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.
And I’m still a glutton for movies. What I’m looking for is an ecstatic experience. In the end, it’s doesn’t matter what the subject is, whether it’s the incompetent hoodlums of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, or the mannered privileged bourgeois people in Alain Resnais’s Melo—the worlds of these two films are opposite extremes in every sense, yet as experiences they have something in common—they’re indelible visually, and they take their time in a way that allows you to feel something. I like long films. Béla Tarr tells me I hold the world’s Sátántangó record. I’ve seen it from start to finish 15 times—and it’s what, six hours?—and have not been bored for a second. I love total immersion. One wants to be transported.
You had a good deal to do with the founding of the Sarajevo Film Festival. How did it happen? There was a marvelous fellow there called Miro Purivatra who ran a gallery, a kind of alternative theater space, a bit like the Kitchen. It was the center of whatever creative was going on. My son David had gone to Sarajevo before me—he met Miro, who became one of my first friends there. He put up an art show in a building that no longer had a roof and was being shelled, and people would come. He loved movies. We talked about film a lot. Well, at first, the siege was still on, but I was going in all the time—I brought in cassettes in my backpack. We got a generator from the army and showed them on a little flickering TV monitor in a basement—and that was the first Sarajevo Film Festival. It has since grown into this wonderful event.
You recently said your future will be principally devoted to writing fiction. Is that what you enjoy doing most these days? Are there plans involving films? I want to—I will make more films. If only I could stay home—that’s my problem. I had two big experiences in the ’90s—I lived in a war for a couple of years, I lived surrounded by war, and I became very ill again, with cancer for the second time. I learned a lot that I wanted to share, so I wrote a little book, and essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, about war—through the theme of what people can or think they can learn about war through images. There is a new novel in the works—I don’t want to say much about it except that it takes place mostly in Japan. It’s not quite contemporary, but I’m moving forward—The Volcano Lover was late 18th century, In America is 19th century, and the new novel is set partly in the 1920s, partly in the 1950s. And to boucler le boucle, the later passages of the book are influenced by my experience of the kind of moral anguish and pathos and solitariness that you find in the magnificent post-war films of directors like Ozu and Naruse, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog and No Regrets for Our Youth.