grateful to Quandt for having organized these touring Japanese retros, and was pleased to learn more about the man behind the curtain, so to speak.

I also appreciated the insights about Oshima, the most challenging of all Japanese directors in my limited experience. Anything that contextualizes the man and his work is helpful.

A correction - twice you wrote "Nabuse" where I'm sure you meant Naruse (as in Mikio) -- perhaps you conflated Naruse with Dr. Mabuse?

Michael Guillen said...

Good catch, Drew, thank you! This was a lightning transcription as I had to head out of town for a family emergency. As soon as I get home, I'll fire my editor. Heh. Thanks for stopping by to comment.