The Rebirth of Cinema

Susan Sontag's Notes on Japanese Film

The first film series programmed by Susan Sontag in New York opens at the Japan Society January 24. Novelist, essayist, film director, and movie buff extraordinaire, Sontag secured her place as one of the country's most influential critics with the now classic Against Interpretation (1965), followed by Styles of Radical Will (1969) and the tour de force essay On Photography (1977). Her probing film pieces have examined the works of Ingmar Bergman, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Leni Riefenstahl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard. Her debut film, a black comedy about two couples called Duet for Cannibals (she wrote, directed, edited, and subtitled it), was one of the highlights of the 1969 New York Film Festival. Her second picture, Brother Carl (1971)—like Duet, made in Sweden—is a drama about human isolation, featuring the celebrated French actor Laurent Terzieff. To date, her most personal film remains the remarkable Promised Lands (1974), a dense and complex essay about contemporary Israel, made during the Yom Kippur war. Sontag visited Sarajevo for the first time in April 1993 and returned two months later to stage a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the besieged city. After the opening performance, put on during bombardments, the city's mayor declared her an honorary citizen of Sarajevo. Her most recent work, Regarding the Pain of Others, a book about images of violence, will appear next month. I recently talked with Sontag about Japanese cinema and her lifelong cinephilia.

How did the Japan Society series come about? I shamelessly put myself forward. I come to Japan Society all the time. I'm on their board. I'm crazy about Japanese films. Moviegoing is still my great passion. It isn't that I care about literature less, I just feel a certain kind of ecstasy hunting down films I admire, and reseeing the ones I love. You know, this goes back to our days in Paris when we'd go to the Cinémathèque night after night. I see at least five films a week—and in theaters. And I feel a certain tropism toward Japan, with my twin loves of Japanese movies and food—I mostly eat Japanese food. I've been going to Japan almost every year since 1979.

My idea for the series was never to make a selection of eight films that would be representative of Japanese cinema. The subject is too magnificent, too copious, too voluminous. You could never pick out eight films to sum it up. But since strong women characters and great actresses have always been a feature of the classic Japanese cinema, I selected a number of films with three actresses who are, in my opinion, among the greatest performers in the history of world cinema: Kinuyo Tanaka, Hideko Takamine, and Setsuko Hara.

Could you define Setsuko Hara's appeal? I see her as quite Garboesque. I don't say this because it's been said that she's a bit grand and reclusive. I've been told that the Japanese find her rather Western-looking. Not because of anything cosmetic she's done—perhaps it's the head-to-shoulder ratio; she has a large head. She's very special, an absolutely incandescent woman actor—she's in two films in the series. But of course, there's also Hideko Takamine, the star of Naruse's Floating Clouds—the underrated Naruse. The three acknowledged "masters" of Japanese cinema are Ozu, Mizo- guchi, and Kurosawa, but Naruse doesn't really represent, as it were, a fourth point. I think that Naruse, whom I adore, is somewhere halfway between Mizoguchi and Ozu—his sensibility and subjects overlap with both.

What moves me in Japanese cinema is essentially the period from the '30s to the '60s—the decade leading up to the Second World War, and above all, the movies of the post-war era. Starting around 1944, and right up into the '60s, you have the most amazing portrait or diagnosis of the anguish of people confronting their solitariness. I'm not talking about the family dramas. Take, for instance, Kurosawa's Stray Dog. It's a noir movie, a detective story, but extremely poignant because this devastatingly handsome young [Toshiro] Mifune is alone, not in a tough Sam Spade way—he's just a beautiful lost soul.

Your 1996 New York Times piece "The Decay of Cinema," in which you ponder the decadence of cinema and mourn the death of cinephilia, created quite a stir. Have things happened on the scene since then that would lead you to reconsider your views? Well, to begin with, I had talked about Béla Tarr and other major directors in the piece—who simply disappeared from it. It was radically, seriously cut by the Times. I tried to withdraw it, offered to return the payment. Nothing doing—they said sue us. Yes, there are certainly a number of contemporary filmmakers whose work I care about. For us old Francophiles, it's certainly a relief that French cinema has emerged from the doldrums. I got sick of a certain kind of tame worldliness and bland sophistication that was evident in French cinema for so long and then suddenly along came Claire Denis—number one—but also Léos Carax, Laurent Cantet, and if Belgium counts, the Dardenne brothers. Denis is the most daring; she's really a wild one. I like her films even when I don't like them.

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