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.

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